Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 2

Ernest Rogers

A Comment on Paul Levi’s Article

THE preface which Paul Levi wrote for the German edition of Leon Trotsky’s The Lessons of October, which itself was a preface to a collection of his writings during the Russian Revolution of October 1917, is written in a very cryptic and condensed manner (it was done under the constraints of the time; the KPD was illegal for several months after the events of October 1923). It requires some explanation and expansion. The following is an attempt to do so.

In the first paragraph Levi says: ‘This criticism [by Trotsky] refers to things from the past, and where it does include more recent matters, it does not, in our opinion, even start with the correct assumptions.’ He says that Trotsky persists in his thesis that in Germany during October 1923, a situation existed in which the KPD, with a decisive leadership (such as that of Lenin in October 1917) would have succeeded in seizing power. Here, Levi correctly states Trotsky’s position, but he had not grasped that Trotsky was using a hypothetical revolutionary position in Germany to beat the heads of Zinoviev’s and Kamenev’s faction in the Soviet Union. The problems of Germany were being subordinated to a Russian conflict.

Levi does concede that after the occupation of the Ruhr and the hyperinflation, the German proletariat could have raised itself as a ruling power, but he strenuously denies that the KPD, with its support of nationalist policies as expressed in Radek’s Schlageter Speech (in which he expressed support for a German Freikorps member executed by the French for sabotage activity during their occupation of the Ruhr), could play any role. He says that the result of all this was that instead of a strong proletarian force emerging at the end of the war in the Ruhr, ‘there was a nationalist-Communist stench which poisoned the whole of Germany’, and that the National Socialists and the Communists laid claim to the same right ‘to be the heirs of the foundering Germany’: one presenting itself as ‘National Communist’, and the other as ‘Communist-nationalist’, ‘so at bottom both were the same’. Levi concludes: ‘History rejected both such claims – we have had the good fortune to avert the fate of either a dictatorship of Muscovite soldiery or Austrian sexual-pathology.’ Here, Levi makes for the time a remarkable equation between the Nazi and Communist Parties. ‘Muscovite soldiery’ is a reference to the Soviet officers brought in to head the insurrection that never was, and ‘Austrian sexual-pathology’ is a reference to the attempted coup by Hitler, Ludendorff and Ernst Röhm in Munich. We had the good fortune to escape this fate, says Levi: 1933 and 1945 had yet to come.

In the third paragraph, Levi says: ‘If, as far as the German circumstances of 1923 are concerned, the Trotskyist criticism is incorrect in its actual assumptions, it is even more incomprehensible how it could have had such a huge effect in Russia.’ In the fourth paragraph, he attributes the huge effect to the ideological habits of Bolshevism. Here the facts of the life and death struggle for the Soviet Communist Party and state, which to a great extent Trotsky had already lost, were, it seems, unknown to Levi. As the facts are now common knowledge, there is no need to repeat them here.

But what were the incorrect assumptions to which Levi refers? The first occurs in Lessons of October, when Trotsky says: ‘In the latter part of last year [1923], we witnessed in Germany a classic demonstration of how it is possible to miss a perfectly exceptional revolutionary situation of world historic importance.’ [1] Trotsky then goes on to analyse not the German events and experience, but the Russian events of October 1917. Was this analogy of the two Octobers valid? A succinct answer was given by Lenin at the Third Congress of the Communist International. When replying to the supporters of the offensive of March 1921, he said:

In Europe, where almost all the proletarians are organised, we must win the majority of the working class, and anyone who fails to understand this is lost to the Communist movement – Comrade Terracini has understood very little of the Russian Revolution. In Russia, we were a small party, but we had with us in addition the majority of the Soviets of Workers’ and Peasants’ Deputies throughout the country. Do you have anything of the sort? We had with us almost half the army, which then numbered at least 10 million men. Do you really have the majority of the army behind you? Show me such a country! If these views of Comrade Terracini are shared by three other delegations, then something is wrong in the International! Then we must say: ‘Stop! There must be a decisive fight! Otherwise the Communist International is lost.’ [2]

