In this, the third installment of a series of articles on attempts to build workers or socialist internationals, I am going to discuss the Comintern but within a narrow historical and geographical framework, namely the German revolution of the early 1920s. It will be my goal, as it was in an article written about 10 years ago titled The Comintern and German Communism, to debunk the notion of a wise and efficacious Comintern. As opposed to mainstream Trotskyist opinion, I do not view the Comintern prior to Stalin’s rise to power as a model to emulate. Looking back in particular at the role of Lenin and Trotsky, not to speak of outright rascals like Karl Radek and Bela Kun, the only conclusion that sensible people can be left with is that the German Communist Party would have been much better off if the Comintern had simply left it alone.
My first article depended heavily on Werner T. Angress’s “Stillborn Revolution, the Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923”. Angress is a most interesting figure. Born in Berlin in 1920, he was featured in the documentary “The Ritchie Boys” that told the story of an all-Jewish squad of paratroopers trained at Camp Ritchie, Maryland who fought behind Nazi lines—real life Inglourious Basterds so to speak.
Part of my motivation in returning to the Comintern’s role in Germany was to read Pierre Broue’s “German Revolution 1917-1923”, a 959-page book that was originally published in hardcover by Historical Materialism at a prohibitive price. Thankfully, Haymarket books, the ISO’s publishing wing, has made a paperback available for only $50. Although this is still a steep price, it is still recommended as a major contribution to Marxist historiography.
Broue was a professional historian like Angress (who is referenced 29 times in Broue’s book) but he was also a Trotskyist party member, spending 30 years in Pierre Lambert’s French sect until he was expelled. The wiki on Broue states that during a heated debate with Lambert, he threw a chair at him. Unfortunately nobody in the American Trotskyist movement ever had that kind of audacity. I heard Broue speak at a conference on American Trotskyism in 2000. This was what I said about him in a report on the conference:
Broue was much worse. This Grenoble professor, who was connected to Pierre Lambert’s sect for many years, used his 20 minutes to present a sensationalistic but diffuse series of characterizations of well-known Trotskyist figures. Apparently this included a charge that Pablo was some kind of secret agent, according to one of my companions who remained alert during the whole time. Since his presentation was so incoherent, this escaped my attention. As I do have the tape, I will pay closer attention when I review his talk. If he did make this charge, I would strongly urge Paul LeBlanc never to invite this bum to anything again. Meanwhile Volkov and Broue sat in the audience chatting in a loud voice during presentations by young Trotskyists on the final day of the conference until someone shushed them. That should show you where their heads are at.
I have a much more benign attitude toward Broue after reading his book, although—as we shall see—I differentiate myself from his more conventional attitude, at least in Trotskyist terms, toward Lenin and Trotsky’s role. Indeed, the book walks a tightrope between salvaging Paul Levi’s reputation as the best leader German Communism ever had after Rosa Luxemburg and endorsing Lenin and Trotsky’s view that he was a kind of Menshevik that the party had to expel.
Again, tipping my hat to the contributions made by the journal Historical Materialism in translating and publishing key Marxist literature, I benefited from reading Paul Levi’s response to the March 1921 disaster that got him expelled for “breaking discipline” as well as his speech to the central committee (Zentrale) of the German CP defending his decision to go public with his critique of the March putsch. These two articles appeared in HM Number 17, 2009 and will likely be added to the Marxist Internet Archives in a year or so. They confirmed for me the power of Levi’s mind as well as the decay at the top of the German CP that Lenin and Trotsky backed against him.
Additionally, I have read Lenin’s rather vindictive attacks on Levi that are available on the Marxist Internet Archives. They are reminders that the heroes of the Comintern were, alas, all too human. Leaving aside the merits of their judgment, the most important lesson we can draw from the whole episode is the need to avoid “Cominternism” if we are indeed serious about constructing that Fifth International that Hugo Chavez has called for.
