Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Germany 1923

Dear Comrades,

Could I answer the statement on my article on the KPD in Revolutionary History, Volume 2, no.2 by the International Communist League (Fourth International), which is in many ways an insult to the intelligence of the reader. One would have hoped that a formation using such a bold definition of themselves could at least have provided readers with the benefit of postulates, and not just serve up insults and religious declarations.

The view of the KPD history presented in the article is not “based in part on Heinrich Brandler’s correspondence with Isaac Deutscher”, but upon about two decades of on-and-off research. When the Brandler-Deutscher correspondence first appeared, it impressed me more by its discussion of events like the East Berlin workers’ revolt of 1953, in which Brandler’s group played a role. It was only later that I returned to it, when it was published in a Verso book, and I noted many areas of agreement. But readers will note that as far as the events in 1923 are concerned, it is not used except to refer to the lack of arms. What I have done is to refer to a small selection of works available in English. Unfortunately most of my sources are not. The editors have given the readers a comprehensive list of sources. One of my quoted sources is the Notes on Discussions with Walcher which only exists in public in the French edition of Trotsky’s Oeuvres. Pathfinder Press ignored these extremely informative notes when they published supplementary materials which came to light at that time (was it a case of censorship?), and the ICL(FI) attempt to discredit them.

In spite of my not drawing upon Deutscher in my article, the ICL(FI) state that “in his later years [he did not see] a revolutionary opportunity in the crisis provoked by the French invasion of the Ruhr in January 1923”. Where is the evidence for this, and why link it with my article? I only remark on this as, in method, it parallels a reply by Bob Sewell to a letter from myself in Militant International Review (Spring 1989) on the same subject. Sewell feels compelled to call Deutscher an “academic” in order to insult him. Yet it is common knowledge that he had to earn his crust as a journalist while working on the biographies, and that the British academic establishment blackballed him precisely because of his unrepentant Marxist viewpoint.

Let us ignore smoke-screens and get to the kernel of the matter. As Jacob Walcher points out in the Notes ..., until July 1923 nobody in the KPD nor the Comintern foresaw what would develop out of the Ruhr invasion. Trotsky himself did not foresee it. He stated that it was Brandler’s appeal To the Party in Rote Fahne (12 July 1923) that drew his attention to it. But it was not until mid-August, during the general strike against the Cuno government when he sought out August Enderle and Walcher, then attending a Profintern conference in Moscow, and asked them to return to Germany to assess the situation. On this basis he would ask the RCP Politburo (23 August 1923) to support an insurrection in Germany.

The ECCI was holding an ‘extended plenum’ in the latter part of May and almost all of June, and nothing in its published minutes gives any indication that a ‘revolutionary opportunity’ was either present or on the horizon. On the contrary, it was held under the aegis of the United Front – that is to say of fighting to attain a majority. In an attempt to win over nationalists to the KPD, Radek made his infamous Schlageter speech there. As the records show, it was the much maligned Brandler who saw the potential in the developing situation. However, an event occurred between 12 July and 23 August that totally changed the objective situation – an event that most Trotskyists ignore.

The Cuno government fell on 11 August during the general strike, in which the KPD was winning over a majority of the class. But it proved impossible to maintain the strike against the reformist leaders, as the majority of workers now believed that their aim had been achieved. Stresemann formed a grand coalition in which the SPD had four ministerial posts, the Finance Minister being Rudolph Hilferding.

The new government set in motion new policies which almost immediately stabilised the political situation and which later stabilised the economy. These things led to a complete change in the consciousness of non-Communist workers, and this is the key issue that Trotsky and the unthinking ignore.

Readers should try to place themselves in the position of the reformist workers. Not only was their party in the government, but the key post of Finance Minister was in the hands of Hilferding, the foremost Marxist economist of the Second International, and, although the KPD swore at the mention of his name, they never produced anyone better. (It is a measure of his stature that his works are still being reprinted all over the world.) Why, when a realistic alternative existed, should the SPD adherents engage in a risky adventure led by a party of which they were suspicious, and whose aims they perceived as being dictatorial?

The German October was planned by the Russians as a coup, behind the backs of the workers who by then believed that their own aim had been achieved. Putting it into effect would have been a bigger disaster than postponing it. The description of Georg Jungclas of his participation in the Hamburg uprising illustrates the ‘passivity’ of the majority of workers. But it was necessary for Zinoviev to find scapegoats, and Brandler had to be the main one. After urging restraint on the KPD at the time, Stalin would do the same. After initially opposing the scapegoating, Trotsky would follow suit. For assessments by Trotskyists in key positions in the Comintern at the time, it is worthwhile reading Lenin's Moscow by Alfred Rosmer and the Memoirs of Victor Serge.

Perhaps a successful seizure of power would have occurred in the summer if the KPD had followed other tactics – or perhaps not. The strikes were originally over wages, and were never generalised. When the strike against Cuno did materialise in August, the bourgeoisie were far-sighted enough to kick him out. Moreover Stresemann, by bringing the SPD into the coalition, demobilised the movement.

