Walter Held

Why the German Revolution Failed

(December 1942/January 1943)

From Fourth International, Vol.3 No.12, December 1942, pp.377-382, and Vol.4 No.1, January 1943, pp.21-26.
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EDITOR’S NOTE [A]: Walter Held, one of the outstanding leaders of the Fourth International, is known to many of our readers by his previous articles. His present contribution deals with a profoundly important question which has been the subject of controversy for two decades. Other comrades, who have read Comrade Held’s article, have indicated their intention to contribute articles on this question to subsequent issues of Fourth International.

The history of the Russian Bolshevik Party, the October Revolution, the first years of the Soviet Republic and the Red Army is the history of a grandiose political success unparalleled in revolutionary history. Lenin and Trotsky, nevertheless, were deprived of success in the field which, in the last analysis, is the most decisive, that of international revolution. The defeat of the revolution engendered the triumph of the counterrevolution and the fantastic rise of Adolf Hitler and German Nazism, unprecedented in modern history.

From the very beginning Lenin and Trotsky were thoroughly convinced that the result of their experiment depended entirely on the fate of the international revolution. Trotsky had stressed that idea since his formulation of the theory of the permanent revolution in 1905. Lenin emphasised with equal vigour the dependence of the Russian revolution on the revolutionary upsurge envisaged by the international movement. At the Seventh Congress of the Russian Communist Party in March 1918, Lenin expounded his unalterable conviction: ‘It is an absolute truth that without a German revolution we are doomed – perhaps not in Petrograd, not in Moscow, but in Vladivostock, in more remote places to which perhaps we shall have to retreat ... At all events, under all conceivable circumstances, if the German revolution does not come, we are doomed’. [1] Speaking in a similar vein one month later, at a session of the Moscow Soviet, Lenin declared: ‘Our backwardness has put us in the forefront, and we shall perish unless we are capable of holding out until we receive powerful support from workers who have risen in revolt in other countries’. [2] Similarly Lenin posed the problem in his Open Letter to the American Workers in August 1918: ‘We are now, as it were, in a besieged fortress, waiting for the other detachments of the world socialist revolution to come to our relief.’ [3] Zinoviev, translating Lenin’s ideas along agitational and propagandistic lines, as was his customary function, bombastically proclaimed in the Manifesto of the Communist International on 1 May 1919: ‘Before a year has passed, the whole of Europe will be Soviet’. [4] Although the high hopes of a rapid victory of the world revolution failed to materialise, Lenin did not alter his principled position. In 1920 Lenin stated in his somewhat frank and therefore unmistakable manner: ‘It would be absolutely ridiculous, fantastic and utopian to hope that we can achieve complete economic independence’. [5] A quotation of March 1923 from the final period of his theoretical contributions suffices to confirm that for Lenin the basic problem had remained unchanged until the end of his life: ‘We are confronted with the question – shall we be able to hold on with our small and very small peasant production, and in our present state of ruin, until the West-European capitalist countries consummate their development towards socialism?’ [6] Whatever artifices Stalin and his unholy henchmen may have employed to attribute to Lenin the idea of ‘socialism in one country’ it remains their own, The Stalin school of revisionism had its inception in 1924 after the death of Lenin as a consequence of the defeat of the revolution and became itself the cause of a long series of further disasters.

We may proceed from the following basis: when Lenin and Trotsky and their co-workers had the courage to introduce the proletarian dictatorship and socialist economy into backward Russia, completely devastated by the war, they did so with complete confidence in the successful outbreak of socialist revolutions in the more advanced countries. The years 1918-19 seemed to have confirmed these hopes. The political crises which overwhelmed Germany, Austro-Hungary and Italy were no less significant than that of Russia in February 1917. The old political regimes collapsed, the traditional royal families of the Hohenzollerns and the Hapsburgs were blown away, strikes and uprisings flared up and millions of political slaves arose. Nevertheless the revolution was nowhere able to reach the same heights as in Russia in October 1917; the movement was checked halfway, retreated and finally ended in the despotic barbarism of fascism. Since this occurred everywhere, there must be an underlying cause for this development. It would appear to follow logically that Lenin and Trotsky had erred. Did they deceive themselves when they felt the pulse of ageing capitalism and declared its death had arrived?

The answer is definitely NO. The Marxist analysis of the objective development of world capitalism had been brilliantly confirmed. The great capitalist countries had emerged from the stage of progressive development of their economy into an epoch of self-annihilation where wars and crises succeeded one another. What Marx, had foreseen had occurred: the concentration of the means of production and monopoly had reached the point where they were irreconcilable with their capitalist form. At this stage, according to Marxist prophecy, the proletariat should destroy the capitalist framework and proclaim the birth of a new society. But only in Russia was this prophecy fulfilled; in all other countries the proletariat revealed itself unable to sever the umbilical cord which bound it to the bourgeoisie. What was the reason?

Lenin himself offered the key to the answer. By 1902 he had already written of the need for a strictly disciplined organisation of professional revolutionaries: ‘without the “dozen” tried and talented leaders ... professionally trained, schooled by experience ... no class in modern society can wage a determined struggle’. He outlined the task of the organisation: it must lead the struggle at every stage, ‘from upholding the honour, the prestige, and the continuity of the Party in periods of acute revolutionary “depression” to preparing for, appointing the time for, and carrying out the nation-wide armed uprising’. [7] No successful revolution without such a party: this is the basic idea of all Leninist writings of the years 1902-4, the years marking the foundation of the Leninist party.

No Leninist Parties in Western Europe

No such orthodox Marxist party existed at the end of the last World War, either in Germany or in any other Western European country. The Social Democracy, originally passive toward the problem of revolution, had gone over into the camp of the class enemy in 1914. An opposition arose, indeed – the Spartakusbund – but this group was small in number and organisationally weak. Its leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, had been in prison for the greater part of the war and, moreover, did not share Lenin’s conception of the tasks of the party. In 1903-4 Rosa Luxemburg had sharply polemicised against Lenin’s alleged ultra-centralism and bureaucracy. [8] Agitation and propaganda, these were for Luxemburg and Liebknecht the foremost functions of the party. On the other hand, the conscious initiative of the party leadership in the formulation of strategy and tactics played a subordinate role: the revolutionary uprising ought to arise out of the spontaneous actions of the masses, and the party was to serve merely as an assistant. Rosa Luxemburg had never altered her position on this basic question. Such was the situation of German radicalism. The small opposition groups in other countries, Italy, France, England, were even further removed from Lenin’s conception.

Now the question arises: if Lenin considered the existence of a Bolshevik party the indispensable prerequisite for revolution and, moreover, held the Russian revolution to be lost without the international revolution, why didn't he from the very beginning of his activity devote all his energy to the creation of such an international revolutionary party? A study of Lenin’s writings before 1914 provides the answer. Lenin esteemed the German Social Democracy as highly as he did the other left-wing groups. In it he saw the direct heritage of Marx and Engels. Lenin, like the other Russian Marxists, considered Karl Kautsky, editor of its weekly theoretical organ, an indisputable authority. Through Lenin’s interpretation, Kautsky’s academically correct generalisations received the practical application and sharpness which Kautsky, the professor, could hardly conceive. With so much greater bitterness did Lenin turn against Kautsky when he realised in 1914 that his opinion of Kautsky had been mistaken. From this point on, Lenin propagandised unhesitatingly for the formation of the Third International without, however, achieving any great practical results in creating it during the war. The majority of the Zimmerwald Conference opposed the proclamation of a new International and the manifesto of the small left wing Leninist groups was not even once mentioned in the publications of the Spartakusbund. Thus, no one was in a better position than Lenin to realise that the subjective factors for successful revolutions in the West were lacking.

We know that Trotsky’s position before 1917 was similar to that of Rosa Luxemburg for, as he himself expressed it, he had held to a certain social-revolutionary fatalism. [9] The February revolution had drawn him to Lenin, while none of the old supporters of Lenin had Trotsky’s ability to translate Lenin’s conception into reality. In Russia, where the actual problem confronted them, Lenin and Trotsky ridiculed the superstitious belief in the spontaneous victory of the revolution, and considered success or defeat dependent on their own actions. The problem presented itself differently to the consciousness of the masses. The apparent ease of the victory of the October uprising naturally evoked great hopes among the Russian workers for an immediate victory of the revolution in Europe, without concerning themselves with the great philosophical problems of the subjective conditions of this revolution. It was quite evident that even Lenin and Trotsky, to say nothing of the Zinovievs and Bukharins, allowed themselves for a time to be swept along on this wave of optimism.

This is especially evident in the period immediately following the revolution in Germany in November 1918. The radicalised German workers were unable to follow the complicated events of the Russian revolution between February and October 1917 because of war conditions. The Soviet Republic appeared to them as an accomplished fact which they had to emulate as soon as possible. The Russians did nothing to make the invaluable experience of Bolshevik politics available to them. The task of international revolutionary propaganda was taken over by Zinoviev. He had only one year previously opposed the carefully prepared October insurrection, labelled it as irresponsible adventurism and insisted that it proceed through the legal channels of the Constituent Assembly. Therefore, the proletarian revolution in Germany appeared to him to be the simplest matter in the world and the National Assembly there as a simple problem. ‘Throw out the traitors, Ebert and Scheidemann!’ Such was the proclamation he sent from Moscow to the German proletariat. ‘Call for the Soviet Republic with Liebknecht at its head!’ [10] It would have been more worthwhile had his advice read: ‘Don’t allow yourself to be provoked to rash deeds. Explain patiently to the masses the betrayal of the Social Democracy. First build and stabilise your own party. Your hour will come’.

