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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.

United front success under Meyer

Germany experienced a recovery in 1922 in terms of increased production, but also a rapid inflation which ate away the value of real wages. The bosses were on the offensive and attacked the eight hour day, a gain from the November revolution. The KPD under the Meyer leadership carried out joint United Front struggles, and its own campaigns to defend the vital needs of the masses, as set out in the CI theses. It gained influence in the official unions, the factory councils, the trades councils, and even got non-party workers to its gatherings, in spite of the hostility of the ADGB leadership. It even initiated a movement of price-control committees to fight against the effects of inflation. By the end of the year KPD influence was such that they had taken over many local union leaderships, many large factories, and stood stronger than ever before among workers of all persuasions. In June 1922, at the ADGB Eleventh Congress in Leipzig, the KPD had 90 delegates out of 691, an increase from a total of seven at the previous one. The number of delegates understated the party’s strength. Leading trade unionist August Enderle put it as representing one third of the union membership. This estimate is also born out by the present-day continuation of the Brandler current, the Gruppe Arbeiterpolitik.’ [14]

On 24 June a nationalist gang murdered Waiter Rathenau, the Foreign Minister and the main proponent of the fulfilment of the terms of the Versailles Treaty. It was only one of a series of actions by reactionaries opposed to the democratic republic. Everywhere mass demonstrations in defence of the republic took place. The KPD joined a united front of all the main workers’ parties and union federations.

‘They agreed to work in any way they could for the defence of the republic, a purge of Monarchists from the army, the police and the courts, the dissolution of all anti-republican armed groups, and a political amnesty. A joint appeal to the German working class was issued to that effect. The response was tremendous, culminating in a massive demonstration on 4 July, and clashes with the police...’ [15]

The SPD broke off relations with the KPD shortly after, obviously terrified of being out-manoeuvred. Fowkes draws the strange conclusion that the Rathenau campaign was a ‘disaster for the KPD’, although he notes that ‘it marked the beginning of the movement of Proletarian Hundreds [armed workers detachments], the first attempt to solve the military problems facing the workers on a mass basis rather than through conspiratorial organisation.’ [16].

No small success!

Trotsky evaluated the Rathenau campaign positively, quoting Klara Zetkin:

In the Rhine and Westphalian provinces, with their large industrial centres, Committees of Action in many cities and districts have been organised, composed of representatives of the two reformist parties, the Communist Party and the trade unions. (In some cases, committees were organised in the Gewerkschaftliche Kartel of particular localities or districts and representatives of the three workers’ parties were elected to them.) Under the pressure of the organised masses, the leaders of the reformist parties, particularly the ADGB, found themselves compelled to establish relations with the Communist Party. Notwithstanding the brief duration of this joint activity, two large demonstrations were held in quick succession in Germany; and thanks to these negotiations and demonstrations the Communist Party made intimate contacts with the working masses in rather large areas. Committees of Action set up for the purpose of disarming counterrevolutionary elements continued to function after the protest movement had waned so quickly, owing to the treachery of the reformists.
The idea of the United Front is again marching forward with giant strides...To illustrate we cite the joint meeting of the factory delegates in Berlin. More than 6000 of these delegates attended, despite the warning by the trade union bureaucracy, by the USPD and SPD, that it was impermissible for their members to attend this meeting.
This gathering...elected a committee of 15 to arrange an all-German conference of factory and shop delegates. This committee is composed of members from all the workers’ parties. It is instructed to call the convention if the Executive Committee of the ADGB fails to do so. The aim is to establish Control Committees to supervise production, distribution, prices and so on. In many industrial centres such Control Committees have already been formed. There is quite a large number of cities where the workers have called meetings of factory and shop delegates at which committees were organised demanding control over production. Everywhere the Communists were at the head of this movement, whose aim is to bring about unity in the struggle. [17]

The above-quoted letter was dated 13 September 1923, and indicates enormous success for the United Front wielded by the KPD in the aftermath of the Rathenau murder. Not only had the party increased its influence massively over the members of other workers’ parties, and over nonparty workers, but a significant raising of consciousness and organising of workers had occurred. The reformist leaders had been forced to deal with the KPD. Trotsky is unequivocal: ‘The unquestionable political successes of the United Front policy are already clear, as is attested by a report of Comrade Klara Zetkin ...’ [18]

However, during this period the Fischer-Maslow group worked to undermine the United Front policy and Ernst Meyer. They succeeded in removing him from the leadership and replacing him with the now-amnestied Brandler.

