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


The Real Story of 1923

1. The Effect of the Occupation of the Ruhr

After this general overview of the motor forces of the revolution in Russia in 1917 and the events in Germany in 1923, I come to a short description to the main events of 1923. This is all the more necessary as in any case during the whole discussion nobody in the Party took the trouble to explain the objective march of events and the economic conditions in 1923 and since then no-one has returned to these topics either.

First the question must be asked as to what were the effects of the Ruhr occupation and the inflation up to August. The effects were very different on the occupied and unoccupied areas. Germany had been split into two with contrasting political and economic conditions. In the occupied area the whole of heavy industry lay inert because of passive resistance. But that was quite an extraordinary state of affairs. Workers went on strike but with the consent of their German employers. They were praised as patriots for closing down the mines and steel works and so on. But not only that - they were paid for their time on strike. This was hardly a situation conducive to revolutionary consciousness - to strike and simultaneously to be paid by the bourgeoisie and even hailed as patriots for doing so!

The situation in the rest of Germany was such that the rising inflation led to growing pressure on wages. Real wages fell but, as can be seen from contemporary data, unemployment up to August 1923 was below the normal pre-war average. Unoccupied Germany experienced a sharp rise in production which was impelled by the export premium provided by inflation. This rise in production was made possible by the wholesale import of British coal which replaced the Ruhr production. Germany exported at dumping prices. I do not want to go into details but as far as a great many goods were concerned, exports in 1923 were higher than in 1922. A huge accumulation of capital occurred then. Wages had fallen below their value. The reduction of real wages to a fraction of 'normal' wages daily increased the poverty and want of the working class.

As far as the peasantry was concerned until July-August it did brilliant business because of the inflation and it got rid of its debt and acquired equipment and durable goods. Taxes more or less disappeared in the inflation. So in this period it was, apart from the working class, only the urban petty bourgeoisie which came under great pressure and endured colossal privations. These were the most important objective effects.

2. The Behaviour of the Party until the Strike against Cuno

What did the Party do? In this situation it issued a series of partial slogans and partial demands. I mention the slogan of shifting the burden of the Ruhr struggle on to the bourgeoisie, the confiscation of tangible assets, control of production, the creation of control committees for commodity prices, which also occurred, the slogan of Workers Hundreds (Defence Squads eds.) and, as the unifying slogan, the workers government, which based on its own class organs, would carry out the workers' demands.

For the unoccupied area the Party issued a ten point programme including the distribution of the Ruhr coal, 6 hour shifts, cost-of-living wage rises and a forced loan from the bourgeoisie. Of these slogans, only the one for Defence Hundreds really took off in the Ruhr. This was so successful that the Hundreds sprang up with great rapidity. The Party aimed for the struggle for power. And it prepared it correctly through partial slogans, transitional slogans and partial struggles appropriate to the situation. It avoided adventures such as the left proposal to occupy the enterprises in the Ruhr in face of French bayonets.

Thus things developed until the Cuno strike. This was the high point of the mass movement in 1923.At the time the Party had the illusion that it had initiated and led the Cuno strike. If the matter is examined, then it can be seen that the main cause was the breakdown in food supply, brought about by the acceleration of inflation.

How unready the working class was to take up the immediate fight for power during the Cuno strike is indicated by the fact that some relatively small measures were sufficient to bring the strike to an end and to check the movement. The result of the Cuno strike was the creation of a grand coalition with the entrance of the SPD into the government. And, as Remmele correctly said in January 1924, the entrance of the SPD into the government awakened new illusions amongst the workers. These were strengthened by a series of measures which alleviated the immediate want of the workers. First food supplies were secured. There was a supply of fats. One key measure undertaken was the introduction of gold-wages.

3. The Speculative Plan of Action of the Comintern

I now turn to the Comintern and to an evaluation of its intervention. The then leadership of the German Party has been accused of not realising at all the revolutionary effects the occupation of the Ruhr could produce. From the outset it had not considered the seizure of power, not "unrolled the question of power" as Ruth Fischer said. Of course in January we had already quite clearly seen the possibility of a revolutionary development arising from the Ruhr occupation, but also another possibility, namely, that it could result in a compromise between German and French capitalists, which was in fact the case. That was expressed in Rote Fahne, especially by Radek.

