Hugo Urbahns – Farewell to a German Comrade

(6 January 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 1, 6 January 1947, p. 6.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

From Stockholm, Sweden, comes the sorrowful news that Hugo Urbahns died in exile of heart failure.

Hugo Urbahns was born to a country family near Hamburg, Germany. When he reached manhood, he took up the profession of country school teacher. Drafted into the army of 1914, he became a confirmed enemy of German imperialism and was one of the first to Join the revolutionary socialist group of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, the Spartacus League. A militant with tireless energy, devotion and tremendous will to struggle, he soon won the respect and support of the Hamburg workers among whom he carried on his activities. His impatience with the hesitancy of the party leadership in the crucial period following the war in Germany assured him a strong position of leadership among the Hamburg militants, who were in many ways the vanguard of the German socialist revolution.

He acquired national prominence in the German Communist movement by the part he played in organizing a left-wing opposition to the party leadership during and after the notorious Kapp Putsch launched by the monarchist reaction, in which the CP leadership in Berlin had followed a calamitous course of indifference toward the outcome of the struggle around Kapp and Co.

In the revolutionary situation of 1923, the militants of Hamburg were the only ones to organize an uprising. In this hopeless uprising, doomed by its isolation and the lack of preparation by the leadership, Urbahns was perhaps the outstanding figure. He was arrested by the government, and after a trial in which he conducted himself with courageous sincerity, he was sentenced to several years’ imprisonment, from which he was released in 1925 by one of the periodical government amnesties.

Resuming his activity in the Communist Party, he became one of the most important figures in the new left-wing leadership of the party, represented by Ruth Fischer, A. Maslow, who was found dead in Havana five years ago under suspicious circumstances, the late Ernest Thaelmann, Arthur Rosenberg, who died recently in New York, Werner Scholem, who died in the Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwald in 1941, and others. Most of these left-wingers gave their support to the Trotsky-Zinoviev opposition to the bureaucracy in Russia. While many capitulated to Stalin, Urbahns did not. For a while, he became the leader of the Trotskyist movement in Germany, the head of the Lenin League and the editor of its paper, Volkswille (Will of the People).

Conflict with Trotsky

Unfortunately, shortly after Trotsky’s banishment to Turkey, Urbahns came into conflict with the leader of the Russian Opposition, to begin with over the question of the position revolutionists should take in the near-war that broke out between Russia and China in 1929 over the Chinese Eastern Railway. The conflict between the two widened and deepened. Urbahns, from a rejection of the idea of defending Russia in the clash with China, began to develop theories about Russia as a sort of hybrid state, half-capitalist and half-socialist.

Not an outstanding theoretician, he was nevertheless seeking confusedly a way out of the growing dilemma between the traditional definitions applied to Russia and the distinctly untraditional real development of Stalinist society. He was not very successful, and Trotsky was able to blow the sands from under his feet with a few articles which appeared in pamphlet form in all the modern languages.

Cut off from the main stream of the Marxist movement which Trotsky represented, Urbahns’ Lenin League soon disintegrated and played no further role in the German movement.

After 1933, Urbahns, like so many others, was forced to flee the Nazi terror. He settled in Sweden, learned the language of the country, acquired Swedish citizenship, married a Swedish girl, and continued whatever activities were permitted by the misery of exile, mainly in the form of articles he contributed frequently to the Swedish trade union press. The tiny group of political friends around him never broke out of their isolation.

When the Second World War broke, out, Urbahns hoped to come to the United States. It proved to be unfeasible. He lived the last days of his exile in the only country where he was able to take refuge from the Brown Plague.

Soldier for Freedom

His honest political opponents – which excludes the Stalinists, who hated him poisonously – always respected his fearlessness, his singleness of socialist purpose, the purity of his character. He was of a generation that was, for the most part, rotted to its heart by the corrosive acids of decadent Stalinism and decadent reformism. Of that generation, he was one of the very, very few to survive as a revolutionist. We say it who had our not inconsiderable political differences with him.

Only a handful – almost literally – of the men of the Spartacus League, of the great revolutionary days following the First World War, lived to our time. Some of this handful, like Wilhelm Pieck, present leader of the German CP, became loathsome creatures of Stalin. Hugo Urbahns was one of the honorable few who preserved a noble revolutionary tradition, according to his lights and as he understood it. We bow in respectful honor to the memory of this soldier for freedom.

Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 28 November 2020