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The Decline, Disorientation and Decomposition of a Leadership:

The German Communist Party: From Revolutionary Marxism to Centrism

From Revolutionary History, Vol.2 No.3, Autumn 1989. Used by permission.

This general account of the fortunes of the KPD first saw the light in 1985 as part of an attempt to draw out its political lessons for the use of revolutionaries working in the labour movement.

Although a great wealth of original documentation exists in German, in spite of the importance of this topic, little of it has ever surfaced in Britain. But there do exist a number of first hand accounts of varying worth. Among the general memoirs that cannot be neglected are Ruth Fischer, Stalin and German Communism, Cambridge 1948; Rosa Levine-Meyer, Inside German Communism, London 1977; and Levine, London, 1973. Particularly valuable descriptions of shorter episodes include Icarus (Ernst Schneider), The Wilhelmshaven Revolt, London, 1944 (and subsequent editions); the eyewitness accounts, Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils across Germany and 1920 – Military Coup Defeated by German Workers which appeared in Militant on 17 November and 8 December 1978; Louis C Fraina’s The Social Revolution in Germany, reprinted London, 1977; and the Council Communist description, The Origins of the Movement for Workers’ Councils in Germany, 1918-39, a Workers’ Voice pamphlet. Liebknecht's speech to the naval committee and extracts from Levine's court testimonial were recently printed (as Liebknecht Rallies the Sailors and Levine’s Last Speech) in Workers’ News, May 1989. The impact of these events on the international revolutionary movement can be examined in Dave Riddell (ed,), The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power: Documents 1918-19, New York 1987 (cf. the review by Steve Coiling in Marxist Review, vol.iv no.6, June/July 1989, pp,16-18).

General accounts of the whole period also differ widely as to scope, relevance and worth. The most recent is Rob Sewell, Germany: From Revolution to Counter-Revolution, London, 1989 (cf. the review by Al Richardson in Revolutionary History, Vol.2 no.1, Spring 1989, p.45). A general series of articles on the whole span of the history of the KPD by Tom Kemp was printed in Workers Press from 28 September to 28 October 1972. Whilst Robert Black’s impressive Fascism in Germany (2 volumes, London 1975) is mainly concerned with the end of the period dealt with here. Chris Harman's focus in The Lost Revolution (London 1982) is upon the crucial period 1918-23, as is Walter Held’s classic Trotskyist version, Why the German Revolution Failed, in Fourth International (SWP), December 1942, pp.377-82 and January 1943, pp.21-6. Stalinist rationalisations include Eric Hobsbawm, Confronting Defeat: the German Communist Party in New Left Review, no.6, May/June 1970, pp.93-92, and Eve Rosenhaft, Beating the Fascists: The German Communists and Political Violence 1929-1933, Cambridge 1983.

Material concerning the 1923 events includes the Deutscher/Brandler correspondence between 1952 and 1959 in New Left Review, no.105, September/October 1977, pp.56-81; Larissa Reissner, Hamburg at the Barricades, London 1977; and Phil Benson, Revolutionaries Without a Revolution: The Third International and German Communism 1918-23, in the Discussion Bulletin of the Socialist Charter, Vol.1 no.7, March 1978. Trotsky’s own attitudes can be examined in The Challenge of the Left Opposition, 1923-25, New York 1975, pp.164-74 and 201-2, but the crucial source for his final opinion does not appear in the Pathfinder edition of the works of his last exile, as it only came to light in the Labour History Library in Stockholm after the English edition went to press. It can be consulted in Jakob Walcher’s Notes sur les conversations entre Trotsky et Walcher, 17-20 August 1933, in the Oeuvres, Volume 2, Paris 1978, pp.93-110. It is to be hoped that the appearance of this vital text in English guise will not be long delayed, even if we have to translate it from the French and not the original.

The writer of the article below first became active in working class politics when he joined the ETU at the time of the witchhunt against the left following the famous ballot-rigging scandal, and gravitated towards the Communist Party. He left it in 1969 after pondering the lessons of the French General Strike and the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia the year before, joining the International Socialists (now the SWP) whilst abroad in Denmark. But on his return, repelled by what he regarded as its triumphalism and sectarian attitude, he joined the Labour Party, and until quite recently regarded himself as a supporter of the newspaper Militant.

The history of the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) illustrates what happens to a supposedly revolutionary leadership when it abandons scientific analysis for subjectivism; when programme, strategy and tactics are replaced by phrase-mongering, moralism and impatience; when its leading organ is constantly reconstituted, when cadres aren’t trained, and when it loses its bond with the masses.

