Paul Mattick 1945

Otto Rühle and the German Labour Movement

Source: Kurasje Archive;
Written: by Paul Mattick published in “Anti-Bolshevik Communism” in 1978 by Merlin Press, London;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden, for 2003;
Proofed: and corrected by Geoff Traugh, August 2005.


Otto Rühle’s activity in the German Labour Movement was related to the work of small and restricted minorities within and outside of the official labour organisations. The groups which he directly adhered to were at no time of real significance. And even within these groups he held a peculiar position; he could never completely identify himself with any organisation. He never lost sight of the general interests of the working class, no matter what specific political strategy he was advocating at any particular time. He could not regard organisations as an end in themselves, but merely as mediums for the establishment of real social relations and for the fuller development of the individual. Because of this broad view of life he was at times suspected of apostasy, yet he died as he lived – a Socialist in the true sense of the word.

Today every programme and designation has lost its meaning; socialists speak in capitalistic terms, capitalists in socialistic terms and everybody believes anything and nothing. This situation is merely the climax of a long development which has been initiated by the labour movement itself. It is now quite clear that only those in the traditional labour movement who opposed its undemocratic organisations and their tactics can properly be called socialists. The labour leaders of yesterday and today did not and do not represent a workers’ movement but only a capitalist movement of workers. Only by standing outside the labour movement has it been possible to work towards decisive social changes. The fact that even within the dominant labour organisations Rühle remained an outsider attests to his sincerity and integrity. His whole thinking was, however, determined by the movement which he opposed and it is necessary to analyse its characteristics in order to understand the man himself.

The official labour movement functioned neither in accordance with its original ideology nor with its real immediate interests. For a time it served as a control instrument of the ruling classes. First losing its independence, it was soon to lose its very existence. Vested interests under capitalism can be maintained only by the accumulation of power. The process of the concentration of capital and political power forces any socially important movement to attempt either to destroy capitalism or to serve it consistently. The old labour movement could not do the latter and was neither willing nor able to do the former. Content to be one monopoly among others it was swept aside by the capitalistic development toward the monopolistic control of monopolies.

Essentially the history of the old labour movement is the history of the capitalist market approached from a ‘proletarian’ point of view. The so-called market laws were to be utilised in favour of the commodity, labour power. Collective actions should lead to the highest possible wages. ‘Economic power’ gained in this manner was to be secured by way of social reform. To get the highest profits possible, the capitalists increased the organised control over the market. But this opposition between capital and labour also expressed an identity of interests. Both sides fostered the monopolistic re-organisation of capitalist society, though, to be sure, behind their consciously-directed activities there was finally nothing but the expansive need of capital itself. Their policies and aspirations, however much based on real considerations of facts and special needs, were still determined by the fetishistic character of their system of production.

Aside from commodity-fetishism, whatever meaning the market laws may have with regard to special fortunes and losses, and however they may be manipulated by one or another interest group, under no circumstances can they be used in favour of the working class as a whole. It is not the market which controls the people and determines the prevailing social relations but rather the fact that a separate group in society either owns or controls both the means of production and the instruments of suppression. Market situations, whatever they may be, always favour capital. And if they do not do so they will be altered, set aside or supplemented with more direct, more forceful and more basic powers inherent in the ownership or control of the means of production.

To overcome capitalism, actions outside the labour-capital-market relations are necessary, actions that do away with both the market and with class relations. Restricted to actions within the framework of capitalism, the old labour movement fought from the very beginning on unequal terms. It was bound to destroy itself or to be destroyed from without. It was destined either to be broken up internally by its own revolutionary opposition, which would give rise to new organisations, or doomed to be destroyed by the capitalistic change from a market to a controlled-market economy and the accompanying political alterations. Actually, the latter happened, for the revolutionary opposition within the labour movement failed to grow. It had a voice but no power and no immediate future, as the working class had just spent half a century entrenching its capitalistic enemy and building a huge prison for itself in the form of the labour movement. It is, therefore, still necessary to single out men like Otto Rühle in order to describe the modern revolutionary opposition, although such singling out is quite contrary to his own point of view and to the needs of the workers who must learn to think in terms of classes rather than in terms of revolutionary personalities.


The first world war and the positive reaction of the labour movement to the slaughter surprised only those who did not understand capitalist society and the successful labour movement within its confines. But only a few actually understood. Just as the pre-war opposition within the labour movement can be brought into focus by mentioning the literary and scientific products of a few individuals among whom Rühle must be counted, so the ‘workers’ opposition’ to the war may also be expressed in names like Liebknecht, Luxemburg, Mehring, Rühle and others. It is quite revealing that the anti-war attitude, in order to be effective at all, had first to find parliamentary permission. It had to be dramatised on the stage of a bourgeois institution, thus indicating its limitations from the very beginning. In fact, it served only as a forerunner of the bourgeois-liberal peace movement that finally succeeded in ending the war without disturbing the capitalistic status quo. If, in the beginning, most of the workers were behind the war-majority, they were no less behind the anti-war activity of their bourgeoisie which ended in the Weimar Republic. The anti-war slogans, although raised by revolutionists, merely served a particular brand of bourgeois politics and ended up where they started – in the bourgeois democratic parliament.

The real opposition to war and imperialism came to the fore in desertions from army and factory and in the slowly growing recognition on the part of many workers that their struggle against war and exploitation must include the fight against the old labour movement and all its concepts – it speaks in Rühle’s favour that his own name disappeared quickly from the honour roll of the war opposition. It is clear, of course, that Liebknecht and Luxemburg were celebrated up to the beginning of the second world war only because they died long before the warring world had been restored to ‘normalcy’ and was again in need of dead labour heroes to support the living labour leaders who carried out a ‘realistic’ policy of reforms or served the foreign policy of Bolshevik Russia.

The first world war revealed more than anything else that the labour movement was part and parcel of bourgeois society. The various organisations in every nation proved that they had neither – the intention nor the means to fight capitalism, that they were interested only in securing their own existence within the capitalistic structure. In Germany this was especially obvious because within the international movement the German organisations were the largest and most unified. To hold on to what had been built up since Bismarck’s anti-socialist laws, the minority opposition within the socialist party displayed a self restraint to an extent unknown in other countries. But, then, the exiled Russian opposition had less to lose; it had, furthermore, split away from the reformists and class-collaborationists a decade before the outbreak of the war. And it is quite difficult to see in the meek pacifist arguments of the Independent Labour Party any real opposition to the social patriotism that had saturated the British labour movement. But more had been expected of the German left-wing than of any other group within the International, and its behaviour at the outbreak of the war was therefore particularly disappointing. Apart from the psychological conditions of individuals, this behaviour was the product of the organisation-fetishism prevailing in the movement.

This fetishism demanded discipline and strict adherence to democratic formulae – the minority must submit to the will of the majority. And although it is clear that under capitalistic conditions these democratic formulae merely hide facts to the contrary, the opposition failed to perceive that democracy within the labour movement did not differ from bourgeois democracy in general. A minority owned and controlled the organisations just as the capitalist minority owns and controls the means of production and the state apparatus. In both cases, the minorities by virtue of this control determine the behaviour of the majorities. But by force of traditional procedures, in the name of discipline and unity, uneasy and against its better knowledge, the anti-war minority supported social-democratic chauvinism. There was just one man in the German Reichstag of August 1914 – Fritz Kunert – who was not able to vote for war credits but who was also not able to vote against them and thus, to satisfy his conscience, abstained from voting altogether.

