Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 3


Germany 1923 and the Communist International

The Spring 2001 issue of Spartacist, the journal of the International Communist League, ran an article, A Trotskyist Critique of Germany 1923 and the Comintern, which contained a criticism of Revolutionary History and specifically of Mike Jones’ article Germany 1923, which appeared in Revolutionary History, Volume 5, no. 2. Below is Mike’s response.

Dear Editor

Your article supposedly analysing the situation in Germany during 1923, and the attitude towards it of the German Communist Party (KPD) and the Communist International in the Spring 2001 edition of your journal, was passed on to me for comment, as it includes a criticism of both my article Germany 1923, in Revolutionary History, Volume 5, no. 2 (Spring 1994), and of the journal itself. Owing to other more pressing matters, my reply has been delayed, but as your own item emerged seven years after mine, I assume that I should not worry too much. To correct all of your misunderstandings would require an article of great length, so I restrict myself to some salient points.

What strikes one immediately is the almost total absence not only of recognised scholarly classic studies, but also of recent research based on access to the Moscow and Berlin archives, for example, Ossip Flechtheim, Die KPD in der Weimarer Republik, Frankfurt/Main (numerous editions); Hermann Weber, Die Wandlung des deutschen Kommunismus. Die Stalinisierung der KPD in der Weimarer Republik (Frankfurt/Main 1969); Werner T. Angress, Stillborn Revolution. Die Kampfzeit der KPD: 1921–1923 (Vienna 1973, a revised and extended edition of the 1963 edition published in the USA, from which you quote on page 8, only to drop again owing to the author not upholding your view of events); Karl Retzlaw, Spartakus. Aufstieg and Niedergang. Erinnerungen eines Parteiarbeiters, Frankfurt/Main, again numerous editions, and another notable absence. Retzlaw was active in Spartacus, became a close associate of the Comintern underground chief in Berlin ‘Comrade Thomas’ (then a KPD underground official), was in charge of the military apparatus under Brandler during the 1923 events, was gaoled, and was dismissed by the Thälmann leadership upon release, but was given work by Willi Münzenberg. Sympathetic to Brandler and Trotsky, he chose to work for the latter in the late 1920s, and worked for him for many years. Retzlaw was very well placed to judge the events of 1923, but he did not uphold your view of things, hence his absence. Since access was gained to the archives, Klaus Kinner, Der deutsche Kommunismus. Selbstverständnis and Realität (Volume 1, Berlin 1999) has appeared, as has Jens Becker, Heinrich Brandler. Eine politische Biographie (Hamburg 2001), and numerous essays based on archive material by Frederick Firsov and Alexander Vatlin, among others.

On page 5, in a reference to the USPD split during the Halle Congress in October 1920, you repeat the old myth about ‘two-thirds of its active membership voted to join the Communist International’. This was not the case. Prior to the congress, a membership ballot took place, in which only 26 per cent of the total membership participated. This resulted in a majority favouring the Twenty-One Conditions, but most USPD members either did not feel inclined to split the party, or had other concerns than what to them was irrelevant, not a split over deeds but over abstract rules. A total of 236 delegates voted for the Twenty-One Conditions, and 156 against. But that did not translate itself into the corresponding percentage of members: out of almost one million members, only 280,000 were to adhere to the VKPD, while 340,000 stayed in the USPD, but the biggest group, more than 360,000, dropped out in disgust at the split.

You repeat another myth, that Stalin favoured restraining the KPD, and that Zinoviev vacillated. Until the fall of the Cuno government as a result of the strike movement in mid-August 1923, nobody in the RCP(B) summit saw a revolutionary situation in Germany. Although that movement alerted Trotsky, ‘there were no significant differences of opinion over the evaluation of the situation in Germany during the autumn of 1923, between Trotsky and the other RCP leaders, in particular Zinoviev and Stalin’ (from the paper of Frederick Firsov, the foremost expert regarding the Comintern archives, presented to the Trotsky Symposium, Wuppertal, 1990, in Leo Trotzki: Kritiker and Verteidiger der Sowjetgesellschaft, edited by Theodor Bergmann and Gert Schäfer, Mainz 1993).