Not only is this history important because the decisive event which led Trotsky to proclaim the need for the Fourth International – the rise of Hitler to power – was primarily its responsibility, but also because the strategy and tactics crystallised in the Transitional Programme were tested out by the KPD, and were shown to be the only way of making Communism a material force in the class struggle, as opposed to a mere idea. The Marxists in the KPD leadership had constantly to combat the attempts of the centrists – under the guise of ultra-lefts, then rightists, then again ultra-lefts – to abandon this method, and the disputes which dogged the KPD would revolve around the United Front and attitude to reformism, and its extension, the workers’ government. The centrists would win this struggle, destroying the KPD as a Marxist leadership, and allowing Hitler to gain power in the process. Therefore the history of the KPD is rich in lessons for those aspiring to Marxism today.

The pre-history and foundation of the KPD

The nucleus of those who were to found the KPD was actively involved in opposition to the First World War, and to the support for it by the SPD, the mass workers’ party and the leading party of the Second International. This nucleus was grouped, in the main, around Rosa Luxemburg, though other currents were in existence (the Bremen left, and a youth grouping, among others). Luxemburg opposed splitting from the SPD, even though she had proclaimed the need for a new International (see the Junius Pamphlet), because she understood that the consciousness of the workers hadn’t yet reached that level of understanding. She rightly saw such an act as ‘flight’, as ‘betrayal’ of the masses, who were being choked in the deadly grip of Scheidemann and Legien, delivered up to the bourgeoisie. She ridiculed those who would rip up their party card in empty gestures, in order to build a sect, describing it is an ‘illusion of freedom’. She saw such a belief as ‘organisational cretinism’, the idea that ‘power lies in a membership card’. She knew that the decay of the SPD was an ‘historical process of the greatest dimensions’, and that the battle would have to be fought out to the end, and that one had to be in place beside the workers, in order for this process to be successfully concluded. [1]

In fact, the SPD was to be split by its own apparatus, who expelled the revolutionary and pacifist opponents of the war, who then went on to set up the USPD (Independent Social Democratic Party), to which the Spartakusbund around Luxemburg affiliated. Karl Liebknecht explained: ‘We belonged to the USPD in order to drive the most valuable elements in it forward, to squeeze out of it what we could, to radicalise it, to further its disintegration’. The USPD gave the Spartakists total freedom of action.

Relations with the USPD became problematic after the revolutionary events of November 1918, when the uprisings in the armed forces and among the workers resulted in the declaration of the republic and the joint SPD-USPD government. The task of the government was to stem the revolutionary tide and to roll back the workers’ councils, while disarming workers, soldiers and sailors. The USPD was both in government, thus assisting the SPD leaders, and simultaneously pushing towards a workers’ council republic, under pressure of its rank and file. Dual power prevailed, but the SPD still dominated the workers’ movement. The USPD was attempting to straddle both positions. The Spartakists were still an insignificant minority. At the end of December they decided to set up an independent party, owing to the USPD role in the government (the councils deciding to abdicate power to the latter) and the internal situation in the USPD. A separate ‘Communist Party’ would be founded, in spite of doubts as to the wisdom of such a step by Leo Jogiches and Luxemburg – not in principle, purely as a tactic, owing, again, to the workers’ consciousness.

The KPD emerges

The KPD(S) was dominated at its foundation by ultra-left elements who thought that the revolution could be made immediately, although the party was, in reality, only a sect. The group around Luxemburg was in a minority, though they led the party. Two decisions were taken which clearly show the ultra-left influence: one, to boycott the elections to the Constituent Assembly, and, two, to abandon the trade unions. Leo Jogiches had advised against leaving the USPD, and Paul Levi later said that he was proved to be right, that they could have split the workers from their opportunist leaders in three or four months by staying in the party. Heinrich Brandler claims that Luxemburg despaired over the ultra-left influence, and proposed rejoining the USPD. [2] Luxemburg wished to participate in the election in order to educate the workers. She pointed out in her speech that their actions showed that they were not ready to take the power. Membership of the trade unions would leap from 2.8 million in 1918 to 7.3 million in 1919, a clear refutation of those who would abandon the unions under SPD leadership.

USPD representatives left the government in protest at the reactionary measures championed by the SPD. In response to a provocation by the SPD, and owing to pressure from the masses, an attempt was made to seize power in Berlin. This adventurist attempt was forced onto the KPD, and possessing superior forces, the government drowned it in blood. Luxemburg and Leibknecht were among those killed by the SPD-led military units, which laid the basis for the future hostility to the SPD as a whole by the KPD.

