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ISR Issue 52, March–April 2007

Pierre Broué's The German Revolution 1917-1923

Part two of a two-part review By TODD CHRETIEN

Read part one of this review in ISR 50 (November–December 2006), available online here

THE MURDER of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in January 1919 by reactionary troops, acting with the encouragement and protection of the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) government, drew a line in blood between those socialists who sought to reform German capitalism in alliance with the bourgeoisie, and those who sought to destroy the profit system and replace it with a revolutionary workers’ government.

Part one of this review covered Pierre Broué’s analysis of the events from the First World War to the outbreak of revolution in November 1918 that tore apart the largest socialist party in the world and put former comrades in opposite camps. The final part of this review will discuss what came next; namely: difficulties and successes in organizing a revolutionary mass party, the Communist Party (KPD), separate and hostile to the SPD; the obstacles to creating a collaborative and competent revolutionary leadership; the development of the KPD’s strategy and tactics; and, the benefits and problems associated with the foundation of the Communist International.

Fighting the ultra-lefts

Civil war raged across Germany in the first three months of 1919. Workers spontaneously rose up against the attempt by the bosses and the SPD leaders to smash up the soviets and destroy the root of workers’ power. The Freikorps, a force of some tens of thousands of ex-army officers who were highly paid and politically reactionary, traveled from city to city, breaking strikes, opening fire on protests, assassinating radical workers, and jailing thousands. The SPD’s troops murdered thousands of workers. In their wake, the bosses blacklisted tens of thousands of revolutionary workers. The futility of isolated uprisings, not coordinated by a centralized, revolutionary party was a lesson learned very dearly. This explains why anarchism never played an important role in the German workers’ movement during the height of the revolution.

Paul Levi, who emerged as the principal KPD leader after the murders of Luxemburg and other KPD leaders in 1919, stated:

There is not a single Communist in Germany today who does not regret that the foundation of a Communist Party did not take place long ago, before the war…(453)

The question then became how to build this party. At its founding convention in December of 1918, the KPD had only several thousand members. Although it did grow rapidly during the bloody repression of early 1919 to upwards of 90,000 members, it was shot through with ultra-leftism—recall at its founding conference that the majority opposed running candidates in parliament and refused to work inside existing trade unions—and hardly functioned at all as a coordinated national party. For the young, impatient activists inside the KPD, the question of how to reach the big battalions of the working class that still held illusions in the reformist SPD or the centrist Independent SPD (USPD), was not an issue. Most of the young party’s members refused to recognize the impact of the defeat of early 1919 on the working class. The dismantling of the workers’ councils in December 1918 led most workers to accept that the best way to defend their class interests was to vote for socialist candidates in the parliamentary elections. The SPD gained 11.5 million votes on January 19 and the USPD won another 2 million, together totaling 46 percent of the national vote, and constituting the overwhelming majority of the working-class vote. The KPD’s call for a boycott of the election was entirely ignored. Yet most young communists refused to recognize this reality, instead calling for the immediate overthrow of the newly formed SDP government, including SPD leader Friedrich Ebert, who was elected president of the republic by the new Reichstag in January 1919. (296)

The question of how to deal with the ultra-lefts led to a three-way debate among Paul Levi, Karl Radek, and Vladimir Lenin. Two factors entered this debate. First, was the question of the likelihood of an immediate revolution. Even after the repression in January 1919, Lenin and the Bolsheviks believed that workers might be able to take power even though they lacked well-organized revolutionary parties. In March of that year, a soviet government was proclaimed in Hungary, led by the newly formed Communist Party under the leadership of Bela Kun. If Lenin was worried that Kun was too trusting of the Social Democrats who claimed to support the new government, he still hoped for further developments. Both Radek and Levi were very skeptical of Lenin’s optimism. In mid-1919, Radek and Levi agreed that

The illusion of a quick victory [in Germany] arose from the incorrect interpretation of the lessons of the Russian Revolution, the conditions of which…were by no means the same as those of the European revolution. In the first place, the War, which in Russia had mobilized the peasantry at the side of the proletariat, had now ended. In any case, the peasantry in the West was far less homogeneous than the Russian peasantry. Furthermore, the Russian bourgeoisie was young, weak, deeply subject to foreign capital, and had only attained power for the first time in March 1917.… But the European bourgeoisie was old, well organized on the basis of economic concentration, rich with the experience of decades of rule, and lastly, had learned from the Russian experience…. Finally, in the developed countries, illusions about the capacity of capitalism to overcome its crisis were stronger, especially amongst the privileged stratum of the labor aristocracy; although in the long run this stratum could only join with the proletariat as a whole, there could be no disputing that the next great struggles of the proletariat would have a reformist character, and therefore, the process of transforming the consciousness of the masses would be a long one. (309)

The other factor in the debate was a difference of opinion about whether some of the ultra-lefts could be won over, and even if they couldn’t be won over, whether they should be accommodated within the party as a counterweight to more conservative elements. Here, Levi stood alone against Radek and Lenin, who criticized the ultra-lefts. By the fall of 1919, Levi had become convinced that the ultra-lefts had to be expelled at all costs in order to achieve unity with the revolutionary workers who remained in the left wing of the USPD. He reorganized the party from top to bottom and insisted that all members who did not agree to participate in the parliamentary elections and who refused to recognize the authority of the KPD’s central committee be expelled. Levi’s tactics lost the KPD well over half of its membership. Lenin and Radek agreed with Levi’s desire to transform the KPD, but they opposed the split. Lenin even publicly offered to mediate between Levi and some factions of the ultra-lefts. (321).

