Karl Radek


9. Illegal Work in Prison

My bourgeois guests enabled me, better than did the press, to gauge the terror of the bourgeoisie and its demoralization. The Communists visiting me enabled me to learn what was going on among the working class. I forbade the leaders of the German Party, who were in an illegal position and under police persecution, to visit me in prison. From my correspondence with them I saw that the Party had no leadership; on the basic question of the relations with the trade unions, there was complete chaos. A few weeks before the party split in Heidelberg over the trade unions, the most outstanding member of the Party, Paul Levi, had written to me expressing himself in favour of leaving them and founding new revolutionary trade unions. This was the position not only of the Hamburg Communists headed by Laufenberg and Wolffheim, but also of my Bremen comrades Paul Fröhlich and Karl Becker – who, after the tragic death of Johann Knief, had remained without theoretical leadership. Comrade Sax-Gladnev, who at the time worked in Germany, had strayed into left-wing communism and was confusing them. I set about at once writing a pamphlet on the development of the German revolution and the tasks of the Communist Party, which I handed out chapter by chapter illegally from jail for the purpose of publication in the Communist Workers’ Correspondence designed for the training of Party cadres. [1] Comrade Bronsky [2], who succeeded in penetrating into my prison, was in complete accord with my estimate of the situation, with the recognition that the first wave of revolution had receded, that the task was to organize the masses for the next revolutionary wave, and that for this task of organization it was necessary to capture the trade unions and factory committees, to enter parliament and the municipal councils. He agreed that it was necessary to maintain contact with the left Independents, to further the split in Independent Social Democracy and, while consolidating the Communist Party, to steer its course towards a future unification with the left Independents. I tried to influence by correspondence the leaders of the Party in this direction. Ruth Fischer [3] came to me; die had just arrived from Austria and was travelling a great deal about the country as an agitator. In Vienna she had had to struggle against attempts to seize power in the absence of any communist mass organization and she had had to leave Austria where she was regarded as extremely Right-wing. Comrade Tomann [4], one of the leaders of the Austrian Communist Party, replying to my question as to what Ruth Fischer was standing for, replied with the exactness peculiar to him: ‘She is the Austrian Martov’. I did not know whether he thought her as gifted or as Right-wing as Martov, but she struck me as a person with a very lively, though uneducated, mind. She told me in detail the impressions she had gathered during her agitation trips. The Party, according to her story, represented an organization of insurgents, who were fighting manfully, but did not know how to approach the masses. The majority of the Party had overcome the putschist inclination, but – no longer believing in the seizure of power by an insignificant minority, by a small organization of resolute revolutionaries – did not know what to do in order to become a revolutionary mass power. Defeated in the streets, the members of the Party were thinking of creating revolutionary mass organizations in the factories. The seizure of power in the factories would be tantamount to the seizure of power in the state. But the myth of the revolutionary mass organization in the factories blinded our comrades to the fact that enormous masses of workers were pouring into the old trade unions. From a word or two, Ruth Fischer grasped my tactical line, and I hoped that she would agitate well for it. But I saw that, though she grasped it well, it did not sink in, and that she could just as easily fall under a different influence. Since the Austrian comrades were spreading much gossip about her, I questioned them and then took a statement from them, so that the Austrian Central Committee should not raise any defamatory political charges against comrade Ruth Fischer, and I gave her recommendations to Thalheimer and Bronsky. Through Ruth Fischer, Bronsky informed me that Levi was heading for a split at the Congress to be held in Heidelberg. I wrote an address to the Congress [5], indicating the tactical line, which was directed against the Left, but at the same time I wrote a letter to Levi, pointing out that the movement should not be allowed to split before attempting to persuade the Party; that it was necessary to open a big political education campaign and that organizational measures should only be taken afterwards if they proved essential. Levi withheld the letter from the Central Committee and decided on a split. Later on he justified himself by saying that he had received the letter too late, but this did not correspond with the facts. [6]

Simultaneously I carried out a correspondence and negotiations with the Austrian comrades. The proletarian revolution in Hungary and its difficult position evoked in the young Party, which consisted in the first place of former war prisoners, the burning desire to help the Hungarian revolution by the seizure of power in Vienna. During that period I was in solitary confinement and could not correspond with Austria. When I was given some kind of freedom of movement, the heroic Hungarian revolution had already been crushed. But the Party, out of inertia, went in the old direction and, though it had in the Hungarian Workers’ Council a splendid platform for the conquest of the masses, it did not know how to fight for their interests. Strasser [7], who insisted on the same tactics as myself, was behind bars. I summoned Tomann, who had a fine instinct for what was going on among the working masses, and in repeated talks we reached agreement with him on the tactical line. Thanks only to the appearance in Avanti of a letter from Vladimir Ilyich to the Italian Socialists [8], expressing the sense in which I acted, was it possible to convince the Austrian Central Committee. And I was asked by the latter to write a letter to the Austrian Party Congress outlining the tasks of the Party as the tasks of conquering the masses for the revolution.