After the mid-January events in Berlin, the government set to work crushing the still rising workers’ movement elsewhere, and disarming it. In late February a general strike broke out in Central Germany demanding the ‘socialisation’ of mines and factories, and for the recognition of the workers’ councils. It spread rapidly, and a similar movement began in Berlin soon after. In Munich too, a spontaneous upsurge was developing. All these movements failed, and much blood was spilt. The KPD had tried to restrain the workers from adventurism, but still lacked decisive influence. Leo Jogiches was murdered, as was Eugen Leviné, thus robbing the KPD again of two of its most competent leaders. By May 1919 the first post-war revolutionary wave had subsided. The capitalists had made large concessions to the workers, and a certain stabilisation had occurred.

The struggle against ultra-leftism

Apart from rebuilding the party, the new leader, Paul Levi, was faced with the task of increasing the party’s influence and adapting to the changed circumstances. An economic recovery was beginning in Germany, unemployment was falling and inflation was starting. The factory councils were moribund and the trade unions growing. But at the party conference in Frankfurt the ultra-lefts were still dominant over the Levi leadership, and proposed leaving the unions for the construction of a purer type of ‘one big union’, a cross between a party and a union. This conference declared itself incompetent. At the Heidelberg Congress in October 1919 Levi pushed through a set of theses which characterised the views of the ultra-left as ‘syndicalist’ and outside the framework of the party. The ultra-lefts walked out, and were subsequently expelled. This almost reduced the party by half, the membership dropping to 50 000 or so as the lefts resigned, en bloc in some areas. This was the case in Berlin and the Hamburg area, where not much remained.

This ultra-left is an interesting phenomenon. Many of the rank and file were first-generation proletarians, who upon entering the industrial sphere came into the SPD. The war radicalised them, and they then became a vanguard which was the basis for the spontaneous uprisings in the early post-war period. Some came straight from Catholic or Monarchist views direct to Communism. But two things common to all the ultra-lefts were impatience and subjectivism. This was the case with the theoreticians (Gorter, Ruhle, etc), as well as with the elements new to the Marxist movement. They were not prepared to wait for the development in consciousness of the rest of the class, but thought it possible to force the pace through action. They set up a General Workers Union (AAUD) in February 1920, and the Communist Workers Party (KAPD) in April. Neither would succeed in maintaining themselves for more than a few years as a serious force in the workers’ movement.

By his ruthless dealing with the ultraleft, although it temporarily decimated the party, Levi saved the KPD and laid the basis for its growth as a mass party rather than a sect. Not only did Levi save the party, he established it as a material force by work in the trade unions, and by influencing the USPD workers towards Communism, and gained the respect of the SPD workers, who were suspicious of the ‘Bolshevik’ KPD.

In March 1920 the reactionary politician Kapp, supported by Freikorps units, attempted a coup against the Weimar democracy. The KPD leadership met, and under the influence of the ‘lefts’ headed by Thalheimer, issued a proclamation on 14 March claiming that the proletariat ‘would not lift a finger for the democratic republic’, and opposing the general strike called by the official trade unions. Levi was in prison at the time. But the workers responded with a massive movement in defence of the republic. Then the KPD changed its line to call for a general strike, the overthrow of bourgeois democracy, and the setting up of a workers’ council republic.

The ‘leftist’ proclamation was totally out of step with the consciousness of the workers, and passed them by. In Chemnitz the KPD was still a mass organisation, and led by Brandler it set up a workers’ council, armed the workers, arrested all Kappists, and totally ignored the party proclamation. Thus, it related to the consciousness of the workers, took part in the action, and succeeded in raising it to a higher political level.

The Kapp Putsch failed because of the immediate response of the workers. On 17 March, union leader Carl Legien called for a ‘Workers’ Government’, in order to halt the creeping counter-revolution. At first the KPD left opposed collaborating with the SPD. Then, on 26 March, the KPD organ printed a statement from the leadership saying that it would act as a ‘loyal opposition’ to such a ‘workers’ government’ if it was formed. By then both the SPD and the ADGB had dropped the idea, apparently due to the USPD leaders’ hostility to ‘negotiating with traitors to the working class’. Of course, this moralistic leftism let the SPD leaders off the hook, and allowed them to continue disarming the workers and other counter-revolutionary activities.