The Workers’ Government tactic

In November and December the Fourth Congress of the CI took place. The United Front was at the centre of the discussion, and its extension, the workers’ government. This had become actual for the KPD, as its influence upon the SPD left in Saxony and Thuringia had grown so much that the majority for the two workers’ parties in the Landtag of both states posed the issue, and in November the Saxon SPD approached the KPD with an offer of ministerial posts. The offer was rejected by the KPD after advice from the ECCI, on the grounds that revolution was not on the immediate agenda.

In his Report on the Fourth Congress of the CI, at the Tenth Congress of the Soviets in December 1922, Trotsky explained the tactic:

If you (the KPD leaders) are of the opinion that a revolution is possible in the next few months in Germany, then we would advise you to participate in Saxony in a coalition government and to utilise your ministerial posts in Saxony for the furthering of political and organisational tasks and for transforming Saxony in a certain sense into a Communist drillground so as to have a revolutionary stronghold already reinforced in a period of preparation for the approaching outbreak of the revolution. [19]

The Theses on Tactics adopted were a development of those of the previous congress. Five distinct forms of ‘workers’ government’ were set out. However, the concept proved highly contentious and was never fully developed. Zinoviev, Bukharin and the KPD left emptied the tactic of its dialectical content, just as with the United Front tactic in general. Zinoviev insisted that the workers’ government was ‘nothing other than the application of the dictatorship of the proletariat’. He was opposed by Radek and Meyer, among others, the latter pointing out that the workers’ government is a ‘slogan we advance to win over the workers to a common struggle against the bourgeois class’, and that if it is ‘followed by the majority of workers, can lead to the dictatorship of the proletariat or long phases of sharp struggle’. Trotsky described it as:

‘...a wedge driven by the Communists between the working class and all other classes: and inasmuch as the top circles of the Social Democracy...are tied up with the bourgeoisie, this wedge will act more and more to tear away...the left wing of Social Democratic workers from their leaders. [20] He likened a CP/SP-left government in Europe to the ‘workers’ and peasants’ government’ created in Russia ‘together with the Left Social Revolutionaries’.

The Theses on the Eastern Question, the elaboration of the United Front tactic in the backward countries (the Anti-Imperialist United Front), various programmes, etc, were also discussed, but remain outside the scope of this text.

Left offensive and the downfall of Brandler

Ruth Fischer had led the KPD left attack upon the United Front and the Meyer leadership at the Fourth Congress, and she intensified it during the KPD’s Eighth Congress, in late January 1923. Fischer characterised the whole period of the United Front work under Meyer as ‘opportunist’, and the lefts tried to sharpen up the theses in a sectarian direction. Some small concessions were made to them, but in essence Brandler continued the line of Meyer, merely decorating it with verbal radicalism .

On 11 January French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr in order to enforce the reparations set out at Versailles. It resulted in galloping inflation, rising unemployment, a great agitation among the workers, and confrontations with the occupying forces. The SPD left grew rapidly, as did KPD influence in the working class. The factory councils movement spread, as did other forms of organisation of the type mentioned in Zetkin’s report (Price Control, Action, Production, etc, Committees, plus the armed workers’ detachments, the Proletarian Hundreds). Increased KPD influence reflected itself in elections to the factory councils, where they gained one-third of the positions. The unions were becoming communist at rank and file level.

June and July saw a growing strike movement. The Fascists, too, were preparing to attack. In Saxony and Thuringia the state governments were encouraging the Proletarian Hundreds against the Fascist threat. Yet nobody in the leadership of either the KPD or the CI saw the situation as one of immediate revolution. The KPD carried on with its United Front policy, seeing the situation as one of defensive struggle. The strike movement in mid-August, which led to the downfall of the Cuno government, was inspired by the KPD, against the will of the ADGB. Cuno was replaced by Stresemann, who brought in the SPD, and his government began talks with Dawes over US loans, and with the French over reparations, and was able to stabilise the mark. Wage rises were given to workers, which helped dampen down strikes, and repression was stepped up. From then on, with the workers in retreat, the economic and political situation improving, and the government prepared, all the objective factors ran counter to the idea of seizing power.

