Gilles Dauvé / Denis Authier

The KPD: January 1919 to March 1920

Chapter 10

Table of Contents:


The Minority Right-wing Leadership goes on the Offensive

The opposition between the KPD’s tendencies would revolve around the basic problem which was not resolved by the first congress: the position to be taken on the trade union question—but the battle lines would not be firmly drawn until the struggles were over. In effect, in early May of 1919 the Rote Fahne (organ of the Berlin central committee) was still directing the members of the KPD to participate in the reconstruction of the General Union of Miners. The central committee also helped form an Agricultural Workers Union and a Railroad Workers Union. Both would collapse after the failure of the strike called by the central committee. Despite its unfortunate experiences, the central committee, into whose leadership Levi was reluctantly co-opted in April, supported working with “what already exists”: the trade unions dominated by the SPD. The failure of the proletarian movement irremediably blocked any possibility that the former Spartacists would move towards the left, although some of them were open to the ideas of the left.

The left’s attitude did not change. The focal point of the tendency at that time was in northern Germany: Wolffheim and Laufenberg were the radicals’ spokesmen, and the central committee concentrated its attacks on them. But the theoretical expression of the movement was provided by Pannekoek who tirelessly wrote for the left press under the pseudonym of K. Horner. Hamburg paved the way by violently destroying the trade unions. The AAU was strongest in the north.

Levi, a lawyer by profession, had met Lenin in Switzerland during the war and had collaborated with the Zimmerwald left, moving closer to bolshevism, particularly in regard to the need for another party besides social democracy. He contributed to bringing about closer relations between Spartacus and the IKD. He situated himself at the point where bolshevism and Spartacism intersected. Once he was co-opted into the KPD leadership, he announced a new “centralist” line which was soon destined to lead to the exclusion of the leftist currents. From his contacts with the Bolsheviks he would retain only the idea of a strong party: what basically attracted him to Leninism was what the latter preserved of social democracy, and not those aspects which went beyond social democracy. He considered the left to be responsible for the defeats and denounced “verbal radicalism”: “to be a communist does not mean using the most radical phrases, but having the clearest vision of social reality at every moment”—precisely the kind of false opposition in whose name the Bolsheviks extirpated the leftist tendencies in Russia. The left responded immediately: the Hamburg Kommunistische Arbeiter-Zeitung published an article on The Roots of Dictatorship.[1] The new centralizing measures were due to the fact that many KPD members came from the USPD (the Spartacists). The party must be “the means provided to the masses for their own intervention”. Levi had applied, to the KPD, principles imported from the USPD, “an organization where the leaders rule the masses”.

The central committee did not carry out its attack directly on the basis of crucial strategic issues (trade unions, elections), but with the help of the false centralism/federalism opposition, and did so obliquely. At the Frankfurt conference in mid-August 1919, Levi still did not call for working in the trade unions. He carried on a polemic around the concept of unitary organization, calling its supporters syndicalists; on the issue of participation in parliament, since almost all the party’s local organizations were controlled by the left, Levi and the central committee, avoiding a frontal assault, executed a carefully-planned maneuver by inviting all kinds of editors, secretaries and traveling orators to attend the conference. Meanwhile, the 22 districts of the party were represented by only one delegate for each district. The Hamburg communists immediately attacked this ploy as “the first beginnings of a new Bonzentum which they were trying to introduce into the party”. Despite this kind of manipulation, the central committee did not win a majority, because the extraneous elements which it had invited to the conference went over to the left. The conference also voted in favor of a resolution which deprived the central committee of the right to vote in future party congresses. Even though Levi did not explicitly say so at this conference, Hamburg and Bremen foresaw that the central committee would return to the issue of working in the trade unions.


The Heidelberg Congress

The Heidelberg Congress met secretly between October 20 and 24. The party’s representational arrangements were distorted by the central committee. Each district had only one vote, no matter how large or how small it was. Levi caused the resolution approved at the Frankfurt conference to be brought up for another vote and the majority of the delegates, 23 versus 18, voted to restore the central committee’s right to vote. This gave eight votes to the central committee, which then had 31 votes against 18: the outcome of the Congress was decided.

