Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History

Where is the SAP going?

What follows is a translation of Wohin treibt die SAP?, which appeared in Permanente Revolution (no.6, 2 February 1933), the magazine of the German Trotskyists, and which was republished in facsimile form by the GIM, the German section of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International. We owe our thanks to the comrades of the International Communist League for translating this article.

The polemic retains much of its validity, in spite of its ephemeral character. Shortly after its publication, the left faction of the SAP, led by Jakob Walcher, which had left Brander’s KPO, took over the leadership of the SAP, and earned Trotsky’s praise by turning it in a revolutionary direction.

The party conference of the SAP will convene in a few days. It is supposed to adopt a position on important questions concerning the SAP's further course and fate. There are numerous valuable individuals in the ranks of the SAP who are seriously seeking a solution. The discussion which has erupted at present in the pages of the SAZ is an expression of the mood which is dominant among the SAP membership. It is certain that the numerous unspent young people in the SAP will yet be of significance for the proletarian revolution. For that reason we turn to these members with our suggestions and our criticism; for that reason we speak openly about our assessment of the situation and perspectives of the SAP. What motivates us is not cheap ridicule, à la Thälmann and Brandler, of the fact that the SAP is headed downwards, but the attempt to engage in a serious discussion of politics and principles with the members of the SAP.

Brandlerite and other bureaucrats fell over themselves in a vehement uproar when at the beginning of 1932 Trotsky in his What Next? called the SAP a “living current” and spoke clearly about the tasks that confront it. But the point is really not to scorn the efforts of the workers seeking a path – such are Brandlerite or Thälmannite methods – but rather to stand at their side in order to find and work out the right path. That is the task of all Marxist-Leninists.

Fifteen months have passed since the foundation of the SAP. At the time it was no doubt more a forced than a voluntary founding. This circumstance already showed the weakness of Seydewitz, Rosenfeld and Co, and showed that they remained utterly true to themselves in an indecisive opposition which could not seriously weaken the accursed and bloodstained traitors of the party executive nor strengthen the left. Fickleness, indecisiveness, helplessness, defencelessness: those around Seydewitz have remained true to their character even today. This was the inheritance they brought with them into the young SAP and thus, since things have their own logic, from the outset they necessarily weighed down the new party with decrepitude, and in a short time led it into new conflicts.

Around the ‘core troops’ of the Seydewitzes and Rosenfelds there immediately rallied groups and grouplets of the most diverse nature, of which the ‘Minority of the KPO’ was undoubtedly the most significant. It had gone through the school of the KPD and Comintern, through the experience of revolutionary class struggle beginning with the Spartakusbund, broke away from the rotting stagnation of the Brandler-Thalheimer bureaucratic clique, and had to face a revolutionary test once again in the SAP. In this regard the KPO Minority was confronted with great tasks, and could be characterised as the more advanced element of the SAP.

The Minority of the KPO preferred to evade the most serious and fundamental tasks, namely, the clarification of the principles of Marxism-Leninism. Seeing eye-to-eye with Seydewitz, they confined themselves – in keeping with the formulation of Communist commonplaces – to so-called ‘mass actions’, to a ‘United Front policy’ – and did not let themselves be overly oppressed by all these questions of principle. They were content to attack the KPD’s false United Front policy, the revolutionary trade union position and the lack of inner-party democracy. But this could not distinguish them in the least from Brandler, and justified even less the foundation of a party of their own, no matter how much talk there was about setting up a Communist ‘model party’. The KPO Minority has so far proved too weak to clarify within the SAP the experience of the past few years, which has a bearing on principles, and has zealously avoided taking a clear position of principle on the fundamental experience of the Comintern, and on the problems which caused and are causing the parting of the ways in the Comintern. It is possible to have Brandlerite swamp politics even without Brandler.

We Bolshevik-Leninists saw and still see in the SAP a product of the errors of the Stalin faction in the Comintern, and particularly in its German section. There were and are concrete questions of political principle which we pose to the SAP membership:

To the left elements of the SAP we say, “Revolutionaries are tempered not only in strikes and street battles but, first of all, during struggles for the correct policies of their own party. Take the Twenty-one Conditions, worked out, in their own time, for the admission of new parties into the Comintern. Take the works of the Left Opposition where the Twenty-one Conditions are applied to the political developments of the last eight years. In the light of these ‘conditions’ open a planned attack against centrism within your own ranks and lead the matter to its conclusion. Otherwise nothing will remain for you except the hardly respectable rôle of serving as a left cover for centrism.” (Trotsky, What Next?)

