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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.

The ultra-left turn

In February 1928 the ninth ECCI plenum announced the new turn. Stability was at an end, and a new rise of revolutionary struggle was predicted. Social democracy was declared as an enemy, but its left wing as the most dangerous. Economically this was nonsense, as 1928 was still experiencing the boom of the mid-1920s. Nobody foresaw the 1929 crash. Politically this shift owed itself to the shift of the Stalinist faction in internal Soviet policies. Stalin broke with the right in the RCP and began the ‘collectivisation’ and a series of five year plans, thereby undercutting the Left Opposition.

Centre group leaders at the plenum (Ewert and Eisler – Meyer was ill) were pressed into signing a resolution criticising ‘right deviations’. Indulgence towards the right was seen as the main danger in the KPD. This represented an attack upon Brandler and his supporters, but was equally an attack upon themselves. Ironically, Brandler himself was treated regally in the USSR, given key posts, etc. His prestige was needed, and he refused to renounce his views.

The ‘United Front from below’ was reintroduced by Lozovsky at the Fourth Congress of the Red International of Labour Unions in March. Strikes were to be led by Communists ‘without the permission and against the wishes of the reformist leaders’. Heckert from the KPD attacked Lozovsky’s policies as implying a splitting of the unions. Thälmann had already criticised ‘right deviations’ in the KPD trade union department, picking out Enderle in particular.

In July, the Sixth Congress of the CI was held. The new turn was developed. The post-war stabilisation was said to be ending, and the ‘Third Period’ opening up, which would ‘lead inevitably to the most severe intensifications of the general capitalist crisis’. This necessitated iron discipline in the CPs, a sharp struggle against Social Democracy, and especially its left wing, the United Front from below, etc. Ewert tried to moderate the consequences of this turn, but he was isolated. The ECCI declared in favour of the Thälmann group. The ‘conciliators’ – as Meyer’s grouping was now called, because of its attempt to work with the left and hold it in check – were still strong in the CC and the Political Secretariat of the KPD, but the final resolution criticising ‘right deviations’, and ‘indulgence’ towards them, represented the beginning of the end for those refusing to submit to the wisdom of Stalin.

Quite by chance, a minor scandal almost aborted these plans. Wittorf, the Hamburg district political director, a relation and drinking crony of Thälmann, was discovered to have swindled 3000 marks from the party, which Thälmann had covered up. The issue was exposed in the organ of the Leninbund (Fischer-Maslow-Urbahns). After an investigation by Eberlein the politburo recommended the CC to suspend Thälmann, which it did on 26 September. However, the politbureau was summoned to Moscow and told by the ECCI reverse its decision. The politbureau voted to re-admit Thälmann to the leadership, but three members abstained (Eberlein, Ewert and Susskind). Soon after Eberlein was dropped from the politburo and Susskind was replaced as editor of Die Rote Fahne by Heinz Neumann. The ‘conciliators’, who had almost succeeded in a palace coup, were then purged out of many party positions.

The ECCI discussed Germany in November, and Meyer called for it to send an ‘Open Letter’ against leftism in the KPD. Such a letter was sent in December, but it was directed against the right and the ‘conciliators’. It demanded the capitulation of the ‘conciliators’. Rightists in the ECCI tried to prevent the expulsion of the right from the KPD. However, Stalin made a speech to the Presidium claiming that the KPD right was fighting the CI and, among other things, he developed the idea that Communists should turn towards the unorganised workers,’who were more revolutionary’. He also said that ‘parallel mass associations of the working class might be necessary’. [45]

Critical thought removed from the KPD

Eight leading rightists were expelled from the KPD, among them Walcher, Frolich and Enderle. The right held a national conference at the end of December and set up the KPO (Communist Party of Germany – Opposition). At the end of January 1929 Brandler and Thalheimer were expelled from the Russian party. Brandler had told Stalin that he intended to return to Germany in order to fight the new turn. [46] By March 1929 all rightists had been removed from the KPD. The ‘conciliators’ were neutralised. By abandoning the right they undercut themselves. Some were absorbed into the Thälmann faction.

Tomsky, a leading rightist and Soviet TUC leader, was removed from his post in late 1928, which assisted the new line to flower fully. In April 1929 the RGO (Red Trade Union Opposition) was declared by Thälmann to be ‘the central point of our work’. The RGO was to rival the ADGB.

A ban on street demonstrations was in force in May 1929, but the KPD went ahead with its own 1 May demonstration in Berlin. It resulted in the deaths of 25 KPD supporters, and hundreds wounded. The SPD police chief was blamed by the KPD, which then made the whole party responsible.

This period saw many such irresponsible adventures by the CI world-wide: there were international ‘days of action’, etc, where the party supporters engaged in events as a minority, only to suffer harsh repression. The repression in Berlin served to alienate further Communists from the SPD supporters, and was used as evidence for the ‘Social-Fascist nature of Social Democracy’.

The KPD’s Twelfth Congress was held soon after in June. ‘The one dissident member elected to the Congress, a worker called Luttich, from Halle, was forced to abandon his speech owing to constant interruptions.’ [47] The bastions of the right and opponents of the new line had been reorganised. Thälmann delivered the political report. He noted the rise of the Nazis, but concluded that the Social Democracy was the biggest threat. He saw the German coalition under Muller (SPD), and the British Labour government as examples of ‘an especially dangerous form of Fascist development, the form of Social Fascism ... (which paves) the way for Fascist dictatorship.’ [48] Lots of radical rhetoric characterised the congress. The KPD was said to be breaking into SPD support, and the latter was weakening. This was self-deception. The KPD membership was in fact falling. Significantly, it had a massive turnover too. It could not create cadres. Instead, it demoralised the workers who went through it.