It is very interesting if one looks back on the position of the Executive, since in no way does it accord with what the upholders of the legend claim was the correct one. Not at all in January, not even in June, had it considered the revolutionary struggle for power. In June, there was a plenum session of the Executive. There was no talk of an impending revolutionary struggle in Germany. At the heart of the session was the question of Anglo-Russian tension, where Radek reported on the issue of the growing danger of war between Soviet Russia and Britain. Zinoviev, the president of the Communist International, made a report on the question of the united front tactic. Not even he considered the struggle for power as immediately on the agenda. In June 1923 then, the Comintern still saw the situation thus.

The leadership of the Russian Party and the Comintern first became aware of the problem through the appeal of the CC of 11th July for an Anti-Fascist Day and the campaign of the KPD for the Anti-Fascist Day on 29th July, which saw the call for a dictatorship unfolded through the German bourgeois press, and where the leadership of the German Party raised the question of arming the workers. The Executive first became aware of the question of the armed struggle by the Party and then by the working class in that way. That first set it in motion. What did it do about it? It summoned a conference in which the leading comrades from here participated, together with the Executive. Most of the Russian comrades were away when the conference was called. Brandler and others had already arrived in Moscow by the end of August. Plenty of time was allowed before opening the talks and in carrying them out. Seven weeks were spent in Moscow, drafting a plan of action for the revolution, while the events in Germany developed. in weeks of long negotiations a plan of action for the revolution was drafted, which was worked out in advance.

What was characteristic of the plan of action was that it was not drafted on the basis of the already existing facts but was drafted weeks and months in advance on the basis of a hypothesis about the events which ought or should occur in Germany in four to eight weeks time. In Russia, once the Bolsheviks had attained a majority in Leningrad, once they were already sure about the armed forces there, once Kerensky had been ruined, once the situation was ripe, then a date was set for the uprising in 1917. The plan of action for October 1923, was not based on such factsbut on the hypothesis that the events in Germany from August on would take the same course as had occurred in Russia from August to October, that is, that in the meantime the Party would have attracted the majority of the population behind it, that in the meantime the workers would have armed themselves sufficiently and the enemy, in the meantime, would have become impotent and undermined. In Russia a plan for the uprising was fixed on the basis of real assumptions, but not weeks, as Trotsky says, but days beforehand. But in Germany it was fixed months beforehand. That is the decisive thing. The schema of October 1917 was transferred to Germany, without the facts being present - it was hypothetical!

A few more things relating to this must be mentioned. The entry into the Saxon government was not Brandler's error, but resulted from a decision taken against Brandler's opposition. Brandler opposed it arguing that the preconditions for this were not yet present amongst the workers. First concerned the creation of the preconditions for entering the government. He asked for a certain delay in order to create these preconditions in the factories. So it was put to him: if you believe in the revolution then you must carry this out. They appealed to his discipline. Moreover, the question was raised as to whether the factory councils could provide a base for the organs of power of the proletarian revolution. In Moscow it was decided that they could be substituted for the political workers councils. A wrong decision was made. The plan of action, after many weeks of deliberations, was now finished.

4. The Intervention of the Bourgeoise Changes the Situation

Unfortunately, not only we, the revolutionary party, drafted plans of action, but so did the enemy. Not only that, it acted. Furthermore, the situation was such, that, after the plan of action was finished and the comrades had returned here to carry it out, the hypothetical situation upon which the plan was constructed had totally changed and in fact had turned into its opposite. The bourgeoisie had seized the initiative. The basis upon which the plan of action was built proved to be castles in the air. The bourgeoisie knew that it it did not actively intervene through concessions to the workers and compromises with French capitalism, then a real danger of revolution threatened it. But it did not let it passively approach but in the shortest time it made the necessary concessions. It hastened to break off passive resistance and called off the Ruhr struggle. Stresemann stepped forward to take the path of diplomatic negotiation. Social Democracy, especially its left-wing, urged the end of passive resistance. After the Cuno strike, the bourgeoisie, headed by Stresemann, soon brought the Ruhr struggle to a close. The most important dates are below:

23rd August - Stresemann made a speech in which he offered a compromise to France.

2nd September - Speech in Stuttgart.

6th September - Speech for representatives of the foreign press.