But Levi refused to relent. Although he doesn’t come right out and say it, Broué seems to believe that Levi was correct, if heavy-handed. He describes the decomposition of the ultra-left factions, some drifted into anarchism or into abstract propaganda, and some moved sharply toward the right. (330) Divided as they were over this fight, Levi, Lenin, and Radek, as well as all the principal leaders of Bolsheviks and the KPD, agreed that the only way to transform the KPD into a mass, revolutionary party, was to find a way to win over the hundreds of thousands of militant workers who had refused to join the KPD until then and remained inside the left wing of the USPD.

Winning over the USPD Left

As will be recalled, when Luxemburg and Liebknecht walked out of the USPD in December 1918 to found the KPD, most of the leftists in the USPD refused to follow them. Revolutionaries like Richard Müller and Ernst Däumig remained in the same party as Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein. Broué describes the USPD as a “centrist” party caught between the growing radicalism of its rank and file, and the continuing allegiance of most of its leadership to reformism. But this political schizophrenia did not prevent the party from growing rapidly, from 100,000 in November 1918 to 300,000 in March 1919, and to 800,000 by the fall of 1920. The USPD had fifty-seven newspapers and could count on millions voting for it at the polls. It was perceived by millions of workers as the radical alternative to the SPD, while the KPD remained in the shadows.

The deepening crisis of German capitalism and the SPD’s defense of it radicalized more and more workers within the USPD who were fed up with the party leadership’s commitment to collaborating with the SPD. Moreover, the Russian Revolution was extremely popular with the USPD rank and file. Even if they mistrusted what they believed to be the immature KPD, they admired the Bolsheviks. However, the USPD leadership was far from revolutionary. Some of them went so far as to push “socialist reunification” with the SPD. This debate was fought out in every aspect of the USPD work, especially in the trade unions, where the revolutionaries refused to support the class collaborationist policies of the government, which demanded sacrifice from German workers to pay the war debts of the German bosses.

Here again, Lenin was at odds with Levi’s supporters in the KPD over how to relate to and win over the left wing of the USPD to communism. In October of 1919, Lenin wrote a public article in which he “condemned the split...against the left wing [of the KPD] and denounced the left wing” of the USPD for combining “in unprincipled and cowardly fashion—the old prejudices of the petty-bourgeoisie about parliamentary democracy with communist recognition of the proletarian revolution, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and soviet power.” (345–46) This was obviously opposed to Levi’s policy of smashing the ultra-lefts within the KPD and making overtures to the USPD leftists. August Thalheimer, who was one of the original Spartacus leaders, replied to Lenin, rebuking him for opposing the split in the KPD and then articulating the position of the KPD on the USPD left-wing leaders:

They have gone astray along with the masses. They have developed with the masses, they will go on developing with them, and they will make more mistakes with them. Our attitude towards their mistakes and weaknesses will, as in the past, be one of frank and blunt criticism. But we have no thought of putting them into the same the betrayers of socialism. (345)

As Broué notes, “this first long-distance discussion began to unfold between Russian and German Communists, on a basis of equality, on the question of how to win the masses to revolutionary politics.” (348) Lenin always prefaced his criticism of the KPD with the acknowledgment that his information about specifics was very limited because of the embargo. Yet, it is hard not to think that this dispute was not simply over lack of information or over tone, but over something real. In short, Lenin seems to have feared that Levi’s zeal against the ultra-lefts, counterpoised to the respect and accommodation he showed for the leftists who remained in the USPD, perhaps concealed a lingering hesitancy to “go all the way.” Events would decide if Lenin’s fears had merit.

The radicalization of the USPD and the ongoing debate between Levi and Lenin received a jolt when right-wing army officers and a politician named Wolfgang Kapp launched a coup against the SPD government in March 1919. The coup threatened to install a military dictatorship, wiping out not only the KPD, but the SPD and the USPD as well. While Ebert and all his government ministers fled Berlin to find the safety of a loyal general, the workers of Berlin rose up in a general strike. They were led by left-wing members of the USPD and Carl Legien, who was the main leader of the SPD trade unions in Berlin. Legien was not himself a left-winger, but, unlike Ebert whose main power base was in the electoral apparatus, Legien’s power rested on his strength in the unions and he realized that Kapp and the coup makers intended to smash not only the extreme left wing, but also all workers’ organizations, so he threw his considerable authority into the struggle. On March 15, the coup makers’ government was paralyzed. “The general strike now grips them with its terrible, silent power,” described a Belgian socialist. (356).

