August Thalheimer

The Struggle for the United Front
in Germany, 1920–23


From Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 2, Spring 1994, pp. 74–91.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for the Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The article below is an extract from August Thalheimer’s Wie schafft die Arbeiterklasse die Einheitsfront gegen den Faschismus? (How Does the Working Class Create the United Front Against Fascism?), which was originally published by Juniusverlag of Berlin in 1932. The extracts here were translated by Mike Jones from pages 23–32 of a reprint published by the Gruppe Arbeiterpolitik, one of two small groups in Germany which lay claim to the Brandler tradition.

August Thalheimer was born on 18 March 1884 into a Jewish family in Affaltrach, Württemberg. Through their father, he and his sister Bertha had at an early age made contacts with Clara Zetkin and the left wing of the Social Democratic Party, although he did not join the party until 1910. He joined the anti-war current led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, contributed to the first issue of its journal, Die Internationale, and participated in the first national conference of the Spartakusbund in 1916. He was a member of the Stuttgart Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council, and attended the founding conference of the German Communist Party (KPD).

Thalheimer became the KPD’s leading theoretician after the murder of Luxemburg, and was the chief editor of both the party’s daily paper, Die Rote Fahne, and its theoretical journal Die Internationale. He wrote many of the KPD’s key documents, and his writings on the united front tactic and the workers’ government formed the basis for the positions adopted on these subjects at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International. He was generally a strong advocate of the use of the united front and transitional demands, although during early 1921 he veered into ultra-leftism, promoting a theory of the ‘revolutionary offensive’, which was used to justify the disaster of the ‘March Action’ in 1921.

Thalheimer and the KPD’s Chairman, Heinrich Brandler, were used as scapegoats for the failure of the KPD in the débâcle of October 1923. They were removed from the party’s leadership, and stayed in the Soviet Union during 1924–28. Thalheimer lectured in philosophy at the Sun Yat-Sen University. He developed an analysis of Fascism, participated in the Programme Commission of the Communist International, and wrote a critique of the 1928 draft programme, which was suppressed, and only published in 1993.

As the Communist International swung into wild ultra-leftism in 1928, the so-called ‘rightist’ group in the KPD around Thalheimer and Brandler found themselves in an increasingly precarious position. The German ‘rightists’, who constituted themselves into an organised tendency, the Communist Party of Germany (Opposition) (KPO), were expelled from the KPD. The KPO ran regular weekly and bimonthly publications, and between January 1930 and August 1932 published a daily paper, Arbeiterpolitik. Thalheimer wrote extensively for the KPO’s press. He moved to Paris after Hitler’s victory in 1933, and was interned when the Second World War broke out. He settled, along with Brandler, in Cuba, and they intended to rebuild their political current after the war, but Thalheimer died in Cuba on 19 September 1948. Brandler reached West Germany in 1949.

Members of Brandler’s current were active in both the Soviet and Western zones of Germany, and they faced repression under both occupation authorities. The Stalinists staged a show trial in Erfurt in 1948, with the defendants being sentenced to death, but commuted to 25 years. One of the defendants, Walter Seeland, described the trial as ‘a Punch and Judy show’, as it was held in Russian, which none of them spoke. We understand that there is an unpublished PhD thesis in Germany on this subject for the period of 1946–52. There are unconfirmed reports of the Brandlerites’ activities in the Berlin uprising of 1953. We shall be grateful to receive any information on this.

Very little of Thalheimer’s writings are currently available in English. A report he made of a visit to Spain during the Civil War, Notes on a Stay in Catalonia, is in Revolutionary History, Volume 4, nos. 1/2, pp. 268–83. Three articles, On Fascism (1928), So-Called Social Fascism (1929), and The Development of Fascism in Germany (1930), appear in D. Beetham (ed.), Marxists in the Face of Fascism (Manchester 1983), pp. 187–204. A pamphlet from 1931, 1923: A Missed Opportunity: The German October Legend and the Real History of 1923, has been published by Marken Press (£2.00 from Marken Press, PO Box 707, Worthing, West Sussex BN11 5ZP). Robert Alexander’s The Right Opposition: The Lovestoneites and the International Communist Opposition of the 1930s (Westport 1981) contains an account of the KPO, but is not completely reliable. A much more extensive literature exists in German, and interested readers should consult K.H. Tjaden’s Struktur und Funktion der KPD-Opposition (KPO) (Meisenheim-Glan 1964), Theodor Bergmann’s Gegen den Strom: Die Geschichte der Kommunistischen Partei Opposition (VSA, Hamburg 1987), Jens Becker’s Der Widerstand der KPD-O im Faschismus (Podium Progressiv, Mainz 1992), which deals with the KPO’s resistance work, and the various new books listed in the Work in Progress section on pages 137–8 of this journal.

THE Communist Party must organise the united front by openly, swiftly and completely changing its ultra-left direction.

The Open Letter of January 1921

The Communist Party has both lengthy and rich experiences of the united front tactic. But the experiences, the most important of which go back to the years 1920–23, have been as good as buried between the two periods of ultra-left policy, that of 1924–26 under Arkadi Maslow and Ruth Fischer [1], and that which began in 1928, and is only today being hesitantly and partially given up. The younger generation of party members have not learnt about it at all, whilst the older ones have largely forgotten it.