In the spring of 1915 Liebknecht and Rühle were the first to vote against the granting of war credits to the government. They remained alone for quite some time and found new companions only to the degree that the chances of a victorious peace disappeared in the military stalemate. After 1916 the radical anti-war attitude was supported and soon swallowed up by a bourgeois movement in search of a negotiated peace, a movement which, finally, was to inherit the bankrupt stock of German imperialism.

As violators of discipline Liebknecht and Rühle were expelled from the social-democratic Reichstag faction. Together with Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Mehring and others, more or less forgotten by now, they organised the group, Internationale, publishing a magazine of the same title in order to uphold the idea of internationalism in the warring world. In 1916 they organised the Spartakusbund which cooperated with other left-wing formations such as the Internationale Sozialist with Julian Borchardt as their spokesman, and the group around Johann Knief and the radical Bremen paper, Arbeiterpolitik. In retrospect it seems that the last-named group was the most advanced, that is, advanced away from social-democratic traditions and toward a new approach to the proletarian class struggle. How much the Spartakusbund still adhered to the organisation and unity fetish that ruled the German labour movement came to light in their vacillating attitude toward the first attempts at re-orienting the international socialist movement in Zimmerwald and Kienthal. The Spartacists were not in favour of a clean break with the old labour movement in the direction of the earlier Bolshevik example. They still hoped to win the party over to their own position and carefully avoided irreconcilable policies. In April 1917 the Spartakusbund merged with the Independent Socialists [Unabhèngige Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands] which formed the centre in the old labour movement but was no longer willing to cover up the chauvinism of the conservative majority-wing of the social-democratic party. Relatively independent, yet still within the Independent Socialist Party, the Spartakusbund left this organisation only at the end of the year 1918.


Within the Spartakusbund Otto Rühle shared Liebknecht’s and Rosa Luxemburg’s position which had been attacked by the Bolsheviks as inconsistent. And inconsistent it was but for pertinent reasons. At first glance, the main reason seemed to be based on the illusion that the Social Democratic Party could be reformed. With changing circumstances, it was hoped, the masses would cease to follow their conservative leaders and support the left-wing of the party. And although such illusions did exist, first with regard to the old party and later with regard to the Independent Socialists, they do not altogether explain the hesitancy on the part of the Spartacist leaders to adopt the ways of Bolshevism. Actually, the Spartacists faced a dilemma no matter in what direction they looked. By not trying – at the right time – to break resolutely with social-democracy, they forfeited their chance to form a strong organisation capable of playing a decisive role in the expected social upheavals. Yet, in view of the real situation in Germany, in view of the history of the German labour movement, it was quite difficult to believe in the possibility of quickly forming a counter-party to the dominant labour organisations. Of course, it might have been possible to form a party in the Leninist manner, a party of professional revolutionists, willing to usurp power, if necessary, against the will of the majority of the working class. But this was precisely what the people around Rosa Luxemburg did not aspire to. Throughout the years of their opposition to reformism and revisionism, they had never narrowed their distance from the Russian ‘left’, from Lenin’s concept of organisation and revolution. In sharp controversies, Rosa Luxemburg had pointed out that Lenin’s concepts were of a Jacobin nature and inapplicable in Western Europe where not a bourgeois but a proletarian revolution was the order of the day. Although she, too, spoke of the dictatorship of the proletariat, it meant for her, in distinction to Lenin, “the manner in which democracy is employed, not in its abolition – it was to be the work of the class, and not of a small minority in the name of the class”.

Enthusiastically as Liebknecht, Luxemburg and Rühle greeted the overthrow of Czarism, they did not lose their critical capacities, nor did they forget the character of the Bolshevik party, nor the historical limitations of the Russian Revolution. But regardless of the immediate realities and the final outcome of this revolution, it had to be supported as a first break in the imperialistic phalanx and as the forerunner of the expected German revolution. Of the latter many signs had appeared in strikes, hunger riots, mutinies and all kinds of passive resistances. But the growing opposition to the war and to Ludendorff’s dictatorship did not find organisational expression to any significant extent. Instead of going to the left, the masses followed their old organisations, which lined up with the liberal bourgeoisie. The upheavals in the German Navy and finally the November rebellion were carried on in the spirit of social-democracy, that is, in the spirit of the defeated German bourgeoisie.

The German revolution appeared to be more significant than it really was. The spontaneous enthusiasm of the workers was more for ending the war than for changing existing social relations. Their demands, expressed through workers’ and soldiers’ councils, did not transcend the possibilities of bourgeois society. Even the revolutionary minority, and here particularly the Spartakusbund, failed to develop a consistent revolutionary programme. Its political and economic demands were of a twofold nature; they were constructed to serve as demands to be agreed upon by the bourgeoisie and its social-democratic allies, and as slogans of a revolution which was to do away with bourgeois society and its supporters.

Of course, within the ocean of mediocrity that was the German revolution there were revolutionary streams which warmed the hearts of the radicals and induced them to undertake actions historically quite out of place. Partial successes, due to the temporary stunning of the ruling classes and the general passivity of the broad masses – exhausted as they were by four years of hunger and war – nourished the hope that the revolution might end in a socialist society. Only no one really knew what the socialist society would be like, what steps ought to be taken to usher it into existence. “All power to the workers’ and soldiers’ councils”, however attractive as a slogan, still left all essential questions open. The revolutionary struggles that followed November 1918 were thus not determined by the consciously concocted plans of the revolutionary minority but were thrust upon it by the slowly developing counter-revolution which was backed by the majority of the people. The fact was that the broad German masses inside and outside the labour movement did not look forward to the establishment of a new society, but backwards to the restoration of liberal capitalism without its bad aspects, its political inequalities, its militarism and imperialism. They merely desired the completion of the reforms started before the war which were designed to lead into a benevolent capitalistic system.

The ambiguity which characterised the policy of the Spartakusbund was largely the result of the conservatism of the masses. The Spartacist leaders were ready, on the one hand, to follow the clear revolutionary course desired by the so-called ‘ultra-left’ and on the other hand they felt sure that such a policy could not be successful in view of the prevailing mass attitude and the international situation.