Availing itself of the method employed by the SPD right wing and center against the left prior to the war, the central committee lumped the members of the opposition together with the syndicalists: it would prove, however, that it knew perfectly well how to distinguish between them.[2] The central committee wanted to transform the debate into a struggle between Marxism and anarchosyndicalism. With this purpose in mind it quoted articles which had appeared in the leftist press. Since the left allowed all the currents of the real movement to express themselves in its press, it was hardly difficult to find articles which confused syndicalism with unionism in its columns: in the series entitled “A Contribution to the Debate on the Trade Union Question”, for example, which appeared in the Hamburg Kommunistische Arbeiter-Zeitung. Attending just to its texts and even to the minutiae of its texts, the central committee’s position might seem more rigorous and more Marxist than that of its opponents: this, at least, was how the Italian Left chose to assess the German Left. Reducing the German Left tendencies to a variety of revolutionary syndicalism post festum (cf. Chapter 17) contributes nothing new. The Italian Left’s study of the debates within the KPD provides endless proofs of textual fetishism, and shows a preference for Levi’s “principles” instead of the sometimes confused revolutionary positions of the opposition.[3]

During the summer the left factions of northern Germany had reached a clear conception of the new organizational form and had explained it with sufficient clarity to cause unionism to be attacked by The Syndicalist, the organ of the revolutionary syndicalists. The left was able to direct its counterattack at the root of the question. But Levi precipitated a split by unexpectedly distributing a text at the congress entitled “Principle Theses on the Fundamentals of Communist Tactics”.[4] The central committee claimed that the conditions of clandestinity justified the fact that this document had not previously been published and distributed for discussion within the party. But the text ended as follows: “Those members of the KPD who do not share these views concerning the nature, the organization and the activity of the party, or those who have opposed them orally or in writing, must be excluded from the party.” This text was, in addition, quite clever in that its first consequence was a split within the left, between the majority (Hamburg) and a minority (Bremen, with Frölich and Becker). The weight of the decentralizing tendencies within the left led Bremen to remain within the KPD,[5] all the more so as it seemed to find leftist aspects in the KPD. Within the KPD, it would be “the only communist current within the German section of the Third International. With its 8,000 members in Bremen and its daily newspaper, Der Kommunist, the Bremerlinke ... would only have a limited influence”.[6]

Indeed, that portion of Levi’s theses dedicated to electoral and trade union tactics was ambiguous in the highest degree and could be used to justify rightist and leftist methods at the same time, depending upon the situation. This will contribute to a better understanding of Bremen’s break with the left.

“The KPD cannot reject, in principle, any political means which contribute to the preparation for these great struggles. But these elections, considered merely as a preparatory means, must be subordinated to the revolutionary struggle, and the application of such means can be abandoned in utterly extraordinary political situations; when revolutionary actions have begun and move towards the decisive phase, then the application of parliamentary methods becomes obsolete or provisionally superfluous.”

Ultimately, the KPD program would not go beyond this expression of the problem. Among German communist theoreticians, only Rühle would analyze the issue by maintaining that the phase of the proletariat’s participation in parliamentary activity had utterly come to an end, and justified abstentionism in both the revolutionary period as well as the period of reaction.

The central committee’s “Theses” defined the trade union question in the following manner: “The task of the political party consists in assuring to the proletariat the free utilization of economic means, even, should it be necessary, at the cost of the destruction of the trade union form and the creation of new forms of organization.” The text’s tone was decidedly revolutionary and anti-unionist, and articulated an ideology of the “vanguard”.

“The idea that the party should abandon its leadership role in revolutionary actions, in favor of factory organizations [a meaningless sort of discussion, since the German party, while it was revolutionary, never “led” anything—N.B.] and that the party should limit itself to propaganda, is counterrevolutionary because it seeks to replace the clear vision of the workers vanguard with the chaotic power of the masses in a state of flux.”

The KAPD would also have a vanguardist perspective. But in its case the vanguard was not the group of people who were thought to have the most advanced consciousness, of those who possessed the clearest “perspective” on the issues, but all of those people who dedicated themselves to initiating, before anyone else did, the fight against society: they would thus set an example for the rest of the working class.

The “Theses” contained an idea which was seldom expressed during this era: “The conception according to which one can create mass movements by means of a particular form of organization, and consequently that the revolution is a matter of the form of organization, is rejected as a relapse into bourgeois utopia.”[7]

Only those who understood the true social and political nature of the authors could reject this text: they would consequently also know what the Levist leadership had done (and would yet do) (return to parliamentarism, work in the trade unions, fusion with the USPD) independently of what it first stated in accordance with the circumstances. It was this fraction of the left which rejected the “Theses” with 18 votes against 31 votes. On the fourth day of the congress, 25 delegates (the 18 plus 7 others with consultative votes) were excluded. These delegates represented the regions of Berlin (including, at that time, the Rote Fahne, the party’s mouthpiece), Hamburg (which would not join the Frölich-Becker tendency), Hanover, Essen, Dresden and Magdeburg.

