Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 3


The German Revolution

Pierre Broué
The German Revolution, 1917–1923
Brill, Leiden/Boston 2005, pp. 991

THIS is the English-language edition of Broué’s classic study published in French in 1971, translated by John Archer, and edited by Ian Birchall and Brian Pearce. It is equipped with a chronology, bibliography, biographical details of some of the key protagonists, unfortunately not updated, and a short foreword by Erik D. Weitz, which includes suggestions for further reading. In his foreword, Weitz describes the book as ‘a remarkable achievement’, which it is, as the author did not have access to the archives from which scholars have benefited since the 1990s. Broué consulted contemporary material and later accounts, memoirs, biographies, as well as studies in East German publications. Weitz also points out that for Broué, ‘the Bolshevik Revolution remained the correct model of revolutionary practice and V.I. Lenin the key strategist and thinker’ (p. xi). However, that does not blind Broué to Lenin’s mistakes regarding Germany, nor prevent him from evaluating Paul Levi highly.

The first six chapters cover the pre-history: the German labour movement, the currents within the SPD, the outbreak of war in 1914, the emergence of the Spartacists and the USPD. The Spartacists stayed within the USPD, rejecting Leninist wisdom as expounded in Germany by Radek, whose arguments in favour of splitting are pointed up. In his article Rosa Luxemburg or Lenin from 1930, August Thalheimer ridicules criticism from the KPD that a split should have taken place in 1914 or 1915, or even in 1903, as a ‘schoolboy notion’ (What Next?, no. 7, 1998). The November Revolution and the following period of ‘dual power’ receive the orthodox treatment. Looking back on this period, Jacob Walcher believed that the revolutionaries blundered decisively during the congress of workers’ and soldiers’ councils by presenting a proposed list for the Executive Council that included no SPD members at all, instead of presenting a programme to be enacted, its point of departure being the sentiment for unity amongst the majority of delegates. The SPD was able to utilise the resulting uproar to isolate the revolutionaries. The revolutionaries wrongly evaluated the degree of maturity of the soldiers and majority of workers (see Ernst Stock and Karl Walcher, Jacob Walcher, Berlin 1998). The revolutionary shop stewards (Obleute) are translated as ‘revolutionary delegates’, which could confuse readers.

Broué returns once more to the lack of a clearly defined party. Rosa had already in 1916 opposed those wishing to set up a sect. The Spartacus League was established, though it remained within the USPD. Its role was to help the masses reach higher consciousness through their own struggles. It hoped to grow in influence and numbers with the long-term aim of gaining the majority of the USPD. Twelve days later, the IKD (International Communists) was set up, composed of the Bremen people influenced by Radek, but also by Pannekoek, who Lenin mistook for a co-thinker, whereas he was really a Council Communist, plus the Hamburg and Berlin currents outside of the USPD. Broué writes of the danger threatening the Spartacists, who ‘tended to be elements who were isolated not only from the mass organisations, but from the working class itself and its traditions’. ‘The majority of Spartacist activists and … the IKD confused the organisations with their leaders. They denounced trade unions … as outdated … [and] appealed to class-conscious working people to organise outside of them.’ (pp. 196–97) But once the Spartacists decided to leave the USPD, the IKD was ready to fuse with them to form a unified party.

The turn of the year of 1918–19 saw the foundation of the communist party, the KPD(S), and Broué outlines the key debates, though concludes that ‘the ultra-leftists won the day’. (p. 213) Hostility towards work in the trade unions was dominant, but a decision was avoided. Participation in the election to the Constituent Assembly was rejected, but Rosa’s programme, which committed the KPD(S) to winning the majority for conscious support of its aims, was adopted. Broué describes that as ‘political inconsistency’. (p. 221) The Spartacist leadership around Luxemburg ended up with a party whose members were not regarded as Marxists by the revolutionary shop stewards, who refused to join it, nor by the USPD left wing. Leo Jogiches, the brain behind Spartacus, had been fiercely opposed to fusing with the IKD, and had favoured staying in the USPD until its next congress, in order to attract the left wing. Clara Zetkin did just that. In his report to the Second Comintern Congress, Paul Levi said that had one heeded Jogiches and stayed in the USPD for another three or four months, then the revolutionary masses within that party could have been separated from their opportunist leaders. Broué does not use that quote.

