Paul Levi 1924

Introduction to
Trotsky’s Lessons of October

Source: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5. No. 2, Spring 1994, pp. 61–69.
Translated: by Mike Jones.
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

All editorial notes etc. were made in 1994 and since then more material may have come to light. Note by transcriber Ted Crawford, October 2009.

In December 1924 Paul Levi wrote an introduction for the edition of Trotsky’s Lessons of October that was published by E. Laub of Berlin in 1925. Another edition was published later by Trotsky’s admirer Franz Pfemfert. It will no doubt come as a surprise to those who judge Levi by the epithets ‘renegade’, ‘Menshevik’, etc, heaped upon him by the official Communist movement, to discover that his political position here is in essence the same as his outlook when he was a leader of the German section of that movement. This article has been translated by Mike Jones from Paul Levi, Zwischen Spartakus und Sozialdemokratie (EVA, Frankfurt, and Europa Verlag, Vienna, 1969), pp. 138–47. This is a collection of Levi’s articles, speeches, letters, etc, which has been edited and introduced by Charlotte Beradt, Levi’s biographer. The notes to this edition are sometimes superfluous and inaccurate, and so we have provided our own.

THE effect that the following exposition by Leon Trotsky exercises and will exercise on the Russian Communist Party and perhaps the Russian state is neither self-evident nor understood. This is an historical consideration with – in itself – a not excessively sharp critique of the errors at the time [October 1917] of the present leader of the Communist International,[1] but in the meantime the latter has also wholly admitted these himself, so that does not by itself explain the excitement, and, after all, do not the saints of the Catholic Church also get to heaven, not thanks to their innate virtues, but on account of overcoming their inherent defects? This criticism refers to things from the past, and where it does include more recent matters, it does not, in our opinion, even start with the correct assumptions. And finally, in these more topical parts, the criticism does not even refer to Russian affairs, but it is German sufferings that are brought up, and the great effect they have on the Russian situation. In our opinion, these are apparent contradictions for which the German reader requires an explanation.

Trotsky persists in the thesis that a situation existed in Germany during October 1923 in which the Communist Party, with a decisive leadership – as that of Lenin in October 1917 – would have succeeded in taking power. Why Trotsky arrives at this assumption is, for us, understandable. The war in the Ruhr had been lost. One can confidently maintain that what occurred was something unequalled in modern history, and perhaps in history in general. A people had been dragged through a terrible war lasting four years, whose end only exacerbated the suffering. According to general opinion, one must believe that the lesson has taken root: only the pike gives two consecutive bites on the fish hook, and so it is said not to feel the pain. The Germans – an extremely emotional nation as is known – took two bites. The war in the Ruhr was fought according to the formula of the World War. Like that, it was a fight over principle, a fight about the sanctity of treaties and all manner of fine things. But the German government carried out this second war with more inhuman methods than the Wilhelmine government carried out the World War. From the standpoint of the German bourgeoisie, the World War had at least still a trace of decency within it. One shot the ‘enemy’ dead and got on with plundering one’s own people only as an agreeable sideline, so to speak. In the war in the Ruhr, these side effects became shameless and the whole point of the thing: the French hardly bothered fighting the whole swindle; on the contrary, the longer the thing lasted the greater their chance of gaining a permanent foothold in the Ruhr, whereas the effects internally were devastating. Such a total undermining of every social condition in the short space of a few months, as occurred at that time in Germany, has perhaps not yet been seen anywhere else. Out of the ocean of tears represented by the war in the Ruhr emerged a small stratum of capitalists with increased economic power and increased lust for political power, and who had begun to undertake a terrible sorting out within their own capitalist ranks. The earlier inflationary bloodletting faded away, and the ‘honest ones’, who had not grasped the possibility of the Ruhr robberies[2] in good time, were brought to their knees. The middle class, both those in industry and the intellectuals, lost their economic foundations. The workers saw their wages in gold pfennigs drastically reduced, and this effect on their economic basis also meant that all their organisational structures, trade unions, cooperatives and so forth, were brought to their knees. It was – one can safely say – a much stronger social earthquake than that upon which the events described by Trotsky are based. Trotsky’s assumption has a certain logic on its side: since mankind has not yet died out, after such a social catastrophe some power will emerge that forms a new structure. And to such an extent one can still go along with Trotsky: for logically the force that must emerge after such a catastrophe will not be the one that caused it, so it is only logical that it will end with the seizure of power by the proletariat.