After this first purge, there was still an internal opposition, since the abstentionist tendencies had remained in the party, believing that their position was justified by the theses they had just adopted. In regard to the trade union question, the central committee was forced to reach an accommodation with the representatives from Rhineland-Westphalia who did not want to hear anything about a return to the trade unions. In November 1919, the Ruhr sections of the KPD were still in favor of collaboration with the AAU, which might have prevented the infiltration of syndicalists into the region’s unions. But the KPD leadership opposed this proposal.[8]

Many have argued that the preparations for the First Congress of the KPD were rushed in order to deny its “representative” character. In any case, Heidelberg could barely achieve a slim majority in favor of parliamentary and trade union action: the last thesis on exclusion was adopted with 29 votes against 20. The opposition was still strong at that time. At the Third Congress (February 1920), “the majority of the districts of Northern Germany, including Berlin, had joined the opposition; the total number of party members was officially registered as 106,000 at Heidelberg, even though it could not have been so many, having been reduced by almost one-half”.[9] The theses approved at Heidelberg, according to Eberlein, generated strong opposition when they were publicized in the various party locals. In the summer of 1919, the KPD dissolved its organization in the army, the League of Red Soldiers, which had become a focal point of the opposition. But many combat organizations (KO) continued their activities after they were officially dissolved. Eberlein states that the majority of the operatives of the armed groups were later incorporated into the KAPD. Other exclusions would be necessary and the Third Congress would implement them.


The KPD and KPD (Opposition)

Between October 1919 and March 1920, the proletariat was still reeling from the effects of its defeat. The left honed its perspective, as did the right, represented by Levi, and above all by Radek. Radek had played an important role in Russia in the struggle against the left Socialist Revolutionaries and anarchists, which had caused him to lose his radical ideas and metamorphose into a convinced “anti-spontaneist”. Commissioned by the Bolshevik government, he returned to Germany at the end of 1918, and intervened in favor of the Spartacus-IKD fusion. After February 12, 1919, he spent one year in prison: however, while in prison he carried out a considerable amount of activity on two levels. On the one hand, he was the first to re-establish diplomatic relations between Russia and Germany, receiving numerous visits while in prison from various political and military figures.[10] He then became convinced that the German revolution was provisionally terminated and that the Soviet Union had to be consolidated through traditional diplomatic means. In addition, and this aspect of his activities was obviously connected to his diplomatic efforts, he supported Levi’s positions and pressed for the exclusion of the leftists. His work A Contribution to Communist Tactics, published by the central committee, was the ideological expression of the KPD’s tactics. The role of the party was analyzed in this pamphlet in totally Bolshevik terms: dictatorship of the so-called “conscious” elements over the rest of the class, which was conceived as a mass of labor power incapable of raising itself to a level of consciousness sufficient to carry out the revolution. To assume this role, the party must purge itself of all impure elements, and first of all, of all those who deny the revolutionary validity of the Leninist concept. Without explicitly saying so, Levi and Radek were equally guided by the idea of fusion with the USPD, which had several hundred thousand members, while the KPD had approximately 50,000 after its split: this was one more reason to exclude the left. The party had to return to “revolutionary parliamentarism” and to “entrism” in the trade unions, particularly since the membership of the latter had grown by 600% from November 1918 to December 1920: trade union membership had almost become compulsory with the institutionalization of the Arbeitsgemeinschaft (cf. the KAPD program).

Criticism came from many different leftist publications: Die Aktion, the Hamburg Kommunistische Arbeiter-Zeitung, the Bremen and Dresden Der Kommunist, etc... It was a very diverse movement. Some subversive artists (generally expressionists) contributed to Die Aktion: this was the source for the accusations of dilletantism and estheticism directed by the CI’s polemicists against the German Left. Some of these artists had a long history of opposition to the conservatism of the official workers movement. C. Einstein (a close associate of Pfempfert, the editor of Die Aktion), an enemy of rationalism and, in art, “classicism”, wrote in 1914: “A union of rationalists will never change anything; it would do nothing but bring about a little more order. The social democracy, the military academies and the public schools are perfectly identical.”[11] The revolutionary reflux would cause them to return to art, in one form or another.

