Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History

The KPD and the Solidarity of the Illegals

This document, here translated for the first time into English by Bruce Robinson, was produced jointly by the exiled militants of the four undermentioned organisations in London at the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. It was issued under the imprint of the Sozialistische Arbeitsgemeinschaft (Joint Socialist Working Group) with the address of 382 Bancroft Road, London E1, not long before its authors were to find themselves briefly interned in the Isle of Man. In 1941 it moved into association with the exiled German trade unionists and the SPD, with which party it united after the war.

The Revolutionäre Sozialisten Osterreichs (RSO) was the name taken by the main nucleus of the Austrian Social Democratic Party led by Otto Bauer from exile after its suppression, first of all by Dollfuss and Schuschnigg, and then by Hitler. The Sozialistische Arbeiter Partei (SAP) was founded in October 1931 after the German Social Democratic Party had expelled its left wing, led initially by Max Seydewitz, but they were joined in 1932 by a split from the KPO of Brandler and Thalheimer led by Jakob Walcher and Paul Frolich, the biographer of Rosa Luxemburg, which subsequently took over the leadership of the organisation. The leader of its youth organisation was Willi Brandt, later to be Mayor of West Berlin and Chancellor of the German Federal Republic. The Socialdemocratische Organisation Neu Beginnen was a group of former members of the German SPD who were disillusioned with the failure of the parties of the German working class to prevent the rise of Hitler to power. They took their name from a pamphlet written by Walter Lowenheim, Neu Beginnen! Faschismus oder Sozialismus which was published in August 1933, and was reproduced in English by the National Council of Labour Colleges as Socialism’s New Start – A Secret German Manifesto under the pseudonym of ‘Miles’. They worked in the German underground with some courage and success until they were penetrated and broken up by the Gestapo in 1935. Marc Rhein, the son of the famous Menshevik, Abramovitch, was a member of the group in exile, as was the GPU torturer Leopold Kulcsar (cf. Katia Landau, Stalinism in Spain, Revolutionary History, Volume 1 no. 2, Summer 1988, p.54). The Internationaler Sozialistischer Kampfbund (ISK) was a group that emerged from the Internationaler Jugendbund (International Youth Federation), which up until 1936 was affiliated to the SPD. Its members were supporters of the Kantian philosopher Leonard Nelson and described themselves as ‘ethical Socialists’. After their expulsion from the SPD they produced a daily newspaper in Berlin from January 1932 and, although they specifically repudiated Marxism, they had a working relationship with the Trotskyists in the German underground. Their English supporters subsequently published Socialist Commentary.

The article by Walter Ulbricht mention in this document originally appeared in the 2 February 1940 edition of Die Welt, the KPD’s exile paper printed in Sweden. A carefully abridged English version appeared in the 17 February 1940 edition of the British Stalinist weekly World News and Views, and the full text in English appeared in Victor Gollancz, The Betrayal of the Left, London 1941, pp.302-3 10.

The KPD representatives in London have been distributing an article by Walter Ulbricht which contains a new basic position of the KPD on the war. Ulbricht, who has been the responsible political leader of the Central Committee of the KPD since 1935, is in Moscow. His new position, therefore, without doubt comes with the sanction of the Communist International, and is thus binding on all members of the KPD. In form the article is an answer to an article of Hilferding’s in Neuer Vorwärts. Hilferding writes about the “purpose of the war”, which he considers to be an ideological war of the democracies against Hitler and Stalin in the same way (Mussolini is not named). Hilferding’s article, to which we as Socialists would have many objections, is only a pretext for Ulbricht to develop basic thoughts on a new ‘turn’ of the Communist Party line. The consequences of this new turn are extremely serious. They mean nothing less than that those German Communists who accept this, break the last bond of solidarity with all illegal opponents of the Hitler system.

From the signing of the German-Russian Pact until now the position of the Communist International and the KPD embodied an apparent return to the Leninist policy of fundamental struggle against imperialist war. The Communist International and the KPD, which up to the German-Russian Pact agreed with all the large workers’ organisations that had described German Fascism as the main international enemy of the working class, has since then declared that all imperialist powers are equally responsible for the war, and that the working class in every country at war must equally come out for the defeat of its own government. Stalin’s new policy will now be justified by the KPD and the Communist International as a skilful exploitation of the conflict between the imperialist powers in order to strengthen and guarantee the workers’ state.

