Source: Published in To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921 (https://www.haymarketbooks.org/books/897-to-the-masses), pp. 406–445.
Translation: John Riddell.
HTML Markup: David Walters & Andy Blunden for the Marxists Internet Archive, 2018.
Copyright: © John Riddell, 2017. Republished here with permission
1.) The overall world situation
The question of the Communist International’s tactics and strategy cannot be separated from the facts regarding the period of time in which it is functioning. In determining its tactics, the Communist International must begin with a specific analysis of the present epoch. That is why we sought, through the report by Comrade Trotsky at the beginning of the congress, to provide as objective as possible a presentation of the forces now at work, a presentation that would enable us to say whether the world revolution as a whole is now rising or declining.
Beyond any question, the Communist International will exist and function even if the world revolution suffers defeat. If there is a lengthy breathing spell in capitalist society, we simply have different tasks than we do in a situation in which we perceive a general rising tendency of revolution. It would then not have the task of preparing proletarians to confront all the eventualities of civil war. Its principal task would then be to carry out organisation and agitation and to build armies for the coming battles.
Well, comrades, Comrade Trotsky’s report demonstrated that, in our opinion, there are not yet any visible forces that would lead us to think that the development of world revolution has been interrupted by forces that are building up and consolidating capitalism. It was noted in Trotsky’s report and the discussion that when we say events are headed toward world revolution, this does not at all mean that we dogmatically exclude the possibility that an interval will occur, and that the world economic crisis could give way to a transitory economic recovery. But the fundamental direction, the general course we are following, is based on this fact: The forces of world revolution continue to unfold. What lies ahead is not a decline of world revolution but a gathering of revolutionary forces for new struggles. This is not just our opinion. I imagine that no one in this room considers Martov to be particularly oriented, as a theoretician and political figure, to world revolution. Nonetheless, this Martov wrote the following in the May issue of Freiheit:
The strengthening of counterrevolution by no means indicates that capitalism has overcome the results of the economic crisis caused by the War or has normalised the process of production and trade. On the contrary, more clearly than ever before we see capitalism’s incapacity to restore world production on the scale of the prewar period and to assure its well-ordered continuation. Enormous and unprecedented unemployment, the systematic shutdown of factories or shortening of working time in every branch of the economy, an acute shortage of goods in some countries, while in others warehouses are overflowing with goods for which there are no markets – that is the pattern of present world production.
There is no basis at present for a counterrevolution of the type that began in 1849, when the crisis that had afflicted the popular masses was overcome by an economic upswing. If capitalism cannot succeed, through overcoming national conflicts and planned international regulation, in establishing an economic equilibrium – and so far there is no evidence that might indicate that competition between national capitalisms is being overcome in this way – then after the present ebbing of the revolutionary wave the crisis will necessarily set loose a new flood-tide of revolution.2
Martov’s comments lead me to the question of how much validity there is in the objections raised against the Communist International by the Two-and-a-Half International, especially in the remarks by Friedrich Adler at their Vienna conference.3 They say that although the world revolution has not ended, we placed our bets on a rapid victory, while they, as political realists, reckoned with the world revolution developing at a slower pace. Comrades, I will not tire you with a series of quotations from the Russian Communist press in 1918, which I could bring by the bucketful, pointing out that given the relationship of forces in Western Europe and the strength of the bourgeoisie there, it was unlikely that capitalism could be swept aside by an uprising of the popular masses. There is no need for me to remind the German delegates that since 1919 we established as the starting point for our policies the fact that the world revolution would develop at a sluggish pace, and that we must therefore struggle with all our energy against revolutionary impatience. The Second Congress took place in a situation where we seemed to be on the verge of a mighty collision between the forces of world revolution and world reaction. Nonetheless, all the resolutions of that congress were oriented to preparing the Communist International for an extended struggle.
The difference between us and the Two-and-a-Half International was not that they, as political realists, understood that good things take time, while we wanted to gobble up the cake right away. Rather the difference was that we have an entirely different understanding of the slow process of world revolution than they do. When the Two-and-a-Half International speaks of the slow development of world revolution, what they mean is that this period will be one of preparing the parties, quietly, peacefully, and gradually. Once they are large and strong, then the day will have come, and then even Adler and Crispien will fight on the barricades. When we, on the other hand, talk of the slow pace of revolution, we mean that it is an extended process of great struggles. Parties of communism will have no opportunity to structure themselves quietly and by stages, entrenching themselves, and working slowly and peacefully while waiting to see what time will bring. There will be ups and downs in the struggle. One need only take a look at what this slow process, this slow development has been like so far.
After the tumultuous struggles of 1919, did we enter a period of slow and peaceful development? No, a period began in which uprisings by the popular masses gave way to the white terror of the bourgeoisie, and the party was forced to go underground. And then a new wave of revolution enabled the party to emerge once more and move again onto the attack.
This process, which has taken place without interruption in Central Europe, is only now beginning in the Western European countries. But even there the Communist parties are not able to develop quietly and peacefully while preparing for future struggles. Instead, they prepare while under persecution and through confrontations. I must therefore say that when voices are audible in the ranks of the Communist International – as in the speech of Comrade ämeral – talking of this gradual development, and when metaphors are used like the one about transition from a war of movement to trench warfare, in my opinion this represents a false conception of the pace of development.4 What we are experiencing is not the transition from a war of movement to trench warfare, but rather the formation of great armies of the world proletariat.
What happened in Czechoslovakia? Did you leave behind the period of war of movement? That is not true. You have experienced only the awakening of the Czechoslovak proletariat. All we saw in the December strike  was the contingents of the Czechoslovak Communist proletariat beginning to take shape. And does the enemy permit you now to prepare yourself quietly for the coming struggles? He is trying to strike you down before you become strong. Let me call your attention to the struggles of metalworkers in Czechoslovakia. This is not trench warfare, where you order the troops not to shoot off their ammunition and to sit quietly and wait. No. We see two armies marching against each other, the finished capitalist armies and the proletarian forces, still forming up. Capitalism is trying to disrupt us during our deployment, to defeat us before we are in position. That is the general pattern.
As we advance toward coming struggles, we have no cause to give up a single one of the basic ideas around which we rallied and entered into action. The Two-and-a-Half International made strenuous efforts at its congress to squeeze out a programme that they could counterpose to ours. The Two-and-a-Half International was founded on the thought that ‘Communists are imposing the Moscow course of action as a template, converting the experiences of the Russian Revolution into a universal dogma. That is why they favour the dictatorship of the proletariat and the Soviet system. We, however, the Western European party – ’ As you know, Western Europe begins in Russia, with the Mensheviks. (Loud laughter) ‘we want to adapt our policies to the needs of each country’.
At the risk of exhausting your attention, I must not fail to show you what pathetic results the Two-and-a-Half International came up with, after such extended efforts of great theoreticians such as Bauer, Crispien, and Robert Grimm – and please do not take that as irony. They arrived at the following result, which is worth immortalising in the proceedings of our congress, as evidence of what brilliant minds can achieve through diligent effort. The resolution of the Two-and-a-Half International reads as follows:
As soon as the class struggle has reached a level of development in which democracy threatens to be converted from a means of bourgeois class rule to a means of proletarian class rule, the bourgeoisie will in general seek to forcibly put a stop to democratic development, in order to prevent democratic state power from passing into the hands of the proletariat. Only in countries where the bourgeoisie does not possess the necessary and above all the military instruments of power, and therefore cannot risk challenging the weapons of political democracy with open civil war – only in such countries can the proletariat achieve political power by democratic means. But even there, when this happens, the bourgeoisie will as a rule use its economic power to sabotage the functioning of the democratic state that has fallen into the hands of the proletariat. Even in this case, the proletariat will be compelled, after winning political power, to take dictatorial measures to break the resistance of the bourgeoisie. The proletarian dictatorship takes the form of dictatorial rule by a democratic state that has been won by the working class....
On the other hand, where the bourgeoisie disposes of sufficient force to maintain its rule against the mass rebellion of working people, it will destroy democracy and – holding its means of coercion at the ready – challenge the proletariat to open struggle. This struggle will be decided not at the ballot box but by the economic and military strength of the struggling masses. The working class will then be able to establish its rule only through direct mass action (mass strikes, armed uprisings, and the like) and maintain it only by dictatorially holding down the defeated bourgeoisie. The dictatorship of the proletariat must be exercised through workers’, peasants’, and soldiers’ councils and through trade-union and other proletarian class organisations.
Where is there such a land, where the bourgeoisie does not possess the military instruments of power? The resolution does not say!
What does this mean? As a rule, the proletariat must break the bourgeoisie’s resistance with coercive means. As a rule the proletariat must establish its dictatorship in the form of soviets or based on trade unions and other proletarian organisations. What other proletarian organisations could this be? Certainly not parties. For as we know, the Two-and-a-Half International is against the dictatorship of a party. Not consumer cooperatives. That leaves only trade unions and workers’ councils. But if trade unions are merged as instruments of government, then workers can no longer organise by branches of industry, because you cannot govern through ten competing branches of industry. They must be combined locally and nationally. What does that leave you with? Workers’ councils based on factory organisations. So we see that despite the efforts of the Two-and-a-Half International to somehow come up with a new theoretical idea, and after all their talk about our theoretical bankruptcy, they have found nothing other than the banner of the Communist International, the banner of communism, the dictatorship of the proletariat and the Soviet system.
But wait: They say that a different situation can arise when the capitalist state stands defenceless, without any soldiers. The Communist International would be happy with a situation where it faced an opponent that could only capitulate. It would not find it necessary to repress this opponent by force. We do not break down open doors, but doors to bank vaults are not normally left open.
To close my introductory remarks, I would like to refer to the new refrain being sung in recent months against the Communist International and its principal strategic and tactical thinking. This is the assertion that the situation in Russia proves the dictatorship of the proletariat not to be the path to victory. The same people whose fundamental resolution identifies the dictatorship as the only way forward are now beginning to whistle another tune. Confident that they are now under less pressure from the masses, they say, ‘Look at Russia! Concessions to foreign capital; concessions to the petty bourgeoisie! What then is the point of the dictatorship? Russia shows that the dictatorship does not lead to communism.’ I would like here to make only one general point. If Russia demonstrates anything, it is this: It is extremely difficult for an isolated and moreover predominantly agricultural state to enter into a transition to communism.
