Tony Cliff

Trotsky: Fighting the rising Stalinist bureaucracy

3. German revolution of 1923

The German Revolution and stirrings in Russia

THE 1923 Opposition was not only the child of internal developments in Russia – the increasing estrangement of workers from the state and party leadership – but also of a very significant international event: the German revolution of autumn 1923.

Renewed hope of revolution rose in Germany. A victory for the German working class would have ended the isolation of the Russian working class and radically changed the whole international situation.

Excitement about the German revolution gripped people throughout Russia. Ruth Fischer described Moscow in September 1923.

It was plastered with slogans welcoming the German revolution. Banners and streamers were posted in the centre of the city with such slogans as ‘Russian Youth, Learn German – the German October is approaching’. Pictures of Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were to be seen in every shop window. In all factories meetings were called to discuss ‘How can we help the German revolution?’ [1]

Such discussions were not mere formalities. The Russian workers were expected by the government to make genuine sacrifices for the German revolution. According to the records of the Communist International, ‘the Russian working class agreed to suspend the increase of their wages and to submit to reductions if it were necessary in the interests of the German revolution’. The workers were told that a defeat for the German proletariat would constitute a defeat for the Russian workers as well. Women were asked at public meetings to donate their wedding rings and other valuables for the German cause. The Trade Commissariat distributed circulars which stated that ‘the advance of the German revolution confronted the Trade Commissariat with new problems; the present routine of trading must be replaced by the establishment of two German reserves: gold and corn, for the benefit of the victorious German proletariat; and the agencies of this Commissariat in the individual Soviet republics were ordered to send a total of 60 million pud of grain towards Russia’s western frontiers. The Russian Communist Party, by order of its Politburo, drew up lists of members who spoke German in order to create a communist-trained reserve corps which could, at the appropriate moment, be transferred to Germany where it would assist the revolution. Special attention was paid to the mobilisation of the Komsomol organisations, whose members were told that they might have to risk their lives on behalf of the German proletariat and the cause of revolution. In October revolutionary slogans became current: ‘Workers’ Germany and our Workers’ and Peasants’ Union are the bulwark of peace and labour’. ‘German Steam Hammers and Soviet Bread will Conquer the World’. Soviet newspapers wrote that if the German workers were successful the new German government would join with Soviet Russia and thereby ‘unite in Europe the tremendous power of 200 million people, against which no war in Europe will be possible ... because no one will be able to face such a force.’ [2]

A Short Sketch of the German Revolution

In 1923 a fierce class struggle broke out in Germany as a result of a serious crisis. The immediate cause was the occupation of the Ruhr by France on 11 January 1923 in retaliation for Germany falling behind with its reparations payments. Two days later the German government, led by the conservative Cuno, issued an appeal to the population of the Ruhr for ‘passive resistance’ and non-cooperation with the occupying authorities. The immediate result was an increase in German resistance, ranging from strikes to acts of sabotage. A crucial by-product of the French occupation and German resistance was an acceleration of the rate of inflation to astronomic proportions. The changes in the mark’s exchange rate with the dollar tell the story:





















The result was the absolute pauperisation of the whole of the working population, ruin for the petty bourgeoisie, the rapid enrichment of the owners of capital, massive speculation and corruption; the closing of all safety valves. Never had a highly industrial society been in such deep economic, social and political turmoil.

The traditional reformist working class organisations were impotent in this situation. One writer, Evelyn Anderson, stated:

In those days ... the influence of the Social Democrats and the trade unions was waning. Although membership of the unions was larger than ever before, the inflation had robbed them of all funds with which to support their members, to finance strikes, or even to pay their officials. Moreover, normal Trade Union activity had become quite impossible in a situation in which nominal wages and salaries had lost all meaning. [4]

Pierre Broué, in his monumental history of the German revolution, Révolution en Allemagne (1917-1923), writes:

The traditional trade union practice of Social Democracy was empty of all meaning, trade unionism was impotent, collective agreements derided. The workers left the trade unions and often directed their anger against them, blaming them for their passivity, sometimes for their complicity. The collapse of the trade union apparatus and Social Democracy was paralleled by that of the state. What became of notions of property, order and legality? How in such an abyss can one justify an attachment to parliamentary institutions, to the right to vote, to universal suffrage? Neither the police nor the army were free of sickness. A world was dying. [5]

From May onwards massive spontaneous strikes took place throughout the country. They were denounced by trade union leaders and opposed by the Social Democrats. The authority of the factory committees leading the struggle increased dramatically. Their national action committee began to represent an alternative workers’ leadership, a serious counter-balance to the trade union leaders.