The Centre group presented a platform to the congress, but it made no impact on delegates ‘hand-picked (and) chosen for their ignorance’. It was ‘doomed in advance’. In the end the ‘conciliators’ had to declare their support for party policy. Meyer preferred to stay in the party in order to provide an alternative once Thälmann et al had been proved bankrupt, even if it meant silence for a while. He rejected joining Brandler, who had assembled a significant force and was operating independently. However, the capitulation of the Centre did them no good, since all were removed from the CC. Meyer died some months later. Leadership of the KPD was firmly in the hands of Thälmann, Remmele and Neumann, and this group was to steer it towards its destruction in 1933, minus Neumann, who realised the danger at the eleventh hour. No further congresses occurred.

The rise of the Nazis

The year 1929 saw the Nazis making large gains in the elections. The KPD membership, from 112,500 – the lowest since the 1919 split and subsequent fusion – began to grow under the impact of the economic and political crisis. Then the ECCI took a slight turn to the right in February 1930. The KPD was to undertake work in the reformist unions on the basis of the ‘United Front from below’. A differentiation was made between the SPD leaders and the ranks. The threat from Fascism was recognised. The KPD began to adapt to the Nazi demagogy, and it promoted a call for ‘national liberation’. However, elections to the Reichstag in September showed a massive increase of Nazi support (from 810,100 to 6,409,000), while the KPD vote went from 3,264,800 to 4,592,100, and the SPD vote dropped from 9,153,000 to 8,577,700.

According to the KPD leaders, the elections were a triumph for them, the Nazis had peaked, and from now on they could only decline. The Nazi threat should not be ‘overestimated’ said Thälmann. The polarisation meant that Chancellor Brüning had to govern increasingly by decree, that is, above parliament. For the KPD it was just another Fascist government. It had previously declared the Muller government as Fascist. The KPD engaged in street fights with the SA (storm troops), whereas before the February plenum it had fought the Social Democrats.

Owing to the rise of the Nazis, the SPD decided to ‘tolerate’ the Brüning government. The Nazis concentrated their attack on the Prussian state government run by the SPD. Together with other reactionary forces they launched a referendum to oust it. At first the KPD opposed the idea, but then the ECCI intervened and the KPD decided to support it. In the event, insufficient votes were gained, many Communists not voting themselves. The slogan of ‘People’s Revolution’ and a turn towards the peasantry also appeared in 1931. The eleventh ECCI plenum in March-April 1931 talked of the need to correct ‘errors arising from the liberal idea of a basic difference between Fascism and bourgeois democracy’. Thälmann insisted that the SPD had first to be removed from the scene, to defeat the Nazis.

Meanwhile, Trotsky campaigned through his writings for a United Front of workers’ organisations to combat Fascism. The Brandlerists and the SAP also favoured such a tactic. The SAP had been formed by some left wing deputies expelled from the SPD for demanding a United Front, and some youth sectors. In December 1931 the SPD leaders, under pressure, built the ‘Iron Front’, a mass organisation opposed to the Fascists, formed around the Reichsbanner, including youth and some republican organisations.

The crisis sharpened in 1932. Unemployment reached 5 million. In March, new elections took place for the presidency. The SPD decided to give Hindenburg support, in the face of the Fascist threat. He obtained 49.6 per cent of the vote, Hitler had 30.1 per cent, Thälmann 13.2 per cent (almost 5 million), and Dusterberg, the Stalhelm leader, 6.8 per cent. In the second round Dusterberg withdrew in favour of Hitler, who obtained 36.8 per cent of the vote, while Thälmann dropped to 10.2 per cent (losing more than 1 million votes), with Hindenburg obtaining 53 per cent.

The fall of the Prussian government

At the end of May Hindenburg pressed Brüning to resign. He appointed Franz Von Papen as Chancellor to form a government ‘above parties’. Papen called new elections for 31 July. On 17 July, the Nazis staged a march through Altona, a working class suburb of Hamburg. The KPD resisted the provocation by barricade building and positioning marksmen in strategic places. The result was a bloody battle. Although the Nazis had been provided with a police escort, Papen used the law and order excuse to depose the SPD Prussian state government.

Workers waited for the SPD leadership to call them into action. However, while calling on them to ‘prepare themselves for a decisive fight’, it warned them ‘to beware of rash actions’. [49] Meanwhile the SPD would appeal to the Supreme Court about Papen’s violation of the Constitution. Brandt points out that such an attitude demoralised the workers. He says: ‘We – and not only we – expected the Social Democratic Party to mobilise the masses for the defence of their last stronghold’. [50] The KPD called for a general strike, but nobody responded. Remembering its previous United Front with the Nazis to remove the same government, the workers were somewhat cynical. Both main workers’ parties could only demoralise the workers.

The July election gave the Nazis 13,745,800 votes, making them the largest Reichstag party. The SPD obtained 7,959,700 votes, and the KPD rose slightly to 5,282,600 votes. The KPD boasted of its success, but Hitler was the victor. The Nazi vote had more than doubled in less than 18 months. Then the Nazis moved a censure of the Papen government, so the Reichstag was dissolved and new elections were called for 6 November. Neumann was removed from the KPD leadership for calling for it to direct its main fire against the Nazis. The ECCI backed Thälmann. Social Democracy was still the main enemy.

