Gilles Dauvé / Denis Authier

The International and Domestic Situations
May 1919-March 1920

Chapter 8

Table of Contents:


If Trotsky was correct when he wrote, in 1922, that “in 1919, the European bourgeoisie was completely disconcerted”,[1] before recovering its strength in 1920 and 1921, it is equally true that 1919 was the decisive year when a combination of violence and democracy allowed it to resist a proletariat which was restive yet, despite appearances, had not taken the offensive. The period between May 1919 and March 1920 was not characterized by great battles in Germany. The proletarians were still burdened by the crushing weight of the defeat they suffered in the war. In June, hunger riots broke out in Hamburg which could not be contained by the Volkswehr.[2] The Freikorps repressed the riots, but its units were immediately disarmed. The Reichswehr intervened and occupied the city from June to December. Order was essentially reestablished by a “Committee of Twelve” which claimed to represent the factory councils, the unemployed and the Volkswehr units under the control of the councils. On the 25th of June, this Committee issued a call to “watch out for agitators and help the police”. The masses took to the streets to oppose the refurbished rule of military force: it was not that they wanted to radically transform their living conditions; their aversion to the Army was an aversion for a particularly concentrated and symbolic form of oppression, but they did not attack it at its roots.

A state of siege reigned everywhere and imposed clandestine conditions upon the revolutionary groups. It was during these few months that important splits took place and that the new “leftist” organizations were formed.



On the international plane, Hungary offered the only example, besides Russia, of a revolutionary seizure of power. But the Hungarian experience provides an additional illustration of the communists being defeated due to their involvement with socialists. Founded in November 1918, the Communist Party only “seized” power thanks to the collapse of the State. After proclaiming the republic, the prime minister resigned to protest the armistice terms imposed on his defeated country. The communist leader, B. Kun, replaced him as head of state, and joined the socialists who were already members of the government.

There were not two socialist parties in Hungary, but only one, which cloaked itself in leftist garb when the possibility of coming to power appeared to be at hand. The resolution of the national question was a bloody affair: conflicts broke out between Hungary and its neighbors concerning the frontiers established by the peace treaties. The new, independent Hungary still possessed regions inhabited by non-Hungarian populations (Germans, Slovaks, etc.); the counterrevolution exploited these differences and Hungary was invaded by Romanian and Czech troops allied with Hungarian counterrevolutionary forces. Isolated in the capital and surrounded by hostile peasants, the council republic was overthrown: the socialists then abandoned the communists during the ensuing repression.

The least that could be said about them was that the Hungarian revolutionaries, inspired by the Communist International, persevered in their illusions. In the first issue of the Communist International (May 1919), L. Rudas wrote that “the entire socialist party” had recognized “the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat. And now, the proletariat stands as one man behind the new socialist party.” The social democracy had previously participated in the government after Hungary’s secession (November 1918), and had reached an agreement with the communist party. When the socialist head of state resigned, the socialists would remain in the government in which Bela Kun had replaced the prime minister. A curious dictatorship of the proletariat. Like other revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks were mistaken when they spoke of a “revolution”. They forgot the essential criterion: the destruction of the State. The State had not been overthrown.

Lenin admitted that he had forgotten about the depth of the Hungarian revolutionary movement: but a telephone conversation reassured him; in this socialist-communist unity, he said, only the left socialists[3] participated. On May 27 he wrote that “in the matter of organization, the Hungarian proletariat seems to have outdone us”. He thought that its organization would allow it to avoid the massive use of violence which was necessary in Russia: “you have set a better example than Russia, because you have known how to win over all the socialists, from the start, to a program of true proletarian dictatorship.”[4] In other words, it was a centrist phenomenon, already seen in relation to the USPD, with one difference, that in Hungary the USPD and the SPD were the same entity. Lenin was following the disastrous line which he would partially apply to Germany when he advised the KPD to unite with the USPD left. The Bolsheviks were in favor of the reunification of the old workers movement, only purged of its right wing elements. Those communists who would be only momentarily inclined towards the left (cf. Chapter 17) would not make this decisive critique of the Communist International. The future right wing leader of the KPD, Levi, who was more lucid because of his moderation,[5] denounced the putschist and artificial tendency of this “soviet republic”. He had already discussed (in relation to Levine) the problem of communist participation in struggles which were condemned to failure, and Radek had implicitly attacked him, speaking of “political philosophers” who did not want to fight unless they had a “certificate of guaranteed victory”.[6] Lenin thought that “the Hungarian revolution might play a greater historical role than the Russian revolution.”[7] A highly advanced country in the heart of Europe, Hungary enjoyed a strategic position. But while the Communist International, led by Zinoviev, boasted of victory, Lenin was more circumspect and pressed B. Kun to work with firmness. The situation of the Red Army, attacked on several fronts, did not allow for military aid to Hungary, which the latter had desired.