Trotsky only errs on one point, but this error is important. It does not follow that this force must therefore be the Communist Party, just because the German Communist Party is affiliated to the Communist International, and simply because, once upon a time, in a comparable situation in Russia, Lenin risked this gamble and won, and since also by chance – we don’t know whether Trotsky agrees also with this third premise – Gregory Zinoviev is in charge of this Third International. So when all three preconditions coincide, when the German situation is wholly comparable to the Russian one, when the Communist International has become the most flawless organisation ever created, and when Gregory Zinoviev has become a politician of great stature and not just an idiot of European fame, there we have it: nevertheless, even if all that occurred, the KPD has still not yet earned the legal title to put itself forward as the force which could shape the state after that catastrophe. This title can only be earned legitimately. The Bolsheviks too could not have gained power in October on the basis of a declaration that they felt themselves fit for the job, but only on the basis of a determined policy which had been pursued from April to October 1917. Only this policy gave the Bolsheviks the necessary legitimacy.

In the tragic circumstances in Germany such a policy was not so difficult to put forward. As pointed out, there was of course the previous experience of the World War; it took really no more than that to demonstrate how this war in the Ruhr was a shameless bout of plunder by German capitalists against German non-capitalists, and the end of this policy must ensure that the social classes who suffered by it turn on the originator of the policy. In this situation, which if they were real Communists was an unprecedented stroke of luck, one know-all and an even bigger know-all once again distinguished themselves by deciding the fate of the Communist Party. So Karl Radek – in Moscow – made that Schlageter speech, and the flashes from his spectacles, sparkling with enthusiasm, were seen in Berlin. Comrade Zinoviev gave it his blessing, for no ‘national nihilism’ can be tolerated in the Communist ranks. If the ‘slogan’ was issued in such a way at the summit, one can imagine its effect further down. Then, as in all similar institutions, particularly those like the army, but also in the Communist Party, the law of exaggeration from top to bottom came into play. After all, the Muscovites spoke in this way, so anyone can imagine how it became further elaborated lower down, when the district sergeants Remmele,[3] Könen[4] and Ruth Fischer[5] passed it on, and how it was perceived issuing from such illustrious mouths – not to speak of the lesser functionaries in Saxony, Thuringia and the Rhineland. And the result of all this was that, instead of a strong proletarian force at the end of the war in the Ruhr, there was a nationalist-Communist stench which poisoned the whole of Germany. The National Socialists lay claim to the same right which the Communists assert, to be the heirs of the foundering Germany: the one presents itself as National Communist, and the other as Communist-nationalist, so at bottom both were the same. Both registered their claims almost simultaneously, one in Saxony, the other in Munich. History rejected both such claims; certainly not because it wanted to approve or ratify the existing state of affairs, but only because those who registered their claim to the inheritance then failed to prove they were the legitimate heirs. We are neither glorifiers of the past nor of the present – for we see its end approaching. We have had the good fortune to avert the fate of either a dictatorship of Muscovite soldiery or Austrian sexual-pathology, and justifiably so, historically, politically and ethically.

And so we believe, that in this actual assumption, Leon Trotsky’s starting point is incorrect.

If, as far as the German circumstances of 1923 are concerned, the Trotskyist criticism is incorrect in its actual assumptions, it is even more incomprehensible how it could have had such a huge effect in Russia. We believe that to make this understandable, we must demonstrate two peculiarities of this criticism.

