V. I. Lenin

A Letter to the German Communists

Written: 14 August, 1921
First Published: Published in 1921; Published according to the manuscript
Source: Lenin’s Collected Works, 1st English Edition, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1965, Volume 32, pages 512-523
Translated: Yuri Sdobnikov
Transcription\HTML Markup: David Walters & R. Cymbala
Copyleft: V. I. Lenin Internet Archive (www.marx.org) 2002. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

Dear comrades,

I had intended to state my view of the lessons of the Third Congress of the Communist International in a detailed article. Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to start on this work because of ill-health. The fact that a Congress of your Party, the United Communist Party of Germany (V.K.P.D.),[1] has been called for August 22, compels me to hasten with this letter, which I have to finish within a few hours, if I am not to be late in sending it to Germany.

So far as I can judge, the position of the Communist Party in Germany is a particularly difficult one. This is understandable.

Firstly, and mainly, from the end of 1918, the international position of Germany very quickly and sharply aggravated her internal revolutionary crisis and impelled the vanguard of the proletariat towards an immediate seizure of power. At the same time, the German and the entire international bourgeoisie, excellently armed and organised, and taught by the “Russian experience”, hurled itself upon the revolutionary proletariat of Germany in a frenzy of hate. Tens of thousands of the best people of Germany—her revolutionary workers—were killed or tortured to death by the bourgeoisie, its heroes, Noske and Co., its servants, the Scheidemanns, etc., and by its indirect and “subtle”(and therefore particularly valuable) accomplices, the knights of the “Two-and-a-Half International”, with their despicable spinelessness, vacillations, pedantry and philistinism. The armed capitalists set traps for the unarmed workers; they killed them wholesale, murdered their leaders, ambushing them one by one, and making excellent use to this end of the counter-revolutionary howling of both shades of Social-Democrats, the Scheidemannites and the Kautskyites. When the crisis broke out, however, the German workers lacked a genuine revolutionary party, owing to the fact that the split was brought about too late, and owing to the burden of the accursed tradition of “unity”with capital’s corrupt (the Scheidemanns, Legiens, Davids and Co.) and spineless (the Kautskys, Hilferdings and Co.) gang of lackeys. The heart of every honest and class-conscious worker who accepted the Basle Manifesto of 1912[2] at its face value and not as a “gesture”on the part of the scoundrels of the “Second” and the “Two-and-a-Half “ grades, was filled with incredibly bitter hatred for the opportunism of the old German Social-Democrats, and this hatred—the greatest and most noble sentiment of the best people among the oppressed and exploited masses—blinded people and prevented them from keeping their heads and working out a correct strategy with which to reply to the excellent strategy of the Entente capitalists, who were armed, organised and schooled by the “Russian experience”, and supported by France, Britain and America. This hatred pushed them into premature insurrections.

That is why the development of the revolutionary working-class movement in Germany has since the end of 1918 been treading a particularly hard and painful road. But it has marched and is marching steadily forward. There is the incontrovertible fact of the gradual swing to the left among the masses of workers, the real majority of the labouring and exploited people in Germany, both those organised in the old, Menshevik trade unions (i.e., the unions serving the bourgeoisie) and those entirely, or almost entirely, unorganised. What the German proletariat must and will do—and this is the guarantee of victory—is keep their heads; systematically rectify the mistakes of the past; steadily win over the mass of the workers both inside and outside the trade unions; patiently build up a strong and intelligent Communist Party capable of giving real leadership to the masses at every turn of events; and work out a strategy that is on a level with the best international strategy of the most advanced bourgeoisie, which is “enlightened”by agelong experience in general, and the “Russian experience”in particular.

On the other hand, the difficult position of the Communist Party of Germany is aggravated at the present moment by the break-away of the not very good Communists on the left (the Communist Workers’ Party of Germany, K.A.P.D.) and on the right (Paul Levi and his little magazine Unser Weg or Sowjet [3]).

