Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 4


Karl Radek

Jean-François Fayet
Karl Radek (1885–1939), Biographie politique
Peter Lang, Bern 2004, pp. 813

KARL Radek has fascinated historians again and again. With his linguistic ability to move in the different cultural spaces and just as nimbly on the political terrain between Russia and Germany, or the level of the established state power as of the Communist International, the Jewish intellectual from Galicia was made into the prototype of the professional communist revolutionary This was particularly valid for Germany, the country that surely stood most strongly at the centre of his interest. Although the first comprehensive biography came from the USA [1], it was soon followed by a series of studies devoted to his activities concerning Germany. [2] The occupation with his biography then finally took a turn into fiction. [3]

Without doubt he embodied in a graphic way the rise, and equally the decline of the communist movement, as early as the thirties, expressed in the mass terror. His reputation as an intriguer and a not very trustworthy person too, belonged to the picture of him presented already by his contemporaries. As the Swiss social-democrat Robert Grimm; who collaborated with him in the Zimmerwald movement, discretely put it, “Radek a very experienced journalist in colonial questions, but not an outstanding character”. [4]

What united the various works about him, owing to the requirement to know one’s way about in the appropriate countries and languages, and above all due to the inaccessibility of the Soviet archives, was the obligation for a long time to limit them to investigating only a part of his life, mostly the years connected to Germany. The (partial) opening of the Moscow archives has at least removed the greatest hindrance. It has then, however, taken still more years until one found in the Genevan Jean-Francois Fayet someone who also possessed the linguistic preconditions. As a result of his many years of research; not only but mainly in Moscow, there now exists an extensive biography, of which one can say in advance that it has everything in order to become the standard work on Radek.

Introduced with short explanations about the fate of Radek’s personal archive – what can be found where again today in Moscow, and what could possibly be in archives still inaccessible today – the author develops his presentation in a fairly chronological way. Although Fayet has his own quite particular interests, he considers in a suitable manner; which constitutes the great value of this biography, all Radek’s biographical periods, in which the latter, as is known, was active in very different political contexts and places.

He begins with a detailed portrayal of Radek’s – or more precisely Karl Sobelsohn’s – youth in an “enlightened” Jewish parental home. Born in Lemberg in 1885, following the early death of his father, his mother brought him up alone in Tarnow. Versed in the traditions of the Polish struggle for freedom from his earliest youth, his “political socialisation” then followed at Krakau university. Though German was the language of the empire and thus represented an offer of assimilation for a developed Jewish middle-class, it also influenced Radek from his childhood. The road to social democracy was thus, in a sense, sketched out, and led him into the revolutionary grouping around Rosa Luxemburg, the SDKPiL, which gave the national struggle no great importance – rather saw it as a distraction from the class struggle. This first chapter about his “apprenticeship years” comprises a tenth of the volume and ends with the Russian revolution, his relatively short participation and firm establishment in the SDKPiL, then the next comprises almost double the length.

It is almost entirely devoted to the “Radek Affair” which lasted until the outbreak of war and would influence his image just as his journalistic brilliance which he very quickly demonstrated in the SPD press. Radek was not only the discerning analyst of imperialism; who was so to speak “at home” in every world conflict. He entangled himself in trench-warfare with his closest comrades in arms in the SDKPiL, above all with Rosa Luxemburg. This rebounded into the SPD, when the right-wing enthusiastically seized upon it, and reverberated into the Russian social-democracy, due to the numerous double and cross-memberships of the different protagonists. That this was really politically based is also put in doubt by Fayet’s detailed presentation. Though here he follows, in part, terrain already explored long ago in the various works of the SPD or the SDKPiL about Rosa Luxemburg. It is a shame that the author does not examine so intensively Radek’s analysis of imperialism, also in relation to the whole discussion in the party and the International.

Out of this “affair” however; an initial contact with the Bolsheviks resulted, that after the outbreak of war then led to Radek’s adherence while in his Swiss sanctuary, which soon made him into the leading Bolshevik propagandist on the international stage. Firstly in the Zimmerwald movement, but then above all, as during 1917 they first became a mass party and then a state party. Here the rational discussion by Fayet of the rumour, which has circulated for decades; about their financing by the German government, the accusation of being agents, is particularly worth stressing (pp. 210–219). He analyses the various versions and traces back the alleged signs to their real significance. Everything else remains hypothetical in his view. [5]

