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

Udo Winkel

Paul Levi and His Significance for
the Communist Movement in Germany

The following article was translated by Mike Jones from Arbeiterstimme (Nuremberg), no. 88, July 1990. It was first published in New Interventions, Volume 2, no. 4, January 1992, and we present here a corrected version. Arbeiterstimme is the paper of Gruppe Arbeiterpolitik, one of the two small groups in Germany which lay claim to Heinrich Brandler’s political legacy. Further biographical details on Paul Levi can be found on pages 61–2 of this journal.

COMMUNISM is not the beginning but rather the end of the revolution, and a Communist is not one who joins the end to the beginning, but the one who follows the beginning to its conclusion.

On the night of 9 February 1930, Paul Levi fell from the window of his top floor apartment in Berlin. It has never been satisfactorily established whether this was due to his being in a feverish delirium, or whether he intended to commit suicide. In this essay, it is not possible to make an evaluation of the great lawyer, the writer of brilliant historical portraits, and the representative of the left wing of Social Democracy, but rather the fundamental significance of Paul Levi for the Communist movement must be set out.

In his appreciation of Levi, Carl von Ossietsky wrote:

The Communists do him an injustice by calling him a renegade, as do the Social Democrats by calling him a convert. He was an international revolutionary Socialist of the Rosa Luxemburg school, he never denied it. He will remain in the memory amongst the few incurable outsiders who are inseparable from the idea that revolutionary politics also involve strong independent individuals, and that, with a man like Paul Levi, one will fare much better than with the polite office-managers of radicalism. Paul Levi was committed to Socialism as hardly any other, but not to a party, not to its every word, not to its expediences, nor to its considerations. [1]

The last statement is only partly true. It is valid only for the Social Democracy, and not for the Communist Party which Levi helped to build. Indeed, his justifiably sharp criticisms sprang, as we shall see, directly from his grief over the Communist movement, over the self-destruction of the party. Decisive for Levi’s development was his association with Rosa Luxemburg, with whom he became acquainted in 1913, and defended at the beginning of 1914. He was her pupil. As Sybille Quack says:

Her influence upon Levi was very strong: during the war years he belonged to her closest confidants within the Spartakusbund. His conceptions of a Socialist revolution, and of the structure and growth of a mass party, were shaped by Rosa Luxemburg. Levi was less of a theoretician, and rather more a far-sighted strategist and practical man, who built on the concrete needs and interests of the German labour movement, and from these attempted to advance realistic policies. [2]

In Levi’s words:

A small propaganda group led by the brain of Rosa Luxemburg, was held together by the will of Leo Jogiches, with no other weapon than a few leaflets [the Spartakus Letters], and behind them a band of panting detectives, a public prosecutor and a national senate in hot pursuit. [3]

This is the way Levi characterised the beginnings of the Spartakusbund, to whose leading kernel he belonged, and whose leadership he took over in the spring of 1918 after the arrest of Jogiches.

The November Revolution of 1918 began with the revolt of the Kiel sailors. Levi was frequently described, along with Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, as the third great ‘L’. In the jargon of the Social Democratic Party’s daily newspaper Vorwärts, it was said: ‘A certain Levi and the loud-mouthed Rosa Luxemburg, neither of whom ever stood at the vice or in the workshop, are close to ruining everything we and our fathers dreamt of.’ [4] Levi belonged to the 13-strong Zentrale of the Spartakusbund, founded on 11 November. With the Council of People’s Deputies, the revolution brought the SPD and USPD coalition to power. The Reich Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils deprived itself of power, since it agreed with Social Democratic demands for an election to a National Assembly. In this situation, more than ever, the great realism of Rosa Luxemburg and her friends showed itself. Ebert and Scheidemann [5] were an expression of the level of consciousness of the proletariat, a product of the first political phase of the revolution. Only a further sharpening of the capitalist contradictions, and thus the broadening of economic struggles, would bring the revolution further in the direction of a social upheaval. From the start, the Spartakusbund demanded that the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils take power, on both the political as well as the economic plane. However, at this point, in the opinion of Rosa Luxemburg’s ‘sophisticated radicalism’, the National Assembly should also be used with the aim of driving the revolution forward.

Against Ultra-Leftism

At the founding congress of German Communist Party (KPD), which took place on 31 December 1918 and 1 January 1919, Levi had taken on the task of arguing for the party’s participation in the elections to the National Assembly:

The question must be considered coolly and calmly. Our whole power must be based on the council government rather than the National Assembly. On that we are agreed. The proletariat is forced to break out of this chaos, and to create new forms of economic and political relations … And for us all, it is in addition a matter of course that only through this activity of organically taking over all state and economic structures does the idea of Socialism grow within the proletariat itself … The National Assembly will be a compliant instrument in the hands of the counter-revolution, wholly after the wishes of the bourgeoisie, wholly after the wishes of its agents Ebert-Scheidemann. Without a doubt, the representatives of the resolute revolutionary tendency within the proletariat will find itself in a minority in this National Assembly. Party comrades! We nevertheless propose to you that we do not ignore the National Assembly elections. We propose to you that we participate in these elections to the National Assembly with all our strength …

You view parliament as always being merely the weak-kneed structure which the parliament was and must be when the proletariat is not in a revolutionary situation. Today the proletariat has changed. Today its representatives should enter the parliament, but not to give speeches, not to prattle, not to make amendments, not to negotiate with this or that representative in committees, and not to veer from here to there. You must stand and fight with the threat of the open might which stands behind these proletarian representatives … You must penetrate every redoubt which the bourgeoisie has built for itself, and in dogged man-to-man fighting, storm these redoubts. You must also fight and fight again against all plots in this parliament, and I say to you it will be another type of fight than hitherto, and not with mere speeches.