Periodically, the KPD defied the logic of its view that Fascism and ‘Social Fascism’ (Social Democracy) were equal, and appealed for a United Front. It did so before the ‘Red Referendum’, putting conditions it knew were unacceptable, and then constituted a United Front with the Nazis. Then on 20 July, when Papen dissolved the Prussian government, the KPD call for a general strike organised with the reformist organisations was illogical. If all the governments were ‘Fascist’, why prefer one over the other, and why form a front to stop the Fascists if they are already in power?

Trotsky’s view

Trotsky analysed the various governments rigorously as varying forms of pre-Fascist Bonapartism. He ridiculed the Stalinist arguments and attempted to answer them so that the workers would understand. He made the point that unlike the various Bonapartist figures ‘tolerated’ by the SPD, Hitler doesn’t need that ‘toleration’, ‘but the abolition of the Social Democracy’. In order to break the resistance of the proletariat, one must smash all its organisations. But the Social Democrat leaders are such cowardly traitors, say the KPD leaders. Yes, says Trotsky, but Hitler threatens their role, livelihood and very existence. Surely the most cowardly bureaucrats fear for their future?

He used the example of the cowardly Jewish bourgeoisie in Tsarist Russia. They gave money to arm the revolutionaries, in order to defend the Jews from the pogromists:

It is not hard to grasp the difference between a Jewish manufacturer who tips the Czarist policeman to beat the strikers and the same manufacturer who turns over money to the strikers of yesterday to obtain arms against the pogromists. [51]

Trotsky’s point is: ‘... from the change in the situation there results a change in relations’. [52] He rejected the moralising arguments of the Stalinists for dialectical logic, and utilised the analogy of the bloc with Kerensky against Kornilov. He quoted Lenin:

It would have been the most profound error to think that the revolutionary proletariat is capable, so to speak, out of “revenge” upon the SRs and Mensheviks for their support of the crushing of the Bolsheviks, the assassinations on the front, and the disarming of the workers, of “refusing” to support them against the counter-revolution. Such a way of putting the question would have meant, first of all, the carrying over of petty bourgeois conceptions of morality into the proletariat (because for the good of the cause the proletariat will always support not only the vacillating petty bourgeoisie but also the big bourgeoisie); in the second place, it would have been – and this is most important – a petty bourgeois attempt to cast a shadow, by “moralising” over the political essence of the matter. [53]
It is precisely “petty bourgeois moralising” which Thälmann and Co engage in when, in justification of their own turn, they begin to enumerate the countless infamies committed by the leaders of the Social Democracy. [54]

Trotsky and the Marxist method

What is outstanding in these pamphlets and articles on Germany by Trotsky is not just his sharp analysis, his devastating criticism and logic, and his programmatic direction, but also his demonstration in action of the Marxist method. In The Only Road, he points out that the KPD leaders ‘confine themselves to a purely psychological, or more exactly, to a purely moral evaluation’ of the reformist leaders. ‘Can we actually assume that these inveterate traitors would separate themselves from the bourgeoisie and oppose it?’, he asks. Then he answers his own question:

Such an idealist method has very little in common with Marxism, which proceeds not from what people think about themselves or what they desire but from the conditions in which they are placed and from the changes which these conditions will undergo. [55]

Thälmann wrote – in a pamphlet claiming ‘mightily the anti-Fascist United Front rushes ahead’ (which appeared days before the KPD call for a general strike to protest against Papen’s dismissal of the Prussian government, which nobody answered) – in imagined dialogue with SPD supporters: ‘...the Social Democracy will at no moment give up its actual thoughts of coalition and its compacts with the Fascist bourgeoisie’. Trotsky comments: ‘Even if this were right, there would nevertheless remain the task of proving it to the Social Democratic workers through experience’. [56] Then Trotsky points out that even if the reformists do not want to abandon compacts with the bourgeoisie, they, in turn, do abandon compacts with the Social Democracy. The bourgeoisie, once Hitler comes to power, will do away with the reformists. It will not require them, and Hitler must annihilate them. Therefore, he argues: ‘United Front policy at the present time must proceed from the concern of the Social Democracy for its own hide.’ [57]

Trotsky’s method is materialist and dialectical, whereas that of Thälmann and Stalin is idealist and formalist. Hence the empirical zig-zags. Petty bourgeois moralism flows from such an anti-Marxist method. Trotsky analysed objective reality, including workers’ consciousness, and basing himself on this he formulated his policy, always bearing in mind material necessity and revolutionary possibilities. His method demonstrates the dialectical totality of the revolutionary process: the mutual interaction of the objective and the subjective factors.

The Transitional Programme is the highest expression of this method. The demands must arise out of rigorous analysis of reality. They link up the struggle in this reality, and take it towards the final goal. The subjective (the conscious vanguard and its programme) interacts with the objective (the material situation, including the consciousness of the masses), and in the process of this interaction changes occur: the working class is organised as a class, it begins to attain an awareness of its class interests, it changes thereafter the objective situation; the subjective factor changes its demands as the balance of forces changes and it becomes a material force (and thus a part of the objective situation). The revolutionary process requires a unity of the objective and the subjective. If a separation takes place we see precisely the lurches to the right or left described above, and mixtures of both.