The effect of the Russian Revolution upon Germany had hardly been noticeable. Nor was there any reason to expect that a radical turn in Germany would have any repercussions in France, England and America. If it had been difficult for the Allies to interfere decisively in Russia, they would face lesser difficulties in crushing a German communist uprising. Emerging from the war victorious, the capitalism of these nations had been enormously strengthened; there was no real indication that their patriotic masses would refuse to fight against a weaker revolutionary Germany. At any rate, aside from such considerations, there was little reason to believe that the German masses, engaged in getting rid of their arms, would resume the war against foreign capitalism in order to get rid of their own. The policy which was apparently the most ‘realistic’ for dealing with the international situation and which was soon to be proposed by Wolfheim and Lauffenberg under the name of National-Bolshevism was still unrealistic in view of the real power relations after the war. The plan to resume the war with Russia’s help against Allied capitalism failed to consider that the Bolsheviks were neither ready nor able to participate in such a venture. Of course, the Bolsheviks were not averse to Germany or any other nation making difficulties for the victorious imperialists, yet they did not encourage the idea of a new large-scale war to carry on the ‘world-revolution’. They desired support for their own regime, whose permanency was still questioned by the Bolsheviks themselves, but they were not interested in supporting revolutions in other countries by military means. Both to follow a nationalistic course, independent of the question of alliances, and to unite Germany once more for a war of ‘liberation’ from foreign oppression was out of the question for the reason that these social layers which the ‘national revolutionists’ would have to win over to their cause were precisely the people who ended the war before the complete defeat of the German armies in order to prevent a further spreading of ‘Bolshevism’. Unable to become the masters of international capitalism, they had preferred to maintain themselves as its best servants. Yet, there was no way of dealing with internal German questions which did not involve a definite foreign policy. The radical German revolution was thus defeated even before it could arise both by its own and by world capitalism.

The need to consider seriously international relations never arose, however, for the German Left. Perhaps this was the clearest indication of its insignificance. Neither was the question as to what to do with political power, once it was captured, raised concretely. No one seemed to believe that these questions would have to be answered. Liebknecht and Luxemburg felt sure that a long period of class struggles was facing the German proletariat with no sign of an early victory. They wanted to make the best of it, suggesting a return to parliament and to trade union work. However, in their previous activities they had already overstepped the boundaries of bourgeois politics; they could no longer return to the prisons of tradition. They had rallied around themselves the most radical element of the German proletariat which was determined to consider any fight the final struggle against capital. These workers interpreted the Russian revolution in accordance their own needs and their own mentality; they cared less for the difficulties lurking in the future than about destroying as soon possible of the forces of the past. There were only two ways open to the revolutionists: either to go down with the forces whose cause is lost in advance, or to return to the fold of bourgeois democracy and perform social work for the ruling classes. For the real revolutionist there was, of course, only one way: to go down with the fighting workers. This is why Eugen Levine spoke of the revolutionist as ‘a dead person on furlough’, and why Rosa Luxemburg and Liebknecht went to their death almost somnambulistically. It is a mere accident that Otto Rühle and many others of the determined Left remained alive .


The fact that the international bourgeoisie could conclude its war with no more than the temporary loss of Russian business determined whole post-war history down to the second world war. In retrospect, the struggles of the German proletariat from 1919 to 1923 appear minor frictions that accompanied the capitalistic re-organisation process which followed the war crisis. But there has always been a tendency consider the by-products of violent changes in the capitalist structure as expressions of the revolutionary will of the proletariat. The radical optimists, however, were merely whistling in the dark. The darkness is real, to be sure, and the noise is encouraging, yet at this late hour there is no need to take it too seriously. As impressive as Otto Rühle’s record as a practical revolutionist may be, as exciting as it is to recall the proletarian actions in Dresden, in Saxonia, in Germany – the meetings, demonstrations, strikes, street-fights, the heated discussions: the hopes, fears and disappointments, the bitterness of defeat and the pain of prison and death – yet no lessons but negative ones can be drawn from all these undertakings. All the energy and all the enthusiasm were not enough to bring about a social change nor to alter the contemporary mind. The lesson learned was how not to proceed. How to realise the revolutionary needs of the proletariat was not discovered.

The emotional upheavals provided a never ending incentive for research. Revolution, which for so long had been mere theory and a vague hope, had appeared for a moment as a practical possibility. The chance had been missed, no doubt, but it would return to be better utilised next time. If not the people, at least the ‘times’ were revolutionary and the prevailing crisis conditions would sooner or later revolutionise the minds of the workers. If actions had been brought to an end by the firing-squads of the social-democratic police, if the workers’ initiative was once more destroyed through the emasculation of their councils by way of legalisation, if their leaders were again acting not with the class but ‘on behalf of the class’ in the various capitalistic institutions – nevertheless the war had revealed that the fundamental capitalistic contradictions could not be solved and that crisis conditions were now the normal conditions of capitalism. New revolutionary actions were probable and would find the revolutionists better prepared.

Although the revolutions in Germany, Austria and Hungary had failed, there was still the Russian Revolution to remind the world of the reality of the proletarian claims. All discussions circled around this revolution, and rightly so, for this revolution was to determine the future course of the German Left. In December 1918 the Communist Party of Germany was formed. After the murder of Liebknecht and Luxemburg it was led by Paul Levi and Karl Radek. This new leadership was at once attacked by a left opposition within the party to which Rühle belonged, because of its tendency to advocate a return to parliamentary activities. At the foundation of the party its radical elements had succeeded in giving it an anti-parliamentarian character and a wide democratic control in distinction to the Leninist type of organisation. An anti-trade union policy had also been adopted. Liebknecht and Luxemburg subordinated their own divergent views to those of the radical majority. Not so Levi and Radek. Already in the summer of 1919 they made it clear that they would split the party in order to participate in parliamentary elections. Simultaneously they began to propagandise for a return to trade-union work despite the fact that the party was already engaged in the formation of new organisations no longer based on trades or even industries, but on factories. These factory organisations were combined into one class organisation, the General Labour Union (Allgemeine Arbeiter Union Deutschlands). At the Heidelberg convention in October 1919 all the delegates who disagreed with the new central committee and maintained the position taken at the founding of the Communist Party were expelled. The following February the central committee decided to get rid of all districts controlled by the left opposition. The ‘opposition’ had the Amsterdam bureau of the Communist International on its side which led to the dissolution of that bureau by the International in order to support the Levi-Radek combination And finally in April 1920 the left wing founded the Communist Workers’ Party (Kommunistische Arbeiter Partei Deutschlands). Throughout this period Otto Rühle was on the side of the left opposition.

The Communist Workers’ Party did not as yet realise that its struggle against the groups around Levi and Radek was the resumption of the old fight of the German Left against Bolshevism, and in a larger sense against the new structure of world capitalism which was slowly taking shape. It was decided to enter the Communist International. It seemed to be more Bolshevik than the Bolsheviks. Of all the revolutionary groups, for exampe, it was the most insistent upon direct help for the Bolsheviks during the Russian-Polish war. But the Communist International did not need to decide anew against the ‘ultra-left’; its leaders had made their decision twenty years before. Nevertheless, the executive committee of the Communist International still tried to keep in contact with the Communist Workers’ Party not only because it still contained the majority of the old Communist Party, but also because both Levi and Radek, although doing the work of the Bolsheviks in Germany, had been the closest disciples not of Lenin but of Rosa Luxemburg. At the Second World Congress of the Third International in 1920 the Russian Bolsheviks were already in a position to dictate the policy of the International. Otto Rühle, attending the Congress, recognised the impossibility of altering this situation and the immediate need of fighting the Bolshevik International in the interest of the proletarian revolution.

The Communist Workers’ Party sent a new delegation to Moscow only to return with the same results. These were summed up in Herman Gorter’s Open Letter to Lenin, which answered Lenin’s Left Wing Communism – An Infantile Disorder. The actions of the International against the ‘ultra-left’ were the first open attempts to interfere with and control all the various national sections. The pressure upon the Communist Workers’ Party to return to parliamentarianism and trade unionism was constantly increased, but the Communist Workers’ Party withdrew from the International after its Third Congress.