The diplomatic and economic support for the Hitler regime from the Stalinist dictatorship will be denied in Communist reasoning or passed over in silence. This position, which the KPD took from the signing of the German-Russian Pact until the appearance of Ulbricht’s new article, destroyed anything the KPD had in common with the independent German workers’ movement. German Socialists unambiguously take sides in this war because they recognise that the Hitler system is the decisive bulwark of international reaction and that the struggle for its military defeat demands the temporary cooperation of Socialists with its opponents, even if our positive aims in no way agree with those of the governments at war. The Communist turn thus makes any joint work between the KPD and other German anti-Fascist groups impossible. But the common struggle against the Hitler system in Germany itself, the common dangers, and thus the duty of solidarity still exist. Thus we have indeed most sharply criticised that turn of the Communist International and the KPD, and the zigzag of Stalinist foreign policy that lay behind it, and called for the freeing of the labour movement from Stalinist influence. However, at the same time we have held to the view that freedom from Stalinist influence is an internal affair of the workers’ movement and is not business of any bourgeois government, and that it can only be achieved by political argument and not by police persecution

Ulbricht’s article takes the change in the Communist line, which began with the signing of the German-Russian Pact a decisive step further. It no longer takes the standpoint that all imperialist governments must be fought equally, but introduces a new distinction – this time in Hitler’s favour. It says in these precise words:

The German government declared it ready to establish peaceful relations the Soviet Union, whilst the Anglo-French war bloc wants war against the Soviet Union. The people of the Soviet Union and the people of Germany desire a speedy to the war in accordance with the interests of the working masses.

And elsewhere:

This Anglo-French war policy is the more criminal because the power which, according to Hilferding, will decide the outcome of the war, is the most reactionary force in the world. English imperialism gives another proof of its reactionary nature insofar as it refused the suggestion, made by Germany and supported by the Soviet government, for the termination of the war.

The KPD is thus no longer in a position to cover up Stalin’s foreign policy of collaboration with Hitler against England. The KPD still goes on about the fight for peace on the basis of the German-Russian offer.

This external solidarity with Hitler must have implications for the internal position of the KPD in relation to the Hitler regime. We learn from Ulbricht that the KPD still stands against social and national oppression in the Third Reich, but with a new justification:

National oppression in so-called ‘Greater Germany’ is only grist to the mill of British imperialism, which seeks to conceal its real war aims behind the slogan of the liberation of the Austrian and Czech people. On the other hand the fact that the Czech people are so oppressed makes it more difficult for them to realise that English imperialism, and the accomplices of this imperialism in Czechoslovakia, have no other aim but to make the country a protectorate of England, in order to use it as a base from which to attack the Soviet Union. If they were not so oppressed the mass of the people in Austria and Czechoslovakia would fight with greater resolution to resist the English plan.

And elsewhere:

The working people of Germany are fighting heroically against oppression and exploitation by the present regime in Germany, because its terrorist rule harms the German people and discredits Germany, and because it thereby weakens the power of resistance of the working people and helps reaction in Britain and France to deceive their own people regarding the true war aims of British imperialism.

Exploitation and oppression in Hitler’s Reich no longer deserve to be fought for themselves, but only because, and insofar as, they weaken the Reich externally in its fight against England!

This, however means that in the future, for the KPD, the internal struggle against the Hitler regime is also to be subordinated to external cooperation with it; that the highest immediate aim of the KPD is no longer the struggle for the overthrow of the Hitler regime, but the defence of the German-Russian Pact even under this regime; that the internal main enemy of the KPD is no longer the Hitler regime itself but the opponents of the German-Russian Pact. Ulbricht states this with the greatest clarity:

If Hilferding and the other one-time Social Democratic leaders direct their war propaganda against the German-Soviet pact, it is simply because, the more deeply the friendship between the German and Soviet people is rooted in the working masses, the less chance of success has the British plan. Therefore not only the Communist but also many Social Democratic and National Socialist workers regard it as their task to permit no breach of the pact in any circumstance. Those who intrigue against the friendship of the German and Soviet people are enemies of the German people, and are branded as accomplices of English imperialism. Among the German working class greater and greater efforts are being made to expose the followers of the Thyssen clique, who are the enemies of the Soviet-German Pact. There have been many demands that these enemies be removed from their army and governmental positions, and that their property be confiscated.

Now the secret is out. The main task of the KPD is the maintenance of the German-Russian Pact. The main enemy in Germany is not Hitler, but the anti-Fascist opponents of this Pact. In order to discredit them as enemies of the workers, Ulbricht calls them the “Thyssen clique”, that is, he smears them with the name of the only German big capitalist who has openly resisted the war. And the KPD hopes, not for the social revolution against Hitler, but the “revolution from above”, in which Hitler, together with a part of his apparatus, based on the “National Socialist workers”, “expose”, using the methods of the Moscow Trials, the elements who are unreliable in foreign policy, both within and without the apparatus.