I must also ask this: In 1919 Otto Bauer wrote a pamphlet saying that the only correct path to socialism is via democracy.5 It is now possible for us to review the results of this path. The Two-and-a-Half International can now refer to the fact that this path was blocked in Austria by economic collapse and was also impassable in Germany, indeed, that the path led from Renner to Schober and from Scheidemann to Wirth and not from democracy to socialism. But let us consider the leading, victorious capitalist countries. Consider Britain, a country whose working class exerts such a great influence on governmental politics and whose social weight is so great that the government is compelled to take into account the attitude of this class. During the three years since the War, we do not see a single step toward either a state capitalism that would show some consideration for workers’ interests or toward the Guild Socialism that Otto Bauer holds forth as such a brilliant perspective.6 Not even a single social reform worth mentioning.
Russia has shown that a solitary and isolated country must employ its energies primarily in the struggle for its independent existence. Russia has shown that the transition to socialism is difficult in a petty-bourgeois country. But Britain and France have shown that the democratic path, pursued without any pressure of blockade, leads to undisguised domination by the plutocracy and by reaction. In Britain, the land of democracy, the government is now deploying machine guns against peaceful striking miners.
These comments are sufficient to motivate what is said in the theses. The tactical questions are limited in scope. The issue they address is that we must carry out the struggle in order to enable the proletariat to achieve victory along the path laid out for it in the founding manifesto of our International.7 What is at issue is not our goals and our path forward but our form of organisation, the direction of our activity, and the stages along this path.
2.) The theory of the Dutch school
Comrades, the main task that the Communist International posed from its very inception for the new Communist groups and parties was to win the broad masses of the proletariat for the goals of communism and to assemble the working-class forces that play a decisive role in social and political life, the most active forces, as a proletarian, revolutionary vanguard formed up in the ranks of the Communist parties and the Communist International. This path was challenged even within the ranks of the Communist International. It was challenged by a layer of comrades who consider themselves as standing to the left of us. The challenge was posed theoretically under the leadership of Gorter and Pannekoek. Our present debate on tactics and strategy is the right place for me to clarify briefly our position regarding this theory.
I will not wear you out with quotations. You will find these ideas expressed with Dutch conciseness in two pamphlets, The Tactics of World Revolution by Pannekoek, and Open Letter to Lenin by Gorter.8 You could not find a more flat-footed presentation.
These pamphlets present the road to communism, with the same starting point as ours. World revolution is understood and presented as a time of long and difficult struggles. In Western Europe, they say, the basis for proletarian dictatorship must be much broader than in Russia, because the bourgeoisie is much better organised there. The peasantry, more enlightened and conservative, rallied behind the bourgeoisie in decisive numbers from the start. Finally, the proletariat is more active and has a higher cultural level than that in Russia.
I do not know why Pannekoek and Gorter believe that they have made any kind of point against us here. We fully share this opinion, and we have made plain to the Dutch comrades that the basis for proletarian dictatorship must be much more substantial in Western Europe and other countries of developed capitalism than it is here in Russia, where we were able to hold out with a narrower base. The disagreements begin only when these theorists address the question of how to win the proletarian masses for the ideas and goals of communism and for the coming struggle. Here they arrive at a concept that can be explained and understood only in historical terms; it is completely unacceptable for a Marxist. Here is how they conceive of the movement: A small group of Communists is formed, which then plays the role of prophet to the workers’ movement, criticising all non-Communist organisations and proposing to them the goals of communism. This group does not struggle together with the masses for necessities of life, for that would be reformism. It does not set about to organise the masses, for it would be betrayal to coexist in an organisation with the counterrevolutionary trade-union bureaucracy. It forms a small, pure, and lucid Communist Party and also a small but pure factory organisation of workers who already agree on the need for dictatorship. And these forces provide the masses with an example.
What kind of example? They cannot launch an uprising, because that cannot be done by a small minority, except through a putsch, which they reject. An uprising must be carried out by the popular masses. They cannot conduct mass strikes, because that too requires the masses. What then does their example consist of? Propaganda. It is characteristic that in all the output of Dutch activity in this field we do not encounter a single slogan for action, a single plan for action, or a single idea concerned with action.
This propagandistic course is understandable given that this theory comes from a country in which there has not yet been a revolutionary mass movement. It comes from individuals of Communist purity. One of them is a highly esteemed theoretician who from his astronomical observatory studies the heavens, not the turmoil of poor, sinful people who are not pure Communists. The other is a classical philologist and, besides that, a poet.
Why do these teachings find support among proletarian forces like those in Germany? Here we must say that, in reality, these proletarian forces pay no attention at all to this theory. The KAPD was not formed because they said, ‘The Spartacus League is storming into battle, while we believe that the period of struggle will be extended.’ On the contrary, they left the KPD because they were more impatient and were pressing to launch the attack prematurely. Their starting point was different from that of the Dutch school.
The theoreticians and wise men from the Netherlands say we must not get involved in the petty struggles for a crust of bread. The workers must be told, ‘communism – nothing but communism’. But the factory organisations exist in order to demand more in this struggle and fight with more vigour than the trade unions. This stands in total contradiction to the Dutch theory! The KAPD uses this theory as the Blacks in Africa use suspenders – as ornaments for their poor bodies. (Laughter)
In these circles, only one aspect of this theory finds a response. These groups of workers fear contact with the socialist and communist workers who are not yet pure. They hold parliamentarism and the trade-union bureaucracy in contempt. This provides them with a bridge to the theorists of inward-looking communism. The Communist International must reject this concept on theoretical grounds, based on a Marxist understanding of the course of development and all the experiences of the struggle. Never has the workers’ movement taken so much as a single step forward on the basis of the theory they are proposing. The hundreds of thousands of German workers who are now on the side of the Communists do not do this because the Communists have separated themselves off, telling them that communism is the only solution. Rather they have done this because communism was present where the working class was struggling and bleeding, because the Communist Party was present even when the working class was struggling merely for wages.
We criticised inadequate slogans, but we went with the masses. It is only in struggle, in broad proletarian organisations where these masses gather together, in the trade unions, which may have counterrevolutionary leaders but still gather workers for struggle – that is where we have won a portion of the proletariat that now stands with us. And the supporters of the theory of communism as a distilled liquor have remained a small propaganda group. We would have liked to take them into our ranks, because they have produced many outstanding proletarian fighters, devoted body and soul to communism, but these forces are unfortunately squandering their revolutionary energy in isolation from the masses.
3.) Experiences in mass struggle
Comrades, the main task before us is to win the broad masses of the proletariat to the ideas of communism. The First Congress established this as our central task.9 At the Second Congress, we took positions on specific political issues through several sets of theses. We mapped out a path forward, and that is the path we wish to follow. But in order to do this, we must provide an overview of our experiences in this field to date. Zinoviev already did this, in part, in his speech giving the Executive’s report. Nonetheless, his topic restricted him to the relationship of the parties with the Executive. He could not thoroughly examine the record of the struggles we have experienced. The most important question we must now answer, comrades, is how the Communist parties can generalise, sharpen, and exert Communist influence on the spontaneous movements of the proletariat, transforming them into a struggle for power. This overriding question can be answered only if we examine the lessons provided to us by the practice of our movement and by all the significant struggles.
a.) The British miners’ strike
Let me begin with one of the smallest Communist parties in a big country that is now the scene of mighty class struggles. Permit me to start off this survey with the conduct of British Communists during the present great miners’ strike.10 Comrades, I am beginning this way because I want to lead off my comments on specific policies with the proposition that there is no Communist Party outside the mass movement. No matter how small a Communist Party may be, it has the task of marching at the head of the mass movement in its country. During such struggles, it must concentrate all its forces on this mass movement. And in my opinion, the British example demonstrates that our new and small Communist parties are still failing to do the most important and simplest things that must be done in this regard.
During the entirety of this strike, I followed very carefully the British Communist Party’s publication, The Communist. It must be granted that the British Communist Party has been able to shape this publication for agitation, in contrast to its earlier paper, The Call. The present paper thus gives the impression of having some relationship to the real life of the proletariat, rather than of having been published on the moon – the impression given by publications of many Communist parties.
However, it is significant that this paper does not carry any reports of what the party is doing in the mining districts. This fact alone aroused my suspicion. I asked our friend Borodin, who wrote an excellent study of the British strike for the Executive,11 to make inquiries with the delegations that have just arrived from Britain about the facts of the miners’ strike. And I would hope that a large number of comrades will familiarise themselves with this report. What we learn from this report is that meetings did in fact take place in the mining districts, but they were not organised systematically by the party’s central leadership. These meetings were organised by individual Communist groups.
I asked what slogans the comrades raised in the meetings, what they said to the masses, what their stand is on nationalisation and on the specific demands that the workers are raising. One of the comrades answered, ‘When I go to the podium to address the meeting, I have no more of an idea than the Man in the Moon about what I will say, but as a Communist I work it out in the course of my speech.’ What does that tell us? The party, caught up in an enormous, tumultuous proletarian struggle, is not planning the allocation of its forces. That is the first point: the smaller the forces are, the more expediently they must be allocated. And that is not all. The forces they have allocated do not advance slogans for the struggle. Comrades are not informed what to say about today’s struggle, nor about what to say with regard to tomorrow.
And there is more. In many localities, the party operates in the guise of ‘worker committees’, so that to the degree that its agitation meets with success, the masses do not associate this with the Communist Party.
Comrades, we believe it is our duty to tell even the smallest Communist parties that they will never become large mass parties if they focus on propaganda concerning Communist theory, or on Communist theory itself, or if they approach such a movement with only the slogan, ‘Do not trust your leaders,’ which the British Communists were right to popularise. They must assist the proletariat, fighting by its side in the front ranks. They must become known in the movement as the Communist Party, and help the workers, through their struggles, to learn the lessons of the struggle. If they fail to do this, they will never stand at the head of the working masses.
So we repeat the general slogan: Go to the masses. Every day in which this does not happen is a lost day for communism. And the smaller the size of the party, the more exclusively it must direct its energies to this task.
b.) The Italian struggle
Comrades, during the year covered by this report, we experienced three big mass struggles of the proletariat, which posed major tasks to Communists. These were the struggle in Italy to occupy the factories, the struggle in Czechoslovakia, and the German March Action. Let me examine the lessons of these three struggles, for only by examining their interrelationship can we correctly analyse the mistakes that were made and point the general path forward that we must follow.
I will begin with the Italian experience – the great September movement last year – and its lessons.12 Let me briefly call to mind the course of events. The movement began in the Italian metal factories. It embraced the broad masses of metalworkers, and the metalworkers’ union felt compelled to set itself at the head of the movement. The movement expanded to encompass factories that deliver semi-finished goods or raw materials for the metal industry. It leaped over to the chemical industry and to a large number of other industries, creating a climate in which the most deprived layers of the proletariat came into action. The metal, textile, and chemical workers occupied the factories, throwing the factory owners out on the street. The masses of homeless proletarians came into motion, and a movement of the homeless, linked to that of the workers, occupied the villas and palaces of the rich, housing their wives and children there. And the movement jumped off into rural districts from Sicily to southern and central Italy. The peasants set out with red banners, occupied the great estates, and formed red guards. And in such a situation, where the working class is advancing into a major struggle, where the villages are stirring, the initial and decisive question for us to ask is: what is the nature of this movement? Based on these facts alone, we can only conclude that this is a great revolutionary mass movement. The workers are seizing capitalist society by the throat. They are laying hands on what is most holy to capitalism: its factories, its moneyboxes.
