Gilles Dauvé / Denis Authier


Chapter 13

Table of Contents:


The Founding of the VKPD

After the leftists were excluded, in a process which started at the Second Congress (October 1919) and was completed by the Third Congress (February 1920), the KPD, strictly speaking, no longer existed. The reports of the delegates to the Third Congress provided evidence of the party’s utter prostration. In Berlin, out of 8,000 members, only 500 supported the central committee; in Essen, 43 out of 2,000, etc. “After his experience in Rhineland-Westphalia, Brandler resigned himself to saying, ‘We no longer have a party at all’.”[1] Its weakness led the KPD to regularly support the directives of the USPD during this period, and was also the reason for the extremely “prudent” position it assumed in March of 1920.

The USPD, on the other hand, was flourishing. It took full advantage of the SPD’s deception of its voters and militants. It had 750,000 members in 1920. This was the raw material for the construction of a fraternal “mass party” for the Communist International. Lenin wrote in his Infantile Disorder, in relation to the “proletarian groundswell” of the USPD, that the USPD “was conducting a relentless struggle against opportunism”.[2] The 21 Conditions for admission were intended, among other things, to allow this leftist groundswell to join the Communist International. In October 1920, the Halle Congress of the USPD voted in favor of joining the Communist International by a vote of 234 to 158.

On December 5, 1920, the USPD-KPD Unification Congress was held: the new party was called the Unified Communist Party of Germany (VKPD), and had at least 400,000 members. As Heckert, a VKPD delegate to the Third World Congress would say: “The Communist Party, at the moment of its unification, became a mass party...”[3] The German section of the Communist International had been formed by means of deals between parties, between the parties’ leaders, and would never belie this origin.

Even when, during the crisis of 1929, the KPD accepted a large number of unemployed workers into its ranks, it had already replaced the SPD in various sectors of the working class, above all in the recently-industrialized regions which had no socialist cadres.[4] Without totally supplanting the SPD, it had become the second great German workers party. Instead of criticizing the Communist Party’s positions during the Weimar Republic, one should recall that this “Communist Party” was the heir of the anti-communist centrism of the years between 1917 and 1920. The essential character of the revolutionary party created at the end of 1918 was to be upheld by the leftist groups and would disappear with the victory of the reaction.

Based on his study of Hamburg, Comfort concluded that the members of the SPD did not comprise a labor aristocracy in the sense of a distinct privileged stratum, but that it was a sociologically more homogeneous group than the USPD, which was in turn more homogeneous than the KPD, which included in its membership workers from very diverse social layers.[5] The communist militants were also younger and less experienced than those of the SPD. This led Comfort to deduce that the KPD was more independent of an apparatus and, above all, of one (or several) specific social layer(s) than the other parties. The SPD and the ADGB had not been able to adapt to modern industrialization and the growth, in both numbers and importance, of the workers in large industry, especially since the majority of the Hamburg SPD’s leaders, after the war, were former trade unionists.

On January 8, 1921, utilizing its new forces, the VKPD initiated a large-scale campaign in the purest style of the “workers united front”. The central committee sent an “open letter” to all “workers organizations”, from the most reactionary trade unions to the KAPD and the AAUD, proposing a joint struggle against capitalism. Written by Radek and Levi, the letter called for a campaign to increase wages, dissolve the “bourgeois defense organizations”, create workers self-defense organizations, and to compel Germany to re-establish diplomatic relations with Russia. It was hoped that, should the recipients reject this joint action, they would stand revealed as traitors before the masses, and would lose all their influence; should they accept, it was thought that they would be obliged to collaborate with the KPD so as to continue to appear to be revolutionaries, and the KPD would thereby become the driving force of the movement. This action was to have an “educational” value for the “masses”. According to the formula of Infantile Disorder, the KPD would have caught the organizations which called themselves revolutionary just as the “rope catches the hanged man”. The KAPD and the AAUD, “prisoners of their ultra-leftism”, rejected the proposal.