Whether this advice would have helped is another question. There could be no talk then of the Western European revolutionists leaning on Moscow. The Communist International was only now to be founded. From prison, Rosa Luxemburg published a sharp critique of Bolshevik politics. [11] The Spartakusbund marched to its own destruction on its own initiative. In the period when the radicalisation of the German masses was still in its initial stage, the Spartakus leaders responded to the reactionary Ebert administration with the January 1919 uprising, which was totally unprepared for and amateurishly executed.

This event constituted a catastrophe for the German movement and consequently for the development of the international revolution. The young German revolutionary party (Communist Party of Germany – KPD) was literally decapitated; the movement incurred a blow from which it never fully recovered. The meaning and scope of this disaster was at first not fully recognised in Moscow. The voices of optimism persisted and indeed received fresh stimuli as a result of the proclamation of Soviet Republics in Budapest and Munich.

In Budapest the regime of Count Károlyi had voluntarily surrendered its power to the left Social Democracy of Béla Kun, which led Lenin to make the hopeful observation that other countries would achieve socialism ‘by a different, more humane road’. [12] Nevertheless it turned out that the importance of a well-disciplined party with experienced leaders trained in Marxism was even more evident on the day after the seizure of power than on the evening before. The regime of Béla Kun committed error after error, united with opportunists, neglected the organisation of the masses into soviets and the building of an army, forgot revolutionary measures for the benefit of the poor peasants and farm workers, and lost its all too easily acquired power after a few months. The Munich Soviet Republic was only a farce whose tragic demise served but to accentuate the catastrophe of the January days in Berlin.

Paul Levi, a disciple of Rosa Luxemburg whom Lenin had become acquainted with in Switzerland during the war, was the first German to understand the real requirements of the situation. Following the deaths of Luxemburg, Liebknecht, and Jogiches, Levi, in spite of his youth, was chosen to head the newly established party and found it in a state of unprecedented ideological chaos. Numerous utopian radical elements, lacking theoretical knowledge and political experience, had linked themselves to the Spartakusbund during the first days of the revolution. Some of them considered armed uprising as the panacea and every other form of political activity as sheer betrayal. Others desired to create their private little ‘pure revolutionary’ world removed from reality, rather than altering the existing world through revolutionary means. Levi was thoroughly convinced that the elimination of these elements was the first requirement for the building of a serious party, and in the fall of 1919 he accomplished this split regardless of the fact that this measure reduced the membership of the party in Berlin from several thousand to a few hundred. [13]

Lenin supported Levi’s course of action and provided it with a theoretical justification in his pamphlet against the utopian radicals, ‘Left Wing’ Communism: An Infantile Disorder, written during April-May 1920. [14] By this time Lenin had abandoned all hopes for a rapid and easy victory of the revolution in the West. Nevertheless he had no basic revision to make. The validity of his position in 1902, as set forth in his What Is To Be Done?, was doubly confirmed by experience, positively in Russia, negatively in the West. Therefore it seemed to him at this time that the attention of the revolutionaries of Western Europe must be directed toward the ideological and factional conflicts which were involved in the building of the Bolshevik Party. For, wrote Lenin: ‘Only the history of Bolshevism during the entire period of its existence can satisfactorily explain why it has been able to build up and maintain, under the most difficult conditions, the iron discipline needed for the victory of the proletariat’ [15] He also directed attention to the cautious tactics which the Bolsheviks undertook in the first period of the February revolution. ‘We did not call for the overthrow of the government but explained that it was impossible to overthrow it without first changing the composition and the temper of the Soviets ... Without such thorough, circumspect and long preparations, we could not have achieved victory in October 1917, or consolidated that victory’. [16] Golden words these, which, however, came too late and fell upon infertile ground.

The Founding of the Comintern

The Communist International was founded in the spring of 1919. The Founding Congress was hardly impressive. Only a few delegates of non-Russian parties succeeded in crossing the civil war fronts and reaching Moscow. Outstanding or important leaders were not among those present. Lenin and Trotsky saw themselves surrounded by such persons as the Finns, Kuusinen and Sirola, who had displayed their mediocrity shortly before in the Finnish Civil War; by the Austrian Steinhardt whose enthusiasm greatly surpassed his political abilities; by the Frenchman Jacques Sadoul, a captain in the French army and member of its mission in Russia who had gone over to the Bolsheviks; by the American John Reed, a brilliant writer and journalist whose political experience, nevertheless, was limited; and by the German Hugo Eberlein. The latter, then only slightly known, but later one of the most corrupt elements of the Communist International, had received a mandate from his party to vote against the founding of the Communist International on the ground that the time for it was not yet at hand. In arriving at this conclusion, the young German party was echoing the opinion voiced by Rosa Luxemburg shortly before her death. Here again she demonstrated her fatal tendency of bridling the horse by the tail. While she deemed the founding of the new International premature, she did concede that the Berlin workers had been adventurist in undertaking an armed uprising without having created a party. Lenin and Trotsky had no desire to force upon the German party the founding of the International and declared themselves ready to arrive at a compromise. However, with the arrival of new delegates, who had undertaken the journey to Moscow under the most difficult circumstances, a wave of enthusiasm for the immediate founding spread throughout the Congress, and Eberlein allowed himself to be persuaded to withhold his vote. [17] Thus was the Communist International founded. Zinoviev was elected president and Moscow designated as its centre, where a certain number of representatives of other parties would reside permanently. It was further decided on an annual congress which was to have supreme authority in all political and organisational questions.

It is obvious that Moscow was expected to render the new movement every conceivable assistance from the very beginning. Shortly before he was murdered, Trotsky in one of his last writings recalled that the Council of People’s Commissars issued the following decree on 26 December 1917 bearing his own and Lenin’s signatures:

’Taking into consideration the fact that the Soviet power bases itself on principles of international solidarity of the proletariat and on the brotherhood of the toilers of all countries; that the struggle against war and imperialism can lead toward complete victory only if waged on an international scale, the Council of People’s Commissars considers it necessary to offer assistance by all possible means, including money, to the left international wing of the labour movement of all countries every possible assistance, regardless of whether these countries are at war or in an alliance with Russia or are neutral. For this reason the Council of People’s Commissars decides to grant two million roubles for the needs of the revolutionary international movement and to put it at the disposal of the foreign representatives of the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs’.

Twenty-three years later Trotsky adds: ‘Not even today am I inclined to withdraw my signature from this decree. It was a question of giving open aid to revolutionary movements in other countries under the control of workers’ organisations. The parties receiving aid enjoyed complete freedom of criticism of the Soviet government. At the congresses of the Communist International a passionate ideological struggle always used to take place, and on more than one occasion Lenin and I remained in the minority’. [18]

Only hypocrites and philistines could be opposed in principle to material assistance by an internationalist party to its co-thinkers in other countries. Even the First International at the time of Marx and Engels was proud of its international strike fund. The Second International and the International Federation of Trade Unions perpetuated these traditions. To say nothing of what goes on in the camp of the bourgeoisie which expresses its moral indignation over the international solidarity of the proletariat. It is well known that German Nazi imperialism directs its political parties and groups all over the world. Democratic imperialism is no different in this respect. When the British government of Churchill and Lloyd George subsidised Denikin, Kolchak and Wrangel with many million pounds sterling they remained faithful to the traditions of William Pitt who financed royalist ambitions against the French revolution. Once the Bolsheviks had embarked upon a life and death struggle with world capitalism they were forced to wage battle with those methods prescribed by capitalist conditions.

Nevertheless, this aid from Moscow had its disadvantages. Had there existed only well-organised parties with experience and independent-minded leaders such as Lenin in the other countries, the hazards connected with Russian aid would have been minimised and the advantages that much greater. However, this was not the case. The money only served the function of masking the small and ideologically unstable groups with a facade of influence and strength which in reality they did not possess. Thus this aid from Moscow very soon tended to make the party apparatus independent of the membership. With the degeneration of the Russian revolution the Moscow subsidies were transformed into devices of coercion and corruption.

That the Communist International was nevertheless no artificial creation of Moscow, but was rather a response to a general political need, was demonstrated in the first years of its existence. In Germany, Italy, France, Scandinavia, yes even in ultra-conservative England, great masses were turning away from the brutal counter-revolutionary or ideologically flimsy policies of the Social Democracy and were gazing hopefully towards the East. What was more perplexing was the fact that a considerable section of the old Social Democratic leaders declared themselves ready to affiliate with the Comintern. Thus the Germans, Crispien and Dittmann, who adopted a semiopportunist and weak pacifist position during the war; the Frenchmen, Cachin and Frossard, who had been 100 per cent social-patriotic and had worked with Mussolini; the Czech, Smeral, who had until then been an agent of the Hapsburg monarchy; and finally even Ramsay MacDonald, then the religious pacifist leader of the Independent Labour Party, and future Prime Minister of the British Empire, all politely inquired about the prerequisites for entry into the new International.