11th September - Negotiations started with France.

24th September - The German government issued official instructions to end passive resistance.

25th September - These instructions were published.

26th September - An appeal of the Reich President and the government, in which a public request to end passive resistance was made.

In a few weeks the bourgeoisie was capable, in its turn, of ending the Ruhr struggle, thus leading to peace, and making a compromise with the French capitalists. Linked to that was the reining in of the Fascists. After using them for sabotage attacks in the Rhineland, for the Black Reichswehr, as it was then called, they were now kicked out. Breaking off the Ruhr struggle was the first policy change. The second, enacted by the bourgeoisie after the Cuno strike, was the end of inflation and the start of stabilisation. This turn started with the introduction of accounting in gold, first in wholesale trade; it had already been accomplished in a large part of industry.

At the start of September, accounting in gold had already become general in industry and trade and had even penetrated the retail trade. If the bourgeoisie reduced inflation after August, it was not only because of the danger of the revolution that it brought, but also because, after a certain point, the effects of inflation change into its opposite. After a certain point inflation no longer acts as an export stimulus, but the reverse. The bourgeoisie had quite coolly exploited the inflation conjuncture to the very end. It had gone as far as it could possibly go, and had only stopped as the inflation conjuncture began to turn into an inflation crisis.

The second act after the introduction of accounting in gold was the introduction of gold wages, the fixed-value wages. Since June agreements had already been reached over fixed value wages and wage payments 2-3 times a week. Of course it was not a real fixed value wage but it meant an alleviation of the depreciation of real wages.

On the 14th August Stresemann appeared in the Reichstag and officially announced the introduction of fixed value wages. Then stabilisation was tackled.

According to Reichsbank statistics on fixed-value emergency funds, between August and the issue of the Rentenmark on the 15th November, no fewer than 989 million gold marks had been issued. Thus a change of direction through a whole series of emergency measures had occurred well before the introduction of the Rentenmark.

The decisive turn that occurred in mid-August after the Cuno strike is given convincing testimony by E Pawlowski (Varga) in his pamphlet Vor dem Endkampf in Deutschland the forward of which is dated 10th October 1923. Varga was as officious then as he is today.

We can read on p.42:

"The fourth stage is that from the 15th August. Through their mass movement the workers achieved a large wage rise and compensation for cost of living increases. The entry of the Social Democrats into the government and the intervention of the top trade union organisation acted to damp down the broad masses will to struggle. They still had the illusion that Social Democracy would come to their aid."

And on p.47:

"Following the General Strike in mid-August, the German ruling class suddenly changed tactics; it now demanded currency reform .... Then simultaneously, also under the influence of the general strike, fixed-value wages were introduced as the maintenance of the paper mark had become superfluous for the German big bourgeoisie and big farming interests. Hence towards the end of August we see emerge a whole series of plans for the creation of a new stable currency. These plans were energetically supported by big capitalist circles, The aim was represented as being so urgent that the government ought not to be left even a few weeks time for consideration."

And on p.64:

"Although the German workers had already deceived themselves countless times about Social Democracy, broad layers of workers were again taken in. Letting themselves be deceived by the phrases of Hilferding, parliamentary democratic cretinism and the delusion that parliamentary horse trading decides the fate of the proletariat, many proletarians were moved to adopt a wait and see attitude after the wage rise achieved through the huge strike movement."

5. The Decisive istakes of the Party after the Cuno Strike

Both these series of events show how the preconditions on which the plan rested were totally changed by the intervention of the bourgeoisie. So what did the Party do then? The main error of the Party consisted of this - that it believed the already drafted plan, it went on with it and thus omitted to take measures towards the political preparations for the struggle for power just limiting itself technical-organisational preparations. Trotsky had declared "Politics is made by the enemy". He considered that the chief defect of revolutionaries in the west hitherto was they had insufficiently valued the question of the technical and organisational preparations of uprisings. The enemy certainly used politics, very appropriate for themselves, while it was precisely the main error of the Party after the Cuno strike for they put forward no policies, that is they omitted the political preparations through partial struggles and partial actionsbut limited itself to technical-organisational preparations. What kind of error is this? Is a 'right' or 'left' mistake? I believe that it is a pronounced left error to want to engage in a uprising. On the basis of purely technical organisational preparations without sufficient political preparations and preconditions. It must be understood that after the Cuno strike the enemy dealt the workers' movement a whole series of blows to which the Party did not reply because it did not want to waste its energies in partial struggles. By doing this the Party neglected to link up the rest of the masses and to establish and to establish which forces among the masses it could control.

