Clara Zetkin
Third Congress of the Communist International

Speech in Discussion of Executive Committee Report
June 27, 1921

Source: Published in To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921 (, pp. 283-301
Translation: Translation by John Riddell
HTML Markup: David Walters & Andy Blunden for the Marxists Internet Archive, 2018
Copyright: John Riddell, 2017. Republished here with permission

Comrades, the day before yesterday, Comrade Zinoviev unfurled the Leporello List of my sins,[1] and Comrade Radek continued in that vein yesterday. I assume that, as the principal defendant, I will receive a longer speaking time, for in ten minutes it is impossible even to touch on the questions that I must cover. First of all, as to my transgressions, I must emphasise that I have never in my life corresponded with or conspired with Comrade Nobs in Zürich. This claim must be based on an error.

Now as to the Italian question and my position on it, which was a decisive factor in my leaving the German Zentrale. Here is what I have to say: Based on Comrade Zinoviev’s report, and the speeches of Comrades Heckert, Radek, and others, I have the impression that this matter is being dealt with too much as the Serrati case rather than as a question of the masses of Italian proletarians who, to our regret, have not yet taken a clear and solid ideological stand in the framework of communism. Much has been said here about Serrati’s ambiguity, treachery, and evasion, when faced with a specific decision. Well, comrades, I cannot bring myself to make a decision on the Italian question based on arguments that always wind up by saying that Serrati is a bad egg, that his politics are never fully clear, indeed are vacillating and undefined. Comrades, if we are to base decisions solely on moral criteria and on a consistently applied political line that makes a political figure’s positions fully evident to both friends and opponents, then I would say – and I stress that I am far from wishing to criticise – I would say, Comrade Radek, that I see ‘a man who isn’t there’ because his positions are often vacillating, changeable, and indefinite.

Comrades, I set aside all personality issues. I am truly not among those who, as Comrade Zinoviev said, are full of regret that the Presidium’s table is not adorned with D'Aragona’s handsome beard, which, by the way, I have never seen. No, comrades, I tell you truly that my aesthetic sensibility is fully satisfied by the internationally renowned curly locks of our friend Zinoviev. (Laughter) If I were to judge in terms of personal feelings, then I must state frankly that I am drawn not to Serrati but rather to Turati, who is really quite a fine fellow, even though I consider his politics abominable and deserving of the most vigorous opposition. But for me, the decisive factor has always been to take the broad masses into consideration, and, unfortunately, they are still with Serrati. I will say this: If Serrati was really the kind of man portrayed in the quotations read out by Comrade Zinoviev, then I do not understand why he was on the Presidium at the Second Congress. Why was there not an effort much earlier and in more decisive fashion to break from him and achieve a clear-cut decision?

Nonetheless, comrades, I understand full well why the Executive hesitated to intervene forcefully in the development of Italian party relations. The Italian party was among the first large parties to commit itself, without reservations and in a difficult moment, to the Third International. Nonetheless, we should have been warned by events not to overestimate this fact. The September [1920] events showed that the Italian party was incapable of grasping the situation and evaluating the revolutionary possibilities for a massive political struggle to win political power or at least to make a big push in that direction.

Comrade Terracini told us here that the party leadership debated for two days whether to call the revolution or not. In my opinion, what was more appropriate in this situation was for the party leadership to decide immediately to commit all its resources to launching a political struggle. That would have revealed how much progress had been made along the road of revolution. But the fact that this decision was not taken cannot be laid solely at the door of Serrati, who was then not in Italy but on his way home to Italy from Moscow. And even now it seems to me that the blame cannot be placed exclusively on the Serrati forces, because the Maximalists had the majority in the party leadership, and, nonetheless, the decision was taken to place the matter in the hands of the opportunist trade unions.[2] For me, this fact demonstrates two things. First, the Italian party, which we regarded with pride and admiration, was not what we thought it to be, either ideologically or organisationally. And in addition, the insurgent masses themselves in Italy had not progressed further than their leaders. Because otherwise, comrades – I have always held this view and still hold it today – if the masses had truly been imbued with revolutionary understanding and will-power in that situation, they would have rejected the decision of their vacillating trade-union and political leaders and would have taken up the political struggle regardless.

Heckert: This is the same excuse as the one offered by the Scheidemann people for their betrayal in 1914. (Commotion)

Zetkin: Pardon me, but this is not an excuse, merely an estimate of the historical facts – namely, that there is always a relationship between the level of the leaders and that of the masses. Certainly, the leaders’ conduct is often decisive, but, in other circumstances a truly mature revolutionary proletariat in certain decisive situations will generate leaders from its ranks that replace the old leaders. I do not say that to diminish in any way the guilt of the political leaders but for another reason, namely, to demonstrate how great was the Executive’s responsibility to make all efforts toward the emergence in Italy of an ideologically and organisationally united party. Such a party could take in hand the education of the still-confused masses, imbued only with their revolutionary instincts, and provide them with leadership.

