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The New International, April 1943

Clara Werth

What About the German Revolution?

A Discussion Article


From The New International, Vol. IX No. 4, April 1943, pp. 106–109.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


It is time the German problems were studied. In the anti-Stalinist movement of all shadings, much energy has been spent on the “Russian question.” That is its enduring merit. In contrast to the semi- and three-fourths Stalinist groups and grouplets from the dustbin of the Comintern, the anti-Stalinist groupings, by the discussion of the Russian question, penetrated into all the problems of the modern European and international labor movement, the one that just perished and the one soon to rise, and contributed much to their solution.

But a positive hiatus in the study of the European labor movement is the failure to investigate the problems and crises of the German labor movement in the period from 1918 to 1933. Here all or almost all the groupings stemming from Trotsky are handicapped by a certain factional blindness which is explained by the historical origin of Trotskyism. Inside the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) there was a series of weighty, internal discussions which revolved, in the first period, in the period from 1918 to 1923, essentially around specifically German questions, around the questions of the strategy and tactics of the German revolution. These discussions accompanied the decline and smashing of the revolutionary cadres of the German proletariat, had their repercussions in the Comintern, produced in it a series of groupings and factions, and were reflected, even if distortedly, in the struggles of the Russian factions from 1918 to 1923.

The discussion in the KPD dealt, roughly, with the estimation of the revolutionary situation in Germany in the years 1918 to 1923, and produced “right” and “left” factions: the right-wing factions posit a long historical perspective of the struggle for power, whose prospects must continually improve and appear more favorable by virtue of correct strategy and tactics, especially by correct trade union strategy and tactics, and by that means the broad masses of the social-democratic and trade union workers will be won. The “left,” to put it roughly, warns against the upsurging and consolidating counter-revolution, demands a vanguard party whose main task is to consist of leading the masses into struggle, of winning the masses through revolutionary struggle and in the process of the revolutionary struggle, and warns against overestimating the social-democratic and trade union mass organizations as the main factor in the basic conditions for the victory of the German proletariat.

In this first, decisive and most important chapter in the struggle of the German labor movement, the then Trotskyist faction, through its exponent, Karl Radek, worked together with the right-wing faction of the KPD and shared its basic conceptions of the estimation of the situation in Germany in all essential points.

This fact is in no wise altered by the Lessons of October by Trotsky, i.e., the position he took on the crisis of 1923, that subsequently constructed an inexact presentation of his actual attitude during the Ruhr crisis, as we shall endeavor to show later in discussing the year 1923.

On this first period of the German labor movement, the entire Trotskyist movement is filled with legends and historical errors which are closely connected with the difficult process of intellectual clarification in the “Russian question,” and which must be rectified with the achievement of a sound theoretical standpoint on the question of Stalinism, so as to be able to reach an historically correct evaluation of National Socialism.

In the period of the Opposition Bloc, from 1923 to 1928, in the preparatory days of the rise of Stalinism and of National Socialism, the representatives of the Russian Opposition in Germany were composed exclusively of elements of the former left factions (disregarding certain episodic affairs from 1923 to 1925). In the Comintern, however. Trotskyism in the period before the formation of the Bloc, already had supporters from the right-wing elements of the Comintern, supporters who were lost, in the days after the disintegration of the Bloc, just as speedily as the left-wing groupings. Trotskyism was compelled, in the period from 1929 to 1933, to work in Germany with completely new elements. These new younger cadres no longer had any genuine relations with the ideological groupings of the time of the revolutionary struggles; they were made up of remnants of all factions; and were incapable of giving a real analysis of German developments. The right-wing faction, Brandler, Walcher, Thalheimer, Paul Frölich, timidly kept their distance from Trotsky and the Trotskyists, since its whole political line was directed toward reconciliation with Stalin; but its criticism of the position of the Comintern and the KPD in the German question Fell in with Trotsky’s conceptions.