Lenin intervenes

A majority at the KPD’s Fourth Congress condemned the declaration of the ‘loyal opposition’, including such figures as Clara Zetkin and Ernst Meyer. Levi and Thalheimer spoke in favour of it, though regretting the phrasing. Pieck, being the main author, spoke up for it, drawing upon the Bolshevik example of June 1917, when they called on the Mensheviks and SRs to take power. However, the continuing controversy provoked Lenin into commenting. He said:

This statement is quite correct both as to its basic premise and its practical conclusions. The basic premise is that at the present moment there is no “objective basis” for the dictatorship of the proletariat because the “majority of the urban workers” support the Independents. The conclusion is – a promise to be a “loyal opposition” ... to a “Socialist government if it excludes bourgeois capitalist parties”.
Undoubtedly, these tactics are in the main correct (Lenin goes on to criticise what he terms ‘minor inexactitudes of formulation ‘) ...
It would have been sufficient to long as the majority of the urban workers follow the Independents, we Communists must do nothing to prevent these workers overcoming their last philistine-democratic.. .illusions by going through the experience of having their “own government”. [3]

The KPD won 1.7 per cent of the vote in the Reichstag election of June 1920, to the 18.8 per cent and 21.6 per cent for the USPD and SPD respectively. The USPD was evolving towards Communism, and Levi aimed to split it. This was also the policy of the Communist International (CI). Brandler claims that he supported the idea of winning USPD members slowly, in order to be able to absorb them into the membership, rather than seeing them overwhelm the KPD kernel. [4] The USPD was invited to send delegates to the second CI Congress, as was the KAPD, which Lenin wished to use as a revolutionary yeast to counteract the entrance of the USPD left, whom he assumed would pull the KPD rightwards.

Two of the USPD delegates opposed the 21 Conditions for entry into the CI, while two (Däumig and Stocker) accepted them. The KAPD was admitted as a sympathising section, giving it time to fuse with the KPD. Levi protested about this. Upon his return to Germany he expressed doubts about the 21 Conditions, seeing them as an ‘organisational’ way of separating opportunists out, rather than the ‘political’ way he favoured. Brandler claims that Luxemburg opposed the foundation of the CI originally because it would become a ‘Russian shop’, when no other mass parties existed outside Russia. Levi, too, doubted the wisdom of giving the Russians too much power, as their domination of the Executive Committee (ECCI) allowed. [5]

In the event, the USPD did split in October 1920 at its Halle Congress, when a majority of delegates accepted the ‘21 Conditions’. Out of a membership of between 800,000 and a million, only 400,000 eventually joined the KPD, while 300,000 stayed with the USPD, including most of the deputies, functionaries, and union leaders. Possibly between 200,000 and 300,000 dropped out of politics because of the split, which also served to alienate many workers from the KPD. A later byproduct of the split would be the strengthening of the SPD when, in 1922, the USPD would re-unite with it, giving it a new injection of proletarians just as it was becoming isolated from the working class.

At the KPD’s Fifth Congress in November 1920, the CI would try to persuade it to show more toleration of the KAPD, but without success. A certain antagonism was developing between the Levi leadership and the CI, especially its president, Zinoviev, who had already begun seeking out allies in order to build his own anti-Levi faction in the party. In December, the Sixth (unification) Congress took place, quite successfully, and Däumig and Levi were elected joint chairmen of a leadership of eight former USPD-lefts, and six ex-Spartakists.

United Front versus Putschism

Ultra-left impatience raised its head again at the unification congress, its confidence increased by the influx of USPD lefts. A tendency flourished which saw the KPD as big enough to act on its own, to ignore the objective situation and only to heed the subjective desires of the vanguard. However, Levi continued with his United Front policy and the KPD addressed an Open Letter to all workers’ parties and unions in January 1921, calling for them to unite their forces in combating reaction and the capitalist offensive against the workers’ vital rights. Their programme of joint action included demands for higher pensions for disabled war veterans; elimination of unemployment; the improvement of the country’s finances at the expense of the monopolies; the introduction of workers’ control over food supplies, raw materials and fuel; reopening of all closed enterprises; control over sowing, harvesting and marketing of farm produce by peasants’ councils and farm labourers’ organisations; the immediate disarming of all bourgeois militarised organisations; the establishment of workers’ self-defence; amnesty for political prisoners; and the immediate re-establishment of trade and diplomatic relations with Soviet Russia.