You must act in the knowledge that behind you stands the power of the proletariat. Only in these struggles, party comrades, will you be able to defeat the enemy morally, and only in these struggles will things eventually reach the stage when we will be forced into physically defeating it, and the physical fight will have the result that the bourgeoisie will suffer a political defeat in a fortress which it has built for itself, and this will perhaps finish it off …

When you now issue a slogan for a boycott of the elections, you will never ever succeed in attracting towards us that huge flock, who in their hearts sympathise with us, who in their hearts stand with us, and with whom we could unite in a short time, because they will stand aside …

The German bourgeoisie is consolidating itself, centralising its whole power, and creating an institution for itself around which a counter-revolution can in the future be organised, and you come along and say that ‘it will sort itself out’. It will not sort itself out. It is our duty to penetrate that building, it is our duty to throw firebrands into this redoubt, it is just as much our duty to take up the fight in there as in any other place where the bourgeoisie challenges us. What you are saying means no more than that where the bourgeoisie built a fortress and where once again it has concentrated all its forces and is ready once more to take up the fight, we should ignore it. And I say to you, with this decision you will cause yourselves and our movement the greatest harm. [6]

The Zentrale could not get its line adopted, and participation in the elections to the National Assembly was opposed with 62 votes against and 23 votes for. That meant that the Revolutionary Obleute, the revolutionary shop stewards, the representatives for the revolutionary proletariat of Berlin, were also kept outside the new party, because an essential condition for its fusion with the KPD was the party’s participation in the elections.

Looking back later, Levi said of the 1920 party congress:

The Communist Party of Germany was founded at that time from elements who were not homogenous. There was a small band of Communists who already during the war had stood with the Spartakusbund, there were the groups who during the war, in contrast to the Spartakusbund, had already left the USPD, and there were groups which in general had only arisen during the revolution. They were brave fighters and honest revolutionaries, but without political education, who saw an event in the revolution, as Horace described it, ‘concurritur, horae momento cita mors venit aut victoria laeta’ [storming along, at the decisive moment comes death or celebrations of victory]. We Communists believed, and we had a certain right to do so, that the great authority of the founders of the party, the authority of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and Leo Jogiches would, in a short time, succeed in making these fighters into Communists. Already at the founding conference, the Communists suffered a fundamental defeat. Against the advice of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, it decided not to participate in the elections to parliament, and again it was Leo Jogiches who recognised the full significance of the vote, as, on these grounds, he demanded that under such circumstances the founding of the party be delayed. [7]

After that it was a question of becoming a revolutionary mass party rather than a sect, a process which could only succeed by winning over the masses. After the murders of Liebknecht and Luxemburg, and also that of Jogiches, Levi had to take over the leadership of the party.

In the programme of the young Communist Party, Luxemburg had left behind a testament, the terms of which needed to be fulfilled. It also clearly set out the self-comprehension (selbstverständnis) of the character and tasks of the proletarian vanguard:

The Spartakusbund is not a party that wants to rise to power over the mass of workers, or through them. The Spartakusbund is only the most conscious, purposeful part of the proletariat, which points the entire broad mass of the working class towards its historical tasks at every step, and which, at each particular stage of the revolution, points to the ultimate Socialist goal … The victory of the Spartakusbund comes not at the beginning, but at the end of the revolution: it is identical with the victory of the great million-strong masses of the Socialist proletariat. [8]

Levi began work in the sense that he was concerned with overcoming the ultra-left sectarianism in the KPD, and of advancing and urging on the process which could detach the working-class masses from Social Democracy, a process which was expressed by both the quantitative growth and the leftward evolution of the USPD.

In November 1920, in a letter to the French Communist Loriot, Levi wrote:

… however, a few days after its foundation in January 1919, the Communist Party itself was made illegal, under the blows of the counter-revolution, under the persecution of Noske’s [9] troops, under the harassment of the police, and it had to retreat into illegality. For 18 months it could hardly appear openly anywhere at any time, and its whole existence was illegal. Hence, the result was that the influence exercised by the KPD did not immediately show itself through the KPD itself, but within the ranks of the party which could work legally and consequently recruit to its organisation all those who had grasped Communist ideas: namely in the USPD. Wholly appropriately, the growth of Communist ideas in Germany increased the power and strength of the so-called left wing of the USPD, and, in the development of the USPD, we could directly read off the growth of Communist ideas as on a gauge.