The first part of the book ends with the January 1919 uprising, the murders of Luxemburg, Liebknecht and Jogiches, and Paul Levi taking the helm of the KPD(S). Levi began the process of rooting out ultra-leftism. At the Heidelberg Congress in October 1919, he pushed through a set of theses designed to rid the party of ‘semi-anarchists’. As a result the KPD(S) lost about half of its membership; in some districts, like Berlin, it almost ceased to exist. Some of the expellees would set up the Communist Workers Party (KAPD), but it soon fragmented into a variety of currents. Radek opposed the split and Lenin condemned it, illustrating just how out of touch both were. Broué examines the National Bolshevism current, that guided by Pannekoek and Gorter, and that of Otto Rühle and Pfemfert. Meanwhile, the USPD left wing made great strides in replacing the reformists in top union posts, particularly in the metalworkers’ union (DMV), where Robert Dissmann became president. While ‘the Communists had practically no presence within the unions … Levi was impressed by the results which the Independents had achieved …’ (p. 335)

Developments in the USPD are analysed. During six months of 1919 its membership more than doubled, and support for communism within it increased. Meanwhile, as Broué admits, the KPD(S) was a sect. However, within the USPD there was little support for a split over adherence to the Third International, a process of evolution was preferred. There were also ‘reservations about the Bolshevik principles of organisational centralisation’, which could lead to ‘a dictatorship over the party by the bureaucratic apparatus …’ (p. 343) Lenin’s intervention was ‘highly embarrassing’ for the KPD(S) leaders, as he ‘once again condemned the split’ with the ultra-lefts and ‘denounced the left wing of the Independents’, thus helping the right wing. (p. 345) Broué quotes from a pamphlet by Thalheimer that defended the USPD lefts, and pointed out that Lenin’s information was poor and that he was lagging behind developments. Furthermore, he defended the split over the Heidelberg Theses. It did not concern mere tactical questions, rather the ultra-lefts had ‘positions which denied the very basis of the party’, would convert it ‘into a propaganda society’, and later would ‘dissolve it into the mass of workplace organisations …’ The split meant that ‘the German Party can show the working class of the Western countries the tactical problems which will confront them in one form or another’. (p. 346) The universality of the Russian example was rejected. Splitting with the ultra-left and focussing on the USPD left wing demonstrated a different method of building a communist party than that followed in Russia.

A chapter is devoted to the Kapp Putsch and the Workers’ Government that could have resulted. Initially the KPD(S) Zentrale adopted a sectarian posture towards the general strike, but corrected it and said it would support a Socialist government. However, the USPD left wing rejected the proposal from the union supremo Legien. The KAPD was set up shortly after and believed that it could displace the KPD(S) as the section of the Comintern in Germany. By now Rühle and Pfemfert’s current saw no need for a party at all, and the Bremen current remained outside it and would be won back to the KPD(S). In the general election of 6 June, the SPD vote almost halved while that of the USPD almost doubled, outstripping the former in the industrial centres. The KPD(S) vote was a modest 589,000. The next chapter examines the debates at the KPD(S) congress following these events. Most controversy revolved around the declaration of ‘loyal opposition’ to a Workers’ Government; Brandler’s pamphlet on the united front policy that beat the Kapp Putsch in Chemnitz was ignored. Broué points out that the line of ‘loyal opposition’ represented ‘for the first time in the history of the Communist movement, the problem … of a transitional form of government …’ (p. 385) Radek was critical of the ‘loyal opposition’ line, but Lenin intervened to praise it, excepting the term ‘socialist’, which in Bolshevik style should have been ‘social-traitors’. Broué remarks that ‘Levi seems to have been the only German leader [present] to express clearly the aim of winning the workers who formed the core of the USPD and the driving force of its left wing’. (p. 392)