Trotsky's formulation of the question is as relevant now as it was when the SAP was launched, and takes on more significance in the current disputes. Up to now the SAP has been content to note with approval individual statements by the Left Opposition opposing Thälmann’s policies. When it comes to questions having the character of eminently important principles, however, it has been more cautious than if it were walking on eggs.

Trotsky told Walcher, Frölich and Co:

A platform is essential! We have in mind not a document recapitulating the commonplaces of the Communist catechism, but clear and concrete answers to those questions of the proletarian revolution which have torn the ranks of Communism for the past nine years and which retain their burning significance even now. Lacking this, one can only become dissolved in the SAP and hinder, not facilitate, its development towards Communism. (What Next?)

Did the Walcher group undertake a serious treatment of even one of the questions posed? This cannot be asserted, try as one might. We would like to raise here briefly for the members of the SAP only a few of the most important questions:

1. You often say that the SAP must be a Communist party. At present there are three currents in Communism: a right wing current, represented in Germany by Brandler, a centrist one, represented by the Stalin faction, and a left wing current, which is embodied by the International Left Opposition (Bolshevik-Leninists). What is your assessment of these currents? The SAP struggles against the ‘ultra-left tactics’ of the present-day KPD and Comintern, i.e. the Stalin faction. This formulation about the present ‘ultra-left tactics’ is a Brandlerite invention. In reality the KPD and Comintern oscillate from ultra-left to the crassest right wing opportunism. That is the essence of the Stalin faction’s bureaucratic centrism. Are you only against the ‘ultra-left errors’? Are you for the right-wing, opportunistic ones? But the Stalin faction’s oscillations must have a certain axis: have you thought about and seriously discussed this question of bureaucratic centrism? Or are you prepared to dissolve into the KPD and Comintern as soon as they give up their ultra-left errors?

2. Has the SAP taken a critical position on the experience of the last 10 years of German politics, and does it make a principled assessment of it? Such an assessment is of decisive importance, and for the further strategic perspectives of German developments one cannot do without it. The German proletariat’s defeat in October 1923 also falls under this question. What is your position on that? Do you simply uncritically take over Brandler’s theory? Do you believe that your party can remain without a principled political decision and swim about among the various opinions, striving in truly centrist fashion to break completely with no one and to solidarise decisively with no one? An article by Paul Frölich, Papen-Schleicher-Hitler, in the SAZ (25 December 1932), offers a typical and even comical example of this. He writes: “Such a system [the Schleicher regime] possesses characteristic features of Bonapartism, an analogy first referred to by Trotsky. But whilst he also applied this characterisation to Bruning and Papen, in our opinion it was not legitimate until now, with the Schleicher regime ...” Frölich committed the indiscretion of solidarising with the view of the Left Opposition on the question of Bonapartism, but he immediately shrank back and corrected himself: ‘now’ one could speak of Bonapartism; then, when Trotsky used this explanation for the first time, it was not correct. Why it is wrong to predict probable developments and to make an assessment on the basis of the embryonic forms at hand remains Frölich’s secret. This example aptly characterises the instinct for self preservation of a group without principles.

But there are also other examples of this. The SAZ has published several critiques of Trotsky’s works, most recently on the History of the Russian Revolution and The Soviet Economy in Danger. But, unfortunately, these reviews in the SAZ are lacking in any endeavour to deal seriously with reality. They are the critiques of people out for a stroll in politics, and are designed merely to dodge questions of the utmost importance in a dilettantish way.

3. Revolutionary Marxists must be internationalists. Proletarian internationalism is not a pretty title, but a serious commitment. It is not saying much to publish a little article now and then on some international question or other: international solidarity must be expressed in the daily life of the organisation. But with whom do you solidarise internationally? – the English ILP or some other centrist party which, because of its fickleness, cannot have a stimulating impact on the working class. Yet you want to be Communists: what does the ILP have to do with Communism?