In 1921 the German CP was a kind of front of rival CP’s, including one led by Paul Levi that emerged out of Rosa Luxemburg’s Spartacus League. He was her second in command and her lawyer involving political cases since 1913. Against his party, there was an ultraleft group led by Ruth Fischer whose politics meshed with those of Bela Kun who was assigned by the Comintern to advise the German party. It was Kun who came up with the ultraleft idea to launch an insurrection in March 1921 that was backed by Karl Radek who functioned effectively both as a CP leader and, like Kun, a kind of Comintern representative.
Here is Broue’s assessment of Bela Kun:
We do not know the exact date when Kun arrived in Berlin, but only that it was around the end of February or the start of March. The new Chairman of the ECCI had been a Social-Democratic activist in Hungary before the War, and had been won to Bolshevism in 1917 when he was a prisoner of war. After secretly returning to Hungary, he had founded the Hungarian Communist Party. After being arrested, he emerged from jail to become Chairman of the Council of Peoples’ Commissars, and to lead the Party which had been formed by fusion with the Social Democrats. He succeeded in escaping after the council régime fell, and took refuge in Moscow, where he worked in the political section of the Red Army. He was strongly blamed for having had ‘White’ prisoners from Wrangel’s army executed, in breach of the pledge given to them. Lenin spoke at first of having him shot, but finally was satisfied with sending him on a mission to Turkestan. Kun was a courageous but mediocre man. Lenin never concealed his low estimation of him, and that he was partly responsible, thanks to his opportunist errors, for the final collapse of the Hungarian conciliar republic.
On March 14 of 1921, Radek wrote a letter to the Zentrale leaders amenable to his and Kun’s ultraleft leanings that was basically an endorsement of Ruth Fischer’s Blanquist politics:
Levi is trying to build a faction on the slogan of ‘mass party or sect’. The swindle is that by implementing this line, he is engaged in dividing the Party in a catastrophic way, at a time when we can draw new masses around us by activising our policy. No one here is thinking of a mechanical split, nor of a split of any kind, in Germany. Our task is to bring to light the oppositions in the Party, and to make the left wing the leading force. Levi will soon go. But we must do all we can to prevent Däumig and [Clara] Zetkin from going with him. . . .
Everything depends on the world political situation. If the division between Germany and the Entente widens, and in the event of war with Poland, we shall speak. It is precisely because these possibilities exist that you must do all you can to mobilise the Party. One cannot start an action like firing a revolver. If today you do not do everything, by incessant pressure for action, to impart to the Communist masses the idea that they need to engage in action, you will again let slip a decisive moment. In this moment of political decisions of worldwide significance, think less about the ‘radical’ formula than about action, setting the masses in motion. In the event that war comes, think not about peace or about mere protests, but about taking up arms.
Chapter 25 of Broue’s history spells out in depressing detail what all this “action” business boiled down to:
Everything changed during the course of that day. First, Eberlein arrived in Halle, and explained to the local leaders that they must at all costs provoke an uprising in Central Germany, which would be the first stage of the Revolution. No means could be ruled out for shaking the workers out of their passivity, and he went so far as to suggest organising faked attacks on the VKPD [the group that Levi belonged to] or other workers’ organisations, or kidnapping known leaders in order to blame the police and the reactionaries, and in this way provoke the anger of the masses…
That Thursday, 24 March, the Communists used every means, including force, to attempt to set off a general strike. Groups of activists tried to occupy, factories by surprise in order to prevent the entry of the great mass of non-Communist workers, whom they called ‘scabs’. Elsewhere, groups of unemployed clashed with workers on their way to work or at the factories. There were incidents in Berlin in several of the big factories, in the Ruhr and in Hamburg, where unemployed workers and dockers who had occupied the quays were driven out after a lively exchange of shots. The general outcome was insignificant. Pessimistic estimates reckoned 200,000 strikers, optimistic ones claimed half a million. Some of the failures were bitterly disappointing, like that of Wilhelm Sült, who failed to win over his comrades in the power stations.