First of all, the criticism assumes the person of Lenin in a supposed political situation, and sets up, against this hypothetically acting Lenin in a hypothetical situation, the actual Zinoviev. Thus one peculiarity of the present intellectual life in the Russian Communist Party is demonstrated. We believe that we can assure readers beforehand that we do not want the smallest suspicion to develop that we wish to belittle the labours of Lenin, and that those people who wield Marxist phrases, who even today in the whole of the Russian Revolution see no more than an extended Communist putsch, are totally foreign to us and our views. Lenin’s achievements are great and will continue to be so, for in our opinion he was the first Socialist who confidently faced up to the problem of the ‘seizure of power by the proletariat’. Most Socialists in the West fear this problem like the head of Medusa. Instead of correctly, truthfully and concretely formulating and considering this problem, they thereupon indulge in all sorts of nice and round phrases about democracy, about coalition, about the transitional stage and other fine matters which, all in all, do not clarify but disguise the problem. Lenin, on the other hand, long ago recognised this problem, and had taken steps for its resolution. Whether the solution chosen for Russia is correct and whether it is, without more ado, applicable to all other countries, is quite another question, and those like us who do not reply in the affirmative are not thereby doing any damage to the stature of the Leninist achievement. Today, Columbus is rightly celebrated as the discoverer of America, even if he believed he was travelling to India.

But this recognition of Lenin’s stature, in itself no bad thing and shared by many, leads on to two phenomena whose dangers can be seen in the work of Trotsky. One is the emergence of a Lenin philology, similar to the Goethe philology in Germany or the Pandects literature[6] of the Middles Ages. So in every single situation, volume, chapter, paragraph and clause of a sentence by Lenin will be quoted which will either fit the given situation or not as the case may be. In place of living criticism comes the conception, autos epha, the master has spoken. Not only does Trotsky quote Lenin’s words in this way, he does it with a certain roguish justification, because he contrasts Lenin’s words with the present fleshly leaseholders of Lenin’s soul. His adversaries are not idle, for Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin hold up all the works, words and hints of Lenin to refute Trotsky. Commentaries and treatises are delivered and put forth. The Tausves Jontof[7] has yet to be written, but we are sure that it will be.

Just as the person of Lenin is both fossilised and sanctified, so the same thing is happening to his works. As we said, Lenin’s stature was a problem because most people were too timid to tackle him even theoretically. What raises him above the ranks of other Marxists is what he created organisationally. This has made the unthinking among his successors see only the organisational aspect. That is a very easy manner in which to examine all political problems. So all political problems are reduced to organisational mucking about, and it is not only that the brains of real children are never so successful and inventive as in play, but this is particularly true of the politically childlike. The history of the German Communist Party proves it. The childlike urge to play was mainly expressed in the use of military terminology, and the ‘little dears’ talked of putting on the helmet and buckling on the sword.

We have a hint that Trotsky – whose past, however, defends him against this charge, since his earlier disputes with Lenin were in this area – to some extent puts this danger to rest. It cannot be taken amiss when the founder of the Red Army indulges in military images – after all, it is his field. But nevertheless what does it mean when Trotsky too, almost in the style of Zinoviev, speaks of separate periods of strategy and tactics, as if one period is replaced by another. What are tactics, then? Nothing more than the sum of measures necessary for the attainment of an existing military objective. Therefore, tactics without strategy are not a campaign and not even a manoeuvre, whilst strategy without tactics does not exist. One must picture it in order to comprehend the whole absurdity of transferring these military conceptions to the proletarian class struggle. The proletarian class struggle has an objective indeed – it is the emancipation of the working class and the replacement of capitalism. As is well known, this aim will be achieved, not by a pitchfork revolution, but in a total movement of the working class. Within it, the individual movements and struggles of the class are not technical-tactical measures, but are part of the objective itself. So to what ridicule should Communist policy of recent years be condemned if strategy and tactics in the class struggle were not coordinated and had even been divided? What ‘tactical’ measures have they foisted on us? First there was the united front, then the splitting of the trade unions, and then grinding our teeth in exasperation, we all got together again and so on. And the aim of this ‘strategy’? There was none. These tactical manoeuvres were so poorly arranged that the Commissar for War, Trotsky, would have dismissed any general who had so aimlessly chased the Red Army around any Russian parade ground. In the proletarian class struggle there are in truth no strategic or tactical objectives in the military sense, and whoever tries to operate with such concepts is mistaken.