At the Second World Congress the Bolshevik leaders, in order to secure control over the International proposed twenty-one conditions of admission to the Communist International. Since they controlled the Congress they had no difficulty in getting these conditions adopted. Thereupon the struggle on questions of organisation which, twenty years previously, had caused controversies between Luxemburg and Lenin were openly resumed. Behind the debated organisational questions were, of course, the fundamental differences between the Bolshevik revolution and the needs of the Western proletariat.

For Otto Rühle these twenty-one conditions were enough to destroy his last illusions about the Bolshevik regime. These conditions endowed the executive of the International, that is, the leaders of the Russian party, with complete control and authority over all national sections. In Lenin’s opinion, it was not possible to realise dictatorship on an international scale “without a strictly centralised, disciplined party, capable of leading and managing every branch, every sphere, every variety of political and cultural work.” To Rühle it seemed at first that behind Lenin’s autocratic attitude there was merely the arrogance of the victor trying to thrust upon the world the methods of struggle and the type of organisation that had brought power to the Bolsheviks. This attitude – which insisted on applying the Russian experience to Western Europe where entirely different conditions prevailed appeared as an error, a political mistake, a lack of understanding of the peculiarities of Western capitalism and the result of Lenin’s fanatical pre-occupation with Russian problems. Lenin’s policy seemed to be determined by the backwardness of the Russian capitalistic development, and though it had to be fought in Western Europe since it tended to support the capitalist restoration, it could not be called an out-right counter-revolutionary force. This benevolent view towards the Bolshevik revolution was soon to be destroyed by the further activities of the Bolsheviks themselves.

The Bolsheviks went from small ‘mistakes’ to always greater ‘mistakes’. Although the German Communist Party which was affiliated with the Third International grew steadily, particularly after its unification with the Independent Socialists, the proletarian class, already on the defensive, lost one position after another to the forces of capitalist reaction. Competing with the Social-Democratic Party, which represented parts of the middle-class and the so-called trade-unionist labour aristocracy, the Communist Party could not help growing as these social layers became pauperised in the permanent depression in which German capitalism found itself. With the steady growth of unemployment, dissatisfaction with the status quo and its staunchest supporters, the German social-democrats, also increased.

Only the heroic side of the Russian Revolution was popularised, the real every day character of the Bolshevik regime was hidden by both its friends and foes. For, at this time, the state capitalism that was unfolding in Russia was still as foreign to the bourgeoisie, indoctrinated with laissez-faire ideology, as was socialism proper. And socialism was conceived by most socialists as a kind of state control of industry and natural resources. The Russian Revolution became a powerful and skilfully fostered myth, accepted by the impoverished sections of the German proletariat to compensate for their increasing misery. The myth was bolstered by the reactionaries to increase their followers’ hatred for the German workers and for all revolutionary tendencies generally.

Against the myth, against the powerful propaganda apparatus of the Communist International that built up the myth, which was accompanied and supported by a general onslaught of capital against labour all over the world – against all this, reason could not prevail. All radical groups to the left of the Communist Party went from stagnation to disintegration. It did not help that these groups had the right policy and the Communist Party the ‘wrong’ policy, for no questions of revolutionary strategy were here involved. What was taking place was that world capitalism was going through a stabilisation process and ridding itself of the disturbing proletarian elements which under the crisis conditions of war and military collapse had tried to assert themselves politically.

Russia, which of all nations was most in need of stabilisation, was the first country to destroy its labour movement by way of the Bolshevik party dictatorship. Under conditions of imperialism, however, internal stabilisation is possible only by external power politics. The character of Russia’s foreign policy under the Bolsheviks was determined by the peculiarities of the European post-war situation. Modern imperialism is no longer content with merely asserting itself by means of military pressure and actual warfare The ‘fifth column’ is the recognised weapon of all nations. Yet the imperialist virtue of today was still a sheer necessity for the Bolsheviks who were trying to hold their own in a world of imperialist competition. There was nothing contradictory in the Bolshevik policy of taking all power from the Russian workers and, at the same time, attempting to build up strong labour organisations in other nations. Just as these organisations had to be flexible in order to move in accordance with Russia’s changing political needs, so their control from above had to be rigid.

Of course, the Bolsheviks did not regard the various sections of their International as mere foreign legions in the service of the ‘workers’ fatherland’. They believed, that what helped Russia was also serving progress elsewhere. They believed, and rightly so, that the Russian Revolution had initiated a general and world-wide movement from monopoly capitalism to state capitalism, and they held that this new state of affairs was a step in the direction of socialism. In other words, if not in their tactics, then in their theory they were still social democrats and from their point of view the social-democratic leaders were really traitors to their own cause when they helped preserve the laissez faire capitalism of yesterday. Against social-democracy they felt themselves to be true revolutionists; against the ‘ultra-left’ they felt they were realists, the true representatives of scientific socialism.

But what they thought of themselves and what they really were are different things. In so far as they continued to misunderstand their historical mission, they were continuously defeating their own cause; in so far as they were forced to live up to the objective needs of their revolution, they became the greatest counter-revolutionary force of modem capitalism By fighting as true social-democrats for predominance in the socialist world movement, by identifying the narrow nationalistic interests of state-capitalistic Russia with the interests of the world proletariat, and by attempting to maintain at all cost the power position they had won in 1917, they were merely preparing their own downfall, which was dramatised in numerous factional struggles, reached its climax in the Moscow trials, and ended in the Stalinist Russia of today – one imperialist nation among others.

In view of this development, what was more important than Otto Rühle’s relentless criticism of the actual policies of the Bolsheviks in Germany and the world at large was his early recognition of the real historical importance of the Bolshevik movement, that is, of militant social-democracy. What a conservative social-democratic movement was capable of doing and nor doing, the parties in Germany, France and England had revealed only too clearly. The Bolsheviks showed what they would have done had they still been a subversive movement. They would have attempted to organise unorganised capitalism and to replace individual entrepreneurs by bureaucrats. – they had no other plans and even these were only extensions of the process of cartellisation, trustification and centralisation which was going on all over the capitalist world. In Western Europe, however, the socialist parties could no longer act bolshevistically, for their bourgeoisie was already instituting this kind of ‘socialisation’ of their own accord. All that the socialists could do was to lend them a hand, that is, to grow slowly into the emerging ‘socialist society’.

The meaning of Bolshevism was completely revealed only with the emergence of fascism. To fight the latter, it was necessary, in Otto Rühle’s words, to recognise that “the struggle against fascism begins with the struggle against Bolshevism”. In the light of the present, the ‘ultra-left’ groups in Germany and Holland must be considered the first anti-fascist organisations, anticipating in their struggle against the communist parties the future need of the working class to fight the fascist form of capitalism. The first theorists of anti-fascism are to be found among the spokesmen of the radical sects: Gorter and Pannekoek in Holland; Rühle, Pfempfert, Broh and Fraenkel in Germany ; and they can be considered as such by reason of their struggle against the concept of party-rule and state-control, by their attempts to actualise the concepts of the council movement towards the direct determination of its destiny, and by their upholding the struggle of the German Left against both social-democracy and its Leninistic branch.