Unfortunately, the KPD’s national leadership in the Zentrale (central committee), which resided in Berlin, could not see what Legien could see. In the hours after the coup, the KPD encouraged workers to abstain from the fight between the SPD government and the coup leaders. “The working class will undertake to struggle against the military dictatorship in the circumstances and by the means which it will judge to be appropriate,” they wrote in Die Rote Fahne. “These circumstances do not yet exist.” (355) Levi, who was in prison at the time, lashed out at the ultra-left passivity of the Zentrale. The Zentrale quickly reversed its position and called on its members to support the general strike. But the damage was done. Once again, the immaturity and inexperience of the KPD had led it to lose an important opportunity to prove its leadership qualities to the German workers—or to position itself to shape developments after the coup’s defeat. In other parts of Germany outside Berlin, the KPD threw itself into action alongside the USPD militants. This was especially true in Chemnitz where KPD leader Heinrich Brandler initiated a united front action helping transform the KPD into the leading force among the working class there. But the party overall played only a supporting role. Within a matter of days, the coup was defeated, as workers struck and formed Red Guards.
Levi argued that the party should have advanced the following slogans, summarized by Broué: “The arming of the proletariat; a struggle against the putschists until they unconditionally surrendered; and the immediate arrest of their leaders and accomplices.” (382) He argued that had the strike been conducted along these lines it would have set up the possibility, in the future, for reconstituting workers’ soviets throughout Germany. Instead, the movement failed to move much further beyond the thwarting of Kapp’s coup attempt. Levi was undoubtedly right that this approach would have given the general strike a clear focus and, even if the KPD was too weak to lead the strike to clear victory by fully transforming these slogans into action, would have helped orient the vanguard of the working class, drawn the left wing more definitively away from their centrist leaders, and propelled the party forward into a central role in the revolutionary process. It was another crucial missed opportunity.

The defeat of the Kapp putsch restored workers’ fighting spirit after more than a year of police terror. It also exposed the SPD leaders as either unwilling or incapable of fighting the extreme Right. In the June 1920 elections, the USPD vote rose from 2.3 million in January 1919 to over 5 million, the SPD vote fell respectively from 11.9 million to 6 million, while the KPD gained 589,000 votes, participating for the first time in the elections. As Broué notes, “The mass of the working class electorate had moved for the first time. The ballot showed that the working people were moving sharply away from Social Democracy.” (380)

Revolutionary unity

While sharp debates broke out within the KPD over its tactics during the Kapp putsch, the most important outcome was the desire by the majority of the USPD rank and file to break with its centrist leadership and move “towards Moscow” as Broué describes. (393) The October 1920 USPD convention in Halle, Germany, was a showdown between the Right and the Left. Russian Bolshevik leader, Gregori Zinoviev, in his capacity as leader of the Communist International (Comintern) spoke at the convention, arguing for the USPD to join the Comintern. Broué describes the scene,

The battle really was to begin when Zinoviev mounted the platform. He was to speak for more than four hours, in German, with much difficulty and a certain apprehension at the beginning, and then with an authority which enabled him to win his greatest oratorical triumph in an already distinguished career. (439)

As if to highlight the interwoven nature of the Russian and German Revolutions, Julius Martov, the main leader of the Mensheviks, replied to Zinoviev’s speech, beseeching the USPD militants not to join with the KPD. In the end, Kautsky, Bernstein, and Rudolph Hilferding could not prevent the majority of the USPD delegates from voting in favor of Zinoviev’s proposition, and the right-wingers walked out of the convention. They exacted their revenge on Zinoviev by having him expelled from Germany twelve days later.

The fusion of over 400,000 USPD left-wingers and 50,000 KPD members proceeded throughout November until the unity congress in early December 1920. Finally, a revolutionary workers’ party, independent from the reformist bureaucrats who had dominated the movement throughout the war and revolution was born, as Zinoviev put it, “better late than never.” Broué summarized the composition of the unified party:

Within the new United Party, there were men of the prewar radical old guard, the nucleus of Luxemburg’s faithful supporters, but also people who had always been left-wing Social Democrats…. With them were the militant workers, the organizing cadres of the class, the leaders of the big mass strikes in Berlin during the War, the builders of the workers’ councils, and the nucleus of the Berlin revolutionary delegates during the War and the Revolution, such as Richard Müller. (446)

Däumig and Levi were elected joint chairmen of the party, and eight USPD left-wingers and five KPD members made up the Zentrale. Levi then proceeded to lay out the strategy through which the German working class would win its revolution.
In no country in Western Europe will the revolution advance at the rapid pace at which, apparently, it rushed in Russia between February and November 1917. We say “apparently,” because we tend to forget that the Russian Revolution had already had its schooling ten years earlier.... Already, the single fact that we entered the revolution in Germany and in Western Europe without any Communist Parties, the fact that they had to be formed during the course of the revolution itself, and that precisely for this reason the errors, the defects...of the proletariat were doubled and trebled during the revolution—all this precludes a course as clear and as straight as that which the Russian Revolution followed. (450)

Having achieved the prerequisites of mass size, clear principles, and organizational independence, and operating in a field of acute capitalist crisis, it seemed that the KPD and the German working class were finally on the road to revolution. However, very quickly, two closely related problems emerged. First, could the leadership of this new party function effectively as a guiding force for the hundreds of thousands of party members; and, second, what strategy and tactics would help the party win the decisive section of the working class over to revolution?

