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


Prejudice or Historical Accuracy

Dear Comrades

In his letter in Revolutionary History, Volume 5, no. 2, Bob Archer accuses me of rushing into print to use the weaknesses in Sam Gordon’s articles that were published in the previous issue to attack Trotskyism. This is not the case. The two volumes of the journal on Germany were originally conceived as one, for which a sub-committee of the Editorial Board worked over very many months, including the translation by myself and others of a series of articles, pamphlets, etc., not known to English readers, of which only some were chosen by the sub-committee. Subsequently, it was decided to issue two volumes, and as the period of 1918–23 was better served than 1929–33, Sam Gordon’s pieces were then proposed for inclusion. Opinion was divided as to their merits, particularly as so much more material on that period is available. I pointed out that German words were often misspelled, obviously printshop errors, and there were historical inaccuracies: the Berlin pipelayers’ strike had become a cablelayers’ strike, and the description of the KPO programmatic documents was obviously mistaken, as both were of a transitional character. It was suggested at an EB meeting that I should submit a statement outlining my objections, which I did. Bob would not want readers to get the impression that those programmatic documents were ‘opportunist’ or ‘reformist’ if that was not so, so readers were given a brief correction. Now they have the possibility of checking this themselves. I sketched out a few ideas of how I believed Sam Gordon had reached his evaluation. It was necessarily sketchy, as my ideas were not the subject matter. What I consider to be fundamental errors of Trotskyism are taken up in New Interventions from time to time. If Bob cared to attend the Editorial Board – it has been a few years since I last saw him there – he would have known these facts.

The introduction to Sam’s letters by Mildred Gordon, as well as giving an all-round picture of the man, which I found enlightening, give an explanation of their deficiencies. He was young, raw and a fairly recent convert to Trotskyism, which he encountered ‘in 1927–28 … at the City College of New York’. Yet in late 1929 in Berlin, he is wagging his finger at every other working-class current in the manner of a veteran. The style probably originated with James P. Cannon, the politics from Trotsky’s own rather venomous writings on the KPO. But, as Mildred points out, the articles were originally letters. That is important, as most of us present more arguments in articles for a public audience than in letters to like-minded friends. Though I never met Sam, I know people who held him in high regard, although they often disagreed with his politics. He was Cannon’s mouthpiece for most of his life. In my opinion, the Fourth International was more of a product of Cannon than of Trotsky with its Zinovievist methods: bureaucracy, threats, forced fusions, splits and a tendency for organisational solutions to political problems. The idea that the US Socialist Workers Party could lead an International was ludicrous. It lacked any Marxist culture. When I talk of its ‘rigid sectarianism’, I assume that readers of this journal know what I mean – in brief, the abandonment of transitional politics, including the fight for a Labour Party based on the trade unions, and the creation of alternative labour movements in the shape of tiny irrelevant sects calling themselves parties. According to people who knew Sam in later years, he had given that up, and supported Marxist activity in the labour movement.

I do think that Trotsky had a number of unpleasant character traits that made working with him difficult, and led to him alienating most of his experienced associates in exile, particularly those who represented a movement. This resulted in him being surrounded by raw elements and yes-men, but that is not what I meant in reference to his ‘personal’ faction. The point is that the basis of Trotsky’s movement was not that of the Joint Opposition, not even that of the Left Opposition, but his own views, for example, on China, the Anglo-Russian Committee and the 1926 General Strike, and on Germany in 1923. He objected to the KPO still adhering to a view that it had defended since 1923. Yet his view was shared only by the KPD’s ultra-lefts. Trotsky tried to build a movement out of his own positions in a factional struggle in the CPSU, and not out of the tasks of the working class in the various countries. This marked Trotskyism thereafter as a sectarian movement. Can one imagine Marx or Engels demanding that the International Working Men’s Association base itself upon a dispute in which they had been involved in the Communist League? We have all met those Trotskyists who turn up at labour movement meetings to move motions on problems in exotic places, only to slip away again when mundane issues like pensioners’ bus pass prices, job losses amongst council gardeners, etc., are to be discussed. They are species which don’t even bother with the working class, but only to visit the meetings of other Trotskyists to torment them. Trotsky would doubtless be horrified, but his methodology is partly the cause of such mutations.