Beginning with the Second Congress of the Communist International, the Leftists”or “K.A.P.-ists”have received sufficient warning from us in the international arena. Until sufficiently strong, experienced and influential Communist Parties have been built, at least in the principal countries, the participation of semi-anarchist elements in our international congresses has to be tolerated, and is to some extent even useful. It is useful insofar as these elements serve as a clear “warning”to inexperienced Communists, and also insofar as they themselves are still capable of learning. All over the world, anarchism has been splitting up—not since yesterday, but since the beginning of the imperialist war of 1914-18—into two trends: one pro-Soviet, and the other anti-Soviet; one in favour of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the other against it. We must allow this process of disintegration among the anarchists to go on and come to a head. Hardly anyone in Western Europe has experienced anything like a big revolution. There, the experience of great revolutions has been almost entirely forgotten, and the transition from the desire to be revolutionary and from talk (and resolutions) about revolution to real revolutionary work is very difficult, painful and slow.

It goes without saying, however, that the semi-anarchist elements can and should be tolerated only within certain limits. In Germany, we tolerated them for quite a long time. The Third Congress of the Communist International faced them with an ultimatum and fixed a definite time limit. If they have now voluntarily resigned from the Communist International, all the better. Firstly, they have saved us the trouble of expelling them. Secondly, it has now been demonstrated most conclusively and most graphically, and proved with precise facts to all vacillating workers, and all those who have been inclined towards anarchism because of their hatred for the opportunism of the old Social-Democrats, that the Communist International has been patient, that it has not expelled anarchists immediately and unconditionally, and that it has given them an attentive hearing and helped them to learn.

We must now pay less attention to the K.A.P.-ists. By polemising with them we merely give them publicity. They are too unintelligent; it is wrong to take them seriously; and it is not worth being angry with them. They have no influence among the masses, and will acquire none, unless we make mistakes. Let us leave this tiny trend to die a natural death; the workers themselves will realise that it is worthless. Let us propagate and implement, with greater effect, the organisational and tactical decisions of the Third Congress of the Communist International, instead of giving the K.A.P.-ists publicity by arguing with them. The infantile disorder of “Leftism”is passing and will pass away as the movement grows.

Similarly we are now needlessly helping Paul Levi, we are needlessly giving him publicity by polemising with him. That we should argue with him is exactly what he wants. Now, after the decisions of the Third Congress of the Communist International, we must forget about him and devote all our attention, all our efforts, to peaceful, practical and constructive work (without any squabbling, polemics, or bringing up of the quarrels of yesterday), in the spirit of the decisions of the Third Congress. It is my conviction that Comrade K. Radek’s article, “The Third World Congress on the March Action, and Future Tactics”(in Die Rote Fahne,[4] the Central Organ of the United Communist Party of Germany, issues of July 14 and 15, 1921), sins quite considerably against this general and unanimously adopted decision of the Third Congress. This article, a copy of which was sent me by one of the Polish Communists, is quite unnecessarily—and in a way that positively harms our work—directed not only against Paul Levi (that would be very unimportant), but also against Clara Zetkin. And yet Clara Zetkin herself concluded a “peace treaty”in Moscow, during the Third Congress, with the C.C. (the “Centrale”) of the United Communist Party of Germany, providing for joint, non-factional work! And we all approved of the treaty. In his misplaced polemical zeal, Comrade K. Radek has gone to the length of saying something positively untrue, attributing to Zetkin the idea of “putting off”(verlegt ) “every general action by the Party”(jede allgemeine Aktion der Partei ) “until the day when large masses rise”(auf den Tag, wo die grossen Massen aufstehen werden ). It goes without saying that by such methods Comrade K. Radek is rendering Paul Levi the best service the latter could wish for. There is nothing Paul Levi wants so much as a controversy endlessly dragged out, with as many people involved in it as possible, and efforts to drive Zetkin away from the party by polemical breaches of the “peace treaty”which she herself concluded, and which was approved by the entire Communist International. Comrade K. Radek’s article serves as an excellent example of how Paul Levi is assisted from the “Left”.