4. You sympathise with the Soviet Union. But that in itself does not mean much. All possible and impossible groups and individuals ‘sympathise’ with the Soviet Union. What is decisive, however, is the question: what is your position on the problems of the development of the USSR?

Thousands of Bolshevik-Leninists are persecuted, exiled, or imprisoned by the Stalin bureaucracy. Do you know of this? Do you know the reasons for this persecution? Do you know the works of the Left Opposition, the fundamental works on the prospects for development which Rakovsky wrote in exile? Have you discussed them, and what position as a matter of principle do you take on these questions?

The fate of the world working class for several decades depends on the course of events in the USSR. Can you and do you desire to pass over such a vital question for the proletariat with non-committal phrases?

5. The questions of the Chinese revolution are among the most important problems of the post-war period. By its policy the Stalinist faction in the Comintern drove this revolution in 1925-27 to a severe defeat. Are you content to criticise with empty words, or to pass over this in silence? What is the experience gained and what are the lessons of the Chinese revolution? What are its further prospects?

6. Have you taken a position on the tactical and strategic disputes which arose from the Spanish revolution, the most important event of the past few years? What is your view of it in terms of principles? Are you content merely to ‘sympathise’ with the revolution and be fellow travellers, but to avoid a thorough study of the experience? That does a very poor service to the working class and the proletarian revolution.

7. Perhaps one could say that you have touched upon the problem of the Anglo-Russian Committee – touched, but no more. A little section in the Rotes Gewerkschaftsbuch is devoted to this question: but what came of it? Here, as everywhere, are the non-committal ‘ifs and buts’, the meaningless ‘partly-partly’, ‘on the one hand-on the other hand’. But these questions are crucial questions for a revolutionary Communist policy.

8. Or let us take the Münzenbergite Anti-War Congress in Amsterdam. Against this sham congress, which lulls the workers to sleep, which is designed to pull them into the wake of reformist, pacifist, traitorous groups and leads them to disaster, the International Left Opposition waged an energetic principled struggle. Did we hear even one word of criticism issue from the SAP? Not one. Rosenfeld, among others, was allowed to dance about on the stage as a showpiece, happy to say that his party “agrees with the views of the congress” (“although, to be sure, the Third International also made mistakes on some occasions”). Afterwards he got a thrashing for this in the Münzenberg press, which finally moved the SAZ to ask the ‘critical’ question: why is only Nicole’s sincerity accepted but not Rosenberg and the SAP’s? Meanwhile the anti-war congress is buried and forgotten. It was a feast to Kleineibst and Kuster’s taste. And there is not a peep to be heard about it in the present ‘principled discussion’: Seydewitz-Walcher-Kilster-Frölich-Rosenfeld: all too much of a muchness in this question.

Since in the SAP no attention has been paid up to now to the great decisive questions of principle of the past 10 years, the question of the ‘declaration of principles’ is currently at the centre of the internal struggle. All symptoms indicate that this formulation of the question is a kind of cobbled solution to the conflict. The disputed declaration of principles contains nothing but general formulations, true to the spirit of half-measures. And even with the adoption of the declaration of principles with no reservations, still nothing has been achieved. The SAP’s difficulties, its weakness, its decline – none of this is alleviated ore, whit. All the current disputes on this basis will not bring the SAP forward one decisive step.

No matter how we work through the results of the SAP discussion to date ’ we find nothing but abstract words about “democratic or Bolshevik organisational principles”. The dispute concerns the framework of the party, not its content. How are we to fight about a question when no one has yet taken a position on it, and everyone pulls back from it as though it were a hot iron? The leadership has kept the party devoid of principled revolutionary content. The ranks see that it is impossible to mark time any longer. The decisive questions we have briefly sketched out here must finally be made the basis of a serious discussion of principles.

