Debating a revolutionary’s path

DAVID FERNBACH expertly situates a collection of writings from Paul Levi with an insightful and quick-moving introduction into the life and political career of Rosa Luxemburg’s young protégé. I hope his book gets the very large audience it deserves.  Revolutionaries today can learn a great deal from Levi’s theory and practice; indeed, it is impossible to appreciate the German Left’s accomplishments and failures without a serious assessment of Paul Levi. In that spirit, I believe Fernbach’s conclusions warrant a critical response, a response designed to provoke not indifference, but rather the greatest interest possible in his book. 

By all accounts, Paul Levi was a surprising candidate to assume the leadership of the German Communist Party (KPD) in early 1919. Until 1914, he remained a provincial figure, only rising to prominence after serving as Rosa Luxemburg’s lawyer in 1914.  The two formed a close political and personal partnership, until the murders of Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht forced Levi to take over the reins of the fledgling KPD in early 1919. His close party comrade Clara Zetkin reported to Lenin that Levi “is no ambitious political careerist. It was his fate and not his wish that he assumed the leadership of the party at a young age and without great political experience or profound theoretical education.” Nevertheless, for the next two years, Levi steered the KPD through a bloody civil war, helping it grow from a small party on the margins of the German working-class movement to a force of more than 350,000 members, engineering its successful merger with the left wing of the Independent Social-Democratic Party (USPD) in late 1920. Acknowledged by all as the strategic brain and tactical leader of this maneuver, Levi stood at the height of his power. Yet by April 1921, just a few months later, Levi was expelled from the KPD and quickly developed an unbridgeable hostility to the Communist International.

What happened? Levi sharply disagreed with the decision of the Communist International to push for the formation of an independent Communist Party in Italy (PCI), forcing what he considered to be a premature split with the majority of revolutionary workers. On the heels of this argument, leading members of the Communist International, including its president Grigori Zinoviev, criticized Levi’s “united front” policy embodied in the KPD’s “Open Letter” to German trade unions proposing joint action in defense of working-class interests. They offered in its place what came to be called the “theory of the offensive.” Under this slogan, the KPD threw itself into an ill-conceived confrontation with the German state in March 1921. To carry this out, Zinoviev sent emissaries from Moscow to confront Levi. During a heated meeting of the Zentrale (as the executive board of the KPD’s Central Committee was known) in late February 1921, these arguments exploded into bitter recriminations. Levi, along with Zetkin and three other members, resigned from the party leadership, handing the party leadership over to those who supported the theory of the offensive.

The Zentrale quickly launched what has become known as the “March Action.” Unemployed Communists were ordered to shut down factories from the outside and Communists in unions were told to walk out off the job in what was supposed to be a general strike. Party members went so far as to dynamite train tracks and blame it on the Far Right in an effort to trick the working class into action. The vast majority of workers did not understand the Communists’ call for strikes at that moment and responded by indifference or even hostility.

Rather than recognizing the folly of their ultra-left actions, the KPD leadership pressed on, accusing the bulk of the German working class of betraying the revolution. This was a political disaster of the first order. The German government used the chaos to launch a series of vicious attacks, leading to the deaths of a large number of Communist Party members and the jailing and wholesale firing of many thousands more. Disillusioned with their new party, something like half of the membership resigned in the course of a few months.

Within a few days of the March Action, Levi wrote to Lenin explaining the political stakes. Several weeks later Lenin replied counseling restraint and proposing “a private discussion. . . Without public polemic, without expulsions, without pamphlet[s] over differences. We have too few tested forces. . . At all costs avoid resignations or sharpening contradictions.” Unfortunately, before Lenin’s letter reached him, Levi published a pamphlet entitled “Our Path: Against Putschism.” The reference in Levi’s title to a “putsch” charged the KPD leadership with attempting a minority coup d’état against the government, a frequent accusation that Communists had levied against anarchists of the Bakunin school. He went on to demand the party “return to the doctrine of its founder,” that is, of Rosa Luxemburg.

She depicted the route we have to take in the following words: unification of the broad popular masses with an aim of reaching beyond the whole existing social order, of the daily struggle with the great world transformation—that is the task of the social-democratic movement, which must successfully work forward on its road of development between two reefs: abandonment of the mass character or abandonment of the final aim; the fall back into sectarianism or the fall back into bourgeois reformism; anarchism or opportunism.

Fernbach quotes this passage approvingly, and I agree with the political critique offered by Levi. However, Fernbach continues on to propose a principled divergence between the politics of Rosa Luxemburg and the politics of the Bolshevik Party. He sees the disastrous “theory of the offensive” and Levi’s expulsion not as an aberration born of desperate circumstances, but as the dawn of a “militarist and totalitarian philosophy.” While he is certainly correct to point out the increasingly desperate situation inside Russia by the spring of 1921, this strikes me as an anachronistic judgment, more appropriate to the rise of Stalinism later in the decade.