On 16 June, in the name of the factory councils, its president, Grothe, addressed a solemn appeal to the workers, employees and intellectuals. Describing the catastrophe that was threatening German society, he reaffirmed that the working class could prevent it by getting rid of the capitalist system:

Only the struggle of all, only the class struggle, can bring you what you need, simply in order to assure your survival. The whole working people is in motion. In this flood that the trade unions today try to dam and sabotage, important tasks and initiatives fall to the factory councils.

He invited the factory councils to form local and regional organisations to give the working masses ‘objectives and leadership’ in the coming struggles. Committees for the control of prices and proletarian defence organisations – Proletarian Hundreds – were needed: with factory councils they would form the base for a workers’ government, which alone could produce a positive outcome to the crisis.

Strikes and demonstrations followed. Workers demonstrated at Bautzen on 2 June, at Dresden and at Leipzig on 7 June. On this date more than 100,000 miners and engineers were on strike in Upper Silesia under the leadership of an elected strike committee which included six communists out of a total of 26 members. On 11 June there broke out a historically unique strike of 100,000 agricultural workers in Silesia, soon followed by 10,000 Brandenburg day workers. On 11 June a merchant marine strike also began at Emden, Bremen and Lübeck, on the initiative of the Federation of Seamen, which belonged to the Communist-led Profintern, the red international of trade unions. In Berlin it was the engineering workers who took action. 153,000 of the total of 250,000 engineers were organised in trade unions. Workers’ pressure achieved a referendum in the union on strike action, the result of which was massive support. The union then organised a second referendum open to non-trade unionists. The majority in favour was even greater. Finally, workers at 60 enterprises called for the strike. Immediately the employers began to negotiate. On 10 July 150,000 engineers struck and the trade union leadership was overthrown in many factories. On the same day the management agreed to a rise in wages, from 9,800 marks for the second week of June to 12,000 for the first week of July. One clause of the agreement proposed to set up a parity commission to establish a price index that would serve as the basis for indemnity against inflation. At the demand of the employers this remained secret, to prevent the idea spreading. The results, however, were visible. The wages of the engineers after 10 June were 38 per cent higher than the figure demanded by the unions and rejected on 3 June. It was soon the turn of the building workers to strike, and then the woodworkers in the capital. Everywhere the communists were in the forefront in launching the strikes and also in the return to work, not only in trade union meetings where they were often in the majority, but in the ‘workers’ assemblies’ which they had forced the trade union leaders to call, and which were open to all. [6]

For the first time (and, as history was to show, the last) the Communist Party of Germany had the majority of the proletariat under its influence. According to one historian, ‘In the summer of 1923 the KPD undoubtedly had the majority of the German proletariat behind it.’ [7]

‘Bread riots became commonplace: in Berlin, Dresden, Frankfurt am Main, Mannheim, Cologne.’ The bourgeois state machine was under tremendous strain.

The disruption of economic life endangered the legal structure of the Weimar Republic. Civil servants lost their ties to the state; their salaries had no relation to their daily needs. They felt themselves in a boat without a rudder. Police and troops, in sympathy with the rioting populace, lost their combative spirit against the hunger demonstrations and closed their eyes to the sabotage groups and clandestine military formations mushrooming throughout the Reich. Hamburg was so tense that the police did not dare interfere with looting of foodstuffs by the hungry masses. In August large demonstrations of dockworkers in the Hamburg harbour led to rioting. ‘Parts of the police’, [a leading Hamburg communist] wrote, ‘are regarded as unreliable; they sympathise with the working class’. [8]

