Max Shachtman


The Crisis in the German Party

(January 1929)

From The Militant, Vol. 2 No. 2, 15 January 1929, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

HARDLY had the ink dried on the resolutions of the Sixth Congress of the Comintern which noted the “growth” of internal consolidation in all the sections, than the racking fever of factional struggle rose to a more menacing degree than has been experienced in the Comintern for some time. The elements of a devastating crisis are at hand in their full, diseased bloom in the most important parties of the International: the German, Russian, Csecho-Slovak, Polish, French and American sections.

In the German Party the crisis is proceeding with unabated rapidity, and it is there that it has found its sharpest expression. For the yes-men in the various Party committees throughout the International it is the simplest thing to put their seal to the resolutions approving the official line which are sent out by the apparatus, in the hope that this will serve to dismiss the issues of the struggle and solve the problems raised by them. A flourish of the pen, a few slanderous denunciations in the press, as many expulsions and removals as are necessary to behead the minority – and a new victory for Bolshevization à la Stalin is chalked up, although the principle questions involved remain unsettled.

The crisis in the German Party was brought to a head in the notorious Wittorf-Thälmann case. Wittorf, the secretary of the Hamburg Party district, was finally expelled from the Party after the Left (Urbahns) press had for months published stories that accused Wittorf of mishandling and stealing Party funds. But we had here no ordinary case of individual corruption. Standing behind Wittorf was his factional colleague Thälman, the chairman and leader of the Party, who, although he was fully aware of the criminal guilt of Wittorf, kept the information from the Party committee, denied his own knowledge of the facts and protected Wittorf until the overwhelming evidence finally permitted of no further concealment.

The proved complicity of Thälmann in the corruption scandal compelled the Central Committee under pressure of the right wing (Brandler group) and the “conciliators” (Ewert group), to remove him from his post as chairman of the Party, if for no other reason than to safeguard the moral and political prestige of the Party before the proletarian masses. Before Thälmann’s removal by the Central Committee had propertly taken effect, the Executive Committee of the Comintern ordered the Party to reinstate Thälmann to his position and attempted to force the entire attention of the Party away from his record in the scandal by raising a hue and cry against those who had exposed him, the rights and conciliators. The Comintern magnanimously excused Thälmann by saying that his silence had been in the interests of the Party, that he had tried to prevent the crippling of the “cruiser campaign” that would follow the Wittorf exposure.

But the facts entirely reject such an apology for this German agent of Stalin’s’ faction. Thälmann not only knew of Wittorfs peculations prior to the beginning of the cruiser campaign but, armed with this very knowledge of Wittorf’s guilt he had proposed him, in the Spring of 1928, as Party candidate for the Reichstag. Moreover, Thälman not only continued to maintain factional connections, and hold meetings with Wittorf after the latter’s expulsion, but he had himself partaken of the orgiastic fruits of Wittorf’s thieving. Above all, the Comintern failed to explain since when it is proper for any individual to take upon himself the responsibility of “protecting” the Party or its campaign without consulting with or informing the proper committee of his self-sacrificing and heroic intentions.

The demoralising effect of the rehabilitation (by decree only!) of Thälmann was accompanied by a violent campaign of denunciation and attack upon the Brandler-Thalheimer group and the Ewert-Gerhard group of conciliators, in short, by the spurious and hypocritical campaign “against the right danger” whose existence was only yesterday so vigorously denied by the spokesmen of the International.