Serrati, on the other hand, said that this was purely a trade-union movement. Think it over, comrades: Was this a purely trade-union movement, given that hundreds of thousands of workers occupied the factories, sought to raise the productivity of labour – and there are hundreds of examples of that – and succeeded in organising the sale of what they produced? Was it a trade-union movement when it broke open the capitalists’ cash boxes, gathering these resources into a common fund, which in turn was used by the metalworkers’ union to issue currency and by the consumer cooperatives to distribute food? Was it a trade-union movement, given that it involved nothing less than the workers’ attempt to take possession of the roots of capitalist power, the factories? The situation thus created cannot be better portrayed than through the words spoken by the Italian prime minister, Giolitti, on 26 September. He said:
And so the factories were occupied. According to the government’s critics, two courses were possible. Either I should have prevented this, or, if I did not act promptly enough to prevent it, I should have had the factories cleared by force.
Prevent it? We are talking about six hundred metalworking factories. In order to prevent the occupation, assuming I had acted with such lightning speed as to arrive before the occupation, I would have had to post garrisons in the factories, about a hundred men in the small ones, and several thousand in the large ones. In order to occupy the factories, I would have had to employ the entirety of the armed forces at my disposal. And now, who would have kept watch over the five hundred thousand workers outside the factories? Who would have protected public safety in the country?
I was being asked to exercise unattainable foresight or to take an action which, if I had carried it out, would have placed the state’s armed forces in a situation where they were besieged and would no longer have any freedom of movement. I felt able to set aside this option.
Was I then supposed to use armed strength to clear the factories? Obviously, I would then have to launch a struggle, an open battle, in a word, launch a civil war. And this after the General Confederation of Labour had given a solemn undertaking that it renounced any political goals for the movement, that this movement would be kept within the framework of an economic struggle. I trusted the General Confederation of Labour then, and it showed itself to be worthy of this trust, because the broad masses of workers adopted its proposals.
If we had taken refuge in violence, if we had sent in the army, the Royal Guard, and the gendarmes against the five hundred thousand workers – do the critics have any idea of what I would then have been leading the country into?
This statement by Giolitti – a very clever representative of Italian capitalism, perhaps their most clever – tells us everything. Five hundred thousand workers were engaged in revolutionary struggle; the government was powerless; and the trade-union bureaucracy, trusting the government and trusted by it, broke off the struggle and began negotiations in full knowledge that everything they would achieve thereby would be no more than a piece of paper, once the workers had given up the factories.
Comrades, the Italian confederation is headed by people who came here as Communists and were, until recently, members of the Communist International. And this confederation concluded an agreement with the Italian Socialist Party. They acted jointly. So what happened? The syndicalist and anarchist workers took part in the struggle. The Italian party knew that the trade-union bureaucracy would strangle the struggle, but that these workers wanted to struggle. It did not insist that representatives of these workers be invited into the joint negotiations. The large organisations of railwaymen, seamen, and dockworkers were outside the confederation. The party did not insist that representatives of these organisations be drawn into the struggle. It wanted to win the majority. It proposed to continue the struggle. The trade-union bureaucracy responded, ‘We will halt the struggle and gain workers’ control of production.’ The party let itself be voted down, submitted, and gave up.
What was the result, comrades? Today I asked the Italian comrades what happened with workers’ control of production in Italy. Even though the government had signed a promise to introduce control of production by law if the workers would give up the factories, it did not introduce a single piece of paper about this in parliament. Comrades, when the struggle was broken off, the reformist papers celebrated this granting of workers’ control as a great victory. They said that finally the two forces of labour and capital would work together: labour would supervise capital, to ensure it does not steal; the capitalists would supervise the workers, to ensure that they work. That would even re-establish the value of the currency, which was very low.
But once the workers went back into the factories, the whites began their savage campaign against the workers. They began to attack workers’ organisations, one after another. The editorial offices of party papers in Genoa, Milan, Rome, and Brescia were destroyed one after another. In Bologna they fired on the workers. Thousands of workers were jailed. The government proceeded intelligently, singling out those whom the Socialist Party had left outside the family of those in struggle – the anarchists and syndicalists, whose leaders were arrested en masse.
The great struggle of the working class ran aground because, in the face of this great revolutionary tide, the Italian Socialist Party had only one thought: May God let the cup of leadership in a revolution pass from my lips. Comrades, we do not know whether it was possible to win power in this struggle, but we know that a great deal could have been won. Two things, to begin with: genuine control of production, not in order to strengthen the capitalist state’s currency, but in order to weld the workers together solidly in a broad proletarian organisation against the capitalist state; and the arming of the workers. If the Italian working class, in struggle for these goals, did not succeed in winning power, it would nonetheless have carried out a great battle against capitalism under the leadership of the Communist Party. During this battle, it would either have won important positions for future struggles, or, in the worst case, if it were defeated in this battle, it would have emerged enriched in experience and in knowledge about how to struggle.
The Italian party evaded the struggle. It excuses this by saying that its influence has grown nonetheless, and that in the elections it still received a great many votes. Yes, the revolution, the maturing of conflicts drives the workers to us, even if we make enormous mistakes. But when we make such mistakes, the workers do not win either insight in the road forward or confidence in their strength. They vote for you, because who else is there to vote for? The capitalists? But the proletariat’s sense of power is diminished. Important opportunities go to waste, in which victory or partial victory might have been possible. And what is the result? Capitalism consolidates. Before the Italian elections, Oda Olberg, an Italian-German reformist, who has been commenting attentively and astutely on the Italian movement for decades in Vorwärts, wrote, ‘The bourgeoisie feels quite differently now, because the Italian party has shown that it fears the struggle.’
c.) The December strike in Czechoslovakia
Let us now consider the December strike in Czechoslovakia.13 It began when Czerny’s capitalist government, in order to protect the Social Democrats, invoked all the clauses of the thieves’ code that bourgeois society calls civil law in order to steal the House of the People, property of the Czech proletariat, and turn it over to the traitorous leaders. The workers responded to this by striking, and persisted even when the government reacted to the first clashes by declaring a state of siege, and even a state of emergency, which was termed – using the old language of king-and-kaiser – statarium [martial law]. The government cut telephone connections and arrested the couriers of the Left Socialist Party, but even so, the movement jumped from one city to another. After only a few days, the territory of Bohemia, plus Moravia – in which Ostrava used to be a right-wing city – and Slovakia was in struggle, and the German workers of northern Bohemia joined with the Czech workers. The struggle varied in character. In one city the strike was waged with the slogan, ‘Give us back the People’s House and free the prisoners’; in others, wage demands were raised; in others, the demand was raised to form workers’ councils; elsewhere, workers were called on to occupy factories and estates and to take up arms.
Nonetheless it was clear – and the leadership of the Left Socialist Party admitted it frankly – that this spontaneous movement caught them completely by surprise. They had not thought that there was so much revolutionary energy in the working masses. Since its founding, after all, the party had based all its politics on the notion that the masses had not yet progressed far enough to make it possible to launch an openly Communist Party or to openly join the Communist International; that the masses were not sufficiently mature to take up our slogans, if these were stated openly. Suddenly the masses were there, in struggle, more mature than their leaders.
I obtained a copy of the party paper, Rudé právo. There is not a single appeal in it to show the workers what the stakes really were and what lessons should be drawn from the movement. And when the struggle was called off, the leadership of Levice – the Left Socialist Party – published a manifesto that took note of only one single fact: that for the first time this magnificent Czech proletariat, which had been encased in nationalism, had risen like a lion into struggle, that nationalist illusions fell to the ground like broken pieces of glass, and that the Czech proletariat had made its appearance on the field of battle. But why did the struggle end in a defeat? What did the Czech proletariat need to do in order to be able to struggle more effectively in the future? Neither the appeal nor the next two editions of Rudé právo had anything to say about that.
The first lesson of the movement was this: you suffered a defeat because you had not formed a unified party, because the Czech, Hungarian, Slovakian, and German workers, although living in the same country, oppressed by the same state and the same government and exploited by the same bourgeoisie, are organised in several different parties. So the first organisational lesson was, ‘Proletarians of all nations in Czechoslovakia, unite in a single party.’ This conclusion was not drawn. The second lesson was political in character: What kind of party should it be; what forces should it break with; what forces should it unite with? The concept of forming a Communist Party came inevitably to mind, but this concept, too, was not presented to the workers.
The Czech party could not do this because their leaders were not yet resolved to accept the lessons that the masses had in reality already accepted. The masses had already adopted the framework of militant communism, and the leaders were not even limping along behind them. It took another four months before they decided to do, politically and intellectually, what the proletarians had already done in action.
And there was a further lesson. This movement in Czechoslovakia raised the question, ‘What slogans should we raise when workers awaken and enter into struggle, but where the situation as a whole is not yet so advanced as to enable us to take hold of power? What transitional slogans should we raise?’ The Left Socialist Party had nothing to say about this question either. It had thus surrendered, not only organisationally but also politically, the leadership of a movement that was rushing into its arms. So what we have here is a harsh and typical example of how a great mass party can let a spontaneous movement run aground, rather than influencing it and leading it in a communist direction. Later, I will define and examine the inner causes of the error that we see here. For now, I will say just this: It is a passive policy, which is the essence of the half-centrist currents that we still have with us. It is what these currents have in common with the centrists outside the Communist International.
d.) The March Action
I will now take up an opposite case, which is a classic example of exactly the opposite kind of error: the German March Action. Before portraying the events, I must first say that we must speak both very frankly and fraternally about the meaning of the March Action and the mistakes it entailed – in the VKPD and in all Communist parties. It is necessary to understand the essence of this struggle and of the mistakes made during its course, especially because we do not regard these mistakes as a transitory aberration. The late and lamented Levi presented this episode in his pamphlet as something that was slipped into the worthy and thoughtful German movement by a few muddle-heads, leading thoughtless people like Brandler to suddenly begin thrashing about. There are very few lessons to be drawn from this approach. You would just have to say that the muddle-head should stop muddling worthy people. The lessons that flow from such an analysis are as flat as a sanded floor. Apart from that, it is nonsense to think that a new party, whose leadership has no authority, and whose members have seen how great and respected figures could fade away, that in such a party, the pressure of a single comrade could set the masses in motion and launch them into struggle.
