August Thalheimer: A Missed Opportunity? The German October Legend and the Real History of 1923


The Class Forces in Russia in 1917 Compared with Germany in 1923

Fundamentally we must examine in outline the question as to whether the objective situation in Germany in 1923 could be compared with that of Russia in 1917 as far the conditions for a revolution were concerned. If the main elements of Russia in 1917 are contrasted with those in Germany in 1923 then fundamental differences observed. What were the main factors which favoured the October Revolution of 1917?

First the war question. The great mass of workers and peasants wanted peace and the end of imperialist war. There was no other party except the Bolsheviks ready to enforce peace, to break off the imperialist war and to give up the alliance with the Entente. It soon became clear that the Bolsheviks were the only ones for peace. This was a great boost for them. Millions had to back peace and to do so that had to back the Bolsheviks as it turned out that there was no other political force than them which wanted to struggle for this demand.

Second the land reform question. The peasants wanted the landlords' land. For years the Social Revolutionaries had promised the peasants the land. But as the peasants did not wait for the Constituent Assembly but chased away the landlords, seized the land and cultivated it, everyone turned against them. Kerensky sent out military expeditions to recover the land. The Bolsheviks alone represented the standpoint of the peasants and said that it was right to immediately occupy the land and supported the peasants in so doing. The peasants, that is the overwhelming majority of the Russian people, saw their interests here represented by the Bolsheviks. Then this affected the workers. In Russia during 1917 the stage was reached when the supply of food to the towns failed. Factories were shut down in order to try to break the power of the workers' councils. From this situation, not out of any theoretical reflections but out of necessity, the idea spread among the Russian workers of wanting to restart the factories and supply them with raw materials. The idea of' Workers Control of production' developed. The struggle over this logically evolved into the idea that the factories had to be confiscated from the employers. But this demand too, for the confiscation of the capitalist employers, was only put forward by the Bolsheviks.

The national question was a further driving force of the revolution. Here also the Bolsheviks were alone in representing the idea of complete national self-determination which embraced secession from the Great Russians. All the other parties that had previously represented the idea of national liberation turned against it when the time came for its realisation as when, for example, the Finns wanted to be independent. Only the Bolsheviks were consistent on this issue. A not unimportant circumstance is that, in Russia at the time, the army consisted of conscripts, the overwhelming majority peasants and workers, who wanted the land, the landlords' land, and peace and a decisive majority of whom rallied to the Bolsheviks. So the question of power, of the proletarian revolution in Russia, was simple to resolve inasmuch as the decisive military forces in Petrograd, Moscow and other centres went over to the Bolsheviks.

The problem that we faced in 1923, and which faces us again today, that of arming the workers, did not really exist at all in 1917. The key regiments in Petrograd went over to the Bolsheviks. The armed struggle there was very slight. In Moscow it was harder. In the last analysis the fact that the key military forces, the great majority of those in possession of arms, stood behind the Bolsheviks meant that the victory of the October Revolution was very easy. Lenin never tired of stressing how easy that victory had been. He repeatedly stressed how the revolution spread through the country in triumph, how it swept away everything before it in a few weeks and months while the great majority of the people stood behind it. This was particularly obvious when the foreign powers appeared to organise and support the counter-revolutionary forces.

If we examine it in detail the picture of the motor forces of the German Revolution of 1923 is quite different. The first question, that of the war, was that in 1917 the Bolsheviks could appear as the peace party - the party the masses hoped would give them peace. But what about 1923? There was no bloody war as in 1917. The Ruhr War was only a pretend war. Britain and France were armed but Germany limited itself to passive resistance. But this Ruhr war oppressed the population and they were weary of it so it played a significant role in developing the forces which were brought about by the end of this struggle. But it was not us but the bourgeoisie which foresaw growing danger in the continuation of this struggle and, after getting an understanding with the French capitalists, broke it off. Then there is the question of the international situation in 1917 as compared with 1923. In Russia in 1917 the revolutionary forces could develop without being checked by external forces - that is by German imperialism. The Central Powers saw the Bolshevik revolution assisting their aims. The Entente was unable to intervene. In Germany in 1923 the situation was totally different. At that time it was above all both Britain and the USAwhich had a direct and indirect interest in supporting the German bourgeoisie against an approaching revolution. Britain wanted to counter France with a strong bourgeois Germany. The USA was interested in supporting them and thus getting back the money that it had invested there. Above all the USA must have feared that a victorious revolution in Germany in the autumn of 1923 meant grave danger to the whole of European bourgeois society. So the USA and Britain intervened against the proletarian revolution to help the German bourgeoisie.

I will later set out in more detail the facts that are important here. The most important economic motor of the revolution was the inflation or the depreciation of money. This caused conditions which increasingly upset the population. But in Germany this economic crisis was solved by the bourgeoisie itself and resulted in the stabilisation of the currency. Here it gave concessions which weakened the revolutionary forces by splitting the forces within the working class between those who wanted to take up the fight for power and those who wanted a few small adjustments to alleviate the immediate situation and who were inclined to renounce the fight for power. As a result of these concessions on inflation and the Ruhr war the working class was split and the Communist Party did not succeed in getting the majority of the working class behind it as the Bolsheviks had done in Russia during 1917.

Then there is the question of the armed forces. This too was wholly different in the Russia of 1917 from the Germany of 1923. We had no general conscription in Germany but the Reichswehr, not only by its size, but above all by its class composition, was constituted quite differently. In Russia the great bulk of the army was made up of peasants, whereas the Reichswehr was made up of socially backward elements in its ranks and trustworthy reactionaries and counter-revolutionaries in its leadership. In no way could it be said that the Reichswehr reflected the true class composition in the country. The Reichswehr is a class army in the reactionary sense. What did the Reichswehr do in 1923? It stood firm and stayed totally controlled by its leadership. We did get a series of reports that some symptoms of disaffection existed in the Reichswehr and even today many comrades still base their expectations of what would have happened on these reports. But we learnt later that these reports had been intentionally leaked to us by the Reichswehr leadership to mislead us.

Naturally the peasant masses did not play the same numerical role here as they did in Russia in 1917 and still do today. That was very closely linked to the inflation and its effect on the peasantry or a large part of it. The inflation had affected the peasantry in such a way that the majority were better off because of it. They had used the inflation to get rid of their mortgage debt which had been reduced to ridiculously low sums by it. A second factor that favoured the peasants during the inflation was the much greater fall in the prices of industrial products than in those of agricultural ones. That price-scissors benefited the peasants. In no way can it be said that the mass of the peasantry in Germany in 1923 became radicalised. They became worried in July and August when the inflation was on such a scale that the food supplies to the town stopped but became quite happy again when the currency stabilisation was introduced.

Thus if the decisive events which promoted the revolution in Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1923 are examined then the essence of these two situations is seen to be entirely different and all the decisive factors, which led in Russia to the support for us of the majority of the population, were not present in Germany.