Chris Harman


Inside German Communism/
Hamburg at the Barricades

(May 1977)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.98, May 1977.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Inside German Communism
Rosa Levine-Meyer
Pluto £4.80

Hamburg at the Barricades and Other Writings on Weimar Germany
Larissa Reissner
translated from Russian by Richard Chapell
Pluto £4.80

The lessons learnt by revolutionaries in Germany in the years after the First World War are increasingly relevant to us today. We are once more in a period of prolonged crisis, of unemployment and inflation, of sharp ups and downs in the class struggle, of general insecurity which can shake even the most conservative and most timid workers into bitter rage. We have to learn from 1918-33 to make sure the end result of this time round is not a Fourth Reich.

But there is a problem when it comes to easy digestion of the German experience. There is no single book that provides an accurate account of what happened from the beginning to the end of the Weimar republic and where the revolutionaries went wrong. Paul Frölich’s magnificent Rosa Luxemburg ends with the death of its heroine in January 1919. Richard M. Watts’ The Kings Depart, Sebastian Haffner’s and Phillips Price’s Germany in Transition provide useful, if limited accounts of 1918-20, but don’t go any further – and the first two are much better at detailing the betrayals of social democracy than at discussing the strategy and tactics of revolutionaries. The same goes for one of the few books to cover the whole period – the recently reissued Hammer or Anvil by Evelyn Anderson. Ruth Fischer’s Stalin and German Communism is notoriously dishonest and unreliable.

And Pierre Broué’s comprehensive history of the left from 1914 to 1923, Revolution en Allemagne has yet to be translated into English (as has the magnificent illustrated history of 1918-20 written by Paul Froelich and other German Communists in the mid-1920s).

Most of us are forced back upon reading the best articles and speeches from the period (above all those of Trotsky, but also the last writings of Rosa Luxemburg and the various Communist International discussions reprinted in Helmut Gruber’s two books International Communism in the Era of Lenin and Soviet Russia Masters the Comintern filling in the gaps in our knowledge from footnotes and guesses.

The trouble with these two new books from Pluto is that they too are like footnotes on the period – although illuminating, occasionally brilliant footnotes.

Rosa Leviné-Meyer’s earlier book Leviné: The Life of a Revolutionary was the story of her first husband who was judicially murdered by the reactionaries after the smashing of the Munich Soviet in 1919. It provided a highly personalised, but vivid and fascinating account of the first period of the revolution, as seen by someone who was politicised by the experience.

Inside German Communism is about the attempts to build the mass revolutionary party that began to develop out of the defeats for the first wave of revolution. In particular, it is an account of the efforts in this direction of her second husband, Ernst Meyer, for a time chairman of the half a million strong revolutionary Communist Party.

The book is at its best when describing the mistakes of the mass movement – the absurd attempt to turn a defensive strike into a move towards the seizure of power in March 1921, an enterprise that turned the heads temporarily of sane and sophisticated Communists like Meyer, Froelich and even Brandler; the gross mistake at the height of the great crisis of 1923 of believing that left reformists would concur in issuing the call for insurrection.

But much of the rest of the book does not have the same interest. This is because of what happened to its subject matter. The decline in the mass movement in Germany in 1921 and 1922 had, as one by-product, the rise of an insane level of factionalism inside the German Party, a factionalism that was deliberately cultivated from Moscow with the rise of Stalinism in the mid-1920s. The revolutionary enthusiasm of 1918-20 got strangled by committee room coups, backstage manoeuvring and leaden clichés, until even the obscene talk of social democracy as ‘social fascism’ could be accepted. Ernst Meyer and Rosa Levine-Meyer were among those who tried to resist this change – without however understanding fully its roots.

But they were forced to resist it very much on the terrain chosen by Stalinism itself – the committee meeting, the manoeuvring, even the clichés on occasions.

This is reflected in the book, which becomes less and less about revolution as it goes on, and more and more about rows with ex-revolutionaries.

Larissa Reissner died in 1927 and most of the writings in her book appeared in Russian a couple of years earlier. Their aim was to transmit to a Russian audience a sense of the revolutionary crisis in Germany in 1923.

They convey brilliantly the mood of desperation of the year of the worst ever inflation in western Europe, the machinations of the giant trusts, the heroic uprising of Hamburg’s workers made futile by the cancellation of the insurrection everywhere else in the country. But these are only fragmentary images of 1923, images that don’t make sense unless you know the rest of the story (including the distorted perspective imposed by the Comintern on the events – a distortion that affects many of Larissa’s judgements).

To sum up: both these books are useful if you already know the main points of the history of the period. They do not provide that history themselves.

One final point. Pluto may not realise it, but there are literally thousands of people developing a new interest in the ideas of revolutionary socialism. Unfortunately, not many of them can afford to pay £4.80 a time for books of barely 200 pages.

Last updated on 4.10.2010