An army without generals?

The Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci once said that it is more difficult to create a good general staff than to create a good army. Of course, the two cannot be treated in isolation. However, in the process of creating a good army, it helps if the generals learn to work together to create a general staff where each officer’s strengths are utilized and weaknesses are minimized. During the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks succeeded in this. Lenin’s grasp of the dynamics of the Bolshevik Party were not counterpoised to, but complemented Trotsky’s better understanding of the moods of the Petrograd factory districts and garrison, and both were improved by leading Bolshevik organizer Yakov Sverdlov’s knowledge of who could be trusted, believed and counted upon in every district in the city. The most remarkable thing about the Bolshevik leadership is that, despite the immense pressure that was brought down upon it in 1917, it did not split, but expanded. Even Zinoviev and Kamenev’s leaking of the plans for the October insurrection did not lead to its fragmentation. This is not the place to enter into a discussion of why this was the case, but some factors that account for the Bolshevik success were: the shared experience of revolution and repression in 1905; Lenin’s appreciation of the role of leading cadre; and the existence of a long-standing leadership team that was accustomed to carrying out sharp debates but then acting in unison.

The united KPD Zentrale certainly had shared the experience of revolution and repression, but they had not done so in a common party. Even within the core of the historic Spartacus leadership, Heinrich Brandler and Wilhelm Pieck did not have much experience working with Levi, and even less so with Clara Zetkin. Worse, within three months of the party’s formation, Levi, Däumig, Brass, and Hoffman all resigned from the party and Geyer left shortly thereafter. Zetkin did not quit the party, but she resigned from the Zentrale along with Levi. In other words, six of twelve of its elected leaders, including its two co-chairmen were gone entirely from the party or its leadership soon after its founding.

Why did the leadership plunge into an immediate crisis? Broué outlines three reasons. First, Levi himself, despite his obvious talent and sacrifice, never fully accepted his role as the leader of the party. Several times Radek had to talk him into remaining in the leadership. Second, although Radek and Levi had worked closely to bring the united KPD into being, Radek suspected that Levi harbored opportunist tendencies. That is to say, Radek feared that Levi was so concerned about guarding against ultra-leftism that he would be afraid to act. (492) It seems strange that the fate of a party as large as the KPD could be affected by a split between two people, but the fight between Radek and Levi was really part of a broader problem linked to the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the Russian Bolsheviks’ influence on the KPD. Broué goes to great lengths to trace the impact of the Comintern on the KPD, which he gives as the third reason for the KPD leadership’s split.

The KPD and the Bolsheviks

As was noted earlier, Broué explains that Luxemburg only came to see the need for a revolutionary party independent from the reformist leaders at the very end of her life and the party she founded remained marginalized. Although the KPD leaders agreed in principle on the need to split with the reformist Second International, they remained much more reluctant than Lenin to force the fight to organizational conclusions. When Bolsheviks founded the Third International in March of 1919, the KPD’s delegate was ordered to vote against it on the grounds that conditions were not yet ripe for such a step. The KPD’s resistance to help found the new international was proven in practice to be very short-sighted when it turned out that the debate in the USPD about joining the Third International was itself one of the primary ways in which the left wing of that party was won over to unity with the KPD. Thus, as exemplified by Zinoviev and Lenin’s interventions in helping create the united KPD, the Bolsheviks played a crucial role, which everyone recognized at the time.

However, by 1921, things became more complicated. Soviet Russia’s economic situation was dire and the Kronstadt rebellion threatened to open the way to a renewed British military offensive. The poverty of the Soviet government forced it to adopt free market measures demanded by the millions of small farmers—the so-called New Economic Policy. During this crisis, Lenin and Trotsky were absorbed with the work of keeping the revolution afloat and the leadership of the Comintern fell more and more exclusively on Zinoviev and a small group of doubtful international “commissars” whom he dispatched to carry out his orders. Increasingly, the International retreated from the ideal of democratic debate into bureaucratic fiat. In the context of the KPD, this meant that Zinoviev’s agent in Germany pounded away at Levi’s supposed opportunism, insisting on driving him out of the Zentrale. Broué points out that it is certainly possible that at least part of Zinoviev and Radek’s attacks on Levi had to do with a desperate attempt at “artificially accelerating the speed of the revolution” in order to break Russia out of its isolation. (532) However, even if this is entirely true, it only goes to point out that the KPD leadership was not strong enough to stand up to this type of intervention, and was easily picked apart.