Lenin and Trotsky were greatly disturbed by these approaches. It was not their purpose to create a new edition of the Second International in whose ranks each could follow his own inclinations. Therefore, at the Second Congress convoked in the summer of 1920, they presented 21 conditions for acceptance into the Communist International. These required the recognition of the essential principles of the Bolshevik politics, the soviet system and the dictatorship of the proletariat, the break from ministerial socialism and social patriotism. [19] Social Democrats and liberals of all shades have attributed the roots of the evils and the basic reason for all the misery of the post-war workers’ movement to these Moscow theses. Trotsky countered such complaints with the droll paradox: ‘Yes, it is possible that these theses were not formulated sharply enough’. In reality these theses did not accomplish their function as serving as a vaccine against the opportunistic degeneration of the International. Their purpose was achieved only insofar as the open opportunists declined to accept the 21 conditions and were thus excluded. Among the signatories were people like the previously mentioned Cachin and Smeral, who were indifferent to the theory and comforted themselves with the philistine wisdom that it wouldn’t be easily enforced. Even among the sincere signers, there was hardly one who understood how to translate the algebra of the 21 points into the arithmetic of everyday politics. Neither money nor strict regulations could remedy the evil from which Western European radicalism was suffering: the lack of ten experienced, outstanding leaders who were in a position to conduct consistent politics in the revolutionary Marxist manner. Only through patient educational work and careful selection could such a leadership be developed.

Paul Levi, who was one of the first to become aware of the consequences of this situation, received the high honour of the chairmanship of the Second Congress. Lenin’s brochure against ultra-left infantilism was being printed at the time. The German Communist Party had committed a grave blunder in March 1920, in connection with the putsch by Kapp and his reactionary clique of generals and fascists. In the absence of Levi, who was serving time in prison, the Zentrale (Central Committee) had answered the putsch with the declaration that this struggle between monarchist reaction and the republic was of no concern to workers since they were both enemies of labour. Levi had protested most vehemently against this position from prison, and had called for energetic participation in the struggle against Kapp. His position was adopted within a few days, and the leaders of the Russian party were outspoken in their recognition of the fact that Levi had saved the honour of his party. Levi seemed to have every reason to be happy. But, as the proverb goes, into every life some rain must fall, and the Second World Congress did not delay in adding a drop of poison to his cup of happiness. Since the main debates centred chiefly around the 21 points, the delegates directed all their polemics against the right and thus found themselves voicing the same opinions as the radical utopians of the left. Zinoviev and Bukharin, as well as those like Béla Kun and Rákosi who thanks to their brief stellar roles became members of the Executive Committee of the new International, opposed Levi’s expulsion of the gallant ultra-lefts. The expulsion was not reversed but the expelled, who had formed a ‘Communist Workers Party’ (KAPD), were recognised as a ‘sympathetic section’ of the new International. The existence of two sections, an ‘official’ and a ‘sympathetic’, could only provoke confusion in the ranks of German labour. With this decision, a course was embarked upon which was to develop dangerously for the fate of the new party and the International.

At the end of 1920 the young Communist Party of Germany was suddenly transformed into an influential party with recognised leaders, a sizeable representation in the Reichstag, numerous publications, a considerable following in the factories and a mass membership. The Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), which had split from the Social Democracy in 1917 and had become swollen into a mass party during the revolution, had undergone another split at the Congress in Halle, the majority favouring affiliation to the Communist Party and the Communist International. Zinoviev himself appeared at the Halle Congress and had been victorious in his debate with Martov, Lenin’s old adversary. [20] Zinoviev’s optimism reached new heights and was shared by his colleagues Bukharin, Béla Kun, Rákosi, etc. ‘Now that we have a real mass party in Germany, we must begin to do something about it’, they philosophised in the small bureau of the Comintern in Moscow. One after another, in Berlin, there appeared Béla Kun, Borodin (the very same Borodin who was to play an important and equally disastrous role five years later in China) and Rákosi, to whom important powers were delegated by the Presidium of the Comintern to watch over the politics of the German party. Through their machinations, Levi was persuaded to relinquish his position as chairman of the German party. [21] This gave free rein to the adventurists.


EDITOR’S NOTE [B]: This is the second of two articles by Walter Held on a profoundly important question which has (been, the subject of controversy for two decades. The author, one of the outstanding leaders of the Fourth International, is known to many of our readers by his previous articles. Other comrades have indicated their intention to contribute articles on this question. In his first article, published in our December 1942 issue, comrade Held sought to explain why, due to the tardiness of the revolutionists in Germany and elsewhere in separating themselves from the centrists represented by Kautsky, there were no Leninist parties in western Europe. The Leninist conception of the revolutionary party and the Bolshevik strategy leading to the October revolution were little known and still less practiced. Hence, says Held, the mistakes of the young German Communist Party, culminating, in March 1921, in an attempt to precipitate a revolution at a time when the party was still supported by only a minority of the workers.

The ‘March Action’

In March 1921, when the Social Democratic police chief, Hörsing, ordered the police to march into the miners’ district of Central Germany, the new leadership of the Communist Party called for a general strike, for the arming of the workers and the overthrow of the government. For the masses of workers this pronunciamento came like a bolt out of the clear sky.

Under Levi’s leadership the party had until then pursued a policy of proletarian united fronts. And suddenly there was this regression to putschist infantilism. The irony in this call for a general strike was in calling it a day before Good Friday, when most factories were closed for four days. While most German workers were celebrating Easter, the leadership of the German Communist Party was conducting a revolution. It fraternised with the putschist ‘Communist Workers Party’ and howled louder than the latter. Like a modern Robin Hood, Max Hölz plundered the homes of capitalists and divided the booty among the poor. The year before, the Communist Party had excluded this freebooter from its ranks and now it was hailing him as a hero. Communist leaders committed even worse stupidities. In order to ‘electrify’ the masses, they incited attacks on their own party offices and publications by party members disguised as the ‘enemy’, in order to then ‘answer’ these actions by railway sabotage, dynamiting of courts, attacks on savings banks and the police – a tactic which Adolf Hitler emulated with far greater success in 1933. [22] The March Action ended in a terrific fiasco; the young party, just starting to become a serious factor in the political life of Germany, was made to appear ridiculous. [23]

In a confidential report, shortly before the March Action, Paul Levi had warned the party leadership against taking the path of adventurism. When the putschist riots began, he was in Vienna. He hurried back to Germany, where Clara Zetkin, an old working-class leader and a member of his faction, persuaded him from making public a manifesto against the action during the struggle. Instead, immediately following the close of the event, he published a brilliantly written pamphlet, Unser Weg: wider den Putchismus (Our Road: Against Putschism). Outside of Rosa Luxemburg’s Spartacus programme, this is one of the most noteworthy contributions to be found in the whole history of the German Communist Party. He wrote in the preface: ‘I turn confidently to the members of the party with this description which must tear at the heart of everyone who helped to build what was here destroyed. These are bitter truths. But, “it is medicine, not poison which I dispense”.’ [24] Nevertheless, Moscow rejected this remedy and officially recognized the putschist faction. A few months later, at the Third World Congress of the Comintern, Zinoviev declared: ‘When we first received information about the March Action, we all had the feeling that things had finally begun to move. At last the movement had started in Germany. At last a breath of fresh air’. [25] Accordingly, a telegram was sent to the putschists: ‘You have acted correctly’ [26], and Levi and his following were denounced as a ‘rightist menace’. So the heroes of the March Action felt justified in expelling the inconvenient Levi from the party. [27]

Lenin and Trotsky shook their heads at all this folly. They were unaware that the March Action was contrived by the secretariat of the ECCI. Since they reckoned that the international revolutionary movement was in for a period of calm, their attention was directed to the introduction of the New Economic Policy in Russia. War Communism, with its system of compulsory requisitions, had alienated a large section of the peasantry from the Soviet state, and had led industrial production into a blind alley. As Kronstadt clearly demonstrated, even the workers found the privations too intolerable. As far back as 1920, Trotsky had recommended that the kulaks should be guaranteed a certain percentage of their crops and should he permitted free trade within a limited sphere. At first, Lenin opposed this. Finally, not fearing a step backward, he accepted Trotsky’s plan, in order to gain a more advantageous position for making further progress. To a certain extent private capital was again permitted for industry and the handicrafts. As a matter of fact, Lenin was even considering a plan of attracting foreign capital for the reconstruction of Russia’s industry by means of an extensive system of concessions, and Trotsky supported the idea. Just like every other bold turn of Lenin’s policy, this plan aroused opposition in his own ranks. ‘We must not allow the Soviet Republic to deteriorate into a shopkeepers’ state’, was a favourite argument of the Secretariat of the Comintern, among Zinoviev, Bukharin and Béla Kun. Since Lenin and Trotsky based the necessity for the introduction of the New Economic Policy on the failure of the international revolution to materialise, Zinoviev and his associates in the Secretariat thought they could provide a speedy remedy. This was precisely their chief motive for unleashing the infantile March Action. [28]

The Third World Congress

The question of the March Action caused a sharp clash in the Russian party. Their judgement of the March Action brought Lenin and Trotsky into the extreme right wing of their own party. The Third World Congress of the Comintern was imminent. Only through great effort did the Russian party arrive at a general agreement. Unity was established on the basis of a compromise [29], a ‘compromise to the left’ as Trotsky described it at the congress [30], and by ‘left’ in this case he referred to the ultra-left, putschist tendency.

