Duncan Hallas

The Comintern

4. 1923: The Crucial Year

‘Of course, the weaknesses of the communist parties and of their leadership did not fall from the sky, but are rather a product of the entire past of Europe. But the communist parties could develop at a swift pace in the present existing maturity of the objectively revolutionary contradictions provided, of course, there was a correct leadership on the part of the Comintern, speeding up this process of development instead of retarding it.’
Trotsky, Strategy and Tactics in the Imperialist Epoch.

IN 1923 the interlinked fates of the revolutionary regime in Russia and of the Communist International stood poised on a knife edge. In Russia (the USSR from the turn of the year) the increasingly bureaucratic regime drifted. It was, as the historian EH Carr noted, ‘a sort of intermediate period – a truce or interregnum in party and Soviet affairs – when controversial decisions were, so far as possible, avoided or held in suspense.’ [1]

The bureaucracy had not yet crystallised out into a self-conscious layer. No one yet ventured to speak of ‘socialism in one country’; but, as Lenin had said the previous year,

‘the state is in our hands; but has it operated the New Economic Policy in the way we wanted in this past year? No. But we refuse to admit that it did not operate in the way we wanted. How did it operate? The machine refused to obey the hand that guided it. It was like a car that was not going in the direction the driver desired, but in the direction someone else desired; as if it were being driven by some mysterious, lawless hand, God knows whose, perhaps of a profiteer, or of a private capitalist, or both. Be that as it may, the car is not going quite in the direction the man at the wheel imagines, and often it goes in an altogether different direction.’ [2]

The ‘mysterious, lawless hand’ was the product of the immensely powerful social forces generated in Russia by industrial decline, desperately low productivity of labour, cultural backwardness and general scarcity. Because these social forces – the forces of reaction, of the Russian ‘Thermidor’ – had not yet found an effective political expression, the outcome was far from decided in 1923. The rulers acted ‘consciously indeed, yet with a sort of false consciousness’, as Marx had once written of earlier historical actors. None of them fully understood what was happening.

The term ‘Thermidor’ was familiar to the majority of the Comintern leadership. They had, of course, studied the great French Revolution of 1789–94, the classic bourgeois revolution. On 27 July 1794, which was the 9th Thermidor according to the French revolutionary calendar, the Jacobin dictatorship was overthrown and replaced by a rightward-moving government which took the title of the Directory in the following year. This led eventually to a social reaction and to the dictatorship of Napoleon Buonaparte.

‘Thermidor’ was a much-used term in the controversies of the 1920s in Russia. Was this what was happening in Russia? If so, what was its class basis? These questions were still open in 1923. But the threat of a Thermidor was apparent and leftist trends in the Russian and German communist parties were already speculating about it. So what was happening in the leaderships of the Comintern and the Russian Communist Party?

Lenin was no longer ‘the man at the wheel’. His health had given way in December 1921 and recovery was never more than partial. In May 1922 he suffered a paralysing stroke that temporarily deprived him of speech. Two further strokes followed in December that year. A fourth, in March 1923, ended his political life, though he did not die physically until January 1924. Consequently he was entirely without influence on the direction of the Comintern in 1923, a fact of considerable importance, since no one else had his combination of immense authority and profound grasp of the dynamics of revolution.

The regeneration of the Russian revolution – after the destruction of Russia’s industrial base in the years of war, civil war, famine, and foreign intervention which had decimated the working class – was now desperately needed. This regeneration now depended more than ever on events outside Russia; above all on events in Germany. It depended therefore on the maturity and political ability of the leaderships of the European communist parties, especially of the KPD, and on the ability of the Comintern centre to aid and guide them.

At the Comintern’s Fourth World Congress the machinery of the centre was considerably elaborated. Provision was made for meetings once every four months of an ‘enlarged executive’ with representatives from all the communist parties, supplementing the 25 members of the Comintern executive committee. A Praesidium was set up on the pattern of the Russian Politburo, plus an organisation bureau, an agitprop department, a statistical department and others. None of this improved the political effectiveness of the Comintern executive.

The decisive role continued to be played by three Russian party members: Zinoviev, Bukharin and Radek. It was not a combination whose record should have inspired confidence: Zinoviev and Bukharin had countenanced the lunacy of the March Action in Germany, while Zinoviev had also opposed the October insurrection in Russia in 1917. Radek was clever but, as Lenin said, ‘boneless’.

True, this combination had been in office in the Comintern since 1919 – but with a difference. ‘Under Lenin,’ Trotsky wrote some years later, ‘the immediate leadership of the affairs of the International was entrusted to Zinoviev, Radek and Bukharin. In the solution of all questions of any great substance Lenin and the author of these lines took part. Needless to say, in all fundamental questions of the International, the key was in the hands of Lenin.’ [3] Now Lenin was wholly incapacitated and Trotsky, as events were to show, was unable to exert the same influence that he had had previously, with Lenin’s support.

Nevertheless, the outcome of the events of 1923 cannot simply be attributed to the actions of the Comintern centre. This was far from all-powerful. The political weaknesses of the leaderships of the Bulgarian and German communist parties were still more important. It was the combination of weakness in the field and at the headquarters which proved fatal.