It is therefore useful to refresh one’s memory. The abandonment of these methods has prevented the party and the working class from fighting effectively. In spite of any errors committed in the past, these methods must be taken up once more. The assertion that the conditions for its use have now vanished is not supported by the facts, but is a fantastic misunderstanding of the situation and of the ingredients of the class struggle during the last four years. The words ‘united front’ have been used throughout this time. But the aspiration was given up. However, we depend on it.

The first far-reaching united front action of the party began in January 1921, at a time of a rising cost of living and increasing want amongst the working class. This was after the fusion of the KPD (Spartakusbund) with the left wing of the USPD, which had occurred in the autumn of 1920. For a while the party was called the Vereinigte Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (VKPD – United Communist Part of Germany). Before that, in December 1920, a broad campaign was undertaken in the factories, union assemblies and mass meetings to get resolutions adopted for the ‘Four Demands’ of the Stuttgart metalworkers.

On 8 January 1921 the VKPD approached the ADGB, the SPD and the USPD with an Open Letter, in which were the following demands:

  1. To start united wage struggles, to demand pension increases for war invalids and social security pensioners, and uniform unemployment benefit throughout the country.
  2. Measures to reduce food prices.
  3. Measures to ensure the supply of food.
  4. The immediate disarming and dissolution of bourgeois self-defence organisations. The creation of proletarian defence organisations. An amnesty for all political offences. Diplomatic and commercial links with Soviet Russia.

The ADGB, SPD and USPD opposed this joint struggle with the VKPD. So on 16 January 1921 the party called on the whole proletariat and all members of those organisations, against the wishes of their leaders, to build a united defence front. In order to carry out a campaign for these demands the party proposed:

In every factory a mass meeting of the whole workforce must be called, both to establish the nature of the workers’ demands, and to force the factory council to fight for them. Union meetings are to be called and public meetings held for the general clarification of our demands.

In the first two weeks after the call was issued, meetings were reported all over Germany which came out in favour of the demands of the Open Letter and the proletarian united front. The campaign had particular success in Berlin, Leipzig, Stuttgart, Thuringia and the Ruhr. A great number of smaller gatherings, including 13 workforce assemblies in large factories, and 16 gatherings at union paying-in and paying-out centres [2], especially of the metalworkers, supported the Open Letter. In Berlin, a gathering of 6,000 union members on the railways backed the Open Letter. On 2 January, at the Berlin district conference of ADGB officials, a proposal on the lines of the Open Letter received 327 votes, with 553 against.

The effect of the campaign amongst the trade unionists was so strong that the trade union bureaucracy took defensive measures. The bureaucracies of the unions representing the railway workers, building workers and metalworkers expelled Communist trade union officials, and refused to recognise Communist-run local unions (such as building workers in Chemnitz and railway workers in Berlin and Essen). In a letter on 7 February, the ADGB Executive threatened to expel anyone who supported the Open Letter because it ‘infringed the statutory neutrality of the trade unions’. The VKPD replied by calling on trade union members to intensify the campaign for the united front. It sharply opposed the divisive efforts of the trade union bureaucracy, and it mobilised the unions’ members to struggle against the reformist splitters and to maintain the unity of the trade unions.

In the second half of February, the employers fought the potash miners of Central Germany with factory closures and other measures. A national conference of potash miners, called to consider defensive measures, decided that ‘the Open Letter of the VKPD is a suitable basis upon which the struggle of the miners must be undertaken’.

In the face of the growing sympathy created amongst trade union members by the campaign for the VKPD’s Open Letter, the various repressive measures by the trade union bureaucracy were unsuccessful.

The ADGB’s ‘Ten Demands’

Then, in order to deflect the continual broadening of the VKPD’s offensive, the ADGB Executive decided upon a strategy. It advanced its own 10 demands to relieve the suffering of the unemployed – not, of course, in order for the trade unions to fight for them, but in order to sabotage that fight.

The VKPD immediately parried this manoeuvre by declaring that, after it had criticised the inadequacy of these demands, it would nevertheless fight for these same demands. It continued the united front campaign by calling on the working class to join the struggle for these demands, and not to leave it to the trade union leaders.

Up to the beginning of March, the following organisations had supported the demands of the Open Letter: 32 important trade union paying-in and paying-out centres and local unions, 24 workforce mass meetings in large factories, and 18 mass meetings which had been called partly by the VKPD itself and partly by local trades councils.

On the matter of the reparation payments, the conflict with France and the threat to the Ruhr workers, the party began a campaign for an alliance with Soviet Russia. On 11 March a mass meeting took place in Berlin, at which USPD members and workers from a series of large factories participated (AEG, Osram, Knorrbremse).

The campaign for the Open Letter was interrupted by the so-called March Action, when the party fell for a coolly prepared provocation by Severing [3], and raised the question of power, without having gained the necessary mass basis and when the majority of the working class was not ready to support such a struggle.

Preconditions, Features and Results of the United Front Action

What were the features and preconditions of this first united front action which was initiated by the whole party? The preconditions were, on the one hand, the ebb of the revolutionary wave, which had removed the immediate struggle for power from the top of the agenda, and, on the other hand, the growing unemployment and increasing poverty of the working class. The split in the USPD in Halle in 1920 had increased working-class pressure for unity in action as a counterweight to its organisational divisions. Through the adherence of the USPD left wing, the Communist Party had been numerically strengthened, but, in spite of it, only a minority of the working class followed its leadership at the time. These preconditions led to the creation of the united front tactic, whose first appearance was the Open Letter of 8 January and the campaign associated with it.