The axis of Trotsky’s criticism in this period is the false attitude of the KPD toward the SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany) and toward the trade union masses. Trotsky criticized the “ultra-leftist” position of the Thälmann Central Committee, the theory of social-fascism (Stalin’s twins, fascism and social-democracy), and put forth the demand that the Thälmann Central Committee should place itself at the head of the communist and social-democratic workers in the struggle against fascism. Trotsky especially polemized at that time against Urbahns, who called tor an organization independent of the KPD and declared the necessity of a policy that would compel the Thälmann Central Committee “to seize the power.”

It would be a criminal act on the part of the Opposition Communists to take, like Urbahns and Company, to the road of creating a new Communist Party, before making some serious efforts to change the course of the old party ... Should the Communist Party be compelled to apply the policy of the united front, it will almost certainty permit the attack of fascism to be beaten off. (Trotsky, Germany, What Next?, pp. 185f.)

This is exactly the position of the right-wing German communists from 1918 to 1923 in every revolutionary crisis; this is exactly the position of the Brandler-Lovestone faction in the years of its right-wing faction fight against the Comintern from 1929 to 1933. However greatly Trotsky and the Brandlerites diverge in all other questions, especially in the question of the attitude toward Stalinism, in this question they are united, and it is time to examine whether this position is right or is not.

In all the writings of Trotsky and the Trotskyists of that time and of the directly decisive pre-Hitler era, this thought it repeated, particularized and developed over and over again. It reaches particularly crass expression in Trotsky’s elaboration of the coming German Soviets. Polemizing against Urbahns, Trotsky says:

... Urbahns, in refuting the pretensions of the Communist Party to the leadership of the working class, said at a meeting in Berlin in January (1932), “The leadership will be kept by the masses themselves and not in accordance with the desires or at the discretion of the one and only party”... to avow that the Soviets “by themselves” are capable ol leading the struggle of the proletariat for power – is only to sow a broad vulgar Soviet fetishism. Everything depends upon the party that leads the Soviets. Therefore, in contradistinction to Urbahns, the Bolshevik-Leninists do not at all deny the Communist Party the right to lead the Soviets; on the contrary, they say, “Only on the basis of the united front, only through the mass organizations, can the CP conquer the leading position within the future Soviets and lead the proletariat to the conquest of power. (Ibid., p. 99)

Workers’ State and Trotsky’s Views

Naturally this conception of the German critics by Trotsky was closely Connected with his general conception of the character of Stalinism, of the Russian state, of Russian economy and of the possible and probable evolution of Stalinism and the revolutionary labor movement. The revising of Trotsky’s concept of the “workers’ state” must lead inevitably to a reexamination of the standpoint in the German question quoted above and till now generally accepted as correct. Max Shachtman says very correctly in his article Twenty-five Years of the Russian Revolution (The New International, November 1942):

Trotsky proceeded from the doctrine that in Russia, as elsewhere, the proletariat can rule or the bourgeoisie, no one else. The result was the systematic underestimation of the significance of the Stalinist bureaucracy, of its social and political course, of its durability.

The conclusion from this new analysis (new in relation to the traditional Trotskyist ideology) of the “exploitive state” is, consistently, this:

The Russian proletariat faces its second great working-class revolution.

Stalinism is thus the singularly new form of the European counter-revolution in Russia; and the German developments must be reexamined in the light of this counter-revolutionary Russian development and no longer from the standpoint of a labor movement which, linked with the Russian “workers’ state” from 1928 to 1933, could have developed and decided revolutionary within the framework of the Comintern. Such a basic conception leads to the revision of all the prevailing Trotskyist notions about the internal reasons for the collapse of the German labor movement and the victory of national socialism.