On the surface, the Third World Congress of the Comintern (22 June-12 July 1921) was an all-imposing spectacle. The influence of the Second International had been constantly diminishing in Europe, so that delegates of every colour and race, from almost every country in the world, were assembled in Moscow: a total of 602 delegates, representing 58 different countries. In Germany, Italy, France, Czechoslovakia and Scandinavia, the new International counted tens of thousands of members, and even in the East a mighty movement was beginning to arise. The brilliant climax of the congress was Trotsky’s analysis of the world political situation, which lasted several hours and which he presented on the very same day in Russian, French and German, an oratorical performance without precedent. Nevertheless, in spite of its outwardly brilliant and correct course, the Third World Congress already contained the diseased germs which were a few years later to precipitate the degeneration of the Communist International and, along with it, the Soviet state.

The ‘compromise to the left’ on the German question was approximately as follows: the March Action was an ‘advance’ insofar as the German party led large masses into the struggle; it was nevertheless a grave error insofar as the party forsook a defensive line in favour of an offensive one; Levi’s criticism, although generally correct, signified a breach of discipline and therefore his expulsion was justified.

That Trotsky was not altogether satisfied with this compromise was clearly evident both in his report and in participation in the debates. Thus he attempted as far as possible to weaken the position that the March Action was a step forward. ‘When we say that the March Action was a step forward, we understand by this – at least I do (he thought it necessary to limit himself – W.H.) – the fact that the Communist Party ... stands ... as a united, independent, integrated and centralised party which has the possibility of independently intervening in the struggle of the proletariat’. [31] After this concession to the general rhetoric of the congress, the speaker adopted an altogether different tone when he discussed the March adventure more concretely. ‘To defend the March Action ... will not succeed ... The party’s attempt to play a leading role in a great mass movement was not a fortunate one ... If we now say that we are throwing Paul Levi out of the window, and utter only confused phrases about the March Action being the first attempt, a step forward, in short if we cover up criticism with phrase-mongering, then we have not fulfilled our duty’. [32]

However, when we look more closely, didn’t the criticisms of the Third World Congress consist of such phrase-mongering?. The theses of the Russian delegation declared that the March Action was a struggle which the German Party was provoked into by the government (what a way to describe it); as a step forward in contrast to the patient policies of Levi in the year 1920 (whereas it represented a worse regression to the stupidities of the first month of the year 1919); the theses limited themselves to condemning the so-called ‘theory of the offensive’ in accordance with which the party was obliged to assume the offensive under all circumstances regardless of whether it had the following of the masses or not. [33] While they treated the putschists with velvet gloves, the theses anathematised the critics of the ultra-leftists. [34] It is no wonder, then, that the leaders of the March Action had no misgivings about ‘adopting in principle the theses presented by the Russian delegates’ and only expressed objections to ‘Trotsky’s interpretation of the theses’. [35]

Perhaps the unhappiest role at the Congress was played by Karl Radek. The truth about the proceedings in the small bureau of the ECCI seeped out later when Zinoviev and Radek got into each other’s hair in the spring of 1924 and openly attacked each other in the press. In the course of these debates, Radek repeated what Levi had said three years previously: he accused Zinoviev of responsibility for the March Action. Levi’s suggestion (supported by Radek) of a united front tactic toward the Social Democracy, says Radek, was rejected by ‘a part of the influential leadership of the (Comintern) Executive’ in mid-February 1921 and ‘only the intervention of comrade Lenin made this impossible’. [36] Nevertheless no official decision of the Executive Committee had been made. Zinoviev and Bukharin had continued their machinations against Levi’s policies and, as a result, the March Action had taken place. In his summary at the Fifth World Congress (1924), Zinoviev in his own way confirmed the correctness of Radek’s assertion and even boasted of having fought against Levi and having favoured the ultra-lefts since 1920. [37]

Nevertheless, at the Third World Congress in 1922 when the March Action was being discussed and when the fate of the German movement depended upon the result of this debate, Radek maintained absolute silence about these internal doings in the Moscow Executive Committee and made his speech in the worst spirit of clique solidarity. Not only is the Executive absolutely innocent, but also in Germany the putschists were not so much to blame as their opponents. ‘We say to the German party: you have fought and you have made mistakes in the course of the battle. By the fact that you fought you showed that you are a good Communist Party’. [38] Levi was already expelled at the time of the congress and therefore was not present. The most important of his supporters, like Hoffman, Brass, and Däumig, were prevented from making the trip to Moscow through all sorts of machinations. There were only a few rank-and-file members of the Levi opposition present, who were in a difficult position because of the numerous famous speakers and only timidly ventured to present their point of view. [39] Thus it was very easy for the men on the Executive Committee to assume the position of prosecutors.

Prosecutor Radek is tolerant enough to grant the opposition extenuating circumstances. The International Executive is of course not to blame, but the leadership of the German party cannot be absolved of all mistakes. ‘It is clear that if the German comrades had not made mistakes and if there had arisen an opposition to the March Action, the opposition would be ripe for expulsion. The mistakes have necessitated a milder attitude towards this opposition because it is not clear whether they are all opportunists or just alarmists. That necessitates the concession to the rightists’. [40] But the opposition should understand: ‘The Communist International will not forgive such things a second time’. [41] Generally this is what is wrong with ideological compromises: they allow various interpretations and clarify nothing. What was a ‘compromise to the left’ for Trotsky was a ‘compromise to the right’ for Radek and a majority of the participants at the Third World Congress.

Levi was nevertheless right when he maintained after the congress: ‘Whoever advised the Communist Party to accept such a compromise, advised her to take poison ... For if the March Action was a step forward, there should be no hesitation about taking the next step. But if the March Action was a crime, then say so, so that everyone should know where they stand’. The compromise transformed the open crisis in the German party into a ‘hidden crisis’. Levi prophesied that the German Communist Party would never withstand this covert crisis. ‘Perhaps it will come to pass, and unless miracles happen it must come to pass, that the Communist Party will share the same fate as the Tarim River, that river of Central Asia which arises from the mountains with many waters ... but never reaches the sea. It disappears in the Siberian steppe as if it had never existed ... Then it will be necessary to start a great task from the very beginning, under new conditions but with the old beliefs’ [42]

Lenin’s Views of Levi

In his talks with Clara Zetkin during the Third World Congress, Lenin charged Levi’s criticisms with not differentiating between the defensive action of the struggling workers and the initiation of an offensive by an ill-advised party leadership. [43] Levi’s critique lacked the feeling of solidarity with the party and it had embittered the comrades by its tone, rather than by its content. This argument sounds surprising, coming from a politician who had ridiculed every criticism of sharp tone as evidence of political weakness. Even if one grants that Lenin’s comments were correct and that Levi’s pamphlet against the March Action expressed ‘a strong tendency towards solitariness and self-satisfaction and not a little literary vanity’, it remains difficult to understand how Lenin and Trotsky could follow the Third World Congress in placing the form above the content. The political principles of Levi would ‘triumph brilliantly’ at the congress, exclaimed Lenin; nevertheless, ‘the congress will condemn Paul Levi and treat him harshly’. On the other hand, the congress was to nullify the famous leftist theory of the offensive at any price and condemn its tactics.

As far as the personalities are concerned, ‘we shall not deal roughly with the leftists, we shall even put a little balm on their wounds. They will soon be working energetically and happily’, and pursuing sound politics. Of course Lenin didn’t want to lose Paul Levi whose qualities he esteemed. ‘I got to know him in Switzerland and had high hopes for him. He proved his worth in the times of worst persecution, he was courageous, intelligent and unselfish ... For Paul Levi the road back to us is open if only he does not block it himself ... We must not lose Paul Levi, for his sake and for ours. We are not over-blessed with talents and must conserve what we have ... If Levi submits to discipline and behaves well – he can, for example, contribute anonymously to the party press, write some good pamphlets, etc – then in three or four months I shall, in an open letter, demand his readmission.’ When Lenin spoke to Clara Zetkin in this manner it was naturally with the intention of having her use her influence with Levi. Such a relationship with the left on one side and Levi on the other seemed necessary to Lenin, in order to maintain the unity of the German party. He looked upon the March adventure as a result of ‘infantilism’ and deemed it necessary to adopt a ‘fatherly leniency’ towards the leaders of the German party. Trotsky in 1928, in his sarcastic and penetrating pamphlet against the Comintern leaders, reports a conversation which he and Lenin had with Clara Zetkin some time after the March Action. Both agreed with Zetkin that great stupidities had been committed. But, reasoned Lenin, ‘the youth will commit many stupidities, but they will nevertheless make a good revolution’. Clara Zetkin protested: ‘They will not even make a bad one’. Lenin and Trotsky looked at each other and, as the latter reports, they couldn’t hide their smiles. [44] Nevertheless, in this case, history proved Clara Zetkin to be right; she was wrong in that she later combined with stupid fools in a bad revolution.