The left in the KPD leadership described the tactic as opportunist, as did Zinoviev and Bukharin. The leaders of the main workers’ organisations rejected the call, but the rank and file Social Democrats sympathised with it, and they began to see the KPD in a better light. Lenin, again, intervened at the CI’s Third Congress when the Open Letter was condemned as opportunist. He described it as ‘a model political step’, and continued:

It is a model because it is the first act of a practical method of winning over the majority of the working class. In Europe where almost all the proletarians are organised, we must win the majority of the working class, and anyone who fails to understand this is lost to the Communist movement; he will never learn anything if he failed to learn that much during the three years of the great revolution. [6]

Meanwhile Levi had a dispute at the congress of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) at Livorno in January 1921, where he represented the KPD, which was to have tragic repercussions for Communism. The PSI had affiliated en bloc to the CI, but had not yet expelled the reformists. Serrati, the PSI leader, was avoiding expelling the reformist wing led by Turati, and the ECCI delegates Rakosi and Kabakchiev were determined to get the PSI to adhere to the 21 Conditions, even if it meant splitting with Serrati and his grouping. Levi, too, wished to expel the reformists, but opposed the crude ‘mechanical’ methods of the two ECCI delegates. Their will triumphed, and a small PCI was founded around Bordiga. The PSI majority sympathetic to Communism was left outside with Serrati.

Levi published an article in the KPD organ Die Rote Fahne criticising the role of the two ECCI delegates in Italy. He claimed that but for them similar results to the process with the USPD could have been achieved. Then the left in the KPD leadership moved to undermine Levi by a resolution of censure. By criticising the ECCI delegates, some of whom Levi accused of aborting the Hungarian revolution, he was seen as criticising Zinoviev or, worse still, the Russians in general. Levi was backed by a majority in the leadership, but the lefts put the resolution to the party council, the body holding sovereign power between congresses. It received a small majority, resulting in the resignation of Levi, Clara Zetkin, Däumig, Otto Brass and Adolf Hoffmann from the leadership.

Brandler and Stocker (the mover with Thalheimer of the resolution) were elected joint chairmen, and five new members were co-opted onto the leadership. The new leadership declared that it had no differences in principle with the old. It motivated its voting for the censure out of ‘loyalty’ to the ECCI. This was to be the start of a process of automatic subservience to the Russians, in the main by men better theoretically equipped than their advisers. Also, the shift to the left in the KPD leadership strengthened a ‘putschist’ trend.

The PCI developed quickly into a rigid sect isolated from the working class, and a struggle was waged to wrest its leadership from the hands of Bordiga by Gramsci’s grouping. Later, with the benefit of hindsight, Gramsci was to agree with Levi. He wrote that the way whereby the PSI was split at Livorno ‘was undoubtedly reaction’s greatest triumph’.

The March Action and the Theory of the Offensive

The theory of the ‘revolutionary offensive’, where the action itself would create the necessary conditions for victory, had been gestating for some time, and with Levi out of the way a chance arose to test it out. For the workers of the province of Halle-Merseberg, the only area where the KPD was the majority workers’ party, the announcement by the provincial governor that he intended to occupy the industrial districts with police was seen as a gross provocation. The miners had already thrown out a private police force from the mines. Using the unruliness of the workers as an excuse, he intended to disarm them and reintroduce the authority of the central government. The KPD decided to generalise the resistance into a general strike and then to spread it to the rest of the country.

The local party press called for a general strike, and in Berlin Die Rote Fahne called for the workers to take up arms, but apart from the Hamburg dockworkers, the movement had little support outside of the Mansfeld district. The KPD called it off on 1 April. Some 200,000 workers supposedly participated. This adventure was a disaster for the KPD. It started it without any analysis of the balance of forces, without estimating whether other workers would follow the Mansfeld miners, and without any clear perspective of what it was aiming at.

Later, it emerged that Hugo Eberlein had organised a series of provocations in Central Germany to involve more workers. Workers’ leaders were kidnapped, buildings blown up, etc, and the blame was put onto the police. The party even drove workers out of the factories at the point of a gun. The SPD published in Vorwärts some KPD documents seized by the Prussian police, which served to alienate workers from the party. It also emerged that the ECCI had sent instructions to Germany by its emissaries backing such an action, in order to assist Soviet Russia.

The KPD lefts actually saw such an action as a step forward, and began to generalise their theory of the ‘revolutionary offensive’ with backing from the ECCI. Levi saw all this, saw that no opposition was being mounted to this non-Marxist theory, and on 12 April he issued a pamphlet against it, Unser Weg: Wider den Putschismus, which described the March Action as ‘the greatest Bakuninist coup so far in history’. He showed how the party had issued pure propaganda slogans without content in the week after his resignation, and had then launched itself into an uprising without any change in the objective situation in Germany. He blamed the influence of the ECCI and the second-rate emissaries it sent out.