At the Third World Congress, Lenin sang the praises of this tactic: “The ‘Open Letter’ is exemplary. It must be unconditionally defended.” Terracini, a PCI delegate, requested that such methods be renounced, and quoted (KAPD delegate) Hempel’s statement: “The Open Letter is opportunist, it cannot be remedied.” Lenin responded: “The Open Letter is exemplary as the opening act of the practical method to effectively win over the majority of the working class.”[6]

This tactic responded to a precise objective, as was revealed by the debate within the KPD central committee which took place on January 28, 1921, and was advocated with particular vehemence by Radek and Levi. To come into contact with the masses, it was necessary to remain in contact with their representatives, whether “right” or “left”.[7] It was therefore necessary to undertake international negotiations with the “syndicalists”, and in Germany to maintain contacts with the KAPD, so as to attract their best elements. Radek based his argument on the fact that the German working class had a high rate of trade union membership, and concluded that it was necessary to take the other parties and organizations into consideration. Levi refused to attack the KAPD but also refused to identify the KPD with the KAPD. “We have to keep up appearances for the German workers.” Brandler adopted a different tone: “I have insisted that we must not cease to hit out at the KAPD.” Violence or “Open Letter”, the goal is the same, to make the KPD appear to be revolutionary in the eyes of the masses, so that the masses would support it. A theatrical stage upon which their organization could represent itself as “credible”, so that the masses would support it. It was a matter of winning the “trust” of the masses.


Elimination of the Former Spartacists from the KPD Leadership

If a “leftist” tendency immediately took power in the VKPD, this was in part the result of unification: the whole party felt the strength of its numbers and thought it could seize power by non-parliamentary means. In addition, there was a tendency in the Communist International which, aware of the crisis of Bolshevik power after the civil war, wanted to bring about a civil war in Germany at any cost, and dispatched a delegation from the Communist International to Germany, led by B. Kun; Levi, Zetkin and the other rightists in the leadership would clash with this delegation.

It was at this moment that the “Italian question” had a direct impact on the affairs of the KPD. In Livorno (January 1921), Levi had naturally sympathized with the party of Italian centrism (cf. Chapter 8).[8] The pro-KPD position of the Italian Left was therefore all the more contradictory in that it had directly suffered from the effects of the KPD’s rightist orientation. Levi, displaying his opposition to the PCI as it had been constituted in 1921, proved that the “principles” he had defended against the German Left were nothing but the cover for his opportunism. At Livorno, Levi confronted the Communist International’s emissaries, supporters of the same strictness upheld by the Italian Left, and just as desirous as the latter of breaking with the center as well as with the right. Upon Levi’s return to Germany, the Italian polemic was added to the debate on the correct orientation of the KPD. Levi, referring to Livorno before the central committee (February 1921), diagnosed the “beginning of a crisis in the KPD and the Communist International”: for the first time, a split took place within a party which was already a member of the Communist International.[9] Rakosi, however, deduced from the Italian experience a lesson which could be generalized to other countries.[10] He alluded to the French and Czech Communist Parties and, among other things, to the case of Cachin, “who is a freemason”. “Besides the fact that we want to set a precedent, this question is not a purely Italian question.” He denounced Levi’s position in Livorno before the central committee. Losing the vote by 28 votes to 25, Levi resigned, together with other members of the central committee, including Zetkin.