It was then the October revolution that brought Radek back to Germany as its envoy, and which now, in the correlation between Russia and Germany allowed him to pursue what one could somewhat solemnly describe as his “true destiny”. That included his involvement in the creation of a mass communist party, as well as his appearances in the salons of the new republic, in order to promote an “Eastern Alliance” between the states. For him however, this was undoubtedly only a stage towards the world revolution; it would have transferred its centre from Moscow to Berlin. Here too the terrain is not entirely unknown; his role in these first years of the KPD and also simultaneously in the leadership of the Communist International, above all in the dispute with the KPD leader Paul Levi and over the development of the United Front policy, is already thoroughly evaluated in the existing literature. Fayet however once more succeeds in adding new facets to the portrayal from his abundant source studies. One can though make critical comments on two points. Radek’s aversion to collaborating with the syndicalists which the Bolsheviks had striven for, a key to the creation of mass communist parties in southern Europe, brought him into conflict which here is only touched on in relation to the “ultra-left” split from the KPD, the Communist Workers Party (KAP) (pp. 351–353). Yet due to his leading position in the Comintern in 1920, he was occupied quite generally with the “trade union question”, on which he reported at the second Comintern congress, and offended the syndicalist representatives as well, wholly in the style of the pre-war social democracy, for whom (even including most of the left) syndicalism was the greatest possible conceivable “deviation”. [6]

In addition there is also an alternative interpretation of his dismissal as Comintern secretary in August 1920 (although that would in fact turn out to be meaningless). Fayet attributes it to the dispute over the KAP, whereas Branko Lazitch and Milorad Drachkovitch suspected that this “punishment” was due to his critical position towards the Red Army advance on Poland in the summer of 1920. [7] The high point of Radek’s “German mission” was the year 1923 with the crisis caused by the Ruhr occupation. Here Radek’s name will above all be linked to his “Schlageter speech” at the session of the Comintern Executive Committee in June, that has to suffer again and again for the attempt “to push the KPD into an alliance with radical rightists groups in the course of the Ruhr struggle” as one of the best experts on the KPD’s history, Hermann Weber, writes. This problem is also fully dissected by Fayet (pp. 445–467). He comes to a substantially more refined picture of an attempt at recruiting and influencing a milieu that, however, yielded little but instead harmed the party’s image, though without the party having abandoned its fundamental hostility towards the radical rightist milieu. Radek’s role as the chief Soviet delegate during the attempted KPD uprising, the “German October”, was much less precisely known. There were hardly any documents on it, mainly just memoirs and similar material. Since the opening of the archives in 1993 successive single documents were made public and at last a documentation as well as a recent monograph, though it arrived too late for Fayet. [8] He has thought himself seen a good part of the material in the archives, and his presentation also leaves no doubt about it, that Radek had good grounds to prevent the KPD from launching an isolated attack that October.

With that Radek was of course also made responsible for the “defeat”. The more so as already for some months the struggle had broken out in the Soviet party between – briefly described – the Troika Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev on one side, and Trotsky on the other, and Radek had clearly placed himself behind the latter. The years now following until his death during the Stalinist terror represent the most interesting part of the book. As the relevant details were the least known prior to the opening of the archives, more than 150 pages are devoted to his activity in the opposition, and a further hundred to the years after his capitulation to Stalin in 1929, whom he then served until the latter got rid of him.

In the ranks of the opposition, he was especially prominent in the debate over the second Chinese revolution, which was underway between 1925 and 1927. Since he had been branded as the one “most guilty” for the disaster in Germany in early 1924, he had been shunted off to the leadership of the Sun Yat Sen University, which had been set up in Moscow. What had been regarded as marginal suddenly, wholly unforeseen by the party leadership, owing to world history took on significance and Radek, with his own intellectual energy and enthusiasm for world affairs, threw himself into this problem. By means of Radek’s internal correspondence with key leaders of the opposition, above all Trotsky, never previously made full use of, Fayet can describe in detail numerous new aspects of the opposition’s struggle, and particularly its internal arguments, in which Radek occupied a leading – and vacillating – role. After he had first pressed for a sharp demarcation, as far as a break in an “ultra-left” manner, particularly after the expulsion from the party and banishment in early 1928; in 1929 he executed a turn, as Stalin broke with Bukharin and the “right” and using “left” rhetoric introduced the course towards forced collectivisation and hurried industrialisation.

Radek was the most prominent of the “capitulators”; and with this step almost caused the collapse of the opposition; which was by then essentially reduced to a few thousand in banishment or prison. What many passed off as a type of arrangement (or perhaps better: as self-justification), in order to save the revolution in view of internal and external threats, whereby one chose to only show the Stalinist party leadership a verbal reverence, was though in Radek’s case a deeply rooted change of mind, a “reconversion” (p. 594). He knew what was now demanded of him, was Stalin’s hagiographer (after he had years previously sung hymns of praise to “Trotsky as the organiser of the victory”), adhered to Stalin’s notorious verdict against the left around Rosa Luxemburg, was a propagandist of “socialist realism” and from 1933 won Stalin’s trust as a foreign policy advisor. A special body was created for him, that was formally attached to the CC, so that it was directly subordinate to Stalin, and by which the latter, besides the official foreign policy of the Foreign Commissariat under Litvinov, could conduct an informal additional foreign policy, in order if possible to have two cards in play. So in 1933, Radek explored the possibility of a deepening of Polish-Soviet relations; or during the visit to Moscow of the then Königsberg professor (and later minister under Adenauer) Theodor Uberländer, met with him hoping by this, surely in an error of judgement, to establish a “back channel” to the nazi leadership. Radek wrote numerous memoranda of which one must however suspect, that they are still not all accessible and many still lie among Stalin’s papers in the Kremlin archives. Radek also gave his name to the so-called Stalin constitution of 1936, on the eve of the great terror. Pseudo-democratically veiled; his authorship however, due to its waiving of world revolutionary goals, was essentially a signal abroad, where Radek – similarly Bukharin – was still the Soviet representative of choice. Interestingly though, Fayet found no evidence at all among the papers of the constitutional commission of any real participation by Radek.