In the incredibly barbarously superficial articles of Held, Why the German Revolution Failed, Fourth International, December 1942/January 1943), the investigation of the German problems is begun with a philistine criticism of the familiar phrase of Zinoviev on the “three Soviet republics that we have in Europe” and of his expression, “soon all Europe will be Sovietistic.” These agitational formulations of Zinoviev were one of the favorite targets of all the petty bourgeois criticasters of the Lenin-Trotsky conception of the objectively mature revolutionary situation in Europe in 1918–1919. To make Zinoviev “ridiculous” in the fourth year of the Second World War and the tenth year of Hitler’s dictatorship because, in complete agreement with Lenin’s conceptions of that time, he placed the struggle for power in Germany on the order of the day – is to have a perfectly preposterous point of departure for so much as posing the question. Zinoviev made many serious and fateful mistakes even in his best days. But this speech, and so many others out of his early days, still breathe the fresh revolutionary élan of the first October years, they reflect that sincere revolutionary faith of the heroic period of the Russian Revolution which was one of Zinoviev’s best sides and the reason why he became one of Lenin’s closest co-workers. It is high time to rap the knuckles of the “Boy Heroes” and to stop them from playing off the “Great Figure” of a Paul Levi, who did not measure up to his task for all his cleverness, against the “ultra-leftist” conceptions of Zinoviev – all the more so because this petty chatter has a political meaning, and a very dangerous one.

It is an historical fact that two conceptions were in conflict in the evaluation of the revolutionary situation in Germany in 1918. Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev held that the situation for the struggle for power was at hand. Radek, Rosa Luxemburg, Paul Levi were of the contrary opinion and set themselves the goal of constructing an oppositional mass party, aiming at winning the broad trade-union and social-democratic organizations first through propaganda. The only real supporter of Lenin’s evaluation of the November situation was Karl Liebknecht, who was not, however, taken seriously by the leadership of the young Spartacus League, who did not, in fact, even participate in the actual leading core. Lenin’s evaluation of the situation was also followed by a large part of the revolutionary workers, who, ten times wiser than their leaders, continually sought, from November 1918 to October 1923, to break the power of the counter-revolution by insurrection, and who continually failed because their most advanced organization and their most advanced leadership, the Spartacus League and its successor, the KPD, were opposed to the insurrection at every single stage, always regarded the situation as “not ripe” and always based their practical analysis and politics on a slower development, with the result that it was “taken by surprise” by the collision of the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary forces every time. The Spartacus League was against the January uprising in 1919, at that time still under the leadership of Rosa Luxemburg. It was against the March struggles in 1919, under the leadership of Paul Levi. it was against the uprising in the Kapp Putsch in March 1920 under the leadership of Paul Levi, Brandler, Pieck, Thalheimer and Ernst Meyer. And finally, it was against the uprising in 1923, under the leadership of Brandler, Walcher, Thalheimer and Paul Frölich.

Inner Crises of German Movement

These great crises were accompanied by hard internal struggles within the communist cadres, or rather, these great cadres unleashed hard internal discussions in the KPD. In the Comintern, the majority of the international communists was always on the side of the incumbent Central Committee of the KPD, which estimated the situation cautiously. Today, however, it is quite clear that the debates at the various stages masked a false general conception of the German development.

It is no historical accident that the only revolutionary party the German proletariat ever possessed placed itself in practice against the fighting workers in every salient, at the peak of the European crisis following the First World War. A truly typical representative of this conception was Paul Levi, a close disciple of Rosa Luxemburg. Paul Levi was a lawyer from Frankfurt am Main, coming from a wealthy family, cultured, clever, world-traveled, and by his conduct, breeding, education, speech and thought, separate from the broad masses of the German working class as by an unbridgeable gulf. Levi, a sincere and violent opponent of German imperialism and the war policy of the German social democracy, underrated the convulsion of the world capitalist system by the first war and overrated the factors of stabilization in Germany. What he aspired to, in consistent development of the basic conceptions of Rosa Luxemburg on the form and rôle of the German labor movement, was the great oppositional workers’ party in a bourgeois-democratic republic, which, by its mass character and its all-embracing organization, was to become a decisive power in German politics and had no need whatsoever to employ “putschist” methods. Paul Levi had a fanatical hatred of “putschism, adventurism and slum-proletariat.” Putschism to him was purely and simply any action that led or might lead to armed conflicts; and slum-proletariat to him was the millioned-mass of returned soldiers who were thrown out of the productive apparatus by the war, who could not find a place in the contracted German economy for years, and who played such a decisive role in the rise of National socialism. This struggle by Levi and his supporters against the slum-proletariat is so characteristic of the ultra-reformist character of the whole tendency because it expressed the fact that this school was not taking cognizance of the heavy crisis in Germany and was proceeding from the notion of a normal capitalism, in which the backbone of the socialist movement is and remains the social-democratic worker in the factory.