Not long before his death, Rühle, in summing up his findings with regard to Bolshevism, did not hesitate to place Russia first among the totalitarian stares. “It has served as the model for other capitalistic dictatorships. Ideological divergences do not really differentiate socioeconomic systems. The abolition of private property in the means of production (combined with) the control of workers over the products of their labour and the end of the wages system.” Both these conditions, however, are unfulfilled in Russia as well as in the fascist states.

To make clear the fascist character of the Russian system, Rühle turned once more to Lenin’s Left Wing Communism – An Infantile Disorder, for “of all programmatic declarations of Bolshevism it was the most revealing of its real character”. When in 1933 Hitler suppressed all socialist literature in Germany, Rühle related, Lenin’s pamphlet was allowed publication and distribution. In this work Lenin insists that the party must be a sort of war academy of professional revolutionists. Its chief requirements were unconditional leader authority, rigid centralism, iron discipline, conformity, militancy, and the sacrifice of personality for party interests - And Lenin actually developed an elite of intellectuals, a centre which, when thrown into the revolution, was to capture leadership and assume power. “There is no use trying,” Rühle said, “to determine logically and abstractly if this kind of preparation for revolution is wrong or right ... Other questions must be raised first; what kind of revolution was in preparation? And what was the goal of the revolution?” He answered by showing that Lenin’s party worked within the belated bourgeois revolution in Russia to overthrow the feudal regime of Czarism. What may be regarded as a solution for revolutionary problems in a bourgeois revolution cannot, however, at the same time be regarded as a solution for the proletarian revolution. The decisive structural differences between capitalist and socialist society exclude such an attitude. According to Lenin’s revolutionary method, the leaders appear as the head of the masses. “This distinction between head and body,” Rühle pointed out, “between intellectuals and workers, officers and privates, corresponds to the duality of class society. One class is educated to rule; the other to be ruled. Lenin’s organisation is only a replica of bourgeois society. His revolution is objectively determined by the forces that create a social order incorporating these class relations, regardless of the subjective goals accompanying this process.”

To be sure, whoever wants to have a bourgeois order will find in the divorce of leader and masses, the advance guard and the working class, the right strategical preparation for revolution. In aspiring to lead the bourgeois revolution in Russia, Lenin’s party was highly appropriate. When, however, the Russian Revolution showed its proletarian features, Lenin’s tactical and strategical methods ceased to be of value. His success was due not to his advance guard, but to the soviet movement which had not at all been incorporated in his revolutionary plans. And when Lenin, after the successful revolution had been made by the soviets, dispensed with this movement, all that had been proletarian in the revolution was also dispensed with. The bourgeois character of the revolution came to the fore again and eventually found its ‘natural’ completion in Stalinism.

Lenin, Rühle has said, thought in rigid, mechanical rules, despite all his pre-occupation with Marxian dialectics. There was only one party for him – his own; only one revolution – the Russian; only one method – the Bolshevik. “The monotonous application of a once discovered formula moved in an egocentric circle undisturbed by time and circumstances, developmental degrees, cultural standards, ideas and men. In Lenin there came to light with great clarity the rule of the machine age in politics; he was the ‘technician’, the ‘inventor’ of the revolution. All the fundamental characteristics of fascism were in his doctrine, his strategy, his ‘social planning’ and his art of dealing with men ... He never learned to know the prerequisites for the freeing of the workers; he was not bothered by the false consciousness of the masses and their human self-alienation. The whole problem to him was nothing more or less than a problem of power. Bolshevism as representing a militant power policy, does not differ from traditional bourgeois forms of rule. The rule serves as the great example of organisation. Bolshevism is a dictatorship, a nationalistic doctrine, an authoritarian system with a capitalistic social structure. Its ‘planning’ concerns technical-organisational not socio-economic questions. It is revolutionary only within the framework of capitalistic development, establishing not socialism but state-capitalism. It represents the present stage of capitalism and not a first step towards a new society.”


The Russian soviets and the German workers’ and soldiers’ councils represented the proletarian element in both the Russian and the German revolution. In both nations these movements were soon suppressed by military and judicial means. What remained of the Russian soviets after the firm entrenchment of the Bolshevik party dictatorship was merely the Russian version of the later Nazi labour front. The legalised German council movement turned into an appendage of trade-unionism and soon into a capitalistic instrument of control. Even the spontaneously formed councils of 1918 were - the majority of them – far from being revolutionary. Their form of organisation, based on class needs and not on the various special interests resulting from the capitalistic division of labour was all that was radical about them. But whatever their shortcomings, it must be said that there was nothing else on which to base revolutionary hopes. Although they frequently turned against the Left, still it was expected that the objective needs of this movement would bring it inevitably into conflict with the traditional powers. This form of organisation was to be preserved in its original character and built up in preparation for coming struggles.

Thinking in terms of a continued German revolution, the ‘ultra-left’ was committed to a fight to the finish against trade-unions and against the existing parliamentary parties; in brief, against all forms of opportunism and compromise. Thinking in terms of the probability of a side-by-side existence with the old capitalist powers, the Russian Bolsheviks could not conceive a policy without compromises. Lenin’s arguments in defence of the Bolshevik position in relation to trade unions, parliamentarianism and opportunism in general elevated the particular needs of Bolshevism into false revolutionary principles. Yet it would not do to show the illogical character of the Bolshevik arguments, for as illogical as the arguments were from a revolutionary point of view, they emanated logically from the peculiar role of the Bolsheviks within the Russian capitalistic emancipation and from the Bolshevik international policy which supported Russia’s national interests.

That Lenin’s principles were false from a proletarian point of view in both Russia and in Western Europe, Otto Rühle demonstrated in various pamphlets and in numerous articles in the press of the General Labour Union and in Franz Pfempert’s left-wing magazine, Die Aktion. He exposed the expedient trickery involved in giving these principles a logical appearance, trickery which consisted in citing a specific experience at a given period under particular circumstances in order to draw from it conclusions of immediate and general application. Because trade unions had once been of some value, because parliament had once served revolutionary propaganda needs, because occasionally opportunism had resulted in certain gains for workers, they remained for Lenin the most important mediums of proletarian policy for all times and under all circumstances. And as if all this would not convince the adversary, Lenin was fond of pointing out that whether or not these policies and organisations were the right ones, it was still a fact that the workers adhered to them and that the revolutionist must always be where the masses are.