As damning as Broue’s account is, nothing could top Levi’s pamphlet “Our Path: Against Putschism” published in April 1921 for a hair-raising documentation of the stupidity of the March actions that were mounted under the Weatherman-style slogan “Whoever is not with me is against me”. He cites a report from the Moers district:
On Thursday morning the Krupp Friedrich-Alfred works in Rheinhausen saw violent clashes between the Communists, who had occupied the plant, and worker trying to get to work. Finally, the workers set on the Communists with cudgels and forcibly cleared their way in. Eight men were wounded at this point. Belgian soldiers intervened in the fighting, separating the two sides and arresting twenty Communists. The Communists thrown out of the plant returned in greater numbers and once again occupied the premises.
Besides the merciless description of such foolish tactics that left many CP members victimized—either killed in action or imprisoned—Levi’s article is distinguished by his Marxist analysis of the problems of a divided German working class that could not be resolved through bold actions. If left-leaning social democratic workers were supposed to be inspired into sympathetic actions, they clearly failed. Broue describes the aftermath of the March actions in the first paragraph of chapter 26:
The days which followed the defeat of the March Action revealed the extent of the disaster which the VKPD’s leaders had inflicted upon their party. They had not even been able to lead all their own members into action. Some members publicly denounced the strike. Many left the Party, sometimes noisily, sometimes quietly slipping away. In a few weeks, the party lost 200,000 members. Moreover, it was facing repression; its newspapers were being banned or suspended, and its members being arrested, sometimes held for a few hours or days, but often charged and jailed for many months. The courts- martial went to work with a vengeance; by the beginning of June, it was calculated that of the strikers or fighters in March there were already 400 sentenced to some 1,500 years hard labour, and 500 to 800 years in jail, eight to life imprisonment and four to death, and there were still plenty awaiting trial. Brandler, the chairman of the Party, was sentenced to five years imprisonment for high treason.
Almost immediately after this disaster, the Comintern was forced to come to terms with it. Instead of an open and frank discussion of why things had come to such a dreadful conclusion, it was far more interested in victimizing Levi for his breach of discipline, his resignation from the Zentrale, a committee that had become terminally ineffective in his eyes, and his alleged “Menshevism”. This was combined with a mealy-mouthed admission that Radek, Kun and their German lieutenants might not have had their heads screwed on right.
Lenin’s first reference to the March events can be found in an April 11, 1921 report:
In March 1921, the workers of Mansfeld, led by Communists, went on strike against an order setting up police patrols at plants and factories in Central Germany. In some places there were armed clashes with the police. The workers of Berlin, Hamburg and several other towns expressed their solidarity with the heroic strikers, but the Communist Party of Germany failed to unite the working-class forces against the bourgeoisie because of the treacherous behaviour of Paul Levi and other opportunists in the party leadership.
Since Levi was not even in the country until the March events were well in progress, this charge is totally outrageous. Eventually Lenin came to his senses to some degree and came to terms with the adventurism he had defended here. In August 1921, he slapped the wrist of the ultraleftists while simultaneously stabbing Levi in the back in an a Letter to the German Communists:
It is true that Levi did all he possibly could, and much besides, to weaken and spoil his criticism, and make it difficult for himself and others to understand the essence of the matter, by bringing in a mass of details in which he was obviously wrong. Levi couched his criticism in an impermissible and harmful form. While urging others to pursue a cautious and well-considered strategy, Levi himself committed worse blunders than a schoolboy, by rushing into battle so prematurely, so unprepared, so absurdly and wildly that he was certain to lose any “battle”(spoiling or hampering his work for many years), although the “battle” could and should have been won. Levi behaved like an “anarchist intellectual”(if I am not mistaken, the German term is Edelanarchist ), instead of behaving like an organised member of the proletarian Communist International. Levi committed a breach of discipline.
By this series of incredibly stupid blunders Levi made it difficult to concentrate attention on the essence of the matter. And the essence of the matter, i.e., the appraisal and correction of the innumerable mistakes made by the United Communist Party of Germany during the March action of 1921, has been and continues to be of enormous importance. In order to explain and correct these mistakes (which some people enshrined as gems of Marxist tactics) it was necessary to have been on the Right wing during the Third Congress of the Communist International. Otherwise the line of the Communist International would have been a wrong one.