In January 1919 the influence of the Communists upon the USPD’s members was so insignificant that the foundation of the KPD barely affected the USPD. By March 1919 the influence of the KPD had grown to the degree that the right wing of the USPD was forced to drop its slogan of democracy, and was obliged to make the famous compromise with its left wing over ‘incorporating workers’ councils in the constitution’. The left wing was not sufficiently strong at this point to reject this compromise. In November 1919 the left wing had become sufficiently strong to be able at the Leipzig Congress to win a majority for affiliation to the Communist International, but not strong enough to avoid once more being trapped into a compromise. In October 1920 the left wing was strong enough to gain a majority for the Communist International and for Moscow’s Twenty-One Conditions at the Halle Congress, and, equally, also strong enough to draw the organisational consequences from these points of view, that is, to throw the right wing out of the party. Thus, when we then joined together with the left wing of the USPD, it was a fusion with a considerable pack of proletarian fighters, who had not only fought together with us in all the important actions of the German proletariat, but who had won their political education in these long struggles, which had made them into Communists in the best sense of the word. The fusion, and accordingly the founding of the United Communist Party of Germany, is thus a concentration of the proletarian forces in the best sense of the word … [10]

The Munich Council Republic: A ‘Freak’

With this understanding, Levi set himself against any adventurist policy, and he therefore also opposed any mystification of the Munich Council Republic:

The history of the Munich Council Republic can be quite briefly recounted as follows: the Majority Socialists, Independents and Anarchists decided in the Café Stephanie to declare a ‘council republic’ in the surrounding districts, so their sovereign state stretched from Schwabing to past Passing, and from Laim to just past Freimaring. The Communists submitted this council republic to the sharpest criticism: this council republic was no ‘premature birth’, as Comrade Werner [Paul Frölich] thought, but a prodigiosum aliquid, a freak or monster; because the womb of the Majority Socialists-Independent-Anarchist coffee house circles is just as likely to produce a council republic as the womb of a gorilla is to produce a human child … Comrade Werner, faced with this, thought the Communists should have a duty to ‘put the brakes on’. I am not of that opinion. A Communist never puts the brakes on. When he calls a buffoon a buffoon, and a putschist a putschist, when he calls illusions just that, when he points out impotence, unfitness and immature political action, then he is not ‘putting the brakes on’, but leading the revolution. It is only called ‘braking’ by people who believe that where there is a noise there is also a revolution … ‘To pursue Communist politics calls for acting on the basis of a clearly identified revolutionary will’, said Comrade Werner. I would formulate it more crisply. I say: To pursue Communist politics means to act sensibly from a revolutionary standpoint. That resolves Werner’s problem of will. For when Comrade Werner then continues, ‘“the clearly identified will” is not only determined through general tactical aims and guiding principles, but is dependent on the situation’, that is quite correct. Only the ‘will’ is not dependent on situation, but resolution: it also does it quite smoothly without being determined … A Majority Socialist-Independent-Anarchist ‘council republic’ without a sufficient base in the masses was established, to be replaced by a Communist council republic, which itself had all the faults … of the former. In other words, one zero was replaced by another zero … If the masses proceed with actions which are only superficially revolutionary, which in reality can only lead to defeat, then it is our duty to give warnings, and to criticise, as was the case in Munich; but if the masses, nevertheless, begin to move, although it can only lead to disaster, we are obliged to put ourselves at the head. This is not only because of our own situation, but because afterwards, when defeat occurs, when the masses are disappointed, they will be able to turn to the derided critics of yesterday. [11]

The Kapp Putsch and the Wavering of the KPD

With the Kapp Putsch on 13 March 1920, the counter-revolution attempted to strike its first blow against the achievements of the November Revolution. The Social Democratic government fled, but the trade union headquarters immediately called for a general strike, under the slogan ‘The German Republic is in Danger’, and, within a few days, the strike smashed this attempt to establish a military dictatorship. The KPD had at first not participated; the national leadership and that of Berlin declared that the workers had no reason to lift a finger for Ebert and Noske. Under pressure from below, the Communist workers spontaneously joined the defensive struggle, and, two days later, they recognised the general strike as an ‘opening up of the struggle’. However, their follow-up slogans turned out to be abstract phrases, such as ‘A Congress of Councils’, ‘A Council of Peoples’ Commissars’ and ‘World Revolution’. Levi, who was in jail at the time, replied in a sharply critical letter, which was later published in Kommunistische Internationale:

I have just read the leaflets. My verdict is that the KPD is threatened with moral and political bankruptcy. It is inexplicable to me how, in this situation, sentences like this can be written: ‘At this moment the proletariat is not capable of acting. It is necessary to state it clearly.’ ‘By the mere fact that Lüttwitz-Kapp have taken the place of Bauer-Noske in relation to the great class struggles … nothing has directly changed …’ With that we have become procurers for the most dismal fellows in the labour movement, who always yell: ‘But it is no use!’ They now have it in print from the KPD. After having denied the capacity for action in the first days, a leaflet was given out in the following days: the German proletariat must now finally open up the struggle for the proletarian dictatorship and the Communist council republic! Meanwhile, a general strike took hold – after an alleged incapacity for action. Simultaneously – when the general strike had brought the masses out of the factories – they called for elections to the councils’ central conference. In brief, our ‘gurus’ broke the neck of the general strike both organisationally and politically. They also did it morally.

In my mind, it was a crime to weaken the action through writing: ‘The proletariat will not lift a finger for the democratic republic.’ Do you know what that means? That is to stab in the back the greatest action of the German proletariat! I had always thought that we were clear and in agreement on the following: that when an action arises – even for the silliest aim (even the November Revolution had no rationale and no aim at all) – we joined it, and through our slogans led it beyond its silly aim; we relate the true aim and the raising of the action of the masses to each other, and do not yell at the start ‘Do not lift a finger’ when the aim does not please us. Concrete slogans must be spread among them. Say to the masses what is to be done at that moment! Obviously, the slogans intensify, gradually intensify. The council republic comes at the end and not at the beginning … Demands belong to a strike. The KPD should have raised these demands, because Vorwärts wisely did not do so. The demands are … the arming of the proletariat for the security of the republic, that is, issuing weapons to the politically organised workers … A council republic and a council congress are not demands, and one cannot work to attain them. In particular, these demands ask nothing at all of our enemy.

