Germany 1921: The March Action

Pierre Broué

Source:Workers ACTION
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Chris Clayton

The March Action — Introduction

Richard Price

This short article first appeared in English in Fourth International, Volume 1, Number 2, Summer 1964. Its author, Pierre Broué (b.1926), was for many years a member of the Lambertist tendency in France (variously OCI, PCI, and latterly Parti Ouvrier). An internationally recognised historian, Pierre Broué has published a steady stream of books and articles on the history of the revolutionary movement for over four decades. His only book-length work to be published in English is The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain (with Émile Témime), which was originally issued in France in 1961. Other works yet to be translated include The Bolshevik Party (1971), Revolution in Germany 1917-1923 (1971), an epic 1,000-page biography, Trotsky (1988), and his History of the Communist International (1997). He is also the editor of many collections of Trotsky’s writings, including an authoritative version of his post-1928 writings, The Chinese Question in the Communist International, and Leon Trotsky, Alfred and Marguerite Rosmer: Correspondence (1929-39). He is the founder and editor of Cahiers Leon Trotsky, a journal dedicated to historical research on Trotsky and the revolutionary movement. He was expelled from the PCI in 1989, on the pretext that he had addressed a right-wing gathering (on Trotsky!) without the party’s permission. He currently publishes Le Marxisme Aujourd’hui, and is a member of the Socialist Party. Translations of five articles by Broué can be found at:

The debacle represented by the ‘March Action’ in Germany in 1921 was a crucial turning point in the development of the Communist International. The defeat led to a crisis in the German Communist Party (KPD), which had repercussions for the entire International. Under the immediate impact of the defeat, the Third Congress of the Comintern steered a course away from the adventurism and putschism which Bukharin and Zinoviev’s ‘theory of the offensive’ had encouraged, and adopted the policy of the united front. Yet even after such a graphic lesson, the united front continued to be resisted in practice by a number of important Comintern sections.

The March Action does contain enduring lessons for the left above and beyond the specific adventurist actions advocated by the majority of the KPD leadership. At their broadest, they are that to attempt to lead workers across a broad front into offensive actions, without having first convinced a majority of workers to take part, still less having won their organisations to supporting the action, will almost always lead to defeat and confusion.

In Left Wing Communism, Lenin had insisted that ‘. . . you must soberly follow the actual state of class consciousness and preparedness of the whole class (not just of its communist vanguard), of all the toiling masses (not only their advanced elements)’. Many on the left today disagree in practice with Lenin’s approach. Instead, their method is to itemise the betrayals of the Labour and trade union leaders, and counterpose to this ‘what is necessary’, whether this involves making a fetish out of the call for a general strike, or elevating the standing of candidates in elections into a principle. The groups affiliated to the Socialist Alliance may not have that much in common. But they do share a common belief that the central task at present is to organise ‘the left of the left’ independent of a significant level of radicalisation across broad sections of the working class.

What unites the ultra-leftism of the 1920s with its less spectacular, though no less mistaken, forms today is that together they are the ‘Marxist’ first cousins of the anarchist ‘propaganda of the deed’. The decision for action is taken largely independent of the organisations of the working class, and is relayed to workers at best as an example to follow, and at worst as an ultimatum.

Further reading: Pierre Broué’s Revolution in Germany 1917-1923 is perhaps the most important Marxist study of Germany in this period, but it remains untranslated (see above). There is, however, an extensive literature on the March Action and its aftermath. For a general overview of the German workers’ movement and the prospects for revolution, see Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918-1923, Bookmarks, 1982; Mike Jones, ‘The Decline, Disorientation and Decomposition of a Leadership’ in Revolutionary History, Vol.2, No.3, Autumn 1989; and ‘Germany 1918-23: From the November Revolution to the failed October’, Revolutionary History, Vol.5, No.2, Spring 1994. Extracts from Paul Levi’s pamphlet, ‘Our Course Against Putschism’, together with documents and correspondence from Radek are in Helmut Gruber (ed.), International Communism in the Era of Lenin, Anchor, 1972. The Executive Committee of the Comintern’s statements on the March Action and on the expulsion of Levi, together with its manifesto on the conclusion of the Third Congress, are reprinted in Jane Degras (ed.), The Communist International 1919-1943: Documents, Vol.1, Oxford, 1956. Lenin’s comments (referred to in the text of the article that follows) can be found in Klara Zetkin, My Recollections of Lenin, Moscow, 1956, together with her own views. Brief comments by another participant, Heinrich Brandler, can be found in Isaac Deutscher, Marxism, Wars and Revolutions, Verso, 1984, pp.135-137. Other memoirs include Alfred Rosmer, Lenin’s Moscow, Bookmarks, 1987, pp.144-151, and Rosa Leviné-Meyer, Inside German Communism, Pluto, 1977, pp.17-20. The assessment made by the Third Congress of the Comintern, in section VII of the ‘Theses on Tactics’ and in the brief resolution ‘The March Events and the United Communist Party of Germany’, can be found in Alan Adler (ed.), Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, Pluto, 1983. Trotsky’s speech to the Third Congress dealing with the March events is in The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol.1, New Park, 1973, while a later assessment and a sharp public attack on Paul Levi is in Vol.2, New Park, 1974. Lenin’s speeches to the Third Congress are in Speeches at Congresses of the Communist International, Progress, 1972, while his later ‘Letter to the German Communists’ is in his Collected Works, Vol.32, Progress, 1965, pp.512-523. back to archive contents