In the meantime some of the Russian leadership became convinced that revolutionary situation existed in Germany. Trotsky became convinced after a discussion with Enderle and Walcher, two leading KPD trade unionists. Zinoviev and Bukharin became convinced, while Stalin recommended holding the Germans back. The RCP politbureau decided to plan for an insurrection, and in September summoned Brandler to Moscow. Against his better judgement he left again in early October, having agreed to attempt to seize power starting from bases in Saxony and Thuringia, where the KPD should enter workers’ governments with the local left SPD.

One reason for entering the state governments was to attain control over the police and its weaponry, but very few weapons were obtained for the arming of the Proletarian Hundreds. Brandler explained later that the arsenals in both states had been empty, since the workers had seized their contents during the Kapp Putsch and the March Action. After that the police had to borrow from the military. [21] Meanwhile planning went ahead. Russian experts were sent. Radek and Pyatakov were sent to lead the action (Brandler had requested Trotsky, but he was already out of favour with the dominant clique, and thus ruled out). Open political activity stopped in this period, as the KPD went over to conspiratorial activity. This resulted in a certain isolation from the masses. On 21 October Brandler addressed a conference of factory councils in Chemnitz, his Saxon base, and put the case for a general strike against the Fascist threat from Bavaria. After three or four hours talking he failed to convince the delegates. That evening the KPD leader ship decided unanimously to call off the uprising. Radek and Pyatakov supported the decision. The Reich government, using the emergency powers granted by the Weimar Constitution, dissolved the Saxon government after sending in the army to put Saxony and Thuringia under central government control.

Nothing was salvaged from the situation. The plan foisted upon the KPD was of an ‘offensive’ type, in conditions where the majority of the workers saw no cause. A defensive plan might have galvanised the Saxon and Thuringian workers into action as part of repulsing the Fascist threat and the Reich government attack upon their state governments. In Hamburg some street fighting took place after local Communists attempted an insurrection, due to circumstances never clarified. The majority of workers were spectators only.

This defeat would have tremendous repercussions for world Communism, and for Soviet society. It sharpened the factionalism, and led to the spread of a lack of faith in the European proletariat by elements in the RCP, eventually giving rise to the idea of ‘Socialism in one country’, the theoretical justification for the ruling bureaucratic stratum headed by Stalin.

Balance Sheet of October 1923

In the immediate aftermath nobody thought of blaming Brandler for the October fiasco. Only with the search for a scapegoat by Zinoviev and elements within the KPD leadership did Brandler receive the blame. Radek, Pyatakov and Trotsky defended him. The latter saw the problem as one of inadequate leadership in the KPD and the CI as a whole, rather than one of individuals. Trotsky went against the removal of the Brandler leadership and its replacement by another, as he saw its mistakes as:

‘...only a reflection of the general mistakes of the Comintern leadership (and) because I judged the German defeat to be much more serious than did the majority of the (Russian) Central Committee. In this case, as in others, I fought against the inadmissible system which only seeks to maintain the infallibility of the central leadership by periodic removals of national leadership...’ [22] Then Zinoviev, his position being shaky, put the blame on Brandler. Soon after a sector of the Brandler faction split away and formed the ‘centre group’ around Meyer.

Of the balance sheets of the defeat, the left focused on opposition to the United Front, the centre pointed out the failure of the KPD to realise how the objective situation would change in favour of revolution after the invasion of the Ruhr in January, and to plan accordingly, whereas the Brandler group focused on the objective conditions obtaining in October, as well as the failures and errors in preparation. The Brandler group was the only one to issue a full analysis, which should be read by serious students of Communism, as a myth has grown up since that time based on a few phrases of a general theoretical nature by Trotsky, of a revolutionary opportunity that was missed in October. [23] Serious students should beware of some of the notes attached to historical texts by so-called Trotskyist groupings. They are often only marginally more truthful than those in Stalinist publications. [24] Trotsky wrote a number of articles dealing with October 1923, but mainly from a general methodological and theoretical angle. He himself admitted that he noticed no revolutionary situation until the summer. But by the end of the 9-14 August strike movement the whole situation was to change. Reformist workers, seeing their material conditions being bettered, were no longer prepared to follow the KPD. Revolution is a risky business. Rather than taking up and perpetuating myths, an evaluation of reality is required. A useful look at 1923 with the benefit of a decade’s hindsight is contained in Notes on Discussions with Trotsky by Walcher, agreed as a true record by Trotsky.