With such slogans the KPD would have given the strike a vision. With these slogans it would have led, in a little while … to the SPD not participating, or rather, to their losing control. Then, but only then, the moment would have come to show to the masses: it has led you into misfortune, and now it betrays you again … Then and only then, when the masses take up our demands and the leadership rejects them, will they achieve them or be abandoned, and thus out of the action arises the demand for other demands, that is, for councils … All these demands arise by their own accord, once the strike demand is complied with. Everything must now be concentrated on that … Organisationally, it was necessary:

1. To write once or even twice a day a general leaflet, not a Communist compendium, but four sentences on the situation, with a one sentence conclusion … Criticism of the strike leadership who will do a deal. There must be leaflets for the soldiers, leaflets for the SPD, leaflets for the civil servants, explaining; leaflets to the railway, post and telegraph workers.

2. To develop the action. Demonstration-rally on the Trepow Meadow. Avoid clashes.

3. Military training of the cadre, even if without weapons …

Prison cells, Lehrter Strasse, Berlin 16, 1920

P. Levi [12]

The Removal of the Ultra-Left

The workers became radicalised, and their bitter experiences propelled them towards Communism. But they did not want to have anything more to do with potential putschists than with the anti-parliamentary, anti-trade unionists. For Levi, it meant, as a precondition, overcoming the errors of the party’s founding conference. This occurred at the second (illegal) party congress in October 1919:

The congress now had to revise its attitude to the elections, to parliament and the trade unions, and to push the ultra-left out of the party. Levi’s guiding principles set out that the party could not renounce any political means on principle. ‘Participation in the elections must be considered as a means.’ Of course, they had to be subordinate, and they were only a preparatory means of the revolutionary struggle. The economic means of struggle were of special significance. The party was supposed to ensure this ‘even, where necessary, at the price of destroying the forms of the trade union and the creation of new organisational forms’. The view that one is able, by virtue of a special organisational form, to produce the mass movement from nothing, must be opposed, of course, as a relapse into petit-bourgeois utopianism. The political party is a primary necessity for the leadership of revolutionary mass struggles. [13]

In Levi’s own copy of the text of the speech which he made at this congress, there is a sentence of Marx from Class Struggles in France, underlined in blue, which he used as a guiding principle for the class struggles in Germany in the coming years. He had often used it:

… the revolution made progress, and forged ahead, not by its immediate tragi-comic achievements, but on the contrary by the creation of a powerful, united counter-revolution, by the creation of an opponent in combat with whom alone the party of insurrection ripened into a really revolutionary party. [14]

The breakaway of the ultra-lefts and Syndicalists to form the KAPD led to a halving of the party membership, although, on the other hand, it did make possible the unification with the left wing of the USPD. In an article in Die Internationale, Levi once more went into detail on the necessity for the split:

What is a proletarian party? It is a union of those proletarians united by the same insight into the historical condition of the proletariat. What does a proletarian party want? To change the situation of the proletariat according to its – correct or false – historical perception. All proletarian parties want that … But what do the Communists want? They want to change the situation of the proletariat through the abolition and overthrow of capitalism, and say that no Communist Noske can do it for the proletariat, that only the proletariat itself is able to do it, and we Communists say that, since the proletariat has been an oppressed class for thousands of years, from one day to the next, it cannot obtain the historical vision and the political will required in order to realise these tasks of its own liberation, because it must first attain this vision and will in the struggle. It is the task of the Communists in the course of revolutionary struggles of the process of the emancipation of the proletariat, to promote it by means of their greater clarity. For Communists, the question is not: how do we get the bigger party; but this: how do we get the most conscious proletariat? In this sense the party is nothing and the proletariat is everything …

The routes of the proletariat in the revolution are various: both routes and detours. One detour was the belief that a couple of storming vanguards of the proletariat would be able to accomplish the work of the proletariat. Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, Erfurt, Bremen and Munich have refuted this putschism through the deed, and have shown that only the working class as a whole in both town and country can gain political power over the bourgeoisie, and replace capitalism by Communism …

To be sure, in the course of the proletarian revolution and in its specific form of development, it is inevitable that the revolution will suffer reverses, and particularly that the masses will stray from straight paths, and will either take detours or even retreat.

However, this is precisely the moment in which the Communist shows that he is a Communist, and when the chaff is separated from the wheat. It is precisely in such times that Marxist education and critical thought enables him to prepare the masses themselves, to encourage self-criticism, and thus help them find a way through the difficulties. In times when the proletariat stormed forward in direct attacks, its storming forward often stemmed from a revolutionary temperament rather than from any Marxist education. As to do so is self-evident, Marxist education therefore has no particular resonance amongst the masses.

