Max Shachtman

Nine Years of the Struggle of the Left Opposition

The German Revolution of 1923
and the Lessons of October

(May 1932)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 19 (Whole No. 115), 7 May 1932, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

A sharp dividing line marks off the period of the growth and progress of its decline and opportunist degeneration under the regime of Stalin-Zinoviev-Bucharin. This line is drawn by the revolutionary events in Germany towards the end of 1923 and the disputes that arose in the Russian party and the International around the lessons to be drawn from them. Just as the Bolshevik party grew steel-hard in the study of the 1905 revolution and the refutation of the Menshevik conception of its nature and problems, so Bolshevism today can be strengthened only in the study – not merely of the successful October revolution of 1917, but also of the defeated revolutions in Germany of 1923 and in China of 1925–1927. It is to an appraisal of the missed revolution in 1923 that comrade Trotsky devoted himself in his famous work The Lessons of October.

The German Situation in 1923

The autumn of 1923 found Germany confronted with a revolutionary situation of the highest order. The country was passing through a violent crisis, greatly accentuated by the French occupation of the Ruhr which threatened to give Europe the acute war aspect that the Versailles Treaty was supposed to have ended. Not only were the masses of the workers expressing their mood by flocking to the standard of the Communist party – which was then reaching the highest point it has ever attained – but even the petty bourgeoisie, disintegrating, declassed and impoverished was being rallied in great numbers to the organizing center of the revolution. The nationalists and Fascists had by no means the scope and power which they enjoy at the present moment, for example, and the main bulwark of the capitalist regime, the social democracy, was experiencing a process of disintegration and dislocation to the Left.

Every day brought increasing difficulties for the bourgeoisie desperately seeking for a way out of its crisis. Every day brought new accretions of strength to the Communists. The widespread network of factory councils was in the hands of the revolutionists. Every important factory had its militant “proletarische Hunderschaften”, the well-knit nucleus for tomorrow’s Red Guard. In Saxony and Thuringia, coalition governments had been formed by the “Left” social democrats and the Communists which, despite the radically false policies pursued in them by the Communist ministers, gave an index of the tremendous strength commanded by the party. So ripe was the situation that, as Trotsky says, “it became quite clear that the German bourgeoisie, could extricate itself from this ‘inextricable’ position only if the Communist party did not understand at the right time that the position of the bourgeoisie was ‘inextricable’ and did not draw the necessary revolutionary conclusions.”

The tragic outcome of the German revolution of 1923 was due, however, precisely to the fact that the German party leadership, and more than that, the leadership of the Communist International, did not understand what it should have, and, by its capitulation without a struggle, enabled the German bourgeoisie to get that breathing space which, with subsequent aid from the United States in the form of the Dawes Plan, was the direct precursor of the so-called stabilization of Europe and the decline of the revolutionary wave.

In the face of its imperative tasks, with all the chances in its favor, when the moment came to strike the German party leadership simply quit the field of battle, permitted the armed intervention of the reactionary troops without offering resistance, and surrendered its positions without firing a shot. Only in Hamburg did heroic rear-guard street battles take place as a result of the failure of the Central Committee to arrive in time with the instructions changing the plan of battle previously arrived at.

How was it possible for such a situation to develop, with all the disastrous consequences which it subsequently entailed? The then leaders of the International, Zinoviev, Bucharin and Stalin, explained the whole thing away with a deceptive simplicity: Brandler and Thalheimer, the heads of the German party, were to blame. The whole trouble lay, you see, in the fact that they had played a “parliamentary comedy” in the coalition government in Saxony and had failed to strike the decisive blow at the right time. But, added the Russian trinity, (and in this they were echoed by Brandler and Thalheimer), the revolutionary situation is still ahead! A mistake has been made which we will easily and swiftly repair by putting the “Left” faction at the head of the party and removing Brandler and Thaelheimer. With a “Bolshevik” leadership and the revolutionary situation still at hand, the whole mistake will be made good and, incidentally, our wisdom and prestige will not only remain unimpaired but will be greatly enhanced in the minds of the party members.

In other words, the “art” of their leadership consisted exclusively of learning nothing from the events, of teaching nothing about their essential lessons, of finding a scapegoat upon whom the blame for the difficulties might be shifted, and of preserving intact the myth of bureaucratic infallibility.