However, one of the most characteristic features of the new situation in Germany was precisely this split within the German proletariat, caused first by the contraction of German production as a result of the First World War and later, in the second period, after the crisis, by what is roughly described as “rationalization,” which represented nothing but a decisive change in the whole technical foundation of German economy. Added to this is the fact that there was a profound difference between the psychology of the returned soldier and the later unemployed, and the psychology of the worker who was kept in the factory throughout the World War. The soldier had lost his respect for legality on the battlefields of Flanders and Russia. He saw houses burn, private property destroyed, the shooting of hostages, the decimation of subversive elements in the army, corruption, cruelty, the class egotism of the officers’ caste. He was therefore inclined to step much more lightly beyond the limits of legality. What was the ne plus ultra of adventurism to the well-installed attorney Paul Levi from Frankfurt, was a natural fighting method to the buck private, Max Hölz, which he had learned in the war from the bourgeoisie and now sought to utilize for his class. One needs to have seen with his own eyes the physical aversion of a Paul Levi for the methods of Hölz to be flabbergasted now, in the fourth year of the most barbarous, crudest and most destructive world war, by the super-dimensional stupidity of people who, as Held does in his article, display an ability to glorify today the most philistine traits in the German communistic movement of the first period.

The Rôle of Luxemburg and Levi

Paul Levi was the disciple of Rosa Luxemburg who, despite her great and deathless revolutionary services, failed as a leader in the decisive weeks in Germany, if one understands by this the correct evaluation of the situation and the correct elaboration of a line of struggle. It is of course idle to speculate on how Rosa Luxemburg’s policy might have developed had she not been barbarously murdered by the White Guards. Her much-discussed criticism of the Russian Revolution, right and prophetic as it was in warning against the dangers of bureaucratic degeneration, was of course more than a criticism of bureaucratic dangers. At bottom, Rosa Luxemburg rejected Lenin’s road to power, the road of insurrection. She considered that the situation was not “ripe” in Germany, or in Russia, or in Europe. In the program of the Spartacus League this conception is so clearly expressed that it is idle today to dispute over whether Rosa Luxemburg had this point of view of not; there is some point in disputing only whether this standpoint turned out to be historically justified.

The Spartacus League is not a party that seeks to attain domination over the working masses or through the working masses ... The Spartacus League will also decline to attain power only because the Scheidemann-Eberts have come a cropper and the Independents have landed in a blind alley because of their collaboration with them. [How a revolutionary party is to attain power if the others have not come a cropper, remains a secret of this formulation.]

The victory of the Spartacus League lies not at the beginning, but at the end of the revolution.

In a rough sketch of Luxemburg’s standpoint we must content ourselves with this passage; but there is ample evidence that could be cited to show that Rosa Luxemburg and her disciples, among them primarily Paul Levi, held consistently to the view that the forces available in Germany in November 1918 did not suffice for a struggle. As one of the most impressive details, it is in order to cite here only the fact that Rosa Luxemburg wanted to denounce Karl Liebknecht publicly in the Rote Fahne [1] because of his participation in the January uprising. In defense of his standpoint, Paul Levi issued in 1921 a brochure on the Russian Revolution by Rosa Luxemburg with the title Was ist das Verbrechen? (!!) [What Is the Crime?]. [2] In this brochure Levi traces his standpoint consistently from Rosa’s position and explains her attitude toward the January uprising with the statement that she deemed it her moral duty “to stand where the masses erred.” Karl Liebknecht, however, was in Levi’s words “intractable.”

... and as Leo Jogiches was at that time, who made the proposal to make public in the Rote Fahne, right in the midst of the action, a sharp declaration which quite plainly disavowed Karl Liebknecht, which was simply to state that Karl Liebknecht no longer represents the Spartacus League among the revolutionary shop stewards. You are well aware how Rosa Luxemburg rejected Karl’s attitude and how sharp her criticism was. She would have come forward with her criticism the minute the action was terminated.