March 1921. An atmosphere of civil war. Armed nationalist bands provoke workers suffering from crisis and unemployment. In central Germany hard-fought strikes break out; the miners have bloody tussles with the police. On March 16, Horsing, the Social Democratic security chief, announces that the police will occupy the mining district of Mansfeld. Objective: to restore calm, disarm the workers.

The police were welcomed with firing. Rote Fahne, organ of the German Communist Party, on the 18th appealed for resistance: ‘Every worker should defy the law and take arms where he can find them.’ On the 19th a thousand police occupied the district: the strike spread to all trades in the affected region. The workers barricaded themselves in their factories; on the 23rd there was fighting throughout the district. On the 24th the Central Committee of the German CP called for a general strike. It was not followed. Fights between workers broke out everywhere: the strikers, few in number, took on the ‘blacklegs’ who remained in the majority, the Social Democrats and the trade unions indignantly denouncing the attempted ‘rising’ of the communists. . . .

Here and there Communist officials organised false attacks on themselves in order to provoke the indignation of the masses and bring them into the struggle. In the centre of the country the factories were surrounded and bombarded and gave up one after another: the Leuna factory, the last to do so, surrendered on the 29th.

On the 31st the CP rescinded the strike order. Illegal once again, it was to experience an unprecedented crisis: a number of its leaders, including Paul Levi, denounced its adventurist policies and were expelled. Shortly afterwards the Third World Congress of the Communist International gave its verdict on the ‘March Action’, in which it saw a ‘forward step’ at the same time as it condemned the theory of ‘the offensive at all costs’ which its supporters had put forward. The German party lost a hundred thousand members, including many trade union cadres, who had refused to follow it, condemned its actions or been overwhelmed by the publication in the bourgeois and socialist press of documents which incriminated its leaders.

It was some time before it was understood that the March Action brought to a close the post-war revolutionary period, that it was the last of the armed actions of the proletariat which had begun with the struggles in Berlin in January 1919. The contribution which this affair made to the failure of the German Communists to build a revolutionary mass party, a Communist Party of the Bolshevik type, has yet to be measured.

The building of the party

The Bolsheviks thought that their revolution could only be the forerunner: the problems posed in Russia could only be resolved on a world scale and, in the meantime, the decisive battlefield was Germany, where the bourgeoisie, after November 1918, owed its survival to the alliance between the officer corps and the Social Democratic and trade union apparatus against the Workers’ Councils. The murderers employed by the socialist Noske won the first round: by assassinating the revolutionary leaders Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, the outstanding founders of German communism, they decapitated the young party which was coming into being.

The vanguard, moreover, was deeply divided. Years of opportunism had fed a violent anti-centralising reaction in the German working class; the years of war pushed the young generations towards impatience and adventures. Against the leadership around Paul Levi a strong leftist minority called for the boycotting of elections, condemned work in the trade unions and wished to retain from the Russian experience only the lesson of the insurrection, which was possible at any time since the workers were armed and the bourgeoisie was provoking them. Lenin, who polemicised against them in Left Wing Communism, nevertheless wished to keep them in the party, but Levi took steps to expel the leftists.

Despite the difficulties, the new perspectives seemed to confirm his viewpoint. The Independent Social Democrats [USPD], born of the split from the Social-Democratic Party during the war, had recruited hundreds of thousands of instinctively revolutionary workers whom Levi hoped to win for communism en bloc. Their leaders had collaborated in the crushing of the Councils in 1918, but the difficulties of the working class in post-war Germany, the prestige of the Russian Revolution, the tenacious action of the International, radicalised them and won them gradually towards communism. In September 1920, at their Congress at Halle, the majority of the Independents decided to ask for affiliation to the Communist International and to accept its 21 conditions. In December the Unified Communist Party was born: it had over half a million members, a solidly organised vanguard with strong fractions in the big unions, control over local unions in several industrial towns, 40 daily papers and several specialised reviews and periodicals, an underground military organisation and considerable financial resources. It was the instrument which had so far been lacking to bring the proletarian revolution in Germany to a successful conclusion, all the communists thought.