Here I must explain to the German comrades why I defended Paul Levi so long at the Third Congress. Firstly, because I made Levi’s acquaintance through Radek in Switzerland in 1915 or 1916. At that time Levi was already a Bolshevik. I cannot help entertaining a certain amount of distrust towards those who accepted Bolshevism only after its victory in Russia, and after it had scored a number of victories in the international arena. But, of course, this reason is relatively unimportant, for, after all, my personal knowledge of Paul Levi is very small. Incomparably more important was the second reason, namely, that essentially much of Levi’s criticism of the March action in Germany in 1921 was correct (not, of course, when he said that the uprising was a “putsch"; that assertion of his was absurd).

It is true that Levi did all he possibly could, and much besides, to weaken and spoil his criticism, and make it difficult for himself and others to understand the essence of the matter, by bringing in a mass of details in which he was obviously wrong. Levi couched his criticism in an impermissible and harmful form. While urging others to pursue a cautious and well-considered strategy, Levi himself committed worse blunders than a schoolboy, by rushing into battle so prematurely, so unprepared, so absurdly and wildly that he was certain to lose any “battle”(spoiling or hampering his work for many years), although the “battle”could and should have been won. Levi behaved like an “anarchist intellectual”(if I am not mistaken, the German term is Edelanarchist ), instead of behaving like an organised member of the proletarian Communist International. Levi committed a breach of discipline.

By this series of incredibly stupid blunders Levi made it difficult to concentrate attention on the essence of the matter. And the essence of the matter, i.e., the appraisal and correction of the innumerable mistakes made by the United Communist Party of Germany during the March action of 1921, has been and continues to be of enormous importance. In order to explain and correct these mistakes (which some people enshrined as gems of Marxist tactics) it was necessary to have been on the Right wing during the Third Congress of the Communist International. Otherwise the line of the Communist International would have been a wrong one.

I defended and had to defend Levi, insofar as I saw before me opponents of his who merely shouted about “Menshevism”and “Centrism”and refused to see the mistakes of the March action and the need to explain and correct them. These people made a caricature of revolutionary Marxism, and a pastime of the struggle against “Centrism”. They might have done the greatest harm to the whole cause, for “no one in the world can compromise the revolutionary Marxists, if they do not compromise themselves”.

I said to these people: Granted that Levi has become a Menshevik. As I have scant knowledge of him personally, I will not insist, if the point is proved to me. But it has not yet been proved. All that has been proved till now is that he has lost his head. It is childishly stupid to declare a man a Menshevik merely on these grounds. The training of experienced and influential party leaders is a long and difficult job. And without it the dictatorship of the proletariat, and its “unity of will”, remain a phrase. In Russia, it took us fifteen years (1903-17) to produce a group of leaders—fifteen years of fighting Menshevism, fifteen years of tsarist persecution, fifteen years, which included the years of the first revolution (1905), a great and mighty revolution. Yet we have had our sad cases, when even fine comrades have “lost their heads”. If the West-European comrades imagine that they are insured against such “sad cases”it is sheer childishness, and we cannot but combat it.

Levi had to be expelled for breach of discipline. Tactics had to be determined on the basis of a most detailed explanation and correction of the mistakes made during the March 1921 action. If, after this, Levi wants to behave in the old way, he will show that his expulsion was justified; and the wavering or hesitant workers will be given all the more forceful and convincing proof of the absolute correctness of the Third Congress decisions concerning Paul Levi.