The features of this first united front campaign were first of all an approach to the leaderships of the ADGB, the SPD and the USPD for a joint struggle on a programme of immediate demands. After these leaderships refused to join the campaign, there was a turn to the trade union members, to the local trade union organisations, to the factories and to the working class in general. The counter-manoeuvre of the trade union bureaucracy, which advanced its own 10 demands, was parried by the party appealing to the mass of trade union members and factories to organise a real struggle for these demands.

What were the results of the three month campaign? It was very significant for the party and the workers’ movement for, though in these three months it had not yet succeeded in moving from propaganda and agitation to broad mass actions, it had conquered new ground for Communism in the trade unions and in the factories through winning a great deal of sympathy from their members for the Communist Party, it had driven back the authority and influence of the reformist trade union bureaucracy, and had thwarted both their divisive plans and their repression of the Communists.

The March Action and its Rectification

The party began to correct the slide towards the ultra-leftism of the March Action very quickly, and it turned back to the tactic of the Open Letter, that is, to the united front.

Already on 29 April the KPD national trade union department had issued a call to trade union members opposing the bourgeoisie’s attack on the eight-hour day, the wage cuts and the use of emergency powers, and supporting the ADGB’s 10 demands.

The reparation crisis became more acute, and the struggle in Upper Silesia increased in size and intensity, whilst unemployment rose. Then, in its appeal of 22 May, the party again took up the demands of the Open Letter, called for a proletarian united front against nationalist activity in Upper Silesia, and opposed the use of the courts against revolutionary workers. The party arranged mass meetings all over the country, in which it called for a struggle. Joint gatherings of the workers’ organisations took place in Stuttgart and Danzig. The Berlin railway workers’ union summoned a joint session of the parties and the trade union leaderships in order to prevent the transportation of weapons.

On 10 June, in Munich, the Independent deputy Gareis was murdered by counter-revolutionaries. In Munich itself the workers immediately staged a two day general strike. The KPD called upon the whole working class to struggle against the Kahr government [4], for proletarian self-defence, against the state of siege, and for the release of the political prisoners. In Berlin, joint KPD and USPD demonstrations took place. The SPD held separate gatherings. In the provinces, joint gatherings took place on the basis of the KPD’s appeal in Halle, Königsberg and Ludwigshafen, while in Speier, the campaign for the demands of the KPD’s appeal led to a 24-hour general strike. The campaign for the ADGB’s 10 demands continued. In Berlin, on 20 June, a demonstration for the 10 demands by the unemployed took place in front of the trade union building. The party supported this action by an appeal.

On 19 June a factory council conference for North-west Germany met in Bremen, which was intended to be a first initiative towards united action. But it was decided here that this should not be limited to just the ADGB’s 10 demands, but it would call for united action with a more advanced programme of struggle.

The Third Congress of the Communist International

The Third World Congress of the Communist International met in Moscow on 22 June and continued until 12 July. Under the leadership of Lenin, the congress quickly, openly and comprehensively corrected the ultra-left tactic upon which the March Action was based. The congress explicitly declared that the tactic of the Open Letter and the united front was an exemplary one, and should be applied throughout the International. During this period, when the working class was no longer, or was not yet, facing the immediate struggle for power, the Communist parties were given the task of winning over the majority of the workers for the principles and aims of Communism, and of gaining the sympathy of the working masses through struggle and around the organisation of partial demands and revolutionary transitional slogans (for example, workers’ control of production) on the basis of the united front tactic, in order solidly and adequately to prepare for the struggle for power. The previous leader of the party, Paul Levi, who, in a pamphlet, had sharply attacked the party over the March Action, without having previously attempted to put his criticism forward within the party, was expelled because he had broken discipline, although a way for him to rejoin the party was held open. Insofar as his criticism was justified, it was explicitly recognised. A peace agreement was agreed between the representatives of his viewpoint and the party majority, and also for a section of those who had temporarily joined Paul Levi. This should have created the basis for disciplined collaboration in the leadership. This correction by the Communist International of the ultra-left mistakes of the March Action, which was undertaken comprehensively and openly before the whole working class, and immediately introduced by the party, enabled it, after a short while, to make good the reverses caused by the March Action, to regain its lost confidence, to weld the party together, and to prepare the basis for new advances through the united front tactic.

Therefore, the Third World Congress of the Communist International can serve as a model of how, in the middle of hostile attacks, tactical mistakes are corrected quickly, openly and completely, and spurious questions of prestige are ignored.

The Continuation of the United Front Campaign

The continuation of the united front campaign by the party increased the pressure of the masses upon the reformist trade union officialdom. Under increasing pressure, the ADGB’s Executive was forced to declare, in a declaration on 8 August, that it would be ready to involve itself, not just with parliamentary methods but also with trade union struggles, for the 10 demands. The KPD stepped up the campaign for the immediate building of the workers’ united front, and for the immediate launching of a struggle for the ADGB’s 10 demands. Organisationally, it put the main emphasis on summoning mass meetings of factory councillors in every locality. [5] It is clear that the party would not have been able to undertake this campaign without strong support in the trade unions. But the campaign itself extended the influence and organisational support of the party through the trade union posts and factory councillorships that were gained, which were decisive levers in the party’s campaign.