The lack of a politically trained cadre, schooled by experience, in the non-Russian parties, was the decisive weakness. It could not be rectified in short order then. Today we can, with the wisdom of hindsight, develop such a cadre – if we can learn the lessons.

Defeat in Bulgaria

‘The armed struggle between the followers of the fallen government and those of the new government is not yet at an end. The Communist Party, and the hundreds of thousands of workers and peasants united beneath its flag, are not taking part in this struggle ... It is a struggle for power between the bourgeoisies of the city and of the village, that is, between two wings of the capitalist class.’
Statement of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party, 11 June 1923. (emphasis added)

ON 9 JUNE 1923 the Bulgarian army and police, encouraged by the leaders of right-wing political parties and supported by the armed units of the Macedonian nationalist organisation, the IMRO, launched a coup d’état against the Peasant Union Party government of Alexander Stambulisky. In the fighting that followed the Bulgarian Communist Party not only proclaimed its neutrality in what it called ‘a struggle between two wings of the capitalist class’, but repudiated and disciplined the communists of Plevna district who had spontaneously joined the resistance to the coup.

It was a repetition, but worse, of the initial reaction of the leaders of the KPD to the Kapp Putsch in Germany. Worse because it was not reversed under pressure from the ranks; worse because the Bulgarian party, unlike the KPD, was not an infant but had existed since 1903.

Tsankov, the leader of the coup, helped by this passivity, succeeded in crushing the resistance of Stambulisky’s Peasant Union. He established a military regime, decorated with representatives of the bourgeois parties and, it should be noted, the Bulgarian social-democrats.

The leaders of the Bulgarian Communist Party were not opportunists and they were not cowards. They had resolutely opposed the imperialist world war, withstanding persecution and imprisonment. Nor were they, in the everyday sense, incompetents. They had built a mass movement and marginalised the social-democrats.

Some idea of the balance of forces is given by the results of the local elections of January 1923, which were, by Balkan standards, free elections. ‘The Peasant Union secured 437,000 votes or rather less than half the total poll; next came the Bulgarian Communist Party with 230,000; the bourgeois parties taken together could muster only 220,000, and the ‘broad’ (or right-wing) socialists no more than 40,000.’ [4] In the general election which followed in April, and which the opposition parties denounced as marked by intimidation and manipulation, the communist party was still credited with 210,000 votes to the Peasant Union’s 500,000. The communist party had 39,000 members, a sizeable number in a country of fewer than five million people, and controlled most of the admittedly weak trade unions.

Why then did the communist party fail to act in the crisis of June 1923? In January the party had endorsed the call for a workers’ and peasants’ government – about four-fifths of the population were peasants – but had declared:

‘The workers’ and peasants’ government cannot today in Bulgaria be realised through a coalition of the Communist Party with the Peasant Union or through a peasant government resulting from such a coalition.’ [5]

This was certainly correct. Insofar as the elastic slogan calling for a workers’ and peasants’ government could be given a revolutionary content, this could only be through the splitting of a peasant party in the course of a revolution – as had happened in Russia at the end of 1917, when the Bolsheviks had formed a coalition soviet government with the left wing of the peasant Socialist Revolutionary Party.

The leader of the Bulgarian Communist Party, Kabakchiev, was entirely correct in describing the Peasant Union as dominated by rich peasants (kulaks) and the rural bourgeoisie. He had rightly declared: ‘The workers’ and peasants’ government can be created only through the revolutionary struggle of the masses, that is, through the independent struggle of the urban proletariat and of the small and landless peasants.’ [6] But this impeccably orthodox analysis had no relevance at all to the question of the Tsankov coup.

In August 1917 the Bolsheviks in Russia had thrown all their forces into the fight against General Kornilov when he attempted a coup against the Kerensky government. At the time, that same government was persecuting the Bolsheviks, had driven Lenin into exile and thrown Trotsky into prison. It was itself half in league with Kornilov. But all this had not prevented the Bolsheviks from grasping the main fact: that a victory for Kornilov would be a massive defeat for the working class and for the prospects of revolution.

The Bolsheviks, however, did not give political support to Kerensky. As Lenin put it:

‘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 ... At the moment we must campaign not so much directly against Kerensky, as indirectly against him, namely, by demanding a more and more active, truly revolutionary, war against Kornilov. The development of this war alone can lead us to power ...’ [7]

This did indeed happen in Russia. Whether the same result could have been obtained in Bulgaria remained untested. The Bulgarian Communist Party abstained in the struggle, a policy guaranteed to lead to disaster. Its leaders had failed to learn from the experience of the Bolsheviks against Kornilov, or from the Kapp Putsch in Germany. They were so concerned to maintain their political independence from Stambulisky that they fell into passivity and ignored the main danger – Tsankov. Not for nothing had Trotsky called Kabakchiev a ‘lifeless doctrinaire’. Failure to evaluate the realities of a new situation was at the root of the Bulgarian disaster.

The Comintern executive, meeting from 12 June onwards, took a correct position.The Bulgarian party, said Zinoviev, ‘must ally themselves with the peasantry and even with the hated Stambulisky in order to organise a common struggle against the Whites.’ [8] Yet even at this thirteenth hour the Bulgarian communists stuck to their line with a tenacity that would have been admirable in a better cause.