Having made a cautious approach at the Congress to the appraisal of Levi’s mistakes, I can now say with all the more assurance that Levi has hastened to confirm the worst expectations. I have before me No. 6 of his magazine Unser Weg (of July 15, 1921). It is evident from the editorial note printed at the head of the magazine that the decisions of the Third Congress are known to Paul Levi. What is his reply to them? Menshevik catchwords such as “a great excommunication”(grosser Bann ), “canon law”(kanonisches Recht ), and that he will “quite freely”(in vollständiger Freiheit ) “discuss”these decisions. What greater freedom can a man have if he has been freed of the title of party member and member of the Communist International! And please note that he expects party members to write for him, for Levi, anonymously!

First—he plays a dirty trick on the party, hits it in the back, and sabotages its work.

Then—he discusses the essence of the Congress decisions.

That is magnificent.

But by doing this Levi puts paid to himself.

Paul Levi wants to continue the fight.

It will be a great strategic error to satisfy his desire. I would advise the German comrades to prohibit all controversy with Levi and his magazine in the columns of the daily party press. He must not be given publicity. He must not he allowed to divert the fighting party’s attention from important matters to unimportant ones. In cases of extreme necessity, the controversy could be conducted in weekly or monthly magazines, or in pamphlets, and as far as possible care must be taken not to afford the K.A.P.-ists and Paul Levi the pleasure they feel when they are mentioned by name; reference should simply be made to “certain not very clever critics who at all costs want to regard themselves as Communists”.

I am informed that at the last meeting of the enlarged C.C. (Ausschuss ), even the Left-winger Friesland was compelled to launch a sharp attack on Maslow, who is playing at Leftism and wishes to exercise himself in “hunting Centrists”. The unreasonableness (to put it mildly) of this Maslow’s conduct was also revealed over here, in Moscow. Really, this Maslow and two or three of his supporters and confederates, who obviously do not wish to observe the “peace treaty”and have more zeal than sense, should be sent by the German party to Soviet Russia for a year or two. We would find useful work for them. We would make men of them. And the international and German movement would certainly gain thereby.

The German Communists must at all costs end the internal dissension, get rid of the quarrelsome elements on both sides, forget about Paul Levi and the K.A.P.-ists and get down to real work.

There is plenty to be done.

In my opinion, the tactical and organisational resolutions of the Third Congress of the Communist International mark a great step forward. Every effort must be exerted to really put both resolutions into effect. This is a difficult matter, but it can and should be done.

First, the Communists had to proclaim their principles to the world. That was done at the First Congress. It was the first step.

The second step was to give the Communist International organisational form and to draw up conditions for affiliation to it—conditions making for real separation from the Centrists, from the direct and indirect agents of the bourgeoisie within the working-class movement. That was done at the Second Congress.

At the Third Congress it was necessary to start practical, constructive work, to determine concretely, taking account of the practical experience of the communist struggle already begun, exactly what the line of further activity should be in respect of tactics and of organisation. We have taken this third step. We have an army of Communists all over the world. It is still poorly trained and poorly organised. It would be extremely harmful to forget this truth or be afraid of admitting it. Submitting ourselves to a most careful and rigorous test, and studying the experience of our own movement, we must train this army efficiently; we must organise it properly, and test it in all sorts of manoeuvres, all sorts of battles, in attack and in retreat. We cannot win without this long and hard schooling.

The “crux”of the situation in the international communist movement in the summer of 1921 was that some of the best and most influential sections of the Communist International did not quite properly understand this task; they exaggerated the “struggle against Centrism”ever so slightly ; they went ever so slightly beyond the border line at which this struggle turns into a pastime and revolutionary Marxism begins to be compromised.

That was the “crux”of the Third Congress.

The exaggeration was a slight one; but the danger arising out of it was enormous. It was difficult to combat it, because the exaggerating was done by really the best and most loyal elements, without whom the formation of the Communist International would, perhaps, have been impossible. In the tactical amendments published in the newspaper Moskau[5] in German, French and English and signed by the German, Austrian and Italian delegations, this exaggeration was definitely revealed—the more so because these amendments were proposed to a draft resolution that was already final (following long and all-round preparatory work): The rejection of these amendments was a straightening out of the line of the Communist International; it was a victory over the danger of exaggeration.