The conquest of a majority of the proletariat

The Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920 had set itself the task of the construction of such parties, with the perspective of an early conquest of power in several countries. Summing up its work, Zinoviev, president of the International, declared: ‘I am profoundly convinced that the Second Congress of the Comintern is the prelude to another congress, the world congress of Soviet republics.’ And Trotsky explained why the Communists wished to see a split in the working-class movement: ‘There is no doubt that the proletariat would be in power in all countries if there had not been between the Communist Parties and the masses, between the revolutionary masses and the revolutionary vanguard, a powerful and complex machine, the parties of the Second International and the trade unions, which, in the epoch of the disintegration and death of the bourgeoisie, placed their machine at its service. From the time of this Congress, the split in the world working class must be accelerated tenfold.’

Zinoviev indicated the meaning of the split at Halle: ‘We work for the split, not because we want only 18 instead of 21 Conditions, but because we do not agree on the question of the world revolution, on democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat.’ For the Communists the split was not simply a state of affairs destined to last for some time, but an immediate necessity in order to eliminate definitively from the workers’ movement the reformist leaders who acted as ‘agents of the bourgeoisie’. It was the preface to the reconstitution of unity on the basis of a revolutionary programme, a condition for victory in the struggle for power.

Once the split had been realised there was still the question of wresting from the reformist chiefs the millions of proletarians who made up their following. Lenin, more than anyone, sought to win support in the Communist Parties for the understanding of the necessity for a United Front policy; later, Zinoviev said of this policy that it was ‘the expression of the consciousness that (i) we have not yet won a majority in the working class; (ii) the social democracy is still very strong; (iii) we occupy defensive positions and the enemy is on the offensive; (iv) the decisive battles are not yet on the agenda’.

It was from analysis such as this that at the beginning of 1921 the leaders of the German CP addressed an ‘open letter’ to the trade unions and workers’ parties proposing common action on an immediate programme of defence of living standards. The letter, which Lenin described as a ‘model political initiative’, began with the recognition that more than ten million workers still followed the Social Democratic leaders and the trade union officials and obeyed their orders. ‘Communist strategy,’ wrote Radek, ‘must be to convince these large masses of workers that the trade union bureaucracy and the Social Democratic Party not only do not want to fight for the dictatorship of the proletariat, but also do not want to fight for the most fundamental day-to-day interests of the working class.’

However, the Second Congress fixed as a first objective the construction of parties capable of leading the struggle of the masses for power: for Zinoviev and a part of his group, in the headquarters of the International, the idea of the ‘conquest of the masses’ apart from the march to power was an opportunist conception. They saw the ‘open letter’ as an instrument of demobilisation.

Destructive activism

Rallying to the Zinoviev line after having been one of the authors of the ‘open letter’, Karl Radek then wrote to the German CP that it was necessary to break with the wait-and-see attitude which it had followed while it was still a sect and become conscious that, now that it was a mass party, it had become a real factor in the class struggle. It was necessary, he wrote, ‘to activise our policy in order to draw in new mass support’. For his part, Rakosi, emissary of the International at the Italian Socialist Party Congress at Livorno, adopted the same activist position and took pleasure in the perhaps inevitable but catastrophic split, which left the overwhelming majority of the revolutionary workers behind the centrist leaders of the Socialist Party and reduced the scarcely founded Italian CP to the status of a sect. Against Levi, who maintained that they had no right to split when the movement was in retreat, he boasted before the Central Committee of the German CP of the necessity and virtue of splits, developing the theme of a ‘too large party’ which ‘would strengthen itself by purging itself’.

Another collaborator of Zinoviev, a compatriot of Rakosi, Bela Kun, bore the responsibility, as emissary of the International, for having thrown the German CP into the ‘March Action’. Did he, as has been supposed, follow the suggestions of Zinoviev, who was frightened by Russian internal difficulties at the time of the Kronstadt revolt? Did he try to ‘force’ a revolutionary crisis in Germany to prevent the Russian communists from having to make the retreat of the New Economic Policy? In the present state of documentation no certain answer is possible. What is certain is that Kun placed his prestige as Comintern delegate behind a theory of the offensive which was to be used to justify the position of the CP in March and was to end in disaster.