The Bulgarian Communist Party Council issued this statement early in July:

‘The council of the party completely approves of the attitude adopted by the party central committee to the events of 9 June ... which ... was the only possible one under the circumstances. The party council is of the opinion that the differences of opinion with respect to the tactics of the party on the occasion of the coup d’état between the Comintern executive ... and the Communist Party of Bulgaria are to be attributed to the inadequate information of the Comintern executive on the events of 9 June ... With respect to the appeal made by the Comintern executive to the working masses, in which these are summoned to join forces with the leaders of the Peasant Union, the party council is of the opinion that ... it would be an error for the Communist Party to restore to the agrarian leaders, who have betrayed the interests of the rural working people, their lost influence.’ [9]

Of course, life itself, not to mention the pressure of the Comintern, soon made this position untenable. The Tsankov government, once having disposed of Peasant Union resistance, turned the full weight of repression against the Communist Party.

After sharp internal conflict the party leadership shifted towards a united front approach in August 1923, correctly but far too late. Unfortunately, it did not stop at that. Having missed the tide in June, it now, with the workers and peasants disorganised and in retreat, prepared its own March Action. It planned an armed rising, originally for October, then for 22 September.

It was a disaster. Tsankov, getting wind of the plan, struck first with mass arrests. Scattered risings broke out between the 19th and the 28th but they were smashed within days. There had been no serious political preparations and the situation was highly unfavourable. The rising was pure adventurism. It was followed by a White terror vastly worse than anything that had gone before.

The September disaster in Bulgaria, unlike that in June, was not home grown. The Zinoviev-Bukharin leadership of the Comintern Praesidium had urged it. Although the Comintern’s public manifesto in June had spoken only in general terms – ‘The Putschists are now the enemy, and must be defeated. Unite for the fight against the White revolt’ – Zinoviev’s envoy Kolarov had brought much more specific directives in August which led to the attempted rising.

And after the event, the critics of the attempted rising were removed from the Bulgarian leadership – and later mostly expelled – whereas Kolarov and Dimitrov, the advocates of unquestioning obedience, were installed as the Moscow-approved leadership in exile.

The German October

‘In the latter part of the last year, we witnessed in Germany a classic demonstration of how it is possible to miss a perfectly exceptional revolutionary situation of world-historic importance.’
Trotsky, Lessons of October, 1924.

AT ITS JENA Congress in August 1921 the KPD had endorsed the tactic of the united front, against the opposition of

its left wing, and had adopted a programme of partial demands. Quick results could hardly be expected in this immediate aftermath of the March Action, but in the following summer a considerable success was scored.

In June 1922 Rathenau, the Foreign Minister in the Wirth coalition government, in which the Social Democrats were a major partner, was murdered by a nationalist gunman. It was the climax in a series of murders by right-wing gangs loosely connected with the army and the police. There had been at least 354 such murders since January 1919, followed by only 24 convictions, and these received derisory sentences – the average was four months imprisonment. [10]

After the murder of Rathenau, the KPD was able to force the ADGB union federation (the equivalent of the British TUC), the SPD and the rump of the USPD (which did not fuse with the SPD until September) to join mass demonstrations for a purge of right-wingers from the army, the civil service and the courts, for a general amnesty for political prisoners – there were several thousand, overwhelmingly left-wingers – and for suppression of the nationalist gangs. The movement was on such a scale that the Wirth government felt it necessary to introduce legislation conceding these demands, in principle.

The left of the KPD, however, now led by Arkady Maslow and Ruth Fischer, was violently critical of the conduct of the operation by the majority of the party leadership headed by Meyer and Brandler. Most of the left’s arguments were worthless – in effect they were variants of the ‘theory of the offensive’ – but one merits discussion. For the left argued that to make demands on the government, or on the SPD leaders without whom the government could not survive, was to reinforce illusions in bourgeois democracy and in the possibility that the SPD and ADGB bureaucrats could really fight the reactionaries.

This argument was wrong on three counts. First, the overwhelming need in the period after the March madness was to force the KPD membership to accept the united front tactic in practice, and the Rathenau affair was a tailor-made opportunity to do this. The main danger at that time was ultra-leftism, not opportunism.

Second, although the tactic of placing demands on reformist leaders has been frequently misused, indeed at times has become a fetish, it is a necessary aspect of mass agitation by a minority workers’ party whose aim is to involve large numbers of workers in action. This was possible at the time of the Rathenau affair, and was indeed achieved on some scale. To call for mass action to compel a government to take certain measures is not at all the same thing as relying on a government to take measures as a result of resolutions or persuasion, which is the reformist approach. As to raising illusions in bourgeois democracy, any gains made through mass working class action will raise class consciousness and confidence rather than strengthen parliamentarianism.

Thirdly, although there is very real danger in calling for state action against the right – in this case the nationalist gangs, the overall package, which was necessarily a compromise with the reformists and centrists, was justified in the given circumstances.

The short-term results of this and other united front operations, especially in the unions, were favourable to the KPD. Party membership recovered from the low-point of mid-1921, reaching 218,000–plus by late 1922. The growth in party influence was claimed to be proportionately greater than the gain in membership. In the same period the SPD lost 47,000 members.