I would also like to add another comment, by way of introduction. When we talk to you frankly and fraternally about mistakes, we do not do this because we assume the Executive to be wisdom incarnate, and that if we had sent Zinoviev instead of another comrade, everything would have gone like clockwork. We are convinced that the transition to action is extraordinarily difficult for every party, and that difficult and important lessons must be learned through struggle before the leadership has a sure instinct to think through every aspect of the party’s relationship with the masses. Of course, we understand that it is much easier for us now to spot all your errors than it was for you yourselves in the heat of the struggle. But that is precisely why we gather in international congresses – in order, after the battle has been fought, to learn from it. We are not teaching you, we are learning together with you. There are now seven thousand proletarians behind bars in Germany, and some are telling them that they fought in vain. We testify on their behalf and yours that this is not true, because the proletariat learns only from its mistakes and from its clumsy steps. The losses that we suffer in order to gain these lessons are the price of our future victory.
So permit me, comrades, to speak of these matters now with complete frankness. I must review the history of the VKPD. It arose from the Spartacus League, which took the lead in the first upsurge of proletarian struggles in Germany. When the masses rose up for the first time, and it seemed that they would overrun the capitalist state, Spartacus stood in the front ranks of these struggles. Then came the period after the conclusion of the bourgeois revolution – for the November revolution was only the conclusion of the German bourgeois revolution – a period in which the army of German proletarians was gradually drawn together for future struggles.
Robbed of its great leaders, the party consisted of a few thousand proletarians. It had to take care that its strength was not frittered away in skirmishes over outposts, that it did not get tangled up in struggles before it had gathered a body of workers around the banner of communism. The Spartacus League had to play the role of a force holding the proletarians back from unneeded clashes, organising and educating them, in order to lead them into large struggles when there was no longer a danger that they could be isolated and struck down.
This was the prime need in 1919, a year of deployment, and it shaped the ideology held by a portion of the leadership, which led the struggle against putschist impulses that were then very real. This anti-putschist tendency viewed every movement with anxiety, fearing the possibility of violent and dangerous clashes. This outlook led to the failure of the Spartacus League [KPD] leadership during the Kapp days. Communists across the country fought brilliantly during the Kapp days, but at first the leadership was inactive. A few hours before the outbreak of the biggest general strike in Germany’s history, they said that the masses were not yet ready. And later, when they corrected this position, they were still unable to play a leading role in the struggle. They lapsed into the stance of a loyal opposition, which effectively castrated communism.14 When a genuine workers’ party carries out opposition, this has to be tied to the goals of communism. Our conduct toward our enemies must never be what is called, in bourgeois jargon, ‘loyal’. When we make compromises, we do so, in the words of the Hildebrandslied,15 ‘spear against spear’, rather than giving pledges of loyalty.
I call this episode to mind because it shows that part of the Spartacus League leadership was not a force pressing for action. And the leaders of the Left Independents [USPD] who then came to us consisted in their majority of people who had earned their spurs in the trade-union movement and as parliamentary representatives of their party. Through sincere effort, these comrades had made their way to Communist ideas. But it is easier to accept forty-eight conditions on paper than it is to carry out a single condition of Communist struggle in life. (Loud applause) It was difficult for these comrades to make the transition to activity.
When the party met in congress and we discussed its future and its tasks in the Zentrale, the general opinion was that this was a mass party with 500,000 members. In fact, this figure had not been checked, and in my opinion we never had more than 350,000 members. A party of this scope cannot limit itself to what is sufficient for a vanguard of 50,000 workers. It cannot content itself with peddling the idea of revolution. It has much greater specific weight in the overall relationship of class forces. When struggles arise spontaneously, it has the capacity to seize the leadership. Where masses are in ferment, it has the responsibility of attempting to launch actions. No one in the Zentrale or the congress opposed the paragraph that was quite consciously written into the party’s manifesto, which reads as follows:
As a small party, the KPD sought to get into the big workers’ organisations in order to demonstrate to the masses in practice, through its proposals for action, the meaning of communism as, in Engels’s words, the ‘doctrine of the conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat’16 . But it could not undertake mass actions, because it did not have any mass following. Unless it succeeded in winning the USPD’s support for its action proposals, it was limited to critical propaganda. The United Communist Party is strong enough, where circumstances make this possible and necessary, to initiate actions on its own. It seeks to draw together its members and, beyond that, its hundreds of thousands of supporters in fractions in trade unions and factory councils. It seeks to establish very close ties with the conscious masses through its press and its appeals. It seeks to give expression to their suffering and to enable the broadest popular masses to achieve consciousness of this suffering and how it will be overcome. It will be capable of initiating actions by the proletariat or of placing itself in the leadership of actions that arise spontaneously.17
Comrades, in my opinion, this passage mentions all the conditions for the party to play a leadership role. First, it must be tied to the broadest masses through its press. It must give expression to their suffering. It must encompass hundreds of thousands of workers in the trade unions. It must watch for situations that make mass action possible or necessary. Only then will it have an opportunity to lead spontaneous movements of this character or to initiate them. But the party had not absorbed what was said here, on a general level, as a living experience. Every German comrade will confirm that the party before March did not have a press linked to the broadest layers of the masses, and does not have one to this day. The circulation of our press is not even as large as the party’s membership. (‘Very true!’) Our press is still, to a great extent, focused on theoretical enlightenment. It does not speak with the passionate voice of a tribune of the people that participates in all the suffering of the population. It publishes mile-long articles that are educationally and theoretically very sound, but you do not hear from our press the cry of the masses.
I would like to ask comrades to take a look at the photographic reproductions of Pravda. That was the totality of our Pravda, our central publication in Russia, when we were struggling for power. It was just four pages, half of which were taken up with short reports from the factories. Whatever was alive in the masses was expressed in this paper. Your press is not like that yet, and that shows that the party has not yet carried out the preparations for great struggles.
Some say that actions cannot be prepared in the same way as a parade on Red Square in front of the Kremlin. Of course it is hard to manoeuvre in struggle with unorganised masses, but the party’s preparatory tasks lie above all in the period before the struggle. The party’s tasks of preparation encompass everything that it does in practice in every possible form – in meetings, in the factories, in the press, in the trade unions, in associations for proletarian sports, in the proletarian pubs – everywhere, on the streets and among the masses, to prepare for action.
The party set about its preparatory work, and here, I must say, it encountered what I talked of earlier: the legacy of its past, the passivity of its bureaucratic apparatus, which earlier had been dedicated to recruitment rather than to preparation for the clash of struggle. It was not possible to get good and intelligent comrades to write agitational articles and to organise campaigns. The party lacked the concept of a political campaign. One day they would start writing about a question of concern to the workers, and three days later no one cared two hoots about it.
The most important question facing the party was: how will we reach the masses? In Germany the masses are not unorganised; they belong to trade unions that have ten million members and to parties with millions of members. So the first question is how we reach these masses. The party chose the correct approach. It said that those who favour the dictatorship of the proletariat and communism are already in the party or close to it. After Halle it was no longer possible, for a while, to attract new layers of the proletariat around the slogan of the final struggle. We had to undermine our opponents. Where was that possible? We had to demonstrate to the masses that the Social Democrats, the Independents, and the trade-union leaders are lying when they say that although they do not want the dictatorship, they struggle for a crust of bread. We have to show the masses that the SPD, USPD, and trade-union leaders have absolutely no desire to struggle, even if the proletarians are dying of hunger.
It was this line of thinking that gave rise to the Open Letter, the decision of the party to initiate a broad campaign bringing the party closer to the masses and separating them from their trade-union and Social Democratic leaders.18 Comrades, we all understood that this could not be carried out through agitation alone. When it was decided to take this step, it seemed that major struggles were likely. You recall the struggles of the railway workers, the postal workers, and the unemployed.19 Our concept at the beginning of January was to compel the Social Democrats and trade-union bureaucrats, through our pressure, either to whip up the masses and initiate a unified movement, together with us – in which our task would be to increase our influence on the masses through this struggle and to heighten the demands – or, if the bureaucracy rejected this, to achieve a clear field for battle. We wanted the masses to understand, before the struggles began, how the Social Democrats and trade unions would conduct themselves. The government made concessions to the working class that divided it and derailed the movement.
I will now take up the situation in the party at that time. Some of the comrades who are now raising a hue and cry about sectarian dangers – Geyer, Brass, and the others – were against this concept. And so we lost a precious week, which was very costly to us later on.
We then carried out the campaign. I ask the speakers here who advocate close ties with the masses: Where were the meetings that Communist trade-union leaders organised in the districts, when we were winning hundreds of thousands of workers in many places? Where was their attempt to pose the issues in a broad political campaign at a higher level, in which we could make the transition from agitation to public congresses of the Communists and the groups sympathetic to them? Not only did you do nothing of this nature, the left current did not do anything either.20 We did not succeed in linking things together, and that revealed how difficult it was for the party to make the transition. But one thing must be said. If the left current displayed clumsiness, a good part of the party officials showed an indisputable fear of broad campaigns.
Then we had the struggle in the party over the Italian question. A right wing took shape in the party. I note that this wing later raised the charge that nothing had been done to initiate an action to prepare for a struggle. When Levi led the Zentrale, he did not once make any proposal, apart from that for the alliance with Soviet Russia – but that could not serve as a proposal for mass struggle.21 The left-wing comrades were left alone in the party executive, and now they had to undertake the task of activating the party. And here I come to the basic error that they made in this process.
You say that we saw the sky overcast with dark clouds, such as the Upper Silesia question, the danger of sanctions, and the Bavarian question. Every tension was exacerbated. When serious threats arise, the first thing to do is to intensify agitation in order to alert the masses to the danger. During the first days after the outbreak of the March Action, as I sorted through the German papers, I gave Comrade Trotsky two packets, one containing the Rote Fahne before 17 March, and the other Rote Fahne after 17 March. Up to 17 March – and all the papers were like this – we were stuck in the same old rut. Then, from 18 March on, we pounded our fist on the table, shouting ‘Kahr is flouting the law’.22 This was the main mistake. You say that the mistakes were made in the past. Yes, you are right to blame the old organisation and the right-wing leaders, who did not gear up the party organisationally. Agreed, they carry most of the blame. But in the three weeks leading up to 17 March, when you were on your own, where is there the slightest indication of a change? It did not take place. You did not understand that if you want to struggle tomorrow, you must prepare for the struggle today and put yourselves on a battle footing.