To remain firm during the critical phases, when the best appear to waver; not to waver, to defy also the storm which blows up in one’s own ranks: that alone rouses confidence, and is paid back a thousandfold once the critical times have passed. The Communist must also remain firm, when the crisis of the proletariat thrives in mock-revolutionary phrases of Syndicalist origin. It is not the use of the most ‘radical’ phrases at any given moment which distinguishes the Communist, but the fact that at any given moment he sees, points out and seeks the clearest. However, for the Communist, this question cannot arise, as he already had to resolve it when it was raised previously by a series of party comrades. The question was whether the proletarian revolution could still rely on the Marxist school for its success, or should so-called Syndicalist ideas replace it. Such a question was posed to the accompaniment of that shrieking and quarrelling peculiar only to such wiseacres. And we Communists have, in the most visible form, dug a trench between them and us … Our separation has once again put the question before the proletariat in the sharpest fashion, whether Marxism or pseudo-revolutionary phrases ought to lead it. The proletariat must decide this question: the more sharply we formulate it, so much the more sharply is the decision taken. And the more sharply is the decision taken, the more united will the proletariat be around it afterwards. [15]

At the sixth party congress, held in Berlin on 4‐7 December 1920, the KPD and the left wing of the USPD fused into the United Communist Party of Germany (VKPD). Fifty thousand Communists and 300,000 left-wing USPD members formed themselves into a mass revolutionary party. Levi and Ernst Däumig, the theoretical brain of the Revolutionary Obleute, shared the post of Chairman of the new party. [16]

In reality, only now had genuinely revolutionary mass politics – that is, the struggle to win over the mass of the working class – become possible. The task was formulated by Levi:

Without a weighty organised mass we … cannot become a great movement. Our relationship to these workers’ organisations will change our nature … On the one hand, we must keep our individuality and our essence as Communists, whilst on the other, we must come into the closest contact with these working-class masses … With the Open Letter we have taken this route. [17]

The question of the creation of a united proletarian front of struggle, the united front tactic, was advanced for the first time in January 1921, when Levi sent an Open Letter, with a minimum programme for collaboration, to the trade unions, the SPD and the rump USPD. Its partial demands were: wages to be linked to inflation, the creation of a proletarian self-defence corps, the establishment of relations with Soviet Russia, and workers’ control of production in the enterprises.

Conflicts with the Communist International

This realistic policy, based on an understanding that the immediate revolutionary situation had passed and that the winning over of the working class is a laborious, long-term process, contradicted the revolutionary desires of the Communist International. In her biography of Levi, Charlotte Beradt correctly writes:

Paul Levi had principled differences with the Communist International long before the VKPD was created. He had started to build bridges between the Communists and Independents. But the struggle against his politics, carried out by the left-wing groups within his party and directed from Moscow, had already started: the fight against Levi as a ‘right opportunist’, as a ‘passivist’, as a ‘brake’, as ‘semi or total Menshevik’, who did not believe in uprisings or in the possibility of a revolutionary situation in Germany and Western Europe, but in a slow process of development and maturation of the masses with the help of a ‘mass revolutionary party’, in brief, the struggle began against the tradition of Rosa Luxemburg in which he was rooted, now often called ‘Levitism’, as its adherents were called ‘Levites’. [18]

After the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920, in a speech before the Zentralausschuss [19] of the KPD, Levi said:

The Russian comrades are a state power and a mass organisation. It is conceivable that this will affect the Communist International. That is a danger which is theoretically possible, but one which I cannot imagine occurring in practice. [20]

A manifesto from the unification congress of the VKPD said that ‘separate Communist organisations like the KAPD’ had ‘no right to a future existence’. Shortly after that, over the head of its German section, the KAPD was accepted as a sympathising party of the Communist International. Under the headline, An Untenable Situation, Levi wrote in Rote Fahne:

The decision came from Moscow. Nevertheless, we have no reason to receive it with the words:

Lord send us what thou will
Love or pain
I am confident that both
From thy hands arise … [21]

It is much too important. Instead of writing a general article of approval we must state what is. But when it is held against us that our tactic lacks the traditional revolutionary pathetic verve and the great gesture, we have to say in response: perhaps, the barely perceived and insignificant activity of the lowest [party] official in the factory or the trade union, is dearer to us, than any revolutionary psychopathy … No rules in the statutes of the Communist International oblige us … to declare every decision of the Executive Committee as a stroke of genius … For us criticism is … precious. Nevertheless, I do believe that we are obliged to say something when we do not like certain things. [22]

Then something of the greatest significance occurred, for at the Livorno Congress, in which Levi participated as a delegate, the Communist International split the Italian Socialist Party, which had been the first Western European Party to affiliate to the Communist International immediately after it was founded, and expelled Serrati, [23] the party leader who enjoyed mass support amongst the workers. A small minority formed themselves into the Italian Communist Party. Levi now rebuked the Communist International, as its policy was preventing the development of mass parties, and favoured purist sects. Speaking to the Zentralausschuss of the KPD, he said:

If the Communist International in Western Europe functions like a recoil-operated machine gun loading and ejecting, then we will experience the heaviest setback … Our Russian friends have not fully … recognised that in a mass party which, perhaps, has a different mental structure from the illegal party in Russia … splitting cannot proceed from resolutions, but must flow from political experience. In Germany, however, we have already known how when Communists … are active in small circles, without any larger circles around ourselves which are Communist-orientated and willing to submit to a Communist leadership … We are powerless in this kernel as our best ideas … simply miscarry in the feeble hand of the organisation lying between us and the masses. We must be totally clear whether we want to stay with the masses and wish to grow with them … or whether we … as a self-elected leadership gathered together are going to split away from what has already been built up. And I say quite openly: there are signs in the party of thinking along these lines. [24]