Broué covers Moscow’s intervention regarding the three German parties, and he then looks at how it was tackled at the Second Comintern Congress. Levi had reservations about the Twenty-One Conditions for membership; organisational matters should be secondary, so opportunists would have to deal with political issues. Neither did he share the general optimism about revolutionary prospects in Europe, nor did he approve of the Red Army’s march on Warsaw, and told Lenin that contrary to his view it would not be met with an uprising upon reaching the German border. Furthermore, the KPD(S) delegates threatened to leave should the KAPD be admitted. The Bolshevik leaders, particularly Zinoviev, began to consider that Levi was continuing Jogiches’ and Luxemburg’s antagonism towards them, while Levi, in turn, began to wonder whether they had not been right about an International dominated by the Bolsheviks. The decision to set up a Red International of Labour Unions was another huge blunder that the reformists would use to denounce the communists as ‘splitters’. This would alienate many leading trade unionists in the USPD, and not just supposed rightists. Describing the struggle within the USPD following the Comintern Congress, Broué notes the leading role in opposing the Twenty-One Conditions played by Robert Dissmann, the DMV president, labelling him as a ‘former supporter of the Left’. (p. 437) The right or left label is of limited use in this context, as many USPD left-wingers were either opposed to or sceptical about not just the decision to establish the RILU but the Comintern’s extreme centralism and the powers of its Executive, as was Levi himself, Dissmann became a leading proponent of international trade union unity in the mid-1920s, and proposed to Walcher that the KPD and SPD left advance a joint platform and list against the SPD right for the DMV congress in 1923 (see Stock and Walcher).

At its Halle Congress, the USPD split, but only a minority would join with the KPD(S) to become the VKPD. A mass communist party now existed in Germany. Broué asks whether this was a victory for the Comintern, or a personal triumph for Paul Levi. In a chapter on Levi and his conception of communism, he concludes that the debate remains open. One can see the influence of Luxemburg in this quote from Levi: ‘The question for Communists is to have, not the largest party, but the most conscious working class. In this sense, the party is nothing, the revolution and the proletariat are everything.’ (p. 453) In my opinion that reflects Marx, too. Closing the chapter, Broué quotes Zinoviev: ‘… the dictatorship of the working class can be brought about only through the dictatorship of its vanguard, that is to say, of its Communist Party … we need a strong centralised Communist Party, with iron discipline and military organisation.’ More like Gerry Healy than Karl Marx! Broué points out that ‘conflict was inevitable between this conception and that of Levi …’ (p. 458)

Looking at the activity of the VKPD, Broué admits that Levi had been correct, rather than Lenin, in evaluating the international situation, and thus the tasks involved. The Russians feared that opposition to putschism would become passivity so they wanted to fuse the VKPD with the KAPD. Radek was at work undermining Levi, and Broué relates that Levi’s draft manifesto, accepted by the Zentrale, ‘was kept off the agenda [of the unification congress] in conditions which remain obscure’. It was replaced by one from Radek which claimed that now the VKPD was ‘strong enough to go alone into action’. (pp. 464–65) In the meantime, as a result of the impact of the Stuttgart Demands, the VKPD issued the Open Letter to all working-class organisations, calling for a joint struggle around a series of demands. Although K.H. Tjaden’s study of the KPD(O) is listed as a source, it is not referred to by Broué in locating the origins of the Five Demands of the Stuttgart DMV (Tjaden notes the roles of Brandler and Walcher). However, in pointing out that ‘a new tactic was taking form’, he does locate its antecedents ‘in the writings of Levi, Brandler, Radek and Thalheimer’. (p. 469) In the biography of Walcher mentioned above, one can read that Radek read the pile of resolutions on Walcher’s desk in the Trade Union Department of the Zentrale that were supportive of the Five Demands and got the idea for the Open Letter. Walcher was critical of the ‘unsuitably rough and boastful tone’ of it. ‘Furthermore, it bore an ultimative character. Should one put a pistol to the chest of someone one wishes to win as an ally?’, he asks, and explained it as due to resistance towards putting it into practice (p. 69). ‘The Open Letter was sharply attacked by Zinoviev and Bukharin.’ (p. 473) It was condemned by the ECCI Presidium, which led Lenin to intervene, and at the Third Comintern Congress he would describe it as a ‘model political step’.

Chapter 24 is devoted to the split in the Italian Socialist Party at Livorno. The PSI had adhered to the Comintern in 1919, but had failed to implement the Twenty-One Conditions, particularly the expulsion of the reformist minority led by Turati. The ECCI sent Rákosi and Kabakchiev to decide things. Levi attended as a fraternal delegate. He was appalled by the way the split took place, and ‘several hundred thousand revolutionary workers [either] stayed in the PSI with Serrati, or dropped out of political activity’. The communist party that was set up ‘was in the hands of notorious ultra-leftists such as Bordiga’. (pp. 477–78) Italian socialism thus began a process of dissolution in the face of the fascist threat.