On 17 March the Central Committee met. I want to portray briefly the errors that were made there, because they were fundamental. Anyone who does not grasp the mistakes of that 17 March meeting will be incapable of properly preparing future actions. I will not tire comrades by reading quotations. I will simply ask the question: What was the central idea of the 17 March meeting? What was the party saying to representatives of the districts? First of all, it showed them the great dangers from a proper perspective. What conclusions did it draw from these dangers? The first conclusion for a revolutionary Marxist was that we were entering a period in which broad struggles were very possible. For this reason, the party had to prepare the masses for these possibilities through its agitation and orient the organisation accordingly. And then the party had to address the question whether it was in its interest to bring the conflicts to a head as rapidly as possible. I maintain that the party was not ready for broad struggles either politically or organisationally and had no interest in forcing the issue.
You refer to the dangers of sanctions, to Upper Silesia, to disarming [the workers], but is there not a difference between the way these dangers are perceived by the party’s political leadership and by the masses? The political leadership of the International had to also take into account the danger of a British-American war, which may not come to pass. But suppose we were to tell the American comrades, ‘Begin the struggle, because the British-American war is coming’ – that would not be a mass-oriented policy. The masses do not respond to dangers that are still to come; rather they act under the pressure of events bearing down on them immediately. Since the party was not prepared for this struggle, your sole task consisted of doing this, of intensifying the organisational work, and transforming the organisation.
Was the party content with that? No, Brandler said in his report, ‘We are headed into massive struggles and we must be ready to enter into struggle immediately after Easter.’ It was seven days before Easter. What was his line of argument? He sought struggle and examined the question whether we should perhaps force the issue and provoke the enemy to take the initiative. And then my friend Frölich spoke up like a cavalry lieutenant, saying, ‘Today we are breaking with the party’s tradition. Previously we waited, but now we will seize the initiative and force the revolution.’
The representatives went back to their organisations with the general perspective that the sooner we engage the enemy, the better. Before they left, the party had to discuss with them what they should do if Hörsing invaded Central Germany. And what did the party tell them? After the bugle call announced a charge came misgivings, and the Zentrale provided the organisation with this orientation: ‘Attempt to avoid the struggle for the moment; Easter [March 25–28] is not the right time. Wait until the enemy occupies the factories – that’s when we should arouse the workers.’ I expressed objections to one of the comrades from Central Germany, saying, ‘You were directed to wait, and still on 19 March you began armed struggle.’ When I said this, comrades, he responded, ‘Had I not started it up then, we would have been in real trouble. You cannot follow up with the bugle call for a charge by signalling a truce.’ The party cannot make out when things are meant seriously. When Die Rote Fahne calls on every proletarian to take up arms, no proletarian is going to think the party is saying that in order to stock up weapons for the long run. Such words mean struggle; they are the signal for struggle.
If a major error was made, it was that the party was not told, ‘We are headed into great struggles. We are still too weak and unprepared. But if Hörsing invades Central Germany, we must struggle. We cannot leave our comrades in Central Germany in the lurch.’ But how to struggle? With or without technical and military methods? If the party had posed this question, it would have given instructions as follows: ‘If Hörsing invades Central Germany, we will stand by the Central German workers and proclaim a mass strike. We will mobilise the entire party around the slogan of defending the Mansfeld workers from Hörsing’s bloodhounds.’ And it was duty-bound to tell the Mansfeld workers, ‘You are a minority. If you try rough stuff with their battalions and machine guns, you will be defeated.’
The party did not do that. It did not raise the slogan, ‘Launch the struggle with arms in hand,’ and it also did not raise the opposite slogan. The party’s position was unreal. And when the struggle began, as was unavoidable, the party no longer had a grip on what were the slogans under which the struggle was to be conducted.
Comrades, let me stress that we defend the March Action, and we consider it was the party’s duty to hurry to the aid of the Central German workers. Why? Not for sentimental reasons. There will be many cases where the party is unable to provide assistance to proletarians who are under enemy attack. We here in Russia, when we held state power and the Red Army was being formed, looked on while our Ukrainian and Finnish brothers suffered martyrdom at the hands of White Guard governments after their dictatorship was overthrown. We stood by, tight-lipped, and said no, we cannot run to their aid now, because that would mean defeat for both them and us. When the Hungarian revolution was threatened on all sides, we did not come to their aid, because we were locked in struggle with the main enemy, Kolchak’s large armies, and we knew that if we divided our forces, both we and the Hungarian comrades would be defeated. We saved the main army of world revolution, in Soviet Russia, and let its advanced post in soviet Hungary go down to defeat.
But I say to you that in this case the party was duty-bound to act on behalf of the Mansfeld workers, and here is why. Not the Zentrale in Berlin but the Mansfeld workers were the Communist centre of Germany. This concentrated mass was the centre of the German proletariat. There was also a second reason. The German revolution saw one party after another go downhill. It saw how the masses were addressed with revolutionary phrases, and then these phrases vanished into thin air. The Communist Party must earn the trust of the masses in the front-lines of struggle. That is why I say that anyone who claims that this or that was done badly but does not express an opinion on how the party should have responded to Hörsing’s attack shows that he has nothing to say, that he is criticising the party’s struggles but does not want to learn anything from them.
Now, comrades, we come to the central element. On 24 March, we called for a general strike across the entire country. It turned out that the forces we had gathered around us were much smaller than we had hoped. The statistics are hard to establish. When the comrades of the Right say two hundred thousand, that is obviously inaccurate, because no fewer than two hundred thousand workers were in struggle in Central Germany alone. But that is not the point. The party had gone through a great struggle and had to draw lessons from it. How did the party do that? In the following manner. The party should have said: it is a slander to assert that the struggle was a Bakuninist putsch. A putsch is a struggle by a small minority aimed at taking power. We went into struggle to defend the proletarians of Central Germany. We did not do this as a conspiratorial group but as a proletarian party. We have made mistakes, we did not strictly limit our methods and our goals. Instead of saying this, the party proposed the theory of the offensive.
Comrades, let me first establish a few facts here. When we criticise the theory of the offensive, we must recognise that with the exception of Levi there was no one who opposed this theory. As I previously noted, Comrade Zetkin said on 7 April, in a resolution put before a session of the Central Committee, that she accepted the concept of the offensive. I have that resolution here. It says, ‘A large party is obligated to take the offensive.’ Comrade Zetkin rejected the March Action because she considered it to be a putsch rather than an offensive, but still, in theory, she accepted that framework. The criticisms advanced by Comrade Zetkin cannot, therefore, stand as a correction of this error. Why is that? The most important factor is missing from her criticisms. Comrade Zetkin did not say what should have been done when Hörsing invaded Central Germany; she said of a great movement that it was a putsch. And when she simultaneously said she was for an offensive, what was she proposing for the future? She proposed an offensive under conditions that were even less promising than at the time of the March Action.
When is it, according to Comrade Zetkin, that we are obliged to take the offensive? It applies, she said, in the framework of the slogan, alliance with Soviet Russia. If it is impossible to draw broad masses into struggle for fear of the effects of sanctions that might be felt over the course of a year, it is just as impossible to mobilise them in broad struggles around the slogan of a diplomatic alliance with Soviet Russia, whose favourable effects will be fully evident only over time. It is a completely utopian idea, which creates the impression that Comrade Zetkin supports the concept of the offensive but rejects the March Action, and has spoken in favour of an offensive out of thin air because she is trying to say, in diplomatic fashion, that she rejects the action.
This impression is strengthened by the fact that Comrade Zetkin and the group associated with her carried a small detail along with them, which they shoved into the lead, namely Paul Levi, who denounced this proletarian struggle as a putsch, imposed from the outside. Paul Levi uttered the following pearl of wisdom:
It is not my view however that every partial action is a putsch. We were against partial actions in 1919, when the revolution was on the decline and any armed movement only gave the bourgeoisie and Noske the hotly desired occasion for drowning the movement in blood. In declining revolutionary situations, partial actions are to be avoided. In rising revolutionary situations, however, partial actions are absolutely necessary. Despite the extensive revolutionary training of the German proletariat, it still cannot be expected – that would need a rerun of a miracle like the Kapp Putsch, but this time not misconstrued by the Communists – for the proletariat to leap into readiness in a single day, when a button is pressed, as a Social Democratic party secretary, or Rudolf Hilferding, understands it.
What does this mean? For now, no partial actions; only when the curve of world revolution rises. In other words, the situation is not revolutionary. How, then, can the revolutionary wave take shape? Levi continues:
If the revolutionary wave rises again in Germany, then, just as before 1918, there will be partial actions, even though the greater maturity of the German proletariat compared with that time will find expression in such partial actions being more powerful and more solid than previously. But, by a partial action, we understand only one thing – the proletarians rising up in struggle in one part of Germany, or a large city, or an economic region. We do not mean that, in one part of the Reich, or in the Reich as a whole, Communists strike or take action. Partial action should always be interpreted in a vertical, not a horizontal sense.23
At the end of his pamphlet, Levi says that if it is not possible to save the party – and only Levi could save the party – this would mean that the forces of counterrevolution had triumphed and it would be the end of the International. If the revolution comes, then fine, we are not against partial actions. Partial actions then mean simply that today Halle is in struggle, tomorrow Frankfurt, Berlin the day after tomorrow, and so on. Partial actions thus mean that the German proletariat forgets every lesson of its history and permits itself to be defeated one piece at a time.
Comrade Zetkin’s group struggled against the Zentrale, accepting the offensive, but only for some fine day when the Scheidemanns go on strike for an alliance with Soviet Russia. Meanwhile, Levi says when the revolution comes we will begin the whole routine all over again. This is no alternative to the unrealistic and unworkable theory of the offensive that the left wing of the party proposed in the heat of the moment, elevating its mistakes into a theory.
Comrades, why is this theory of the offensive so distant from reality? First of all, it is playing games with military concepts. Now it is true that my friends in the party have never imagined me to be a Napoleon, but still, from time to time, I read military books. When I was trying to understand the theory of offensive war, I decided to turn not to one of our German lieutenants from the cavalry reserve but to a really outstanding military intellect. I reread Clausewitz’s chapter on offence and defence right through. While reading it, I realised how useful it is for a political figure to pay attention to military matters, and how dangerous it is when one does not give due regard to the peculiarities of the circumstances. Clausewitz makes the brilliant statement that ‘defence is parrying a blow and its characteristic feature is awaiting the blow,’ Then he says, ‘What is the strong side of defence and the strong side of offence, in a military sense? In defence,’ he says, ‘I cling to the territory that I know well and let the enemy come to me. In offence I have the advantage of surprising the enemy.’24
What is the analogy here? In political defence, what is the territory that you cling to, which is better known to you than to the enemy? And where is the possibility in offence of surprising the enemy with millions of proletarians, who obviously cannot be mobilised in secret? Playing with this thought is utterly absurd.