But the ‘Thyssen clique’, that is, the opponents of the Hitlerite war policy, are not primarily among the big capitalists or in the state apparatus. And Ulbricht knows this. Immediately following the passage quoted above, he writes about “the fight of the German working people against the agents of British imperialism and against the Thyssen clique and their friends among the Social Democratic and Catholic leaders in Germany ...”. [Our emphasis]

This is the point at which the ideological somersaults of an Ulbricht suddenly become deadly serious. “The Social Democratic and Catholic leaders in Germany” – these are the “enemies” that the KPD should “expose” in agreement with the “National Socialist workers”. One must understand the subtleties of Communist Party language – a Social Democrat, who lets himself be ensnared by the KPD, is always a ‘Social Democratic worker’. One who has an independent opinion is fundamentally a (treacherous, of course) ‘leader’. The words of Ulbricht can only mean that the functionaries of the KPD are called upon by the highest Moscow authority to “expose” any Social Democratic or Catholic worker who criticises the German-Russian Pact, that is, to denounce them one way or another to the Gestapo. The KPD leadership draws the last and most extreme conclusions from its position: having destroyed any link of common politics with the opponents of Hitler’s war policy, it now destroys also, both publicly and in every way, the link of solidarity.

No arts of interpretation can cloud over this clear meaning of Ulbricht's words. Naturally Ulbricht says, after the last quotation, that this struggle against “English imperialism” in Germany does not mean “the formation of a bloc with the National Socialist regime”.

There then follow the words quoted above; that the regime has still to be fought because its terror weakens the ability of the German people to resist and gives English imperialism excuses. But despite this, every trained reader will understand the consequences of the new turn, which consists of this: that the KPD has now also changed the order of its “main enemies” in Germany; that it now criticises the Nazi regime only in order to be able to fight “English agents” more effectively than the Nazi regime. In practice this means that KPD sections will not “form a bloc” with the Gestapo, that is to say will not enter into direct relations with them. They will only expose opponents of the German-Russian Pact, that is, to attack them openly and thus criticise the Gestapo for not having picked them up long ago. The Gestapo will soon take up the invitation.

However shocking the consequences of this new KPD position, we must understand that it is only a logical and necessary result of the position taken up to the present. As the Russian dictatorship carried through its turn towards diplomatic cooperation with German Fascism, the Communist International experienced its “Fourth of August”: it openly and unambiguously put the interests of the Russian dictatorship above those of the international workers’ movement in overthrowing Hitler. The sharper the conflict between the Russian dictatorship and all opponents of German Fascism grows, the closer that Hitler and Stalin draw together, the deeper will become the gulf between the Communist International and all tendencies of the independent Socialist workers' movement.

Today Stalin sees English imperialism as the main enemy, Hitler as an unreliable ally and the internal German opposition as a danger for his foreign policy. Thus the KPD, which is a tool of his foreign policy, must no longer aim its main attack against Hitler, but against the German anti-Fascists. The logic is beyond dispute, yet this latest step has a fundamental significance as a step across the line separating an organisation of the workers’ movement (even if a degenerate one) from simply a foreign arm of the GPU.

That is the inner logic and the fundamental significance of the call to break solidarity. Certainly we do not believe that many illegal Communist functionaries will follow this slogan. Perhaps they will learn of it when Der Angriff or another Nazi paper reprints Ulbricht with relish. Perhaps they will turn on Moscow radio to convince themselves that Der Angriff is lying ’ and instead receive a confirmation of it. The confusion, the shock to these comrades will be exceedingly great. For many the experience of Nazi terror and the moral bonds of illegality will prove stronger than the line from Moscow. They will grasp that they must choose, and make a break with Moscow and the KPD. Isolated by dictatorship and war, others may take up the new lesson from Moscow and become ‘social patriots’ of the Fascist war in the mad delusion, that, in that way, they are fulfilling their revolutionary duty. The smallest number will be prepared to, or have the possibility of, drawing the final consequence of party discipline and go over to ‘exposing’ anti-Fascists. Yet the responsibility of the party that calls on them to do this will not be any the less for that.

And how do things stand with KPD functionaries and members in exile? Many of them have worked for years in illegality and have tried to work together with anti-Fascists of all sorts in this work, according to the then instructions of their party to create a ‘Popular Front’. They must also understand what the new instruction of KPD means. But they are not, like Communists at home, alone with Fascism and their conscience. In exile there is a party apparatus, which obediently without shame distributes the document They must also make their choice – and where exile life goes on openly, do so publicly.

We respect the honest convictions of every Socialist and anti-Fascist even when we consider them as wrong. We see it as the task of the international Socialist movement to encourage the overthrow of Hitler system by all possible means – that is why in this war we unambiguously sides against Hitler. However, we recognise the democratic right of Socialists within and outside the Communist Party to put a different view. But Ulbricht’s official party document is more than an expression of an arguable political position; it is a call to break solidarity. That is why we put question to every German Communist in exile: are you in agreement with this document or not? If not, then you must say so publicly and act accordingly – by leaving the KPD. If you do agree, then you are travelling a road with the KPD which irrevocably leads away from the road of Socialist workers’ movement.

Revolutionare Sozialisten Osterreichs (RSO)
Sozialistische Arbeiter Partei (SAP)
Socialdemocratische Organisation Neu Beginnen
Internationaler Sozialistischer Kampfbund (ISK)

Updated by ETOL: 22.7.2003