Lenin and Trotsky’s mistake was that they overlooked the fact that it was not the ‘young and inexperienced’ Germans but the political infant shoes of the mature adults like Zinoviev, Bukharin and Béla Kun which had led the way to the March adventure. The first duty of the Third World Congress should have been to publicly denounce and condemn the unfortunate intervention of the Executive Committee into the politics of the German party, to relieve the persons responsible of their functions and to subject the activity of the new committee to permanent democratic control. Then there would still have been time to correct the formal mistakes of Levi and his supporters. But as things developed all proportion was lost, and the delegates must have gained the impression that it would always be better to make mistakes following the orders of the Comintern than to act correctly while violating discipline. In this way the foundation stone was laid for the development which was to change the Communist International in the course of a few years into a society of Mamelukes, in slavish dependency upon the ruling faction in Moscow and finally into a mere instrument of Stalin’s opportunist, nationalist foreign policy.

What Happened to Levi

As far as Levi is concerned, it remains regrettable that he never accepted Lenin’s outstretched hand. It would surely have paid to attempt in this way to lead the movement back on the right road. That Lenin and Trotsky were free of cliquism was shown later in their absolute opposition to the bureaucratic tendencies in their own party. The fact that these tendencies had also found entry into the Executive Committee of the International could not have long remained hidden from them. That would have been the hour of Levi’s vindication. It was still worse that Levi did not possess enough patience, self-confidence and strength of character to continue his work with his own group. He and his small group of devoted supporters joined the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) and a little later, together with the latter, rejoined the old Social Democracy. Of course, he never completely forgot his past. He didn't become a minister of the unholy Weimar Republic or even a mayor, but remained in critical opposition. [45] As a lawyer, in a series of sensational cases, he revealed the reactionary and dishonest justice of the Welmar Republic. The foulness of German politics affected him so deeply that he committed suicide in 1930. He leaped from a window in a Berlin apartment building, thus recalling Trotsky’s remark at the Third World Congress about throwing Levi out of the window. [46]

The attitude of the Third World Congress toward Levi seemed to he justified by his subsequent course. In his Notes of a Publicist, written in 1922 but published after his death, Lenin regrets not having treated Levi more harshly. [47] [C] The picture is one-sided, if one looks only at Levi’s later development and does not consider the party he left. In What Is To Be Done? the young Lenin had emphasised the great significance of the continuity of leadership and cadres in the building of a party. In his discussions with Clara Zetkin during the Third World Congress he directed her attention to this point. ‘It is especially important that you retain in our ranks qualified comrades who have earned their spurs in the workers’ movement. I am thinking of comrades like Adolf Hoffman, Geyer, Däumig, Brass and others ... Comrades like (these) bring experience and considerable expertise to the party, and they are, above all, a living bond between you and the broad working masses, whose confidence they possess’. [48] Lenin was also full of praise for the rank and file elements of the Levi opposition: ‘Splendid fellows, these German workers like Malzalin and his friends. I grant you that they probably wouldn’t be employed as fire-eaters in a radical circus. I don’t know whether they would be good as shock troops. But I am absolutely sure that people of this sort are the steadfast, well-organised, fighting columns of the revolutionary proletariat, and its foundation and support in the factories. We must gather to us such elements and activate them’. [49]

Only a few months after the Third World Congress all those mentioned by Lenin, ‘the solid bond between the party and the masses’, had left the party in which they had lost confidence. [50] The party fraction in the Reichstag had shrunk from 26 to 11. The continuity in the party leadership was lost and never regained. Although the permanent crisis of German economy and politics drove many new followers and voters to the party of the extreme left, a stable relation of trust between it and the masses was never again achieved. The leadership of the party was for a while in the hands of the quartet, Brandler, Thalheimer, Walcher and Frölich, who found their complement in the ‘opposition’ of Maslow-Ruth Fischer. Heinrich Brandler was a good factory or union official with organisational talent and a certain practical instinct, but had no basic theoretical education, no imagination and no gift of creative leadership. August Thalheimer, whom Lenin and Trotsky, God knows why, once endowed with the title of an educated theoretician, was really nothing but a dry eclectic, always ready to justify the opportunistic practices of his friend Brandler with the necessary theory. In the same manner, Jacob Walcher and Paul Frölich complemented each other. Since Walcher’s political horizon was more restricted than Brandler’s, he could allow his instinct freer reign. Frölich’s theoretical knowledge surpassed that of young Thalheimer although the latter was superior in literary ability. As far as the Maslow-Fischer combination was concerned, their political level was close to that of the hooligans of the extreme right, the rabble around Streicher and Strasser.

Lenin was very much distressed with the subsequent development of the German party. At the Fourth World Congress of the Comintern, which was nothing but a less spectacular repetition of the Third, he found the opportunity to continue his dialogue with Clara Zetkin. One evening after Ruth Fischer’s speech, Lenin poured out his heart to the old comrade. ‘Hm, hm, I can well understand how in your situation there is such a thing as a left opposition ... Things are progressing so slowly. World history doesn’t seem to be moving very rapidly; but the discontented workers think that your party leadership doesn’t wish it to move any faster. I understand all that. But what I cannot understand is such leaders of the left opposition as I have just listened to ... No, such an opposition, such a leadership does not impress me. However, I openly admit to you that your Central Committee impresses me just as little, for it doesn’t understand, it doesn't have the energy to clean out these petty demagogues. After all it should be an easy matter to deal with such people, to detach the revolutionary-minded workers from them and to politically educate the latter. Precisely because they are revolutionary-minded workers, whereas radicals of this type (Fischer and Maslow) are at bottom the worst sort of opportunists’. [51] This characterisation was fully justified by the later activity of both, but nevertheless did not prevent their being at the top of the German party for some time. It is surprising that it didn’t occur to Lenin to connect this desperate situation in the German party with the course of the March Action and the treatment of it by the Third World Congress. After they got rid of the serious elements it was not surprising that the sterile bureaucrats and adventurist demagogues took control.

The Revolutionary Crisis of 1923

The year 1923 justified Lenin’s dark forebodings about the German movement. In that year Germany was confronted with a unique revolutionary situation. The German government answered the French occupation of the Ruhr with the call for ‘passive resistance’ and its accompanying inflation. Under the masquerade of patriotism there took place the most sinister robbery of the middle class and the proletariat by finance capital that has been known in the history of modern society. According to the calculations of the famous German economist, Professor Lederer, the net profit of German finance capital from this inflation was 78 billion gold marks, to which should be added the steep taxes.

While Stinnes, Thyssen, Krupp, Duisberg and Cuno, who was chosen by them as pilot at the head of the ship of state, plundered to their heart’s content, they cried, as is customary in such cases, ‘Hold that thief’, namely Poincaré. Or to be more exact, they had others do the crying for them. As a product of the collapsing bourgeois society, a new political tendency had developed, the fascists or Nazis, whose first members were recruited from the bankrupt petty bourgeoisie, unemployed officers and lumpen-proletariat, and whose demagogic ideology contained the reality of chauvinism and the destruction of democracy. The robber barons gave a small percentage of their gigantic booty to the Nazis whose revenge propaganda had provided a favourable sounding board for the action of French imperialism. The money given for Nazi propaganda was a sound investment and the effect was twofold: the fanatic hatred of France directed the attention of the people away from the machinations of the robber barons and the iron and steel princes, and at the same time the rise of the Nazis put the Social Democracy into such a state of fear of the ‘fascist danger’ that it swallowed the inflationary politics of Cuno as the lesser evil.

But the most hopeless floundering was in the ranks of the Communist Party. With its adventuristic soul it swam in the wake of the chauvinist Nazi propaganda; with its bureaucratic ‘ministerial’ soul it adapted itself to the sterile, negatively limited anti-fascism of the Social Democracy. There was hardly a phase of German politics into which the Communist Party did not project itself, even into that of the particularism of the provincial governments. Brandler and Co made Saxony and Thuringia the centre of their politics instead of Berlin. Confusion reached its height when, in Moscow, Radek glorified the anti-semitic soldier, Schlageter. ‘Schlageter, the courageous soldier of the counter-revolution, deserves to be honoured by us soldiers of the revolution’, declared Radek in an improvised speech at the extended plenum of the ECCI on the day after Schlageter was shot by the French troops of occupation. [52] The speaker turned to the ‘German Workers Party’ (as the Nazis were then called) with the question. ‘Against whom do you want to fight, Entente capitalism or the Russian people? With whom do you want to unite, the Russian workers and peasants in our common struggle to throw off the burden of finance capital or with Entente capital to enslave the German and Russian people?’ Through Radek’s words the Communists declared themselves ready to be in league with the Nazis: ‘We shall do everything so that men like Schlageter, who were ready to encounter death for a common cause, shall not be wanderers into nothingness, but travellers towards a better future for all of humanity’. At this conference only one delegate, the German Bohemian, Neurath, protested against this nationalist-communist mischief. Otherwise Radek’s speech aroused frantic applause. In Germany it was the basis of a series of fraternal actions between the Communists and the Nazis. Communist firms published pamphlets in which Communist and Nazi statements appeared alongside each other. This ideological disintegration made rapid progress.