Walcher stresses that:

... their most important mistake was in not having taken account of the financial, political and revolutionary consequences which would flow from the conflict in the Ruhr in time, and only to have recognised the existence of a revolutionary situation in relation to the Cuno strike at the moment when, as a result of the entry of the Social Democrats into the government and the news of the creation of the Rentenmark, the situation had begun to relax and the revolutionary wave had ebbed.
The KPD leadership, and possibly that of the Communist International, which until July had seriously underestimated the situation, henceforth overestimated it in the same notice was taken of what was actually happening at that moment in the working class. Thus the scissors opened wide between the policy of the party and reality...The party leadership, as a result of having wanted the impossible in the second stage of development was incapable of carrying out what was still possible in it. [25]

In reply to Walcher’s view, Trotsky agreed that it wasn’t the case ‘that the decisive mistake had been made in October’, reiterated that ‘great objective possibilities for revolutionary struggle had been bungled’, and ‘stated with satisfaction that one could note complete agreement between his point of view and that developed by’ Walcher. [26] The ECCI met in January 1924, and Zinoviev blamed Brandler for the defeat. He called for his leadership to be deposed, with one from the majority (centre group) and the left to replace it. A resolution was adopted combining the views of the centre and the left, rather than the centre and the Brandlerists, which would have been more in line with reality. This was dangerous, because implicitly it would mean a rejection of the United Front, and this in part occurred. The ECCI declared that ‘one cannot negotiate with the lackeys of the white dictatorship’, in other words the Social Democratic leaders, described, moreover, as ‘a faction of German Fascism’. Therefore the United Front was reduced to ‘unity from below’. Moralism and phrasemongering replaced the thoroughly dialectical and revolutionary tactic which had served the KPD so well under the Marxists (Levi, Brandler, Meyer et al), and the slide into ultraleftism – centrism – would begin. The situation in Germany was characterised as though October had not occurred, and therefore one ‘must not erase the question of the uprising and the seizure of power from the agenda’.

In February the KPD party council elected a new leadership comprised of five from the centre and two lefts. Remmele was chairman, and Thälmann vice-chairman. Brandler and his supporters were removed.

The left in control

Leftism flourished in the KPD rank and file in the period of anger and despair following October. Up to the Ninth Congress in April 1924 the left won in the majority of district conferences. The centre had a significant basis, but Brandler’s supporters were marginalised. Consequently the congress was dominated by ultra-left phrases, demagogy and subjective wishful thinking. The revolution was on its way, it had to be ‘organised’, the KPD was declared to be the party of the proletariat by right, and its role was to ‘impel’ the masses forward. Some of the lefts wanted to leave the official unions. In such a situation the centre group, wishing to carry on United Front work and serious work in the unions, was isolated. Zinoviev, who is wrongly credited with putting the Fischer-Maslow group into the leadership (whereas in reality it was a bitter rank and file), disappointed over October, took fright at the upsurge of the left and sought to split it. He related to Fischer-Maslow, but simultaneously sought out Thälmann in order to break him from them. He was seen by the CI as ‘proletarian gold’ – as opposed to the intellectuals among the left leaders – and an injection of revolutionary elan into the KPD CC. The new Leadership elected at congress comprised either 11 to 4, or 10 to 5, for the left and the centre respectively. Conflicting figures exist owing to the illegality of the KPD at the time and thus the non-publication of details. After a few months the supporters of the centre were removed from key party positions.

Fischer-Maslow were allied with the ultra-left, represented on the leadership by Scholem, Katz and Rosenberg, and therefore a sector of the left majority wished not only to end United Front work, but to split the unions as well. It stood further to the left than Zinoviev, and was thus bound to conflict with the CI.

The Fifth Congress of the CI took place in the summer of 1924. Varga gave a report on the world economic situation, and attempted to point out the end of the post-war revolutionary wave. He saw the original theses of the Third Congress as being proved correct (before ‘sharpening’). However, the dominant view was that the revolution was still marching onward, and Varga adjusted his analysis to suit. Zinoviev saw ‘the general political perspectives...remain essentially as before. The situation is pregnant with revolution’. [27] Zinoviev, Bukharin, Ruth Fischer and Co condemned the Russian Opposition as opportunists and liquidators for pointing out the revolutionary ebb and the temporary stabilisation. ‘Throughout 1924 and for the greater part of 1925 the leadership of the Comintern held the view that the highpoint of the German crisis was still ahead’. [28] The defeat of 1923 was seen as ‘only an episode’. Trotsky shows the dishonest nature of the analysis of October 1923: ‘Zinoviev ... (and) the whole Fifth Congress simply passed over this greatest defeat of the world revolution. The German events were analysed principally from the angle of the policies of the the Saxon Landtag. The Congress praised the ECCI for its condemnation of the ‘opportunist conduct of the German Central Committee, and, above all, its perverted application of the United Front during the Saxon government experiment’ [29] Trotsky ridiculed this critique for missing the point, but clearly one can see the scapegoating process in action.