On 8 August things came to a head. Chancellor Cuno justified his policies to the Reichstag in a lengthy speech. The debate went on until the next day. The Reichstag was then besieged by workers’ delegations which it refused to receive. The debate ended on 10 August with a vote of confidence for the government, the Social Democrats abstaining and the Communists voting against. The Communist Wilhelm Könen addressed the workers from parliament, calling for ‘the mass movement of the workers to go over the head of parliament and form a workers’ revolutionary government’. The strike movement gained momentum. The tram workers in Berlin went on strike. A short while later it was the turn of the printers, who followed the call of the communist cell, and whose strike included the 8,000 workers at the national mint. The production of notes stopped. In a few hours the government would not even have money at its disposal. The workers in big enterprises followed the movement, led by those in Siemens and Borsig. Workers from eleven striking Berlin enterprises took up communist demands for the resignation of Cuno and for the formation of a workers’ government. Urban transport was at a complete standstill, gas and electricity cut off. In Hamburg all building work ground to a halt, and there were workers’ demonstrations at Krefeld and Aachen: the police intervened and there were some deaths. The midday editions of the newspapers announced that the Reichsbank was going to close due to lack of notes. [9]

On 11 August a hastily summoned conference of the Berlin factory councils proclaimed a general strike in the city, and urged the working class throughout the country to join the strike. The proclamation was carried by a special edition of the communist paper Die Rote Fahne, but the entire issue was promptly confiscated by the authorities, who invoked a one-day-old government decree ‘for the protection of public order.’

Despite this, the Communists succeeded in eliciting a strong response from several groups of workers in the city. Moreover, sporadic wildcat strikes erupted on this and subsequent days in various parts of the country.

Evelyn Anderson, in her book, Hammer or Anvil, described the situation.

The Cuno strike was entirely spontaneous and as such it was a unique action in the history of the German labour movement. Shop stewards and local workers’ representatives took the initiative and led the movement. The parties began to realise what was happening only after this movement of the masses had created an accomplished fact. All this had important consequences. The movement exhausted and spent itself once it had achieved the maximum that spontaneous and unguided action of this kind could possibly achieve, i.e., the resignation of the government. To exploit this success for more positive and constructive would have been the task of the political working-class parties.

Regrettably, however, ‘None of the existing parties was up to this task.’ [10]

The policy of the KPD

All the objective conditions for the revolution were in place: a general crisis of society, loss of confidence among the ruling class that they could go on in the old way, a rebellion of the proletariat against the old conditions. As regards the subjective factors: the Communist Party was a mass party and its influence over the working class was overwhelming. To understand the outcome of events, we need to look at its policies.

During the first seven months of 1923, between the start of the occupation of the Ruhr by French troops and the collapse of the Cuno government, the policy of the KPD lacked cohesion and clear direction and the leaders were deeply pessimistic. Thus on 17 March, at an international conference in Frankfurt, Brandler, Chairman of the KPD, said:

While we experienced then [in 1918] a rising revolutionary tide on account of the Russian revolution, we face today a receding tide because of the seizure of power by the bourgeoisie, and now our primary task is to rally the proletariat. [11]

Throughout 1923 the KPD leadership lacked independence and was totally subservient to the orders of the Comintern in Moscow. This was the catastrophic result of the Märzaktion in 1921 (an ultra-left adventure that failed), since when Brandler, Thalheimer, Walcher and Ernest Meyer, had become, in Broué’s description,

‘rightists’, systematically, obstinately, prudent, armed with precautions against any tendency towards putschism and even the simple leftist reflex. Convinced by the leaders of the International of the grave fault they had committed, they lost confidence in their capacity to think and often surrendered their own point of view entirely in order to agree with the Bolsheviks who, at least, had known how to win. [12]

In contrast with Brandler’s pessimism regarding the immediate prospect of revolution, the bourgeois press was convinced that the revolution was imminent! On 26 July Kreuz-Zeitung declared: ‘We are now without doubt, who can fail to see this after what we have seen before our very eyes, on the eve of a new revolution.’ Germanía the next day reported: ‘Trust in the Reich government is seriously shaken ... Discontent has reached a dangerous degree. The fury is general. The air is charged with electricity. Any spark and it would explode ... We have the state of mind of 9 November’ [13], i.e., the day the Kaiser was deposed.