Believing that the Livorno split could be corrected by the ECCI, Levi sent it a report. He wrote an article in the Rote Fahne in the same spirit, representing the Zentrale’s views. Radek responded with a personal attack on Levi, and defended the ECCI’s role at Livorno. He threatened Levi at a meeting of the Zentrale. Then Rákosi arrived in Berlin demanding that the Zentrale back him against Levi, but a motion in that sense was lost. So Rákosi attended a session of the ZA (Central Committee), where he spoke in favour of splits to attain political clarity, and the same motion was put. The ZA backed Rákosi by 28 votes to 23, thereupon Levi and Däumig, co-chairmen, Zetkin, Otto Brass and Adolf Hoffmann resigned from the Zentrale. Broué writes that thereafter ‘Levi fought the battle on the political level with great clarity. He demonstrated first that the differences began with very different appreciations of the world situation … [There was a] … bourgeois counter-offensive … a recovery of Social Democracy … the VKPD should … avoid letting itself be isolated from the masses …’ (p. 488) The Bolsheviks had failed to see this, and with them the majority of communists, hence the talk of ‘action’ and ‘offensive’. Levi saw the urge for splits as originating in the Bolshevik tradition, its formation in illegality, but in the West one could not proceed by splitting ‘on the basis of resolutions, but only on the basis of political life’. Serrati represented communism in Italy, but the ECCI had denounced him and expelled him and his followers. Mechanical splits were becoming the norm. Such practices were alien to the revolutionary movement in the West. The Russian party had introduced them into the Comintern through its dominance.

Quoting materials from Radek stressing the need to ‘activise’ the VKPD, Broué sees the struggle against Levi as necessary if the ECCI were to achieve its aim. Béla Kun and other ECCI emissaries arrived in Berlin. Kun set about ‘forcing the development of the revolution’, and an occasion presented itself. Police were sent to industrial centres in Prussian Saxony around Halle, supposedly with the aim of restoring law and order. In reality, writes Broué, it was to disarm the workers in a communist stronghold. On 21 March, strikes began in the districts occupied by the police. Armed bands linked to the KAPD, which Kun had brought into the plan, undertook attacks on soldiers, police, banks and other institutions. Solidarity from elsewhere in Germany was fairly sparse, and by 1 April the VKPD Zentrale called for an end to what became known as the ‘March Action’.

Broué examines the reaction to the events from the various sides. Naming it a ‘disaster’, he writes that ‘in a few weeks the party lost 200,000 members’. (p. 505) The ECCI, however, told the VKPD members: ‘You acted rightly.’ It was in this situation that Paul Levi wrote his famous pamphlet against putschism, and was expelled from the party. He appealed to the ZA and explained his action. He had done nothing that Lenin had not done in 1917, and more recently Zinoviev himself over the Kapp Putsch, that is, gone public. Levi’s expulsion was upheld. Broué quotes extensively from Levi’s arguments.

The last chapter of part two, entitled The Moscow Compromise, deals with the Third Comintern Congress and how it tackled the March Action. The VKPD delegates intended to defend the theory of the offensive, which the ECCI had hitherto promoted. Radek, however, was slyly retreating, although at the Tenth Russian party conference in May 1921, reporting on the tasks of the Third Comintern Congress, he not only rejected a feeling in several communist parties ‘that the world revolution was in retreat’, but saw it accelerating. (p. 536) Broué expresses surprise and points out the ‘striking contrast to the theses on the international situation which Trotsky and Varga were to present to the … Congress …’ (pp. 536–37). Lenin had argued the case, and both the Russian party Central Committee and the ECCI had adopted the analysis: ‘Lenin and Trotsky had a simple aim … to preserve the unity of the German party and the International, whilst [undertaking] … a radical political turn.’ (p. 538) They would sacrifice Levi, but only for ‘indiscipline’, in order to cover up the ECCI’s role. The theory of the offensive would be demolished, but the March Action would be hailed as ‘a step forward’. Most of this squalid procedure took place behind closed doors, not on the floor of the congress. ‘Zinoviev, who, as President of the International, had to present a report on its activities, did not have to deal with the March Action … and though he had received a long appeal from Levi against his expulsion … he neither read from it nor even acknowledged its existence at the Congress.’ (p. 541) Zetkin attacked the procedure whereby Levi was expelled for ‘indiscipline’ and the political problems were ignored. Nevertheless, Lenin and Trotsky’s aim was achieved, Levi’s evaluation of the international situation was accepted, as were the corresponding tactics: the communist parties should turn to the masses. Broué asks, however, whether the foundation of the RILU was ‘really consistent with the new analysis of the situation’. (p. 546) Quite! In winding up part two, Broué examines Lenin’s conciliatory role, and quotes from his criticism at the Fourth Comintern Congress of the resolution on the structure of the communist parties adopted at the Third. It was ‘Lenin’s last intervention’ in the Comintern, ‘an organisation which so far had made little progress, and which was not to make any more in the future’. (p. 552)