Unfortunately, the experience had negative consequences too. The predominantly right-wing leadership of the KPD became convinced that the party could go on gaining indefinitely, and more or less peacefully, by persistent wooing of the SPD, especially of its left wing. The fact that both Meyer and Brandler had supported the March Action, then recoiled violently against adventurism, now led them to give the united front approach a distinctly rightist slant.

Thus at the next party congress, at Leipzig in January 1923, the ‘workers’ government’ resolution of the right declared:

‘The workers’ government is neither the same thing as the proletarian dictatorship, nor is it an attempt to bring this dictatorship about by peaceful parliamentary means; it is an attempt of the working classes to carry out a working class policy within the framework and, for the time being, with the means of bourgeois democracy, backed by proletarian institutions and mass movements.’ [11]

This proposition, carried by 122 votes to 81, clearly veered dangerously and impermissibly towards the old social-democratic divorce between immediate struggles and the objective of workers’ power. By the time it was adopted, the precarious stability of the Weimar republic was giving way to a new and deeper crisis. The great inflation was well under way and on 11 January 1923 the French army marched into the Ruhr, then the industrial heartland of Germany.

The great inflation began in earnest in June 1922. It took 300 German marks to buy one US dollar in June. Six months later it took 8,000. The international value of the mark was halved roughly every six weeks. Prices inside Germany did not rise as fast – but they still rose as never before. The effect on wages was catastrophic. In 1920 German miners, for example, had seen their real wages rise from 60 per cent of the 1914 figure to 90 per cent. During 1922 they slumped to less than half the 1914 figure. [12]

This was nothing to what was to come. By late summer of 1923 the German currency was effectively worthless. When it was eventually restabilised, on the basis of a new Reichsmark, the value of this was fixed at one to 10,000 billion marks!

The galloping inflation of 1922 was largely the product of an attempt by big business to cut back heavily on wages. The hyper-inflation that followed, in 1923, was also a weapon of German big business and the new right-wing government under Cuno, a weapon against the Western powers and especially France. Finally the inflation became a self-sustaining monster, uncontrollable without a decisive shift in both the internal balance of class forces in Germany (either way) and in the relationship between Germany and the Western powers.

The Cuno government, which had replaced the Wirth coalition in November 1922, was the most right-wing since 1918. Its intentions were to govern without – indeed against – the Social Democrats and the unions, to scrap the remaining social gains of 1918, especially the eight-hour day, to cut real wages further, and to force the French government and its allies to accept a drastic reduction of reparations payments.

By the Treaty of Versailles the German state was obliged to pay, in annual instalments, ‘reparations’ for war damage, mainly to France and Belgium. The total to be paid, 132 billion gold marks – in other words, marks at their 1914 value, vastly higher than the already heavily depreciated currency of 1919 – indicates less the massive size of this burden than does the fact that the ‘reparations’ included the handing over of one quarter of Germany’s total coal output.

It was on the coal deliveries that Cuno defaulted, hoping to force a negotiated reduction. The equally right-wing French government, headed by Poincare, retaliated by sending its army into the Ruhr in January 1923, supported by Belgian forces, to take the coal themselves. Two days later the German government called for ‘passive resistance and non-cooperation’ with the occupying forces. It hoped not only to embarrass the French but also to whip up nationalist hysteria and thus weaken the German workers’ resistance to the right. At first it had some success in this.

The KPD responded well. When Cuno demanded a vote of confidence in the Reichstag for his policy and for ‘national unity’, the handful of KPD deputies voted alone against it. The party line was summed up in the slogan ‘Hit Poincaré on the Ruhr and Cuno on the Spree’, meaning in Berlin.

The Comintern organised a campaign of international solidarity. The French Communist Party (PCF), from which Frossard and his friends had just split, organised a vigorous campaign.

‘On January 18, 19 and 20, thirty meetings were organised in different quarters of Paris protesting [against] the occupation of the Ruhr. L’Humanité published an appeal, from the Comintern and the Profintern to French workers (January 19) declaring that “Your enemy is at home” ... If the government repression is any gauge ... the French did their duty. By the end of April the Sante [prison] was bursting with Communists ... syndicalists ... and Communist Youth ... charged with an impressive array of offences running from “provocation to crimes against the external and internal security of the state” to “provocation of soldiers with the intention of diverting them from their duties”.’ [13]

This international agitation was a factor weakening the appeal to German workers for ‘national unity’, which had at first been strong. Another factor was the evident collaboration of the industrialists of the Ruhr with the French, whenever it was profitable for them. A third factor, the most important of all, was the onset of hyper-inflation in April. Prices began to double weekly, then daily. A massive wave of unofficial strikes, economic strikes as wages became valueless, began in the Ruhr and swept most of Germany in May, June and early July.

The union leaderships lost control. Factory councils became the effective leading bodies. Already, late in 1922, a KPD-influenced meeting of Berlin factory councils had called on the ADGB leadership to summon a national meeting of councils. When this was refused, predictably, the meeting was called independently by the Berlin councils. The nucleus of a national organisation, predominantly influenced by the KPD, was set up.