Trotsky wrote about Germany 1923 in a series of articles published as The New Course. One can agree with his general points, but he is not very specific about the 1923 events, any more than he is in Lessons of October. In the introduction to The First Five Years of the Communist International he goes into more detail, but does not mention the change of government in mid-August. He asks whether the KPD had a majority of workers behind it in the latter part of 1923, but does not answer his own question. He continues:

Despite the fact that a very considerable number of workers still remained in the ranks of Social Democracy, only an insignificant minority was ready to take a hostile, and even then a rather passively hostile position towards the overturn. (p.4)

Here Trotsky seems to imply that one could undertake an overturn without the active participation or support of the majority of the workers, or even against them. After all, the numbers within and around the SPD far exceeded those around the KPD, not to speak of those under Christian or other influences. He also disregards the fact that although the reformists were losing ground to Communism in mid-1923, matters were reversed after the arrival of Stresemann. He does not even mention the change of government.

A better assessment is found in Through What Stage Are We Passing?, a speech of 21 June 1924, but here, yet again, the change of government is not mentioned, and an overthrow in October is thought possible. For a serious evaluation one must consult Walcher’s Notes .... Readers should not just take my word, and neither should they suspend their critical faculties to take Trotsky’s word as the ICL(FI) are asking them to do. Instead they should attempt to evaluate all the Comintern texts before the scapegoating, the memoirs of the participants or closely connected figures, plus solid bourgeois studies, etc. Unfortunately only fragments of the Brandler-Thalheimer position are available in English, but one should bear in mind that it was the only current to produce an indepth analysis, that it insistently demanded that of the Trotskyists, who, though promising to do so, never did. Surely that speaks for itself? Trotsky’s writings on 1923 are too superficial to be taken seriously. Thus the Notes ... by Walcher seem to indicate that a decade later Trotsky changed his opinion.

That Trotsky could ignore the change in consciousness which resulted from a change in government in 1923, indicates a problem with his method. In brief, it involves a failure to break totally with the methods of the Second International. This made him overestimate the potential in a series of crises during the 1920s and 1930s, and culminated in the erroneous prognostications of the Transitional Programme. On the other hand, he did see the possibilities in China and Spain.

That the KPD ‘right wing’ would come into conflict with the Zinoviev-led Communist International and the Russians was no coincidence. The former were influenced by Rosa Luxemburg and the struggle for Marxism that she carried out in the old SPD. Many of these leaders had been her pupils in the party school. In Germany the struggle was not only against the revisionists but also against the Kautsky-Hilferding orthodox centre and its determinism – or the idea that capitalism will inevitably collapse and that Socialism will ‘inevitably’ result owing to the in-built laws of evolution.

Luxemburg did not succeed in superseding Second International Marxism, though she attempted to. Lenin also tried to supersede it, and he changed his philosophical method after an intense study of Hegelian dialectics. Neither did Trotsky, either during the war or in the Comintern period. In my view, in the 1930s one can perceive a different Trotsky grappling with the new problems that he faced, either in reforming the CI or rebuilding the Bolshevik tradition, but he never superseded Second International methodology. Paul Flewers in his review of Let History Judge by Roy Medvedev writes that “Bukharin played an important part in introducing ... the schematic Marxism of the Second International” into the CI. In fact he did a hatchet job on Korsch and Lukacs, who tried to develop the philosophy in the CI (as well as on Luxemburg). (See his Historical Materialism.)

However, in my view, Paul’s claim that “the Bolsheviks had broken decisively in 1917” from the methodology of the Second International, is not in fact the case. That method still permeated the CI. The attempt of Lenin and others to break from it was not a success. Lenin’s Imperialism bases itself on Hilferding. In his correspondence with Deutscher, Brandler claims that “most of the ideas that Lenin developed in his Imperialism were already being debated, mainly by Kautsky” in the old SPD. While retaining much of these economic and philosophical methods, the Bolsheviks broke from their perspectives and tasks. What resulted was not a dialectical unity of theory and practice – much of the theory was faulted – but a sort of ‘subjectivism’, old methodology saddled with voluntarism where the party is the decisive factor that ‘impels’ the worker forward.

Then and now, ultra-leftism is mainly a product of that method. What after all is ‘Third Periodism’ other than a mystical belief in the inevitability of the capitalist crisis impelling the workers towards the ‘leadership’, whose main tasks are both loudly to denounce the misleaders, thereby exposing them, and to promote themselves with much noise and PR stunts? Much of what passes for Trotskyism in Britain today uses such methods.

The CI degenerated very quickly and never produced any theoreticians of lasting value. It never superseded the Second International because its break was only tendential, and it slid backwards again. The Fourth International based itself upon the early CI. Its methodology was basically erroneous, but it used a ‘correct’ approach ‘ transitional ‘ in the superstructure. This explains why many of Trotsky’s forecasts were wrong, and why the Transitional Programme has caused controversy, because its forecasts never materialised.