Part three starts by looking at the turmoil in the KPD after the congress, as the leftists tried to undo the Moscow Compromise, and Levi’s supporters either left or were expelled. They set up the KAG (Communist Working Group). The Russian leaders denounced Levi, seeing the KAG as a threat. Broué estimates that the KPD lost two-thirds of its membership. The KAPD left the Comintern, as it saw that Levi’s politics now dominated the KPD. At the end of 1921, the united front was promoted by the ECCI, and the KPD began to recover due to its use of the tactic. Broué looks at the conference of the three Internationals, and points out that it helped the Vienna and Second Internationals to fuse in 1923, after the USPD and SPD had fused in the autumn of 1922. That led to ‘the rebirth within the SPD of a left-wing tendency which generally favoured united action with the communists’. Once his project for a revolutionary party outside the KPD had been rejected by the USPD majority, Levi joined the united SPD, in order ‘not [to] cut himself off from the masses …’ and he became ‘the intellectual inspiration of a “new left” in the SPD’. (p. 598)

When Walter Rathenau was killed by right-wing thugs in June 1922, the KPD initiated an impressive united front campaign, which involved the creation of a variety of rank-and-file committees, but eventually the SPD succeeded in outmanoeuvring the KPD. This enabled the leftists and Zinoviev to attack the campaign. Broué writes that Kleine’s role in this (he was Zinoviev’s mouthpiece in the Zentrale) ‘showed how the long-term alliance of Zinoviev and the leftists on the ECCI with the German Left was a permanent and serious source of danger’ due to some leaders ‘always being ready to confess … in order to avoid a clash with the ECCI’. (p. 622) Following a chapter on the KPD’s structure, membership, press, etc., Broué returns to the united front, the Workers’ Government which might emerge from one, and the Transitional Programme needed in such a situation. This problem was becoming real in Saxony and Thuringia, where the workers’ parties gained majorities in the diets. ‘However, the communists took great care to stress that the workers’ government must rest on an extra-parliamentary working-class base, and not on a simple parliamentary coalition.’ (p. 655)

The tactic would be developed further at the Fourth Comintern Congress. Broué quotes from some preliminary remarks for delegates from Radek, where he referred to the need for a transitional programme in the prevailing situation. The congress went on to adopt resolutions on, among other things, the united front and the Workers’ Government. This whole approach was opposed by the leftists, as would become clear at the Fifth Congress. The Leipzig Congress of the KPD, in early 1923, concretised this approach for Germany. Yet such was the strength of the leftists that Brandler’s theses were adopted only by 118 votes to 59. Ernst Meyer was blamed for the perceived failure of the Rathenau campaign and was replaced at the head of the KPD by Brandler.