I have always viewed the Italian problem from the vantage point of creating a party of this type. I was therefore totally in favour of the Executive’s decision that if the Italian party wishes to belong to the Third International, it must break from the Turati forces immediately and in public. I emphasise the last words: immediately and in public. In my opinion, permitting the so-called Unitarian group[3] to continue its reformist, Turati-style policies garbed in Communist phraseology was totally excluded. What made this break difficult was the existence of a middle force, which indisputably included broad proletarian masses. These masses had shown in the past and still show that they sincerely sought a path to communism and the Third International. They were striving to find it, and not only through lip-service; they were prepared to take action.

I considered it extremely important to win these masses for a Communist Party in Italy. Why was that? Not, as has been suggested here, because I am attracted in any way to centrist politics. No, I had other reasons. I knew that among these masses were workers, organised in trade unions and cooperatives, who could carry the struggle against reformist and opportunist policies in these organisations and who must play that role. And I had another reason, which will show you how distant I am from any half-centrist, pacifist impulses. I have been told – and I cannot confirm that this is true; our Italian friends will correct any error here – that in Italy the municipal governments, the mayors and town councillors have control over the political police in a situation of civil war that, in my opinion, has broken out in Italy. Under these conditions, I hold that it adds considerably to the Communists’ strength that in thousands of municipalities they have control of an armed force – at least, over the armed police – obviously not so that armed police can serve as honour guards at demonstrations but so they can intervene in conflicts on behalf of the revolutionary struggle.

These were the considerations that led me to emphasise the need not merely to break away from the Turati forces at once but to make an attempt, so far as possible, to bring into the [Communist] party a significant part of the so-called Unitarian Communists, if possible without Serrati – I say that frankly – but also with Serrati, if there was no other way. After all, even in politics, when the need is great, sometimes the devil must dine on flies.[4] I was convinced that further developments in a strong Communist Party would force Serrati to show his true colours, either to carry out an honest policy or to expose himself in such a way that not a single worker could have any doubts regarding him any longer. I advanced the opinion that the Executive was right in demanding expulsion of the Turati forces, which was the sine qua non, the precondition on which we must not give way. On the other hand, for the reason just given, I thought that after such long hesitation in carrying out the split – not out of sympathy for Serrati but out of concern for the masses – an effort was necessary to draw a significant portion of those masses over to us. It therefore seemed to me that the Executive’s representatives in Livorno should have sought to achieve an agreement with our friends of the left wing and also with the Serrati forces that would have permitted us to bring thousands and tens of thousands of workers into the ranks of the Communist Party. In my opinion, the motion presented by Graziadei did not yet represent this path, but it could have served as a basis on which to agree on a formula that would have enabled us to bring the genuinely Communist workers to a Communist Party.[5] In this way, the split would not have taken place in such a straight, smooth line way off on the left, as it now has. Instead, it could at least have been a split within the Centre.

This is the point of view advanced in the resolution that I submitted to the Zentrale, and by and large it coincided with the resolution presented by the Executive’s representative.[6] I modified it only on one point, in saying that the door should be left open to permit a large segment of the workers following Serrati to find their way to the Communist Party.

What did the resolution say? It gave unreserved support to the Executive’s demand that the Turati forces be immediately expelled, without any argument. Secondly, it reproached Serrati for having made two major errors. First, during the six months since the Second World Congress, he had not made a single proposal to carry out the split in any other manner. And then, in Livorno, he had chosen unity with the 14,000 Turati forces as against unity with the Communist Party and its 68,000 proletarians.[7] Then the resolution explained that there were doubtless proletarian forces supporting Serrati who honestly wanted to embrace communism, and the door should therefore be left open for them to come to agreement with the Communist Party and join in a unified party. The Executive was asked to look into whether anything further could be done along these lines. In addition, the resolution said that obviously in Italy there was only one legitimate Communist Party, namely the Communist Party of Italy, and all sister parties had to support this party and it alone. Comrades, the fact that this resolution was free of centrist leanings was confirmed when the Executive, in a later session, unanimously adopted this resolution. So if I am accused of centrist leanings because of this resolution, I am certainly in good company.

Let us continue, comrades. I was then carrying out agitation in the countryside, and was uninformed. As they say, ‘I simply didn’t have a clue.’ When I returned for a meeting of the Zentrale, I learned to my very great surprise that another discussion was planned on the Italian question. I asked why. I was told, ‘Well, first of all, Levi spoke at a meeting of Berlin functionaries, interpreting the resolution in manner favourable to Serrati. In addition, a representative of the Executive has come here from Livorno, and he says that the adopted position is inadequate and must be changed.'[8]

With regard to Levi’s statement, I expressed the humble opinion that, however much I valued his abilities, an individual figure cannot, by expressing an opinion, reverse the decisions of an entire leadership body. It would be sufficient for the Zentrale to state that Levi, in giving such-and-such an interpretation to the resolution, had not been speaking on our behalf.