‘The fundamental tasks of the Fifth Congress were: firstly to call this defeat clearly and relentlessly by its name, and to lay bare its “subjective” cause, allowing no one to hide behind the pretext of objective conditions; secondly, to establish the beginning of a new stage during which the masses would temporarily drift away, the Social Democracy grow, and the Communist Party lose its influence; thirdly, to prepare the Comintern for all this so that it would not be caught unawares and to equip it with the necessary methods of defensive struggle and organisational consolidation until the arrival of a new change in the situation. [30] A year would pass before economic stabilisation was recognised, but by that time the Opposition had already analysed ‘tendencies undermining this stabilisation’. [31] And: ‘From the basic strategic mistake of the Fifth Congress necessarily had also to arise a lack of understanding of the processes occurring within the German and the international Social Democracy’. [32] Trotsky stressed the revival of Social Democracy and the decline of Fascism. The first Labour government had come into office in Britain! Obviously, the task was now one of United Front work, and especially in the unions. Trotsky also argued against the identification of Social Democracy and Fascism at the Fifth Congress. One can conclude that the movement was totally disorientated by the failure scientifically to analyse the October 1923 events, and the changed objective situation, which, in turn, necessitated new methods of work for the new period.

Isolation and decline

This next period saw the KPD lose contact with the working class, a dramatic decline in support, the loss of half of its membership, and suffering harsh repression. Its trade union fractions disintegrated. At the Breslau ADGB Congress in 1925 only three KPD delegates participated. The Fischer-Maslow leadership had to come into conflict with the CI, as it saw its German party being destroyed, and belatedly realised that a stabilisation was taking place.

In January 1925, the KPD blocked the offer of a United Front to the SPD recommended by the CI, ‘against the monarchist danger’, and in defence of the republic. The fifth (enlarged) meeting of the ECCI in the spring of 1925 was informed by Zinoviev of the ‘ending of the acute revolutionary situation – above all in Germany’. Stabilisation had occurred, though he stressed that the world situation was still ‘objectively revolutionary’. At this meeting Ruth Fischer recognised that the CI was moving rightward, and the KPD offered a United Front with the SPD, and even a bloc with the centre against the monarchist threat.

The Presidential elections saw Thälmann, the KPD candidate, lose a million votes. Zinoviev called for the KPD to withdraw in the second round in favour of Braun, the SPD candidate. The far-right advanced Hindenburg, and Zinoviev argued that the choice was now between a republic or a monarchy, ‘and for the working class there is a real difference between the two’. Maslow offered to withdraw, but put conditions which ‘seemed more calculated to secure a refusal from the SPD’. [33] The SPD, in an attempt to block the reaction, then withdrew in favour of the Centre Party candidate. The workers’ vote was split and the KPD advanced Thälmann, the result being the victory of Hindenburg.

The rightward shift by Fischer-Maslow resulted in the left splitting up. The ultraleft Scholem /Katz/Rosenberg group broke with Fischer. The ultras were purged from key party posts.

At the Tenth KPD Congress in July 1925, it noted finally ‘the absence of an acute revolutionary situation’ in Germany. Otherwise the analysis of the economic situation was contradictory and bedecked with phrases. Stabilisation was down-played and the next crisis was forecast. Furthermore, the party had foreseen the development, and previous prophesies were declared to have been proved correct. The congress was stage-managed to give an impression of unity. The ultraleft was almost absent. Zinoviev sent a letter to the congress explaining how the CI saw the situation and the tasks. He still saw the SPD as a Fascist party, but urged a United Front; he urged that the right and centre be drawn into the leadership, and that ultra-leftism be purged. In the event, three ultra-lefts were elected to the CC, but no right or centre people. In spite of an Action Programme being adopted and a report on trade union work by Thälmann, which called for a return to serious work in this field, discontent began to surface, especially among factory worker members.