The Communist International misunderstood the Hungarian experience. It saw, above all, the power of the socialists, first in order to combat them (1919), but then (after 1920) in order to conclude with the need to attract them to communism: hence the schisms which were proposed in the leaderships of the old socialist parties, the united front and the conquest of the trade unions. On this last point, however, after the bourgeois defeat, more praise was bestowed upon the opposition. Roudniansky stated[8] that in Hungary one had to act outside of the “professional unions”: “not because the professional unions are generally incapable of bringing the class struggle to a favorable conclusion, but because the Hungarian professional unions are penetrated with the bourgeois spirit and opportunism, because ... they in fact constitute the vanguard of the counterrevolution.” He rejected the trade unions in the name of Hungarian specificity, and only in this particular case. The structure of the unified socialist party (which took the name “socialist” under trade union pressure) was, on the other hand, modeled on the basis of the factory organizations. A member of the socialist party was also a member of the trade unions. Only 10% of party members had entered the party directly. A note from Zinoviev demanded that the editorial committee of the Communist International must not share Roudniansky’s opinion: the revolution “gives new life to the trade union movement ... making it one of the points of support for the dictatorship of the proletariat.” And he would return to this theme in June of 1920[9]: “A great movement has begun among the old trade unions. The trade unions are no longer what they were five years ago. One could say the same about the American Federation of Labor. In Germany, the replacement of the old bureaucrats has begun and is being pursued with vigor.” This development corresponded to a re-adaptation of the trade unions to the same (reactionary) function, and not to a change of function: but the CI needed to invent a movement in the trade unions like that of the “left-leaning” centrists in order to incite the communists to collaboration.

In January of 1921, two Hungarians, Kabatchiev and Rakosi (future leader of Stalinist Hungary prior to 1956), CI delegates to the Livorno Congress, where the Italian Communist Party was founded, explained that the error of the Hungarian communists must not be repeated.[10] They explicitly compared the two cases, deducing from the first that one must break with the socialist center as well as with the right (in Italy, with Serrati). “The reasons which impelled them (the Hungarian communists) towards unity are the same ones which are today used on behalf of the reformists and centrists in Livorno. They, too, yielded to the sentimental fraction of the working class which wanted just one party. The Hungarian communists had also postponed the exclusion of the reformists, expecting that they would provide them with the pretext for justifying their expulsion in the eyes of the backward masses... None of their hopes were realized.” They also warned against the trade unionists, recalling the Finnish and Bavarian cases. Levi, who was also present at Livorno, defended the unity thesis and later regretted the outcome of the Congress (cf. Chapter 13). The international communist movement only learned half the lessons of the Hungarian experience.


The Treaty of Versailles

In June of 1919, the Weimar assembly accepted the conditions of the Versailles Treaty: the property of the Saar Basin mines was seized and the entire left bank of the Rhine (facing the Ruhr) was occupied. Germany lost its colonies and had to pay an enormous debt (primarily to France) whose exact amount was not yet established: in the meantime it had to pay 20 billion gold marks in reparations. In May of 1921, the debt would be fixed at 132 billion gold marks: in contrast, France’s debt to Germany after 1871 was 3 billion gold francs.