Another resolution was presented by Comrades Thalheimer and Stoecker. Let me add one point. If memory serves me right – my documentation was unfortunately seized at the German border by the solicitous German police[9] – the Zentrale adopted the first resolution unanimously, with one abstention and one member absent. Now the resolution was raised again for reconsideration together with the Thalheimer-Stoecker resolution, of which I will speak later. The Thalheimer-Stoecker resolution was rejected by a majority of the Zentrale, and the original resolution was again adopted by a large majority, after I had sharpened it considerably so that it could not possibly be interpreted in a manner favourable to Serrati. My view of this is confirmed by the fact that the Executive’s representative, as I am told, said that the old resolution was adequate after it had been made sharper.

Comrades, there is a lot of talk here about the requirements of discipline and of the minority giving way to the majority. It was expressly decided in that session of the Zentrale that the sharpened resolution would be submitted to the Central Committee in the name of the Zentrale as a whole. It was not considered important to forbid individual members from bringing in their own resolution, as would be required by a strict interpretation of the concept of discipline. Why did I oppose the Thalheimer-Stoecker resolution?[10] I said that I supported this concept of discipline. I merely pointed out that it had been decided to present the resolution of the Zentrale as a whole, and none other. And adopted by majority decision, at that!

Heckert: The opposite was decided.

Zetkin: Comrades, it was decided that this would be the resolution of the Zentrale as a whole, but afterwards it was stated that individual members had the right, if they wished, to submit resolutions as individuals. Incidentally, I would like to say that this is a trivial question that does not affect the heart of the matter. In my opinion, the concept of discipline is applied too strictly.

I opposed the Thalheimer-Stoecker resolution for the following reasons: First of all, it motivated the expulsion of the Serrati forces – quite apart from their other errors, which have already been stated – on the basis of the Italian party’s position regarding nationalities, the trade unions, and the agrarian question. Now these three questions had been taken up by the Second Congress, and in my opinion using positions on these questions as the basis for expulsion is a violation of the authority of that congress. The question is posed: Why, if the position of the Italians on such matters was so different from that of the Communist International as a whole, was it not the duty of the Second Congress, even then, to expel the Italian party from the International? And there is another factor. Even now there are disagreements on these three questions, in terms of both theory and practice, in almost every country, in almost every Communist Party. I recall that there were intense struggles in our Russian sister party quite recently on the agrarian and trade-union questions, regarding not only theory but practice.[11] It therefore seemed to me that if this was to be the standard for membership in the Third International, there was hardly a single party at present that could belong to it.

There was another reason why I was opposed to the Thalheimer resolution. It stated that a vigorous struggle had to be waged against the Serrati current. I have no objection to a sharp struggle against Serrati, but not against the Serrati current, because that was a general term that in my opinion was also aimed at proletarians who wanted to come to the Communist Party.

This declaration of war seemed to me particularly unwise at that moment for a specific reason. As you know, I have been accused of carrying on diplomacy with Serrati. I can confirm that Serrati, after travelling to Berlin, was also in Stuttgart, doubtless because of the simple fact that it is much easier to get to Berlin and Stuttgart than to Moscow. But what is this about my diplomacy? It is important for me to clarify this.

I had heard that Serrati had been in Berlin and had consulted with members of the German Zentrale. The Zentrale had decided to send the Moscow Executive a proposal or request that it consider whether a special commission should be sent to Italy that, in collaboration with the Communist Party and the proletariat, would seek a formula for the immediate expulsion of the Turati forces and for a split. Given this fact, I thought that I should not be more Catholic than the Pope, and if the Zentrale has done this –

Radek: The Pope was Levi.

Zetkin: There was no way I could know that. I was told that I should be cautious in discussions with Serrati and that, immediately after the discussion, I should write down the results and send it off special delivery to the Zentrale, so that Comrade Kurt Geyer could take it with him to Moscow. I held strictly to this advice.

When Serrati came, I was not at all diplomatic. I gave him a sharp dressing down because of his letter to Lenin and his letter to Longuet after the split at Tours. I explained that this was an error, and he admitted this. He excused his conduct as that of a man under pressure, attacked from every side, from left, right, and centre, who had therefore been clumsy in defending himself.[12]

This carried very little weight with me, but I thought of utilising this situation to promote a split and clarification in the Italian [Socialist] Party. I told Serrati, ‘If you are serious about coming to an agreement with the Communist Party and the International, I believe it is not adequate that you make your proposal through the intermediary of the German Zentrale. It will be more honest and politically astute if you direct the Italian Socialist Party leadership to make the same proposal directly to the Executive in Moscow.’ After much discussion back and forth, Serrati accepted that, and I thought that I must push him further.

‘In your position, that is not enough,’ I told him. ‘You must have your party leadership send a copy of this request immediately to the leadership of the Communist Party of Italy, and you must add to it, ‘Dear Comrades, we are enclosing a copy of a request to the Executive of the Third International. We ask you to take note of our initiative and, if possible, to express support for it.’ Comrades, Serrati agreed to that as well. As for what I hoped would come of this, we did not discuss that.