But there is a thought in Clausewitz that can be utilised here. He says that defence is a strong means of struggle because I am defending what I possess. When I read that, I saw in my mind’s eye the entire history of the working class, all its great struggles, unroll before me. What was the Chartists’ struggle?25 The defence of the proletarian masses against the effects of youthful capitalism. And the awakening, the great struggles of the seventies, and the creation of the First International? The youthful working class was defending itself against capitalist development. The great struggles of the last decades of the nineteenth century, the big strikes, the creation of big trade unions – what did that represent? The proletariat’s struggle against capitalist oppression, which gathered new force at the end of the nineties. What is social revolution today? Its development represents the uprising of the suffering working masses, whom capitalism drove with cannon fire into war for four years and decimated there, and whom it seeks to decimate today through famine-level wages, and against whom it is now taking the offensive.
We cannot triumph without the striking power of the broad, united masses, without their offensive. By and large, we will creep up on the enemy. We will succeed in instilling in the working class, down to the last man, the thought that they must save their skins if they are not to be reduced to the status of slaves. And because that is the situation, the idea that the party is committed to an offensive, as the main method to be used in every situation of struggle, is erroneous and unworkable. Comrades need only ask: How can we as a Communist Party initiate the offensive? Can we as a Communist Party, representing only a minority, organise mass strikes? Mass strikes can exert a measure of influence only when they embrace the broad masses. Uprisings and decisive struggles require the broad masses of workers. So an independent party has only a very limited scope for manoeuvre.
We must not close our eyes, of course, to the possibility of an offensive taking shape independently. Assuming that, as in the Kapp days, the enemy is divided in wings that begin to fight each other, then, given the general mood aroused by such struggles in the ranks of the enemy, an advance by a resolute minority may carry the masses forward in taking another step that drives a breach into the enemy camp. Or it may happen, if the trade unions continue to crumble away – this has already begun, and for now this is just a symptom, one that is not yet positive or revolutionary, because many of those who leave the trade unions remain on the sidelines – however, this shows that they have lost their confidence in the traitorous leaders. If this process continues, it is possible that a situation will often arise in which we are in a position to lead broad masses, united by their suffering, into struggle against all other organisations. But in such a situation it is the party’s duty to examine carefully every situation of struggle and all the possibilities for struggle. When the party sees a possibility to drive forward, it must seek to prepare its shock troops by arousing the masses and linking the party with the broadest masses. We must always remember that although we should keep a step ahead of the masses, the gap between the vanguard and the broad masses, who are the heavy artillery of civil war, should not be so great that we risk being struck down in an isolated struggle.
Comrades, let us identify the main lessons of the March struggles. The first of these is that it is not easy to carry out the transition from agitation to propaganda for action. Even very good Communist parties, mass parties, of which we have no cause to suspect that there is anything dubious, should not rejoice, for only in struggle will we see what is truly Communist gold. Only then will it be evident which members are really with the party and capable of struggle. Only then will it be clear what is the real nature of the various shadings of opinion within the party.
The second lesson is this: The forces in the party that seem passive can emerge quite readily, in real struggles, as a clearly defined opportunist current, perhaps a half-centrist one. It is quite a stretch from Comrades Zetkin and Malzahn to Levi, and when the Zentrale was struggling with them intensely we had to act toward them in a more protective fashion. When the Executive approved Levi’s expulsion, it simultaneously asked the German Zentrale to hold off until the heat of battle had dissipated and we were able to speak to these comrades.
It was not so much through his arguments but through the way he acted that Levi showed there was no organisational tie between him and the party, and that he was capable of throwing a bomb at the party when it was bleeding. If he really believed what he wrote, namely that the party was struck down and would remain so for some time, then there was no danger of the mistakes being repeated in the near future, and he had time to get in touch with the party and the Executive. If he did not believe that, why did he write it? Levi says, ‘Group after group responded and went into battle under the Zentrale’s slogan,’ but at the same time he calls it a Bakuninist putsch. He is just showing here that he will employ any argument that can be utilised against the party. The other comrades expressed agreement with Levi but also showed, by their active participation in the struggle, that they were tied to the party. We considered these comrades as forces that the party needed, because they, as trade unionists, have a connection with the masses that provides ballast, keeping the ship from making sharp turns that could destroy both captain and ship. As for drawing organisational conclusions, we say to the German party: ‘We have discussed the mistakes here so that they can be avoided in the future and so you can work together with all those who fought with you in the struggle, shoulder to shoulder.’
Comrades, the lessons of the March Action also demonstrate that we have an apparatus that is not yet battle ready. Organisations were formed for the struggle – military-political detachments – but they were shown to be illusory. They did not yet exist in reality, and if they were present here or there, their weapons existed only on paper. The little that was available was undisciplined. They wanted to give orders to the party rather than carrying out its instructions. The party’s organisations, taken as a whole, were shown to be an apparatus that is not yet capable of conducting a struggle.
We must draw important lessons from this. Comrades, the March Action, despite its mistakes, is a step forward. But we say this, comrades, not to bandage the wounds perhaps caused by our criticism, but because we are convinced that you are heading into struggles where you will suffer even greater defeats unless you learn to avoid such mistakes. Moreover, in our opinion, the party’s will to struggle, its capacity to unite masses in struggle, has shown that despite the numerical losses, which have been much exaggerated by the opposition, the party has emerged from battle hardened and steeled. It will be ten times stronger if you fully draw all the lessons of this struggle. We welcome the fact that you have begun to recognise these mistakes. If we compare what is stated in the 7 April resolution with the resolution at the international congress, we see a sobering up.26 The fact that the German delegation has not submitted theses fundamentally opposed to ours is evidence that the great although still young German party stands ready to draw the lessons from this struggle that will enable it in the future to conduct all its struggles, whether offensive or defensive, more successfully, in both political and organisational terms, and through these struggles to lead the proletariat to victory.
4.) Slogans for the coming period
Comrades, I am not able to take up here all the questions that are outlined briefly in the theses, questions that you will be able to develop critically and pursue further in the discussion. Allow me to turn, in this last portion of my report, to the slogans for partial struggle, for actions that are approaching and that we will work for – the slogans we will utilise in working through these struggles. That is a field where we need only formulate what we have very often said in our theoretical discussions and our activity. The task here is to work out clearly the differences between the minimum programme of the Social Democracy, the action programme of the centrists, and the slogans of the Communist International.
Comrades, you all remember very well the old programme of the Social Democracy. It counted on capitalism existing for a long time. It worked out a system of demands for this period that were to improve the lot of the working class and protect it against capitalism’s tendency to drive it downwards. Rosa Luxemburg once characterised the true function of the Social Democratic programme in a polemic with Sombart by saying, ‘Actually, we are only struggling to ensure that labour power, as a commodity, is sold for its real price, and that the worker receives a wage permitting him to reproduce his labour power.’ Karl Marx put it this way in his ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’:
Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.
Now the [Gotha] programme deals neither with this nor with the future state of communist society.
Its political demands contain nothing beyond the old democratic litany familiar to all: universal suffrage, direct legislation, popular rights, a people’s militia, etc. They are a mere echo of the bourgeois People’s Party, of the League of Peace and Freedom. They are all demands which, insofar as they are not exaggerated in fantastic presentation, have already been implemented. Only the state to which they belong does not lie within the borders of the German Empire, but in Switzerland, the United States, etc. This sort of ‘state of the future’ is a present-day state, although existing outside the ‘framework’ of the German Empire.27
What Marx says here with regard to the Gotha programme applies to all Social Democratic programmes. Of course, certain characteristic features are unique to the Gotha programme, but basically this applies to every minimum programme of Social Democracy. It advanced demands that could be realised within capitalist society. Their revolutionary effect arose from the fact that even these demands, which were realisable and essential to the working class, were rejected again and again by capitalist society. Social Democracy today still rests on the foundation of this programme. It is poking about in the ruins of the capitalist world economy, while the forces that push the proletariat toward the abyss, threatening every day to shove it over the edge, are trying to awaken the impression that they are working diligently to shore up this collapsing shack. The German historian Dahlmann once said, in his history of the English Revolution, that the reform of a collapsing house is its collapse.28 But the Social Democracy is deliberately trying to trick the proletariat with its game about reforms. The German Social Democracy tries to sanctify all its betrayals and deceit through clauses of its programme, just as the German general staff uses clauses of its regulations to sanctify the horrors of war.
The centrists try to create the impression that they do not accept the Social Democratic approach to programme, and so far they have not proposed a minimum programme anywhere. They claim to stand for social revolution and to advance only action demands that can be achieved in the process of social revolution. What is the centrists’ real position? This can best be seen in two countries, Germany and Britain – in Germany, through the action programme of the Independents [USPD], and in Britain, through the stand of the ILP [Independent Labour Party] on the question of the mines. Here is what these two parties proposed.
In the sixties, Lassalle told the proletariat, ‘You should concentrate your energies on a single point of attack. Do not look left or right, but rather ask every party and every individual where they stand regarding universal suffrage.’29 Now the centrists tell us that democracy has been achieved, that the issue is not the universal right to vote, for the burning issues are now economic in character. The question is how we can tear the factories and mines out of the capitalists’ hands. Now they tell us that the most important area is heavy industry, which in turn is based on the question of coal. And so they draft a seemingly revolutionary plan to concentrate proletarian action on nationalising the British coal mines and on socialisation in Germany. This plan specifies how the proletariat can win support from layers of the petty bourgeoisie that suffer from the rising price of coal and even from the manufacturing industry that suffers from the private monopoly in coal production. They plan how the proletariat will launch the struggle to socialise the coal mines. They say that if this struggle leads to major clashes, these clashes will be the starting point for revolution.
You can find this silliness in Rudolf Hilferding’s pamphlet, and of course the USPD press talks about it interminably. Considering this proposal, we find that it involves nothing other than fleeing from the genuine struggles into the blessed land of well-laid plans. Why was Lassalle able to focus workers’ energy on the issue of universal suffrage? The working class was gagged, and the first thing that could help release it from these restraints was the right to vote. Whether they were beaten by policemen, mistreated by judges, or exploited by capitalists, the right to vote provided a lever with which to better their condition. Lassalle linked this question to issues affecting workers’ stomachs and with the financing of cooperatives, which, it was then supposed, would be the salvation of the petty-bourgeois proletariat. Today the working class is bleeding from a thousand wounds. It is completely utopian to think that the proletariat can be focused on a struggle for socialisation – in reality, the nationalisation – of the coal industry, even if only for a few months. The example of Britain shows how impossible this is.
