Source: Published in To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921 (https://www.haymarketbooks.org/books/897-to-the-masses), pp. 542-548
Translation: Translation by John Riddell
HTML Markup: David Walters and Andy Blunden for the Marxists Internet Archive, 2018
Copyright: John Riddell, 2017. Republished here with permission
Comrades, first of all, some clarifications. As regards the documentation concerning the effects of the March Action that I and my colleagues have made known, I would say this: These materials were turned over to us by the party’s editors. Given that these materials are nonetheless being contested, I have made a request of the Executive that it summon one or another of these editors to come here with the factual evidence underlying their work, so that the material can be checked over objectively and conclusively. Later on, there will also be much to learn about the documentation introduced here by the other side.
It is not my intention to respond to all the personal attacks that have rained down on me yesterday and even earlier. Regarding some of the assertions that seem to me important, I have made a written statement for the proceedings, which you will hear at the end of this session. As regards another assertion, I said the essential thing yesterday in an interjection, but I forgot to add one thing. Regarding Comrade Heckert’s claims that I had clung to my parliamentary mandate, he could have taken instruction from the columns of Die Rote Fahne. Following a consultation with me, the matter was put right, but only after Freiheit had the previous day served up this tasty duck to its readers for quite transparent reasons.
As regards the Levi case and my supposed guilt in this regard, I will not speak of that here. In all Comrade Heckert’s attacks yesterday, the only thing missing was that Comrade Paul Levi was not born of his mother but rather that this hellish sulphurous political monster had been brought into the world by me. (Laughter) Over my objections, the Levi case was disposed of for the congress and thus for me as well under the Executive report. It is true that, in my opinion, it is up to Paul Levi himself to say the last word in the matter, if he – as I hope – remains despite everything a Communist who shares with us a common principled framework and works and struggles in the future on the same line as the Communist Party.
Comrades, you have been told that, since the Communist Party was founded, I have been a wavering and uncertain figure. I will make several comments about this later in my statement, but for now I will just say this. I felt greatly consoled, after Comrade Heckert’s testimony as to my weaknesses and inadequacies, when I realised, after Comrade Lenin’s remarks yesterday, what outstanding educators and what strong theoretical and practical support I possess in the person of the members of the German Communist Party Zentrale.
I object to the fact that a Zetkin case is now being cooked up, in order to be handled following the Levi case. In my opinion, it was very harmful to a thorough discussion and clarification of the disputed issues in Germany and here as well that instead of taking up the bankruptcy of the Zentrale’s theory of the offensive and their retreat into a defence of the March Action, we have a wide-ranging discussion of the Levi case. I do not wish to contribute to the Zetkin case now playing the same role for the congress.
On the substance of the matter, I will say this. I concede, and in fact I declare categorically, that I have made not just one but two errors – very great errors indeed. The first of these is that during the March Action I did not differentiate with enough emphasis and clarity between the struggle waged by the proletarian masses and the leadership given by the party Zentrale. Second, I did not distinguish sufficiently between the party’s will to advance from propaganda to action, which was definitely honest and positive, and the Zentrale’s completely inadequate theoretical and political outlook regarding the action. So you see, I have not shied away from affirming that I have made a mistake and learned from the events.
Now to be sure, Comrade Radek has reproached me, saying, ‘You too also talked about a revolutionary offensive and thus contributed to the emergence of the false theory.’ Yes, Comrade Radek, sometimes things happen in a quite unforeseeable way. But if, because I spoke of a ‘revolutionary offensive’, I was guilty in this way of contributing to the emergence of the Zentrale’s false theory, then you, Comrade Radek, are my accomplice. In the 15 March issue of Die Internationale, after characterising the VKPD’s previous position, you wrote:
These facts certainly provide sufficient proof of just how hard it was for some of the Spartacus League’s leading comrades to emerge from the defensive stance forced on us during 1919 and to go over to the escalating offensive that became possible in 1920 following the radicalisation of the working masses in the USPD.
Comrades, I am quite in agreement with Comrade Radek about the ‘revolutionary offensive’, but neither he nor I meant by these words anything like the political position of the Zentrale at the critical moment. Rather we were referring to greatly increased activity by the party, which could lead – in close contact with the masses – to revolutionary action. And in this sense I am ready even today to use the term ‘revolutionary offensive’, although I know that it is not quite accurate to apply technical military terms to politics and to the terrain of class struggle. Like all comparisons, this one is imperfect. Comrade Michalak has already spoken excellently to the substance of the matter. For proletarians there is only revolutionary struggle, because defensive turns into offensive, and offensive immediately becomes defensive. And neither the one nor the other is possible without the constant, sure-footed activity not only of the party but of the broad masses outside the party.