What did I hope to achieve? I wanted to force Serrati into a corner, where he would either have to honestly carry out his promise to me – I considered that to be in the interests of coming to an agreement and clarifying the situation in Italy – or, if he did not hold to it, then we would have a weapon for use against him. We could then demonstrate that his professed adherence to the Third International and loyalty to it was only lip service, and that he lacked the will to act on it.

In that context, I considered it unwise to vote for the Thalheimer-Stoecker text. Why was that? Because it provided an easy pretext for Serrati to break with his undertaking and to do nothing to arrive at an understanding with the Communist Party of Italy and the International. Of course I made inquiries with our friends in Italy: Serrati had done nothing to carry out his promise. ('Hear! Hear!’) He could readily point to the fact that the German Central Committee had adopted a resolution that declared war on him. I must say that if I had been in Serrati’s shoes, this threat of war would not have shaken me in my opinion that I must find a path to the Third International and the Communist Party of Italy. All the more, after that resolution, I would have declared my honest intention to join the Third International. (Applause)

Comrades, along with this Central Committee resolution, the decisive factor in my resignation from the German Communist Party Zentrale was the intervention in our debate of the International’s representative in Italy, Comrade Rákosi.[13] I have not the slightest criticism of the conduct of Comrade Kabakchiev. The most I could say is that, in my opinion, he did not do enough to bring about an additional split, a reproach that I also directed at Paul Levi. In my opinion, given that no initiative had been taken elsewhere, he ought to have taken the initiative. So as I said, when I now refer to the Executive’s representative in Italy, I mean only Comrade Rákosi.

Anyone who has read attentively what he said in his first speech, and then in speaking to the Central Committee, will see that he did not provide a single new fact, but rather just expressed the familiar arguments with new words. He intervened in the Central Committee debate, advancing the opinion that the split in Italy must stand as an example. In the French party too there were undesirable forces that should be cleared out. He referred to Lafont and Cachin, saying that perhaps the party will have to be split ten times over. He advanced the view that what the Communist International needs is not a mass party but a pure, small party. He said explicitly that the Communist Party cannot and should not bring in new recruits. It should be limited to members who are well educated and can take the lead in any situation. This concept ran into immediate opposition, and the comrade later claimed that he had never made this statement.[14]

Comrades, this comrade had earlier made the same statement to me, in a private conversation, and had expanded on it, saying: ‘Comrade Zetkin, your party in Germany has become much too large; it must be made small again.’ At that I laughed in his face, saying, ‘Excuse me, I can only laugh at this claim. In our opinion, the party is still much too small for its tasks, and we must devote all our energies to making it larger, not only quantitatively, of course, but also qualitatively. It’s not just quantity that concerns us, but the quality contained in that quantity. The Communist Party’s task is to create that kind of a quality in the quantity of proletarians organised in the Communist Party.

Comrades, based on the statements of the Executive’s representative in Italy, I concluded that the old question must be raised once more for debate: do we want a mass party or a small, pure propagandistic sect? I admit my mistake in assuming that a representative of the International, of the Executive, could not make statements such as those made in that session on his own responsibility.

Interjection: But what do you have to say about the declaration?

Zetkin: The declaration contradicted what had been said earlier. It was said in the Central Committee that the comrade in question stood by what he had said.[15] I was naïve enough to assume that the representative had acted in the Italian situation on behalf of and according to the instructions of the Executive. It never entered my head that the Executive’s representative, in a situation as challenging and delicate as that in Livorno and then at our Central Committee meeting, could have acted on his own in making such statements and then repeating them. I admit my error, and I am glad to see that the Executive sharply rejects this point of view.

But there is something else I must say. Given the position taken by the Executive’s representative, it seemed to me that the decision on the Italian question had raised a fundamental issue for every section of the Communist International. This may be an erroneous view. Comrades, I am not one of those lofty theoretical intellects who derive the right to their theory from the fact that they are terrible political practitioners. I simply judged on the basis of the situation as it appeared at that time. I thought that in such a difficult situation I could not assume responsibility.

I frankly admit that I was influenced by another factor that I did not want to throw into the debate in order to avoid giving rise to personal antagonisms or bitterness. I had observed that a large proportion of the Zentrale’s members had changed their view on the matter. I do not criticise the comrades for this fact. I stand ready to change my view twenty-four times in a day and to admit that the twenty-third time I was an ass and was ignorant of the facts. But what I could not understand was that a decision was overturned without the presentation of any new factual material, simply because it was argued in a different way.

Interjection: What about Levi’s conduct?

Zetkin: Please, for the majority of the Zentrale, his conduct was not decisive. I must admit that I would never impute to the Zentrale such a mark of weakness and incompetence as to allow Levi’s conduct to determine their own.

Interjection: And the rest of us?

Zetkin: Whether you were influenced by Levi’s conduct is your business. I have never let myself be influenced by whether Levi or Müller or Schulze favoured a position, but rather only by whether it seemed to me to be right or wrong.