In connection with this campaign, the party organised the calling of a conference of factory delegates. In Berlin, a mass meeting of factory councillors, in which 1,000 participated, came out in favour of a national congress of factory councillors. So did full gatherings of factory councillors in Leipzig, Erfurt, Hamburg, in the Ruhr, the Thuringian factory councillors conference, the Brandenburg province trade union council, and numerous factory and public meetings. Trade union officialdom opposed the summoning of a national conference of factory councillors. The party stepped up its work of mobilisation.

The Murder of Erzberger

The mass movement was given a new momentum because of the murder of Erzberger. [6] The party called upon the workers to disarm the reactionary paramilitary units, to remove monarchists from the state apparatus, from the Reichswehr, the municipal police and the judiciary, and so to abolish the state of emergency. In Kiel, Leipzig, Hamburg and six other important industrial cities, joint demonstrations of all the workers’ organisations took place, though in Berlin the ADGB and the SPD opposed joint demonstrations. In some cases (Berlin, Jena, Hamburg) an attempt was made to continue to take the struggle beyond the factories, and to link the economic needs of the workers to the general fight against reaction. The party gave the struggle against reaction concrete form in its call for the creation of workers’ control committees. Both the USPD and the SPD opposed this slogan.

The reparations burden and the decision of the League of Nations on Upper Silesia led to a government crisis. [7] The KPD called on the workers to use all means, parliamentary and extra-parliamentary, to prevent a Stinnes [8] government, and to fight together for the confiscation of all real assets unaffected by inflation, for the defence of the eight-hour day, for the disarming of the counter-revolution, and for the removal of monarchist elements from the administration. It declared: ‘As long as the SPD and the USPD have the courage to stand by these demands, the KPD will not get in their way.’

The SPD decided on a grand coalition, and joined the Wirth government. [9] The party stepped up its action amongst the reformist workers with great success. The ADGB and the AFA [10] took up the demand for the ‘confiscation of tangible assets’. The KPD agitated for a struggle to achieve this.

A new form of the united front was the support for the Social Democratic government in Thuringia. The KPD committed itself to support this democratic government as long as it carried out an agreed minimum programme.

From now on we must restrict ourselves to just a short summary of the characteristics of the most important united front campaigns during 1922 and 1923:


1. On 1 January 1922 there was an appeal from the Executive Committee of the Communist International and the Red International of Labour Unions to the workers of all countries, ‘For the United Front of the Proletariat’, under the following main slogans: ‘Struggle for Control of Production’, ‘Hands off Soviet Russia’, and ‘Bread and Machines for the Russian Workers’.

2. On 11 January 1922 there was a general meeting of the Berlin factory council delegates. In spite of the resistance of the bureaucracy, the ‘Committee of Six’, which was elected in November 1921 by 2,000 Berlin factory council delegates to force through the amnesty of the proletarian prisoners, was allowed in. A resolution proposed by the ‘Committee of Six’ for the confiscation of tangible assets, for the dissolution of the Reichstag, and for new elections once the Socialist parties broke from the coalition with a vote of no confidence under the slogan of ‘make the propertied people pay’, for breaking off the subsidy negotiations with large-scale industry, for the rejection of any coalition with Stinnes, and for price controls set by the factory councils, was adopted unanimously. The admission of the committee and the adoption of the resolution were heavy defeats for the bureaucracy and a victory for the united front.

3. In February a general strike of railway workers against the brutal repressive measures of the Social Democrats in the coalition government, was supported only by the KPD, was undertaken against the officialdom of the ADGB, the SPD and the USPD. At its high point, the strike encompassed 800,000 participants. The weight of the strike forced the government to negotiate with the ADGB, the railway workers’ union and the strikers’ representatives. The strike brought the railway workers into the sharpest class conflict for the first time, not only against the bourgeois government, but also against the trade union bureaucracy. [11]

4. In April the conference of the Executives of the Third, the Second, and the Vienna ‘Two and a Half’ Internationals took place in Berlin. The purpose was a combined international mass demonstration during the conference in Genoa [12] on 20 April or on 1 May, under the slogans: For the eight-hour day, for the struggle against unemployment (which had risen dramatically because of the reparations policy of the capitalist powers), for the united action of the proletariat against the capitalist offensive, for the Russian Revolution, for starving Russia, for political and economic relations of all states with Soviet Russia, and for the creation of the united front in every country and between the Internationals. A Committee of Nine was appointed from the three Internationals, in order to call a conference of the world’s workers.

On 20 April, in spite of the SPD’s sabotage, 150,000 workers marched, and, moreover, many firms were represented by the whole workforce en bloc. It was the strongest mass demonstration of workers in Berlin since the Erzberger murder. In Düsseldorf 40,000 demonstrated, in Leipzig 40,000, in Stuttgart (despite opposition from the SPD and the USPD) 15,000, in Chemnitz 15,000, and 20,000 in Halle. On 1 May, under the impact of the international conference, joint demonstrations took place across Germany of all the workers’ organisations and parties. Around 600,000 workers demonstrated in Berlin alone. To reduce this pressure upon it, the Second International left the Committee of Nine on 23 May.