Not long after the congress the ECCI summoned the KPD leaders to Moscow. There the congress was criticised by Zinoviev and Bukharin. Fischer had made a deal with the ultra-left, was delimitating herself from the CI, hadn’t put congress decisions into effect, had a system of ‘double book-keeping’ (she was only pretending to shift rightward), was dictatorial, and had divorced the party from the masses. She signed a criticism of her own conduct which was published as an Open Letter of the KPD delegation and ECCI on 1 September 1925. A conference of the party was organised at the end of October, and leadership was put into the hands of Thälmann and Dengel. A series of tasks were set out, and at last it was decided to reconstruct the party on a factory cell basis.

Leviné-Meyer says that the Open Letter was ‘a cynical disregard of truth’, and an ‘attempt to shift the responsibility for all errors from the Party to a few individuals’. She points out also that ‘Thälmann (had been) a faithful follower of Ruth Fischer, who never displayed a policy of his own’. [34] His role was to be that of a tool of Moscow.

The new leadership set about purging the ultra-left (Katz, Schwartz and Korsch were expelled in early 1926), and succeeded in undermining Fischer’s base in Berlin. The party rank and file supported the Open Letter in general, as the policies of Fischer-Maslow had been destroying the party (at the sixth ECCI plenum, Manuilsky attacked Fischer, pointing out that in the Ruhr, ‘our most important organisation, there are only 4000 members left after you. After you went, within a few months, membership has been increased by more than double’). Also, they had sabotaged attempts to restructure the party on a factory cell basis. After the October defeat, before the left took over, the centre group had constantly attempted to carry this out when it had a majority. Once the left took over, Ulbricht, the key protagonist, had to give up his work and go to Moscow.

The significance of factory cells

It is worth making a few key points about factory cells and why they are crucial for a combat party. From its inception, the Spartakusbund saw the need to centre itself in the factories, and it did so, but owing to the situation of spontaneous uprisings and marginality in which it found itself, no attempt was made to make the factory cell its basic unit. The revolutionary workers opposed centralism at the time because they associated it with the SPD, and great illusions existed in the factory council movement, which inevitably dissolved itself after the founding of the republic, dominated as it was by reformism. After each uprising the party had to rebuild itself. Then came the split with the semi-Anarchists in late 1919, which decimated the party in many key areas. But, most significantly, after fusion with the USPD left, in late 1920, the old Social Democratic geographical unit was adopted as the basic unit. The March Action, the result of impatience from the newly gained USPD left, also exposed the inadequacy of this form of organisation in conditions of heightened class struggle, when the party was repressed. The October 1923 events would underline this fact, although steps had been taken to rectify the situation. The August strike movement demonstrated that the party wasn’t sufficiently rooted in the factories, wasn’t capable of giving the necessary leadership, and didn’t have a close enough bond with the struggling workers. This was all discussed after the October defeat, but the attempts to rectify it were blocked by the new left leadership. For the left, the final battle was around the corner, to be impelled by their windy rhetoric, once the reformists were exposed by their moralising, and then the workers would adhere to the ‘only workers’ party’. In fact, during the repression following on from October, the KDP was severely dislocated, precisely because of the lack of workplace-based units.

The structure of a combat party is firstly a political question, and an organisational one second. For the democracy to function, the militants at the base must be able to participate and to shape policy; they must be able to reach the leadership. A division between functionaries and activists, as in reformist parties, cancels out the significance of a combat party. The leadership must have its finger on the pulse of the class struggle, and it must have tight bonds with the workers; hence the factory unit.

For the centralism to function in order to give leadership, the same thing applies. Of course, for the party of the proletariat, the workers must be the decisive force, and it was no coincidence that the KPD ultra-left sprang from the intelligentsia, who joined the party with the USPD left. The trait often displayed by the intellectual in the workers’ movement is to dole out knowledge sparingly, while flattering and manipulating the worker. This method ensures their influence and dominance. An example to hand is that of Thälmann, a sincere class fighter corrupted by such methods. Contrast him with Brandler or Heckert, workers educated in the Luxemburg tradition, capable of independent thought (though the latter was to succumb to Stalinist corruption).

The right turn

Although the fall of Fischer was brought about by the ECCI intervention without discussion, it was welcomed by the rank and file. A return to United Front work took place, and the KPD began again to attain influence within the working class. The Communist-led unions were wound up and the militants integrated into the ADGB unions. Leviné-Meyer mentions the successful campaign against compensation for the Raiser’s family. The SPD began opposing it, ‘but the Communist-led drive found a wide response among workers and a great number of ruined and non-compensated middle class people... (and) popular feeling compelled the SPD to sanction the movement and collaborate with the Communists. [35]

It would be an error to evaluate this turn in a totally positive light. The new leadership, while fighting the left, also fought the right. Brandler was seen as just as dangerous, and the centre group were described as ‘rightists’ too. Meyer criticised the leadership for still comparing Social Democracy with Fascism, and the KPD-led Red Front Fighters League for engaging in street fighting with the republican Reichsbanner units, which hindered real United Front work. The KPD was still seen as the ‘only workers’ party’.