When Mátyás Rakosi, a new representative of the Communist International, posed the question of splitting during a session of the Zentralausschuss in February 1921 – a precedent had been established in Italy – and by 28 to 23 votes gained a majority, Levi, Zetkin, Däumig, Adolf Hoffmann and Brass left the Zentrale. Levi also resigned as party Chairman. [25]

The ‘March Action’: A Voluntarist Policy

The new Zentrale wanted to show that the party was capable of a revolutionary offensive, and had overcome its fear of ‘putschism’. The theory of the offensive was developed, and the party leadership spoke of ‘a complete break with the past’; that is, ‘one must force the destiny of the revolution’, and ‘the party must dare to undertake the offensive’. Levi was in Austria when an uprising broke out in Central Germany in March 1921, the so-called ‘March Action’, with the consent of the new Zentrale and encouraged by the emissaries of the Communist International. The uprising was suppressed district by district, and a call for a mass general strike was ignored. Levi sharply criticised the new policy, because it concerned the very existence of the party. In a letter to Lenin in Moscow he wrote:

By continuing with this policy, that is, by continuing the action of the party without regard for the entire proletariat, and under the circumstances against the entire proletariat, I see the situation of the party as follows: the Communist Party has come into an increasing and sharp opposition, not only against the overwhelming majority of the proletarian classes, but also against all the other classes which are important in the revolution. The Communist Party itself is split, because the masses already in the party, who are undoubtedly brave and self-sacrificing fighters, are now obliged to resist the hostility of the whole mass of the proletarian classes, so as not to come to grief in the long term. Just as the sympathy of the working classes strengthen and improve the power and capability not merely of the Communist Party, but of every single Communist, so the antipathy of the working classes, and even their open enmity, diminishes and cripples the power and capability of the party. Two or three more such actions undertaken by the Communist Party, which the workers perceive as being directed against them, are in danger of really being directed against the proletariat, and the Communist Party will end up being smashed to the floor, and we will have to begin reconstructing it under much more difficult circumstances than those of today …

As I believe that the position of the Communist Party is not only difficult, but under the circumstances disastrous, and since I see a danger to the very existence of the party, I therefore turn to you personally, though I do not know to what extent you are familiar with the details of the politics of the Communist International, with the request that, in your turn, you consider the situation and if possible act accordingly … [26]

Levi’s Pamphlet Against the ‘Bakuninist Putsch’ of the KPD

Just as Rosa Luxemburg wrote her Junius Pamphlet on the collapse of the traditions of the SPD, so Levi wrote his pamphlet with the title Unser Weg wider dem Putschismus [Our Path Against Putschism]. This pamphlet set out the Luxemburgist course. Beradt says:

Levi had written his pamphlet on 2 and 3 April 1921, and he had given it to Clara Zetkin to read, who found it ‘simply excellent’, but advised him to express himself more cautiously. He had tried to get the Zentralausschuss to publish the pamphlet, but it had twice refused. So he published it himself 10 days later, on 12 April 1921. [27]

The essential assertions of Levi, which became his testament to the Communist movement, deserve to be reproduced in extenso:

It is impermissible to close one’s eyes to the dressing up of the party in Anarchism of a Bakuninist hue. If a Communist party is to be built once again in Germany, then the dead in Central Germany, in Hamburg, in the Rhineland, in Baden, in Silesia, in Berlin, as do the many thousands of prisoners who have been the victims of this Bakuninist insanity, in view of the events of the past weeks, all demand: ‘Never again!’ … Revolution is not just a Communist Party matter, and is not a monopoly of the Communists. To use the words from Marx in a letter to Kugelmann, it is a ‘peoples’ revolution’, that is, a violent event in which all working people and oppressed forces melt together, stir themselves and go into opposition – each in his own way – against the oppressor, and where it is the highest art of the Communist to bring all these forces together and to lead them in one task, the overthrow of the oppressor. Then – and only then – when they understand this task, are the Communists what they ought to be: the best leaders and equally the best servants of the revolution.

It suits an Anarchist club perfectly if the will of the leader is ordained and the courage of the followers in facing death is obeyed. For a mass party, which not only aims to set the masses in motion, but which is also part of the masses, that is not enough … only its own will, its own judgement, its own determination, is able to move the masses; on the basis of these preconditions a good leadership can lead … An action which solely conforms to the political necessities of the Communist Party and not the subjective necessities of the proletarian masses is wrong in itself. It is not possible for the Communists, and especially not whilst they are such a minority within the proletariat, to undertake an action in place of the proletariat … All the subsequent and characteristic Anarchist features of this March uprising then resulted in isolation, because of this basic attitude of complete misunderstanding, complete denial, of the whole Marxist position on the relationship between the Communists and the masses, whether it was conscious or unconscious, wanted or unwanted, forced or voluntary, regretted or not regretted: the struggle of the Communists against the proletarians, the fight of the unemployed workers against the workers, the prominence of the lumpen-proletariat, the dynamite attacks, were all its logical consequences. From all that, the March movement can be characterised for what it is: the greatest Bakuninist putsch in history so far.