5. There was also the Rathenau campaign. Rathenau was murdered on 24 June. [13] On the same day, the party arranged mass meetings in Berlin. Joint mass demonstrations of the SPD, the USPD and the KPD took place on the following day. In a special appeal the following slogans were issued by the Berlin District Leadership: Removal of all monarchists from the army, police and administration; ban on, and dissolution of, all nationalist organisations; the Bielefeld Agreement [14] to be implemented; the immediate gaoling of the Orgesch leaders [15]; and the creation of control organs for the implementing of these demands. The demands for a general strike and the convening of a full assembly of factory councillors were raised in the meetings. During the closing session of the Leipzig trade union congress [16], Walcher [17], representing the KPD, submitted a statement calling upon the National Executive immediately to take all necessary measures to implement the Bielefeld Agreement. On 26 June the Berlin trade union committee of the AFA called on the district organisations of the SPD, the USPD and the KPD for a limited protest strike against Rathenau’s murder. Numerous factory delegations demanded the immediate dissolution of the Reichswehr, the gaoling of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, and the immediate implementation of the Bielefeld Agreement. In Hamburg a mighty demonstration of the SPD, the USPD and the KPD demanded the immediate resignation of the Social Democratic ministers from the coalition government, the formation of a workers’ government and the arming of the workers. Simultaneously, there were powerful demonstrations across the whole of Germany. The ADGB, the AFA, the SPD and the USPD refused to take up demands to safeguard the eight-hour day, for the workers self-defence organisation, and the workers’ control committees, which was the joint platform advanced by the organisations. They feared the independent action of the workers without, and against, the organs of the state. The masses pushed for deeds. Under this pressure, the ADGB and the SPD decided to repeat the call for a half-day protest strike on 24 July. The KPD stated that demonstrations were no longer enough and that action was required. In Saxony the party had already begun organising proletarian hundreds. The KPD called on the workers to copy the Saxon example, to take the removal of counter-revolutionary officials into their own hands, and to take up the struggle. In the whole of central Germany, all workers’ organisations, including the trade unions and the SPD, created control committees, and began purging the administration themselves. Whilst the workers, trade unionists and the SPD and USPD workers in their local and district organisations rallied to the demands of the KPD, the central administration of the ADGB, the SPD and the USPD openly broke from the united front and broke off negotiations with the KPD. The reason was that the KPD insisted upon an appeal to the masses by the trade unions explaining how the demands should be implemented, and it insistently pressed for the dissolution of the Reichstag. But whilst the central bodies of the ADGB, the SPD and the USPD broke from the united front to the right, in order to rescue the coalition with the bourgeois parties (the National Committee of the USPD had already said it was ready to join a bourgeois coalition), the Social Democratic masses leant to the left. Numerous local branches of the SPD, and even more of the USPD, went over en bloc to the KPD. In order to prevent the flight of the mass of members, on 14 July the Reichstag fractions of the SPD and the USPD took the decision to establish an ‘Arbeitsgemeinschaft[18] in the Reichstag.

These events can be summed up thus: The agitation of the masses and the initiative of the KPD at first forced the ADGB, the AFA, the SPD and the USPD to participate in joint action and joint demonstrations. But they attempted to keep the movement within a framework which maintained the organs of the state and the grand coalition by merely holding demonstrations. The KPD pushed for independent working-class action. Major sections of the workers, local party organisations, trades councils, etc, went along with us. Then the central bodies broke away. But the masses moved towards the KPD, acted jointly with it, and frequently went over to it. The authority and the sphere of action of the party were greatly increased through these actions, and a significant breakthrough was made on the reformist front. The only mistakes of the party in the action worth describing were that it did not immediately issue from the centre the slogan for control committees, and only counterposed the vague and unclear slogan of a ‘workers’ government’ to the grand coalition instead of forcing the Social Democrats and independents out of the government and building councils ourselves.

6. There was a national congress of workers’ councillors. Inflation grew, and the cost of living increased. The Fascist movements spread outwards from Bavaria. On 7 August the Berlin factory councillors met to decide what to do about the rising cost of living and the situation in Bavaria. The assembly united on the basis of a Communist resolution demanding that the ADGB use every means to achieve the Berlin Agreement made at the time of the Rathenau murder. Ziska and Kruger from the SPD, using rotten excuses, refused to stay in the assembly any longer, and, with a sector of their people, left the building. Thereupon, 15 comrades, Executive members, Central Council members and group members of the Factory Councillors Centre, constituted themselves as the Committee of Fifteen, and independently summoned the full assembly of council delegates for 27 August, against the wishes of the Central Council, which called for the sabotage of the Committee of Fifteen. On 31 August the entire council delegate assembly met, issued an Open Letter to the German workers, and elected a control committee to prepare a national conference of council delegates. The assembly explicitly confirmed the Committee of Fifteen as its elected organ. On 2 September the control committee directed a series of demands to the Minister of the Interior: confiscation of food, installation of a committee made up of railway council delegates to control the trains, immediate confiscation of all luxury dwellings, immediate closure of all luxury restaurants, and control over all food producing enterprises. The Committee of Fifteen gave notice that the workers would take things into their own hands in the event of this not happening. This programme met with a loud echo in the country. Assemblies and conferences of council delegates in Leipzig, in the Rhineland-Westphalia (Gelsenkirchen), in Solingen, Remscheid, Bitterfeld, Halle, etc., followed this example.