Two self-inflicted wounds

Whether by design or accident, the split in the KPD leadership opened the door for the new party to commit an immense blunder. Bela Kun, the leader of the failed Hungarian soviet government, arrived in Berlin towards the end of February 1921. Broué notes that if Kun did not have specific orders from Zinoviev or Radek, the Comintern leadership was “freely saying that, even if they were not victorious, great struggles by the international proletariat would permit Russia to avoid having to resort to the New Economic Policy.” (494) At any rate, Kun immediately began agitating for a “revolutionary offensive,” and this was echoed by Paul Frölich, who was one of the replacements for Levi and Zetkin on the Zentrale. The “theory of the offensive,” as it became known, was championed above all in the Russian party by Nikolai Bukharin, an important leader in the Bolshevik Party. Immediately after the October 1917 revolution, Bukharin threatened to split the Bolshevik Party over the question of launching a revolutionary war with German imperialism. Lenin’s efforts to point out the fact that the Russian army had completely disintegrated and was in no shape to fight the Germans did not impress Bukharin, who believed that revolutionary will could overcome objective circumstances. Fortunately, Lenin defeated Bukharin on this question and the theory of the offensive was not tested on the Russian working class. Unfortunately, the German working class was about to undergo the experiment.

The KPD Zentrale launched an irresponsible attempt to “provoke” a strike and armed insurrection, even though the working class was in a passive and demoralized mood. In other words, to embark upon the type of action that the KPD had done in January of 1919 and which Levi and Radek and Brandler had fought against for the proceeding two years. Indeed, it was this type of action that had repelled the left wing of the USPD from joining the KPD back in December of 1918. Frölich was ideologically predisposed to ultra-leftism, but it is more difficult to understand why Brandler, who had always supported Levi against the ultra-lefts, went along with it, and in fact, was the lead organizer of it.

In the end, the so-called March Action was an unmitigated disaster. The KPD call for a general strike was met with indifference by the mass of workers, so party leaders ordered unemployed members to attempt to physically stop workers from going to work. This provoked fist fights and even gun fights between communists and other workers. (501) In the aftermath of the fiasco, the party was driven back underground and lost over 200,000 members, reducing the party to some 150,000 members. Hundreds of party activists were jailed, four were sentenced to death, and Brandler was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for high treason. (506)

Rather than facing up to the ruins of its policy, one member of the Zentrale wrote, “I say that the blame lies in the failure of the working masses, who did not understand the situation, and did not give the reply that they should have given.” Levi, who had resigned from the Zentrale before the March Action, but remained a party member, reacted violently. Zetkin described his response to Trotsky and Lenin,

The unfortunate “March Action” shook him to the depths. He firmly believed that the very existence of the Party was frivolously laid at stake, and everything for which Rosa, Karl, Leo and so many others gave their lives, squandered away. He cried, literally cried with pain at the thought that the Party was lost. He thought that it could only be saved by using the sharpest methods. (507)

Levi launched a brutal, but accurate political assault on the Zentrale. Yet in the days of repression following the March Action, his critique was rejected by most party members and was even taken as an attack on the party. He was quickly expelled. His case was not helped by the fact that he had allowed Kun to bait him into resigning from the Zentrale and then, even though he had at least partial knowledge of what Kun was proposing, left for vacation days before the March Action was launched. Zetkin attempted to get Lenin to intervene on Levi’s behalf, but Lenin argued that Levi had brought the anger on himself by first deserting his leadership role and then assigning blame to others for something he failed to prevent. Lenin did try to leave the door open to Levi to return after tempers had calmed, but Levi never rejoined the revolutionary movement, first joining the SPD and then committing suicide in 1930.

In the aftermath of the March disaster, Lenin and Trotsky took a direct interest in trying to change the policies of the KPD leadership. Both of them openly attacked Kun at the Comintern Congress in June of 1921, which a delegation of thirty-three German leaders attended. Lenin described the idiocy of the March Action as “Kuneries,” and ridiculed the notion of a permanent revolutionary offensive, saying “Is it a theory anyway? Not at all, it is an illusion, it is romanticism, sheer romanticism.” (539) Despite this, Lenin and Trotsky had great difficulty convincing the German communists of their errors. The sad fact is that the KPD’s errors at each step were not thoroughly assessed and absorbed, but often passed over without the party having drawn any clear collective lessons.

After an arduous debate, the KPD was persuaded to adopt what was, in essence, Levi’s strategy of slowly building up the power of the KPD through the tactic of the united front. The tactic had been formulated and developed by Levi, Radek, and others in the months before the March Action, though obviously the tactic was looked on suspiciously by the ultra-lefts. For example, the Zentrale had published in January 1921 an open letter to workers’ organizations, parties, and trade unions proposing joint action around immediate demands such as defense of living standards and the armed defense of workers’ organizations against the far Right. It read, in part:

When we propose this basis for action, we do not hide for a moment from ourselves nor from the masses that the demands which we have listed cannot end their poverty. Without giving up for a moment our propaganda amongst the masses for a struggle for the dictatorship, the only road to salvation, without ceasing to appeal to the masses and to lead them in the struggle at every favorable moment for the dictatorship, the United German Communist Party is ready for common action with the workers’ parties to win the above-mentioned demands. (470).

All throughout 1922 and 1923, the KPD worked hard to repair the damage caused by the March Action. They took the lead in proposing joint agreements with the unions to defend living standards and protect democratic rights. On June 24, 1922, a conservative government minister was assassinated by a far right death squad because he was Jewish. Broué recounts that the KPD followed Lenin’s united front policy by proposing joint action to the USPD and the SPD against the extreme Right. Through this policy, the KPD helped initiate a series of large strikes, partially rebuilding the strength it had lost. In the fall of 1922, the party claimed about 250,000 members, thereby winning back about 100,000, or half, of the members they’d lost after the March Action.