Marxism and the United Front

In What Next, Vital Questions for the German Proletariat, Trotsky explains the United Front:

To fight, the proletariat must have unity in its ranks. This holds true for partial economic conflicts within the walls of a single factory, as well as for such “national” political battles as the one to repel Fascism. Consequently the tactic of the United Front is not something accidental and artificial – a cunning manoeuvre not at all; it originates, entirely and wholly, in the objective conditions governing the development of the proletariat. The words in the Communist Manifesto which state that the Communists are not to be opposed to the proletariat, that they have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole, carry with them the meaning that the struggle of the party to win over the majority of the class must in no instance come into opposition with the need of the workers to keep unity within their fighting ranks. [58]

Not only is Trotsky restating Karl Marx, it is a reiteration of the method employed by Rosa Luxemburg and the original leadership kernel of the KPD in the period following her death until the takeover by the Fischer-Maslow group. Luxemburg stressed this at the KPD foundation congress, which saw the mature Marxists outnumbered by newly radicalised workers and youth. Her speeches and the programmatic What does the Spartacus League Want? express this idea.

Paul Levi developed transitional politics upon taking over the leadership and ridding the party of the semi-Anarchists. Incidentally, Trotsky evaluates Levi in What Next, recalling Lenin saying: ‘The man has lost his head entirely’, but adding: ‘He, at least, had something to lose; one can’t even say that about the others’ tie the ‘revolutionary offensive’ leftists). Trotsky adds: ‘No one can deny that Paul Levi had a head on his shoulders’. [59] (It is necessary to point this out because in most would-be Trotskyist groupings it became the norm to repeat the crude denigration of Levi, whereas he was proved right by history, except for his hasty publication of Unser Weg).

Trotsky explains the role of the party thus:

The progress of a class towards class consciousness, that is, the building of a revolutionary party which leads the proletariat, is a complex and contradictory process. The class itself is not homogenous. Its different sections arrive at class consciousness by different paths and at different times. The bourgeoisie participates actively in this process. Within the working class, it creates its own institutions, or utilises those already existing, in order to oppose certain strata of workers to others. Within the proletariat several parties are active at the same time. Therefore, for the greater part of its historical journey, it remains split politicaliy. The problem of the United Front – which arises during certain periods most sharply – originates therein.
The historical interests of the proletariat find their expression in the Communist Party – when its policies are correct. The task of the Communist Party consists in winning over the majority of the proletariat; and only thus is the socialist revolution made possible. [60]

But, he points out, ‘the interests of the proletariat and the aims of the party (although identical in principle, doesn’t guarantee) that the party under all conditions formulates them correctly’. And the party can’t demand the right to lead the proletariat. No, ‘the task of the party consists in learning, from experience derived from the struggle, how to demonstrate to the proletariat its right to leadership’. [61]

Bluff and paralysis

This period saw the KPD, through its RGO, trying to lead strikes independently of the ADGB unions, and putting up its own ‘red lists’, including the unorganised, for positions in the workplaces. It carried out adventures which isolated and weakened it. Unemployment reduced its political weight in the factories. By 1932, ‘possibly 85 per cent’ [62] of its members were unemployed. The factories were a battle ground, with private police, detective agencies (Pinkerton), spies, etc, all operating against the KPD. Not only that, but the Nazi yellow union (NSBO) also operated, and the SA established their barracks near the large factories. Employers gave rewards for information on militants and distributors or writers of factory bulletins. In this situation the RGO was self-defeating. Inevitably, it led to breakaway unions, as the bureaucracy was handed excuses for expelling ‘troublemakers’, etc.

The 6 November election saw the Nazi vote drop by 2 million, while the SPD vote dropped slightly and the KPD gained (5,980,000 votes). The aggregate vote of the two workers’ parties was more than the Nazi vote. This demonstrated that the petty bourgeois vote was now absorbed by the Nazis, but also that a sector of their vote had lost faith and abandoned them. Industrialists had reduced their contributions to the Nazis.

Papen resigned and Hindenburg appointed General Schleicher as Chancellor. Trotsky commented: ‘Bonapartism assumed its purest form in the person of General Schleicher’. [63] Schleicher attempted to form another government ‘above parties’. However, he lasted less than two months, and Hindenburg appointed Hitler as Chancellor on 30 January 1933. Trotsky explained Schleicher’s fall thus: ‘Bonapartism cannot attain stability so long as the camp of revolution and the camp of counter-revolution have not measured their forces in battle’. [64] The government was a coalition. The nationalist leader Hugenberg was the key figure, Papen was Vice-Chancellor, and the Nazis were only given three cabinet posts. The bourgeoisie needed the Nazis to crush the workers, but hoped to keep them in check.

A United Front was still possible, insisted Trotsky. The rise of Hitler was a ‘fearful blow’, but not ‘a decisive or an irrevocable defeat’. The proletariat was in retreat, he said. It could turn into a rout, but a United Front for active defence could still turn the tide. The struggle for workers’ control (prices, wages, business secrets, etc) could become the focus for the United Front. The RGO should enter the ADGB unions, the Communists should uphold the rules, the employed and the unemployed should be united, and the local defence organisations should be built, with a national congress uniting them (in many cases local groups already existed).

