Chris Harman


Missed opportunities

(April 1985)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 75, April 1985, p. 30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Communism in Germany under the Weimar Republic
Ben Fowkes
MacMillan £4.95

HOW CAN a mass revolutionary party be built in an advanced industrial country? How does it relate to powerfully entrenched reformist organisations? How does it seize opportunities which arise for moving from low level struggles over day-to-day issues to the direct fight for power?

Germany in the years between World War One and the seizure of power by the Nazis contained the largest revolutionary movement ever seen in an advanced industrial country. Any history of that movement must be judged by socialists on the help it provides in answering such questions.

Ben Fowkes has clearly put a lot of effort into studying the early history of German Communism – he provides a mass of information not easily obtainable elsewhere. And he is clearly sympathetic to the revolutionary goals the young Communist Party set itself. Yet the book is not all that helpful in answering the key questions and so must be a disappointment for revolutionaries.

Partly this is because of some strange historical judgements. For instance, the author devotes less attention to the mass strikes and uprisings which greeted the attempted right wing coup of March 1920 (the ‘Kapp putsch’) than to the aborted attempt to get a revolutionary offensive off the ground a year later (the ‘March action’). Some of the key struggles of 1919, like the formation of the two Bavarian Soviet Republics, get just a bare mention.

But the book has a more serious failing. It does not see, as Gramsci put it, that the history of a party is the history of a class seen from a certain angle. It does not start with the revolutionary possibilities, argue what could be done to fulfil them, and then see how the German Communists responded. Instead, it tends to get trapped into looking at the arguments within the German Communist Party and the Communist International in isolation from these wider possibilities.

To some extent such an approach is almost inevitable after the Stalinisation of the international Communist movement in the mid 1920s. Then what happened in the various Communist Parties did have very little to do with real struggle and real possibilities. Their history does tend to degenerate into a history of personal intrigue.

But the history of the years 1918–23 was very different. And that difference is not conveyed in this book. It’s a pity, because it means that much of the material the author puts together is wasted.

Last updated on 14 October 2019