1923: Last chance

on some of its losses, both numerically, and in terms of support among the working class, the KPD had one last chance to lead a revolution. In early 1923, the French army occupied the main coal- and iron- producing region of Germany, the Ruhr Valley, in order to extract war debts mandated in the Treaty of Versailles. Ebert’s SPD government and the German ruling class tried to use the invasion to win German workers, especially in the Ruhr, to unite with them against the French. The KPD agreed that the French should be resisted, but refused to agree to ally with the SPD or the bosses. As one KPD leader put it:

It was decisively important, both for the German bourgeoisie and for the French generals, to have the workers on their side…. The French generals consciously exploited the hatred of the German working class for its masters.... From the German side, the same efforts were made. Whatever happened, a director arrested, a mayor sentenced or an official deported, [the German bosses] tried to start a strike by promising to pay the workers for the lost days’ work.

However, as Broué describes, this supposed solidarity did not extend very far. For instance, “coal was not distributed to the workers’ families... It remained stockpiled at the mines.” (691) And that was not the worst of it.

It seems that from November 1921, the magnates of German industry decided that the general situation must deteriorate before it could improve; runaway inflation would wipe out the German debt, bring the state to its knees before them, exhaust the working people, and leave the great capitalists alone as masters of the situation. (710)

On January 23, 1923, the dollar was worth 8,000 marks; by September 7, it was worth 60 million, and a miner had to work for an hour to buy one egg. Hyperinflation wiped out wages and savings, and led to a dramatic rise in unemployment and homelessness. By the summer of 1923, the crisis was laying bare the uselessness of the reformist socialists’ belief in the sanctity of capitalism and the trade union bureaucracy’s reliance on negotiating pay raises once a year. The KPD’s influence grew quickly and 20,000 factory and workers’ councils sprang up all over Germany in the desperate struggle for food. These councils were not the same as the soviets that grew up in November of 1918 because they organized only within individual workplaces. And, unlike the Russian soviets in 1917, they did not represent the rank and file of the army. However, the massive surge of rank-and-file organization at the factory level, surpassed no more than a handful of times in the international history of the working class, was clearly once again raising the question of the potential for dual power. Furthermore, the KPD became the leading force in the workers’ council movement, gaining the allegiance of millions of workers beyond their membership. To defend workers from the police and from the far Right, the KPD initiated a militia called the “proletarian hundreds.” By May 1, 1923, 25,000 of these men marched through downtown Berlin with red armbands, a “real workers’ militia,” says Broué. (719)

All of this seemed to indicate that the KPD had finally overcome its youthful mistakes and was becoming a real “Bolshevik” party. However, Broué argues this was not necessarily so.

Thus, at the end of June 1923, whilst the German Communists were totally convinced that the situation which the crisis had opened up in Germany was leading inevitably to revolution, they considered that they had sufficient time to strengthen their influence within and around the proletariat.... [In Russia] Zinoviev declared: Germany is on the eve of revolution. This does not mean that revolution will come in a month or in a year. Perhaps much more time will be required. (731)

Zinoviev, who had encouraged the KPD to charge into the madness of 1921, now stepped on the brakes and was primarily concerned that the KPD not try to initiate anything without guarantees from allies. Zinoviev’s search for friends of the KPD went so far as to encourage them to make overtures to the fascists, who also hated the French occupation. This episode was short-lived, but it did expose the difference in quality between Lenin’s leadership of the Russian Revolution and Zinoviev’s attempt to direct the KPD from afar.

To Brandler’s credit, he realized that the KPD had to show that it could lead a nationwide movement to coordinate the disconnected strike waves rolling across Germany as well as give leadership to the brewing civil war between the police and the fascists on the one hand and the workers’ councils and militias on the other. If the KPD did not lead, then the danger loomed of useless and scattered resistance burning itself out across the country, as it had done in 1919. He proposed an “Anti-Fascist Day” on July 29, 1923. Although it was still a call for a united front against the Right, it was clear that the KPD and millions of radicalizing workers could also use this day as a review of their forces and as a way to put pressure on the USPD and the SPD to resign from the government. Brandler’s plan was adopted by the Zentrale and he wrote a front-page article announcing it in Die Rote Fahne

We Communists can win this battle with the counter-revolution only if we succeed in leading the Social-Democratic and non-party workers into the struggle with us.... Our party must raise the combativity of the its organizations to a height that can ensure that they are not taken unawares when civil war breaks out.... The fascists hope to win the civil war by overwhelming brutality.... If the fascists, armed to the teeth, fire on our proletarian fighters, they will find us ready to wipe them out. (736)

Brandler’s plan electrified Germany. The SPD and the conservatives denounced it. The fascist militias and police prepared for confrontation. Strikes intensified and workers flooded into the proletarian hundreds militia. On July 23, Gustav Noske, the SPD leader who had helped suppress the January 1919 strikes, issued a ban on the Anti-Fascist Day demonstrations in Hanover. Other city and state governments followed suit. Now the KPD had to make a decision.