Every paper in Germany was using the expression ‘Novemberstimmung’ (the mood of November) with the exception of the Communist press.

Still the rising wave of industrial strikes, plus the rise of the extreme right, including the Nazis in Bavaria, stirred the KPD leadership into action. Early in July it decided to organise an Anti-Fascist Day with three demonstrations in the large cities on Sunday 29 July. This should have been the beginning of a general offensive against the Right.

But then on 23 July the Prussian government prohibited all demonstrations on the day fixed. Brandler telegraphed Moscow for advice. The leadership of the Russian party, with the exception of Radek, was away from Moscow on holiday. Radek telegraphed the most distant parts of Russia for the individual opinion of the leaders who in fact had very little knowledge of the situation in Germany. Zinoviev and Bukharin were for offensive tactics, but Radek knew that they had taken the same position during the Märzaktion and had burned their fingers. Trotsky was honest enough to admit that he did not have a clear idea of the situation on the ground in Germany and therefore was not ready to express an opinion. Stalin – this was one of the first times anyone had bothered to ask his advice about international questions­ – expressed strong disbelief in the chances of a German revolution.

On 26 July a telegram was sent from the Praesidium of the Comintern to the Zentrale of the KPD: ‘The praesidium of the Comintern advises the abandonment of street demonstrations on 29 July ... We fear a trap’. [14]

The KPD called off the demonstrations, except for Saxony, Thuringia and Wurtenburg where the demonstrations had not been banned. Thus the vacillation of the KPD leadership and the Comintern was laid bare.

On 23 August an extraordinary meeting of the Politburo was summoned, attended also by Radek, Piatakov, Shmidt and Tsiuriupa. Radek, who throughout the year had been in Berlin as the representative of the Executive Committee of the Comintern, reported on the situation. Trotsky argued that the revolution was maturing very quickly and in weeks the decisive battles would take place. Zinoviev rejected such optimism, and thought it safer to reckon in months rather than weeks. Stalin was more cautious still. He saw no revolution in Germany now or in the autumn: it might come in the spring, but even that was dubious. In a letter to Zinoviev and Bukharin, Stalin explained his views:

Should the Communists at the present stage try to seize power without the Social Democrats? Are they sufficiently ripe for that? That, in my opinion, is the question. When we seized power, we had in Russia such resources in reserve as (a) the promise of peace; (b) the slogan – the land to the peasants; (c) the support of the great majority of the working class; and (d) the sympathy of the peasantry. At the moment the German Communists have nothing of the kind. They have of course a Soviet country as neighbour, which we did not have; but what can we offer them? ... Should the government in Germany topple over now, in a manner of speaking, and the Communists were to seize hold of it, they would end up in a crash. That, in the ‘best’ case. While at worst, they would be smashed to smithereens and thrown away back. The whole point is not that Brandler wants to ‘educate the masses’ but that the bourgeoisie plus the Right Wing Social Democrats is bound to turn such lessons – the demonstration – into a general battle (at present all the odds are on their side) and exterminate them [the German Communists]. Of course the Fascists are not asleep; but it is to our advantage to let them attack first: that will rally the entire working class around the Communists. [15] [1*]

Whatever the differences between the Russian leaders, they did not deny the possibility of a revolution in Germany, however unclear they were about the timing. Brandler, however, had grave doubts about the insurrectionary perspectives.