Exaggeration, if not corrected, was sure to kill the Communist International. For “no one in the world can compromise the revolutionary Marxists, if they do not compromise themselves”. No one in the world will be able to prevent the victory of the Communists over the Second and the Two-and-a-Half Internationals (and under the conditions prevailing in twentieth-century Western Europe and America, after the first imperialist war, this means victory over the bourgeoisie) unless the Communists prevent it themselves.

Exaggeration, however slight, means preventing victory.

Exaggeration of the struggle against Centrism means saving Centrism, means strengthening its position, its influence over the workers.

In the period between the Second and the Third Congresses, we learned to wage a victorious struggle against Centrism on an international scale. This is proved by the facts. We will continue to wage this struggle (expulsion of Levi and of Serrati’s party) to the end.

We have, however, not yet learned, on an international scale, to combat wrong exaggerations in the struggle against Centrism. But we have become conscious of this defect, as has been proved by the course and outcome of the Third Congress. And precisely because we have become conscious of our defect we will rid ourselves of it.

And then we shall be invincible, because without support inside the proletariat (through the medium of the bourgeois agents of the Second and the Two-and-a-Half Internationals) the bourgeoisie in Western Europe and America cannot retain power.

More careful, more thorough preparation for fresh and more decisive battles, both defensive and offensive—that is the fundamental and principal thing in the decisions of the Third Congress.

“. . . Communism will become a mass force in Italy if the Italian Communist Party unceasingly and steadily fights the opportunist policy of Serratism and at the same time is able to maintain close contact with the proletarian masses in the trade unions, during strikes, during clashes with the counter-revolutionary fascist organisations; if it is able to merge the movements of all the working-class organisations and to transform the spontaneous outbreaks of the working class into carefully prepared battles. . . .”

“The United Communist Party of Germany will be the better able to carry out mass action, the better it adapts its fighting slogans to the actual situation in future, the more thoroughly it studies the situation, and the more co-ordinated and disciplined the action it conducts. . . ."

Such are the most pertinent passages of the tactical resolution of the Third Congress.

To win over the majority of the proletariat to our side—such is the “principal task”(the heading of Point 3 of the resolution on tactics).

Of course, we do not give the winning of the majority a formal interpretation, as do the knights of philistine “democracy”of the Two-and-a-Half International. When in Rome, in July 1921, the entire proletariat—the reformist proletariat of the trade unions and the Centrists of Serrati’s party—followed the Communists against the fascists, that was winning over the majority of the working class to our side.

This was far, very far, from winning them decisively; it was doing so only partially, only momentarily, only locally. But it was winning over the majority, and that is possible even if, formally, the majority of the proletariat follow bourgeois leaders, or leaders who pursue a bourgeois policy (as do all the leaders of the Second and the Two-and-a-Half Internationals), or if the majority of the proletariat are wavering. This winning over is gaining ground steadily in every way throughout the world. Let us make more thorough and careful preparations for it; let us not allow a single serious opportunity to slip by when the bourgeoisie compels the proletariat to undertake a struggle; let us learn to correctly determine the moment when the masses of the proletariat cannot but rise together with us.

Then victory will be assured, no matter how severe some of the defeats and transitions in our great campaign may be.

Our tactical and strategic methods (if we take them on an international scale) still lag behind the excellent strategy of the bourgeoisie, which has learned from the example of Russia and will not let itself be “taken by surprise”. But our forces are greater, immeasurably greater; we are learning tactics and strategy; we have advanced this “science”on the basis of the mistakes of the March 1921 action. We shall completely master this “science”.

In the overwhelming majority of countries, our parties are still very far from being what real Communist Parties should be; they are far from being real vanguards of the genuinely revolutionary and only revolutionary class, with every single member taking part in the struggle, in the movement, in the everyday life of the masses. But we are aware of this defect, we brought it out most strikingly in the Third Congress resolution on the work of the Party. And we shall overcome this defect.

