Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 3


Problems of the German Revolution

Dear Comrades

Surely the question of whether a revolution was possible in Germany during 1919–23 raises a number of fundamental issues, some of which may be impossible to resolve. Whether such a revolution was immediately possible in 1923 has, I think, been answered in the negative, and Trotsky and Lenin were almost certainly wrong, but this, in a sense, is unimportant. After all, even if the consciousness of the working class never rose above the level of Social Democracy, as Mike Jones believes, this consciousness is never a fixed quantity, and it can develop surprisingly quickly in some circumstances, and, with different tactics on the part of the German Communist Party, it might have done so.

But the deeper and more basic question is this: was capitalism in Germany so moribund that a revolution could have taken place, or, in other words, was the united front programme, which was Social Democratic in content (the purging of the judiciary and armed services, disarming of the right-wing groups, and the breaking up of the Junker estates) a real transitional programme? Would it, by setting in train a series of events, have led to a Socialist working-class revolution, or would it, even if successfully implemented, have simply consolidated a stable bourgeois republic? I do not see how it is possible to tell, but I have no doubt that the correct tactics, above all at the time of the Kapp Putsch, would, at the very least, have meant that there would have been no Nazi Germany. And, with the advantage of hindsight and the fact that, as we now know, capitalism still had enormous productive potential after 1923, I think that there is a strong possibility that what Lenin and Trotsky then believed was a transitional programme was not in fact transitional at all but reformist – which is not to say that it should not have been fought for (this, I think, is Moshe Machover’s position, and perhaps that of Walter Kendall, too). But the fact is that the correct tactics were never tried and the outcome could not have been worse than the one that occurred. The historical question is an open one.

I would argue that, even so, the might-have-beens of history are many. Even had the German working-class movement behaved differently, so that Nazism was nipped in the bud and a healthy Weimar had flourished, the great depression would have occurred, the clash between Japanese and US imperialism would surely have taken place, and, without the exhaustion of the European powers in the Second World War, there might have been titanic struggles to free the colonial peoples in the 1940s and 1950s, for independence would not have been conceded relatively easily. An Algerian conflict multiplied by a factor of 100 could have been just a little destabilising. Fascism might have come to power in Britain and France rather than Germany. But these are merely ‘castles in Spain’. Where Lenin and Trotsky were surely correct was in thinking that gigantic social and political struggles would occur in the twentieth century, although, if events had been different in Germany, they would have happened in distinctive and unforeseeable ways.


Ted Crawford

Updated by ETOL: 21.9.2011