These little traits and peculiarities – not Lenin’s but those of Leninism – have been often mentioned. Here they are only of special significance when they are put alongside another fact, which is that the whole dispute over Trotsky’s book revolves around the present Russian situation, but speaks of a past German one. And yet everyone also knows that at its heart are very serious differences over Russian matters which have arisen between former comrades in arms. Thus in essence the Bolsheviks have to make a decision. The European revolution, which was the premise on which they made their revolution, has not happened. That the Bolsheviks made such an assumption is not, in our eyes, to their discredit, because it was their Socialist duty to locate their policy on this probability. There is no point in seeking the guilt or innocence of those involved in the revolution’s failure, and who erred in the West and who erred in Russia is of no interest today. But the fact of its non-appearance is clear, and forces the Bolsheviks to certain conclusions. There must be a showdown between them and the social stratum which, for the moment, has gained most from the Russian Revolution – the Russian peasantry. This could happen with a change of position by the Bolsheviks internally. It could be along the lines of democratic enlightenment within rural society, or it could be in the form of a violent revolt by the peasants. But, whatever it is, the Bolsheviks will have to make certain decisions, and everything that worries the Russian Communists in the last analysis boils down to this question of when and what decisions must be made.

With all this, why do the Bolsheviks argue over the past and over German issues? It seems to us that here the Russian movement is, in a way, returning once again to its roots. In earlier years none of us really came into close contact with the Russian labour movement. They operated in different ways from us in Europe. They developed within feudal absolutism. The forms of expression of the rest of the European labour movement which grew on a bourgeois-democratic basis – parliament, trade union, press, party, cooperative – were almost or wholly foreign to them. They operated in illegality, and therefore developed in a literary manner so that the stages in their development were – the 1905 events apart – resolutions and splits, the latter occurring mainly over resolutions. No European worker outside Russia would have understood a split because of a resolution. We were always sympathetic to such phenomena in the Russian labour movement, seeing them from a passive angle, and taking into account the oppressive burden of persecution.

Today, we are in the situation of looking at the active side of this. As they themselves proudly say, the Bolsheviks are the only legal party in Russia. Only they have freedom of press and assembly, and only they have freedom of speech. But freedom which exists for one alone, only one person, only one party, is just not freedom. Freedom for one person alone existed in Russia of old. Börne even says that in Russia, therefore, there is greater freedom since only a single one has it there, and, as always, the greater the number of participants, the smaller will be the portions. This greater freedom for one individual is in fact one single unfreedom – the freedom which the Bolsheviks take for themselves, like the Tsar, deprives others of some of their freedom, which therefore loses all its qualities. And so the Bolsheviks will suffer the same handicaps from their freedom that they once had from their unfreedom, and since their freedom has no complementary freedoms, they will lose all connection to reality, become lifeless, and, in place of the real political life and the wide vision which arises from this freedom, we see the literature and resolutions. The recent history of the Bolsheviks and the effects of this book both illustrate the point, for, without it, the effect of the book on Russia would be incomprehensible. And thus it seems to us that the Bolshevik movement has, as we said long ago, reached an ad absurdum point, for not only the past intransigent persecution but also its present intransigent rule condemn it to the life of a sect, and so force it, in the last analysis, to become its political opposite.