The leaders of the workers’ movement let them down. The SA staged a march on the KPD headquarters, Karl Leibknecht House in Bülow Platz. Eventually the party decided not to resist, and this demoralised the members further, seeing the brown shirts in Berlin’s ‘red’ centre. On 30 January the KPD had shifted line and called for a general strike, together with the ADGB and the Christian unions. The response was patchy.

Meanwhile, the SPD leaders were blocking action by their supporters, owing to Hitler’s constitutional appointment. Willy Brandt describes how the local workers reacted to the arrest of Julius Leber, editor of the Lübeck Volksboten, Reichstag deputy and SPD leader in the city: ‘The workers of Lübeck were highly incensed. In every factory they met and demanded the proclamation of a general strike in order to enforce Leber’s release. I was a member of a delegation that was to present those demands to the chairman of the local branch of the Free Trade Unions. When we put our resolution on his table, he refused even to read it and asked us to take it back at once. Did we not know the law?’ [65] Brandt tells that the strike did take place later, and that on 19 February Lübeck saw one of the most powerful demonstrations in the history of the city. Fifteen thousand gathered on the Burgfeld. Leber was released.

Hitler persuaded Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag and call new elections for 5 March. The KPD prepared itself for the elections passively expecting to increase its vote. Trotsky forecast that this election, if it ever took place, would be the decisive moment. If the government failed to get a majority its game was up. If it did obtain one, the workers would see it as a ‘signal for a decisive move against Fascism’. He thought that the Nazis would see the need to make a coup before the election, but doubted their capacity or will to do so, owing to the petty bourgeois nature of the party, and its need of its reactionary allies.

In a way Trotsky was correct. The elections did take place, but weren’t democratic, and the Nazis didn’t seize power, but were given it constitutionally. He erred in believing that the workers’ parties wouldn’t surrender without a fight. On 27 February the Nazis set the Reichstag alight, blaming it on the KPD. The next day Hindenburg suspended those sections of the Constitution guaranteeing civil liberties. Thousands of SPD and KPD leaders were arrested. Only the Nazis and the Nationalists were allowed to campaign for the election.

However, the Nazis still failed to attain a majority, and they never succeeded in winning influence within the working class. The SPD vote dropped slightly, whereas the KPD lost 1¼ million. The workers’ parties mustered over 12 million votes in an atmosphere of open terror. The Nazi vote had risen to 17 million (43.9 per cent).

On 23 March Hitler requested dictatorial power from the new Reichstag, which required a two-thirds majority. He obtained this with conservative and liberal votes. That is, the parliamentary representatives of the bourgeoisie and the liberal professions voluntarily gave dictatorial power to the Nazis. Only the SPD deputies voted against, the KPD deputies being in prison or in flight. By the end of 1933 130,000 KPD members were in concentration camps, and 2,500 had already been murdered.


How could this catastrophe occur? How could this would-be revolutionary party, having 330,000 members at the end of 1932, capitulate without a fight, allowing the Nazis into power and opening up a period of reaction leading to world war? It is silly to claim that Stalin wished it, as some have claimed. ‘To think that (Stalin) had a “plan” to allow Fascism to come into power is absurd. It is a deification of Stalin.’ [66] No, the answer lies in the degeneration of the CI sections into centrism, and the consequent abandonment of the Marxist method.

Although developments in the USSR are outside the scope of this text, the degeneration of the October Revolution and its revolutionary party, and its influence on the CI, were to be decisive. The Russians dominated the CI owing to their having made the revolution, and the CI was thus seated there until victory was attained in Western Europe. The RCP had great power through its control of the ECCI, a worry expressed by Levi at the time. Leaders of other parties subordinated themselves to the Russians, either out of loyalty or because ‘they had made the revolution’.

The question of the quality of the people dominating the ECCI was a factor. Zinoviev, the focal point of the CI during its healthiest years, was a centrist windbag, a propagandiser of the ideas of others. His role in October 1917 is symptomatic. He vacillated. Bukharin, another ultra-left during those years, erred on all key issues (in his Testament, Lenin noted that Bukharin hadn’t mastered dialectics, a reason Trotsky gives for his later shift to realpolitik). Radek usually had a feel for European politics, and he was often right on German affairs, but he was a junior figure, not being on the RCP Politbureau. Trotsky would have been a better figure, but his talents were utilised elsewhere (in the early years he wrote most of the key documents). Many of the other figures were the second-rate exiles to whom Levi referred, who had aborted revolutions elsewhere (Finland, Hungary, etc).

But in the last analysis, personalities are secondary; the lack of a revolution in Western Europe, and the isolation of Russia, could only result in a reaction, the development of conservative tendencies and a bureaucracy; and, inevitably, that bureaucracy would find a political expression in the party, other parties being banned. This faction would dominate as long as no revolutionary events occurred which brought relief to the USSR, which could give sustenance to the proletarian faction. Internationalism wasn’t a lofty idea for the proletarian faction. It was a material necessity for its survival.

The personalities in the KPD leadership were important, too, but not decisive. By the time the KPD went under, it had been dominated for four years by the Stalinist faction. The Right had been expelled, the Centre had been eliminated or absorbed, and other dissident currents had gone long before. Almost every one from the original Spartakusbund nucleus had gone. A few remained (Eberlein, Pleck, Heckert), but the KPD was effectively led by Moscow’s mouthpieces, not people capable, or willing, to make independent judgements. The 1923 events gave an impetus to reaction in the USSR and the CI, leading to an impatience and to attempts to find other routes to overthrowing capitalism. The patient task of winning the majority of the workers through transitional politics was replaced by opportunist and adventurist zig-zags.