The ADGB now went over to the counter-attack. It announced that the National Congress of Factory Councillors had to be prevented by any means – anyone participating in the congress would no longer have any place in the trade unions. But at the general assembly of the Berlin factory councillors on 15 September, which had been summoned by the official Factory Councillor Centre and the ADGB itself, these authorities suffered a heavy defeat. A sharp motion of no confidence in the Committee of Fifteen was put forward, but was rejected. A motion favourable to the Committee of Fifteen was put down demanding the calling of a National Congress, and was adopted. The trade union bureaucracy attacked the movement with impudent provocations. The mass preparations for the National Congress overcame these provocations. The government resorted to mass arrests of the Communists who were leading participants in the movement. The KPD replied with mighty protest gatherings.

On 23 November, supported by a broad mass movement, the National Congress of Factory Councillors met in Berlin. A total 846 delegates participated, among them 657 from the KPD, 38 VSPD, 22 USPD, 52 non-party, 17 KJ [19] and three VSPD youth. The central point of the conference was the struggle for control over production. A detailed programme of action included:

  1. Measures for safeguarding the living standards of the working masses.
  2. Shifting the burden of the financial bankruptcy and the economic collapse onto the bourgeoisie.
  3. Annulment of the Versailles Treaty and for the reconstruction of Europe.
  4. Combating counter-revolution and economic sabotage.

The conference called for the creation of a workers’ government as the instrument for safeguarding the implementation of this programme, supported by workers’ self-defence formations, factory councils and control committees. The latter was a weak point. But what was decisive was that the factory council movement organised by the party powerfully extended its sphere of action, and started to build independent working-class organisations.


1. January. When the occupation of the Ruhr was threatened [20], an international conference of Communist parties in Essen issued a manifesto against the plans of the imperialists and for the international united front of the struggling proletariat.

2. With the invasion of the Ruhr on 11 January, the KPD addressed the ADGB, the AFA, the ADB [21] and the VSPD [22] in an open letter for the creation of a fighting united front. The struggle demanded the resignation of the Cuno government [23], a break with the coalition, a shift of reparations onto the bourgeoisie, workers’ control of production, a struggle against Cuno on the Spree and Poincaré on the Ruhr [24], and for a workers’ government.

3. On 24 January there was a Ruhr factory councillors’ conference. It advanced nine demands.

4. On 11 March the second Rhineland-Westphalian conference of factory councillors took place in Essen, protected by five proletarian hundreds detachments of Essen workers.

5. On 17 March there was an international conference in Frankfurt am Main called by the KPD.

6. In Bavaria the Fascist-monarchist movement was growing. On 26 January a state of emergency was imposed in Bavaria. The KPD’s state committee of Saxony called upon the SPD government to set up workers’ defence formations, to dissolve all counter-revolutionary organisations and to jail their leaders, and to create control committees to oversee the implementation of these demands. The party agitated for the united front against Fascism. The slogan of the creation of proletarian hundreds gained popular support.

7. In May the movement of proletarian hundreds and control committees experienced a powerful upswing. In Saxony, the right-wing Social Democratic leaders tried to prevent the creation of joint proletarian hundreds. They did not succeed. On 12 May Severing banned the creation of proletarian hundreds in Prussia. On 13 May the state committee of the Saxon workers’ councils appealed to factory councillors and workers to build factory hundreds in all large factories by 10 June, which united workers whatever their party orientation. Proletarian control committees, and equally of cross-party composition, were to be built by the same date. This movement also took off in Thuringia. In Prussia, the ban on proletarian hundreds was combined with a ban on factory councils and control committees adhering to the Committee of Fifteen.

8. On 12 July the party issued an appeal for mass demonstrations against Fascism for 29 July (Anti-Fascist Day). The bourgeoisie replied by announcing that the demonstrations would be violently dispersed. A few days later, the Reichswehr was regrouped to intervene against the working class. The party avoided an armed clash on 29 July, as neither it nor the working class were armed. The party understood that a further increase of forces and more thorough preparations were needed. Only now did the thought of arming gain a foothold throughout the party and beyond that amongst the workers.

The following passages from the appeal of the party on 11 July 1923 are worth quoting here:

We face difficult battles. We must prepare thoroughly for action. We cannot rely on Social Democracy and the trade union bureaucracy. As in all the other defensive struggles of the revolutionary proletariat against counter-revolution, Social Democracy and the trade union bureaucracy will once again abandon the workers and betray them … We Communists can only win in the fight against the counter-revolution if we succeed in leading Social Democratic and non-party working masses in battle together with us, without and against the treacherous Social Democratic Party and trade union bureaucracy. For this purpose, all preparations must be made immediately for a battle-worthy defensive action … The joint proletarian defence organisation must be so battle-tempered that it can also engage in open civil war without a failure in any district … The Fascist uprising can only be put down if white terror is met with red terror …

9. August. The Cuno strike. Under the pressure of the factory council movement the Cuno government fell. Social Democracy joined the government to save the bourgeoisie. The temporary manoeuvre of a retreat by the German bourgeoisie in the Ruhr and in the interior was initiated by Stresemann. [25] Under the pressure of the proletarian mass movement, as well as the collapse of passive resistance, the government, which had encouraged the Black Reichswehr [26] and the other Fascist organisations, was obliged to distance itself from them.

10. On 24 September the KPD addressed an open letter to the VSPD, the USPD, the ADGB, the AFA and the ADB with the call to mobilise the entire working class and to summon a general strike ‘because maybe tomorrow or at least the day after, the Fascist guns and machine guns must never be allowed to sound’. At the same time there was an alarm call to the party membership. Already on 26 September Kahr had imposed a state of emergency in Bavaria. The national government replied with a state of emergency over the whole country.