Among the government actions after the Cuno strike must be mentioned.

17th August - Severing dissolved the National Committee of the Factory Councils without any protest activity from the Party.

13th October - The government gave itself emergency powers again without any Party reaction.

The Party limited itself to continuing its technical organisational preparations. Then on the 12th October it joined the Saxon government and shortly after the Thuringian one too. As already mentioned, joining the Saxon government was not the result of our free will but was a decision of the Executive with which the whole leadership of the German Party, including the left of Ruth Fischer and so on, had agreed.

Had any of us imagined that we could gain and hold power while linked with Social Democracy? None of us thought that. But the belief underlying the Executive's decision to join the Saxon and Thuringian governments was that the Party could use the government apparatus to arm the workers. The Executive had the notion that we could sit in the government, arm the workers, do nothing meanwhile and that we could 'ignore' General Müller, the head of the Reichswehr. But General Müller by no means ignored us but intervened at once. He immediately took over the State Police. When Böttcher made a speech calling for the arming of the Proletarian Hundreds, Müller issued, with Ebert's agreement, an ultimatum and the Reichswehr immediately marched in. From these events it can be seen that the situation in which we had gone into the Saxon and Thuringian governments hardly accorded with the preconditions which we thought would justify Communist participation in the government. The opposition which Brandler had put up in Moscow was fully justified. A government could only have been built when we could have acted as Communists and revolutionaries and crushed the resistance of the bourgeoisie. But that could only have been done on the basis of the support from the majority of the working class for the dictatorship of the armed proletariat and an uprising which had already been victorious.

So the entry into the Saxon government occurred under erroneous assumptions. What actually happened? There were only two possible courses of action. The first was to act immediately as a revolutionary dictatorship which would naturally stir up the bourgeoisie to resist and so the coalition would inevitably break up. The second, the one actually decided on, was to use the state to arm the workers but in every other respect to stay within constitutional limits hoping that the enemy would not react. Both courses of action would have stopped our plan being carried out. But in the first case the plan would have been prevented by a series of measures which would have functioned in a revolutionary propagandist way. A government which included Communists would have had to impose dictatorial measures immediately. There was huge unemployment in the country. To help the unemployed money had to be confiscated from the employers at once. To create work the closed factories had to be reopened immediately. Food supply also needed dictatorial measures. No real action could be taken by the government without such measures. We had drafted a whole programme of such measures to be carried out at once. But allied in government with the Social Democrats it was neither possible to do these things using the existing bourgeois state machine nor to remain long enough in power to push them into it. The Reichswehr arrived with a rush.

6. The Retreat and the Chemnitz Conference

The retreat is closely linked to the Chemnitz conference of 21st October where the decision was taken. Some facts. It has frequently been claimed that this conference was not really fullyrepresentative of the Saxon working class and that it was not a conference of workers representatives but only of officials. This was not the case. The composition of the conference was as follows:

140 factory workers, 15 representatives of action committees, 26 delegates from the co-operative societies, 102 representatives from Trade Unions, 16 unemployed, 7 official SPD delegates, 60 official KPD representatives, 1 official USPD delegate, 102 trades union delegates representing Trades Councils.

The majority of delegates present were from factories. If the composition of this conference is examined it cannot be denied that it was, in its essentials, an accurate reflection of the mood in the Saxon-Thuringian working class.

What happened at this conference? On the previous evening the Zentrale had unanimously taken the decision that, in view of the news of the advance of the Reichswehr, the demand for a general strike which would include an armed rising should be put forward. But it was then decided that we would have to await the outcome of the conference to find out the real mood. There, with the agreement of the Zentrale, comrade Brandler put forward the demand that the conference issue the slogan of a general strike as a battle cry against the Reichswehr invasion. If there had been a real revolutionary mood at the conference which was already in favour of a struggle for power then, obviously, the gathering would have taken up the slogan with enthusiasm and, from the general strike, the armed rising would have developed.