In Stalinist legend, this period is called one of ‘Bolshevisation’, and the Thälmann cult was built up as part of this. What it really involved was a ‘Stalinisation’, or bureaucratisation, of the KPD. This paralleled events in the RCP; the ousting of Zinoviev, continued struggle against Trotsky, and the dominance of Stalin-Bukharin. The latter’s sociology replaced the pseudo-Marxist rhetoric of Zinoviev. The move against Fischer was organisational (Maslow was in prison at the time), and it went together with the abandonment of theoretical discussion. It was replaced by the Lenin cult, the wielding of quotes from the master taken out of time and space. ‘Trotskyism’, ‘Luxemburgism’, ‘Brandlerism’, etc, were discovered as heresies. Myths were created in order to wall off militants from the Marxist method as one of living criticism. Reorganisation of the party into factory units, while necessary, was a result of the disastrous effects of the politics of Fischer-Maslow, backed by the CI, and not a result of genuine balance sheet of the experience of the KPD since 1923. Reorganisation was then seen, not as a political question, but as an organisational one. In consequence it resulted not in a party of democracy and centralism, but in a bureaucratic apparatus – the Stalinist type we know of today.

Fischer was exiled to Moscow. Hugo Urbahns took over the leadership of the left, which by now had broken with the ultras, who were all gradually expelled from the party. He fought for the right of free discussion within the party, and the Urbahns-Fischer-Maslow group, although accepting the right turn in Germany, came out for the Zinoviev-Trotsky Opposition in the RCP. For this they were all expelled in late 1926.

Ernst Meyer’s declaration

In December 1926 the ECCI called representatives of the KPD’s factions to Moscow, to assess the effects of the Open Letter by Zinoviev. Meyer was pressured into signing a declaration pledging loyalty to the KPD CC, and promising to fight the ‘right’. Leviné-Meyer believes that this act broke his spirit; that its aim was to split his faction ‘of old experienced leaders, which included many Brandlerites’, and to break up an independent group of people who could challenge the CI. [36]

The declaration had the desired effect. It ‘caused a storm among the Brandlerite section of Ernst’s group’. [37] This act was to destroy any opposition to the Thälmann group and its masters in Moscow. It was a tragic error.

The centre group was to be brought into the leadership, but had effectively erased themselves. The policies would not be United Front work such as they had carried out earlier and since proposed, but opportunist zig-zags with a leftist trend still present. At the Eleventh Congress of the KPD in March 1927 the SPD left was described as ‘the main enemy’. The ECCI declaration of December 1926 had called the SPD left leadership ‘counterrevolutionary’. The main task for the KPD which was emerging was to defend the USSR, and the SPD was seen as the main enemy and lackey of imperialism in that respect.

After the congress the centre group was integrated into the leadership, and Meyer became one of five politburo members. The KPD began to differentiate between right and left in the SPD, and between leaders and the ranks. In September a resolution was adopted by the CC calling for Thalheimer to be recalled to Germany to take up party work again. Meyer ‘never stopped campaigning for the return of Brandler and Thalheimer’, says Leviné-Meyer. [38]

Although after Meyer’s declaration the ECCI had called for ‘a concentration of forces’ in the KPD leadership, it kept sniping at Meyer, attacking the Brandlerites, and propping up the Thälmann group. Meyer protested that his declaration did ‘not include any obligation to ultra-left criticism of Brandler and Thalheimer. [39] The ex-Brandlerists of the centre group, old Spartakists like Walcher, Enderle and Bottcher, along with Frolich and Wolfstein, broke with Meyer over his accommodation with the ex-lefts. Buttcher said: ‘A concentration of forces was only possible if the left errors of the past were corrected’. [40] At the end of 1927 the Ruhr barons refused to implement the eight-hour shift, a law passed by the Reichstag, and threatened a lock-out. In this situation the SPD press called for expropriation of the mines, which exactly caught the mood of the workers. ‘Instead of seizing this demand and calling upon the SPD and the ADGB to mobilise the masses for this aim, the KPD leadership launched the slogan “strike”. Such a demand...could not demonstrate the leading role of the Communists in practice, but led to the opposite.’ The leftist kink cancelled out the United Front concept.