On 20 November 1932 Fritz Sternberg published a lead article in the SAZ, The political situation and the tasks of the SAP, in which he admonishes the SAP to intensify its work in the proletarian mss organisations, and emphasises the need to proceed with the work with unwavering intensity. In this context he goes on to say:

Here, in the immediate future we will be exposed not only to the attacks of the SPD and KPD but also of the smaller Communist groups, such as the Trotskyists, the KPO, etc. For example, the Trotskyists who have only the most marginal success to show for their many years of oppositional work in the KPD, have recently been trying to effect a certain decomposition in our ranks. Let it be said most emphatically to them, as to all the small groups, that they will only harm themselves by this work. Because if the German working class is really to recover, if reformism is to be smashed and the KPD's ultra-left tactics are to be liquidated, this work would be enormously hindered if the SAP were to disintegrate.

Walcher also wrote something similar in the SAZ. When Trotsky called the SAP a “living current”, it was noted with satisfaction in the pages of the SAPist press. Trotsky confronted the “living current” with concrete tasks. The Left Opposition is trying to the best of its ability to contribute to solving these tasks in the SAP’s ranks. The SAZ tops call this “working towards decomposition”. We think otherwise.

What do Sternberg and Walcher mean by “decomposition”? The fact that, at a given moment, elements of an organisation who essentially did not belong there are leaving it, can often mean a step forward for the organisation if the others, those who remain, weld themselves together more firmly on the ground of clear principles. They can stimulate the working class, and thereby also grow massively. Such a state of affairs cannot be characterised as “decomposition”. Real decomposition consists in this: forces which are drifting apart are crumbling away more and more, and no principled and tactical ground exists for those who are left. That is real decomposition, and that is where the policy of the Walcher group is going. We are for the first kind, and thus it cannot be said that the Left Opposition wants to “effect the decomposition” of the SAP.

The SAP itself attends most consistently to this task of “decomposition”. Its situation today is the expression of significant and actute decomposition. Are the Trotskyists to blame for this? Walcher in the SAZ (15 December) tries to assert this in part. To conclude from the present discussion, the SAP’s future path as envisioned by both the Walcher and the Seydewitz groups guarantees with utter certainty that the process of decomposition will continue and deepen. If the SAP’s decomposition were a highly internal and private matter between Walcher and Seydewitz no one would give a damn, and we would maintain the silence of the tomb. But the SAP is no such private affair. The SAP has grown weaker and weaker, and has catastrophically lost votes in the elections; it has lost the better part of the 50,000 members it formerly claimed.

But where have these members gone? The SAZ unfortunately says nothing about this, Let us assume that a part went to the KPD, a part back to the SPD, and a part vanished into indifference. Whom has the decline, a decline occurring through no fault of us Trotskyists, strengthened? The executive of the Social Democratic Party without a doubt; likewise, without a doubt, the CC of the KPD. The decline of the SAP has effected a strengthening of Stalinism, whose effects (at least the ultra-left ones) the SAP set out to combat. That is the fatal logic of centrism. It is certain that this process will continue, and that it can yet significantly increase in intensity! Are the Trotskyists to blame for this? If we can be blamed for anything, then it is only for paying far too little attention to the SAP. We accept this blame and are attempting to make up for it by strengthening our efforts to bring questions of principle into the ranks of the SAP in a comradely spirit.

Sternberg is right: the struggle against reformism and the liquidation of the “ultra-left tactics” of Stalinism will be, if not “enormously”, weakened nonetheless if the SAP wretchedly “disintegrates”. We know and heed this well. But the SAP is being driven to disintegration by the vacillating, indecisive policies of Seydewitz, and of Walcher as well. Past experience has proven this only too well. We struggle energetically against the SAP’s purposeless and directionless “disintegration” precisely because we want to prevent an obstruction of the struggle against reformism and to prevent the consolidation, not only of the KPD’s “ultraleft tactics”, but of the Stalin faction’s bureaucratic centrism as a whole.

We say again to the members of the SAP: do what the Walcher group has so far refused to do. Do not be content with recapitulating the commonplaces of the Communist catechism, give clear and concrete answers to those questions of the proletarian revolution which have torn the ranks of Communism for the past ten years, and which today and – in far greater measure for the future – retain their burning significance. Our aim is not “disintegration”, but that the proletarian forces of substance in the SAP should achieve clarity against the swampy and adventurist policies of the Stalin faction’s bureaucratic centrism. Uncritical immersion in these policies is a danger, and both Seydewitz and Walcher are leading decisive sections of the SAP membership in this direction.

Updated by ETOL: 7.7.2003