Gilles Dauvé / Denis Authier

The Communist Left in Germany 1918-1921


Table of Contents:



Any pretense to having collected the “best” of the German Left in the following section would be vain. One would also have to consider previously available texts, above all Bricianer’s book on Pannekoek and the volume entitled La Gauche allemande. Textes. [Four of the texts featured in the latter volume, The Program of the AAUD, The Guidelines of the AAU-E, extracts from The Guidelines of the AAUD and The Leading Principles of the KAI, are included below, along with several other recently-translated texts of the German Left—translator’s note.] All three of these quite dissimilar works, when taken together, present a complex picture of the Left. Our selection does not place particular emphasis upon “councilism” and workers self-organization (except for the Wolffheim text), which occupy ample space in Bricianer’s book. Nor does it privilege, as do the documents in La Gauche allemande. Textes, the role of the organization (especially that of the KAPD). Fully intending that this work should complement the two others mentioned above, we did not want to restrict ourselves to just picking out the most important aspects of the Left for the revolutionary movement, but also wanted to highlight the Left’s context and the actual extent of its impact on its epoch. Laufenberg’s text, for example, is of great interest insofar as it shows exactly what did and what did not take place. Likewise, Gorter provides a quite accurate if somewhat limited notion of how most communists experienced and viewed the events of their time. His “Last Letter to Lenin” also reveals a certain tendency on the part of the KAPD, as well, to present itself as a “party in the traditional sense”, as the March Action demonstrates.

This book, as well as the Left itself, could be superficially criticized for having overemphasized the organizational aspect of the revolution. This is true, but what we need to know is precisely why this is so. There are no “subversive social movements” or “communist movements” which are not embodied in one or another organizational form. Every content implies a form. The weakness of the communist organizational structures in Germany between 1914 and 1921 was the result of the veritable contradiction of the epoch’s revolutionary movement, which was unleashed by the political and social crisis just when capital was undergoing a new, long-lasting phase of expansion (cf. Appendix III).

The critique of organizational formalism is revolutionary to the extent that it discovers within this formalism the organization of the absence of the revolution and consequently the organization of non-revolutionaries; but it does not by any means rule out the necessity of organizing and, if necessary, organizing in the most monolithic manner, when facing the tasks of the revolution. Otherwise, “the communist movement” becomes just as vacuous a formula as the intellectuals’ concept of “the revolution”. We have not, in any case, written a history of the communist movement or of the movement of the proletariat in Germany, but have instead studied a practical and theoretical current which, although not the only such current, constituted a very rich and profound aspect of those movements. The texts collected below present the different components which nourished this current, and with it, its weak points.

For reasons beyond our control having to do with “intellectual property” rights, we were unable to reproduce Lukācs’s Organizational Questions of the Third International, originally published in Kommunismus (March 15, 1920). We have already discussed (cf. Chapter 17) what distinguished this journal, and Lukācs in particular, from the communist left. The radicalism of Kommunismus possessed only a surface resemblance to that of the left. For example, the “active boycott” advocated by B. Kun, which consisted of taking advantage of the occasion of elections in order to carry out as much propaganda and to get as much publicity as possible, without running any candidates, leads to conferring upon electoral campaigns an importance which they lack and which democracy is always trying to impose. It is curious, however, to see Lukācs developing in this article a theory of organization for the Communist Parties, and above all of collaboration between them, which reproduces to some degree, on an international scale, what the KAPD had in fact realized within its own ranks. We have seen how the KAPD insisted on a multiplicity of contacts and initiatives on all levels, establishing links directly between its various groups as well as in conformance with its formal organizational pyramid.

The KAPD was founded upon the necessity for unifying the proletariat, in opposition to its division into categories, strata, etc., maintained by the trade unions. Like many other revolutionaries in Central Europe, Lukācs was primarily concerned with cutting the umbilical cord to the nation. The unity of the Third International, he said, would never be a situation finally attained, but is rather a tendency. The Second International was based upon an association of separate parties, as they were organized upon national foundations, and were only afterwards united on an international level for joint action, which was revealed to be impossible, of course, because each party had formed itself with reference to the specific problems faced in each country: “The Second International viewed itself as a reality, while the Third International views itself as a guiding idea for proletarian actions.”

A serial accumulation of national parties leads to nationalism. Internationalism must also be manifested by its own kind of structures.

The correctness of Lukācs’s position is proven in a negative sense by the evolution of such parties as the Polish Communist Party (cf. Chapter 17). Each Communist Party based its growth as a political (and preferably parliamentary) force within the framework of its particular State, and thus re-invented nationalism. In the regions where capital was relatively weak and was hardly capable of spawning viable nation states, any construction of Communist Parties upon the exclusive basis of such States was contrary to communism. Lukācs referred to “the mining region shared by Poland, Czechoslovakia and German Austria, which all depend on this region for their coal supplies; the Ruthenian northeast of Hungary was divided between that country, Czechoslovakia, Poland and the Ukraine, etc. These issues demand a permanent tactical collaboration among the proletarians involved; they can neither be abandoned to the isolated actions of the various parties, nor can they be made to depend upon the decisions of distant central committees...”

For such regions, Lukācs proposes a flexible organization which groups the communists of the various States who reside in the same region within a relatively autonomous structure. Instead of just adding distinct Communist Parties together, they mutually interpenetrate one another: “One and the same party must be represented on various central committees.” Therefore: “The structure of the International ... must never place obstacles in the way of the establishment of relations directly between the parties themselves... The Second International only admitted national movements grouped within the apparent unity of the International: the Third International is made up of living groupings, based on movements which have overcome the narrow-mindedness of the ‘national’ point of view.” To despise this position today, however, by charging that it did not go far enough, would be historically false. One cannot judge this position without taking into account the concerns which animated it. Compared to the extremely rapid transformation of the Communist Parties, not to speak of the current situation where even the leftists do not directly attack the concept of national defense, such a stance allows us to measure the weight of 50 years of counterrevolution.

As our final text, we reproduce an essay by Pannekoek written after the period dealt with in this book, because it addresses an important debate within the left, but also, and most importantly, because it goes beyond the reformist and radical versions of crisis automatism. The recently-published French translations of the works of Mattick and Grossmann provide a new impetus to this debate. We must also mention that during the period when he wrote this text on the crisis debate, Pannekoek still retained a “materialist” point of view: his conclusion does not substitute proletarian action for the “crisis”. Later, and especially after 1945, he would make consciousness and consciousness-raising the motor force of the proletarian movement. [For reasons of space, the Pannekoek essay has been omitted from this new revised edition in order to make room for other texts which have not yet appeared in English translation. An English translation of Pannekoek’s The Theory of the Collapse of Capitalism, which was originally published in Rätekorrespondenz in June of 1934, and was later published in English translation in Capital and Class (Spring 1977, tr. by Adam Buick) can now be viewed at the website—translator’s note.]


Selected Texts:

Heinrich Laufenberg: The Hamburg Revolution

Fritz Wolffheim: Factory Organizations or Trade Unions?

Hermann Gorter: The Opportunism of the Communist Party of the Netherlands

Resolution of the Conference of the Abstentionist Communist Fraction of the Italian Socialist Party

The Communist Left and the Resolutions of the Second Congress of the Communist International

Hermann Gorter: The Lessons of the “March Action”: Gorter’s Last Letter to Lenin

The KAPD’s Report on the Third Congress of the Communist International

Program of the AAUD (December 1920)

Extracts from the Guidelines of the AAUD (December 1920)

Guidelines of the AAU-E (June 1921)

Franz Pfemfert: Lenin’s Infantile Disorder... and the Third International

Leading Principles of the KAI (1922)