The 1923 Events in Russia

To be sure, neither Lenin nor Trotsky was present at this plenum of the ECCI. Lenin’s consciousness was already lost forever, although his body which carried his spirit continued to perform its functions. And Trotsky? Although it was not generally known, at this time he was already in deep conflict with the bureaucratic centre of his party: the General Secretary Stalin and his henchmen, Zinoviev and Kamenev. At the beginning of the year Trotsky and Lenin had come to an understanding about their common action against the underhanded bureaucratism in the party and the state. All of Lenin’s last articles and letters were directed against Stalin’s policies and methods. Lenin and Trotsky intended to strike the decisive blow against Stalin and his bureaucratic group at the coming Twelfth Congress of the Russian party. Shortly before the convening of the congress, Lenin had suffered his second stroke from which he was never to recover. In his last letter to the party, which was later known as his Last Testament, he demanded Stalin’s removal from the post of General Secretary; among his other demands were the expulsion of Ordzhonikidze, who had boxed the ears of a Georgian comrade in the course of a discussion, and the removal of Dzerzhiski from his responsible post as head of the Cheka. Although Lenin was out of action, nevertheless he had bequeathed to his co-worker Trotsky excellent and potent weapons in the form of these last articles and letters.

It is interesting to note how Trotsky himself evaluated the chances he had at that time in the struggle against the bureaucratic disintegrating tendencies. In his autobiography he wrote: ‘Our joint action against the Central Committee at the beginning of 1923 would without a shadow of doubt have brought us victory. And, what is more, I have no doubt that if I had come forward on the eve of the Twelfth Congress in the spirit of a “bloc of Lenin and Trotsky” against the Stalinist bureaucracy, I should have been victorious even if Lenin had taken no direct part in the struggle’. Lenin had expressly warned Trotsky against concessions to his opponents: ‘Stalin will make a rotten compromise and then deceive us’. In expectation of Lenin’s recovery, Trotsky had entered into a compromise. He summoned Kamenev, Stalin’s supporter at the time, and told him: ‘Remember, and tell others, that the last thing I want is to start a fight at the congress for any changes of organisation. I am for preserving the status quo ... I am against removing Stalin, and expelling Ordzhonikidze and displacing Dzerzhinsky ... But I do agree with Lenin in substance. I want a radical change in the policy on the national question, a discontinuance of persecutions of the Georgian opponents of Stalin, a discontinuance of the administrative oppression of the party’. [53]

Kamenev and Stalin did exactly as Lenin had predicted: they accepted everything and did the opposite. It is certainly not very advisable to entrust bureaucrats with executing an anti-bureaucratic programme or, as the proverb goes, to make the goat the gardener. When Trotsky spoke of his possible victory at the Twelfth Congress, he added: ‘How solid the victory would have been is, of course, another question’. [54] One can certainly agree with him here. In view of the backwardness of Russia and the failure of the world revolution to materialise, reaction was unavoidable in Russia. But if Trotsky had publicly stepped forward in the spring of 1923 the Thermidorean tendencies would have been forced out into open battle, the reaction would not have assumed this veiled character, the meaning of the events in Russia would have been better understood in Europe and the rest of the world, and perhaps it would have been possible to release the Communist International from the hands of the bureaucrats.

Fifty years before, in a letter to Bebel, Engels had defended his and Marx’s position on the split in the First International at the Hague Congress: ‘We knew very well that the bubble must burst. All the riff-raff attached themselves to (the International). The sectarians within it became arrogant and misused the International in the hope that they would be allowed to commit the greatest stupidities and vulgarities. We could not put up with that. Knowing very well that the bubble must burst some time it was for us not a matter of delaying the catastrophe but taking care that the International emerged from it pure and unadulterated ... And if we had come out in a conciliatory way at the Hague, if we had hushed up the breaking out of the split – what would have been the result? The sectarians ... would have had another year in which to perpetrate, in the name of the International, still greater stupidities and infamies; the workers of the most developed countries would have turned away in disgust; the bubble would not have burst but, pierced by pin-pricks, would have slowly collapsed ...’. [55]

Trotsky and the German Crisis

The one opportunity to ‘make the bubble burst’ was missed by Trotsky in the spring of 1923. As a result, Stalin and his confederates secured the time and opportunity to commit the worst infamies in the name of the Russian party and the International. ‘The bubble did not burst but, pierced by pin-pricks, slowly collapsed’. The stench that it spread made the rise of a new movement impossible for a long time.

We are at a loss to understand why Trotsky stayed away from the plenum of the ECCI which acclaimed Radek’s speech on Schlageter. Perhaps, while waiting for Lenin’s recovery, he was exercising the utmost caution and, after his experience at the Twelfth Congress, did not feel inclined to take responsibility for decisions in the carrying out of which he had no part. His absence did not denote that he was indifferent to the German developments; on the contrary, he followed them with eager attention – and serious concern.

The objective conditions for a revolutionary solution of the German crisis were so favourable that the influence of the Communist Party grew tremendously in spite of its unstable politics. Widespread, all-embracing strikes broke out with no end in sight; the factory councils, the method of choosing workers’ representatives in the factories which was created by the November revolution and recognised by the Weimar government, won enormous importance among the rising masses as their organised leadership; in several industrial centres the workers organised themselves into militias (in units of a hundred each) and began to arm themselves. ‘We are dancing on a volcano and the revolution confronts us’, declared Stresemann, the leading bourgeois politician and later Reich Chancellor, at the beginning of July.

Under such circumstances everything depended upon the correct handling of the situation by the leadership of the German party, and Trotsky did not esteem this leadership any higher than Lenin had in his heart-to-heart talk with Clara Zetkin. At a plenary session of the Central Committee of the Russian party in September, Trotsky delivered a speech which, according to the official report, greatly enraged all the members of the Committee. He asserted that the leadership of the German Communist Party was no good, that the Central Committee of this party was imbued with the spirit of fatalism and ridden with incompetence. As a consequence, they were condemning the German revolution to failure. This speech, as the report adds, ‘had a depressing effect on all those present’. [56] ‘In order to win, the German leadership must have a precisely thought out and careful plan for the revolutionary overthrow’, Trotsky reminded the German party leadership. ‘The Communist Party cannot seize power by utilising the revolutionary movement from the sidelines but only by means of a direct and immediate political, organisational and military-technical leadership of the revolutionary masses’, he explained in an article in which he attempted to come to the aid of the German party. [57] Finally Trotsky demanded, as Lenin had done six years previously in connection with Russia, that a definite date should be decided upon for the uprising in Germany.

Zinoviev and the German party leaders wavered. There was no talk of serious preparation for the uprising. Moscow’s part was to offer to send some experienced Russians to Germany to help the leadership of the German party. There followed an unpleasant surprise for Stalin and his collaborators. Because they were not aware of the change of power in Russia the leadership of the German party requested Trotsky! The bureaucratic triumvirate (Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev) declared, however, that Trotsky could not be spared in Russia and sent a delegation with Radek at its head.

In the meantime the leadership of the German party had made further blunders against which Lenin and Trotsky had expressly warned them at the Fourth World Congress in 1922 – they entered the Social Democratic governments in Saxony and Thuringia. At a time when the doors to power in all Germany would have opened to the Communist Party, if they had only known how to use the key in their hands, Brandler and Thalheimer knocked at the servants’ entrance and begged for a few ministerial positions in the powerless provincial governments! [58] In the face of so much helplessness, the bourgeoisie regained its self-confidence. Ebert and Stresemann sent the Reichswehr to Dresden (Saxony) and Weimar (Thuringia) to depose the governments there.

The leadership of the Communist Party had boasted for a long time that such action on the part of the government would be the signal for the uprising. What really happened, Radek told at a plenary session of the ECCI before the Fifth World Congress. [59] ‘When the ECCI representatives reached Dresden the night after the Reichswehr occupied the town, comrade Brandler stated that he had given the order to retreat, and if the ECCI representatives thought it wrong, he would submit without dispute (the couriers had not yet been sent out). When the ECCI representatives, after acquainting themselves with the situation, decided that it would be impossible to start the struggle, they approved the decision.’ [60] It should be added that the delegation of the ECCI, before its departure from Moscow, had been given the contents of a letter by Stalin in which the latter, for the first time making his powerful position in the Russian party felt in the field of the International, declared that the German party must be held back, not encouraged. [61] So Brandler seemed to be covered on all sides when he gave his order to retreat. Because of some error the local leadership in Hamburg was notified too late; here several hundred battled with the Hamburg police for several days. In the rest of Germany they capitulated without a struggle. The German bourgeoisie had withstood its most difficult political crisis. For the German Communist Party the year 1923 signified the extension of the mistakes of 1921. At that time they wanted to assume the ‘offensive’ in spite of the situation; now in the midst of the most advantageous situation they found themselves unable to act. The result was a new severe crisis in the party, in the course of which, with Zinoviev’s help, Fischer-Maslow – christened by Lenin ‘petty demagogues’ – came to the head of the party for some time. They introduced a decade of the disintegration of the German workers’ movement which ended in the triumph of Hitler in 1933.