The treaty signified an enormous transfer of surplus value from Germany to the victors, and consequently aggravated the exploitation of the German proletariat. The treaty was an attempt to divide the world proletariat, by ensuring that the costs of economic reconstruction would be borne by the German workers alone. All the Communist Parties of the time energetically denounced the treaty except the Dutch CP (cf. The Opportunism of the Dutch Communist Party, written by Gorter in 1919). In addition, the territorial settlements which were adopted at the peace conferences, taken as a whole, tended to isolate the Russian and German proletariats. A reconstituted Poland was inserted to drive a wedge between the two revolutionary heartlands and took over the great industrial region of Upper Silesia. The application of the alleged Wilsonian “idealism”, “the right of self-determination”, divided Europe into bits and pieces and laid the groundwork for the world hegemony of the USA.

The communist parties jointly launched a specific struggle against the treaty, whose abrogation they demanded: abrogation was one of the principle slogans of the 1920s. Gorter, and along with him the German Left, analyzed the treaty as a terrible blow dealt to the proletariat, and not just the German proletariat. But it was not a question, for either Gorter or the left, of making the treaty’s abolition into a “partial demand”: since it found itself facing an agreement between capitalist states, the proletariat, in any event, had nothing to say, unless it accepted the terms of debate and sought the lesser evil within the framework of the system of capitalist States (in the same way that antifascism would seek the least unfavorable capitalist formula for the proletariat, within the system of bourgeois political powers). It is a kind of false realism to believe that the proletariat could have some impact on facts whose very existence implies that the proletariat has not played a historical role. The revolutionaries had no more reason to zealously demand the abolition of the treaty than to demand the disarming of the police. The fact that these slogans were launched proved the invisibility of the proletariat as a class power, and its effort to find a substitute for that power by indirect means. The proletarians had not been invited to have an influence on the relations between States: should such a thing occur, they would be integrated into one or another State. This is what would happen on several occasions during the time of the Weimar republic, when the KPD demagogically competed with the Nazis by demanding the annulment of the treaty.


The Establishment of the Weimar Republic

On August 11, 1919, the Weimar Constitution was born. In December of 1919 and January of 1920, agitation for the “enterprise councils law” took place. This law (Betriebsrätegesetz) was a further extension of the Arbeitsgemeinschaft and the policies initiated during the Sacred Union (Burgfrieden) of the war years. In December of 1916, a decree had instituted trade union/employer parity committees in all enterprises with more than 50 employees: the Arbeitsgemeinschaft reduced this number to 20. After November 18, of course, alongside these business-sponsored trade union organs, the ubiquitous soviets appeared. The demand of the supporters of these soviets was, basically, to be recognized by the new constitution. The First Council Congress refused to admit the Spartacists (cf. Chapter 6): the second was just as adamant in its refusal to admit the KPD as a whole. This is certainly a measure of the revolutionary significance of a slogan like “All Power to the Workers Councils”.

An article in the constitution promised the integration of the councils. On October 9, the law was presented before the Assembly. In the view of the USPD and numerous councils—particularly the clandestine executive council (Vollzugsrat) of Berlin—who wanted “authentic participation of the workers in economic decision-making” and not simply in matters pertaining to the company cafeteria and social events, the law was insufficient. The working masses committed themselves to this fight in favor of council participation in decision-making, and in December, demonstrations took place in Hamburg and Essen. On January 13, “in order to exert pressure on the deputies”, 50,000 people attended a demonstration in front of the Reichstag in Berlin. Troops opened fire on the demonstrators and killed forty people: a state of siege was declared. On the 18th, the law was passed. The KPD (at that time, only its right wing remained in the party: cf. Chapter 10) criticized the idea of these legal councils, but nonetheless, by virtue of its two principles—“revolutionary parliamentarism” and “do not become isolated from the masses”—joined the demonstrations.



[1] La nouvelle étape, Librairie de l’Humanité, 1922, p. 13.

[2] Comfort, Chapter IV.

[3] Oeuvres, Vol. 29, 1962, pp. 244-245.

[4] Ibid., pp. 392 and 396.

[5] Survey, October 1964, “Paul Levi and the Comintern”.

[6] Lowenthal, p. 34.

[7] D. Cattell, Journal of Central European Affairs, January-April 1951, “The Hungarian Revolution of 1919 and the Reorganization of the Comintern in 1920”.

[8] L’Internationale Communiste, No. 5.

[9] Ibid., No. 10.

[10] Gruber, pp. 297-298.