Many years later he told Isaac Deutscher:

I did not oppose the preparations for the uprising of 1923. I simply did not view the situation as acutely revolutionary yet, reckoning rather with a further sharpening. But in this affair I considered Trotsky, Zinoviev and other Russians to be more competent. [16]

In a meeting between the German leaders and the Politburo of the Russian party, Trotsky argued that the situation was so ripe for revolution that a date had to be fixed for the insurrection – as had been done in Russia on the eve of the October revolution. Elaborating on his views in an article published in Pravda on 23 September (and reprinted as a special issue of the central journal of the Comintern Internationale Press-Korrespondenz), entitled Is it Possible to Fix a Definite Schedule for a Counter-revolution or a Revolution? Trotsky wrote:

Obviously, it is not possible to create artificially a political situation favourable for a ... coup, much less to bring it off at a fixed date. But when the basic elements of such a situation are at hand, then the leading party does ... choose beforehand a favourable moment, and synchronises accordingly its political, organisational and technical forces, and – if it has not miscalculated – deals the victorious blow.

... let us take our own October revolution as an example ... From the moment when the Bolsheviks were in the majority of the Petrograd, and afterwards in the Moscow Soviet, our party was faced with the question – not of the struggle for power in general, but of preparing for the seizure of power according to a definite plan, and at a fixed date. The chosen day, as is well known, was the day upon which the All-Russian Congress of the Soviets was to convene. [17]

Brandler objected to the idea of a fixed date for the insurrection. (Trotsky had suggested the anniversary of the Russian revolution, 7 November), but he was sufficiently persuaded by Trotsky’s appeal to suggest that Trotsky be sent to Germany to prepare the uprising. The idea enthused Trotsky, but the Troika would have none of it. The thought that Trotsky could go to Germany and return triumphant, thus dwarfing them as the acknowledged leader of both the Russian and German revolutions, terrified them, so they vetoed it.

It is interesting to speculate what the impact would have been on the history of Germany and the history of the world if Trotsky had gone to Germany!

The Collapse of the German Revolution

One issue raised during 1923 was that of German Communists joining coalition governments with Social Democrats in Saxony and Thuringia. It was presented in terms of using this action as the springboard for the revolution. Among other advantages it was hoped that the participation of Communists in the state governments would allow them to lay hands on stocks of arms. On 1 October a telegram signed by Zinoviev on behalf the Executive Committee of the Communist International was despatched to the Zentrale of the KPD:

Since we estimate the situation to be such that the decisive moment will arrive not later than in four-five-six weeks, we think it necessary to occupy at once every position which can be of immediate use [for our purposes]. On the basis of the [present] situation we must approach the question of our entry into the Saxon government in practical terms. We must enter [the Saxon government] on the condition that the Zeigner people are actually willing to defend Saxony against Bavaria and the Fascists. 50,000 to 60,000 workers have to be immediately armed; ignore General Müller. [2*] The same in Thuringia.

According to Brandler, he opposed the sending of Communists into the governments of Saxony and Thuringia, but to no avail.

I strongly objected to the attempt to hasten the revolutionary crisis by including communists in the Saxon and Thuringian governments – allegedly in order to procure weapons. I knew, and I said so in Moscow, that the police in Saxony and Thuringia did not have any stores of weapons. Even single sub-machine guns had to be ordered from the Reichswehr’s arsenal near Berlin. The workers had already seized the local arsenals twice, once during the Kapp putsch, and again in part in 1921. I declared further that the entry of the communists into the government would not breathe new life into the mass actions but rather weaken them: for now the masses would expect the government to do what they could only do for themselves.

In answer to that Zinoviev thundered, banged his fist on the table and so on.

Outvoted, Brandler declared that he would submit to the decisions of the Comintern. This is how he explains his motives:

I told myself that these people had made three revolutions. To me their decisions seemed nonsensical. However, not I but they were considered seasoned revolutionaries who had achieved victory. They had made three revolutions and I was just about to try to make one. Well, I had to follow their instructions. During my return journey from Moscow to Berlin I bought a newspaper at the railway station in Warsaw. From this newspaper I learnt that I had become a Minister in the Saxon government. What a situation! Things were being done behind my back and I knew nothing. All this meant to put me before a fait accompli. [18]

On 10 October the Communists entered the government of Saxony and on the 11th, the government of Thuringia. Trotsky was as strong as any in advocating that the KPD join the coalition governments in Saxony and Thuringia. In a speech on 20 October on the events in Germany he said:

... The Social Democratic Party in Saxony, under the pressure of this proletariat, is the most left-wing section of the German Social Democratic Party as a whole. We put forward the slogan of the united front, and the Social Democratic workers, especially in Saxony, demanded it be realised. Under their pressure, their leaders, those Left-wing Social Democrats most of whom are articles of very dubious quality, found themselves obliged, nevertheless, to enter into a united front, a bloc, for the purpose of forming coalition governments in Saxony and Thuringia. We joined these governments as a minority: our people have two ministries (one of them is in charge of the affairs of the Council of Ministers), and the others are the majority. But the very fact of the formation of a coalition government in Saxony meant a mortal blow for German Social Democracy. [19]

The entry of Communists into a coalition government dominated by Social Democrats did not help the German revolution. Calling for common action, a united front with Social Democrats is one thing. Entering into a coalition with them where they dominate, is a different matter. Remember Lenin’s stand during the Kornilov coup of 27-30 August 1917. Although Lenin called for common action with the Kerensky government against Kornilov he was very much against supporting the Kerensky government. In a letter to the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks of 30 August 1917 he stated:

Even now we must not support the Kerensky government. This is unprincipled. We may be asked: aren’t we going to fight against Kornilov? Of course we must! But this is not the same thing; there is a dividing line here.

We shall fight, we are fighting against Kornilov, just as Kerensky’s troops do, but we do not support Kerensky. On the contrary, we expose his weakness. There is the difference. It is rather a subtle difference, but it is highly essential and must not be forgotten. [20]

The Communists who entered the coalition governments in Saxony and Thuringia found themselves trapped by the Social Democrats, taking responsibility without power over the capitalist state machine. Instead of the governments arming the workers, they disarmed them ideologically and politically confused them.

The German government reacted strongly to the entry of Communists into the state governments of Saxony and Thuringia. On 20 October it sent an ultimatum to dissolve the ‘Proletarian Hundreds’ – the armed workers’ militias in Saxony – and when this was refused, the order was given for the Reichswehr to march. The limited number of soldiers already in Saxony plastered the streets with the text of a letter from General Müller, the Reich’s special commissar in Saxony, to the Prime Minister of Saxony, E. Zeigner. Müller, this said, had been ordered to deploy military units so as ‘to restore constitutional and orderly conditions in Saxony’. E.H. Carr writes: ‘The Reichswehr had done what Brandler had shrunk from doing. It had fixed the date on which the Communists must either act or confess their impotence.’ [21]

All over Germany the Communist organisations were put on alert and awaited the signal for the rising. Brandler spent Sunday, 21 October, in a conference of workers’ organisations in Chemnitz aimed at organising resistance to General Müller.

Brandler insisted that now was the time for the workers of Saxony to call for assistance from the rest of Germany. Otherwise they would be destroyed. The only salvation lay in the immediate call for a national general strike of solidarity. He called on the Social Democrats to drop their vain hope of a peaceful settlement with Berlin. Only an immediate, unanimous vote for the general strike could save the situation.

Brandler seems to have expected the Social Democratic leaders to agree enthusiastically. Instead he was greeted with stunned silence.

Then the Social Democratic minister Graupe took the floor. The present conference, he said, could not by itself decide the response of the workers of Saxony to the army’s threats. The defence of Saxony was the task of the ‘Government of Republican and Proletarian Defence’ and the Social Democratic-Communist majority in the state parliament. It would be quite wrong for the present conference to usurp the power of such official bodies. If a motion was put to do so, the whole Social Democratic delegation would walk out. Brandler had got himself – and the German revolution – into an impossible position. He had expected the Left Social Democrats to agree to a project that they well knew meant civil war ... [22]

The decision was taken there and then by the KPD Zentrale to abandon the general strike – and with it the German revolution.