This strategy flowed from Lenin’s capitalistic approach to politics. It never seemed to enter his mind that the masses were also in factories and that revolutionary factory organisations could not lose contact with the masses even if they tried. It never seemed to occur to him that with the same logic that was to hold the revolutionists in the reactionary organisations, he could demand their presence in the church, in fascist organisations, or wherever masses could be found. The latter, to be sure, would have occurred to him had the need arisen to unite openly with the forces of reaction as happened at a later day under the Stalinist regime.

lt was clear to Lenin that for the purposes of Bolshevism, council organisations were the least suitable. Not only is there small room in factory organisations for professional revolutionists, but the Russian experience had shown how difficult it was to ‘manage’ a soviet movement. At any rate, the Bolsheviks did not intend to wait for chances of revolutionary interference in political processes; they were actively engaged in everyday politics and concerned with immediate results in their favour. In order to influence the Western labour movement with a view to eventually controlling it, it was far easier for them to enter into, and to deal with, existing organisations. In the competitive struggles waged between and within these organisations, they saw a chance to gain a foothold quickly. To build up entirely new organisations opposed to all the existing ones would be to attempt what could have only belated results - if any at all. Being in power in Russia, the Bolsheviks could no longer indulge in long-view politics; in order to maintain their power they had to march up all the avenues of politics, not only the revolutionary ones. It must be said, however, that aside from their being forced to do so, the Bolsheviks were more than willing to participate in the many political games that accompany the capitalistic exploitation process. To be able to participate they needed trade unions and parliaments and parties and also capitalistic supporters, which made opportunism both a necessity and a pleasure.

There is no longer any need to point to the many ‘misdeeds’ of Bolshevism in Germany and in the world at large. In theory and in practice the Stalinist regime declares itself a capitalistic, imperialistic power, opposing not only the proletarian revolution, but even the fascist reforms of capitalism. And it actually does favour the maintenance of bourgeois democracy in order to utilise more fully its own fascistic structure. Just as Germany was very little interested in spreading fascism over her borders and the borders of her allies since she had no intention of strengthening her imperialistic competitors, so Russia concerns herself with safeguarding democracy everywhere save within her own territory. Her friendship with bourgeois-democracy is a true friendship; fascism is no article for export, for it ceases to be an advantage as soon as it is generalised. Despite the Stalin-Hitler pact, there are no greater ‘anti-fascists’ than the Bolsheviks on behalf of their own native fascism. Only so far as their imperialistic expansion, if any, will reach, will they be guilty of consciously supporting the general fascistic trend.

This general fascistic trend does not stem from Bolshevism but incorporates it. It stems from the peculiar developmental laws of capitalist economy. If Russia finally becomes a ‘decent’ member of the capitalist family of nations, the ‘indecencies’ of her fascistic youth will in some quarters still be mistaken for a revolutionary past. The opposition to Stalinism, however, unless it includes opposition to Leninism and to the Bolshevism of 1917, is no opposition but just a quarrel among political competitors. In so far as the myth of Bolshevism is still defended against the Stalinist reality, Otto Rühle’s work in showing that the Stalinism of today is merely the Leninism of yesterday, is still of contemporary importance, the more so as attempts might be made to recapture the Bolshevik past in the social upheavals of the future.

The whole history of Bolshevism could be anticipated by Rühle and the ‘ultra-left’ movement because of their early recognition of the real content of the Bolshevik revolution and the real character of the old social-democratic movement. After 1920 all activities of Bolshevism could be only harmful to the workers of the world. No common actions with its various organisations were any longer possible and none were attempted.


Together with ‘ultra-left’ groups in Dresden, Frankfurt am Main and other places, Otto Rühle went one step beyond the anti-Bolshevism of the Communist Workers’ Party and its adherents in the General Labour Union. He thought that the history of the social-democratic parties and the practices of the Bolshevik parties proved sufficiently that it was futile to attempt to replace reactionary parries with revolutionary parties for the reason that the party-form of organisation itself had become useless and even dangerous. As early as 1920 he proclaimed that ‘the revolution is not a party affair’ but demands the destruction of all parties in favour of the council movement. Working chiefly within the General Labour Union, he agitated against the need of a special political party until this organisation was split in two. One section (Allgemeine Arbeiter Union – Einheitsorganisation) shared Rühle’s views, the other remained as the ‘economic organisation’ of the Communist Party. The organisation represented by Rühle leaned toward the syndicalist and anarchist movements without, however, giving up its Marxian Weltanschauung. The other considered itself the heir to all that had been revolutionary in the Marxian movement of the past. It attempted to bring about a Fourth International but succeeded only in effecting a closer cooperation with similar groups in a few European countries.

In Rühle’s opinion a proletarian revolution was possible only with the conscious and active participation of the broad proletarian masses. This again presupposed a form of organisation that could not be controlled from above, but was determined by the will of its members. The factory organisation and the structure of the General Labour Union would, he thought, prevent a divorce between organisational and class interests; it would prevent the emergence of a powerful bureaucracy served by the organisation instead of serving it. It would, finally, prepare the workers to take over the industries and manage them according to their own needs and thus prevent the arising of new states of exploitation.

The Communist Workers’ Party shared these general ideas and its own factory organisations were hardly distinguishable from those that agreed with Rühle. But the party maintained that at this stage of development factory organisation alone could not guarantee a clear-cut revolutionary policy. All kinds of people would enter these organisations, there would be no method of proper selection, and politically undeveloped workers might determine the character of the organisations, which thus might not be able to live up to revolutionary requirements of the day. This point was well demonstrated by the relatively backward character of the council movement of 1918. The Communist Workers Party held that class-consciousness, Marxian trained revolutionists, although belonging to factory organisations should, at the same time, be combined in a separate party in order to safeguard and develop revolutionary theory and, so to speak, watch over the factory organisations to prevent them from going astray.

The Communist Workers’ Party saw in Rühle’s position a kind of disappointment seeking refuge in a new form of utopianism. It maintained that Rühle merely generalised the experiences of the old parties and it insisted that the revolutionary character of its organisation was the result of its own party form. It rejected the centralistic principles of Leninism but insisted upon keeping the party small so that it should be free of all opportunism. There were other arguments supporting the party idea. Some referred to international problems, some were concerned with the questions of illegality, but all arguments failed to convince Rühle and his followers. They saw in the party the perpetuation of the leader-mass principle, the contradiction between party and class, and feared a repetition of Bolshevism in the German Left.

Neither of the two groups could prove its theory. History by-passed them both; they were arguing in a vacuum. Neither the Communist Workers’ Party nor the two General Labour Unions overcame their status of being ‘ultra-left’ sects. Their internal problems became quite artificial, for there was actually no difference between the Communist Workers’ Party and the General Labour Union. Despite their theories, Rühle’s followers did not function in the factories either. Both unions indulged in the same activities. Hence all theoretical divergencies had no practical meaning.

These organisations – remnants of the proletarian attempt to play a role in the upheavals of 1918 – attempted to apply their experiences within a development which was consistently moving in the opposite direction from that in which these experiences originated. The Communist Party alone, by virtue of Russian control, could really grow within this trend towards fascism. But by representing Russian, not German fascism, it too, had to succumb to the emerging Nazi movement which, recognising and accepting prevailing capitalist tendencies, finally inherited the old German labour movement it its entirety.

After 1923 the German ‘ultra-left’ movement ceased to be a serious political factor in the German labour movement. Its last attempt to force the trend of development in its direction was dissipated in the short-lived activity in March 1921 under the popular leadership of Max Hoelz. Its most militant members, being forced into illegality, introduced methods of conspiracy and expropriation into the movement, thereby hastening its disintegration. Although organisationally the ‘ultra-left’ groups continued to exist up to the beginning of Hitler’s dictatorship, their functions were restricted to that of discussion clubs trying to understand their own failures and that of the German revolution.