In the upsurge of spring 1923, this gained much wider influence. Two initiatives were especially important. First the call to set up ‘proletarian hundreds’, effectively a workers’ militia based on the workplaces, to resist the right; and secondly the call for ‘control committees’ of the councils plus working class housewives to take direct action against price rises. By the autumn there were some 800 proletarian hundreds, totalling about 60,000 workers according to KPD figures. Trotsky later argued that the factory councils could have effectively substituted for Soviets; indeed they approximated to the soviet form of organisation.

The KPD was rapidly growing in influence and numbers, gaining 70,000 members before June; forms of working class organisation outside the control of the reformist bureaucracies were being created; and there was mass radicalisation, a general mood that ‘things can’t go on like this’.

In short there was a revolutionary situation.

But its outcome depended, as always, on leadership. The movement needed a focus, specific objectives which, once won, would carry it forward to struggle for power; and the actual seizure of power had to be organised, the bourgeois state, recreated by the Social Democrats in 1919, had to be destroyed again. All this required from the KPD both firmness and flexibility; ‘political flair’ as Lenin had called it. Clear objectives, but also rapid responses to an ever-shifting situation.

Until the summer the KPD had not done badly at all, apart from a temporary wobble towards nationalism. [14] True, the party was taken by surprise by the strike wave in May. Nevertheless the solid united front work that it had done around the factory councils enabled it to catch up, and the orientation it gave to the councils was unquestionably correct. But alone this was insufficient.

The KPD needed not only general political slogans – ‘Down with Cuno’, ‘For a workers’ government’ were its main themes – but also specific objectives, specific calls for mass action which would test its influence and the temperature of the movement, and which would sharpen the polarisation of workers against the Social Democratic right.

It appeared to have found one such objective in the Anti-Fascist Day. The far right too was growing, although in most of Germany its weight was still much less than that of the left. But in Bavaria a right-wing provincial government harassed even the SPD, and the Nazi Party was a growing force, with a good deal of support from sections of the army. In early July Brandler called for preparation for armed struggle against the fascists and for a national Anti-Fascist Day of aggressive demonstrations on 29 July.

Now this was still a united front operation. All workers’ organisations were urged to take part, and rightly so. Yet at the same time it made way for a shift from the defensive (for which the united front was conceived) towards the offensive. For the demonstrations were, in the circumstances, certain to be violent, and the right-wing Social Democrats were certain to oppose them. Thus the degree of differentiation between left and right in the Social Democratic ranks could be tested in practice, and so could the willingness of non-party workers to rally to a call for action.

The call for the Anti-Fascist Day was not adventurism. The experience of the Kapp Putsch was fresh in the minds of millions of workers. The Cuno government was visibly failing. A fresh attempt to overthrow the republic from the right appeared a real possibility. ‘The Cuno government is bankrupt. The internal and external crises have brought it to the verge of catastrophe,’ wrote Brandler. ‘We are on the verge of bitter struggles. We must be entirely ready to act.’ [15]

So far, so good. But the KPD leadership soon began to lose its nerve. The SPD-controiled government of Prussia, Germany’s largest province, banned the proposed demonstration. Other provincial governments followed, though not those of Saxony and Thuringia, which were controlled by left Social Democrats. Brandler found himself opposed in the KPD’s leading committee, not only from the right but also from the left – which seems to have opposed all his proposals, good and bad alike, in the spirit of institutionalised factionalism. He consulted the Comintern executive by telegram. The reply, signed by Radek, read: ‘The Praesidium of the International advises abandoning the demonstrations on 29 July ... We fear a trap.’ [16] The KPD complied.

It was a serious mistake. It had been an excellent opportunity for a practical test of the balance of forces, with minimal risk anda chance of moving towards a more serious offensive in the event of success. It had been missed. It was not, in itself, a disastrous error – as events were to show – but it was an ominous sign of the divisions, weaknesses, and lack of self-confidence in the KPD leadership; and in the Comintern centre.

In the event, this retreat was scarcely noticed at the time. It was masked by mass meetings held in place of demonstrations, and an audience of 200,000 was claimed in Berlin. In early August, with hyper-inflation reaching its peak, a fresh and even more massive strike wave erupted. This transformed the situation. The delegates of the Berlin factory councils called for an immediate general strike on 11 August to bring down Cuno and establish a workers’ government. It paralysed the capital. Elsewhere the situation was fluid, but the scale of strikes proved sufficient.

Cuno threw in his hand. A new government was formed. Not a workers’ government. A ‘grand coalition’ of the SPD with all the ‘respectable’ bourgeois parties. Only the KPD and the Nazis were excluded. Stresemann, the new Chancellor, was a member of the same right-wing party as Cuno but he saw that Cuno’s plan was not feasible. He sought to use the SPD to control the German workers – with four SPD ministers to give his government a ‘left face’ – and he sought to come to terms with the French government with the aid of the British and American ruling classes.