Emissaries were dispatched to the different parts of Germany with orders to call off the rising. By a tragic blunder the message did not reach Hamburg, and so there a few hundred Communists took up arms and fought desperately against police and troops for 48 hours. The Zeigner government abandoned office without raising a finger to defend itself. The German revolution ended in a debacle. Trotsky drew the lesson from the debacle of the German revolution in The New Course with these words:

If the Communist Party had abruptly changed the pace of its work and had profited by the five or six months that history accorded it for direct political, organisational, technical preparation for the seizure of power, the outcome of the events could have been quite different from the one we witnessed in November ... The proletariat should have seen a revolutionary party at work, marching to the conquest of power.

But the German party continued, at bottom, its propaganda policy of yesterday, even if on a larger scale. [23]

Trotsky developed the argument further in an essay written in September 1924, The Lessons of October. (See Chapter Four of the present volume).

Zinoviev looked for a scapegoat for the debacle, and found it in Brandler: he removed him from the leadership of the KPD. Trotsky, who had criticised Brandler’s conduct consistently, nevertheless objected in principle to Moscow instituting a guillotine for foreign Communist leaders. He wrote some time after the event:

In this case, as in others, I fought against the inadmissible system which only seeks to maintain the infallibility of the central leadership by periodic removals of national leaderships, subjecting the latter to savage persecutions and even expulsions from the party. [24]

If the excitement of the German revolution had gripped the mass of the workers of Russia, its defeat had a shattering impact. Quite rightly Trotsky could write a few years later:

The smashing of the German revolution was a most severe blow to our workers, weighed down upon them, put off their hopes for a change in their destinies until a more distant future. It intensified a narrow concern with local job issues, increased atomisation and passivity, and allowed a regurgitation of chauvinism, Black Hundredism, etc., to occur. And in response to this (although not only to this, to be sure) there came down from on high the theory of socialism in one country. [25]

Looking back, the failure of the German Revolution in 1923 can be seen to have been a turning point in world history. It was probably the best single opportunity to seize power presented to any working class and any Communist Party after October 1917. The loss of this opportunity brought to an end the European-wide revolutionary wave that followed the Russian revolution and the First World War. It thus simultaneously consigned Russia to a period of isolation, reinforced the tendency to bureaucratic degeneration, permitted international capitalism to restabilise itself and paved the way for the triumph of fascism ten years later.

Victory for the German working class would have been an enormous, perhaps decisive, step on the road to international socialism. Defeat signified, if not inevitably, then in all likelihood, the postponement of the world revolution for a whole historical period.


1*. This letter is not included in Stalin’s Works. The last sentence of the letter is a portent of the future Stalinist tactics regarding the Nazis on the eve of Hitler’s victory.

2*. General Müller was the newly appointed commander of the Reichwehr for Saxony.


1. R. Fischer, Stalin and German Communism, London 1948, p.312.

2. W.D. Angress, Stillborn Revolution: the Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-23, Princeton 1963, pp.396-7.

3. Ibid., pp.285, 350.

4. E. Anderson, Hammer or Anvil, London 1945, p.91.

5. P. Broué, Révolution en Allegmagne 1917-1923, Paris 1971, p.679.

6. Ibid., pp.698-700.

7. A. Rosenberg, A History of the German Republic, London 1936, p.194.

8. Fischer, pp.291-2.

9. Broué, p.710.

10. Anderson, pp.92-3.

11. Angress, p.302.

12. Broué, p.554.

13. Ibid., p.706.

14. Carr, The Interregnum, p.187.

15. Trotsky, Stalin, pp.368-9.

16. I. Deutscher, Record of a Discussion with Heinrich Brandler, New Left Review, September-October 1977, p.76.

17. Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, New York 1953, Vol.2, pp.347, 349-50.

18. Deutscher, Op. cit., pp.51-2, 76.

19. Trotsky, How the Revolution Armed, London 1981, Vol.5, pp.202-3.

20. Lenin, Works, Vol.25, pp.285-6.

21. Carr, The Interregnum, p.221.

22. C. Harman, The Lost Revolution, Germany 1918 to 1923, London 1982, p.289.

23. Trotsky, Challenge (1923-25), p.95.

24. Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin, New York 1936, p.95.

25. Trotsky, Challenge (1928-29), p.259.

Last updated on 5 August 2009