Although he had written to Lenin who, along with Trotsky, backed his views, Levi sent out his pamphlet before any reply arrived. Obviously it was the act of a desperate man. The KPD had actually issued a pamphlet on the ‘revolutionary offensive’, claiming to draw out the lessons of the March Action with a view to stimulating similar adventures. The theory was winning support in many Communist Parties, and the ECCI had put a seal of approval on the action by its statement. proclaiming: ‘the Communist International says to you: You acted rightly!’ As a result Levi was expelled from the KPD, the expulsion being upheld by the ECCI, and then by the CI’s Third Congress, which was dominated by a struggle between the lefts and the right, which included Lenin and Trotsky, and the KPD minority. Lenin, in fact, was prepared for a split if the left had won. In the event, he concluded a compromise with them, which was a tragic error.

The Third Congress and the United Front

The Russian leadership was split over the March Action (Zinoviev and Bukharin for, Lenin, Trotsky and Radek against), so a compromise was reached within its delegation. Lenin set out his views to Zinoviev in a letter of 10 June: ‘It is necessary to fight unceasingly and systematically to win the majority of the working class, at the outset within the old trade unions ... All those that have not understood the tactic of the Open Letter to be obligatory must be expelled from the International within a month. I see clearly that it was a mistake on my part to have agreed to the admission of the KAPD. This must be corrected as quickly as possible.’ [7]

He wanted Levi to be suspended from the party for six months, but said that he was correct in his critique of the KPD leadership in the main, though he wouldn’t use the term ‘putsch’ for the March Action.

In the Tactics of the Comintern, the compromise expressed itself in seeing the action as ‘forced upon the VKPD by the government’s attack upon the proletariat of Central Germany’, and by seeing the party as having showed itself to be truly the ‘party of the revolutionary proletariat of Germany’. But this compromise wasn’t enough for the leftists, who tried to present the action as exemplary. The Russians – differing among themselves would grant the above concession, in order then to go on to point out the faults, in an attempt to steer the KPD away from its disastrous course, which if followed by them and the CI, would have left just a series of sects after a few years. [8]

Trotsky and Varga drafted the Theses on the International Situation and the Tasks of the Comintern, which the former introduced with a speech Report on the World Economic Crisis and the New Tasks of the Communist International, a text considered an exemplar of Marxist analysis. [9] Trotsky pointed out that capitalism was stabilising itself, although he saw it as being of a short-term character, the end of the decade bringing new upheavals. The theses were even more unambiguous about the stabilisation, and both received heavy criticism from the KPD delegation. The theses were sent back to the commission to be ‘sharpened’ and to predict the collapse of capitalism somewhat earlier. The result was discrepancy between the analysis of the objective situation and the noted stabilisation upon which perspectives and tasks would be based. By compromising with the leftists and characterising the situation as still objectively revolutionary, the Marxists undermined the battle against the theory of the ‘revolutionary offensive’, and the whole United Front policy, and thus left the door open for ultra-leftism to flower.

The United Front

After the Third Congress, the KPD held its Seventh Congress in August 1921, and set out to implement the decisions. Brandler was wanted by the authorities and thus in exile, so Ernst Meyer was elected Chairman. Under Meyer the KPD again began to implement the United Front policy developed by Levi, and turned toward the SPD and other workers, to end the identification of the whole party with its traitorous leaders, to deal with the SPD and ADGB leaders, etc, all in an attempt to come closer to the working class.

The United Front aims to create the maximum unity of the working class in the struggle for its immediate aims. Within this unity Communists strive to show the workers adhering to other organisations their superiority, and the inadequacy of their existing leaderships.

Lenin sent a letter to the KPD’s Seventh Congress, where he set out the lessons of the CI’s Third Congress. He described the development of the Communist movement in Germany, bemoaning the belatedness of the split and how bitter hatred for the SPD opportunists had ‘blinded people and prevented them from keeping their heads and working out a correct strategy’. What he recommended was to ‘... rectify the mistakes of the past; steadily win over the mass of the workers both inside and outside the trade unions; patiently build up a strong and intelligent Communist Party capable of giving leadership to the masses at every turn of events; and work out a strategy ...’ He continued, turning to the KAPD, then to Levi. He said that the semi-Anarchists of the KAPD had been tested out. Now they could join the KPD or turn into a sect. But he went into great detail on Levi and ‘why I defended Paul Levi so long at the Third Congress’. He had met Levi in 1915 or 1916 and he was already a Bolshevik. But, ‘incomparably more important was ... that essentially much of Levi’s criticism ... was correct ...’ Lenin explained how Levi spoiled this by his style, and by his rushing unpreparedly into battle, and by the fact that he had committed ‘a breach of discipline’. He explained why it was necessary to fight the left and to be on the right at the Third Congress, and his attitude to those shouting out ‘Menshevik’ about Levi. He said:

Granted that Levi has become a Menshevik ... if the point is proved to me. But it has not been proved. All that has been proved till now is that he has lost his head. It is childishly stupid to declare a man a Menshevik on these grounds. The training of experienced and influential party leaders is a long and difficult job ... In Russia it took us 15 years (1903-17) to produce a group of leaders ...

He ended that section criticising Arkadi Maslow for his ‘leftism’, and proposed that he and his supporters should be sent to Moscow to learn some sense. The last section deals with the stages of development of the CI, and points out that the Third Congress determined:

... taking account of the practical experience of the Communist struggle already begun, exactly what the line of further activity should be in respect of tactics and of organisation ... We have an army of Communists all over the world. It is still poorly trained and poorly organised. It would be extremely harmful to forget this truth, or to be afraid of admitting it. Submitting ourselves to a most careful and rigorous test, and studying the experiences of our movement, we must train the army efficiently; we must organise it properly, and test it in all sorts of manoeuvres, all sorts of battles, in attacks and retreats. We cannot win without this hard schooling.

He attacked those delegations who tried to amend the Tactics of the Comintern at the congress, as they were rejecting the correction of the line – the compromise which favoured the left, going as far as possible already in the direction of the ‘revolutionary offensive’ supporters and he insisted that it was vital ‘to win over the majority of the proletariat’. The leftists had tried, among other things, to delete ‘majority’. [10]

The letter from Lenin to the KPD, accompanied by one from the ECCI critical of the ‘ultra-lefts’ (the Fischer-Maslow faction), was intended to ensure that the party stuck to the agreements made in Moscow – the deals worked out to prevent a split – and that it carried out policies such as were set out in Tactics, that is, the United Front. The tactical theses set out for the first time the transitional method to be utilised by the CI sections:

The Communist parties do not put forward any minimum programme to strengthen and improve the tottering structure of capitalism. The destruction of that structure remains their guiding aim and their immediate mission. But to carry out this mission the Communist parties must put forward demands whose fulfilment is an immediate and urgent working class need, and they must fight for these demands in mass struggle, regardless of whether they are compatible with the profit economy of the capitalist class or not ...
If these demands correspond to the vital needs of broad proletarian masses, and if these masses feel that they cannot exist unless these demands are met, then the struggle for these demands will become the starting point of the struggle for power. In place of the minimum programme of the reformists and centrists, the CI puts the struggle for the concrete needs of the proletariat, for a system of demands which in their totality disintegrate the power of the bourgeoisie, organise the proletariat, represent stages in the struggle for the proletarian dictatorship, and each of which expresses in itself the need of the broadest masses, even if the masses themselves are not yet consciously in favour of the proletarian dictatorship. [11]

Against sectarianism, the theses proclaim: ‘It is not a question of proclaiming the final goal to the proletariat, but of intensifying the practical struggle which is the only way of leading the proletariat to the struggle for the final goal.’ And they also stress that the way the demands are posed must also tend to ‘organise’ the masses: ‘Every practical slogan which derives from the economic needs of the working masses must be channelled into the struggle for the control of production ...’ Quite clearly, this represented a return to the method of Luxemburg and of her Spartakist associates, and was a rebuff for the ‘left’ and ‘ultra-left’, mainly from the USPD left. The theses, drafted by the Russians, were an attempt to put the lessons of the Bolsheviks to the parties coming from the minimum-maximum programme tradition, from propagandism, etc.

Results of the compromise

Although the KPD leaders had agreed with the Moscow compromise on paper, in fact they set out to utilise it for their own ends. The contradictory evaluation in the main theses (the ‘positive’ assessment of the March Action, and characterisation of the situation as ‘objectively revolutionary’, etc) gave them the basis for opposing the practical action demanded (‘United Front’). Leading rightists like Zetkin and Malzahn were kept off the leadership, and the ‘left’ (Stocker, Koenen and Co) leaned towards the ultraleft (Fischer, Maslow, Urbahns and Co). At the Seventh Congress the stress was put on the collapse of capitalism, while the tendency towards stabilisation was downplayed. Every compromise in the Report by Trotsky and Varga was played up, while that which did not suit them was attacked. In fact they ‘sharpened’ the Third Congress’ views.