Comrades, we were in a situation that could lead the proletariat to engage in intense activity and, perhaps very quickly, to unleash a massive advance, or risk a political and moral disaster for the party and severe danger for the proletariat. In such conditions I could not in good conscience work together with comrades who – despite my great esteem for them – changed their minds in a fashion that, judged according to my old-fashioned concepts, was much too hasty.

Comrades, let me say one more thing. No one can say of me that I ever feared to be in a minority. I have almost always been in a minority. Allow me to recall that for a long time I was almost alone in conducting a struggle for the utilisation of parliament.[16] Even the members of the Zentrale who agreed with me did not come to my side. They said that they were convinced it was necessary to take part in parliament, but given the mood in the party, we could not challenge the mass sentiment. I call on you all to testify as to whether in my forty years of work in the party I have ever resigned from a post because I had a difference of opinion, betrayed those who elected me, or stalked off in a sulk. And that is why I thought that if I resign from a post in such circumstances, it will be a signal, a kind of warning, which I regarded as very necessary.

Now my resignation from the Zentrale has been censured as a breach of discipline. I do not want to quarrel over words, but let me say this. Despite everything, I would not have resigned from the Zentrale if I had thought that the party was so unstable that my action, which took place without consultation with Levi or anyone else, could have caused any damage to the party. And I must add that a party post is not a sweet chocolate bonbon handed out for political good conduct. No, comrades, it involves entrusting someone with a post in battle, in the conviction that the right person is being placed in the right role. And I thought that under these circumstances I was simply no longer the right person for this position. Rather than a factor strengthening the Zentrale and the party, I had become a disruptive factor and was thus damaging the party.

Comrades, that is why I acted in this way. And I believe that here I can count on the benevolent understanding of the chair of the Executive. He knows well from his own experience that, in certain political circumstances, comrades are placed in a situation where, despite all loyalty to the party and discipline, their conscience faces the question: What is one’s duty to the party, to the proletariat, and to the revolution? Is it to remain in the post or to resign while continuing one’s work? I recall the events in the Bolshevik Party on 10 October and 4 November 1917. In October 1917, Comrades Kamenev and Zinoviev felt compelled to resign from the Central Committee of the time.[17]

Radek: And they got a sound drubbing for that, too. (Laughter)

Zetkin: Well, comrades, so did I. (More laughter) They believed they were required in good conscience to resign from the Central Committee. They certainly got a drubbing for it, and they said publicly that they were wrong. Comrades, in situations where I was in error, I have never shied away from publicly admitting this. As soon as I am convinced that I have gone wrong, I will do that too. But I can assure you that in the situation as it was, I considered it necessary, in the interests of the party and the proletariat, to act as I did. And I must say, in addition, that if in the future my convictions lead me to see matters as I saw them then, I would do the same once again, because for me loyalty to the proletariat always comes before party discipline. But if I recognise that I am wrong, comrades, I will be the first to say not only that I was wrong, mea culpa, but that I was grievously wrong, mea maxima culpa. However, as I said, I must first be convinced. That is what I have to say regarding a breach of discipline. I have never felt humiliated when I was censured for an error, real or imagined. By contrast, I would feel not only humiliated but unworthy to stand before you if I had done something against my own convictions. I accept the reprimand without any protest and I confidently await the decision of the congress.

I have a few more things to say about the Italian question. In my opinion, the policies followed by Serrati and his party since the Livorno Congress have revealed unambiguously their reformist and opportunist character. (Applause) I recognise that fully. That is revealed fully by their stand on the question of the White Guards, the struggle against Fascism.[18] Can this really be a communist party – indeed I will say more – can this be a political party at all, when it tries to combat the civil war represented by Fascism with sermons about morality; by saying that Fascism must be overcome by the methods of Christian ethics? (Laughter) No, I must say that in proletarian struggle my opinion has always been to return every blow twice over. Force must be broken by force. And Fascism in Italy cannot be overcome by the soft flute-like tones one finds in Avanti, but rather only through the armed struggle of the proletarian masses. (Loud applause) Moreover, the Serrati forces’ entire approach to political problems reveals to me their unambiguously opportunist character. Many comrades say that this confirms the correctness of the split in Livorno. Comrades, it is possible to disagree. It can also be said that the split by the left wing drove the Unitarians [Unitary Communists] almost forcibly into the arms of the Turati forces.

Radek: Like Hilferding into the arms of Scheidemann. (Laughter)

Zetkin: Well, comrades, there are two sides to everything. I greet this development, to the extent that it is a matter of exposing uncertain, wavering leaders. I regret it, to the extent that hundreds of thousands of proletarians still remain under their spell. And I wonder whether it will not be easier to break this disastrous spell more readily if we could draw them as quickly as possible into the orbit of the Italian Communist Party. I will leave it to the scholars to dispute over whether the development of the Italian party proves the split at Livorno to have been correct, or whether it has been harmful. I hold to the fact that the [Socialist Party] policies are opportunist, and in my opinion this compels the Communist International to take a position. In my view, it is no longer enough for the congress simply to demand the strict application of the Twenty-One Conditions. Anyone who wants to belong to the Communist International must break unequivocally from the Turati forces. And the congress must also reject unambiguously all policies that are in any sense opportunist and directed at confusing the masses. Comrades, in my opinion we cannot resolve this matter until we have heard representatives of both currents. But on the basis of the documentation before us, my opinion stands as I have just expressed it.