It is in this sense, comrades, that I spoke of how a revolutionary offensive was not only possible but indeed necessary. But my attitude to the proposed offensive was quite different from that of the Zentrale. I defined precisely the conditions that were, in my opinion, required for such an offensive. This included, first of all, a precise assessment of the entire economic and political situation. That also entailed clarity on what stand the trade-union leadership and membership would take in the given conjuncture. And there was the need for the party to have intimate and close contact with the masses. In addition, the goals of the struggle had to be derived – and note this well – not from the Communist Party’s list of general propaganda slogans, but from the specific goals of proletarian mass struggle. And let me add that these goals grow naturally out of the situation, are felt by the broad masses to be essential to their survival, and therefore have the capacity to unleash and animate their understanding, determination, and intense energy. Finally, there is also the necessary organisational orientation of the party.
In my view, the revolutionary offensive, as conceived of by the Zentrale, violated these elementary preconditions. Rather than evaluating the actual situation as a whole, the Zentrale started with one-sided theoretical speculation about economic and political possibilities, which were indeed possible, perhaps even close at hand, which could have materialised, but against which countervailing tendencies were at work. They evaluated these specific tendencies of economic and political life as already existing facts – and, what is more, as facts of life that were already living forces in the thinking of the masses, strengthening their determination. Focusing on what might happen, they lost sight of the real situation. They thought that they could force the situation by a decision, cooked up in the test-tube by the party’s leading bodies, a decision that would bring about an immediate reorientation of the party masses, which had not been prepared inwardly, intellectually, and politically.
All this was quite clearly expressed in the main slogan: overthrow the government. It has been objected that the slogan was never raised. However, there is ample evidence of it. The slogan was also raised in the Reichstag speech by Frölich. In it, he made a remark – a very bold remark, I think – that the situation in Germany was the same as on the eve of the proclamation of a [workers'] council dictatorship in Hungary. Frölich closed his speech by saying, ‘We call on proletarians to struggle for the overthrow of the government.’ Really, overthrow of the government! I would be the last to shrink back from doing just that. But what was at stake then was not our wishes but something else: Did the broad masses at that moment recognise overthrow of the government as their next immediate goal?
(The chair rings the bell, as a sign that Zetkin’s speaking time is exhausted.)
Comrades, could I be permitted to speak somewhat longer? I have taken such a beating here that I cannot possibly respond in ten minutes.
Zinoviev: I propose that Comrade Zetkin be granted another fifteen minutes’ speaking time. (Applause)
Zetkin (continuing): Comrades, I will conclude rapidly. In my opinion, the orientation was –
Vaughan: I am against an extension of the speaking time.
Zetkin: Then I will have to conclude that I have been prevented from putting forward my point of view.
Koenen (chair): Is there any objection to extending the speaking time? I will hold a vote on whether Comrade Zetkin should be granted, on request of the Presidium, another fifteen minutes’ speaking time.
(The motion is adopted.)
Koenen (chair): Comrade Zetkin may therefore speak for another fifteen minutes.
Zetkin: Comrades, here is my position: Because the Zentrale had an incorrect political orientation to the revolutionary offensive, it came to a false position regarding the March struggle and was not in a position to carry out the struggle in the necessary fashion. How it should have been done has been portrayed by Comrade Radek. I will not elaborate on that. I only want to stress the aspects in which my view of these matters differs from his.
In my opinion, the errors of the March Action were not mistakes like those that take place in every struggle and are to some degree unavoidable. Rather the mistakes were organically rooted in the erroneous theory of the offensive itself. And resolving the disputed issues would have been much easier and more painless if the defenders of the revolutionary offensive had undertaken an impartial review and criticism of the action. Instead of that, what did we see? Instead of objective and calm criticism of the movement, what we saw in Die Rote Fahne was its one-sided glorification and justification. And this was done in terms not of the March Action as a defensive action by proletarian masses, but rather of the theory, a deceptive and harmful theory, in my view. It was stated that this theory must be definitive in activating the party and the masses for future revolutionary struggles. The Zentrale’s anthology, Tactics and Organisation of the Revolutionary Offensive, states, and I quote:
The March Action as an isolated step by the party would have been a crime against the proletariat. Our opponents are right at least on that point. The March Offensive as a prelude to a mounting series of actions is an act of liberation.