The right turn analysed

In the critical material Trotsky presented to the CI’s Sixth Congress, he analysed the whole period from October 1923: ‘The mistakes of pseudo-“leftism” which hampered the development of the Communist parties, later gave an impetus to new empirical zig-zags: namely, to an accelerated sliding down to the Right. (This shift) was the attempt at a half-blind, purely empirical, and belated adaptation to the set-back of revolutionary development caused by the defeat of 1923.’ [41] The ‘pseudo-Leftism’ was seen by Trotsky as a shift ‘from the proletarian line to the centrist, that is, to the petty bourgeois line which, in the course of the increasing stabilisation, was to liberate itself from its ultra-left shell and reveal itself as a crude collaborationist line in the USSR, in China, in England, in Germany, and everywhere else’. [42] The text deals in depth with the betrayal of the General Strike, then the miners’ strike (1926) by the TUG, and the cover provided for it by the CI; it deals with the idealisation of the peasantry, and the Farmer-Labor Party in the USA, and the opportunism towards the Kuomintang in China.

Trotsky points out that a sharp shift occurred in 192A, but it took the CI a year and a half to recognise it. He says that it was hardly surprising then, that ‘the years 1924-25 were the years of Left mistakes and putschist experiments. The Bulgarian terrorist adventure, like the tragic history of the Estonian armed uprising of December 1924, was an outburst of despair resulting from a false orientation. The fact that these attempts to rape the historical process by means of a putsch were left without a critical investigation led to a relapse in Canton towards the end of 1927. In politics not even the smallest mistakes pass unpunished, much less the big ones. And the greatest mistake is to cover up mistakes, seeking mechanically to suppress criticism and a correct Marxist evaluation of the mistakes’. [43]

Writing in September 1930, Trotsky analysed the new right turn, which followed the sharp left turn in 1928: ‘What has called forth the turns of the Communist International since the death of Lenin? The changes in the objective situation? No. It can be said with confidence: beginning with 1923, not a single tactical turn was made in time, under the influence of correctly estimated changes in the objective conditions...On the contrary: every turn was the result of the unbearable sharpening of the contradictions between the line of the Comintern and the objective situation. We are witnessing the very same thing this time, too.’ [44]



14. Quoted in Politisk Revy, no.214, 2 February 1973.

15. Fowkes, op. cit., p.82.

16. Ibid., p.83.

17. L.D. Trotsky, Letter to the Congress of the French Communist Party, First Five Years..., Vol.2, p.179.

18. Ibid., p.170.

19. L.D. Trotsky, Report on the Fourth Congress of the CI, ibid., p.325.

20. Ibid., p324.

21. New Left Review, no.105.

22. L.D. Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin, p.95.

23. See A. Thalheimer, 1923: Eine Verpasste Revolution?, available today from the political continuation of the Brandler current, the Gruppe Arbeiterpolitik.

24. The notes to First Five Years ..., Vol.1, describe the Brandlerites as ‘a centrist movement headed for the camp of the bourgeoisie’ (p.403). Whilst Jay Lovestone ended up thus, Brandler inspired groupings in both halves of Germany after the Second World War, holding the same views as before. And SWP (US) and WRP publications refer to Meyer, Walcher et al as ‘Brandlerites’, after they had broken politically from Brandler. Presumably this falsification results from the said individuals having disagreed with Trotsky during the period concerned. This is the method of a cult.

25. L.D. Trotsky, Notes on Discussions with Trotsky, 17-20 August 1933, Oeuvres, 2.

26. Ibid.

27. Cited in L.D. Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin, p.103.

28. Ibid., p.100.

29. Ibid., p.102.

30. Ibid., p.101.

31. Ibid., p.104, cited from his Where is Britain Going?

32. Ibid., p.105.

33. See R Leviné-Meyer, Inside German Communism, p.76.

34. Ibid., p.87.

35. Ibid., p.91.

36. Ibid., pp.108-24.

37. Ibid., p.113.

38. Ibid.

39. Ibid., p.121.

40. Fowkes, op. cit., p.142. These arguments are set out from Meyer’s viewpoint in Leviné-Meyer.

41. L.D. Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin, pp.125-6.

42. Ibid., p.124.

43. Ibid., p.118.

44. L.D. Trotsky, The Communist International and the Situation in Germany, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, p.9.

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