It should be mentioned that Trotsky was just as hostile as Lenin. In “First Five Years of the Comintern”, a work that newly indoctrinated Trotskyists would regard as holy writ, Trotsky took more or less the same tack as Lenin. He was forced to admit that things had gone very wrong in Germany, but was far more interested in demonizing Levi as an enemy of Bolshevism. In January 1922, he wrote an article titled Paul Levi and some ‘lefts’ that took pains to differentiate him from Levi. It appears that some critical remarks directed against the March follies had given some the impression that he was in Levi’s camp. Trotsky tries to clear the record:
You ask me to express my views on the policy of the so-called Communist League of Germany (KAG), and in passing you refer to the fact that Paul Levi, the leader of the Communist League, is abusing my name by claiming me as virtually his co-thinker. [This has no basis in fact. All Levi did was cite Trotsky’s writings about the need to win the support of the masses in his speech to the Zentrale.]
I must candidly confess that following the Third World Congress I have not read a single article by Levi, just as I have not read – to, my sincere regret – many other far more important things. To be sure, I have seen in periodicals published by Levi, which I happened to run across by chance, extracts from my report at the World Congress. Some comrades informed me that I had been almost enrolled as a member of Levi’s group. And if these happened to be very “leftist” and very young comrades, they mentioned it with holy horror, while those who were somewhat more serious confined themselves to a joke. Inasmuch as I am utterly unable to enrol myself either among the very young (to my sorrow) or among the very “leftist” (for which I am not at all sorry), my reaction to this news was not at all tragic. Let me confess I still see no reason for changing my attitude.
From the nature of the case it seemed to me, as it still does, that the decision concerning Levi adopted by the congress at Moscow is perfectly clear and requires no extended commentaries. By the decision of the congress, Levi was placed outside the Communist International. This decision was not at all adopted against the wishes of the Russian delegation, but on the contrary with its rather conspicuous participation, inasmuch as it was none other than the Russian delegation that drafted the resolution on tactics. The Russian delegation acted, as usual, under the direction of our party’s Central Committee. And as member of the Central Committee and member of the Russian delegation, I voted for the resolution confirming Levi’s expulsion from the International. Together with our Central Committee I could see no other course. By virtue of his egocentric attitude. Levi had invested his struggle against the crude theoretical and practical mistakes connected with the March events with a character so pernicious that nothing was left for the slanderers among the Independents to do except to support him and chime in with him. Levi opposed himself not only to the March mistakes but also to the German party and the workers who had committed these mistakes. In his fright lest the party train suffer a wreck in rounding a dangerous curve, Levi fell, because of fear and malice, into such a frenzy and devised such a “tactic” of salvation as sent him flying out of the window and down the embankment. The train, on the other hand, although heavily shaken and damaged, rounded the curve without being derailed.
I will simply state that Trotsky’s comments are utterly ill-informed and reflect the kind of “group think” in the Comintern that would eventually serve to turn him into an “unperson” of the sort that Levi had become.
Was Levi’s pamphlet, published without authorization by the CP, a “breach of discipline” as Lenin put it? Levi had the opportunity to deal with this question in his speech to the Zentrale on May 4, 1921.
He begins by throwing the question of proletarian norms back in their face by reminding him that the minutes of the March 17 Zentrale meeting that adopted the proposal for a putsch was never released to the membership. Since they based their decision to expel him on his release of excerpts from the minutes, his defense was impeccable: they broke discipline by keeping the deliberations that cost their party so dearly a secret from the members.
He also reminds him of how the Bolsheviks functioned. Six days before the October insurrection, Lenin published “A Letter to Comrades” that revealed the arguments against the taking of power by Zinoviev and Kamenev at a secret session of the party.
Refusing to accept the Soviet leadership’s authority simply on the basis of its having conquered power, Levi reminds one and all that such authority had been squandered through its benediction of and participation in the March actions:
But any trace of political leadership in such a serious political crisis from the ‘active’ Communist International we have seen less of than at any time in its existence. There have just been appeals that come too late, and excommunications that come too early, and a few pots of filth exchanged with Jouhaux: this is the activity of the Communist International!
