Karl Radek

A Letter to Klara Zetkin

(December 1926)

First published in New International, Vol. 1, No. 5, December 1934, pp. 155(December 1926)7.
Introduction from New International.
Transcribed by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Karl Radek’s letter to Klara Zetkin is published here for the first time in any language. Although the German copy in our possession bears no date, it was obviously written in Moscow towards the very end of the year 1926. On December 13, 1926, Klara Zetkin delivered a speech at the seventh plenum of the enlarged Executive Committee of the Communist International, in which she joined in the attack upon the Opposition Bloc (Trotsky-Zinoviev), and offered a veiled defense of Brandler and Thalheimer. Her political and personal sympathies for the latter were quite well known throughout the International, even after 1923, when they both fell into disfavor with the ruling group in Moscow. As the letter indicates, her speech attacked Radek for splitting with Brandler and Thalheimer because of his solidarity with the Russian Opposition. Radek’s reply, which gives the fundamental reasons why every revolutionist was duty-bound to support the position of the Bolshevik-Leninists, is cogent to this day, despite the subsequent capitulation of Radek himself. – ED.

DEAR Comrade Zetkin:

It is only now that I have read the stenographic report of the plenary session of the Executive Committee of the Communist International. I learn to my great astonishment that in your speech you too have attacked me by declaring that I have broken with my old friends Thalheimer and Brandler. As to who has broken with whom – will be dealt with further along in this letter. Here I should like only to call to your attention that the breach is an objective one. Whereas you were able to attack me, I was unable to reply either to you or to Ernst Meyer, who upbraided me for belonging to the “unprincipled bloc”. The presidium of the congress rejected the proposal to give me the floor. As a characterization of the situation let me call your attention to the fact that the presidium’s letter of reply to me was signed by the highly respectable comrade Pepper. The creature of the Austrian War Department Press Service, who forbids me the floor with the concurrence of comrade Smeral – this very glaringly characterizes the question of the objective significance of the rupture. I hope that, although you were a member of the presidium and sat in it, the infamy occurred behind your back, without your knowledge. Without this conviction I would find it impossible to write you this letter. I hope too that you will not receive this letter either as an interference in the affairs of the International, which, as you know, has just been forbidden me again after twenty-five years of party work, or as an attempt at faction formation. I wish only to attempt an explanation as to why I regard what Brandler, Thalheimer, and even more so, Ernst Meyer are doing, as a break with our common past, and why I cannot go along with it.

The central question of the development of the party is the question of the splitting of the party. Everybody who sees things politically and does not allow himself to be blinded by hatred, knows that Ruth Fischer, Maslow, Urbahns, Scholem represent a whole stratum of communist workers. In the first post-war years this stratum represented revolutionary impatience. We had to combat it, in order to make clear to the communist workers that a hopeless minority is in no position to capture power. But we did not want to separate ourselves from this mass, for it represented the hope of our class. Levi did not understand this. Against my warnings, he organized the Heidelberg congress, and then broke with the party on the occasion of the March Action, which was a result of the same moods. Now he is in the social democracy. When the hopes for an immediate victory disappeared, the moods of the Left wing workers expressed themselves in under-rating the importance of our struggle on the basis of daily problems. There arose the Berlin and Hamburg opposition. We had to combat it. for without a sustained struggle for daily demands we would not have been able to win the majority of the working class; in general we would not have been able to preserve the mass character of our party without these struggles. But we should not have broken with the Left wingers, for they were the constant warning against an over-simplification of the party, against its conversion into a reformist party of daily struggle. That is why, on my own initiative, I insisted at the Leipzig convention of the party that Ruth Fischer should be put on the Central Committee; the latter rejected the proposal. I wanted the Left wing representatives in the Central Committee so that they might constitute a counterbalance against the pure-and-simple daily politicians, against the comrades who did not understand the difference between a USPD and a communist party. I wanted the voice of warning heard in the Central Committee. You did not. You saw only the surface, the immaturity in the ranks of the Left wing. When, after the Leipzig convention. I attended a meeting of the Berlin party functionaries and party committee, I declared to the praesidium of the Comintern that the party is at the brink of an abyss unless it succeeds, by means of joint work, in bridging the gulf between us and the Left. The stenogram of this speech of mine lies before me.