Bob sees Brandler’s assertion that ‘it is necessary that the proletariat of each country work out its own problems in the struggle for power’ as ‘a pretty fundamental break from revolutionary Marxism’, and ‘completely in line with the prejudice against Bolshevik internationalism in KPO circles’. If I understand Bob correctly, he is defending the concept of a centralised general staff, which directs the work in each country, wielding unlimited power over the member parties. Bob is correct in saying that the KPO opposed that conception. It opposed the universalisation of Russian experiences, and the imposition of their conclusions on all other parties under the label of ‘Bolshevisation’. It opposed one party – the CPSU – monopolising the leadership of the Communist International, and favoured instead a collective leadership. With hindsight, not only are the negative aspects of such a leadership fairly obvious, but also the impracticability. A study of the texts of the Communist International shows that at best its instructions were mere generalities, at worst utter nonsense.

According to Bob, Moscow’s interventions in the Communist International were benign and beneficial until Lenin died, and then it all went downhill. The account by ‘Comrade Thomas’, as set out by Boris Nicolaevsky, tells how the manoeuvres of the Executive Committee of the Communist International (that is, the Soviet Politbureau) against the KPD’s leadership began in the autumn of 1919, with the arrival of ‘Thomas’ in Berlin. The materials rooted out of the archives by Alexander Vatlin for his “Comrade Thomas” and the Secret Activity of the Comintern in Germany 1919–1925 show that Lenin was aware of what was going on. A network of spies was set up to inform on the KPD’s leadership. Every detail, even jokes about any Russian comrade, was reported back to Moscow, personally to Radek and Zinoviev, bypassing the ECCI. Vatlin also found complaints by at first Levi and then Reuter-Friesland, and letters from Eberlein and Remmele to KPD leaders on their attempts to investigate the network of informers. On 17 February 1921 Eberlein wrote that as KPD representatives on the ECCI, they had to ask Zinoviev or Radek about events in Germany, as they were the only ones fully informed (see my review of Vatlin’s book in the April 1994 issue of New Interventions).

Bob talks of the Communist International overriding the sectarians to bring the USPD to its Second Congress, and to win them to Communism. Paul Levi’s tactics won a large sector of the USPD to Communism. The Communist International would have split the USPD earlier. As it was, Lozovsky’s talk of splitting the trade unions repelled a large number of the USPD’s union leaders. And it was Lenin who invited the sectarians of the KAPD to the Second Congress, over the head of the KPD. The intervention of the Communist International into the KPD, according to Bob, was to ‘knit together and stabilise a leadership’. Nonsense. As soon as it was able, it set about splitting the KPD’s leadership, playing one group off against another, seeking out clients, and utilising the KAPD as an external pressure group. It was conspiring in the USPD against Levi even before it split at Halle. The evidence is there for those who want to see it. After a decade of ‘knitting’, the Luxemburgist tradition was purged, and the result was Thälmann, heading a totally loyal party without factions.

It is equally wrong of Bob to claim that the Communist International ‘bent over backwards to avoid the split with Paul Levi’. Radek was continually undermining Levi, and he even tried to oust Clara Zetkin after the compromise patched up by Lenin after the Third Congress of the Communist International. Both Zinoviev and Bukharin were opponents of the united front from above, and encouraged ultra-left currents. Lenin, on the other hand, did strive to get Levi back, and sent messages to him in that sense. Lenin valued him. Levi, in turn, had great respect for Lenin (and Trotsky), but Lenin did not run the Communist International, it was in the hands of people in whom Levi had no confidence. Bob makes the error common in Trotskyist circles of assuming that the materials and deeds of the Communist International were all produced or conducted under the guidance of Lenin and Trotsky.

In Revolutionary History, Volume 2, no. 3, I pointed out that the notes in Trotsky’s The First Five Years of the Communist International, Volume 1, described the Brandlerists as ‘a centrist movement headed for the camp of the bourgeoisie (where they finally landed)’. That was the version first published in New York in 1945, but sold here too. That type of inaccuracy would normally be associated with Stalinism, yet it is spread in Trotskyist publications. Compare that characterisation with those of Trotsky from 1929 cited in my statement, where the KPO is on ‘the other side of the barricades’, not yet Social Democrats, but ‘a new gateway to the Social Democracy’, or where, in his discussions with Walcher in 1933, they are ‘Stalinist agents’. None of these characteristics fitted; the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Whilst US and British Trotskyists were hawking The First Five Years … with its disgusting slander, the remnants of the KPO in Germany were insisting on a Communist policy independent of all the occupying powers in Germany, both East and West, whilst the Social Democrats and Stalinists collaborated with the military governments.