Meanwhile, a wealth of historical material on the weakness of the then counter-revolutionary forces has come to hand. At a distance of twenty-five years of historical experience, the German bourgeoisie and its armed division, the German General Staff, shows itself to have been disunited, weak, unsteady, frightened. (The German social democracy and the German trade union movement – despite outward strength – internally decomposed, filled with overestimation of the revolutionary counter-forces, and fearful of the consequences.) There is, as mentioned, considerable rich material today to show unmistakably that Lenin and Karl Liebknecht were right as against Rosa Luxemburg and Paul Levi. It was right to say: “Throw out the traitors, Ebert and Scheidemann, call for the Soviet Republic with Liebknecht at its head.” At this point we wish to cite only one fact out of the vast material, which seems to us to have been particularly characteristic of the situation. In November 1925, the so-called Dolchstossprozess [Stab-in-the-Back Trial] took place in Munich, where General Groener in his capacity of witness has the following to say:

On the evening of December 24, I had another talk with Ebert. He said, what are we going to do? I told him, there are only about 150 men left in Berlin [a hundred and fifty!]. The High Command left Berlin, went back to Wilhelmshöhe [near Kassel, a reactionary, industrially relatively weak city]. Ebert then said laughingly: You know, I’m going away now and lie down to sleep for three days, that’s how badly I need it. I’m going to some acquaintances now, disappearing completely from the Federal Chancellery House, and I’m going to sleep. I shall see to it that the other gentlemen all go off in the next few days. If the Liebknecht group now uses the opportunity to seize the government for itself, there will be nobody here. But if it finds nothing when it gets here, it will make a somersault. Then we are in a position to open up the government again in a few days, somewhere else, perhaps in Potsdam. I proposed to him maybe to come to Kassel, but he went off to sleep. (Quoted by Beckmann, Der Dolchstossprozess in München, 1925, pp. 110f.)

This detail seems to us so important because it shows how precarious was the situation. Without doubt Ebert would have “opened up his government again in Potsdam or Kassel.” The situation might possibly have developed as it did in Spain in 1936, i.e., a part of the reaction would have intrenched itself in the backward parts of Germany. The workers in the industrial regions would have had to organize and arm themselves and a civil war would have come along, in the course of which the Spartacus League could have developed itself to a revolutionary party and overcome the social democracy, not through propaganda but in action. The relative strength of the social democracy in the working class rested on the fact that it was able to play a double game. It was able to conceal to a certain extent its alliance with the Reichswehr. The more it could have been compelled to go to Potsdam or to Kassel, the greater would have been the chances to liquidate it in the working class. And the prospects of victory for a fighting Berlin, a fighting Ruhr district, a fighting Hamburg, against Kassel, were enormous, assuming, of course, that the vacillating and irresolute masses were “educated” by being drawn into the struggle with the counter-revolution. It may be said today without any exaggeration that a situation as favorable as the one in November, 1918, in Germany, will not be repeated in a single country in our generation. The bourgeoisie, weakened by the defeat, the army dissolved, the officers’ corps not yet re-formed, the working class still reformistically infected and partly still in the hands of the bureaucracy of the trade unions and the SPD leaders, to be sure, but not yet decimated, not yet robbed of its best elements, and not morally diseased and corrupted, as is the case today because of Stalinism. Outside of Germany, however, the grave upsetting of the equilibrium of imperialist forces, the open crisis between American and English imperialism, between English and French imperialism, the unformed little vassal-states of the big imperialist powers in Europe, Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Balkan states, Austria, etc., and last but not least the victorious October Revolution in Russia with its immense influence within the European labor movement.

(To be concluded)


1. Official organ of Spartacus, later of the KPD. – Trans.

2. While it is true that Levi published a pamphlet with this title in 1921, it was not Luxemburg’s critique of the Russian Revolution, as alleged here. The full title of this pamphlet was Was ist das Verbrechen? Die Märzaktion oder die Kritik daran? [What is the Crime? The March Action or Criticizing It?], which makes clear what the actual topic of the pamphlet is. The title of Levi’s 1922 edition of Luxemburg’s critique is simply Die russische Revolution [The Russian Revolution]. – Note by ETOL

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