The decline of the ‘ultra-left’ movement, the changes in Russia and in the composition of the Bolshevik parties, the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany restored the old relationship between economics and politics that had been disturbed during and shortly after the first world war. All over the world capitalism was now sufficiently stabilised to determine the main political trend. Fascism and Bolshevism, products of crisis conditions were – like the crisis itself – also mediums for a new prosperity, a new expansion of capital and the resumption of the imperialistic competitive struggles. But just as any major crisis appears as the final crisis to those who suffer most, so the accompanying political changes appeared as expressions of the breakdown of capitalism. But the wide gap between appearance and reality sooner or later changes an exaggerated optimism into an exaggerated pessimism with regard to revolutionary possibilities. Two ways, then, remain open for the revolutionist: he can capitulate to the dominant political processes, or he can retire into a life of contemplation and wait for the turn of events.

Until the final collapse of the German labour movement, the retreat of the ‘ultra-left’ appeared to be a return to theoretical work. The organisations existed in the form of weekly and monthly publications, pamphlets and books. The publications secured the organisations, the organisations the publications. While mass-organisations served small capitalistic minorities, the mass of the workers were represented by individuals. The contradiction between the theories of the ‘ultra-left’ and the prevailing conditions became unbearable. The more one thought in collective terms the more isolated one became. Capitalism, in its fascistic form, appeared as the only real collectivism, anti-fascism as a return to an early bourgeois individualism. The mediocrity of capitalist man, and therefore the revolutionist under capitalist conditions, became painfully obvious within the small stagnating organisations. More and more people, starting from the premise that the objective conditions’ were ripe for revolution, explained its absence with such ‘subjective factors’ as lack of class consciousness and lack of understanding and character on the part of the workers. These lacks themselves, however, had again to be explained by ‘objective conditions’, for the shortcomings of the proletariat undoubtedly resulted from their special position within the social relations of capitalism. The necessity of restricting activity to educational work became a virtue: developing the class-consciousness of the workers was regarded as the most essential of all revolutionary tasks. But the old social-democratic belief that ‘knowledge is power’ was no longer convincing for there is no direct connection between knowledge and its application.

The breakdown of laissez faire capitalism and the increasing centralist control over always greater masses through capitalistic production and war increased intellectual interest in the previously neglected fields of psychology and sociology. These branches of bourgeois ‘science’ served to explain the bewilderment of that part of the bourgeoisie which had been displaced by more powerful competitors and of that part of the petty-bourgeoisie reduced to proletarian levels of existence during the depression. In its early stages the capitalistic concentration process of wealth and power had been accompanied by the absolute growth of the bourgeois layers of society. After the war the situation changed; the European depression hit both bourgeoisie and proletariat and generally destroyed confidence in the system and in the individuals themselves. Psychology and sociology, however, were not only expressions of bourgeois bewilderment and insecurity but, simultaneously, served the need for a more direct determination of mass behaviour and ideological control than has been necessary under less centralistic conditions. Those who lost power in the political struggles which accompanied the concentration of capital as well as those who gained power offered psychological and sociological explanations for their full failures or successes. What to one was the ‘rape of the masses’ to the other was a newly-won insight – to be systematised and incorporated in the science of exploitation and control – into the social processes.

Under the capitalistic division of labour the maintenance and extension of prevailing ideologies is the job of the intellectual layers of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie. This division of labour is of course, determined more by existing class conditions than by the productive needs of the complex society. What we know we know by way of a capitalist production of knowledge. But as there is no other, the proletarian approach to all that is brought forth by bourgeois science and pseudo-science must always be a critical one. To make this knowledge serve other than capitalistic purposes means to cleanse it of all the elements entering it which are related to the capitalistic class structure. It would be as false as it would be impossible to reject wholesale all that is produced by bourgeois science. Yet it can only be approached skeptically. The proletarian critique – again on account of the capitalistic division of labour – is quite limited. It is of real importance only where bourgeois knowledge deals with social relationships. Here its theories can be tested as to their validity and their meaning for the various classes and for society as a whole. There arose, then, with the vogue of psychology and sociology, the need to examine the new findings in these fields from the critical point of view of the suppressed classes.

It was unavoidable that the vogue for psychology should penetrate the labour movement. But the whole decay of this movement was once more revealed by its attempt to use the new theories of bourgeois psychology and sociology for a critical investigation of its own theories instead of using the Marxian theory to criticise the new bourgeois pseudo-science. Behind this attitude was the growing distrust of Marxism due to the failures of the German and Russian revolutions. Behind it also was the inability to go beyond Marx in a Marxian sense, an inability clearly brought to light by the fact that all that appeared new in bourgeois sociology had been taken from Marx in the first place. Unfortunately, from our point of view, Otto Rühle was one of the first to clothe the more popular ideas of Marx in the new language of bourgeois sociology and psychology. In his hands the materialistic conception of history now became ‘sociology’ in so far as it dealt with society; in so far as it dealt with the individual, it was now ‘psychology’. The principles of this theory were to serve both the analysis of society and the analysis of the psychological complexities of its individuals. In his biography of Marx, Rühle applied his new psycho-sociological concept of Marxism which could only help to support the tendency toward incorporating an emasculated Marxism into capitalistic ideology. This kind of ‘historical materialism’, which searched for reasons of ‘inferiority and superiority complexes’ in the endless domains of biology, anthropology, sociology, economics and so forth in order to discover a kind of ‘balance-of-power of complexes by way of compensations’ which could be considered the proper adjustment between individual and society, this kind of Marxism was not able to serve any of the practical needs of the workers, nor could it help in their education. This part of Rühle’s activity, whether one evaluates it positively or negatively, has little if anything, to do with the problems that beset the German proletariat. It is, therefore, unnecessary to deal here with Rühle’s psychological work. We mention it nevertheless, for the double reason that it may serve as an additional illustration of the general despair of the revolutionist in the period of counter-revolution and as a further manifestation of the sincerity of the revolutionist, Rühle, within the conditions of despair. For in this phase of his literary activity, as in every other that dealt with pedagogical-psychological, historical-cultural, or economic-political questions, he also speaks out against the inhuman conditions of capitalism, against possible new forms of physical and mental slavery, and for a society befitting a free humanity.


The triumph of German fascism ended the long period of revolutionary discouragement, disillusionment and despair. Everything became at once more extremely clear; the immediate future was outlined in all its brutality. The labour movement proved for the last time that the criticism directed against it by the revolutionist was more than justified. The fight of the ‘ultra-left’ against the official labour movement proved to have been the only consistent struggle against capitalism that had this far been waged.

The triumph of German fascism, which was not an isolated phenomenon but was closely connected with the previous development of the whole capitalist world, did not cause but merely helped to initiate the new world conflict of the imperialistic powers. The days of 1914 had returned. But not for Germany. The German labour leaders were deprived of the ‘moving experience’ of declaring themselves once more the truest sons of the fatherland. To organise for war meant to institute totalitarianism, and that meant that many special interests had to be eliminated. Under the conditions of the Weimar Republic and within the framework of world imperialism, this was possible only by way of internal struggles. The ‘resistance’ of the German labour movement to fascism, half hearted in the first place, must not, however, be mistaken for a resistance to war. In the case of social-democracy and the trade unions it was not a resistance but merely an abdication accompanied by verbal protests to save face. And even this came only in the wake of Hitler’s refusal to incorporate these institutions, in their traditional form and with their ‘experienced’ leaders, into the fascist scheme of things. Neither was the ‘resistance’ on the part of the Communist Party a resistance to war and fascism as such but only in so far as they were directed against Russia. If the official labour organisations in Germany were prevented from siding with their bourgeoisie, in all other nations they did so without deliberation and without struggle.