While genuinely sympathetic to the Bolshevik Revolution, Fernbach posits a divide between what he calls “Luxemburg’s classical Marxism” and Lenin’s Bolshevism. He argues that Luxemburg aimed for a “majority-revolution,” and implies that Lenin supported the idea of pressing “forward to a revolution even in the absence of majority-support.” I am dubious of these conclusions.

Fernbach acknowledges that there was “little doubt that the leftism on the Zentrale corresponded to a mood of impatience in much of the KPD rank-and-file.” In other words, the March Action was not simply the result of a “totalitarian” directive from Moscow; it represented a more complex political dynamic within a significant section of the German working class.

Levi recognized this, writing that the “danger of putschism had not been overcome, but was acute, and necessarily became so, at the moment that the majority of the USPD came over to us, not having been through the learning experience that our original Communist Party had.” He rightly blamed Zinoviev, Radek, Kun, and the majority of the KPD Zentrale for fanning these illusions. Yet, rather than acting as a leader of the party, Levi acted as a journalist. In February, precisely as this fight heated up, he resigned from the leadership, handing control over to a group of people he distrusted. A group that did exactly what he expected them to do. Afterwards, Levi could have argued for an emergency party congress, or for a gathering of the party’s cadre, or some such internal, democratic assembly of the party’s activists to account for the disaster. Instead, he wrote what amounted to a personal pamphlet attacking the party, making it extremely easy for his enemies to expel him. Unfortunately, mass political organizations are not literary reviews and major decisions are not only conducted by means of political calculus and principle. They have to be campaigned for and people must be convinced, not simply told, to take another path.

Fernbach lets Levi off the hook in this regard. Worse, he seems to accept that Levi had little choice but to return to the SPD and its dead-end reformism, which Levi soon did. Fernbach asserts that

Rosa Luxemburg would surely have put up more of a struggle than Levi against a return to the SPD—not just by dint of character and conviction, but because she would have been better placed to do so. With her authority against the Comintern, the “Leninist” party in Germany might have shrunk to an insignificant sect, with Spartacus hegemonising such revolutionary momentum as remained.

But we can ask another counterfactual question. What if Levi, Zetkin, and the others had remained inside the KPD’s Zentrale and fought to bring the March Action, which they disagreed with, to a more rapid conclusion, limiting the damage as much as possible? Rather than standing outside the party and criticizing it as a journalist, Levi could have fought to build the kind of leadership team necessary to direct a real mass party. This certainly would not have solved all of the problems in the Communist International. But as it turned out in subsequent years, the KPD did not collapse after March 1921, as Levi feared. In fact, it recovered by employing many of Levi’s proposals for united fronts, finding at least one more opportunity in 1923—before the process of Stalinization began in earnest—to make its mark.

Zetkin remained adamant that Levi deserved better treatment and openly criticized the Bolshevik leaders for not speaking out against his expulsion.  But it seems to me that Levi deserves at least equal reproach for allowing himself to get thrown out without a fight. Lenin himself famously threatened to resign from the Bolshevik central committee on several occasions when he felt principles or the fate of the revolution were at stake. However, he always did this based on an estimate that the rank and file and a significant section of the party cadre and leadership would agree with him and he could use that to win an argument. Whether this is good political practice or not, Levi seemed resigned to wash his hands of what he saw as a disastrous policy, betting that the party would come back to him after the damage was done.

Fernbach points out that Luxemburg, had she lived, would have been better placed than was Levi to contend with Zinoviev for influence in the KPD. But to assume that she would do this by splitting with the Communist International, as Levi ended up doing, lacks the historical evidence necessary to draw such a conclusion.

Finally, Fernbach seems to accept that there was no revolutionary possibility to the crisis of German capitalism in the 1920s and 1930s. He concludes by arguing:

Whatever Rosa Luxemburg’s choices in this hypothetical scenario, it is certain that her politics would have taken a different course from the line that led from the March action, through the “German October” 1923, to the suicidal policies of “class against class.” And, as the threat of fascism intensified, Spartacists would have had less difficulty than “Leninists” in joining hands with Social Democrats and liberals in a “historic compromise” that might well have averted the plunge into the abyss.

Ascribing to “Luxemburgists” the desire to affect historic compromises with reformists seems to run very far afield of Rosa Luxemburg’s life and work. Perhaps Fernbach has something else in mind, but this rings hollow to me.

Criticism notwithstanding, Fernbach has offered a significant contribution to these questions. His great merit is to demonstrate that it is only through a serious engagement in Levi’s life and work, as well as that of the other revolutionaries of his time, that our generation can follow “in the steps of Rosa Luxemburg.”

Issue #102

Fall 2016

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