The role of the SPD in this was central and indispensable. Even then, the prospect for the German bourgeoisie looked extremely poor. The historian EH Carr, who was exceptionally well-informed about German and European politics of this period, wrote:

‘Few people, inside Germany or outside ... had any confidence in the ability of the Stresemann government to weather the storm.’ [17]

The SPD was deeply split. Although the party had ‘tolerated’ Cuno until the eleventh hour, voting for his measures in the Reichstag or abstaining, its right-wing leadership had increasing difficulty in controlling even its parliamentary fraction. In the vote of confidence for Stresemann’s government 53 of the 171 SPD deputies broke discipline and abstained. The KPD’s united front tactic had brought real results.

In Saxony and Thuringia the left SPD governments ruled with KPD support, despite hostility from the SPD centre. These facts are important. They are part of the evidence, of which the mass strikes involving hundreds of thousands of SPD supporters was the most important fact, that by August 1923 the KPD’s political line, as distinct from the KPD itself, had the support of the great majority of German workers.

Problem. The ‘workers’ government’ could not be realised in parliamentary terms. The workers’ parties did not have a Reichstag majority. In a number of provinces they did. The SPD and KPD had, together, a voting majority in these provinces. Nevertheless the Berlin centre was decisive for the time being. The SPD was able to carry its coalition with the boss class on the basis of ‘practicability’ and that it was the ‘lesser evil’. To the majority of workers who supported the SPD, or supported no party, the factory councils did not seem to offer a government alternative. There was therefore a lull in struggle. The KPD needed a new orientation.

There is no doubt that this was a revolutionary situation, probably more so than in the spring. Numerous observers, from all points of the political compass, testify to this. One will suffice to give the flavour:

‘In September and October and November Germany lived through a profound revolutionary experience ... A million revolutionaries, ready, awaiting the signal to attack; behind them the millions of unemployed, the hungry, the desperate, a people in pain murmuring “Us as well, us as well”. The muscles of the crowd were ready, the fists already clasping the Mausers [rifles] that they were going to oppose to the armoured cars of the Reichswehr.’ [18]

What political call was needed? What slogans should the KPD advance?

The KPD continued to call for a workers’ government, to call for the SPD to break from the bourgeois parties. Undoubtedly this was correct, so far as it went, but essentially a propaganda slogan. Right and necessary, but quite inadequate in a revolutionary situation. What else? They called for the defence of the state governments controlled by the left SPD and supported by the KPD. This was right enough, in the circumstances, a way to win the majority of workers to action. And this defensive action could then go on to the offensive – though only on the basis that it was generalised throughout Germany, spread to the Ruhr and to Prussia.

Now let us look back to the Comintern centre. When Brandler’s telegram asking for advice about the Anti-Fascist Day reached Moscow, all the influential Russian leaders apart from Lenin, who was incapacitated, were on holiday. Radek was obliged to telegraph them. The answers – Zinoviev and Bukharin said the Anti-Fascist Day should go ahead; Stalin said back down, Trotsky ‘don’t know’ – were much less significant than the fact that all of them, Trotsky included, were so preoccupied with Russian matters that they had failed to take seriously the developing revolutionary situation in Germany.

The fall of Cuno woke them up. For a brief period the Russian leadership, for the last time, was united in favour of an attempt by a major Communist Party to seize power. Even Stalin was temporarily moved. ‘The revolution in Germany is the most important event of our time,’ he wrote. ‘The victory of the German revolution will be still more important for the proletariat of Europe and America than was the Russian revolution of six years ago. The victory of the German revolution will transfer the centre of world revolution from Moscow to Berlin.’ [19]

But the trumpet sounded an uncertain note. The leaders of the German KPD, although prodded from Moscow, had no real faith in their ability to conduct a successful defence of Saxony and Thuringia and then go over to the offensive. All their mistakes of the past five years: the Spartakus rising, the abstentionism in the first days of the Kapp Putsch, the March Action, had been ‘leftist’ errors. Now they had learned the lesson well, too well. Faced with a real revolutionary situation, they shrank back.

True enough, they committed themselves to an insurrection, but in fear and trembling rather than boldness and resolution. They undertook technical preparations. Indeed they so overestimated the need for practical and military preparations that they underplayed the political preparations, the need for mass agitation, for continuing contact with the mass of the working class.

The plan, a botch-up compromise between the German, Russian and Comintern leaderships, was for the KPD to enter the Saxon and Thuringian governments (the left SPD leaders were eager to have them in as ‘left cover’), then arm the workers from the provincial arsenals. When, inevitably, the central government sent in the Reichswehr, they would resist and launch an all-German insurrection through the proletarian hundreds.

But there were key weaknesses in this. First, those on the left of the SPD were not ready for civil war. They dragged their feet and dragged the KPD behind them. Secondly, the technical and political manoeuvres so preoccupied the KPD that the political needs of the situation: mass agitation, support and leadership of partial struggles, a raising of the temperature back to August levels, were relatively neglected.

On 20 October the Reichswehr marched into Saxony. The SPD majority in the Saxon government refused to back armed resistance or the call for a national general strike. The KPD leadership buckled. The national insurrection, planned for 22 October, was called off by the party. This message did not reach Hamburg, however, where an isolated rising took place and, being isolated, was inevitably crushed.

Thus the German October ended in a victory for Stresemann and the bourgeoisie. And this proved decisive for the fate of the Comintern.