In this way, Trotsky’s book can be of decisive significance, and by whom better than Trotsky, who already a decade or more ago with brilliant derision, irony and good grounds, exposed the disadvantageous aspects of Bolshevik thought?[8] And here perhaps lies the international significance of this book by Trotsky. In the international labour movement that will again emerge out the ashes of the last decade, and on a higher level too than ever before, the Russian labour movement cannot and will not be found wanting. So this book appears to us to be a sign that the real interests of the working class will destroy the move to Caesarism just at the point when Caesar has declared the Communist Manifesto a national religious shrine.


1. A reference to Gregory Zinoviev, who was the President of the Communist International from 1919 to 1926.

2. A reference to the hyperinflation.

3. For Hermann Remmele, cf. n64, Jakob Reich’s article in this issue of Revolutionary History.

4. The editor of the collection from which this article is taken refers to Bernhard Könen (1889–1964), who was in October 1918 the Chairman of the workers’ council in the Leuna Works (Oskar Hippe mentions him in this post during the March Action in his book And Red is the Colour of Our Flag), then became a teacher in the Comintern school in Ufa, and was from September 1960 a member of the Council of State of the DDR. Here the editor is surely mistaken, as Levi was undoubtedly referring to his brother Wilhelm Könen (cf. n50, Jakob Reich’s article in this issue of Revolutionary History). Both originated in the USPD left and went with it into the KPD, where Wilhelm became a Central Committee member from the start.

5. Ruth Fischer (1895–1961). A founding member of the Austrian Communist Party, she moved to Berlin and became a leading spokesman of the ultra-left, originally as the second string to Ernst Reuter (Friesland). She was a Reichstag deputy during 1924-28, although she was expelled from the KPD in 1926. She was later a member of Hugo Urbahn’s Leninbund, which she left in response to an offer from the ECCI of reinstatement (which never materialised). She became a supporter of Trotsky and was briefly integrated into the top councils of his movement, although the Germans would not accept her into their section. She moved to the USA, where she went so far as to denounce her brother Gerhart Eisler to the authorities during the Cold War, and she died in France. She wrote various books, including the none-too-reliable Stalin and German Communism (Cambridge, 1948).

6. Pandects were a compendium in 50 books of Roman Civil Law made by order of Justinian in the sixth century.

7. The Tausves Jontof or Jontof Commentaries is probably a reference to the famous rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann ben Nathan Heller (1579–1654) of Prague, an outstanding Talmudic scholar who wrote an enormous amount, including commentaries on the Mishnah.

8. This is a reference to Trotsky’s pamphlet of 1904, Our Political Tasks, English edition published by New Park, n.d.

(cf n50, Jakob Reich’s article in this issue of Revolutionary History)

50. Wilhelm Könen (1886–1963) joined the KPD from the USPD in 1920. He shifted from support for Brandler to leftism, and was always found in the loyal body of Moscow yes-men. He was in Britain during the Second World War, where he was the KPD’s leader, and he subsequently held important posts in the DDR. He was ‘Comrade Thomas’’ main informant in the KPD’s leadership, and was considered by Eberlein as ‘an appalling careerist’, whose reports were ‘undoubtedly the most thorough and the most dangerous’. Editor’s note.

cf n64, Jakob Reich’s article in this issue of Revolutionary History.

64. Hermann Remmele (1880–1938) was in the SPD, then the USPD, and joined the KPD in 1920. He was a Reichstag deputy for the KPD during 1920–33. Remmele was called to Moscow on account of his eleventh hour opposition to Thälmann and Stalin shortly after the Nazi takeover. In 1933 he apparently recognised that a defeat had occurred, an idea which was unacceptable to the Stalinists. He refused to sign a text admitting responsibility for the defeat of 1933 as the Russians wanted, and he was liquidated in the purges. In DDR historiography he is blamed for the party’s ultra-leftism. There is little documentation at present about this little revolt in the apparatus.