The leftists kept up their hostility to the agreed line on the Workers’ Government as events unfolded in Saxony, where the KPD would support a left-wing SPD government, just as they also opposed the party line following the Franco-Belgian occupation of the Ruhr in January 1923 over non-payment of reparations. The Reichstag adopted a line of passive resistance: a de-facto cross-class alliance. Nationalism was strengthened, and fascism emerged as a real threat. The KPD’s line of trying to maintain a class approach towards both bourgeois sides, but reaching out to the masses gripped by nationalist fervour, was controversial. The leftists, in the shape of Ruth Fischer – the Hamburg leftists did not share all the Berliners’ differences with the Zentrale – broke discipline and began promoting their own line. Fischer went to the Ruhr to organise a leftist current. At the District Congress in Essen, she attacked the opportunism of the Zentrale and proposed an action programme towards seizing power. Broué talks of a crisis in the KPD due not only to such opposing views, but also the blatant indiscipline. The ECCI called for tolerance towards the Berliners, undoubtedly seeing them as a useful lever and potential substitute leadership. Brandler, as archive material not available to Broué shows, tried to accommodate Fischer et al., and was criticised by Zentrale members for making too many concessions. The issue of their expulsion would be raised, but Brandler was concerned to avoid another split. The ECCI arranged a meeting in Moscow in May 1923 to establish unity. It rejected Fischer’s adventurism and criticised certain formulations of the Zentrale, but instructed it to coopt four leftists, Fischer and Thälmann among them, to the Zentrale.

Under the heading An Unprecedented Pre-Revolutionary Situation, Broué describes the economic, social and political consequences of the occupation. He describes the KPD’s progress in the unions and the factory council movement. This grew as the trade unions shrunk due to the effects of inflation on their finances, and members leaving. He writes: ‘The Congress of Factory Councils, which in August started the strike which brought down the Cuno government, claimed to represent, directly or indirectly, some 20,000 councils.’ (p. 718) Hermann Grothe was the chairman of the 15-strong committee leading the council movement, but Broué refers to him throughout, including during his time in Spartacus and with the Revolutionary Shop Stewards, as a ‘Left’, whereas he was, in fact, a supporter of Brandler. The price-control committees took off, as Proletarian Hundreds were built, the ‘most remarkable’ of the KPD’s initiatives, conceived as united front organs, rather than party ones. But although the KPD’s progress was evident, that ‘of the nationalists of the extreme right was much more spectacular’. Broué labels this current ‘popular or, to put it better, plebeian’. (p. 720)

Fascism would be the central issue of the enlarged ECCI session in June. Zetkin gave the report on the subject. During the discussion, ‘Radek delivered his celebrated speech about Schlageter’. (p. 727) Although controversial, it attempted to sketch out an approach for the KPD towards these plebeian rightists. Broué describes how it was put into effect. Quoting Zinoviev, he points out that at the end of June everyone considered the revolution to be still in the future, and at the ECCI session ‘no one posed the question of power’. In fact, Zinoviev did not foresee its coming ‘in a month or in a year, [but perhaps] much more time will be required’. (p. 731) An Anti-Fascist Day was called for 29 July, and the demonstrations would enable the KPD to assess its support. Most German states banned them. Broué goes into the resulting controversy: to defy the ban or not. He writes that Stalin’s letter calling for restraint was written ‘after the event to Bukharin and Zinoviev’. (p. 741, n29) He gives figures of attendance at meetings or demonstrations, and judges that ‘very large numbers of people’ were involved positively. The KPD spoke of a success, but in reality the results were modest, and in Saxony, where no ban operated, participation was low, as the SPD boycotted the events. The figures given for Dresden and Leipzig, for example, are inflated. That fact illustrates that Saxony, soon to be the focus of an uprising, was still an SPD bastion. Broué has missed the point, although he mentions the conference of the SPD Opposition called by Paul Levi, which was attended by Kurt Rosenfeld, DMV leader Robert Dissmann, and Berlin DMV chief Max Urich, among others, which called for the overthrow of the Cuno government and its replacement by a Workers’ Government.

A wave of economic strikes broke out. On 11 August, factory council delegates met in Berlin, and Grothe proposed a three-day general strike, which was adopted along with a nine-point programme calling, among other things, for a Workers’ and Peasants’ Government. The Cuno government fell, but was replaced by a coalition led by Stresemann, which included four SPD ministers. Although it wasn’t recognised at the time, that was the end of the ‘pre-revolutionary situation’. The following chapters cover the build-up to the uprising, which the Russian leaders suddenly discovered was on the cards, plus the bursting of such illusions at the Chemnitz Conference. The conference took place shortly after Böttcher, Brandler and Heckert (KPD) had entered the left-wing SPD Saxon government of Erich Zeigner, supposedly to defend the proletariat from intervention by the military and threats from Bavaria. The KPD’s plan was to win the conference for a general strike. That would be the start of the uprising. When Brandler put the proposal, it failed to resonate with the SPD delegates. Georg Graupe (SPD) responded that the task of defending Saxony could not rest on such a conference alone. ‘Saxony had its government of “republican and proletarian defence” … [this in turn] was responsible to an elected Landtag, in which the two great workers’ parties were represented, Brandler himself was a member of it. Therefore … it was for the government … alone … to consider what means of action to prescribe …’ (p. 808) Graupe’s argument is logical and, in my opinion, illustrates the contradiction in the plan made in Moscow.