I would like to make a few comments, if you permit, on the Levi case, so that I will not fall under suspicion of trying to avoid the question. I say once again that we do not fault the Executive for having insisted on a break, a clear break from the Turati forces. The question is only whether it might have been possible to carry out the split earlier, to prepare it better, and above all to seek to divide the Serrati forces and win the best workers for the Communist Party.

In addition, I criticise the Executive openly and vigorously that they have not taken more care in choosing their representatives abroad. That applies to the representative in Italy that I heard [Rákosi]; I cannot speak of the other [Kabakchiev] whom I did not hear. Moreover, it also applies to the Executive’s representative in Germany, a question we will take up in discussing the March Action. I must also say that Comrade Zinoviev, through his general comments on the character and tasks of the Communist parties and the Third International, has already fully repudiated the disastrous activity of that irresponsible representative.[19] For that reason, there was no reason to unleash a sharp struggle against the Executive.

Radek: Levi did that, and you did not disavow him.

Zetkin: We will speak of that shortly. Please be patient. On the Levi case: In my opinion the Levi case is not primarily a simple case of discipline ('Very true!’); it is primarily and above all a political matter. It can be judged and evaluated correctly only in the framework of the entire political situation. I am therefore of the opinion that it can really be dealt with only in the framework of our debate on Communist Party tactics and strategy and especially on the March Action. If it is desired to deal with the Levi case now, as a disciplinary matter, I will not oppose that – on the condition, however, that we immediately take up the March Action as part of this debate, because otherwise the entire historical background is missing. Otherwise we miss the entire atmosphere that makes the disciplinary case comprehensible.

In addition, Comrade Radek yesterday posed the case against Paul Levi very personally when he called out, to great effect, ‘When did Paul Levi ever lie in the revolutionary trenches?’ Comrade Radek, if I am to take that literally, then I must ask, did the originators of the March Action, who justified it theoretically and organised it, did they all in the literal sense of the word lie in the revolutionary trenches? (Commotion; shouts of ‘Yes, of course’.)

And something else. Comrade Radek knows as well as I do that Comrade Paul Levi is truly not among those cowards who flee from the battle. During the dangerous January and March actions of 1919, he did not abandon his post in the struggle, even though after the events in Lichtenberg a price of twenty thousand marks was placed on his head.[20] He shared with Comrade Thalheimer the dangerous life of underground struggle, sleeping here today and there tomorrow. In my opinion, these are also actions in the revolutionary trenches. I just want to mention that here, without going into it more fully. I want to stress this one point: it is only in the framework of the March Action that we can reach a correct decision regarding Paul Levi’s positions and conduct.

I have always stated my agreement with the broad and fundamental political line of Levi’s attitude to the March Action. I have said that in assemblies attended by many tens of thousands of workers. I have always said that I do not agree with every word in the pamphlet and that I certainly am far from agreeing with all of its opinions. If you want to know what I really think, I must say that I would not have written the pamphlet, and if I had written it, it would have looked much different. But it was then a life-and-death matter for the party that there be a sharp criticism. Why was that? Because the Zentrale declared that this same policy was going to be continued in the future.

That was decisive, comrades, and I will say no more about this question unless it is decided that the March Action will be discussed together with the Executive report. Only by clarifying the March Action can we establish an objective basis to pass judgement on the Levi case.

As for the question that Comrade Radek raised, I will say just one thing. In my opinion, the Executive is in no way to blame for the fact that its decision was used to instigate a putschist initiative. But the fact remains, as we will demonstrate in the March Action discussion, that representatives of the Executive certainly carry a large part of the responsibility for the way this action was carried out.[21] They bear a large part of the responsibility for the incorrect slogans and the incorrect political orientation of the party or, more correctly of the Zentrale. And no one knows this better than Comrade Radek.

Radek: How so? I was not in Germany.

Zetkin: A few days ago, you said in front of witnesses that when you were given a report, you immediately told the Executive’s representative that his slogan – I am not going to employ here the unparliamentary word that you used, but rather a gentler word – was stupid. My position is that if anyone has grounds to complain about Paul Levi’s conduct, then it would be we of the opposition – we, whose criticism was directed not at the March Action as a struggle, but at the incorrect orientation and the poor execution by the central leadership. Because, instead of a discussion of the Zentrale’s politics, we had a broad debate on the Levi case. In my opinion, this is grounds for the Zentrale to erect a monument to Comrade Levi. (Laughter) He became the whipping boy on whom all the disappointed proletarians could let off steam regarding an action marked by an incorrect orientation and erroneous leadership and execution.