About the British movement I was kept informed by Philips Price, and through him it was possible to establish some kind of connection with it. In Murphy and Gallacher, splendid Party comrades, we were faced with the same Leftist deviation as threatened in Central Europe to break away from the movement.

During the two months preceding my expulsion from Germany I had to work very hard. I wrote a pamphlet on the tasks of the German Party, the development of the world revolution and the tactics of the Comintern, a pamphlet against Kautsky’s book Dictatorship and Terrorism, a pamphlet against the Left on the role of the Party in the proletarian revolution, and a great number of articles and letters. [9] It became possible to publish all these pamphlets from the moment when Comrade Thomas appeared in Berlin and, though working illegally, created the splendid legal publishing house of the Comintern. He visited me in jail as the correspondent of some kind of imaginary Jewish newspaper. As the supervisor remained in the reception room, he began to question me on the position of the Jews in Russia. I did not recognize him and answered him cheerfully that the Jews were always suffering, from revolution as from counter-revolution. After the supervisor had vanished, Thomas revealed his identity and outlined to me the whole plan of his work. At first I distrusted his projects and only later learner of what terrific energy and organizational ability this man was possessed.


1. I have traced no other reference to a Communist Workers’ Correspondence: a weekly entitled Kommunistische Rätekorrespondenz was published in Berlin in 1919 and 1920, but no file exists in this country. The articles in question were published as a pamphlet Die Entwicklung der deutschen Revolution und die Aufgaben der Kommunistischen Partei (Hamburg, 2nd ed. 1920).

2. M.G. Bronsky, a Polish Social-Democrat and member of the Zimmerwald Left, came to Russia in 1917 and was appointed Deputy People’s Commissar for Trade and Industry – a post which, according to the Bolshaya Sovetskaya Entsiklopedia, he continued to hold ‘till the spring of 1919’. In 1918 he was in Berlin conducting economic negotiations with the German Government arising out of the Brest-Litovsk treaty: what he was doing in Berlin in the summer and autumn of 1919 does not appear. He was diplomatic representative of the RSFSR in Vienna from 1922 to 1924.

3. Ruth Fischer has written a valuable account of her visits to Radek in prison (Stalin and German Communism, Harvard 1948, pp. 206–209); it contains, however, some minor inaccuracies, e.g. that Radek was transferred to the privileged room ‘immediately after his arrest’.

4. Tomann had been leader and organizer of the Austrian prisoners of war in Russia (see section 1 above); he was one of the delegates of the Austrian Communist Party at the second congress of Comintern in 1920.

5. The address was read to the congress at its first session (Bericht über den 2 Parteitag der Kommunistischen Partei Deutschlands, n.d. [1919], p. 3) and reprinted by the KPD as a pamphlet Zur Taktik des Kommunismus: Ein Schreiben an den Oktober-Parteitag der KPD (Hamburg, 1919).

6. The letter has apparently never been published. Ruth Fischer took it to Heidelberg (Stalin and German Communism, Harvard 1948, p. 207); according to Levi (Was ist das Verbrechen: Die März-Aktion oder die Kritik daran?, 1921, p. 29), it was delivered only half an hour before the congress opened.

7. Josef Strasser, a Sudeten German from Reichenberg, a member of the extreme Left of the Austrian Social Democratic Party before 1914, and author of a pamphlet Der Arbeiter und die Nation (1912), which is twice quoted approvingly in Stalin’s article of 1913, Marxism and the National Question.

8. Lenin’s letter dated October 29th, 1919, congratulating the Italian Socialist Party in its decision, just ratified by the Party congress at Bologna, to join Comintern, and its decision to participate in parliamentary elections, was published in Avanti on December 6th, 1919 (Lenin, Sochinenia, 2nd ed., vol. XXIV, p. 504).

9. For the first pamphlet referred to see note 1; for the second see Part 10, note 3; the pamphlet against Kautsky is Proletarische Diktatur und Terrorismus (Hamburg n.d.) [Dictatorship and Terrorism]; the pamphlet ‘against the Left’ is probably the pamphlet referred to in note 13. Radek also wrote an article against the Left opposition after the Heidelberg secession, Die Auswärtige Politik des deutschen Kommunismus und der Hamburger National-Bolschewismus which appeared in Die Internationale, Heft 17/18, December 20th, 1919, and was reprinted together with an article by Thalheimer in a pamphlet entitled Gegen den National-Bolschevismus (Hamburg 1920).

Last updated on 18.10.2011