So you see, comrades, that is the situation that gave rise in Germany to an intense and passionate atmosphere of criticism and debate.
Thalheimer: I have never heard of this book.
Zetkin: It was not published, but praise for this theory continued in Die Rote Fahne day after day. That caused deep concern, from which arose the struggle against the theory, and the actions that it justified. In the future, actions will be required that are a question of life or death for the party. If they are conducted according to the schema set up by the new theory, that means destruction for the party, and the revolutionary proletariat of Germany will thereby lose the leadership it requires.
I must add one more point. In our view, the false theory of the revolutionary offensive that is condemned in the theses of our Russian friends arose not as the result of but as the point of departure for the practice of which the March Action – and the manner in which it was conducted – provided the first living test. This conviction has led us to propose our amendment to the appropriate paragraph of the Theses on Tactics and Strategy.
There is also another way in which our opinion differs from that of our Russian friends. I will express this opinion of ours frankly, although it will encounter vigorous resistance. Along with many comrades in Germany and other countries, I firmly believe that criticism of the errors and mistakes must not be restricted to the party organisation and the party press. This criticism should properly be presented to the broadest public and the masses themselves. We understand the contrary opinion of our Russian friends, given the history of their party and the situation in Russia. But in Western Europe our conditions are different. Let us suppose that we go to a mass meeting, and the Scheidemanns and Dittmanns attack us, asking, ‘What is your position regarding this or that action of your party?’ Will we then say that we only discuss such matters with people who can produce a membership book proving that they belong to our party? That would destroy our public credibility. But there is something more important. Our workers themselves would not tolerate that. They demand that the errors and weaknesses of the party be openly discussed, because such debates, if conducted objectively, are educational and enlightening for them as well. The proletarians have a right to this in another sense as well. They must pay for our policies and our errors through their sacrifices, their liberty, and their lives. (Applause)
As regards the Theses on Tactics and Strategy now before us, in my opinion many passages will benefit from more robust formulations, so that the will to struggle and to vigorous attack is expressed more precisely and powerfully. That, however, is a matter of minor stylistic corrections by the editing commission. I believe it is objectively important to add a paragraph on page 16, requiring the parties in France, Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg to work together systematically and over time to mobilise for the revolutionary struggle the working masses in the large centres of coal and iron mining of Central Europe. A similar requirement should apply to the Communist parties of Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia regarding the eastern centres of coal and iron mining. I believe these are demands that require no motivation and no further remarks from me. I can provide the motivation in the commission.
In closing, I do not believe that we should engage in efforts to reconcile individuals with each other or to hush things up. All of us, as individuals, count for nothing compared to the revolution. What is at issue is to create a principled foundation from which the Communist Party of Germany can look forward to its great future battles. This principled foundation was established, in my opinion, by the theses of Trotsky and of Comrade Radek. Both belong together and form an inseparable whole. Together, they present an immense challenge to the proletarians of the world: Whatever the situation, you are obligated to summon up all your energy for revolutionary struggle. The theses, taken together, appeal to all Communist parties to imbue their tactics with the necessary flexibility in order to be ready for every situation. You must win the power to advance and to be prepared at any moment to engage in the final struggle. For we do not know whether any given event will bring this about, like a thief in the night. But you must also preserve the capacity to endure, if the final struggle does not arrive so quickly.
I welcome the fact that the theses, which join together as a unity, have come from the ranks of our Russian comrades, imbued by their theoretical insight and, above all, by their revolutionary experience. We thank our Russian brothers, we thank the Russian proletariat, for more than just an understanding of the methods and paths of struggle in this period, when the old world is collapsing amid the thunder and flames of world revolution. We thank our Russian brothers above all because their example has shown what an important and ultimately decisive power for revolutionary struggle resides in the revolutionary will. A will that clear-sightedly registers every available opportunity, a will unalterably directed to the final goal or, more correctly, to the next stage toward the goal of winning political power and establishing a proletarian council dictatorship as the great door through which the world revolution is striding. (Loud applause and cheers)
26. The anthology, Taktik und Organisation der revolutionären Offensive. Die Lehren der März-Aktion, was produced by the Zentrale under Thalheimer’s direct guidance. It was published 4–5 April 1921, but was rapidly withdrawn from circulation. The quotation Zetkin read out is from p. 6 of the introduction to that book, presumably drafted by Thalheimer himself.