It seems to me that prejudice in Trotskyist circles interferes with historical accuracy, particularly concerning the Brandlerists. Bob translated the proceedings of the Second Congress of the Communist International, which were published by New Park in 1977. On 3 March 1978 I wrote to them to correct certain inaccuracies regarding Marie Nielsen and Aage Jørgensen, the Danish delegates, and added further biographical details: Nielsen’s defence of Trotsky from 1928, and Jørgensen’s later shift to Nazism. I also queried the characterisation of Ernst Meyer as a ‘Brandlerite’, and pointed out his involvement with the KPD’s ‘Centre’ and ‘Conciliator’ groupings. Before Zinoviev’s attack on Brandler in late 1923, almost anyone could have been described as a ‘Brandlerite’, as for example Karl Korsch, as there was a broad consensus around the Central Committee which he led, apart from the ultra-left led by Ruth Fischer. To call Korsch as a ‘Brandlerite’ from late 1923 would be ludicrous, but it is equally false regarding Meyer. I never received a reply from anyone connected with the books.

It is not as if the concern for historical accuracy improved with time. Oskar Hippe’s And Red is the Colour of Our Flag, promoted by Bob in the pages of this journal, sustains similar falsifications. Hippe wrote that at the Tenth Congress of the KPD in July 1925, ‘the Stalinist faction led by the Brandler-Thalheimer group succeeded in taking over the Central Committee’ (p. 89). In fact, Brandler’s group had no representatives on the KPD’s Central Committee after the Ninth Congress in April 1924 until the Eleventh Congress in March 1927 (cf. Ben Fowkes, Communism in Germany Under the Weimar Republic, 1984). The Tenth Congress resulted in a Central Committee made up of Ruth Fischer’s faction plus three who were even more to the left. Zinoviev’s advice to include Meyer’s group was ignored. Hippe later refers to the ‘Stalinist leadership’ having ‘allied itself to the Brandler-Thalheimer group’ against the left (p. 102). This never occurred.

Just as I have every respect for Hippe in his courageous revolutionary endeavours, I also respect Sam Gordon for his contribution, but historical accuracy should not be sidelined in favour of romanticisation, hero worship or myth making. Ironically, after the Second World War, Hippe found himself in prison with the leading Erfurt KPO member Alfred Schmidt, and he quotes with approval from Thalheimer’s pamphlet on the Potsdam Agreement, which sets out an independent Communist policy, so I doubt that he would have shared the outrageous characterisations of the KPO quoted above. The errors in this book must stem from memory lapses, but surely isn’t it the duty of the publisher to correct this in notes?

Finally, I’d like to point out a few errors in the notes and introductions in the last issue of the journal. Arbeiterstimme is wrongly described on page 42 as the journal of Gruppe Arbeiterpolitik. It is the journal of Gruppe Arbeiterstimme. The details on the USPD in note 56 on page 34 are misleading. The USPD split into three after the Halle Congress, with 280,000 of its members joining the KPD, a slightly higher number remaining with the USPD, and a fairly large number of members dropping out. Paul Levi is noted on page 61 as having attended the congress of the Italian Communist Party at Livorno in 1921. This was a conference of the Italian Socialist Party. On page 92, the number of KPO members who joined the SAP in 1932 is given as 1,000, whereas note 22 on page 104 gives a figure of 800. In his study of the KPO, Karl-Hermann Tjaden reckons the number as between 700 and 800. It is possible that the minority in the KPO around Jacob Walcher numbered 1,000, but not all joined the SAP. There are errors in notes 14 and 15 on page 127. Arthur Ewert was exiled to the Communist International after the Conciliators in the KPD were removed. Paul Böttcher did not join the SAP, but worked with the KPO for a while in 1933. He was arrested in East Germany in 1946, and was in the Soviet gulag system until 1955. Rehabilitated in 1956, he was the Deputy Editor of the Leipziger Volkszeitung until 1968, and he died in 1975. On page 137, Reichenbach’s forename should read Bernhard, not Bernard, and the date given for the formation of the KAPD should read April 1920, not 1921.


Mike Jones

Updated by ETOL: 21.9.2011