The letter you quote from Stalin calling for restraint was in connection with the Anti-Fascist Day called by the KPD at the end of July to test its strength. The bourgeoisie intended to use it to outlaw the party, and demonstrations were banned in some German states, so the KPD requested advice from the ECCI. Stalin favoured – correctly – avoiding the trap. His view on seizing power in October was set out in the Rote Fahne, on the tenth of that month, both in facsimile and in German translation. Among other things, he said: ‘The coming revolution in Germany is the most important world event of our time. The victory … will have greater significance for the proletariat of Europe and America than the victory of the Russian revolution some years ago.’ (Cited in W.T. Angress, Stillborn Revolution, Vienna 1973, p. 454) Your search in the Rote Fahne could not have been that rigorous, just like your reading of Angress.

You admit the point I made in a letter to Revolutionary History replying to your criticism at the time, that neither Trotsky nor his German adherents ever made an analysis of 1923. The Trotsky quote of 5 June 1931 promises just such an analysis, but it never appeared. Thalheimer issued his analysis as a brochure in 1931, which I translated and Marken Press published in 1993. I’m told that it is on the Revolutionary History and What Next? websites. In his memoirs, Karl Retzlaw relates much fascinating detail about 1923. He rejects the term ‘October defeat’, as the 1923 defeat ‘extended itself step-by-step over the whole year, because the party and the working class had allowed themselves to be forced onto the defensive. One should find out the cause of the passivity among the masses.’ Referring to Trotsky’s analysis, he wrote:

I agreed with Trotsky in his statement that in 1923 in Germany the decision for the development towards fascism had been made, but not that a victory of the revolution had been possible in the autumn of 1923 … Years later, when Trotsky was in France, I met him in Royan and Paris, and in our conversations we once again returned to this theme. Only with difficulty was I able to convince him that in 1923 not only the Nazis were opponents of the workers’ revolution, but also the state power, and hence the Reichswehr and the police, and that the working masses who followed the Social Democracy were dismissive of us.

On page 7, you talk of the KPD bending ‘to nationalist pressures, describing Germany as a virtual colony’. This policy was determined by the Fourth Comintern Congress, and is set out in its resolution on the Versailles Peace Treaty, the chapter headed Central Europe and Germany, in which it is described as ‘the new colonial sphere of the imperialist robbers’, and the countries as being ‘colonies of English and French capital’. German workers had been reduced ‘to Europe’s coolies’, etc. Presumably both Lenin and Trotsky shared that view, as both participated in the congress deliberations. Once more, this shows a lack of rigour on your part. One must remember that the Franco-Belgian occupation of the Ruhr and the support for Rhenish separatism led, among other things, to a huge growth in fascist-type organisations. The KPD was seeking to win over the confused and desperate masses flocking to the former. The KPD was growing in influence, but was still recovering from its loss in both influence and membership following the March Action. You refer to the mineworkers’ strike in the Dortmund area and Brandler relating to a Moscow meeting that a provocation – a premature uprising – had to be avoided. Perhaps the KPD should have encouraged another adventure? That is what you imply. Brandler and Fischer were sent to Dortmund to prevent just such an occurrence. Although the KPD did not have leadership of the whole strike movement, Brandler’s prestige succeeded in directing it away from a dangerous adventure.

I have nothing really to add to what I say in the Revolutionary History that you criticise concerning the balance of forces between the KPD and those opposed to a Communist power bid in 1923. The peak of the movement was in the mid summer with the strike against Cuno. His government fell, to be replaced by the Stresemann coalition, and the KPD’s support diminished. On page 13, you make the point that the Weimar Republic had experienced ‘five years of insurrectionary and semi-insurrectionary movements’, coming after four years of war, the latter part of which, due to the Allied blockade, brought great suffering. Most workers just wanted things to get better – as in Britain after 1945, where life was far from rosy, but it was gradually improving – and with the republic they believed that it would. After many years of hardship, workers are not straining at the bit to engage in an uncertain leap into the unknown – only desperation and lack of any other alternative causes such a sentiment. As Retzlaw wrote: ‘… the working masses who followed the Social Democracy were dismissive of us’, and he mentions the need to ‘find out the cause of the passivity among the masses’. I would think that that cause was precisely the many years of suffering, which has the effect, not of a greater revolutionary will, but of a physical and mental wearing down and even exhaustion.