A second time in his life, the exiled Otto Rühle had to decide which side to take in the new world-wide struggle. This time it seemed somewhat more difficult because Hitler’s consistent totalitarianism was designed to prevent a repetition of the vacillating days of liberalism during the last world war. This situation allowed the second world war to masquerade as a struggle between democracy and fascism and provided the social chauvinists with better excuses. The exiled labour leaders, in step with the labour organisations in their adopted countries, could still point to the political differences between the two forms of the capitalistic system although they were unable to deny the capitalistic nature of their new fatherlands. The theory of the lesser evil served to make plausible the reason why the democracies should be defended against the further spreading of fascism. Rühle, however, maintained his old position of 1914. For him the ‘enemy was still at home’, in the democracies as well as in the fascist states. The proletariat could not, or rather should not, side with any of them but oppose both with equal vehemence. Rühle pointed out that all the political, ideological, racial and psychological arguments offered in defence of a pro-war position could not really cover up the capitalistic reason for war: the struggle for profits among the imperialist competitors. In letters and articles he reiterated all the implications of the laws of capitalist development as established by Marx in order to combat the nonsense of popular ‘anti-fascism’ which could only hasten the fascisation process of world capitalism.

For Rühle fascism and state-capitalism were not the inventions of vicious politicians but the outcome of the capitalist process of concentration and centralisation in which the accumulation of capital manifests itself. The class relationship in capitalist production is beset by many insoluble contradictions. The main contradiction, Rühle saw, lies in the fact that capital accumulation means also a tendency toward a falling rate of profit This tendency can be combated only by a more rapid capital accumulation – which implies an increase of exploitation. But in spite of the fact that exploitation is increased in relation to the rate of accumulation necessary to avoid crises and depressions, profits continue to show a tendency to fall. During depressions capital is re-organised to allow for a new period of capital expansion. If nationally a crisis implies the destruction of weaker capital and capital concentration by ordinary business means, internationally re-organisation finally demands war. This means the destruction of the weaker capitalist nations in favour of the victorious imperialisms in order to bring about a new capital expansion and its further concentration and centralisation. Every capitalist crisis – at this stage of capital accumulation – involves the world; likewise every war is at once a world-wide war. Not particular nations but the whole of the world capitalism is responsible for war and crisis. This, Rühle saw, is the enemy and he is everywhere.

To be sure Rühle had no doubt that totalitarianism was worse for the workers than bourgeois democracy. He had fought against Russian totalitarianism since its inception. He was fighting German fascism, but he could not fight in the name of bourgeois democracy because he knew that the peculiar developmental laws of capitalist production would change bourgeois democracy sooner or later into fascism and state-capitalism. To fight totalitarianism meant to oppose capitalism in all its forms. “Private Capitalism,” he wrote, “and with it democracy, which is trying to save it, are obsolete and going the way of all mortal things. State-Capitalism – and with it fascism, which paves the way for it are growing and seizing power. The old is gone forever and no exorcism works against the new. No matter how hard we may try to revive democracy, all efforts will be futile. All hopes for a victory of democracy over fascism are the crassest illusions, all belief in the return of democracy as a form of capitalist government has only the value of cunning betrayal and cowardly self-delusion ... It is the misfortune of the proletariat that its obsolete organisations based upon an opportunistic tactic make it defenceless against the onslaught of fascism. It has thus lost its own political position in the body politic at the present time. It has ceased to be a history-making factor at the present epoch. It has been swept upon the dungheap of history and will rot on the side of democracy as well as on the side of fascism, for the democracy of today will be the fascism of tomorrow.”


Although Otto Rühle faced the second world war as uncompromisingly as he had faced the first, his attitude with regard to the labour movement was different from that of 1914. This time he could not help being certain that “no hope could spring from the miserable remnants of the old movement in the still-democratic nations for the final uprising of the proletariat and its historical deliverance. Still less could hope spring from the shabby fragments of those party traditions that were scattered and spilled in the emigration of the world, nor from the stereotyped notions of past revolutions, regardless of whether one believes in the blessings of violence or in peaceful transition.” Yet he did not look hopelessly into the future. He felt sure that new urges and new impulses will animate the masses and force them to make their own history.

The reasons for this confidence were the same as those that convinced Rühle of the inevitability of the capitalist development toward fascism and state-capitalism. They were based on the insoluble contradictions inherent in the capitalist system of production. Just as the re-organisation of capital during the crisis is simultaneously a preparation for greater crises, so war can breed only bigger and more devastating wars. Capitalistic anarchy can become only more chaotic, no matter how much its supporters may try to bring order into it. Always greater parts of the capitalist world will be destroyed so that the stronger capitalistic groups can keep on accumulating. The miseries of the masses of the world will mount until a breaking point is reached and new social upsurges will destroy the murderous system of capitalist production.

Rühle was as little able as anybody else at this time to state by what specific means fascism would be overcome. But he felt certain that the mechanics and dynamics of revolution will undergo fundamental changes. In the self-expropriation and proletarianisation of the bourgeoisie by the second world war, in the surmounting of nationalism by the abolition of small states, in the state-capitalistic world politic based on state federations he saw not only the immediately negative side but also the positive aspects of providing new starting-points for anti-capitalist actions. To the day of his death he was certain that the class concept was bound to spread until it would foster a majority interest in socialism. He looked for the class struggle to be transformed from an abstract-ideological category into a practical-positive-economic category. And he envisioned the rise of factory councils within the unfolding of labour democracy as a reaction to bureaucratic terror. For him the labour movement was not dead but was still to be born in the social struggles of the future.

If Rühle, finally, had nothing more to offer than the ‘hope’ that the future will solve the problems which the old labour movement failed to solve, this hope did not spring from faith but from knowledge, knowledge which consisted in recognising actual social trends. It did not contain a clue as to how to achieve the necessary social transformation. It demanded, however, dissociation from futile activities and hopeless organisations. It demanded recognition of the reasons that led to the disintegration of the old labour movement and a search for the elements that point to the limitations of the prevailing totalitarian systems. It demanded a sharper distinction between ideology and reality in order to discover in the latter the factors that escape the control of the totalitarian organisers. How little or how much is needed to transform society is always discovered only after that fact. But the balance-scale of society is delicate, and is particularly sensitive at the present time. The most powerful controls over men are really weak when compared with the tremendous contradictions that rend the world today. Otto Rühle was right in pointing out that the activities which will finally tip the scale of society in favour of socialism will not be discovered by means and methods related to previous activities and traditional organisations. They must be discovered within the changing social relationships which are still determined by the contradiction between the capitalist relations of production and the direction in which the productive forces of society are moving. To discover those relationships, that is, to recognise the coming revolution in the realities of today, will be the job of those who carry on in the spirit of Otto Rühle.