11. In Saxony and Thuringia, the KPD created joint governments with the left wing of the SPD. The Reichswehr was sent into Saxony and Thuringia without meeting much resistance, and the Social Democratic-Communist governments were dismissed.

What Resulted From These Events in 1923?

Owing to a real united front tactic, together with energetic Communist fraction work in the trade unions, and among the factory councillors and in the factories, the Communist Party succeeded in greatly extending its mass influence and its sphere of action, in making huge advances in the trade unions and a deep breakthrough into the reformist camp, and in successfully averting the Fascist threat. The pressure of the revolutionary mass movement, which was reflected within the SPD and trade unions, forced the bourgeoisie to drop its Fascist allies and once more to seek support in the leaderships of the SPD and the ADGB, and to return to the basis of the parliamentary republic.

On the other hand, the united front tactic did not suffice to lead the revolutionary assault on the bourgeois-democratic republic. The precondition for that was that the KPD would have already had to have won the majority of the working class for the assault on the bourgeois state. That was not the case. The government experiment in Saxony overstepped the limits set by the united front tactic. It was a wrong use of the tactic.

Using the united front tactic, the party’s approaches to the leaderships, to the members and to the local and district organisations of the reformist party and the trade unions were combined and mutually strengthened. The leaderships were temporarily dragged along, which opened a broad way into their working-class base, because, with the rise of the mass movement, the leaderships regularly sabotaged it and turned to the right. The result was that the masses turned leftward, making closer links with the Communist Party, which in turn increased its authority among the masses, and widened its sphere of action.

The party leadership which developed and used the united front tactic from 1920 to 1923, was led by Brandler and Thalheimer, etc. – the present leadership of the Communist Opposition. Their use of it was not free of severe mistakes. The Communist Opposition long ago recognised these mistakes, spoke out openly about them, and theoretically as well as practically rejected them.

After the October 1923 events, the Executive Committee of the Communist International helped Fischer and Maslow, together with Thälmann, Remmele and Neumann, into the leadership of the party. [27] The ultra-left policy experienced its first high tide. Instead of using the united front tactic to separate the wheat from the chaff, a task carried out by the present Communist Opposition when it led the party in 1920–23, the united front tactic was now thrown overboard lock, stock and barrel. The result was that within a year and a half, the party almost entirely lost its mass influence, and was brought to the edge of collapse.

At the last moment the Executive Committee of the Communist International altered course, and from then on the ultra-left era ended, not only in Germany, but in the whole Communist International, and turned, if not openly and clearly, at least in practice, back to the forsaken way of the united front tactic.

This tactic was used again to a considerable extent during the campaign against compensation to the German princes in 1926. Mistakes were also made here, but the correct procedure was enough to bring the party out of its isolation and to lead it upwards again.

The abandonment of the united front tactic and a correct trade union tactic since 1928 has led to such results for the party that the ultra-left period from 1924 to 1928 appears harmless. The reason is clear enough: it is the coincidence of the ultra-left tactic with the colossal economic and political shock to capitalism in Germany. As the ultra-left tactic prevented the party from taking advantage of profoundly revolutionary possibilities, so the counter-revolution was able to use the situation to its advantage. Had the Communist Party employed correct tactics, it could today have stood at the head of the working class on the threshold of power. But Fascism stands on the threshold of power instead, because the one essentially correct Communist tactic, even if it was not free of error, was discontinued in mid-course in 1923, and rejected for years. [28]


1. Arkady Maslow (1891–1941) joined the KPD in 1919, and always stood on its left wing. He was in the leadership which took over after Brandler’s demotion, and was expelled with Ruth Fischer (cf. n5, Paul Levi’s article in this issue of Revolutionary History) in 1926, and worked with her during the 1930s.

2. In Germany during this period, unemployment benefit was paid out by the trade unions on behalf of the state, as in Scandinavia today. The role of the Histradut in Israel has some similarities to this.

3. Wilhelm Severing (1875–1952) stood on the extreme right wing of the SPD, and was the Minister of the Interior of Prussia in 1919–26 and 1930–32. He had been appointed by Noske (cf. n2, p. 40) to suppress working-class activity in the Ruhr, and he later did the same in Prussia. For the March Action, cf. n65, p. 35.

4. Karl Gareis (1889–1921) was a USPD deputy in the Bavarian landtag who was murdered by right-wingers in Munich. Gustav Ritter von Kahr (1862–1934) was a leading Bavarian right-winger who in 1923 was appointed state commissioner of Bavaria with dictatorial powers. He gave shelter to all right-wing terrorist elements, including the young Adolf Hitler. He was murdered in the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ on 30 June 1934.

5. The factory councillors were elected representatives to the factory councils, which were radical bodies that arose in the November Revolution of 1918.

6. Matthias Erzberger (1875–1921) was the leader of the Centre Party, who stood on the left wing of the party, and had signed the armistice in November 1918. He was murdered on 26 August 1921 by nationalist extremists. His murder caused great indignation, especially within the working class, to which sentiment the KPD attempted to give direction and expression.

7. The territorial provisions of the Versailles Treaty called for Alsace-Lorraine to be ceded to France, the Saarland to be placed under League of Nations control, some territory to be handed over to Belgium and Denmark, and most of Posen and West Prussia and parts of Pomerania to be ceded to the new Polish state. Upper Silesia was to be ceded in toto to Poland, but 60 per cent of the voters in a plebiscite desired to stay in Germany, the Polish minority then staged an uprising, and the area was partitioned to Poland’s advantage in 1922.