However the effect was totally different. Brandier's proposal to the meeting fell flat on the floor and the gathering acted icily towards the suggestion. What took place then was that the left SPD minister, Graupe, declared that if the Communists did not give up the call for a general strike here and now then he would leave the meeting with his seven people. Had there been a really battle-ready revolutionary gathering a storm of indignation would have swept the defeatist away. But the contrary occurred. At once the gathering decided to reject the call for a general strike and instead appoint a small committee to look into the matter. It was a pauper's burial of the proposal.

What did this mean? It meant that all the measures taken by the bourgeoisie had had their effect on the Saxon workers, that the working class was split and that it was quite out of the question that at that moment the majority of Saxon workers were prepared to fight for power. There were some townswhere that was the case but for Saxony and Germany as a whole it was on no account so. The real situation was totally different from that envisaged in the plan of action. On the basis of an appreciation of the real situation the Zentrale took the unanimousdecision that there had to be a retreat. Not only Brandler but all the "left" comrades of the Zentrale too and also all the foreign comrades at that time in Germany agreed with the decision without exception. Some of the latter had hurried to Saxony just to prevent the decision for a rising.

If this decision had not been taken the Party would have let itself become involved with a superior enemy which would only have left a real mess behind. In similar situations, in Bulgaria for instance, other acted differently and there are other examples of the same kind. But they do not invite imitation. The Leadership of a Party cannot justify the call for a decisive struggle if it foresees certain defeat. It can be objected that there are other situations where the Party had fought alongside the working class with only the prospect of defeat. Indeed we had fought thus in January 1919 when there was no hope of conquering power and in Munich too when everyone know that there was no prospect of winning. But the difference in the situation was that in one case it was the great mass of the working class that rose and the Party did not dare to forsake them in their struggle. It is quite different if the battle is confined to the Party and the masses do not stand behind it and if the defeat, when it comes, is because of the mistaken tactics of the Party which arise from its faulty assessment of the situation. That does not improve the standing of the Party in the eyes of the masses but discredits it. In such a situation it takes more courage to sound the retreat than to lead an adventure which takes the Party into battle in isolation and destroys it for years.

This impression of the situation which was made at the Chemnitz conference was confirmed by some later events. Here I only want to mention two.

First the Hamburg Uprising. Remmele has given the impression that, as one of the messengers of the Zentrale, he had left Chemnitz too early to be recalled (Remmele was in charge of Kiel but not Hamburg.) The call for a general strike was made in Hamburg and two hundred brave Communists rallied to the call but the great majority of Hamburg workers behaved in such a manner as if to say 'The Communists are brave fellows, courageous lads' and kept their hands in their pockets. This is easily understood if it is remembered that there was plenty of work in Hamburg. Just four items of economic data illustrate this quite adequately.


  1922 1923
Ships arriving 9,617 12,041
Ships departing 16,631 12,919


In 1923 Hamburg was a key port for the import of raw materials and coal from Britain and the USA. Consequently the main mass of Hamburg workers had no inclination for a general strike and armed uprising. Incidentally six hundred workers fought with the republican defence force. When there was an attempt to create a new legend about the May 1929 events in Berlin, suddenly the story about the Hamburg uprising was dropped and in The Theses for Agitators and Propagandists one can read about "the significance and lessons of the May fighting in Berlin" while on 1923 "The Hamburg rising was a rearguard battle, a fighting retreat in the moment of a downswing of the revolutionary wave as the mass movement in the country had already passed its highest point."

Secondly what happened in Berlin as the Berlin leadership at that time was 'left'. The Zentrale repeatedly called on it to arrange mass demonstrations under armed protection. But as soon as the demonstrations were called only a few dozen people turned up who soon disappeared again.

These other examples show the real nature of affairs after Chemnitz, namely that the vast majority of workers were not prepared to fight for power.