In the meantime, they became acquainted with the texts of Pannekoek, especially World Revolution and Communist Tactics, published in Der Kommunist of Bremen in December 1919.[12] Another one of Pannekoek’s articles, published in the same journal, was entitled The New Blanquism.[13] This is how Pannekoek characterized the ultra-centralizing conceptions established as principles by the KPD central committee, for whom a political minority “gathering together the conscious proletarians” seizes and holds political power, identifying this process with the conquest of power by the proletariat. This is what happened in Russia: the party was justified there by the enormous mass of the peasantry, a significant part of which aspired to private property, to capitalism rather than to socialism. The preservation of a proletarian dictatorship therefore requires, in Russia, an enormous effort, and hence the appearance of a dictatorship of one part of the class over the class itself. In the conditions prevailing in the highly-developed capitalism of Western Europe, however, the revolution can only be the spontaneous uprising of the working masses. This is why the proletariat must overcome its bourgeois “culture”: this task cannot be accomplished by a leadership clique, however conscious it may be, but only through the maturation of social contradictions (for which theoretical works comprise a precondition and a basic element).

“Such a doctrine (that of Radek and Levi) implies that it is not the entire party but its central committee which exercises its dictatorship, first within the party itself, from which it excludes, on its own initiative, the militants, and rids itself of any opposition by underhanded means.”[14]

“The arrogant proclamations about the centralization of revolutionary forces into the hands of a proven vanguard would be more impressive if it was not known that they are being used to justify, on the one hand, an underhanded opportunist policy, and on the other, a nostalgia for the parliamentary tribune.”[15]

Pannekoek soon reached the conclusion that the German revolution had come to an end: unlike Gorter, he remained on the margins of the various organizations of the left, even though he was most sympathetic to the perspectives of the AAU-E and Rühle.[16] Prior to the war, he had already made an essential distinction, in Marxist Theory and Revolutionary Tactics,[17] between the existing organizations (he was speaking of the SPD) and what he called “the spirit of organization” in the proletariat. After 1919 Pannekoek undoubtedly soon adopted the idea that no organization, however “leftist” it may be, unless it was the organization which the proletariat created for itself during the revolution, could justify calling itself the party of the proletariat.

The German Left is undoubtedly more than just an oscillation between organizational fetishism and an exaggeration of the importance of the party “nucleus” (cf. Chapter 14). More precisely, these two “deviations” reflect the two extremes of the desperate struggle of proletarians seeking, in an organizational form, the solution which would allow them to overcome their continually repeated defeats. Its critique of the rest of the left (cf. the texts of the KAPD) is much less radical than that of Pannekoek; although it was quite violent in the terms it employed. This would all remain on a formal level (on this aspect of the German Left and on Pannekoek’s later development, cf. Appendix I).



[1] 1919, No. 83.

[2] Bock, p. 142.

[3] Cf., among other issues, PC, No. 58.

[4] Bock, Document VIII.

[5] Frölich, La maladie syndicaliste dans le KPD, quoted in PC, No. 58, pp. 176-177.

[6] La question syndicale..., p. 19.

[7] Expressed by the PCI, in 1921, in its famous formula: “The revolution is not a question of the form of organization” (Parti et classes, Ed. Programme Communiste, 1971, p. 25), cf. also Le principe démocratique (1922).

[8] La question syndicale..., p. 19.

[9] Lowenthal, p. 31, et seq.

[10] Cf. his “Diary”, published in Germany in 1962: cf. Kool, p. 108.

[11] Revue d’Allemagne, April-June 1974, “Carl Einstein: de l’arte pur à l’action politique”. On the “revolutionary artists” of that era, cf. Action poétique, No. 51-52, devoted especially to the artists associated with the KPD.

[12] Reproduced almost in its entirety in Invariance, n.d., No. 7. Extensive extracts can be found in Pannekoek and the Workers Councils. Published in full in English translation in Pannekoek and Gorter’s Marxism, ed. D.A. Smart, Pluto Press, London, 1978, pp. 93-148.

[13] Bock offers numerous extracts.

[14] This formulation strikingly recalls Trotsky’s 1904 theses on Bolshevism: cf. Nos Tâches politiques, Belfond, 1970, and Rapport de la délégation sibérienne.

[15] Bock, pp. 149-150.

[16] Kool, p. 128.

[17] Extensive extracts can be found in Pannekoek and the Workers Councils. Published in full in English translation in Pannekoek and Gorter’s Marxism, pp. 50-73.