While castigating me for “Brandlerite methodology”, the ICL(FI) never explains what this sin entails. The views in my article are shared by a small number of comrades here and abroad, who would be surprised to have such a label stuck on them as they have considered themselves Trotskyists in the past, though they prefer to describe themselves as Marxists today. In attempting to develop a Marxist practice in the labour movement, we see the need to examine past failures in order to go beyond them. From the motto on the front cover of Revolutionary History, one would assume that such was the task that the journal had set itself. Therefore the ideas and deeds of all revolutionary Socialist currents require evaluation, including not just Brandlerism but all the varieties of ultra-leftism too, not to speak of the ‘Trotskyist heretics’. The German issue contains a critique of the SAP. Why not print the Trotsky-Walcher discussion so that readers can see the other side? Surely the article by Pierre Broue in the same edition was written in such a spirit, and it adds much to the knowledge of the reader. I would like to make a few points on that article inasmuch as it relates to mine.

In discussing the votes for the majority and those for the German supporters of the Russian Leningrad Opposition in 1926 and 1927 Professor Broué seems to be implying that the majority were all Stalinists. The majority at the time were a bloc of Stalin’s supporters and the centre (conciliators), allied with the Bukharin grouping in the CPSU. Moreover, the Fischer-Maslow left and ultra-left bloc would have been opposed by Brandler’s supporters plus a sector of the ultra-left Wedding Opposition, which had disassociated itself from Fischer-Maslow, seeing them as inconsistent. With the start of the Third Period, opponents of the Stalinists would be expelled in 1928 and 1929. The remnant of the Wedding Opposition was expelled in 1929, and the following year it fused with a sector of the Leninbund to create the German Trotskyist grouping.

The development of the Leninbund into another party and the role of the Russian Zinovievists in encouraging this, only underlines the theme running through my article, the impatient sectarianism of this current. It must also put into question the unification of the 1923 Opposition with the Leningraders, and the political compromises necessary to achieve this. Discussing Zinoviev, Professor Broué points out that he could not maintain a “position independent of the bureaucracy which was not that of Trotsky”, which his article shows, but he then goes on to say in the next paragraph that “Urbahn’s Leninbund ... cannot be seriously considered as a continuation of the German Communist Left”. I would have thought that his article illustrated very well that the Fischer-Maslow-Urbahns current, not to speak of the range of ultra-left groupings to their left, were all sectarians in the mould of those condemned by Lenin in Left-Wing Communism. As such they were doomed to vegetate and then vanish. Fischer-Maslow, the Leninbund and the Wedding Opposition minorities all broke with their previous positions in joining Trotsky.

The Declaration of the 700 paralleled the Leningrad Opposition in more ways than one. Both were in essence revolts by sectors of the apparatus. Once a few heads had rolled they would fade away. Although it initially created a shock in the KPD, the Open Letter of the ECCI against Fischer-Maslow would quickly gain support in the party “first and foremost among the factory workers and the factory cells” (Die Legende by Heilman and Rabehl). In the material from the KPD organisation bureau examined by Heilman and Rabehl one can see that “not one factory cell spoke out against the Open Letter”.

Of course the ‘German Left’ was a proletarian current, and the left leaders had bases among the workers of the districts which elected them to the leadership, but their hostility to work in the official trade unions and to reorganising the party on a factory cell basis, etc., meant that they made enemies in these circles. Furthermore, they had persecuted the supporters of Brandler, or of the centre, who staffed the trade union and cell departments. Thus the great majority of members who were workers rallied to the Comintern.

Although, as recounted in the translated chapters of Wolfgang Alles’ book published in Revolutionary History, Fischer and Maslow joined Trotsky in Paris, they were not integrated into the IKD, and their view of illegal work under the Nazis were, as indicated, similar to those of the KPD, which until early 1935, was still posing ‘mass work’ and the perspective of an overthrow and a Communist victory. Shortly after the publication of her book Leviné, I interviewed Rosa Levine-Meyer, and she said that subsequent to Hitler’s take-over, all the Communist oppositional currents within Germany found themselves in crisis, and they began knocking on Trotsky’s door. She herself met Leon Sedov in Paris and, although she regarded the Trotskyists as the only valid current, she objected to two things, firstly that Fischer and Maslow had been permitted to join the ICL without a public self-criticism, since, as the pair had almost destroyed the KPD, the Communist workers would not understand it, and it would discredit Trotsky. Secondly, she said that Trotsky had broken with the KPD and turned his back on it, and this, too, the Communist workers would not understand, so that it would bring discredit on Trotsky who, as a result, they would perceive as a ‘deserter’ in their darkest hour.

The German Communist Left was undoubtedly an authentic native current, and an obstacle to developing a German Left Opposition, but so was Brandlerism, with which Trotsky was identified in the eyes of the ‘Left’, because of his stand on the 1923 events, and his and Lenin’s support for the United Front, work in the official trade unions and so on. If the ‘Left’ was authentic enough, this does not mean to say that it was a Marxist current. Its refusal to work in the mass organisations, its opposition to the United Front and so on, show its failure to grasp the ABCs. And one should not forget that a sector of this left led the KPD to defeat in 1933 with exactly the same kind of politics.

Mike Jones

Updated by ETOL: 10.7.2003