To be sure, this was a very difficult situation. Especially given the KPD’s history of premature action, party leaders had to decide if the balance of class forces had changed in their favor and whether or not they were strong enough to lead the working class, if not to immediate revolution, then at least to its doorstep. Unfortunately, as Broué notes, “all the old differences immediately reappeared within the Zentrale.” Brandler fought to maintain his position at first, but then retreated. Unable to decide for themselves, they sent a telegram to Moscow asking what to do. Lenin was incapacitated by a series of strokes. Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Bukharin were all on vacation. Radek received the telegram and warned against the mistakes of 1921. Zinoviev and Bukharin, by telegraph, argued to defy the ban. Stalin disagreed. In the end, Radek telegraphed to Brandler, “We fear a trap,” and the Anti-Fascist Day was called off. (741) Certainly it was not a crime in asking the Bolsheviks for their advice, but canceling what might have been the start of the fight for power in Germany on the strength of a telegram once again exposed the weaknesses of the KPD’s leadership.

Lessons of October

It is not possible to say what would have happened had the KPD pursued its Anti-Fascist Day. It is clear that within weeks of calling off the protest, the government of conservative Prime Minister Cuno collapsed under the pressure of a wave of mass strikes. The fall of the Cuno government in mid-August finally jarred the KPD and the Communist International into realizing that the crisis in Germany was analogous to Russia in the months of September and October 1917, that is to say, a pre-revolutionary situation was maturing and the KPD would soon be faced with a fight for power.

In Russia, after six years of hunger and isolation, the prospects of a German socialist revolution raised hopes. Russian workers held mass meetings, agreeing to cut their own pay in order to send money to Germany to help with the revolution. Volunteers were organized to go to Germany and fight in international brigades.

But, as Trotsky once said, “it is not enough to carry a sword, you must know how to wield it.” Now, one more time, the tragicomedy of the KPD unfolded. Brandler, instead of remaining in Germany, left for Russia, along with many other leaders of the Zentrale. There they spent a month debating whether or not to pick a date for the insurrection, or to wait and see how events unfolded. Trotsky, now playing the role Lenin did in 1917, hammered away demanding that the KDP make up its mind, choose a date, and get on with it. He suggested starting the insurrection on the anniversary of the Bolshevik insurrection. Brandler even asked if Trotsky could come to Berlin to lead the revolution, but Zinoviev would not permit it for fear of Trotsky succeeding and overshadowing him in the growing intra-party fight in Russia.

Whether or not Trotsky could have made a difference is hard to say, but in the end, the KPD settled upon a plan for insurrection that was not unlike Zinoviev’s idea of how to make the revolution in October of 1917, in the sense that he wanted to rely on an agreement with the left wing of the Social Democrats for starting the insurrection. On Zinoviev’s initiative, the party’s plan was to enter the left-wing Social Democratic governments in Saxony and Thuringia, and use them as a base to direct the revolution and give arms to the working class. Brandler later insisted that he opposed this move, arguing that the weapons in Saxony and Thuringia had been moved to the Berlin arsenal, and that entering the governments would weaken the movement, “for now the masses would expect the government to do what they could only do for themselves.” In any case, Saxony was not the center of working-class strength. But Brandler deferred to Moscow. In October 1917, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks led the insurrection through the Soviets, that is, in alliance with the extreme left wing of several other parties, but at no time did they give the leadership of those other parties, who were caught between reform and revolution, the opportunity to veto their actions. Unfortunately, in Germany, Brandler, with Zinoviev’s blessing, publicly proposed in late October to the leadership of the left wing of the SPD to start the revolution together. When the SPD minister refused to go along with a KDP-proposed general strike at a conference of factory committees, Brandler called off the insurrection. To add insult to injury, in Hamburg, the KPD did not receive the news that the insurrection had been canceled. There, the party proceeded with its plan and was isolated and wiped out. Twenty-one were killed, and hundreds were wounded or taken prisoner.

Now, having raised the hundreds of thousands of rank-and-file KPD members and millions of radicalized workers to the point of the fight for power, the sudden, and chaotic letdown destroyed the party as a fighting force. For some weeks, Zinoviev tried to pretend that everything was fine and that the insurrection was simply delayed. But as time wore on, the German bourgeoisie took the opportunity to impose martial law and it became obvious that the revolution was defeated.

Trotsky summarized the situation in The Lessons of October, published in 1924, where he laid blame for the failure squarely on Zinoviev, as well as the KPD leadership:

During a relatively languid course of political life, [mistakes] are remedied, even if with losses, but without a catastrophe. But in periods of acute revolutionary crisis, it is precisely time that is lacking.... The incongruity between a revolutionary leadership (hesitation, vacillation, temporizing in the face of the furious assault of the bourgeoisie) and the objective tasks, can lead in the course of a few weeks and even days to a catastrophe and to a loss of what took years of work to prepare. (903)

Thus, it turned out that the dangers of conservatism at the revolutionary moment, were equally destructive as the dangers of ultra-leftism at the non-revolutionary moment. No revolutionary party, no matter its size, nor the depth of the crisis facing the capitalist class, can hope to lead the working class to power without mastering the full range of strategy and tactics and developing a core leadership that has the authority to put them into practice.