Comrades, German Communists, permit me to conclude by expressing the wish that your party congress on August 22 will with a firm hand put a stop once and for all to the trivial struggle against those who have broken away on the left and the right. Inner-party struggles must stop! Down with everyone who wants to drag them out, directly or indirectly. We know our tasks today much more clearly, concretely and thoroughly than we did yesterday; we are not afraid of pointing openly to our mistakes in order to rectify them. We shall now devote all the Party’s efforts to improving its organisation, to enriching the quality and content of its work, to creating closer contact with the masses, and to working out increasingly correct and accurate working-class tactics and strategy.

With communist greetings,

N. Lenin

August 14, 1921


[1] Vereinigte Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (V. K. P. D . ) (United Communist Party of Germany ) was formed at the Unity Congress of the German Communist Party and the Left wing of the Independent Social-Democratic Party of Germany. It was held in Berlin from December 4 to 7, 1920. In October 1920, the Independent Social-Democratic Party of Germany split at the Congress in Halle when the majority demanded immediate affiliation to the Third International and complete adoption of the 21 conditions of affiliation worked out by the Second Congress of the Comintern. The Right wing of the party walked out of the Halle Congress and, under the old name, formed a separate party, which later, in September 1922, joined the Social-Democratic Party.

Lenin sent his letter to the Second Congress of the German Communist party, which was held in Jena from August 22 to 26, 1921. The items on the agenda were: the Third Congress of the Comintern; the party’s immediate tasks; trade union activity; the famine in Soviet Russia and ways of helping her, etc. One of the chairmen as Wilhelm Pieck. A resolution adopted by an overwhelming majority approved the decisions of the Third Congress of the Comintern and acknowledged the correctness of the criticism in the theses of the Third Congress of the party’s mistakes during the March 1921 uprising. The party resumed its old name of the Communist Party of Germany.

[2] The Basle Manifesto of 1912 on war was adopted by the Extraordinary International Socialist Congress in Basle held on November 24-25, 1912. It warned the peoples of the danger of a world-wide imperialist war, exposed its predatory aims and called on the workers to fight for peace, confronting “capitalist imperialism with the international solidarity of the proletariat”. The Manifesto included Lenin’s clause, taken from the Stuttgart Congress resolution (1907), that in the event of the outbreak of an imperialist war, the Socialists should utilise the economic and political crisis caused by the war to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule and fight for a socialist revolution.

[3] Sowjet (Soviet )—a monthly published in Berlin from 1919 to July 1921. It was edited by Paul Levi, and among its contributors were Henriette Roland-Holst, Paul Frölich, Adolf Maslow, Fritz Geyer, and others. From July 1, 1921, when Paul Levi was expelled from the United Communist Party of Germany, the magazine changed its political complexion and adopted the name of Unser Weg (Our Way ). It was closed down at the end of 1922.

[4] Die Rote Fahne (The Red Banner )—a paper founded by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg as the Central Organ of the Spartacus League; it later became the Central Organ of the Communist Party of Germany. It was published in Berlin from November 9, 1918, but was continuously harassed and repeatedly closed down by the authorities.

The paper played an important role in turning the Communist Party into a truly mass proletarian and revolutionary party, free from all kinds of opportunists. It stood for united working class action against the country’s militarisation and the spread of nazism. Ernst Thalmann, Chairman of the C.C. of the Communist Party of Germany, was an active contributor. After the nazi dictatorship was set up, the paper was closed down but continued to appear illegally. From 1935 it was issued in Prague and from October 1936 to late 1939, in Brussels.

[5] Moskau in German (Nos. 1-50), Moscou in French (Nos. 1-44) and Moscow in English (Nos. 1-41) was the organ of the Third Congress of the Communist International and was published in Moscow.