The new leftist leadership of the central committee, led by Frölich, appointed a series of leaders from the “proletarian base” of the USPD. At the Third World Congress, the KAPD would speak of a “new, improved and revised version” of the KPD. This new version was based upon a new leftist tendency which had appeared in Berlin after the creation of the KAPD, under E. Reuter. The Bremen Left had criticized the KPD’s “loyalty” during the Kapp Putsch, but had also repeated Levi’s critiques of the KAPD, in which it had detected harmful decentralizing tendencies; nor was it entirely mistaken. But its union with the KPD—which, despite its opportunism, did appear to be the only Marxist organization of any importance in Germany—was a remedy worse than the disease it was meant to cure. Bremen had separated from that of which it was naturally a part: the German Left, depriving the latter of its precious contribution, which would have perhaps allowed an original and active synthesis. By reinforcing the KPD, it was entangled as the opposition within a party whose rightward course could not be rectified. The KPD’s leftist detour, which predated March 1921, was deceptive: the USPD contributed to the KPD its own vacillation between reform and adventurism, between parliament and the streets. “Opportunism” and putschism are the two sides of the same coin, as Lukàcs had perspicaciously analyzed the problem:

“The decisive theoretical aspect can be reduced, expressed negatively: in the inability of the two groups (opportunists and putschists) to conceive of the revolution as a process; positively expressed: in their erroneous overestimation of the organization in the revolutionary movement.” For both, the struggle can only be the product of the organization; they do not see that there is “a permanent interaction between the preconditions and their consequences during the course of the action”. “One could even say, if one has to choose between one of these points of view, that the organization must be conceived more as the consequence than as the precondition.”

“There is no need to cite examples to illustrate this mode of thought and action among the opportunists; the way they make ballots compatible with membership cards, their expectation that the ‘moment’ will arrive when a sufficiently large number of proletarians will be sufficiently well-organized, is perfectly well-known. But it is surprising to confirm the analogous way the putschists operate. They do not count ballots, but revolvers, machine guns, etc.; a “good organization” needs less men; its effectiveness is not that of an electoral machine or a trade union, but that of an illegal military organization: all of this, in fact, changes very little in terms of their theoretical foundations. The putschists also conceive of organization and action as two distinct stages separated from one another...”

“The overestimation and the mechanistic concept of organization necessarily have the consequence of neglecting and demoting to second place the totality of the revolutionary process to the benefit of an immediate visible result.”[11]

The former Bremerlinke had the illusion that it could drive the party towards the left, when all it did was help the party make one of its voluntaristic U-turns.[12] Mattick defined Bremen as the most advanced tendency, but with this proviso: “the ambiguity which characterized the politics of the Spartakusbund was to a great extent the result of the conservatism of the masses.”[13] According to Frölich, after the “line had been set straight” at Heidelberg, the party went too far to the right, allowing the opportunity presented by the Kapp Putsch to slip through its hands.[14] The new leadership defined communist tactics in the following manner:

“Should the action encounter any obstacles, they must know how to scale back their directives, and should it be necessary, they must quickly withdraw from the struggle and take refuge among the masses; but during certain times of tension, the communists must also go to the masses and assume the initiative in the struggle, even at the risk of being followed by only a part of the workers.”[15]

The first clause alludes to situations of the sort encountered in Berlin in January 1919; the second would be applied in March 1921. The VKPD was headed towards insurrectionary action.



[1] Bock: p. 227.

[2] Ibid., p. 108.

[3] Minutes, in German, p. 528.

[4] J. Droz: Les forces politiques dans la République de Weimar 1919-33, SEDES, 1967, pp. 75-76.

[5] Chapter 7.

[6] Minutes, p. 511.

[7] P. Levi and Moscow, in The Comintern: Historical Highlights, Hoover Institute—Pall Mall Press, London, 1969, pp. 271-310.

[8] The critique of centrism made by Bordiga at this congress (PC, No. 50, pp. 51-72) is also a critique of Levi.

[9] Gruber: pp. 304-309.

[10] Rote Fahne, February 26 and March 1, 1921.

[11] Kommunismus, August 17, 1920.

[12] La question syndicale..., pp. 27-28.

[13] “Otto Rühle and the German Labour Movement”, in Paul Mattick, Anti-Bolshevik Communism, M.E. Sharpe, Inc., White Plains, 1978, p. 93.

[14] Bock: pp. 297-298.

[15] La question syndicale..., p. 47.