Broué ends his history by trying to explain why the KPD could never overcome its weaknesses. First was the question of inexperience. “We must not forget,” says Broué, “that the KPD’s leaders had only a few years’ experience amidst difficult conditions.” Second:

There was no Lenin, and, taking into consideration the abilities of the second-rank personalities in the prewar left opposition in the SPD, there was nothing in the history of the Party or in that of the German proletariat that made likely the emergence within a few years of people able to lead a successful revolution against the most conscious and determined bourgeoisie in Europe, if not the world. (908)

The conservative character of the trade-union bureaucracy and the SPD’s apparatus had turned the most combative elements amongst the workers against the concept of centralization and organization. The Communist leaders who emerged from the prewar Social Democracy carried all its imprint in their tendency to passivity, and in their propensity for tailing behind events. (909)

Broué’s conclusion must be the starting point for Marxists to come to grips with the defeat in Germany. The objective economic circumstances of prewar German capitalism dialectically conditioned the political forms of organization adopted by the working class and this history, in turn, shaped the ideas and experiences of the leading socialist revolutionaries. Looking back on it, Levi was certainly correct to conclude that they should have begun in 1903 to build an independent revolutionary party, but that presupposes Luxemburg and Liebknecht drawing lessons from circumstances that did not occur in Germany (as they did in Russia) or had not yet occurred in Germany. Having realized their error too late, the political leaders most capable of correcting it (Liebknecht, Luxemburg, Mehring, Jogiches) were all gunned down in early 1919. What they left behind was not an organized Bolshevik Party, but the idea of a party, supported by Lenin to be sure, but populated by unstable and impatient ultra-lefts, hostile and separate from the working-class revolutionary leaders who remained in the USPD until 1920.

Broué rightly highlights Levi’s contribution as practically the sole German (or Russian) communist to realize that the KPD, as it existed in 1919, was not the KPD that could lead the working class to challenge German capitalism. He led the party towards the united front tactics that eventually helped win over the Left of the USPD and found a genuine mass party on the principles that Luxemburg had bequeathed. Yet, Levi, an almost accidental recruit to Marxism as Luxemburg’s wartime lawyer, never really earned the loyalty of either the KPD or the USPD cadre, and when push came to shove during the disastrous events of March 1921, he cut his ties, rather than trying to bind the party’s wounds and lead it forward. From then on, the KPD was effectively in the hands of Zinoviev, Bukharin, and Radek and the Comintern leadership, such as it was, in Moscow.

If Broué observes that there was no Lenin in Berlin, then it is also necessary to point out that Lenin did not immediately perceive the obstacles to revolution in Western Europe in 1918 and 1919. For instance, it is at least a matter for debate about whether he was right to push for the KPD’s founding in December of 1918. Worse, especially after 1921, Lenin, owing to the desperate conditions inside Russia, found it impossible to sustain day-to-day influence over the International. His role (along with Trotsky) was all too often to try to correct the mistakes made by Zinoviev and Co. after the fact. By 1923, the KPD, personified by Brandler, lost all ability to lead events and was swept in, and then out, with the tide of class struggle. Levi, years later, ridiculed Trotsky’s assertion that, had the KPD acted like the Bolsheviks in October 1917, then October 1923 could have marked the victory of socialism in Germany. Yet, Levi himself was more than partly responsible for the KPD’s inability to do just that. There are no guarantees in politics. Even a larger KPD with stronger leadership and a history free from the worst of its errors (or which had learned from those errors) would have faced tremendous obstacles. However, it certainly could have lived to fight another day. The Bolsheviks too lost their first revolution in 1905 and had to wait twelve years to make good. Stalin’s rise to power in Russia, and the concomitant Stalinization of Communist Parties worldwide, destroyed any potential the KPD had to follow suit when the next crisis of German capitalism broke out in 1930.

But if the KPD failed to lead the revolution, the peaceful, reformist capitalist democracy that Bernstein and Kautsky had dreamed of turned out to be a cruel joke. It ended in the victory of Hitler’s Nazis in 1933 and the total liquidation of the workers’ movement in Germany, and in much of Europe. The defeat also doomed the Russian Revolution to permanent isolation, creating the desperate conditions upon which Stalin built his bureaucratic state capitalist monstrosity, which politically and physically negated the core of Bolshevik theory and practice. At a terrible price, Rosa Luxemburg’s warning that either socialism or barbarism would prevail proved prophetic. But only those who believe that capitalism is humanity’s highest and final product can fail to appreciate the heroics, alongside the follies, of the generation of men and women of the KPD who gave their lives for a better world. Broué’s epitaph for them is also a challenge to us:

In this perspective, the history of the Communist Party of Germany during the early years of the Communist International ceases to be a history of lost illusions, and becomes the prehistory of a struggle which continues to this day. (912)

Todd Chretien is a member of the International Socialist Organization in the Bay Area. He is author of “The B-team of Corporate America” (ISR 49, September–October 2006).
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