The two German historians referred to above (Heilmann and Rabehl) claim that ‘one can establish the moment when the KPD abandoned the ground of Marxism’. [67] They situate this in the immediate period after the Levi leadership’s resignation. They have analysed an enormous quantity of documentation: all the KPD congress minutes, those of the ECCI, etc. They see the resistance to a correct evaluation of the situation as a stabilisation, as a direct result of the fusion with the USPD left. The March Action followed, as the Brandler leadership was pressed into an adventure by this left. The CI’s Third Congress combatted that aberration and set the KPD back on the track of winning the majority. But although the practical tasks were correct on paper, they were based on a wrong analysis of the situation. The KPD denied stabilisation, and insisted that the situation was still ‘objectively revolutionary’, and it ‘sharpened’ the analysis of the Third Congress, which had left dangerous loop-holes after the compromise. It continued in this vein well into 1925.

What existed here was a divorce of practical activity from the analysis it should have been based upon. The dialectical relationship between the two was broken. The work was thus in reality empirical. Thus it shifted, now towards ultraleftism, then rightwards. Sometimes the two were combined.

It is unhelpful to focus on October 1923, to argue whether revolution was possible or not. Analysis indicates that this could have been the case in the summer, but by October it wasn’t the case. In the summer the KPD was becoming the major party in the factory councils, and in the unions lower down, but by October the non-Communist workers were becoming satisfied with their lot again. The change in their material circumstances in turn changed their consciousness.

Possibly, the feeling of defeat and demoralisation could have been avoided by adopting a defensive tactic, as proposed by Thalheimer, instead of the conspiratorial uprising planned by the CI. Was such a method applicable to Western Europe? The Jacobin element in Bolshevism sprang from Russian conditions: absolutism, lack of democratic illusions, etc. In Western Europe, the winning of the majority cannot occur through conspiracies.

The above-quoted discussions from 1933 between Jakob Walcher and Trotsky give the key. Nobody in the KPD or the CI leadership realised what effects the invasion of the Ruhr by French and Belgian troops in January 1923 would have. The changing objective conditions were not evaluated, nor was a perspective projected. The leadership became aware of the new situation once the workers were launching themselves into struggles for their very survival. Walcher pointed out that ‘the scissors opened wide between the policy of the party and reality’. This point by Walcher is important. It illustrates, again, the essentially empirical method involved.

In his critique delivered to the CI’s Sixth Congress, Trotsky pointed out that the turn made after the belated recognition of stabilisation in 1925 wasn’t based on a scientific investigation of the 1923 defeat, nor on an analysis of the new objective conditions, but on a purely empirical shift provoked by fright. What we see in fact is a slide into centrism.

This epoch – the epoch of imperialism – is one of the ‘actuality of the revolution’. Having said that, it doesn’t mean as the ultra-left thought – that it is actual at every moment, regardless of objective and subjective conditions, but that when these conditions are present, at certain moments, it becomes, not only a material possibility, but a necessity too, whereas, in previous epochs, it was merely an idea. Therefore, the Second International’s parties split their programmes into a maximum and a minimum programme, which led to the day-to-day tasks often having no relation to the long-term goal. Marxism, however, bases itself on the day-today tasks always leading towards the long-term goal.

To be able to attain the final goal the objective conditions must be present. Equally, the subjective conditions must exist. For a programme to become a material force it must link in with the consciousness of the masses, in order then to change it. Recognising that being determines consciousness, one must of necessity determine the conditions creating the consciousness, in order to link up with it and change it. Therefore, rigorous analysis is necessary.

Empirical determination of tactics is ‘trial and error’. Opportunism of a right or left variety allows the masses to retain illusions in the misleaders. Sectarian propagandism and self-proclamation, coupled with fierce denunciation of opponents, only results in isolation and impotence. Again, it rescues the misleaders by giving them excuses for not engaging in joint work. All these manifestations of centrism occur because of giving up the Marxist method: separating the day-to-day tasks from the long-term goal.

The crisis of the Second International resulted in a struggle within it between revolutionary, centrist, and reformist currents. The decline of the Second International was an historical process linked to the material developments of the previous epoch, of the spread and development of capitalism. In a non-revolutionary period a tendency developed which strove to develop a theory which would justify the practice carried out. This was revisionism. Another tendency fought it, to maintain the fiction of a revolutionary theory, while adapting to existing society. This was the ‘orthodox centre’ (centrism). A revolutionary tendency emerged which fought both these departures from Marxism.

In Germany the latter tendency was represented by the strands which came together in the KPD: the Spartakists and Bremen Radicals. Their fight within the SPD resulted from their having grasped the need to break the workers from their traditional ideas and leaders through experience. Their struggle against the ‘Centre’ and its separation of the day-to-day tasks from the long-term aim made them aware of how to apply this method in German conditions.

The abandonment of the United Front and the workers’ government tactic are, in fact, manifestations of a one-sided, undialectical method. In seeking a majority, one must appear as favouring unity in the eyes of non-Communist workers. One must also seek to change their consciousness through experience. The diffusion of ideas only changes the consciousness of individuals. The United Front ‘from below’ is no United Front. It is asking workers to break with their existing leaders as a precondition for unity. It is sectarian and self-defeating, as what is required for those workers is agreement with the Communists, to stay in their party, and to exercise pressure for unity. By leaving, they only aid their misleaders. The same applies to the workers’ government. By posing a revolutionary workers’ government, as an alternative, or posing that the workers’ government is only a synonym for the proletariat dictatorship, one assists those opposed to workers experiencing their own government; one avoids exposing their traitors.