It is equally unquestionable that the centralised structure of the International, the doubtful practice, introduced by Zinoviev, of Comintern agents not responsible to the parties which they supervised, raised a problem of organisation which would be pointed out by Lenin at the Fourth Congress, but never really tackled.

Lenin on the party and the March Action

It is known today, on the other hand, that Lenin and Trotsky had to wage an energetic political struggle in the leadership of the Russian CP and the CI against the partisans of the offensive, at the head of whom stood Zinoviev, before imposing their point of view at the Third World Congress. It was upon Trotsky that the task devolved of showing that the international situation had been modified since 1919, that the taking of power was no longer on the agenda, but that the Communist Parties had to turn to the conquest of the masses: a condition for the struggle for power in the next phase of revolutionary advance.

To Lenin fell the task of denouncing, ‘wringing the neck’ of, the theory of the offensive, holding up to ridicule the puerile arguments of its defenders — the ‘kuneries’, as he called them, of Kun, as well as the boasting of the Italian Terracini, who took advantage of the Bolshevik example in order to excuse the small size of his own party.

Lenin joined Levi in denouncing the March Action. He was careful, in approving someone who had broken party discipline, not to anger those who, through discipline, and in good faith, had followed absurd slogans. He conveyed his inner thoughts to Clara Zetkin, who, very fortunately, later recounted them. Lenin thought that Levi’s criticism was justified. Unfortunately, he made it in a ‘unilateral, exaggerated and even malicious fashion’, in a way which ‘lacked a sense of solidarity with the party’. In short, ‘he lost his head’ and thus concealed the real problems from the party, which turned against him. For this he had to be condemned by the Congress and was. But Lenin added: ‘We must not lose Levi, both for ourselves and for the cause. We cannot afford to lose talented men, we must do what is possible to keep those that we have.’ Lenin declared himself ready, if Levi ‘behaved himself’ (for example, by working for the party under an assumed name), personally to ask for his re-admission after three or four months. ‘The important thing,’ he said, ‘is to leave the road open back to us.’

Speaking to Clara Zetkin of two workers, Melzahn and Neumann, supporters of Levi and delegates at the World Congress, who had even been reproached by hecklers for the posts which they held in the trade unions, while they replied by attacking ‘hair-splitting intellectuals’, Lenin said: ‘They are wonderful . . . I do not know whether they will make shock troops, but there is one thing of which I am sure: it is people like these who make up the long columns with solid ranks of the revolutionary proletariat. It is on their unbreakable force that everything depends in the factories and the trade unions: these are the elements who must be assembled and led into action, it is through them that we are in contact with the masses.’ He added, speaking of the Independent leaders who had come to communism in 1920: ‘With them also patience is necessary, and one mustn’t think that the “purity of communism” is in danger if it sometimes happens that they do not succeed yet in finding a clear, precise expression of communist thought.’

Through these informal words of Lenin to the German militant can be seen the constant concern of the revolutionary leader for his party. Lenin saw that a leadership cannot be built in a few days by bureaucratic decisions, but develops and raises itself up in years of patient effort. It was vital not to 'close the doors’ by purely negative attitudes to erring comrades but to aid them, develop a deep sense of the solidarity of the party and enable them to take their bearings. The party of the workers’ vanguard had to bring together different generations, comrades with varied experience: the young, the impatient, the 'leftists’ together with the older, more solid and prudent, often 'opportunist’ members. The intellectuals had to be brought into harness with the practical men of the trade unions. The contacts of the party had to be enriched and its understanding, consciousness and means of action developed by the qualities brought into it by people from very different, yet close, backgrounds: syndicalists, socialists, anarchists — who sought a common goal by different roads, like the proletariat itself. All these men had to be brought into a common struggle by a constant effort to construct the party, raise the level of its consciousness and by fighting to raise the level of the consciousness of the masses. 'Learn, learn, learn! Agitate, agitate, agitate! Be prepared, prepared to the utmost in order to use the next revolutionary wave with all our conscious energy.’

These are the real lessons of the March Action. Thus, as Lenin stressed in a letter of August 14, 1921, to German militants, revolutionaries must learn 'to determine correctly the times when the masses of the proletariat cannot rise with them’. Ten years later, in the face of the Nazi hordes, there would not be a revolutionary party in Germany, but a Stalinist party and a Social Democratic Party which equally shared the responsibility for the disaster of 1933. The responsibility of those who were unable to build the party which was necessary in Germany is no less crushing. After them, however, it is no longer possible to underestimate the difficulties of the enterprise, and to believe that it is enough to 'proclaim’ ideas in order to win, without undertaking the hard labour of construction of the historic instrument for their victory.