In 1919 the British coal miners’ union, led by Smillie, carried out an excellently conducted large-scale campaign to draw the attention of the British working class and British public opinion to this issue. Let me remind you of the coal commission’s public hearings in which Smillie conducted a war against the coal barons – a war before a commission of inquiry, aimed at teaching the British working class the basic concepts of political economy.30 Let me remind you that the coal miners’ union carried out an agitational campaign in exemplary fashion, and even so it was not possible to keep workers, assailed as they are by a thousand other issues, focused on this campaign. The struggle for nationalisation in Britain has now retreated to the background of political struggle. It did not play the same role in the big strike that it had in 1919. The centrists pretend to be planning the organisation of the revolution, but in reality they are setting up a screen behind which they bring in the old Social Democratic programme.
As Communists, our position on slogans is different from what it was in 1918. I recall the speech of Rosa Luxemburg on programme at the founding convention of the [German] Communist Party. Here is what she said:
Comrades, that is the general foundation for the programme that we are adopting officially today and whose draft you have of course read in the pamphlet ‘What the Spartacus League Wants’. It is deliberately counterposed to the conception that underlay the old Erfurt Programme,31 that is, the division between immediate, so-called minimum demands for political and economic struggle and, on the other hand, the ultimate goal of socialism as the maximum programme. In deliberate contrast to that, we are settling accounts with the last seventy years of development, and of the World War’s immediate outcome in particular, when we say we no longer have a minimum and maximum programme. Socialism is both at the same time – it is the minimum that we have to accomplish today.32
And what did Rosa Luxemburg propose as a minimum? All power to the workers’ councils, arm the proletariat, cancel state debts, seize ownership of the factories, and so on.
What was the situation when this programme was adopted? The workers’ councils were the supreme power in Germany. Formally speaking, the working class held power. The task of the Spartacus League consisted precisely in telling the workers’ councils what is the nature of working-class power – nothing more than that.
Obviously we are not in such a situation today. The bourgeoisie holds power. The first onslaught of the working class, during the period of demobilising the army, was beaten off. The proletarian revolution is only now growing again. And we cannot promote this proletarian revolution, we cannot organise it, if we advance only the bare programme of the dictatorship of the proletariat. When workers are striking, because they have nothing with which to feed themselves tomorrow, we cannot come and tell them, ‘Take the factories’. If they were able to do that, they would already be engaged in a struggle for power. We have to point out to them, of course, that they cannot gain any lasting improvement in their situation unless we win power and take possession of the factories. But we must link up with what they are struggling for right now.
Here we must say that the Communist International is not capable of adopting a programme whose various clauses speak to all these needs. The Communist International can only give its parties the following thoughts on method, which they must then translate into demands, based on their specific situation. The first of these thoughts is that when we say that there can be no enduring improvement in working-class conditions without the taking of power, it is absurd to counterpose this to the actual struggles of the proletariat.
In response to our Open Letter, the KAPD writes: ‘You lame brains! First you sit down at a table with scoundrels like Scheidemann, and then you advance reformist slogans. Do you not know that even if workers now earn forty to fifty marks, the prices will rise again tomorrow? You are deliberately raising unrealisable demands.’
Our answer to this is: ‘You can never win a single worker for communism in this fashion. If the worker is able to give his children a little piece of meat tomorrow, or the next day, because his wages have been raised by five marks, then we must fight together with him for these five marks. Rather than worrying that we may be reforming the capitalist state, we should focus instead on the fact that we are helping the worker in this struggle, and we will lead him beyond this struggle to other, heightened struggles.’
Here is our second point: of course we have many demands that we try to achieve when conditions are favourable, and around which we group all our other demands. These are demands that the working class advances in struggle in order to organise and stimulate this struggle. First of all, we must seek to lead all these struggles around wage increases, working hours, and unemployment toward the intermediate goal of control of production. By this we do not mean the system of production control that the government has introduced through a law setting down that from now on the proletariat must take care that the capitalist does not steal, and the capitalist must take care that the worker works. Control of production means educating through proletarian struggle, establishing elected factory councils, and linking them in struggle locally and regionally by industry.
If we succeed in seeing to it that the working class forms such organisations in these struggles in an autonomous, independent fashion, or transforms the bogus organisations granted them by the government, it becomes possible to unite the workers organisationally for major struggles. Those who wish to restrict the organisations only to workers who are already conscious and revolutionary are quite mistaken. When the need is posed to end capitalist sabotage and to get an entire industry functioning again, such slogans can unite broad masses who are not Communists, whom we need, and whom we will lead, through this unity, to further struggles.
The second slogan that we should always keep in mind and that we should try to realise in every crisis is arming the proletariat and disarming the bourgeoisie. We do not mean arming the proletariat only in a secret combat organisation of a small minority. In every field where we are active, we need to urge the masses to demand disarmament of the white bands. We must instil in the masses a determination to have arms. We must pose this demand to the government in every struggle.
We could name many such slogans. I will not do that; they arise from the struggle itself. What I am saying and what we propose as a slogan and a general guideline is that in all the struggles of the proletariat we must not counterpose ourselves in doctrinaire fashion to what the masses are fighting for. Rather we must make the struggles of the masses for their immediate needs more acute and broaden them, teaching the workers to develop a greater need – the need to take possession of power.
Comrades, we realise that the parties need to compare what they are doing in this field and exchange their experiences. So far, this has not been done. So far, the parties have not forwarded their programmes to the Communist International, and the exchange of agitational and organisational experiences among us has been quite limited. When this exchange takes place, this will enable us to create a specific system of actions and transitional demands. Their characteristic feature is that they aim not at refashioning capitalism but at heightening the struggle against capitalism. This is not the minimum programme of the social patriots. Nor is it a specific programme regarding what our dictatorship will do on the day of its victory. It comprises all the demands that mobilise the broad masses for the struggle for this dictatorship.
I have reached the end of my report, and I wish, at the close, to stress some of the conclusions that flow from it.
I said at the start, in full agreement with all comrades of the Executive, that we are headed into major struggles. If a discussion develops here regarding the passage of Trotsky’s resolution that takes up the meaning of prosperity, this could happen only because some faint-hearted radicals are afraid of having an accurate insight into reality. Such a discussion could arise only from a boastful self-deception that the revolution must triumph because capitalism is crumbling more and more every day. They do not understand Trotsky’s point of view, which is that capitalism is decaying, but the decay does not follow a straight line. The revolution advances, but with ebbs and flows, even in this time of great struggles. In noting this possibility, we are preparing ourselves not for a lapse into inactivity but for every type of situation in which we will have to lead actions. We do not believe that agitation and propaganda should be counterposed to action. Effective revolutionary agitation and effective revolutionary propaganda lay the basis for action. And given that we are headed into major struggles, we say to you, above all, that you should be the bell that summons the living to struggle. But at present we are still only a very small bell. If we in the Communist International today represent a significant force, it is not because we, the International, have carried out good agitation, but because the Russian proletariat and the Russian Red Army agitated well, with their blood and their hunger. Their struggle, the Russian Revolution, was the great bell that summoned the Communist International.
Everywhere our agitation is only just beginning. Nowhere does it reach the broadest masses of the people. When we say that we are headed into great struggles, we must also tell ourselves, above all, use every means to go to the masses. We do not know what tomorrow will bring. Perhaps tomorrow we will already be locked in great struggles. That is why we must tell ourselves, secondly, that our task is to prepare these struggles. The revolution cannot be organised. You can command an army, but the revolution is a spontaneous process. However, within this process we have the task of raising the masses to political consciousness regarding what is at stake. Organisationally we must assemble the proletariat’s shock troops, its front lines, which – borne forward by the wave of revolution – can lead the masses in a gallant advance into struggle.
Preparatory work is not counterposed to the period of agitation. To those who say that we want to wait and carry out propaganda and agitation as before, we respond, ‘Do not wait. If tomorrow you can carry out broad actions, all the better.’ Passivity is the organisation’s greatest enemy, but the opposite of passivity is not taking the offensive. Its opposite is, in the struggle, to respond to every situation with the means appropriate to it. Struggle is revolutionary agitation, revolutionary propaganda. Struggle means organising underground and training the proletariat militarily. Struggle is the party’s schools, demonstrations, and rebellion. Our slogan must be to get the most out of every situation.
Comrades, there are some who believe that this is a shift to the right, because while we are combating opportunism, we are also talking about errors committed by the good left forces. That is mistaken. The good left forces are not to the left of us. The left forces in the Communist International are those who are preparing to conduct struggles. The right-wing forces are those who use opportunist theory to obstruct preparation for the struggle. And anyone who hampers efforts to conduct struggles with success by taking too little account of the realities of the struggle, anyone who has no feel for the need for preparation, he is not an opportunist, to be sure – he is an unopportunist. He does not perceive what is opportune and necessary. The Communist International, which arose as a broad organisation of struggle of the revolutionary proletariat against the falsification and betrayal of socialism by the right-wing socialists, does not need to defend itself against the charge that it has right-wing leanings. We have already taken decisions at this congress that stand as evidence regarding the Executive’s course. There is our decision on the Italian party, our decision on the half-centrist tendencies in the Czechoslovak sister party, and our decision on the German question – the expulsion of Levi.
And because, comrades, we are carrying out a ruthless struggle against all tendencies that might obstruct our struggle from the right, we have the duty to tell you, a thousand times over, ‘Prepare thoroughly for the struggle.’ I recall the outstanding comments made by Trotsky twelve years ago in Die Neue Zeit, that impatience is the common ground of opportunism and verbal radicalism.
Opportunism seeks to avoid the final goal, which is distant. Radical revolutionism tries to leap over the obstacles. The mother of both these deviations is impatience, if you consider the matter psychologically rather than socially. And precisely because we have deep confidence in the advance of world revolution, because we have confidence that we will soon see the formation of broad mass parties, we tell you not to demand of today what only tomorrow can bring, but rather to do each day the work that this day demands.
Prepare yourselves, prepare the proletariat for the struggle. Organise it, lead it in the struggles that history sets before you. We do not need to hunt for struggles; they will come to us. And we will fight our way through them much better if we prepare for them. The mistakes that we make always represent a setback, and there is no doubt that we absorbed a setback in Germany and then had to overcome it. The lessons of the March Action will help us in this. When we speak in this fashion, we do so on the basis of what we have learned in our struggle. Zinoviev has already spoken of how often we warned against attacking too soon. And how often we insisted, ‘Now is the moment; attack now!’