It is questionable whether the result would have been different if the German party had started the uprising on a fixed date in October 1923. Just as it was certain that Trotsky was correct in his evaluation of the political crisis in Germany, so it was also certain that his attempt to correct the policies of the German party was too late. The conception of the German party was not adequate from the very beginning. Its relations to the masses and to itself were not sufficiently analysed and its practical, concrete policies were incorrect in all decisive events, beginning with January 1919, likewise in the Kapp Putsch (1920), the March Action (1921) and so too in the year 1923. The mistake of 1923 did not begin with the failure to organise the uprising but with 11 January, the day of the occupation of the Ruhr by French troops. [62] Thanks to its unstable national-Bolshevik policies, the party was so disoriented in October that an attempt at uprising could hardly count on a successful outcome. With the German collapse the dream of world revolution was buried for a long time. Herein lies also the cause of the world revolutionist, Trotsky’s, downfall in Russia.

The reader may ask why. we attach so much importance to the history of the German movement and so completely neglect the history of other sections of the Comintern. The answer is that during these years Germany was the weakest link in the chain of capitalist countries, so that social revolution was most imminent there. The German party became involved in actual mass action and far-reaching political events, and its policies were the centre of the debates of the first five world congresses of the Comintern. The events in the German party were reflected in the other parties through Moscow. So the fate of the German party decided the fate of the Comintern.

A somewhat independent but also extremely brief role was played by the Italian party. The Italian Socialist Party, with the exception of Mussolini’s small group, had maintained a pacifist-tinted anti-chauvinist position during the World War. It thus found itself at odds with the Second International; and the entire party, from the right-reformist Turati to the ultra-left anti-parliamentarian Bordiga, had joined the Third International. This heterogeneous party was held together by the skilled tactician Serrati, an Italian Bebel. The attempt of the Executive of the Comintern to split this party and change its left wing into a Bolshevik party had little success. Such an attempt was doomed to failure, because between the centrist Serrati and the ultra-leftists around Bordiga and Bombacci there was a vacuum. Here also were lacking theoretically schooled and practically talented Marxists of great stature. When the Moscow Executive, in its battle with Serrati, threw its support to Bordiga-Bombacci, it strengthened those same tendencies against which Lenin had written his Left Wing Communism and against which Levi had waged war in Germany. The split in the Italian Socialist Party accomplished by Zinoviev’s messenger Rákosi at the congress in Livorno in 1921 was actually the overture to the March events in Germany. Italian radicalism remained bound in the chains of anti-parliamentarism, the traditional evil of the workers’ movement of the Romance countries, and suffered a lamentable ending very shortly. In spite of its great numerical weight Italian socialism, because of lack of decisive, consistent revolutionary politics, succumbed helplessly to the reckless rise of Mussolini. Italy anticipated the fate of the rest of Europe. This was all the more inescapable because the lessons of the Italian defeat were as little understood in Europe as the lessons of the Russian victory of October.

In Leon Trotsky’s autobiography the Communist International is hardly mentioned. So much the more space does the chapter on the Comintern take up his collected works. He always attributed the decisive reason for the defeat of his tendency in Russia to the defeat of the German revolution. Trotsky’s writings explain brilliantly just how the failure of the Communist International favoured the rise of the reactionary Soviet bureaucracy, and how this bureaucracy in turn finally destroyed the International. However, the question still remains open: Why had not Lenin and Trotsky succeeded in building a serious Marxist International during the period from 1917 to 1923?

Our historical analysis offers us the following answer to this question: the deep-rooted social democratic, fatalistic conception of revolution in Western Europe; the all-too-late unmasking of Kautskyism as the most skilled theoretical representative of this fatalism; the consequently delayed founding of the Communist International which, as a result, in its first years of existence showed revolutionary impatience in expecting the young, immature parties to accomplish the revolution; and, finally, the German March Action and the treatment of it by the Third World Congress, where form was placed above content, and a bureaucratic conception of discipline was sanctioned whereby the faith of the best Western European workers’ elements in the new International was shattered and the groundwork was laid for the catastrophic defeat of 1923.



Note by Bob Pitt
(Editor of What Next?)

1*. This article is published with the aim of stimulating discussion about the history of the early Communist International and the lessons it holds for revolutionaries today. The article originally appeared in the December 1942 and January 1943 issues of Fourth International, the theoretical journal of the US Socialist Workers Party, and its ‘revisionist’ thesis proved extremely contentious. Under the pseudonym of Marc Loris, the International’s secretary Jean Van Heijenoort contributed a lengthy critique of Held’s article to the February 1943 issue of the journal (The German Revolution in the Leninist Period). Taking particular exception to the article’s evaluation of the expelled German Communist leader Paul Levi Van Heijenoort accused Held of ‘coming dangerously close to the petty-bourgeois critics of Bolshevism, who also discovered that the “foundation stone” of Stalinism was laid by the Bolsheviks themselves’.

Walter Held was horn in Remscheid in 1910 as Heinz Epe. He joined the Communist youth organisation while a student and later became a member of the German Communist Party, before being expelled in 1931 as a Trotskyist. Because of his prominence in the German Left Opposition, Held was forced to leave the country after Hitler came to power, and during the following years he played a leading role in the world Trotskyist movement. Among his best known theoretical contributions is The Evolution of the Comintern, a document presented to the international Trotskyist conference (the ‘Geneva’ conference) of 1936. From 1934 Held was based in Norway, where he worked closely with Trotsky during the latter’s period of exile there. Following the Nazi occupation in 1940, Held sought refuge in Sweden. In early 1941 he attempted to reach the United States via the Soviet Union, hoping that in the confusion of wartime he would be able to get through undetected. He was identified en route, taken off the train by police at Saratov and disappeared. By the time this article was published in Fourth International, it is almost certain that Held had already been executed. He would have been barely 32 years old.

In view of the controversial character of the article, it seemed appropriate to provide references to the works quoted by Held so that readers can cheek the sources for themselves. In some cases I have changed the translations that appeared in the original article in order to bring them into line with the available English versions. Elsewhere, I have used new translations from the original German. Held himself sometimes mixed up direct quotations with paraphrases, and I have tried to separate these without significantly altering the original text. Explanatory notes have also been added.

Notes by MIA

A. Introductory note by the editor of Fourth International to the first part. (Fourth International, Vol.3 No.12, December 1942, p.377.

B. Introductory note by the editor of Fourth International to the second part. (Fourth International, Vol.4 No.1, January 1943, p.21.

C. The text here is in line with the following correction in Fourth International, Vol.4 No.2, February 1943, p.55:

In Walter Held’s article in the January Fourth International Why the German Revolution Failed, one sentence was inadvertently translated to mean its opposite. It read: “In his Notes of a Publicist, written in 1922 but published after his death, Lenin regrets having opposed Levi so harshly.” (p.23.) Actually the last part should have read: “Lenin regrets having made overtures to Levi.”


These notes were added by Bob Pitt, editor of What Next?.

1. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.27, p.98.

2. ibid., p.232.

3. ibid., vol.28, p.75.

4. J. Degras, ed., The Communist International 1919-1943: Documents, vol.1, 1971, p. 52.

5. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.31, p.493.

6. ibid., vol.33, p.499.

7. The quotations are from Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? See Collected Works, vol.5, pp.461, 515.

8. See Luxemburg’s article Organisational Questions of Russian Social Democracy, in Selected Political Writings, 1972, pp.283-306.

9. Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution, 1962, p.49

10. This appears to be a loose paraphrase of the Soviet appeal of 11 November 1918, To all German workers’, soldiers’ and sailors’ councils. The original reads: ‘so long as you tolerate a government consisting of princes, capitalists and Scheldemanns, then you do not really have power. The Scheidemanns will sell you out to capital ... build a workers’, soldiers’ and sailors’ government headed by Liebknecht.’ See J. Riddell, ed., The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power, 1986, pp.58-60.

11. Luxemburg’s critique of the Bolsheviks was written in 1918, but she was dissuaded from publishing it at the time. Under the title The Russian Revolution it was eventually published in 1922 by Paul Levi, after his expulsion from the Communist International.

12. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.29, p.271.

13. Levi accomplished the expulsion of the ultra-left at the KPD’s Second Congress in October 1919. The party’s total membership fell from 107,000 to less than half that figure.

14. Although Lenin agreed with Levi’s criticisms of the German ultra-left, he did not support their expulsion from the KPD. Lenin’s own approach to the ultra-leftists who had been attracted to the Communist International was to try and convince them through argument that their political methoes were mistaken.

15. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.31, p.24.

16. ibid., p.31.

17. The motion calling for the formation of a new International was submitted by delegates from Austria, Sweden, Hungary and the Balkans. But it is generally agreed that the intervention of the Austrian delegate Karl Steinhardt was decisive in persuading the congress to launch the Third International. According to Steinhardt’s own account, it was Lenin who arranged for the Austrian party’s resolution to be put to the congress.