Later that summer, when Brandler, Thalheimer, Pieck, Guralsky and other members of the Central Committee wrote a letter to Zinoviev, Bukharin and me to demand the removal of Ruth Fischer and Maslow, and Brandler declared in a private letter to me that the patching-up will no longer work, I told him that I cannot go along with such insanity. He climbed down. But there was no collaboration with the Left wing. And thus it came about that after the defeat in Saxony we stood at the edge of the precipice. The retreat of the party on October 21, 1923 was, after all the mistakes made, a necessary one. I saw that as soon as I arrived in Dresden on the 22nd. But the cleavage of the party, the lack of any collaboration with the Left wing, transformed everything into panic and catastrophe. As the representative of the Executive, I had to decide in this situation if I was to separate myself from Brandler and let him alone bear the responsibility for the defeat. As to how I judged the Central Committee, you know very well from my reports to the Executive. These reports also lie before me now. I sought to keep Brandler not out of friendship, although I value him highly and as a man he stands close to me, but because I was convinced that the Left wing comrades alone are not in a position to lead the party and to maintain its contact with broad masses. A communist party without the Left wing workers is threatened with the danger of becoming a USPD. A communist party without the collaboration of people like Brandler, Thalheimer, Walcher and the thousands of the old Spartakus people courts the danger of becoming a KAPD. [1]

My position in January 1924 was the continuation of the line of the struggle against the splitting of the communist party into two polar wings, one representing the present, the struggle against daily need, and the other the tomorrow, the struggle for communism. I was aware that the line that I defended was the continuation of the line of Lenin, who likewise fought against both Right and Left deviations, and who saw the future of the communist party in the fusion of the best elements of both generations. The struggle inside the Russian party which blazed up at the same time led to my disappearance into the wolves’ glen. The Left wing by itself got the leadership into its hands, and what I feared, happened. They pursued a policy which alienated them from the masses. Our work in the trade unions was destroyed. The national and provincial elections showed the decline of our influence. Inside the party, the Left wing leadership sought to drive the most tested comrades of the Spartakusbund out of the party or else to gag them. I fought against it as best I could, and for me it was a question once more of the defense of the unity of the party: not a unity of tag-rag and bobtail, but of elements whose separation meant the death of the party. Then the leaf was turned. At first, the Executive tried by means of its Open Letter to correct the mistakes of the Left wing Central Committee, which I considered correct, for it only repeated what I warned against at the fifth congress of the Comintern and the thirteenth convention of the Russian party.

Then came the sharpening of the struggles in the Russian party, the solidarization of the Left opposition in Germany with the Russian, and I saw the coming split in Germany. In the spring of 1926 I wrote an article The German Communist Party in Danger, which I wanted to publish in Pravda. Brandler and Thalheimer, to whom I showed the article, agreed with me that to kick out the Left wingers would be a blow at the party. Only, they believed I was overestimating the danger and they advised urgently against my making the article public. Since they promised at the same time to counsel our friends in Germany to declare against the expulsions and for the unity of the party, I refrained from publishing the article. What I was afraid of has now occurred. Short-sighted bureaucrats console themselves that it is not a split, but only a little chip that has fallen off. You, however, comrade Zetkin, with your great political experience, must understand what it means when the spiritual leaders of the Left wing and a few hundred active workers are expelled from the party, and the spiritual leadership of the party finds itself in the hands of two former Zionists and Heinz Neumann. From a human point of view I understand that my old friends have not forgotten the persecutions at the hands of the Maslow-Ruth Fischer Central Committee. But politics mustn’t be composed of malicious joy. Meyer and Becker are going through with this policy unconditionally. Böttcher and probably Walcher and other friends of ours are not in agreement with it. They are demanding a concentration in the party from Thälmann to Brandler. This means nothing but the declaration: if we are amnestied for our fight for a correct policy, inclusive of party democracy, we are prepared to renounce party democracy, and instead of the policy of solving party antagonisms by fighting them out ideologically, we shall pursue the policy of bludgeoning down all party conflicts. What has been said suffices to illuminate the question of whether or not I have remained true to myself.