Actually Radek may already have been aware for some time that there was little chance of escape. He dealt with the strain under which he stood – according to eye-witness reports – in his own way. Whereas he previously seldom touched alcohol; he became a heavy drinker. Even his public support for the first show trial in the August (against Zinoviev and Kamenev, the “Trotskyist Centre”), no longer helped him. A month later he was arrested. Yet it is a waste of time seeking out a direct cause, as Fayet does. Stalin wanted to root out the whole old generation of Bolsheviks, and Radek occupied one of the most prominent places among them. After a relatively short time he had been softened up in order to appear in the second show trial of January 1937 (against the “parallel Trotskyist Centre”). There are many rumours, which have not all been able to be verified, that he wrote much of the script himself. Actually he gave the cue not only for further trials (against the “right”, and the military leadership around Marshal Tukhachevsky) but also, which for the most part is not recognised, for the hunt for “Trotskyists” in Spain that ensued in the following months. He strove at his trial, like Bukharin in 1938, in Aesopian language, to give clues as to the real context, obviously with a view to his place in history, but also in relation to his family, who were eventually not spared the persecution too. Though his collaboration saved him from immediate execution, he vanished in the Gulag where, in May 1938, surely not without instruction from above, he was killed by criminal fellow prisoners. Despite this, for a long time a rumour existed, that he had somehow been spared and secretly worked for the Soviet government.

Fayet has produced a comprehensively documented biography, not without sympathy for its “hero”, at least until the time where, with his submission to Stalin, he ceased to be “un homme defendable” (p. 721). He has extensively contextualised the biography, so that the development of the Soviet state also, from its roots in the left of the social democracy prior to the first world war up to Stalin’s bloody settling of accounts with the Bolshevik old guard is distinct. If in his last messages to his family, Radek apparently believed the revolution would be able – in later generations – to supercede its results, then he was, as is known, mistaken. For the first years of the revolution hardly anyone else could have been a better representative on the international stage, “As a Galician Jew raised in the socialist movements of Galicia, Poland, Germany and Russia together, hardly anyone else could better represent their internationalist pretensions. Though all in all he proved to be more an improviser (than) a theoretician”. He has argued so much with the historiography concerning Radek, though the interest is aimed at his contemporary deeds and not least on his political journalism as the interpretation of the juncture. He inspired no sort of “Marxist school” at all. With the present work of Jean-Francois Fayet, Radek has undoubtedly found his historian.

It is to be regretted – in these times of turbo-matriculation standards and short studies with correspondingly receding knowledge of foreign languages – that this work only exists in French though undoubtedly it is no longer possible to take a position on questions of central and eastern European history in which Radek was involved without referring to it. Perhaps an institution or publisher does exist that is not put off by the high cost of translation for a German or English version and thus makes it available for the first time for a wider audience of interested readers.

Reiner Tosstorff


1. See Warren Lamer, Radek: The Last Internationalist, Stanford 1970.

2. E.g. Marie-Luise Goldbach, Karl Radek und die deutsch-sowjetischen Beziehungen 1918–1923, Bonn-Bad Godesberg 1973; Dietrich Möller, Revolutionär, Intrigant, Diplomat: Karl Radek in Deutschland, Köln 1976.

3. Jochen Steffen & Adalbert Wiemers, Auf zum letzten Verhör. Erkenntnisse des verantwortlichen Hofnarren der Revolution Karl Radek, München 1995.

4. Cited in Jules Humbert-Droz, Der Krieg und die Internationale. Die Konferenzen von Zimmerwald und Kienthal, Wien 1964, p. 131.

5. In comparison e.g. the very latest Gerd Koener, Der Russland-Komplex. Die Deutschen und der Osten 1900–1945, München 2005, by chance pp. 92–97 and 119–126, wheresoever it, faute de mieux, says “would seem”, “appears ...” In this work Radek not for the last time with a glance at the time to come, is one of the central figures.

6. According to the representative of the revolutionary syndicalist anti-war opposition from France, Alfred Rosmer, Moskau zu Lenins Zeiten, Frankfurt 1989, p. 78: “He tackled this difficult question with the mentality of a German social-democrat, for whom the subordinate role of the trade unions was obvious, and discussing it not worth while.”

7. Branko Lazitch & Milorad Drachkovitch, Lenin and the Comintern, Vol. 1, Stanford 1972, p. 274.

8. See n. 8 for the documentation; Harald Jentsch, Die KPD und der “Deutsche Oktober’’ 1923, Rostock 2005.

Updated by ETOL: 31.10.2011