No, no, Comrade Remmele, I don’t want to be at the head, even if perhaps, without taking pride in it, I am a match for some who play so big a role today. I never, I believe, misread a situation so catastrophically as Comrade Zinoviev for example misread the situation in October 1917, when he declared the Bolshevik seizure of power a senseless putsch — I never laid down my party-mandate during an action that was so decisive as that October action of 1917 was for the existence of the Bolsheviks, and never acted as Zinoviev did at that time, to appear later on as a great accuser against ‘Mensheviks’ and ‘breakers of discipline’.
And this absolutely passivity of the ECCI in the last year has done the cause of Communism more damage than any ‘Menshevism’. Just remember how radiant a year ago was the allure of the Communist International. And think what ir is today! A powerful moral resource has been wasted, it has just about managed to carry through the split from reformism, and when the task is to build up Communist parties it threatens to come to grief because of its passivity and inability.
For, comrades, on this point I am completely clear: this crisis for the Communist International, which has begun with my case, or rather the case of the German Communist Party, is under way throughout the world, and I have already read you quotations about the development of the Russian Revolution in periods that, as no one would deny, are very similar to our present experience in Germany. But with one distinction, that this present crisis in Germany is not simply a German crisis, but connected with the International by more than just individuals and outward appearance.
In chapter 45 titled “Paul Levi: a lost opportunity?”, Broue tries to give Levi his due but within the context of Trotskyist orthodoxy about the “heroic” days of the Comintern. This means validating Levi and Lenin at the same time, a major balancing act in terms of Lenin’s dismissal of Levi as an “anarchist intellectual”. Broue writes:
We should stand up for him. Levi was not expelled because he was a ‘deviationist’, as Annie Kriegel writes. He was expelled for breaching discipline when he published Unser Weg. This measure of expulsion was not a disguised condemnation of some deviation – a ‘Luxemburgist’ conception of the party, or of the relations between party and masses – because Levi defended the same conception that Lenin was successfully to promote at the Third Comintern Congress. Lenin spoke the truth when he told Zetkin that the ‘Levites’ left Moscow with a great political victory. Levi had been essentially right, not least against Lenin, who freely admitted it. Lenin criticised him only on the grounds that he had not fought sufficiently strongly for his ideas, that he had deserted his post when he resigned as Party Chairman, and above all, that he had infringed discipline through breaking the solidarity of the Party when he published his pamphlet. That was the reason for his exclusion – ‘Disziplinbruch’ – breach of discipline.
Unfortunately, despite his brilliance, Broue appears to accept the charge of “breach of discipline” all too easily. There is ample evidence that despite Lenin’s giving credence to this charge that the Bolsheviks never operated in this fashion themselves. It was only with the victory of the Bolsheviks in 1917 and the establishment of a “democratic centralist” International that schematic attempts to clone Lenin’s party became the norm. The “21 Conditions” was the first attempt to adopt such an approach but by 1925, before Stalin’s rise to power was complete, there were clear signs that any kind of political independence had no place in a “Bolshevized” International.
Although it is beyond the scope of this article, it must be at least mentioned that Germany had another political disaster only 3 years later under the misleadership of Heinrich Brandler, the anti-Levi. A decision was made in Moscow to call for an insurrection in 1923 coinciding with the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Trotsky was instrumental in pressuring Brandler to go along with the bid even though he spoke against it. Trotsky was so sure of the correctness of his decision about the timing that he wrote an article titled Is It Possible to Fix a Definite Schedule for a Counter-Revolution or a Revolution? answering the question in the affirmative.
Although the 1923 actions did not have the putschist character of two years earlier, the Russians pulled strings once again. Without the stiff-necked Paul Levi to answer to, it was much easier to move German Communists around like pieces on a chessboard. If there is anything that must be stressed in discussions surrounding Hugo Chavez’s call for a Fifth International, it is the need to reject this model once and for all.
In my next post I am going to take up the question of the “centrist” Internationals so despised by Lenin and Trotsky and ask the question if there is anything to be learned from them.