18. Writings of Leon Trotsky 1939-40, 1973, p.372.

19. See Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, 1980, pp.92-7.

20. Although Martov did speak at the October 1920 Halle Congress, Zinoviev’s main opponent in the debate over Comintern affiliation was in fact Rudolf Hilferding, leader of the USPI) right wing.

21. Levi came into conflict with the Comintern representatives Rakosi and Kabakchiev over their role in carrying out a split in the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) at its Livorno conference in January 1921, as a result of which only a small minority of the PSI membership had been won over to the new Communist Party. Levi resigned from the KPD leadership in February after the Zentralausschuss (Central Commission) voted by 28 to 23 to condemn his position. Four of his supporters also resigned from the Zentrale in solidarity with Levi – Clara Zetkin, Ernst Däumig, Adolf Hoffman and Otto Brass.

22. The details of these provocations, the main responsibility for which lay with Hugo Eberlein, were revealed in documents seized by the police from Clara Zetkin while she was travelling to Moscow to the Communist International’s Third World Congress. The documents were published by the SPD in its paper Vorwärts and subsequently by the KPD itself in the pamphlet Die Enthüllungen zu den Märzkämpfen.

23. KPI) membership fell from 350,000 on the eve of the March Action to 180,000 in the summer of 1921.

24. H. Gruber, ed., International Communism in the Era of Lenin, 1967, p.320. This contains about half the text of Unser Weg: wider den Putschismus, a full English translation of which has yet to be published.

25. Protokoll des III. Kongresses der Kommunistischen Internationale, 1921, pp.183-4.

26. This is a quote from the ECCI statement of 6 April 1921. See Degras, The Communist International, vol.1, p. 218.

27. The justification for Levi’s expulsion was that he had broken discipline by publishing his attack on the party in Unser Weg: wider den Putschismus. Levi’s exaggerated description of the March Action as ‘the greatest Bakuninist putsch in all history’ gave ammunition to his enemies in the party, who accused him of lining up with the bourgeoisie and the Social Democrats against the KPD.

28. Although Zinoviev furiously denied that the ECCI was implicated, it is well established that the Executive’s representative Bela Kun, who arrived in Germany in late February, was involved in the decision to launch the March Action. He was probably acting with at least the tacit agreement of the ‘small bureau’ of the ECCI, which included Zinoviev, Bukharin and Radek. Lenin was informed of the ECCI’s involvement by Levi in a letter of 27 March, and replied that he ‘readily believed’ that Bela Kun had ‘defended the silly tactics, which were too much to the left – to take immediate action to help the Russians’ (Collected Works, vol.45, p.124). The possibility that Zinoviev’s support for an offensive in Western Europe was motivated by opposition to the NEP is mentioned by Pierre Broué in his Revolution en Allemagne, 1917-23, 1971, p.447.

29. See Trotsky, The Stalin School of Falsification, 1974, pp.26-7. Lenin and Trotsky, who were opposed to the March Action and the ultra-left politics which had given rise to it, won a narrow majority for their line in the CPSU Politbureau, but the Russian delegation to the Third World Congress was split down the middle. Lenin and Trotsky had the backing of Kamenev, while Zinoviev, Bukharin and Radek were supporters of the March Action. A compromise appears to have been reached with the agreement of Radek but against the protests of Zinoviev.

30. Protokoll des III. Kongresses, p.637. Trotsky’s speech dealing with the March Action can also be found in The First Five Years of the Communist International, vol.1, 1973, pp.321-33.

31. Protokoll des III. Kongresses, p.640.

32. ibid., pp.643, 645-6.

33. The March Action was based on the theory that the party could galvanise the passive masses by launching a ‘revolutionary offensive’. This idea apparently originated with August Thalheimer, who first advocated it at the KPD’s Fifth Congress in November 1920.

34. For the section of the Theses on Tactics dealing with the March Action, see Theses Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, pp.290-1. A separate resolution, The March Events and the Communist Party of Germany, did not exactly ‘anathematise’ the KPD opposition but did direct its main fire against them rather than against the ultra-left. The KPD leadership was asked to ‘take a tolerant attitude’ to the oppositionists who were themselves given strict instructions to dissolve their factional organisation, place their publications under party control and cease collaboration with the expelled Levi (ibid., p.229).

35. Protokoll des III. Kongresses, p.671. Five delegations supported this statement – among the signatories were August Thalheimer for the KPD and Bela Kun for the Hungarian section.

36. Protokoll: Fünfter Kongress der Kommunistischen Internationale, 1924, p.. 165. Radek is referring to the Open Letter of January 1921, for which he and Levi were both responsible. In it the KPD made a proposal to all the German workers’ organisations,including the SPD, for joint action around common objectives. The letter was thus an early example of the united front tactic later adopted by the Comintern as a whole. At an ECCI meeting on 21 February 1921, Zinoviev, Bukharin and Béla Kun all opposed the Open Letter, and only as result of Lenin’s intervention were they dissuaded from issuing a statement condemning it. Instead the question was ‘left open for discussion’. See B. Fowkes, Communism in Germany under the Weimar Republic, 1984, p. 58.

37. Protokoll: Fiinfier Kongress der Kommunistischen Internationale, p.468.

38. Protokoll des III. Kongresses, p.662.

39. This isn’t strictly true. Clara Zetkin was present at the Third Congress and vigorously defended Levi’s position. Other delegates who spoke in support of Levi and his political line were Heinrich Malzalin and Paul Neumann.

40. Protokoll des III. Kongresses, pp.665-6.

41. ibid., p. 662.

42. P. Levi, Der Parteitag der VKPD, Unser Weg (Sowjet), August 1921.

43. The quotations are from Clara Zetkin’s Erinnerungen an Lenin, 1957, pp. 28-51. The book was first published in 1924 and has appeared in various editions and translations as Reminiscences of Lenin. Lenin supported most of Levi’s criticisms of the KPD leadership’s role in the March Action, but he denied that it had been a putsch.

44. Trotsky recounts this exchange in Who is Leading the Comintern Today?, The Challenge of the Left Opposition 1928-29, 1981, p.188.

45. Levi formed a small organisation called the Kommunistischer Arbeitsgemeinschaft (KAG) after his expulsion from the Comintern. In 1922 the KAG fused with the rump of the USPD, which itself rejoined the SPD later that year. Levi was part of the left wing in the SPD, whose other leading figure was Kurt Rosenfeld. After Levi’s death a major section of this SPD left wing broke away to form the Sozialistischer Arbeiterpartei (SAP).

46. Whether Levi in fact committed suicide is uncertain. He was suffering from a fever and may have fallen from the window accidentally. It is even possible that he was murdered, for at the time of his death he was engaged in an investigation into the assassinations of Luxemburg and Liebknecht.

47. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.33, pp.208-9. Lenin made the same point in August 1921 in his letter to the KPD’s Jena Congress (ibid., vol.32, p.518).

48. C. Zetkin, Erinnerungen an Lenin, 1957, pp.50-1.

49. ibid., pp.43-4,

50. Däumig and Geyer left the KPD with Levi. Hoffman, Brass and Mahlzahn broke with the party in support of Ernst Friesland, who was expelled in December 1921 for opposing ECCI interference in the German party. The Friesland group joined Levi’s KAG. The speech Held quotes was in fact made by Radek.

51. Zetkin, Erinnerungen, pp.55-6.

52. Radek’s speech was published as Leo Schlageter – the Wanderer into the Void, in Labour Monthly September 1923.

53. Trotsky, My Life, 1975, pp.501, 504, 505-6

54. ibid., p.501.

55. Marx-Engels, Selected Correspondence, 1975, p.267.

56. The report is quoted by Trotsky in The Third International After Lenin, 1970, p.94.

57. Can a Counterrevolution or a Revolution be Made on Schedule?, in The First Five Years of the Communist International, vol.2, p.349.

58. In fairness to the KPD leadership, it should be pointed out that their entry into the governments of Saxony and Thuringia was part of the preparations for the seizure of power, and was carried out under instructions from the Comintern.

59. At the Russian party’s Thirteenth Congress in January 1924.

60. Degras, The Communist International, vol. 2 p. 71. The ECCI delegates were Radek and Pyatakov.

61. For Stalin’s letter see The Third International After Lenin, pp.319-20, and The Stalin School of Falsification, p.154. The letter was addressed to Zinoviev and Bukharin and appears to have been written shortly before the KPD’s ‘Anti-Fascist Day’ on 29 July.

62. Here Held repeats Trotsky’s analysis of the 1923 events. Contrary to anti-Trotskyist mythology, Trotsky’s view was not that the KPD had been wrong to call off the planned uprising in October 1923 but rather that the party’s mistaken policies during the earlier part of the year had made the retreat necessary. See The Challenge of the Left Opposition 1923-25, 1975, pp.94-5, 170-1. Trotsky repeated this point in discussion with SAP leader Jakob Walcher in 1933 – see Revolutionary History, vol.5 no.2, 1994, p.99.


Last updated on 23.8.2008