In his study of the 1923 events, in Das Scheitern des Kommunismus im deutschen Oktober 1923 (Internationale wissenschaftliche Korrespondenz zur Geschichte der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung, Volume 32, no. 4, December 1996, pp. 484-519), Karsten Rudolph gives assorted details as regards the strength of the various workers’ parties in Saxony. For example, in Halle 21 Saxon delegates voted for the Twenty-One Conditions, while 49 opposed them. He writes that only a small part of the members went into the VKPD. From November 1920 to January 1921, the Saxon KPD grew from 24,000 to 40,000 members. The rump USPD kept more than double that. In Eastern Saxony, the KAPD was stronger than the KPD (Otto Rühle had a following around Dresden). On 1 April 1922, the SPD had 50,000 members in Saxony, the USPD between 10,000 and 12,000, the KAPD 1,000, while the KPD had 14,421, mainly in Western Saxony. Rudolph says that the KPD’s membership tended to fluctuate with social protest movements. It was permanently searching for a solid membership basis – and the new members recruited from the protest movements tended towards leftism. In your search for materials on 1923, you also missed Rudolph’s study in IWK.

Neither is Lenin’s position on ‘National Bolshevism’ as clear-cut as you maintain. Replying to a memorandum by Paul Levi on the subject, on 25 July 1920, Lenin wrote, among other things:

And if the bourgeoisie (in Bulgaria, in Germany, in other countries) starts war against England, France or the like? What should the workers do? Boycott it? It would be wholly mistaken. Participate, but maintain their independence and utilise the common struggle in such a way as to overthrow the bourgeoisie. (Complete Collected Works, Russian edition, Volume 41, p. 458)

You claim that Rosa Luxemburg’s comrades did not break with Kautsky’s centrism early enough compared with Lenin’s ‘intransigent political split with all varieties of reformism and centrism’ (p. 11). There’s some confusion here. Luxemburg et al. had broken politically with Kautsky et al. some years before Lenin, who did so only on the outbreak of war. Luxemburg gathered her followers around the Junius Pamphlet, a political demarcation from the reformists and centrists, but remained organisationally first within the SPD and then the USPD, in order to gain as much as possible. The split at the end of 1918 was not too late, as you claim, but too early, as a few more months would have won them the leadership of the USPD, as Paul Levi admitted later. Workers moving to revolutionary positions adhered to the USPD, not the KPD(S), which was overwhelmed by ‘semi anarchists’ (syndicalists, One Big Unionists, council communists, etc.), whom Levi had to oust before the KPD could be taken seriously by the one-million-strong leftward-moving USPD.

The use of Max Hölz and his autobiography to discredit Brandler illustrates your desperation to find material to back up your arguments. Apparently, ‘a smart leadership would have sought to utilise’ this fellow. Hölz would not submit to any party discipline. Brandler attempted to reason with him, but in the end had him expelled from the KPD during the Kapp Putsch. Angress’ book has a bibliographical essay in which Hölz’s book is described as ‘the memoirs of a naive and egocentric revolutionary idealist, inaccurate in part but as a whole reliable’ (p. 537). In his memoirs, Retzlaw describes attempts by the KPD, in one of which he took part, to spring Hölz from gaol, as well as visiting him in Moscow prior to his drowning. His personality is portrayed, though Retzlaw does not label the disorder. He seems to have been the type that has to be in charge, not willing to subordinate himself in a collective. But he was ‘a brave fighter’, dedicated to the working-class cause. His book was used by the now wholly Stalinist KPD to bash Brandler, as it enthusiastically pursued the new ultra-eft line.

The Kapp Putsch was a far more important event than the 1923 business, and could have developed in a revolutionary direction. Arthur Rosenberg, in his outstanding study of the time, wrote:

The forces that opposed the Kapp Putsch were, therefore, for the most part, not at all the adherents of the Weimar Republic and the policies of Ebert–Noske, but the representatives of a proletarian action, that had the aim of coming out of the ebb of the revolution once more and continuing the work of 9 November [1918]. (Geschichte der Weimarer Republik, Frankfurt/Main 1961, p. 97)

Illusions were only now beginning to dissolve, and workers who had previously been loyal to the SPD summit were now ready to listen to its critics on the left. Lenin praised the tactic of ‘loyal opposition’ by the KPD to a workers’ government. His objection to the label ‘socialist’ is trifling, and if the workers use that terminology and one wants to talk to them, that’s fine. The essential factor is the content, and had such a government emerged it would have rested on the mass organs of struggle and armed workers, and not been a mere parliamentary combination. Pieck and Walcher fought for it in the strike committee, but the USPD left-wingers opposed it on moralistic grounds and thus helped the status quo, and not only harmed the interests of the workers, but helped the reaction.