This sharp practice, the separation of the subjective from the objective, was an abandonment of the Marxist method of analysis and the practical policy flowing therefrom. The ambiguity in the Third Congress texts permitted this.

Although Lenin had stuck his neck out in defending Levi – whom he wanted back in the party – and insisted that he had only ‘lost his head’, while mildly criticising him to satisfy the left, Levi rejected the conditions for his re-entry into the KPD. He did this, not out of vanity or any baser motive, but out of his evaluation of the party’s development. He had ruthlessly ejected the semi-Anarchists in 1919, and opposed testing out the KAPD, and the Moscow compromise with the left (other old Spartakists shared his views, but stayed in the party to try to change it). In his magazine Unser Weg the KPD documents were analysed, and in No.3 he described the Seventh Congress as ‘the victory of putschism’. According to Fowkes, Levi had said that he might have accepted the conditions for his re-entry earlier, but after the Congress he saw the KPD as being dominated by semi-Anarchists, and in a letter to a friend said that ‘in Germany Lenin is ... the grey theory, Bela Kun is the practice, of the Comintern’. [12]

The emissaries of the ECCI would be the basis for the next KPD crisis, when party co-chairman Ernst Friesland (Reuter) tried to mobilise opinion against ‘the pernicious influence’ exercised by some of them. It was normal for them to build up their own personal following in the CI sections, to by-pass the party leaders, and Zinoviev in particular used this to expand his leverage within the Russian party. The crisis ended with the expulsion of Friesland, who then joined Levi’s group, and was followed by the exit of a series of leading trade union figures, among them Richard Muller and Paul Wegmann (leaders of the revolutionary shop stewards in 1919), Paul Neumann, Heinrich Malzahn and Fritz Winguth (Metalworkers Union), and Otto Brass. In fact, few of the trade union figures who came from the USPD left stayed in the KPD after the March Action, and its membership dropped to less than 50 per cent of that at unification. By then Däumig, too, had joined Levi.

The loss of Levi would be followed by the eventual elimination of most of the old Spartakists, the pupils and collaborators of Rosa Luxemburg. Others would become corrupted. Thus anyone capable of making an independent judgement was removed or neutralised. Those remaining lent themselves to the shifts and turns of the dominant centrist clique in Moscow. However, this was still in the future, and nothing is predetermined in politics. The KPD would have many chances to turn itself into a real revolutionary leadership before its self-destruction in 1933.

Two German Marxist historians (Hans Dieter Heilmann and Bernd Rabehl) have gone through the CI documents, the KPD congress documents, the internal party education materials, the critiques in Unser Weg, etc., in researching the decline of the party. They perceive a marked change after the resignation of the Levi leadership in February 1921. Before that date they find the analyses of the party and the tasks flowing from them of a high quality. Soon after, however, a wishful thinking and catastrophism takes over, with talk of the approaching, inevitable, collapse of capitalism, and the impossibility of stabilisation. The will of the party thus became the overriding determinant, instead of a rigorous analysis of the objective situation. Heilmann and Rabehl assess the practice of the Levi leadership as scientifically based. Its views of the situation obtaining in Germany corresponded with reality. From then on, a decline, both theoretically and politically, set in. [13]



1. See R. Luxemburg, Offene Briefe an Gesinnungsfreunde, Von Spaltung, Einheit und Austritt.

2. New Left Review, no.105.

3. V.I. Lenin, Left Wing Communism – an Infantile Disorder, Collected Works, Vol.31, pp.109-10.

4. New Left Review, no.105.

5. Ibid.

6. V.I. Lenin, Speech in Defence of the Tactics of the Communist International, CW, Vol.32, p.470.

7. Beiträge zur Geschichte der Arbeiterbewegung, no.4, 1965, cited in Fowkes, Communism in Germany Under the Weimar Republic.

8. L.D. Trotsky, Speech on Radek’s Report on Tactics of the CI, First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol.1, p.269.

9. Ibid., pp.290-313, 226-278.

10. V.I. Lenin, A Letter to the German Communists, CW, Vol.32, pp.512-523.

11. See J. Degras (ed.), The Communist International 1919-43 – Documents, Vol.1, pp.241-56.

12. Fowkes, op cit. Kun was the ECCI emissary whom Levi – and others – charged with the defeat in Hungary.

13. See Die Legende von der “Bolschewisierung” der KPD, Sozialistische Politik, nos.9, 10, translated in Politiske Arbejdstekster, December 1975.

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