Levi pointed out the logic of the action:

The Zentrale had to decide what to do … It decided on ‘increasing the action’ … To the dead in Mansfeld and Hamburg were added the dead in Halle. Even this did not provide the ‘mood’. After the dead in Halle came the dead in Essen. But the ‘mood’ remained absent. In this situation one Zentrale member let out a deep sigh, wondering if perhaps the police in Berlin ‘would lose their hair’, thereby provoking the workers … The Zentrale ‘increased the action’. Squad after squad rose up. With unequalled heroic courage and disdain for death, the comrades rose up. Squad after squad went into the attack, as the Zentrale ordered. Squad after squad went to their deaths, as the Zentrale ordered. Ave, morituri te salutant![28]

Levi sharply criticised the activities of the Communist International, especially the role of the emissaries, the ‘Turkestanis’ [29]:

It seems that Western Europe and Germany is a training ground for all sorts of miniature apprentice statesmen, from which one gets the impression that they want to develop their craft. I have nothing against the Turkestanis … but I often get the impression that these forces would cause less harm with their stunts over there … The game with new splits is … very quick to come from the mouth of the representatives abroad of the Executive Committee. I hope that I am not forced to bear witness that it is in circles close to the Executive in Germany, the circles for which, at all events, the Executive carries political responsibility, that the dreadful defeat of the party was dismissed by saying: ‘If the action only leads to purging the right wing from the party, then the price is not too high.’ The comrades today lying dead in Central Germany did not say what those who sent them to their death did, that their corpses should be made into dynamite for party purposes. Does the Executive not understand that unscrupulous rascals of this sort who are holding us in an arm-lock, will ruin us and the Executive … They never work with the Zentrale of the individual countries, always behind, and often against them. They, not the others, are believed in Moscow. That system can only undermine all confidence in joint work on both sides, among the Executive as well as among the affiliated parties …

Levi drew the fundamental conclusion:

The vital question posed for the German Communists is whether they will once more be able to rebuild the party as a Communist Party, or whether they will replace it with a Bakuninist heap of ruins. When the revolution stands still, when long counter-revolutionary epochs arrive, it is the destiny of revolutionary parties to decompose; in such cases Anarchism finishes them off … If the Germans do not succeed in rebuilding the Communist Party again, if this March fate is its destiny, then it is convincing evidence that the counter-revolutionary currents which we see across the whole world are of longer duration and greater power than we hitherto attributed to them. In this destiny, therefore, is also sealed the fate of the Communist International.

But if, as we hope and wish, it succeeds in once more rescuing Communist ideas in Germany and thus demonstrating that it is still a revolutionary force which dominates the moment, then we want to place no difficulties in the way of the International when we return to the past of the Communist Party and to the lessons of its founder [Rosa Luxemburg]. She has indicated the path we have to take in her writings [Levi now quotes from Reform or Revolution?]: ‘The union of the broad popular masses with an aim reaching beyond the existing social order, the union of the daily struggle with the great world transformation, this is the task of the Social Democratic movement, which must logically grope on its road of development between the following two rocks: abandoning the mass character of the party or abandoning its final aim, falling into bourgeois reformism or into sectarianism, anarchism or opportunism.’ [30]

We cannot avoid one abyss only to fall into the other. Both must be avoided. [31]

Clara Zetkin wrote of Levi in her memoirs:

The unfortunate March Action had shocked him deeply. He firmly believed that they had thoughtlessly put the existence of the party at risk, and frittered away that for which Karl, Rosa, Leo and so many others gave their lives. He had wept, literally wept with grief at the thought that the party was lost. He believed that its rescue was only possible by using the strongest means. He wrote his pamphlet in the mood of the legendary Roman who voluntarily plunged into the open abyss, there to sacrifice his life in order to save the fatherland. Paul Levi’s intentions were of the purest, and the most unselfish. [32]

The KPD’s Strategical Correction and Levi’s Tragedy

Levi was expelled for a breach of discipline, although Lenin was 90 per cent in agreement with him – Lenin thought that if Levi had lost his head, then he at least had one to lose – and, together with the ‘Levites’ who had been expelled or had resigned, formed the Kommunistische Arbeitsgemeinschaft. After its unification with the rump of the USPD, he later returned with it to the SPD, and remained active in its left wing until his death.

Levi’s personal tragedy, but also the fundamental importance of his criticism, showed itself by the fact that it was taken up in practice and led to the end of the ‘Theory of the Offensive’. The Brandler-Thalheimer Zentrale then successfully carried forward the united front policy that had been previously introduced by Levi.

Levi’s criticism would also remain relevant later on because shifts to ultra-leftism were repeatedly to fritter away the results of a realistic policy, whilst the sectarian ‘Social Fascism’ course – declaring that the Social Democracy was a ‘twin brother’ of the Fascists – finally led to the decline and smashing of the Communist movement in Germany, without a fight.

In the resolution of the first Reichstag conference of the KAG, Levi had developed demands for a policy in respect of the Communist Party:

The KAG does not aspire to found its own party. On the contrary, it believes that with the self-inflicted fate of the KPD and the loss of respect for the Communist International, the coming formation of a great revolutionary mass party will be the outcome, not by way of splits, but by way of fusions … yet if the KPD is to play a decisive role, then the following preconditions must be fulfilled, in order to regain the necessary respect and confidence of the masses:

1. Complete material independence from the Communist International.

2. The subordinating of all … literature to the co-control of the German leadership.

3. Defence against all open or hidden organisational interventions of the Executive Committee of the Communist International.

4. Programmatic elaboration of a policy which makes possible the collaboration of all revolutionary workers in Germany, including the explicit renunciation of all putschist aspirations in the sense of the March Action.