The Russian Opposition, in the figure of comrade Trotsky, proceeded from an entirely different standpoint. It aimed at such an objective analysis of the events, at such an extraction of the lessons presented by the defeat, as would not only reveal who and what were at fault but would serve as a source of instruction to those Communist parties which still had before them the final struggle for the seizure of power. This aim was brilliantly achieved in The Lessons of October.

The essence of this document lies in a masterful comparison of the problems confronting the Bolshevik party on the eve of its insurrection and how it solved them successfully and resolutely, with the problems confronting the German and Bulgarian party leaders on the eve of their insurrections and how they failed to solve them with either resolution or success. An excellent summary of the key points in this work was made subsequently by comrade Trotsky himself.

“The ideas set out by me in the Lessons of October retain their full strength even now. Yes, even more, they receive confirmation over and over again after 1924.

“Among the numerous difficulties in a proletarian revolution there is a particular, definite, specific difficulty. It arises out of the position and tasks of revolutionary party leadership. Even the most revolutionary parties run the risk of confronting the events, slogan and measures of struggle of yesterday that are being sharply precipitated, with the new tasks and requirements. And there cannot, after all, be a sharper turn of events than that required by the armed uprising. It is right here that the danger also arises that the policy of the party leadership and the party in general does not correspond to the action of the class and the requirements of the situation. During a relatively tranquil course of political life, such a contradiction can be straightened out, even though with losses, yet without a catastrophe. But in a period of violent crisis, it is precisely time that is lacking to eliminate this contradiction and to redress the front, so to speak, under fire. The periods of the highest accentuation of a revolutionary crisis are by their very nature always only brief. This contradiction between a revolutionary leadership (vacillations, a temporizing attitude despite the assault of the bourgeoisie) and the objective situation, can lead in the course of a few weeks and even days to a catastrophe and to a loss of what took years of work to prepare ...

“... (In Germany) the situation was ripe and the leadership lagged behind. By the time this contradiction was straightened out, the situation had already changed, the masses receded and the relationship of forces became fundamentally worse.

“The German defeat of 1923 naturally had many national peculiarities. But it already contained many typical features, also, which signalized a general danger. This danger can be characterized as the crisis of the revolutionary leadership on the eve of the transition to armed uprising. The depths of a proletarian party are already by their very nature far less susceptible to bourgeois public opinion. Certain elements of the party leadership and the middle layers of the party will always unfailingly succumb in larger or smaller measure to the material and ideological terror of the bourgeoisie. Such a danger should not simply be rejected. To be sure there is no remedy against it suitable for all cases. Nevertheless the first step towards fighting it – is to grasp its nature and its source The unfailing appearance or development of Right groupings in all the Communist parties in the ‘pre-October’ period is on the one hand a result of the greatest objective difficulties and dangers of this ‘jump’ but on the other hand the result of a furious assault of bourgeois public opinion. There also lies the whole import of the Right groupings. And that is just why irresolution and vacillations arise unfailingly in the Communist parties at the moment when it is most dangerous. With us, only a minority within the party leadership was seized by such vacillations in 1917, which were, however, overcome, thanks to the sharp energy of Lenin. In Germany, on the contrary, the leadership as a whole vacillated and that was carried over to the party and through it to the class. The revolutionary situation was thereby passed up ... All these were not of course the last crises of leadership in a decisive historical moment. To limit these inevitable crises to a minimum is one of the most important tasks of the Communist parties and the Comintern. This can be achieved only when the experiences of October 1917 and the political content of the Right Opposition inside our party at that time are grasped and contrasted with the experiences of the German party in 1923. Therein lies the purport of the Lessons of October.”

The publication of this work at the beginning of 1924 aroused a terrific storm in the ranks of the Russian party bureaucracy. The vials of wrath of the ruling clique were poured out to the last drop upon Trotsky’s head. What Zinoviev, Rykov, Stalin and Co. were concerned with was not so much the Marxian criticism to which Trotsky submitted the conduct of the German party leaders, but the fact that in drawing his striking analogy with the 1917 insurrection in Russia, Trotsky had revealed that vacillations and capitulatory tendencies similar to Brandler’s had existed in the very highest spheres of the Bolshevik party.

The bureaucrat and the opportunist live from hand to mouth, and, just as they refuse to see or hear, they dislike to look backward, or to have their own pasts spoken of and analyzed. Add to this the fact that the cliques which was then busily engaged in usurping the control of the party was doing it by attempting to revise the truthful record of the October insurrection, and by unloading all responsibility for the German defeat, and you have the reasons for the furious assault which they promptly launched against Trotsky and the Opposition.

(To be continued)

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