Trotsky explains the method: ‘the tactic of the United not...a cunning originates, entirely and wholly, in the objective conditions governing the development of the proletariat’. [68] He paraphrases the Communist Manifesto: ‘the Communists have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole’. The ultimata delivered by Thälmann to the German reformist leaders were described by Trotsky as ‘holding a pistol to the heads of the working class’. He saw this method as ‘formalistic, administrative and bureaucratic (which) supplants the dialectic’. [69]

Another example of the abandonment of the transitional method was the way Thälmann posed the issue of joint planning and trade with the USSR after the revolution. Trotsky, following the transitional method, posed these things during the struggle, as demands which could realise a United Front, drawing in the unemployed in the process, uniting them with the employed, and linking up with technicians and engineers too, in the fight to end business secrets, and to reopen the factories. Thälmann’s method was to pose this in the manner of a ‘maximum’ demand.

Trotsky’s conclusion

The definitive nature of the defeat in Germany was recognised by Trotsky immediately. In The Tragedy of the German Proletariat: The German Workers Will Rise Again – Stalinism Never!, he describes how the Stalinists deceived, demoralised and disorientated the workers, paralysing their initiatives towards the United Front, and how KPD members became unaccustomed to thinking (in the early 1930s, the KPD membership turned over at the rate of 70 per cent per annum – average membership lasted a few months, and these workers became demoralised; in such conditions no cadres can be trained and an ossified leadership develops, isolated from the class). In the next period – he explained – ‘before decisive battles will become possible, the proletarian vanguard will have to re-orient itself; ... it will have to understand what has happened, assign the responsibility for the great historic defeat, trace out the new road, and thus regain confidence in itself.’ [70]

He noted that the ECCI had dropped ‘Social-Fascism’ and similar stupidities about Social Democracy, and was now offering a United Front to it, but that it occurred ‘by way of a bureaucratic revelation. Not a single national congress, no international congress, nor even a plenum of the ECCI; no preparation in the press of the party, no analysis of the policy of the past’. [71]

Trotsky viewed the KPD as dead, owing to its attitude to the defeat. A new German party was required. Some had been saying this for a while, but others disagreed. They noted the workers’ vanguard still loyally adhering to the KPD.

In fact, the KPD moved into illegality and organised resistance. Owing to the totally erroneous understanding of the Hitler regime, which the CI saw as a ‘temporary phenomenon’, the KPD engaged in activity which led to the Nazis rolling up layer after layer of leading cadre and activists. After attempting to build a trade union organisation, it decided to enter the Nazi organisations to work within them. During the whole period of the Nazi regime the KPD carried out resistance work. Cadre emerging from concentration camps began again, and although suffering enormous persecution, the party came out of the War as a considerable force. One must reject the myth that the KPD died in 1933. It only lost its broad base in the late 1940s, owing to the Cold War and events in the Occupied East Zone.

The ECCI finally pronounced itself on the German events on 7 April. The line of the KPD had been ‘completely correct up to and during Hitler’s coup d’etat’. Trotsky, stressing the need for ‘courageous criticism’, ridiculed this talk, pointing out that:

For the last four years, in fact up to 5 March 1933, we heard day in and day out that a mighty anti-Fascist front was growing uninterruptedly in Germany, that National Socialism was retreating and disintegrating, and that the whole situation was under the aegis of the revolutionary offensive. How could a policy have been correct when the whole analysis on which it was based was knocked over like a house of cards? [72]

By July Trotsky became convinced that not only was a new German party necessary, but a new International too. He was led to this conclusion by the response, or lack of one, by the other CI sections, to the above-quoted ECCI assessment. That such a historic defeat of a decisive nature could take place, and be written off without any investigation, was a sign of the utmost degeneration. An organisation which first succumbs to Fascism in such a way, and then seeks to ignore the fact, was, he felt, obviously ‘dead for the purpose of revolution’. This view would be adopted by the Left Opposition, which now set itself up as a separate entity competing for leadership, rather than a faction trying to reform the CI from without. New parties and a new International were to be built. The workers would see that the CI had proved its bankruptcy in deeds, and thus see the need for the Fourth International.

Final words

The largest Communist Party out of the Soviet Union was smashed without a fight. Nazism gained power without a fight. In Austria and Spain the workers fought, even under equally inadequate leaderships. The responsibility in Germany rested upon the two main leaderships, but especially the Communist one. Its degeneration, like that of the SPD before it, arose from material circumstances. A Marxist leadership was destroyed, and a centrist one replaced it. It wasn’t the lack of an understanding of Marxism to begin with, but events that served to divert it from the Marxist method. Pressures came from a degenerating Communist International, centred in a degenerating USSR. Pressures came from within the KPD (the ex-USPD left), and from the class. Ultra-leftism and opportunism arise from material pressures, but they can be overcome in a healthy organism. However, they can become crystallised into a distinct method when the class pressure impelling them is stronger than the one combatting them. Centrist deviations become centrism .