You will reply to me: Yes, but the German Left opposition conducted a counterrevolutionary agitation against Soviet Russia which we cannot tolerate in our ranks. I am in complete agreement with you that whoever disseminates the assertion among the working masses that Soviet Russia has ceased to be the state of the proletarian dictatorship, whoever fails to summon the workers to defend Soviet Russia – has nothing to look for in our ranks; he must be fought as a foe of the proletarian revolution. Korsch and his similars did this, and I stand for his expulsion. The comrades around Urbahns did not do this. I read their declarations of principles and the first three issues of their organ: they solidarized themselves with the Russian opposition, but I do not believe, comrade Zetkin, that you are for the expulsion of the Russian opposition, although I know that you do not share our views. Then why are you for the expulsion of comrades who have solidarized themselves with the Russian opposition? If our views are incompatible with the principles of the Comintern, in the elaboration of which we participated to a greater extent than even comrades Pepper, Volk, Heinz Neumann, Martinov, Shubin and the other present-day luminaries of the Comintern, then of course you must demand the expulsion of Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Piatakov and my humble person. You do not, and you will not. Then why are you in agreement with the expulsion of the German comrades who are in solidarity with us?

With regard to your opinions about the Russian opposition. I must confess that I read your speech and article with the deepest amazement. Surely I don’t need to discuss with you about our “lack of faith in socialism” and about all the other petty, agitational shibboleths that have been coined. We have been too close to each other as humans for you to believe in that. You may be of the opinion that we overestimate the dangers imperilling Soviet Russia – that is the subject for dispute, although you who, together with Rosa, lived through the tragedy of the German social democracy, must have understood us better than many Russian comrades when we say: Beware even of the germs of the danger.

On the anniversary of the death of Karl and Rosa I spoke at a meeting of the Moscow Youth League, at which you too were scheduled to speak. I prepared for my speech, thumbed through old articles by Rosa, and it is my deep conviction that we Left Radicals in Germany awakened not too early but too late, fought against the dangers not too sharply but too weakly. You will probably say indignantly, how it is possible for me to compare the Russian Bolsheviks with the German social democracy. I do not compare them, although they did not sing Deutschland, Deutschland über alles at the cradle of the German social democracy. The Bolsheviks have a past which arms them better against the dangers of degeneration than the German social democracy. That is why I am also deeply convinced that the Russian party opposition, in spite of all the difficulties, will gain the ear of the large majority of the Russian party, and that the majority of our old leaders, who now regard us as pessimists, will be convinced of the correctness of our views. I am convinced that the lessons of reality will force them to turn the front much more sharply against the growth of the capitalist elements in Russia than they have done up to now, that in order to carry on the struggle against bourgeois democracy in Russia they will have to establish democracy in the communist party so as to mobilize the working masses against bureaucratism. The assurance that the party, under the coercion of facts, will conduct the struggle against the dangers, does not release us from the obligation of pointing out these dangers today. The more emphatically we do it, the more speedily will the party take the right position. We must not console ourselves with the thought that the dangers are removed. It is enough to bear in mind that Russia is predominantly a peasant land, that it is surrounded by a capitalist world which encircles Russia not only militarily but also economically, to say to oneself: it is the duty of a revolutionist not to drift along with official optimism, but to be vigilant. He who, like myself, grew up politically in the struggles of Left Radicalism in Germany, in the struggle against the soporific theory of the officialdom, can do nothing else than stand on the side of the Russian opposition.

In 1924, dear comrade Zetkin, you had no argument against this; all the more inexplicable is your indignation today. Can it be that your attitude towards the German Left wing has disarranged your perspective? For my part. I deem it the duty of every communist who holds dear the Russian revolution, to support the Russian opposition. The future of the Russian party, the future, of the Russian revolution are, beyond a doubt, the central problem of the Comintern. Even though the correct position in the questions of the Russian party does not, by itself, mechanically produce a correct judgment of the vital questions of the brother communist parties, nevertheless, I am convinced, there can be no correct position in the questions of the International, if one does not take a decisive position for those tendencies in the Russian party that seek to arm the party against all the dangers which threaten the proletarian character of the state.