Looking at the aftermath of another defeat for the KPD, Broué links it to the dispute in the Russian party between Trotsky and the Troika. Just like Thalheimer, he refers to Radek’s speech in support of the Opposition, dating it to 11 December, where he declared ‘that the leaders of the most important parties … the French, German and Polish sections, agreed with Trotsky and the Forty-Six’. (pp. 620–21) Thus, Zinoviev could harm Trotsky through Radek and Brandler. Broué shows how Zinoviev offloaded responsibility on to Brandler et al. The stitch-up occurred at the ECCI session in January 1924. Basing himself on the published record, Broué is unaware that Brandler was stuck in Prague waiting for almost three weeks for the means to buy a false passport. He assumed Zinoviev was responsible, as the ECCI’s analysis was determined before his arrival. Broué mentions the theses presented by Radek, signed also by Trotsky and Piatakov, and writes that they have ‘never been published’. (p. 827, n28). Since Broué wrote this, they have been published in extract in Bayerlein, Babitchenko, Firsov and Vatlin (eds.), Deutscher Oktober 1923. Ein Revolutionsplan und sein Scheitern (Berlin 2003), along with other texts to which he could not get access, including reports on the situation in Germany by Radek and Piatakov, which were also censored out of existence.

In part four of his study, Broué examines the historical treatment of the early KPD, and how much of its elaboration was incorporated into the Comintern’s arsenal: united front, Workers’ Government, transitional demands, etc. He sees the Spartacists as learning from Bolshevism and creating a party in its image, though he stresses its traditional German nature in the early years. It allowed tendencies, open and democratic debate, and it had only around 200 paid officials. ‘Apart from the specialists … the communist functionaries were strictly accountable. They could be recalled.’ (p. 864) This was not a bureaucracy. Broué looks at the role of the International in the life of the KPD. He has a benign view of it until ‘Bolshevisation’, but admits that ‘there was no real international leadership’. (p. 870) The ECCI personnel were not top drawer, and ‘between congresses, the International never functioned … but was always an appendage of the leadership of the Bolshevik party’. (p. 872) Archive material not available to Broué and used in Heinrich Brandler (Hamburg 2001), Jens Becker’s biography, allows us more insight into the ECCI–KPD relationship. A letter from Brandler, Thalheimer, Walcher and Zetkin to the Russian party’s Central Committee, dated 19 February 1922, complains about the existing shambles and organisational deficiencies of the Executive, and ‘demanded regular minuting and living information in order to be able to combat growing tendencies of bureaucratisation and surveillance’. The postal traffic was delayed and letters went missing. Correspondence from the KPD Zentrale to the ECCI was subject to censorship. As Zinoviev had various posts, he was away a lot. Moreover, his style of work was criticised, and proposals were made for a further comrade to take over, as well as a ‘bold reduction’ of the ‘over-inflated’ Comintern apparatus, ‘which could lead to an increase in efficiency’. (p. 148) Brandler was part of a commission that was set up to examine the workings of the Comintern in response to a financial crisis. Letters from him and Eberlein to the KPD Zentrale give a good picture of the state of affairs. The commission concluded that a ‘lack of professionalism, bureaucratism, routinism and the consequent waste of resources, characterised the work of the Comintern apparatus’. (p. 155). Proposals to rectify this were resisted by the Russian party leadership.