In my review of Victor Serge’s Witness to the German Revolution (London 1999) in Revolutionary History, Volume 8, no. 1, I give details of when and from where the notion of a workers’ government as a mere parliamentary combination emerged. In late 1921, Radek expressed it in a brochure. On behalf of the ECCI, Radek put the line at a session of the KPD Zentrale, where opposing theses by Thalheimer and Zetkin were instead adopted. The notion was eventually forced onto the KPD by the ECCI – just like the schematic plan for revolution in 1923, including the participation in the state governments of Saxony and Thuringia.

A workers’ government is the term used by left-wing workers and trade union activists in Europe for one based on the workers’ party, or parties where others to the left of the Social Democratic or Labour Party exist (or varieties of workers’ and peasants’ governments in South East Europe). In Germanic-speaking countries – including Scandinavia – the Labour Party is usually termed ‘the Workers Party’, like the Norwegian Labour Party is the DnA (the Norwegian Workers Party), and the Swedish SAP (Social Democratic Workers Party), or the Party of Labour. In Romance-speaking countries, the same goes, for example, for the PSOE in Spain. The RSDLP, the old Russian party, was sometimes rendered as Labour Party, sometimes Workers Party. For Communists, the content of the deeds of such a workers’ government are decisive, not the labelling. Does this government undertake anti-capitalist measures? A mere parliamentary combination will only do so under pressure, for example, coming to power after a mass strike movement, as could have been so following the Kapp Putsch. If it rests directly on mass organisations in struggle, it could well be what Trotsky called ‘the bridge to socialist revolution’. It is merely a possibility, and hence the discussions at the Fourth Congress. The discussion was never terminated in a clear and unambiguous way. But if we want to get a hearing from politically-conscious socialist workers, we must link in to their concerns and consciousness by raising demands that advance the struggle from where it is, not where we would like it to be. Your use of the term ‘Labourite’, in order to insult Revolutionary History, which has no link at all to the Labour Party, might make you feel macho, but would only repel members of the party who might otherwise be prepared to give you a hearing. Insults of the type that Zinoviev was fond of appending to texts of supposed United Front initiatives only had the effect of helping the reformist sell-out leaders in keeping their members loyal and in isolating the Communists. They played a role in maintaining the division of the working class in Germany up to Hitler’s takeover. Using such terms is to bracket the members who might give you a hearing with the tricksters at the top.

You falsely state that Brandler ended up ‘hardening up around social democratic politics’. Brandler remained a Communist until his death. He organised as many of his old comrades as had survived and still upheld the same political beliefs, and were able to take up the struggle again once the Second World War was over. He rejected approaches from the Ulbricht regime, as well as collaboration with the Allied regime in the West. You must be aware of the German Trotskyist Oskar Hippe’s approval of and large quote from Thalheimer’s pamphlet on the Potsdam Agreement in his memoirs, as well as his respectful words about Alfred Schmidt, an old KPD, KPD(O) and anti-Nazi activist, the leader of the Erfurt group of Brandler adherents, with whom he shared a prison in what was then the Soviet Occupation Zone.

Ernst Stock and Karl Walcher’s Jacob Walcher (Berlin 1998) is a biography which you would also profit from reading. It uses unpublished memoirs by Walcher covering up until 1922 – the rest were seized by the Stasi upon his death – but it gives much fascinating detail on 1923, and the early years. Walcher reflects on the mistakes made, for example in wrongly assessing the maturity of the soldiery and the majority of workers. Instead of focussing on personalities like the Eberts and Scheidemanns, one should have come with concrete programmatic demands. He looked back, and saw how the revolutionaries had isolated themselves from the masses by not applying United Front methods. And in Die Verlorene Zukunft, the third issue of the Diskurs series (Leipzig 1998), devoted to the history and politics of socialism, Klaus Kinner has the details of the letter from Stalin published in the Rote Fahne mentioned above. The Russian text of the letter in the archives is dated 21 September 1923. Obviously, it was held back for tactical reasons, and then used as a signal.


Mike Jones

Updated by ETOL: 23.10.2011