Elsewhere, Trotsky asks: ‘Were the masses in a fighting mood?’ He answers: ‘The entire history of the year 1923 leaves no doubt at all on this score.’ [3] This confident assertion does not accord with the facts. The statistics of that period display the number of strikes, the number of strikers, and the length of the strikes, and they show an increasing reluctance of workers to engage in battle. In 1922 there were 4,750 strikes and lockouts, involving 1,895,800 employees, with 27,734,000 days ‘lost’. The figures for 1923 were 2,046, 1,626,800 and 12,344,000 respectively. [4]

Trotsky goes on: ‘In Germany, the insurrection would have immediately blazed in scores of mighty proletarian centres.’ [5] But after the failure of Brandler to obtain support for a general strike at the Chemnitz trade union and factory committee conference, the KPD sent out an order cancelling the uprising that it had planned. This instruction either did not reach or was ignored by the party in Hamburg. The uprising took place there in test-tube conditions: there were 40,000 SPD members, 18,000 KPD members, and no Reichswehr troops in the vicinity (they had been sent to Central Germany). And a week before the uprising, the shipyards, transport system and factories of every kind were on strike. Three hundred brave KPD members, armed with 19 rifles and 27 revolvers, attacked the police stations. [6] The workers of Hamburg did not support them.

In the summer of 1924, whilst attending a revolutionary military seminar in Moscow, Karl Retzlaw, an old Spartacist and an underground KPD official, was summoned by Trotsky to give a report on the events of 1923. Trotsky said that judging from the reports of the KPD’s Zentrale, and especially Brandler’s personal reports, he had estimated the developments in Germany to be more advanced than they were. Answering Trotsky’s question as to whether an open attack in the summer of 1923, at the climax of the German crisis, would have been successful, he said: ‘No, people were worn out. Their nerves had been frayed by the long, protracted crisis itself – even if we had launched an attack in October, we would have been annihilated, as the Hamburg insurrection had proved.’ He also told the astonished Trotsky that many more workers had volunteered for the police auxiliary services to help crush the Communists’ insurrection than had joined their side. Trotsky told him that he had not heard this before. [7]

It is interesting to note that in all the discussions of 1923, there is little or no mention of the effect of the bloody fiasco of March 1921, when the KPD organised an uprising which received little support from the workers, and ended with dozens dead and thousands imprisoned. When Brandler, after speaking for over three hours, appealed to the Chemnitz conference for a vote in favour of a general strike as a prelude to an uprising, there could not have been a delegate at that conference who was not acquainted with the fiasco of 1921. Some may have been involved in it. In effect, Brandler was offering them a second-hand revolution. That he was turned down proves the truth of the saying ‘once bitten, twice shy’.

Although Trotsky asked in The Lessons of October for a ‘concrete account, full of factual data, of last year’s developments in Germany’, nine years later in the discussions with Walcher, we find no new data, and no data is produced, only a metaphor. We can draw our own conclusions as to the truth of Levi’s charge of ‘unwarranted assumptions’.


1. L.D. Trotsky, The Lessons of October, The Challenge of the Left Opposition 1923–25, New York 1975, p. 201.

2. V.I. Lenin, Speech in Defence of the Tactics of the Communist International, Collected Works, Volume 32, Moscow, 1975, pp. 470–1. Umberto Terracini (1895–?) was a leading member of the Italian Communist Party, who was jailed under Mussolini’s regime, and became President of the National Assembly after the Second World War.

3. L.D. Trotsky, On the Defeat of the German Revolution, The Challenge of the Left Opposition 1923–25, op. cit., p. 169.

4. V.R. Berghahn, Modern Germany, Cambridge 1987, p. 304.

5. L.D. Trotsky, The Lessons of October, op. cit., p. 231.

6. A. Neuberg, Armed Insurrection, London, 1970, pp84–5.

7. K. Retzlaw, Spartakus: Aufstieg und Niedergang, Erinnerungen eines Parteiarbeiters, Frankfurt am Main 1976, pp. 294–5. I quote from Karl Rennert’s English translation, which has not yet been published. Karl Retzlaw (1886–?), whose real name was Friedberg, was a KPD official, and was a secret Trotskyist in the 1930s, working under the name of Erd after 1933.

Updated by ETOL: 20.9.2011