Brandler and Thalheimer who always expressed their solidarity with me in judging the dangers of the lack of internal democracy in the Russian party, underestimate the dangers that threaten the proletarian character of the Russian state from the side of the big peasant and in general the bourgeois elements. The source of their mistake consists in this, that they mechanically compare the wealth of the German big peasant with the Russian. Since the Russian big peasant has not yet attained the level of the Württemberger, they feel they can rock themselves to rest. Nor do they understand the Leninist axiom of the connection between the organizational policy of the party and its general political line. Before the war, we combatted the growing bureaucratism of the social democracy in Germany, but not separately from the general policy of the social democracy. It was the result of the growing opportunistic tendencies, and in turn, it enhanced them. The growth of bureaucratic tendencies in Russia is an emanation of the growth of opportunistic tendencies. That is why it is so dangerous. When Brandler and Thalheimer declare that they are against the bureaucratic tendencies in the party but agree with its economic policy, it means that they want to fight against a foe whose social significance they do not understand. Naturally, against a foe whose social roots you do not see, you can conduct only battles in the air. Such a battle bears on its forehead the brand that it is a phrase. Of course, Thalheimer and Brandler may content themselves with this phrase, because they are cut off here from any party life. They need only duck out when the voting occurs in their party cell, and the standpoint is finished. Our party friends in Germany, who must give an accounting of themselves to large party masses, cannot content themselves with this hybrid position. Therefore, demoralized by the position of Brandler and Thalheimer, they must approve everything in Russia today, and so. too, do you, clear comrade Zetkin. Politics has its logic.

Why do I write all this, although I have not corresponded with any comrade in Germany for two years ? I know your feeling of responsibility and I heard that you are travelling to the convention. At first I wanted to discuss matters with you thoroughly, but I preferred the written form, which permits me to formulate my thoughts more calmly. Should you want to discuss with me, I am at your disposal. I do not hope to convince you by this letter, but I do hope that it will impel you to reflect on matters all over again. An enormous responsibility rests upon you. You are the link with the past for all of us, the great experience of life. It is long since you have been in Germany. If you look at the party now, not in its large meetings but in its daily work, then, without agreeing with me in everything, you will probably want to reflect on the following thoughts about the situation in the German party:

1. In the period of stabilization, the task of the party consists more than ever in connecting the struggle around daily problems with genuine communist propaganda and agitation. In this period the daily elaboration of the revolutionary perspective is a positively vital question. In January 1924, at the fifth congress, it was necessary in the first place to underscore the stabilization. That’s what was new. It was necessary to bump the heads of the parties against it, so that they might not break their necks because they ignored the new world-political change. The contrary danger now threatens.

2. Just because we must count upon a period of stabilization in Germany, whose duration cannot be accurately calculated (it may last five years; and then again, ten), just because at the same time a stabilization lasting for years signifies a lasting unemployment which might alienate the Left wing worker elements, the party must do everything to draw them closer and assimilate them. Therefore, an end to the hounding of the Left wingers. We must take a stand for taking them back into the party, just as we insisted on having Jannack and Westermann taken back.

3. The winning over of the social democratic workers is impossible unless our party in Germany carries out that measure of inner democracy which is necessary in order that the uninterrupted catastrophes of the party leadership finally give way to an organic development of the party.

4. The party cannot continue to live without a party program. We can neither win the trade unions nor carry on our agitation without a program. Important as the aid of the International may be in elaborating the program, it must arise out of the intellectual discussions of the currents existing in the Communist party of Germany. For this reason too the spiritual leaders of the Left wing must get back into the party.

5. The future leadership of the party must be democratically set up. To reflect accurately the majority in the party, not to exclude any tendency – these will assure the execution of the convention decisions as well as help imbue the minorities with the spirit of responsibility for the party.

6. Solidarity with the Russian opposition must not constitute grounds for persecuting comrades. The more thoroughly the party understands the dangers that threaten the Russian revolution, the more zealous it will be in defending the October revolution.

7. Only such a policy will truly lay the basis for an end to the factions in the German party, and create that synthesis of the best elements of the Spartakusbund and the Left wing about which you spoke at the fifth congress.

Dear comrade Zetkin, if these modest requests of mine are fulfilled, we “old ones” shall once more stand together.

I salute you cordially, and may I be forgiven by my book on the Chinese revolution from which I stole a day in order to write this letter. My new love for the Chinese revolution has not supplanted or lessened the old love for the German.


Moscow, December 1926



1. The USPD (Unabhängige Sozialistische Partei Deutschland: Independent Socialist Party of Germany) was a Centrist organization which finally joined the Third International; the KAPD (Kommunistische Arbeiter Partei Deutschland: Communist Labor Party of Germany) was an ultra-Leftist organization which finally quit the Third International – ED.

Last updated on 18.10.2011