This “campaign” could not hide the bitter facts, of the alarming state of affairs in the German Party. Not only in Hamburg, but in other sections on the Party also similar cases were discovered – cases of material corruption which were the expression of the political corruption, which, under the Stalin-Bucharin regime, is eating the heart out of the Communist Parties everywhere. What the Stalin leadership of the Comintern fearfully refused to recognise is that material corruption flows from a condition where the Party functionaries, appointed in one way or another from above, easily and light-mindedly succumb to material temptations because they realise that there is no control from below, from the ranks. Because they realise that the worker in the ranks has less and less to say about the policies or leadership of his Party. Because they realise that an uncomplaining and unquestioning readiness on their part to beat the drums for the faction in control; the easy-going levity with which they undersign such crimes as the decapitation, imprisonment and exile of the Russian Opposition, the Chinese and British policies of Stalin and Bucharin – that all this guarantees them protection from the delinquencies or crimes they may themselves commit. Because they realise that the condition for the continuation of Stalin’s opportunist domination is the installment in power everywhere – not of tested fighters, not of revolutionists capable of objective, independent thought – but of willing martinets with no past (or worse, a malodorous one) and no future in the movement, creatures like the Thälmanns, Neumanns, Stoeckers, Smerals, Cachins, Petrovskys, Martinovs, Lovestones and Peppers.

Brandler, who had returned to Germany after an exile of five years in Moscow, together with Thalheimer, and their group of the right, commenced a sharp struggle against bureaucracy and corruption, gaining wide support from the party membership. To a certain extent they were covered by the Ewert group. (Ewert, it will be remembered, was Comintern representative to the American Party before its 1927 convention where carrying out instructions of Stalin and Bucharin, he turned the Party over to Lovestone once more, after having helped him gerrymander one district convention after another. Incidentally, he was one of the fathers of the Menshevik Panken policy of the Party, together with Lovestone and Weinstone.) The criticisms of the Right group were immediately answered by the Comintern and the Thälmann Central Committee with – wholesale expulsions. And it does not bode well for the German revolutionary movement when men like Brandler, Thalheimer, Frölich, Walcher and their colleagues, who are not only the last of the leaders of the old Spartakusbund of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, but highly qualified mass leaders and politicians, are summarily expelled from the Party, despite the errors they may have made in 1923 and today. Such a procedure is all the more reckless and portentous when we see that they do not stand alone but that large sections, whole Party districts, stand behind them, and have suffered their fate by the hundreds.

The line of the Brandler-Thalheimer right is not yet clear. Their platform is limited and vague in many respects. They have not said a syllable about the tremendous, burning issues raised by the Trotsky Opposition, or their attitude towards them. On the contrary, there are indications that they are being supported by the right wing (Rykov-Tomsky-Bucharin) in the Russian Party. But it is clear that thousands of the proletarians who are supporting them now do so because that is their sole “legal” means of expressing their antagonism and resentment of the bureaucratic and corrupt regime. To have supported the expelled Urbahns group, which is the best representative in Germany of the line of the Leninist Opposition, would have meant forthwith expulsion for any Party worker. In the Brandler-Thalheimer fight they thought to find this “legal” or “semi-legal” means which the bureaucratic lid had suppressed. But hundreds of these workers are now being expelled for this also. What hysterical fear of the worker-masses in the Party must impel the bureaucrats when they are obliged to take such drastic and fatal steps to halt criticism! The German Party can ill afford these luxuries of expulsion, particularly in view of the catastrophic collapse of its cruiser campaign, so rich in revolutionary possibilities; of its loss of votes in the recent municipal elections; of its loss of prestige following the Wittorf-Thälmann disgrace; of its loss in Party membership (the Berlin organisation fell from 18,000 to 12,000 members in six months!): of its loss, by expulsion, of the revolutionary fighters who have rallied around our comrade Urbahns in their fight against opportunism and for Leninism.

The warning of Trotsky that the “victory” of Stalin over the Opposition merely foreran Stalin’s shipwreck has been realised. The policy of bureaucratic order, of telegraphed command from Moscow, as a substitute for ideological clarity and leadership, has had its black day in the Comintern. Its fruits are evil ones. They have blossomed in crises that rend the leading and most important Parties of the International.

The blows are heavy, and the wounds are already gaping wide. For the dilettantes and adventurers everything is halcyon and as it should be. The serious Communist fighter, however, pauses to think. There is yet time to heal the wounds and restore the militant health of the body. That task belongs to the stubborn fighters.

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