It was not the decisive defeat in Germany itself, although it was the most serious setback since 1918. The ‘grand coalition’ still rested on the SPD, in other words on the labour bureaucracies. The German workers’ movement was weakened but intact. The KPD, although outlawed for a time, was not crushed. Indeed, in 1924, it appeared to have strengthened its position with respect to the SPD. In the general election of May 1924, the first since 1920, the KPD polled 3,693,300 votes to the SPD’s 6,008,900, winning 62 deputies to the SPD’s 99. In purely electoral terms this was an advance, and was claimed as such by the ‘left’ KPD leaders who had ousted Brandler. Before the election the KPD had had only 14 deputies.

(The Nazis received 1,918,300 votes, half as many as the KPD, which proves that the Nazi threat grew after the failure of 1923 and, in part, as a result of it – and not at all when the revolutionary tide was running.)

But for the KPD this was in fact not an advance at all, but a decline. As Trotsky argued in June 1924:

‘In the last parliamentary election the Communist Party polled 3,700,000 votes. That, of course, is a very fine nucleus of the proletariat. But the figure has to be evaluated dynamically. There can be no doubt that in August–October of last year the Communist Party could have polled an incomparably greater number of votes. On the other hand, there is much to suggest that had the elections taken place two or three months later, the Communist Party’s vote would have been smaller. This means, in other words, that the party’s influence is now on the decline. It would be absurd to shut one’s eyes to this: revolutionary politics are not the politics of the ostrich ...

‘After the defeat of 1905 [in Russia] we needed seven years before the movement, stimulated by the Lena events, began once again to turn upwards ... The German proletariat suffered last year a very big defeat. It will need a definite and considerable interval of time in order to digest this defeat, master its lessons, and recover from it, gathering strength once more; and the Communist Party will be able to ensure the victory of the proletariat only if it, too, fully and completely masters the lessons of last year’s experience.

‘How much time will be needed for these processes? Five years? Twelve years? No precise answer can be given ... But at the present moment what we observe are phenomena of ebbtide and not of floodtide, and our tactics should, of course, conform to this situation.’ [21]

The actual outcome for the KPD was a wholly inappropriate shift to the left, in part to ultra-left stupidities. This was followed, in 1925, by an over-correction rightwards. The party remained a force in the working class, although a minority compared to the SPD. It was to have one more big chance, and only one, in 1930–32. But by that time it had become a tool of the Comintern, which had itself become purely a tool of Russian foreign policy.

The reaction in Russia

‘If we do not close our eyes to reality we must admit that, at the present time, the proletarian policy of the party is not determined by the character of its membership, but by the enormous undivided prestige enjoyed by the small group which might be called the Old Guard of the party. A slight conflict within this group will be enough, if not to destroy this prestige, to weaken the group to such a degree as to rob it of its power to determine policy.’
Lenin, Letter to the Central Committee, March 1922.

IT WAS in Russia that October 1923 was decisive. The sick, bureaucratised workers’ state was shifted sharply rightwards. The bureaucracy began to acquire its own collective consciousness, defined, as always, against that of other groups. In October 1923 even Stalin, already emerging as the leader of the bureaucracy, had been moved to write: ‘The revolution approaching in Germany is the most important international event of our time.’

In bureaucratic circles this mood rapidly evaporated with the defeat. We need to look at these circles more closely. At the Eleventh Congress of the Russian Communist Party in March–April 1922, the last at which Lenin was able to participate, he said in his opening speech:

‘If we take Moscow with its 4,700 Communists in responsible positions, and if we take that huge bureaucratic machine, that gigantic heap, we must ask: who is directing whom? I very much doubt whether it can truthfully be said that the Communists are directing that heap. To tell the truth, they are not directing, they are being directed... Will the responsible Communists of the RSFSR and of the Russian Communist Party realise that they cannot administer; that they only imagine that they are directing, but are, actually, being directed?’ [21]

The vast majority of these bureaucrats were political ‘radishes’: they had a thin red skin, all white inside. They were of the Russian middle classes, reincarnated as Soviet officials. How did this come about? Lenin’s answer is revealing:

‘Their culture is miserable, insignificant, but it is still at a higher level than ours. Miserable and low as it is, it is higher than that of our responsible Communist administrators, for the latter lack administrative ability.’ [22]

This is revealing because it took for granted that the Commune state, the ‘not quite a state’ of Lenin’s State and Revolution, the state of ‘every cook can govern’, no longer existed. Control of the state was no longer a question of workers’ power but of the cultural level of the Communists with respect to that of the ‘radishes’!

But this is substitutionism to the furthest degree: party control of the state substituting for the workers. And Lenin knew it. Far too profound a Marxist to fail to face the reality, he sought for palliatives to minimise the evil until help could come from outside, from the working classes of the fully industrialised countries, from workers capable of full self-emancipation and self-rule. The last months of Lenin’s conscious life, half-paralysed as he was, were devoted to an increasingly desperate struggle against the bureaucracy in the state and in the party. Hence his proposal that Stalin be removed from the post of party general secretary. But it was a struggle from the top, inevitably so in the circumstances, and ‘the enormous undivided prestige’ of the old guard could not for long continue to preserve a ‘proletarian policy’ without a real shift in the international balance of class forces.