8. Hugo Stinnes (1870–1924) was a leading industrialist whose business empire incorporated 20 per cent of German industry.

9. Joseph Wirth (1879–1956) was a leader of the Centre Party, and became Chancellor in 1921. The SPD was represented in the cabinet. A grand coalition was a government formed by main parties, rather than one formed by one main party and one or more smaller parties.

10. The Allgemeiner Freier Angestelltenbund was the white collar union centre.

11. German railway workers were in general a reactionary force. In Imperial times retired NCOs were frequently rewarded with minor supervisory jobs within this sector.

12. An international economic conference took place in Genoa (the text erroneously states ‘Jena’) in April 1922, to which all the European powers, including Germany and the Soviet Union, were invited.

13. Walther Rathenau (1867–1922) was a German industrialist and politician, and the managing director of several large companies, who during the First World War helped Ludendorff run the German economy. As Foreign Minister in the Wirth government from February 1922, he concluded the German-Russian Treaty at Rapallo. Apart from his pacific foreign policy, he was hated as a Jew and a liberal by the far right, and in June 1922 was assassinated by ex-naval officers who were members of a terrorist organisation, the Organisation Consul. Between 1919 and 1923 there were 376 political killings in Germany, of which 356 were carried out by right-wingers.

14. The Bielefeld Agreement resulted from negotiations to end the general strike following the Kapp Putsch. The government and Severing on one side, and the workers’ parties, unions and the Hagen Action Committee on the other, agreed to end the strike on condition that all workers would be re-employed, arms and ammunition would be handed over, all prisoners would be amnestied, the Reichswehr would stay out of the Rhineland and Westphalian industrial areas, and the special and ordinary states of emergency would be cancelled.

15. Georg Escherich (1870–1951), the extreme right-wing Interior Minister of Bavaria, created an armed national organisation based on the Bavarian Home Guard, which included the various remnants of the Freikorps and other armed groups. It was called the Organisation Escherich, abbreviated to Orgesch.

16. Ninety of the 691 delegates to this congress were KPD members and supporters, its highest ever total.

17. For Jakob Walcher, cf. introduction to Walcher’s article in this issue of Revolutionary History.

18. Arbeitsgemeinschaft means working cooperation.

19. Kommunistische Jugend (Communist Youth).

20. In January 1923, in response to a claim that the German authorities had deliberately defaulted on reparations deliveries, French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr area.

21. The Allgemeiner Deutscher Beamtenbund was the civil servants’ union centre.

22. The VSPD was formed by the fusion between the SPD and the bulk of the right wing of the USPD which occurred in the autumn of 1922. A rump USPD continued after the majority of the party went over to the KPD, with about 10,000 members at that time. However, most people continued to call the united organisation the SPD.

23. Wilhelm Cuno (1876–1933) was Chancellor from November 1922 to August 1923.

24. Raymond Poincaré (1860–1934) became the Prime Minister of France in January 1922, promoted a virulent anti-German policy, and initiated the invasion of the Ruhr in January 1923. The Spree is the river on which Berlin stands. This means that the working class should struggle against the French occupation, whilst not making any kind of truce with the bourgeois German government.

25. Gustav Stresemann (1878–1929) was a conservative politician (National Liberal) and industrialist, and Chancellor and Foreign Minister in the latter half of the 1920s. His policies were to revise the Versailles settlement by negotiations with other great capitalist powers.

26. The Black Reichswehr was the underground section of the Reichswehr. It absorbed many members of the far right groups, and was designed to be used in guerrilla actions against the French in the Rhineland, against any threat from the Poles in Silesia, and of course against the left.

27. Ernst Thälmann (1886–1944) was in the SPD, then the Spartakusbund, and then the KPD. He stood as the KPD’s Presidential candidate in 1925 and 1932, and as a loyal Stalinist headed the KPD from 1925 until its collapse in 1933. Arrested in March 1933, he was finally executed in Buchenwald concentration camp in 1944. For Hermann Remmele, cf. n64, Jakob Reich’s article in this issue of Revolutionary History. Heinz Neumann (1902-1938) was a leading member of the KPD until 1932, when he was removed as a scapegoat for the party’s failures. He fled to the Soviet Union, and perished in the purges.

28. After the Thalheimer-Brandler leadership of the KPD was removed, the party, with the encouragement of Zinoviev, adopted an ultra-left stance, and flirted with the concepts of ‘Social Fascism’ and red unionism. In 1925 it began to move away from ultra-leftism, and it reverted to some degree towards united front work with the SPD and in the trade unions. The Fischer-Maslow wing was removed in 1926, as Zinoviev broke from Stalin, and because they were not sufficiently loyal to Moscow. Stalin’s supporters, led by Thälmann, were in the ascendancy, and worked with the centre faction, the Conciliators, Brandler and his group being still beyond the pale. The return to ultra-leftism in 1928 saw first of all the condemnation and then expulsion of Brandler’s ‘rightists’. The Conciliators, who had tried to secure their position by distancing themselves from the ‘rightists’, came under fire after they had tried to remove Thälmann when he tried to cover up a corruption scandal involving party funds, and they were eased out of the leadership in 1929, leaving Thälmann’s pro-Stalin group to lead the party further into ultra-leftism, and finally to ignominious defeat.

Last updated on 21.9.2011