Comrades, we all admire Lenin’s tactical genius. I say that not as a member of the Russian party but as one who followed a rather difficult path to full recognition of Lenin’s tactical genius. Consider the contradiction between two tactics: the Brest-Litovsk Treaty and the advance on Warsaw. When the party saw great danger, it proceeded like a mule at the cliff’s edge, feeling its way with its feet, for it was weak. But when there was a chance of victory, it rushed forward into battle. It set off for Warsaw, in order to carry the revolution further. It was defeated in the process. But this defeat is just as significant for a revolutionary as the victory at Brest-Litovsk. It showed that tactical flexibility does not cause the party of the revolutionary proletariat to be tied into knots or buffeted like a rubber ball. It may make mistakes, but it always acts with great caution.
Comrades, if the left-wing comrades made mistakes, specifically in the March Action, I say that these mistakes are evidence in their favour. They demonstrate a will to struggle, and that is why we stand with them, despite every mistake. But it is better to win than to demonstrate a will to victory. And that, comrades, is why our tactical and strategic line is oriented to world revolution. The path to world revolution, in our view, is the winning of the broad masses. We want to lead these masses into the great struggles posed before us by history. We will lead them all the better if we examine what is possible and take the maximum advantage that revolutionary energy and clear insight permit us to take from every day – even days when reveille is not sounded, awakening the masses and welding them together. If we act in this fashion, our victory is assured.
The struggle in Western Europe will be more difficult than the one that brought us to power [in Russia]. If we suffer defeats and have endured a protracted ordeal, that is because the broad proletariat must first learn from these defeats what is needed for victory. Our victory in 1917 was possible because we already had thirty years of revolutionary experiences behind us and because we were defeated in 1905. History gives the Communist International the possibility of shortening the proletariat’s ordeal. We stand before a historical turning point, and there is no power – at least, we do not perceive any power – that can save capitalism. We wish to hasten its death, and that can happen only if we bring the broad masses together under the banner of communism.
We are only the awakeners and organisers. It is the proletariat that will carry capitalism to its grave. The proletariat will be the great hammer that drives nails into its coffin. The proletariat, with its broad and ponderous masses, which develop only slowly, harbouring a thousand doubts, is nonetheless the unshakable foundation on which we will struggle and win. (Tumultuous, prolonged applause)
1 The title of this agenda item in the German-language proceedings is ‘Taktik der Kommunistischen Internationale’. The German term Taktik then had a broader connotation than the English word tactics does in contemporary usage, closer to ‘course of action’ and embracing strategic as well as tactical issues.
2. Martov, ‘Von Niederlagen zu Siegen’ appeared in Freiheit, 1 May 1921.
3. A reference to Adler’s report to the Two-and-a-Half International’s February 1921 Vienna Congress on ‘Methods and Organisation of the Class Struggle’, stressing the centrists’ differences with Communists. Communists, he said, regarded the War as ‘a lever of the revolution’. But experience had shown that ‘with the present strength of the working class, victory of the proletariat cannot by any means be assured.’
4. At the 14–16 May 1921 congress of the Czechoslovak Left Social Democratic Party that founded the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, the main report was given by Šmeral, who said, ‘We now find ourselves in a time of organisation and of gathering revolutionary forces. We are not on the eve of a decisive offensive.’ Šmeral’s newspaper, Rudé právo, wrote on 24 April that the party’s line of march was shaped by the proletariat’s transition ‘from an immediate assault to a war of position’.
5. An apparent reference to Der Weg zum Sozialismus (The Road to Socialism). See Bauer 1919. The text in German can be found online at here
6. Guild Socialism, advanced primarily in Britain in the early twentieth century, advocated worker self-government of industry through national worker-controlled guilds.
7 . A reference to ‘Manifesto of the Communist International to the Proletariat of the Entire World’ in Riddell (ed.), Founding the Communist International: Proceedings and Documents of the First Congress (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1987), pp. 222–32.
8. A reference to Anton Pannekoek’s pamphlet, Die Entwicklung der Weltrevolution und die Taktik des Communismus (Pannekoek 1920). An English translation can be found here. Gorter’s open letter was first published in the KAPD’s Kommunistische Arbeiter-Zeitung in August–September 1920. An English translation can be found here
9. Presumably a reference to the First Congress ‘Theses on Bourgeois Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ and Lenin’s report on this topic. In Riddell (ed.), Founding the Communist International, particularly pp. 163–4.
10. The British miners’ strike began when coal owners locked out miners following expiration of a temporary wage agreement on 31 March. Some 1.2 million miners turned the lockout into a strike to protest the owners’ planned wage cuts and extended working hours. Authorities responded by declaring a state of emergency, moving police and the army into the coalfields. Leaders of the transport and rail workers’ unions had promised solidarity strike action. But in a move widely seen as a betrayal, on 15 April (‘Black Friday’) the leaders of these unions called off the scheduled solidarity strike, leaving the miners in the lurch. The strike lasted until 29 June.
11. Presumably a reference to Borodin’s article ‘The Strike of the British Coalminers and Its Lessons’, later published in Communist International, 18, October 1921.
12. Beginning at the end of August and continuing through the end of September, over half a million workers, led by the metalworkers, seized factories throughout Italy, creating a revolutionary situation in the country. Workers began to organise production under the leadership of factory councils, and in many places workers organised Red Guards to defend the seized factories. The strikes spread to the railways and other workplaces, and many poor peasants and agricultural workers carried out land seizures. The Italian Socialist Party and the trade-union federation refused to see the movement as anything more than a union struggle, however, and the movement eventually foundered.
13 . On 9 December 1920 the government of Czechoslovakia seized the People’s House in Prague, headquarters of the Left Socialist (future Communist) Party and its newspaper, Rudé právo. A general strike was called in response, observed by one million industrial and agricultural workers, which called for the resignation of the government and issued a series of revolutionary demands. In a number of places workers’ councils were set up, as industrial workers seized factories and agricultural workers occupied large estates. The government responded by declaring a state of emergency, and workers were fired upon in several centres. After a week the strike was broken.
14. The right-wing military coup in Germany on 13 March 1920, led by Wolfgang Kapp, triggered a general strike, initiated by the SPD, and widespread workers’ armed resistance. The KPD leadership initially stood aside from this struggle but soon corrected this error.
After the defeat of the putsch, the general strike continued, as workers sought effective measures against the rightist threat. On 17 March, the head of the Social Democratic unions proposed a ‘workers’ government’, made up of workers’ parties and the unions.
The KPD Zentrale declared on 23 March that in its opposition to the Kapp Putsch, it would support a broad workers’ government that would include the unions and the other workers’ parties. It stated: ‘The Party declares that its work will retain the character of a loyal opposition as long as the government does not infringe the guarantees which ensure the freedom of political activity of the working class, resists the bourgeois counterrevolution by all possible means, and does not obstruct the strengthening of the social organisation of the working class.’ Broué, The German Revolution (Haymarket Books, 2006), p. 369.
The negative view of the KPD position Radek presents here contrasts to Lenin’s opinion from May 1920, ‘This statement is quite correct both in its basic premise and its practical conclusions.’ Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 31, p. 109.
15. The Hildebrandslied was a ninth-century Old High German heroic poem.
16. The quote is from Engels, ‘Principles of Communism’, in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 6, p. 341.
17. The KPD’s manifesto, ‘Manifest an das deutsche und das internationale Proletariat’, was written following the fusion of the KPD and the USPD left wing in December 1920 and addressed to the German and international proletariat. The manifesto was drafted by Radek.
18. On 8 January 1921 Die Rote Fahne published an open letter from the VKPD to other German workers’ organisations, calling for united action around the immediate demands of the workers’ movement, including defence of workers’ living standards, self-defence against violent rightist attacks, liberation of workers in political detention, and renewal of trade relations with the Soviet Union.
19. Fighting for wage demands, railroad workers called a strike at the end of 1920. In January 1921, the union leadership and the government reached a deal averting the work stoppage.
In early December 1920 postal workers and other civil servants throughout Germany held protest rallies to publicise their demands for a cost-of-living allowance. Following a Reichstag strike ban and threats to fire civil servants if they struck, on 12 December some sixty thousand civil servants demonstrated in Berlin.
Unemployment rose in Germany during the economic downturn of 1920–1, and its effects were harsher due to the impoverishment affecting all workers.
20. In late 1920 and early 1921, a left-wing faction within the KPD coalesced in Berlin, led by Ernst Reuter (Friesland), Ruth Fischer, and Arkadi Maslow. This current viewed the Open Letter as opportunist.
21. Paul Levi had proposed the slogan of an alliance with Soviet Russia in August 1920. This demand on the German government was presented to the working class as a way of alleviating the effects of the economic crisis. On 2 February 1921 the demand was the centrepiece of a speech Levi gave in the Reichstag, and in early March the KPD began organising mass meetings around it. Although opposed by the Friesland-Fischer-Maslow ‘Berlin left’, the slogan was supported by Levi’s team, the Zentrale that replaced him, and Radek, and it figured among the slogans of the KPD’s general strike appeal during the March Action.
22. The article beginning ‘Kahr is flouting the law’ was published in Die Rote Fahne 18 March 1921. Gustav Kahr was the right-wing governor of Bavaria during 1920–1. The article, written by Béla Kun, included the words, ‘Weapons will be decisive… Every worker must flout the law and get hold of a weapon, wherever he can find one.’
23. Translation of Levi quotations is from Fernbach (ed.), In the Steps of Rosa Luxemburg, p. 160. Emphasis is by Radek.
24. Karl von Clausewitz, On War, book 6, chapter 1.
25. The Chartists were a mass working-class movement in Britain from 1838 to the 1850s, which demanded universal manhood suffrage and other democratic reforms.
26. The VKPD Zentrale’s resolution adopted on 7 April, 1921 was entitled ‘Leitsätze über die Märzaktion’ (Theses on the March Action).
27. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 24, p. 95.
28. A reference to The History of the English Revolution by the German liberal historian, Friedrich Dahlmann.
29. Ferdinand Lassalle was a champion of universal manhood suffrage at a time when German liberals preferred a limited, property-based suffrage that excluded the working class.
30. In September 1919 the British miners’ union secured the near-unanimous backing of the Trades Union Congress for a mass campaign around nationalisation of the coal mines. The Sankey commission on coal (named after its president, John Sankey), which was set up in early 1919 by the Liberal Party government to avert the threat of a coal miners’ strike and industrial unrest. The commission’s findings endorsing the principle of nationalisation were rejected by the government.
31. The Erfurt Programme, adopted by the SPD in 1891, was viewed as a model for parties of the Second International. The text can be found here.
32. Translated from Luxemburg, ‘Unser Programm und die politische Situation’, together with an English version, ‘What Does the Spartacus League Want?’ These can be found here.
Updated on February 14, 2019