Paul Levi and his loss are evaluated. Broué points out that in the summer of 1920, he ‘was perhaps the only communist leader in the world’ to recognise ‘that the postwar revolutionary wave had ended …, the last people to understand … were the leaders of the International’ a year later. (p. 881) As Broué admits: ‘Levi had been essentially right, not least against Lenin, who freely admitted it.’ He had been right over the Heidelberg split, the KAPD, the Polish adventure, and the Twenty-One Conditions. Broué castigates him for not fighting more forcefully over the latter, predicated as they were on imminent revolution. Levi ‘was one of the very few who could foresee the dangers inherent in them, and he understood that they were destined to “Bolshevise”, by summary and forceful means, parties’ with other traditions’. (p. 883) Levi was shocked at the treatment of the PSI, and again was proved right. He won a victory at the Third Comintern Congress but rejected Lenin’s deal, which Broué sees as a result of Levi’s ‘pride’ and his having made up his mind to give up communism. It was impossible for Lenin, not having strong support in the Russian Communist Party or ECCI summits, both to destroy the offensive theory and exonerate Levi, as the KPD might have split, so the deal he worked out denounced Levi for ‘indiscipline’, but secretly approached him with an offer to readmit him in six months time. Summing up, Broué says that ‘during 1918–1921, Levi was the only communist leader outside Russia … who could discuss with the Russian leaders on an equal basis, and that no one was able to fill the gap’. His loss was somehow symbolic of the fact that the ‘Comintern was unable to achieve its ambition of becoming the “world party of the socialist revolution”’. (p. 887) Rather than locating Levi’s rejection of Lenin’s deal in his personality, it seems to me that he had his doubts about not only the poor quality of the Comintern leaders, but also its structure and methods of work, and had concluded that the KPD would never be allowed to develop communist politics relevant for Germany, and that the Comintern itself would fail to achieve its stated aims. He would be proved correct on both counts.

Karl Radek gets the same treatment. Broué sees him as an outsider everywhere, shifting unexplainably from sensible positions to leftism, working to undermine Levi, but ends up concluding, with Trotsky, that Radek was ‘merely a journalist … never an independent politician’. As Trotsky hardly ever had a good word to say about anyone, and as he himself was a journalist for much of his life, it seems to me too harsh a judgement. The book ends with a balance-sheet of the 1923 events, which tends to be uncritical of Trotsky’s shifting and superficial analyses which, in my opinion, are too general to be given such weight.

There are errors and omissions in the Biographical Details, due to the failure to update them. For example, Otto Bachmann, the ‘first Communist mayor in Germany’, did not lead a red union after 1926. He led the expelled building workers in Chemnitz from 1921, but the KPD dissolved it in 1926. He did not go into exile nor die abroad. Hermann Grothe was not a KPD full-timer until 1933. Expelled in 1929, he joined the KPD(O). In the GDR archives, it was possible to establish that Grothe joined the KPD/SED in 1945, and by 1951 was being investigated due to his past. Grothe’s principled stand would have pleased Broué, as he told the investigators that Thälmann had originally been an ultra-left, and that Trotsky was Lenin’s closest collaborator, not Stalin, that is, he countered the mythology. Eventually he would be expelled. Details, along with those of many others, can be found in Theodor Bergmann, Gegen den Strom. Geschichte der KPD(O) (Hamburg 2001). Heinrich Malzahn was readmitted to the KPD in late 1922, and did not join the SPD. Paul Wegmann stayed with Ledebour in the rump USPD until it split, and both were leaders of the Socialist League. Hermann Weber and Andreas Herbst’s Deutsche Kommunisten. Biografisches Handbuch 1918 bis 1945 (Berlin 2004) contains 1,400 potted biographies of key KPD figures.

It is a shame that we had to wait so long for Broué’s study to appear in English, but it is anyway to be welcomed. In spite of newer studies covering the subject, it is still an impressive work. Were one beginning afresh today, with the materials now available, one could not uphold the mythology of a basically healthy Comintern which in its first five years elaborated a full cookbook for the proletarian revolution. One senses that Broué can see the problems highlighted by Levi’s differences, but believing that Bolshevism was the standard by which everything should be judged, he is forced to conclude that, in the end, Levi’s personality was at fault, and that somehow, if he had accepted Lenin’s deal, all would have turned out fine. At the time he wrote his book, he believed in the orthodox Trotskyist view of the Comintern, so it is understandable. However, the more research that is done only shows up just how far away the Comintern was from being a world leadership.

Mike Jones

Updated by ETOL: 30.10.2011