Mike Jones



45. J.V. Stalin, Works, Vol.11, pp.307-24.

46. New Left Review, no.105.

47. Fowkes, op. cit., p.154.

14. Ibid.

49. W. Brandt, My Road to Berlin.

50. Ibid.

51. L.D. Trotsky, The Only Road, The Struggle Against Fascism ..., p.278.

52. Ibid.

53. L.D. Trotsky, Against National Communism, ibid., p.59.

54. Ibid.

55. L.D. Trotsky, The Only Road, ibid., p.276.

56. Ibid., p.283.

57. Ibid.

58. L.D. Trotsky, What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat, ibid., p.136.

59. Ibid., p1.79.

60. Ibid., p.134.

61. Ibid., p.136.

62. Fowkes, op. cit.

63. L.D. Trotsky, Before the Decision, The Struggle Against Fascism ..., p337.

64. Ibid.

65. Brandt, op. cit.

66. L.D. Trotsky, On the History of the Left Opposition, Writings 1938-39. This is a discussion between Trotsky and CLR James.

67. Die Legende ..., op. cit..

68. L.D. Trotsky, What Next?

69. Ibid..

70. L.D. Trotsky, The Tragedy of the German Proletariat: The German Workers Will Rise Again – Stalinism Never, The Struggle Against Fascism, p.379.

71. Ibid., p.386.

72. L.D. Trotsky, The Responsibility of the Leadership, Ibid., p.399.

Statement on the above article

We respond here to the article by Mike Jones, The KPD: From Revolutionary Marxism to Centrism: the Decline, Disorientation and Decomposition of a Leadership, published in the journal Revolutionary History, vol.2 no.3. Against Jones’ view of the history of the German Communist Party, which is based in part on Heinrich Brandler’s correspondence with Isaac Deutscher (published in New Left Review no.105, September/October 1977), it is necessary to assert that Leon Trotsky, unlike Deutscher in his later years, saw a revolutionary opportunity in the crisis provoked by the French invasion of the Ruhr in January 1923. In the massive strike wave of the spring and summer of 1923, the bulk of the German proletariat looked to the Communist Party to make the revolution – and the party defaulted. It was in explicit answer to Brandler’s defence of the temporising policy of the German leadership that Trotsky wrote in his 1924 seminal work Lessons of October:

... the leading comrades in the German party, in their attempt to explain away their retreat last year without striking a blow, especially emphasised the reluctance of the masses to fight. But the very crux of the matter lies in the fact that a victorious insurrection becomes, generally speaking, most assured when the masses have had sufficient experience not to plunge headlong into the struggle but to wait and demand a resolute and capable fighting leadership...The transition from an illusory, exuberant, elemental mood to a more critical and conscious frame of mind necessarily implies a pause in revolutionary continuity. Such a progressive crisis in the mood of the masses can be overcome only by a proper party policy, that is to say, above all by the genuine readiness and ability of the party to lead the insurrection of the proletariat. On the other hand, a party which carries on a protracted revolutionary agitation, tearing the masses away from the influence of the conciliationists, and then, after the confidence of the masses has been raised to the utmost, begins to vacillate, to split hairs, to hedge, and to temporise – such a party paralyses the activity of the masses, sows disillusion and disintegration among them, and brings ruin to the revolution; but in return it provides itself with the ready excuse – after the debacle that the masses were insufficiently active.

SAP leader Jakob Walcher’s notes on his conversation in France with Leon Trotsky of August 1933 report a discussion with Trotsky on the German October of 1923. Walcher’s notes, published in Volume 2 of the Oeuvres, were not reported to have been initialled by Trotsky himself. The discussion was in the context of the preparatory consultations for the Declaration of Four, which was an attempt to draw the centrist organisations of the newly formed London Bureau into a principled agreement around the necessity for building a new international – the Fourth International – after the 1933 German catastophe. The notes do not in any case constitute a repudiation of Trotsky’s 1924 analysis of the German events.

Defeat is ever an orphan while victory has many fathers. In answer to the essentially Brandlerite methodology which pervades the whole of Mike Jones’ article we can only quote again from Lessons of October:

It is not difficult to imagine how history would have been written, had the line of evading the battle carried in the Central Committee (of the Russian party). The official historians would, of course, have explained that an insurrection in October 1917 would have been sheer madness; and they would have furnished the reader with awe-inspiring statistical charts of the military cadets and the Cossacks and shock troops and artillery, in fan-like formation, and army corps arriving from the front. Never tested in the fire of insurrection, these forces would have seemed immeasurably more terrible than they proved in action. Here is the lesson which must be burned into the consciousness of every revolutionary!

The failure of the German party in 1923 accelerated the crystallisation of the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia and decisively shaped world history in the decades that followed. As we noted in Trotskyist Policies on the Second Imperialist War – Then and in Hindsight (introduction to Prometheus Research Series 2, Documents on the “Proletarian Military Policy”):

The political consciousness of all classes in Europe in the period following WWI was dominated by the victory of the proletarian revolution in Russia in 1917. The spectre of Bolshevism loomed very large for those European sectors that had even one piece of silver to rub between their grubby fingers. For these elements – those who gained the slightest material advantage from the status quo, those with ideological or religious connection to the bourgeois order – fear of Communism dictated necessarily pro-Fascist sympathies. After the military defeat in WWI of the most powerful European state, Germany, and especially after the failure of two successive proletarian revolutions in that country, the stage was set for Nazism, Germany’s virulent nationalism, to place itself at the head of European reaction.

International Communist League
(Fourth Internationalist)

Revolutionary History, Vol.2 No.3, Autumn 1989

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