The German October was such a shift – but in the wrong direction. It was followed, after Lenin’s death, by the campaigns against Trotsky. It was followed by the ‘Lenin levy’ – the mass recruitment into the party of people who had not joined in the years of revolution and civil war, who had not joined through class struggle, and who could, joining now, for the most part be counted upon to support those who controlled patronage, promotion and, increasingly, privilege. It was followed finally by the bureaucracy’s ‘declaration of independence’, the new ideology of ‘socialism in one country’.

As late as May 1924, Stalin himself had repeated the orthodox Marxist position:

‘The principal task of socialism – the organisation of socialist production – has still to be fulfilled. Can this task be fulfilled, can the final victory of socialism be achieved, in one country, without the joint efforts of the proletarians in several advanced countries? No it cannot ... for the organisation of socialist production, the efforts of one country, particularly of a peasant country like Russia, are insufficient; for that the efforts of the proletarians of several advanced countries are required.’ [23]

But with the defeat in Germany in October 1923, continued adherence to the goal of international socialist revolution had few attractions. For the consolidating and increasingly privileged bureaucracy, the main consideration was peace at any price short of their own displacement by internal or external reaction. Continued internationalist ‘adventures’ might lead to revolutionary crises and perhaps renewed imperialist interventions against the USSR.

This is the basic truth, but it must not be viewed in too simplistic a way. ‘Privilege’ was highly relative – nothing like the enormous differences in living standards which exist between ordinary workers and the top bureaucrats in the USSR today. But about 20 per cent of the urban working class was unemployed. A secure office job was ‘privilege’. The prospect of such a position through loyal service to ‘the Party’, meaning the party machine, was a powerful incentive to conformity. And this conservative trend in the working class was reinforced by the emergence, out of the ranks of the peasant majority, of a layer of relatively better-off farmers. These were the social forces on which Stalin’s party machine was to be built.

‘Socialism in one country’ fitted well with the needs and aspirations of the newly-emerging bureaucracy. It meant focussing on a national arena which they could aspire to control, rather than on an international class struggle which they could not. At the same time it was a banner around which they could group. As Trotsky put it, socialism in one country ‘expressed unmistakably the mood of the bureaucracy. When speaking of the victory of socialism, they meant their own victory.’ [24]

But this was as yet only the start of the battle. In 1923–4 the Russian bureaucracy was feeling only the first stirrings of political consciousness as an independent social force. Many bitter political and economic struggles had yet to be fought before it could rule both party and state, politically and economically, with national development as its central and controlling aim.

At the end of 1923 Stalin’s party machine was still far from being able to dictate to the major communist parties. It still had to deal circumspectly with revolutionary tendencies at home and abroad. It needed allies with better revolutionary credentials than its own, and it needed time to subvert the still powerful traditions of the first four congresses of the Comintern. Therefore, in the immediate aftermath of the German October, it put its weight behind Zinoviev’s ‘leftism’ so as better to eliminate the genuine article, the revolutionary internationalism represented by Trotsky.

By December 1924, the profession of belief in ‘socialism in one country’, in other words in Russia, had become the test of party loyalty and reliability. Those so rash as to adhere to the position which even Stalin had upheld a few short months earlier were beyond the pale.

The impact of this on the Comintern was profound. The Comintern was still needed. Russia was still economically and militarily weak. Its rulers needed all the support from abroad that they could get. But, inevitably now, the Comintern became more and more dominated by considerations, not of international socialist revolution, but of Russian foreign policy. And that required its transformation into an obedient instrument of Moscow and, ultimately, a conservative force. The process took a long time to complete. But 1923 marked the turning point.




1. Carr, The Interregnum 1923–4 (London 1969), p. 5.

2. Lenin, vol.  33, p. 279.

3. Trotsky, writing in The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1928–29) (New York 1981), pp. 202–3. [Who Is Leading the Comintern Today?]

4. Carr, Interregnum, p. 198.

5. Carr, Interregnum, p. 198.

6. Carr, Interregnum, p. 199.

7. Lenin, vol.  25, pp. 286–9 (emphasis in the original).

8. Carr, Interregnum, p. 200.

9. Gruber, International Communism in the Era of Lenin, pp. 169–60.

10. Anderson, Hammer or Anvil? (London 1945), p. 87.

11. Borkenau, p. 236.

12. Harman, The Lost Revolution, p. 223. Chapters 11, 12 and 13 of this book are essential reading on the German October.

13. Wohl, French Communism in the Making (Stanford 1966), pp. 319–20.

14. This was the so-called ‘Schlageter agitation’. See Harman, pp. 252–4.

15. Harman, p. 260.

16. Carr, Interregnum, p. 195.

17. Carr, Interregnum, p. 209.

18. The French communist Albert, quoted in Harman, p. 292.

19. Letter to Thalheimer, quoted in Harman, p. 284.

20. Trotsky, Through what stage are we passing? in Challenge of the Left Opposition (1923–25) (New York 1975).

21. Lenin, vol.  33, pp. 288–9.

22. Lenin, vol.  33, p. 288.

23. Carr, Interregnum, p. 365.

24. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed (London 1967), p. 212.

Last updated on 26 July 2018