In spite of all attempts by Ruth Fischer and Maslow to fan the fire of factional struggle, the Party was about to make an orderly retreat and to employ its whole fighting energy against the SPD but in Decernber the then left, with the open support of the Executive unleashed its factional onslaught and so removed the possibility of making any breakthrough into the SPD for which otherwise there were the most favourable pre-conditions. The Party was undermined through methodological panic-mongering. When Maslow and Ruth Fischer boast that they had, "saved" the Party after the October retreat the truth is that they first generated the panic which then allowed them to pose as Party saviours. Besides their task was eased by the fact that for weeks after the October retreat the Party was still under extreme strain. In an army which had thought victory was securely in its grasp and which instead is forced to withdraw under the heaviest enemy attack it is not too difficult to start a panic. It is the easiest thing in the world if, instead of being called to order by the highest army leadership, the panic-mongers are encouraged.

But the German Party and Communist International suffered grave damage because of this, not only at the time but for years afterwards. Indeed the Party has not recovered from this even today.

7. Some of the Most Important Lessons

With that I end my presentation of the main points about the events of 1923. I only want to add briefly what my views are in regard to some of the most important lessons of these events.

I believe that the first and most important lesson must be that revolutionary plans of action cannot be drawn up some 2,000 kilometres away for eventualities eight to ten weeks later but can only be done by those actually on the battlefield who can follow events with their own eyes. A further lesson for the Communist Parties outside Russia is that they can only hope to carry out a revolution in their own countries it they have learnt to assess independently the relationship of class forces in their own countries, to develop through their own judgement tactics and strategy of revolutionary struggle and if they are capable of critical and independent thought even it opposed by the international leadership. The gravest and most fatal error in 1923 was that the Party and its leadership failed to insist on their independent and critical judgement.

Why was this? Certainly not from a slavish attitude to the Russian comrades but for reasons which, on the face of it, appear quite plausible. Brandler often recounted what had induced him, often against his better judgement, to follow the advice of our Russian comrades in 1923. His train of thought ran thus: "So far our Russian comrades are the only ones to have carried out a victorious revolution. I like to think that I know something about German workers and German conditions. But we have not carried out a revolution. Therefore, where the case is doubtful, we must submit to the judgement of those who have." Today we must say that this is wrong, a most grave danger and one of the reasons for the crisis in the Communist International. Unless that question is settled by accepting that parties in other countries have to learn to lead the class struggle by using their own judgement then the revolution will not be victorious in any other country. In order to defeat the bourgeoisie in reality it must first be beaten intellectually. All revolutionary battles are fought out in the head before they are fought out in reality. In the Russian revolution too it is not just a question of looking at October. Thirty years of fundamental thinking about the ways and means of revolution was the political preparation for the Russian revolution. That was decisive. And it will be exactly like that in other countries too.

As the genuine leader of the proletarian revolution the Communist International needs both a collective leadership and mature communist parties.

The next lesson that we can draw is that the revolution demands political preparations and not just technical and organisational ones and that the majority of workers, the majority of the working class, must be won over through partial actions and partial demands before the conditions arise where it is possible to lead a struggle for power.

Next I think we must learn from the events in Saxony about some aspects of arming the working class. It is an illusion to think that it is possible to distribute arms to the workers behind the backs of the ruling class. The arming of the workers must go hand-in-hand with the political struggle and it is not just a technical organisational matter.

Moreover we ought to learn that, even with a Communist-Social Democrat coalition, parliament cannot lead the struggle for power. In order to win the Party must have a solid majority behind it, ready to give their lives to establish their class in power.

Another lesson is that factory committees cannot replace the political workers' committees.

Of course the above list is not exhaustive, I have only touched on the most important lessons here. Also I have given only a small selection of facts on the economic and political developments in 1923. But I think that these are enough to blow away the Left October Legend. And I furthermore believe that the lessons that we can still draw today from 1923 are not just historical lessons from the past but are also extremely relevant in a situation where the Communist international suffers even more severely from the errors which were so prevalent then. The ultra-left policy in the Communist International and Communist Party of Germany still prevails. So this lesson on the erroneous nature of this policy is always useful as the bogey of October 1923 raises its head again.

The victory of the proletarian revolution in Germany poses the resolution of its tactical and strategical issues beforehand. These questions cannot be resolved on the basis of a legend but only on the basis of hard facts.

The left legend of 1923 has already attained great antiquity and has almost entered the canon. But that is no help. Itmust be liquidated and it will be liquidated as unquestionably as the revolution in Germany will be carried out by a communist party that has mentally mastered the task beforehand.

An indispensable part of the task is to understand the issues of 1923.