Heckert: That’s a cheap shot.

Zetkin: We will present other arguments soon enough, when we discuss the March Action, and I do not wish to go into the question, given that that it is not yet decided whether it is to be discussed here or under the point on tactics and strategy.

Chair: Under tactics and strategy.

Zetkin: I have only one more thing to say here. Comrade Marković said quite correctly that if Paul Levi is to be severely punished because of his criticisms of the March Action and for having undisputedly made them the wrong way, what will the punishment be for those who committed the errors in this matter? When we attacked putschism, we were not referring to the actions of the masses in struggle. No, comrades – and here Comrade Gorter is quite right – the putschism existed in the thinking of the Zentrale that led the masses in struggle in this fashion. It existed in the fact that order was followed by counter-order, and finally everything dissolved into disorder, chaos, and disorientation.

I have no objection to the congress making a decision now on the Levi case. But only, as I said before, after a debate on the entire factual framework, for Comrade Levi acted from sincere conviction that he was doing the party a service.

Comrade Paul Levi can raise in defence of his breach of discipline the same grounds that were once used to defend Russian comrades who broke discipline. He acted out of the sincere conviction, in order to save the party and be of service to the proletariat.

Radek: Of service to the prosecution.

Zetkin: That is a very flimsy argument, Comrade Radek, given that the evidence for the prosecution does not, in fact, come from Levi’s pamphlet, but rather from the appeals and articles in Rote Fahne. (Commotion) It played only a trivial role in Brandler’s trial.[22] I say it is not very intelligent to refer to that trial, because in it the complete or partial uncertainty of the leading individuals came to light so clearly. ('Very true!’)

Radek: What about the offensive?

Zetkin: I will not speak about the question of offensive or defensive, Comrade Radek, until we take up the matter as a whole.

When you make use of sentences ripped out of context, Comrade Radek, you are following an age-old procedure, which you did not discover but are merely imitating: Give me twenty lines someone has written and I will bring him to the gallows.

I will explain soon enough how I view the question of offensive and defensive. (Interjection from Heckert) Comrade Heckert, I will do that whether or not I have your blessing. So far you are not yet my political father confessor.

Comrades, in the Levi case we have to pay heed to the factual and political context, along with the motivations for writing it and also the effects that it had. Comrade Radek tried to minimise these factors by saying that the pamphlet provided evidence for the prosecution. Rote Fahne did that to a much greater extent. It also greatly nourished the myth that the action was instigated from outside, by publishing appeals and articles whose un-German mode of expression enabled opponents to say, ‘Not made in Germany’.[23]

But what is far, far more painful, comrades, is the fact that Comrade Levi’s pamphlet caused grief to many workers, holding them back from objectively and critically assessing the situation and the Zentrale’s conduct. I fully appreciate the indignation and anger ('Hear! Hear!’) that echoed back from the workers’ milieu. But I must also say that I regret the inability of trained Communists to reply to the way the pamphlet was utilised by our enemies. For if we take as a criterion the way our opponents utilise the written or oral statements that we make as Communists, we must never write a line or open our mouths, because our opponents will twist everything and suck honey from every blossom.

I am sincerely convinced that without Levi’s criticism, it would have taken us longer to come to grips with the theory and practice of the March Action, and we would have done so less thoroughly than was actually the case. The Communist Party and the proletariat would have been exposed to the danger of being launched into renewed ill-advised undertakings.

Comrades, the reason why I have taken such a forceful stand in this entire complex of questions is because I consider – then and now – that it is absolutely necessary under present circumstances for the German proletariat to engage in intensified, vigorous action. My concern is not that the workers engaged in struggle, not that the slogan was incorrect and the leadership deficient. What concerns me is that now, at a moment that cries out for action, the Communist Party is incapable – is too weak to undertake the necessary action. (Cries of protest) I am calling on the congress to undertake a searching and conscientious examination of both theory and tactics during the March Action. And I do this out of the conviction that our debate must lead to preparing ourselves for intense struggles, without regard for whether they lead to defeat or victory. For defeats can also bear fruit, if they are defeats in which the proletarian masses face an enemy whose strength is greater, defeats in which the proletariat can say with pride that it has lost everything but not its honour, defeats in which it fought and drove forward in revolutionary fashion. (Loud applause and cheers)


1. An allusion to a comical scene in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, in which the servant Leporello attempts to console one of Don Juan’s seduced lovers by displaying a list of thousands of his master’s romantic conquests.

2. Since before the War, the majority in the PSI had been known as ‘Maximalists’ because of their insistence on the importance of the ‘maximum’ demands in the Social Democratic programme, which dealt with the achievement of socialism.

3. A reference to the Unitary Communist faction led by Serrati, whose national conference was held in Florence 20–21 November 1920. That meeting voted against a break with the reformists, but called for adherence to the Comintern.

4. A reference to the German proverb, In der Not frisst der Teufel Fliegen. It is roughly equivalent to the English expression, ‘Beggars cannot be choosers’.