5. Elaboration of a trade union policy which, without affecting any revolutionary objectives, maintains the organisational uniformity and solidity of the German trade unions. [33]


1. C. von Ossietsky, Paul Levi, Die Weltbühne, Year 26, no. 8, 1930, pp. 281–2.

2. S. Quack, Mit seinen Positionen stand er oft allein, Frankfurter Rundschau, 21 February 1980.

3. C. Beradt (ed.), Paul Levi: Zwischen Spartakus und Sozialdemokratie, Frankfurt am Main, 1969, p. 18.

4. Ibid., p. 22.

5. For Friedrich Ebert, cf. n3, p. 41. Philipp Scheidemann (1865–1939) was a right-wing leader of the SPD, and the Chancellor in the first Weimar coalition government.

6. Speech to the founding conference of the KPD, cited in Beradt, op. cit., pp. 12-9.

7. P. Levi, Der Parteitag der Kommunistischen Partei’, in Die Internationale, Volume 1, no. 26, 1920, pp. 42–3.

8. R. Luxemburg, Programm der Kommunistischen Partei Deutschlands, Politische Schriften, Leipzig 1969, pp. 424–5. Contrary to much wishful thinking in the KPD, this signified a long-term stage in the development of the Communist movement.

9. For Gustav Noske, cf. n2, p. 40.

10. P. Levi, Letter to Loriot, cited in Beradt, op. cit., pp. 29–30. For Loriot, cf. n16, p. 30. The Twenty-One Conditions were a series of conditions with which parties applying to join the Communist International had to agree. Cf. Theses on the Conditions of Admission to the Communist International, in A. Adler (ed.), Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, London 1980, pp. 92–7.

11. P. Levi, Die Kehrseite, Die Internationale, Volume 1, no. 9/10, pp. 9–13. For Paul Frölich, cf. n68, p. 36. Details of the Munich Council Republic can be found in C. Harman, The Lost Revolution, London 1982, pp. 125ff.

12. P. Levi, Brief an das Zentralkomitee der Kommunistischen Partei Deutschlands, Die Kommunistische Internationale, Year 2, no. 12, 1920, pp. 147–50.

13. O.K. Flechtheim, Die KPD in der Weimarer Republik, Frankfurt am Main 1969, pp. 143–4.

14. Cited in Beradt, op. cit., pp. 33–4, cf. K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Volume 10, Moscow 1978, p. 47.

15. P. Levi, Reinigung, Die Internationale, Volume 1, no. 15/16, 1919, pp. 282–5.

16. For Ernst Däumig, cf. n67, p. 36.

17. Cited in Flechtheim, op. cit., p. 158.

18. Beradt, op. cit., p. 42.

19. In the early days of the KPD, the Zentralausschuss (ZA – Central Commission) was a more important body than the Zentrale (Central Committee). The ZA was elected by the party congress, and it consisted in 1919 of seven members of the Zentrale and 13 delegates from the party’s districts. It was the supreme party body between congresses. At the ‘unification’ congress in December 1920, the roles of the two bodies were clearly defined, with the Zentrale as the leading body of the party, subject to the approval of the ZA, which was to meet every three months. The so-called ‘Bolshevisation’ of the KPD in 1925 resulted in the abolition of the ZA, and the enhancement of the power of the Zentrale, now called the Zentralkomitee, at the expense of lower-level party bodies. Cf. Mike Jones, Marxism, Leadership, Democracy and the Working Class, New Interventions, Volume 2, no. 2, July 1991; and Ben Fowkes, Communism in Germany Under the Weimar Republic, Basingstoke 1984, pp. 183ff.

20. Cited in Beradt, op. cit., p. 43.

21. These lines are from a well-known religious poem by Eduard Mörike (1804–1875).

22. Cited in Beradt, op. cit., p. 44.

23. For Serrati, cf. n16, Thomas article.

24. Cited in Beradt, op. cit., pp. 46–7.

25. Mátyás Rakosi (1892–1971) was a member of the Hungarian Soviet Government in 1920, and was an official of the Communist International after its collapse. Jailed in Hungary from 1925 to 1940, he became the Secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party in 1944, and lived in the Soviet Union after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, which his repressive policies had sparked off. Adolf Hoffmann was a KPD deputy in the Reichstag, who left the KPD with Levi, and joined Levi’s KAG. Otto Brass (1875–1960) was a metalworker and a member of the SPD, then the USPD, and joined the KPD in 1920. Expelled in 1922, he rejoined the USPD, was jailed for anti-Nazi resistance activities, and lived in the DDR after the Second World War.

26. P. Levi, Brief an Lenin, cited in Beradt, op. cit., pp. 42–3.

27. Beradt, op. cit., p. 49.

28. ‘Greetings! Those about to die salute thee!’ This was the cry of the Roman gladiators as they entered the arena.

29. So called after Béla Kun, who played an important role in this affair, and who had previously been sent to Turkestan as a punishment after being responsible for employing gratuitously harsh measures in the Crimea during 1920.

30. R. Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution, New York, 1973, pp. 60–1.

31. P. Levi, Unser Weg: wider den Putschismus in Beradt, op. cit., pp. 44, 53–4, 71–4, 76, 90, 93–4.

32. Clara Zetkin, Erinnerungen an Lenin (Reminiscences of Lenin), Berlin 1961, pp. 39–40.

33. P. Levi, Forderungen der KAG, cited in Beradt, op. cit., pp. 162–3.

Updated by ETOL: 20.9.2011