5. Graziadei’s formula was, ‘All those who refuse to freely declare their adherence to the theses and conditions of the Third International and will not commit themselves to applying them following the congress, thereby, regrettably, render themselves unacceptable as members of the Party and the Third International.’ Graziadei and Anselmo Marabini led a current within the PSI that attempted to reconcile Serrati’s Unitary Communist Faction with the Communist Faction led by Bordiga.

6. Zetkin’s resolution on Italy took the form of an amendment to a resolution by the Executive representative, Radek, calling for unification with ‘the communist elements’ that remained in Serrati’s group, the PSI. The Zentrale approved the amended motion unanimously on 1 February and published it the next day in Die Rote Fahne.

7. An error by either Zetkin or the stenographers; the Communists’ vote at Livorno was 58,000.

8. The Berlin meeting took place about 10 February. The Executive representative coming from Livorno was Rákosi.

9. The Thalheimer-Stoecker resolution, reflecting Rákosi’s viewpoint and calling for a broad ideological struggle against the PSI as a whole, was presented to a Zentrale meeting about 15 February. The ‘solicitude’ of the German police consisted of seizing Zetkin’s personal papers when she arrived at the German border on 5 June. The documents included testimonies of participants in the March Action, many of which were published by the SPD late in 1921 in its newspaper Vorwärts.

10. Despite the Zentrale’s decision not to carry its disagreement into the Central Committee, the Thalheimer-Stoecker resolution on the Italian question was reintroduced into a Central Committee meeting on 22 February 1921 and adopted, by a vote of 28-23.

11. A debate on the place and tasks of trade unions in Soviet Russia took place in the Russian Communist Party from December 1920 to March 1921. Significant divisions arose within the leadership, with Lenin on one side and Trotsky and Bukharin on the other. The Russian Communist Party’s Tenth Congress in March 1921 adopted Lenin’s view.

The discussion the agrarian question referred to here probably concerns the introduction of the New Economic Policy, considered at the Tenth Congress, which approved the tax in kind of peasant crops as a centrepiece of the NEP.

12. Serrati’s visit to Berlin and Stuttgart took place earlier, close to the beginning of February. His open letter to Lenin appeared in Avanti, 11 December 1920, under the title ‘Risposta di un comunista unitaro al compagno Lenin’.

13. Zetkin is referring to Rákosi’s remarks in the Central Committee meeting of 22 February. After the adoption of the Thalheimer-Stoeker resolution at the 22 February meeting, Zetkin, Levi, and three others resigned from the KPD Zentrale.

14. Rákosi spoke first to a meeting of the VKPD Zentrale in mid-February and then to the Central Committee 22 February. Zetkin is referring here to the latter meeting.

15. Presumably a statement by Rákosi clarifying his remarks at the February 22 Central Committee meeting.

16. An intense debate occurred in the KPD in 1919 on whether it was correct for Communists to participate in bourgeois parliaments. The issue was finally resolved in October 1919, when the anti-parliamentarian tendency was defeated, leading to its exit from the party and the later formation of the KAPD.

17. On 23 October 1917 (10 October by the old Russian calendar), Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev voted in the Bolshevik Central Committee against Lenin’s proposal to organise an insurrection for Soviet power. After the motion was adopted, they continued to express their opposition in the party at large and the non-Bolshevik press and resigned from the Central Committee.

18. The PSI’s stance of accommodation toward the Fascists would be illustrated a few weeks later, on 3 August 1921, when it signed a ‘pacification pact’ with the Fascist Party.

19. Presumably a reference to Béla Kun.

20. A reference to the Freikorps attack on Lichtenberg, a Berlin stronghold of the revolutionary workers’ movement, on 9–12 March, in response to a false rumor published in Vorwärts that revolutionaries had stormed a police station and executed seventy officers in cold blood. Between armed battles with revolutionary workers and summary executions, the Freikorps killed up to 1,500 and wounded 12,000 workers.

21. Among the Comintern’s envoys in Germany during the March Action were Béla Kun, Józef Pogány, and August Guralski. According to the Serbo-Croatian edition of the Third Congress proceedings, the ECCI’s representatives also included, in addition to Kun, Poganyi, and Guralski, the Hungarian Communist leader Ferenc Münnich plus two ECCI officials resident in Berlin, Thomas (Yakov Reich) and Felix Wolf. Bosić (ed.) Komunistička internacionala: stenogrami i dokumenti kongresa (Gornji Milanovac: Kulturni centar, 1981), pp. 772–73, n. 161.

22. Heinrich Brandler, who had replaced Paul Levi as VKPD chairman, was arrested and tried for high treason in the wake of the March Action. On 6 June 1921 he was convicted and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. Brandler escaped from prison in November 1921 and went to Moscow.

23. Zetkin is probably thinking in particular of the article, ‘Kahr Is Flouting the Law’, apparently written by Béla Kun. The quoted words are in English in the original text.