Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 28, 2010

History of the Marxist Internationals (part 3, the Comintern)

Filed under: history of the Marxist internationals,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 9:09 pm

Paul Levi

Pierre Broue

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.

15 Comments »

  1. Very interesting article. As are the two translations of Paul Levi referred to by Louis. Readers will also be interested in the following recent piece by Paul Kellog at: http://links.org.au/node/1407

    Comment by D_D — March 1, 2010 @ 4:45 pm

  2. You are correct this is a very narrow interest in just part of the 3rd International.

    Pierre Broue’s is someone all should study from and maybe he and E.Volkov just lost patience with people who re-invent the wheel every 6 weeks at one of Paul Leblac many tiresome conferences. Maybe not that he is in the ISO, he will just talk to students and leave those who care about the working class alone.

    Too bad you hate Lennin and Trotsky so much, maybe because they were successful and that stupid group you were in at one time the degenerated SWP, nevered learned one thing from them. Its kind of a self hate on your part…

    Rojo Rojito
    Cort

    Comment by Corrt Greene — March 1, 2010 @ 5:04 pm

  3. ‘he and E.Volkov just lost patience with people who re-invent the wheel every 6 weeks’ – No I was there. With one notable display of ‘we are the vanguard’ no wheels were reinvented. Those two were just flat out rude.

    Comment by Chuckie K — March 1, 2010 @ 11:07 pm

  4. I think Lenin can be forgiven for his fury because Levi essentially left his post in the heat of battle. Of course he was right 100% on the issues, but his actions stripped him of any remaining credibility and ceded leadership of the party to the ultra-left which was, in the bigger scheme of things, one of the decisive factors in the failure of the German revolution prior to 1923. Imagine Lenin resigning and refraining from political activity just because the CC burned his letters on insurrection, and you get an idea of the difference between the two men.

    In any case, I was wondering if you’ve read the concise overview of the Comintern by Duncan Hallas recently republished by Haymarket? I highly, highly recommend it.

    Comment by Binh — March 5, 2010 @ 8:53 pm

  5. What do you mean that Levi “left his post”? Be *exact*.

    With respect to Hallas, I find it hard to take anything that a Cliffite says too seriously in light of how the American ISO was treated.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 5, 2010 @ 8:56 pm

  6. I really think you shouldn’t be so quick to write off Hallas’ work that manages to cover 30 years of class struggle in many different countries without watering down the political ideas that you agree with. Hallas died before the American ISO was “mistreated” and did not agree with what was going on preceding the expulsion. He gave the ISO permission to publish Trotsky’s Marxism, which I also think is a fantastic book, before he died.

    In any case I will have to go back and really re-read Broue’s book and some other things since you’re asking me to “be exact.” The above was my own personal assessment based a number of books and the stuff that Levi wrote that is published online, but it has been a good 2-4 years since I thought about the issues.

    One thing I do wonder about though is whether or not putting Trotsky in charge of the Red Army was a great idea, and leaving leadership of the Third International to the George W. Bushes of Bolshevism. I don’t think the Soviet Republic would’ve even made it to 1921 if hadn’t been leading the effort. On the other hand, the Comintern really did screw up so badly that once-in-a-century revolutionary opportunities were lost and the development of young, inexperienced national communist parties was (fatally) crippled which just reinforced the difficulties the Russian CP faced on the home front.

    Comment by Binh — March 5, 2010 @ 9:14 pm

  7. Here’s the link, since I’m guessing you don’t want to buy the book (lol):
    http://www.marxists.org/archive/hallas/works/1985/comintern/

    (Note I think he mentions Levi very briefly. I’m pitching the book for people who would like an introduction to the history and issues involved with the Comintern.)

    Comment by Binh — March 5, 2010 @ 9:16 pm

  8. “The German Communist Party would have been much better off if the Comintern had simply left it alone.”

    The German worker movement would have been better off if the ultra-left KPD hadn’t been formed in the first place… at the expense of “an outstanding role model for left politics today” that “paid attention to the daily demands and needs of workers without yielding its claim to revolutionary, anti-capitalist politics” (to quote Die Linke’s Dietmar Bartsch): the Unabhängige Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (Independent Social-Democratic Party of Germany, or USPD).

    Left-Wing Communism did not contain the one key suggestion that was needed to counter that infantile disorder that was German Spartacism: dissolve the KPD into a majority tendency of the USPD to counter the right-wing, SPD-ass-kissing renegades in that party’s leadership.

    Comment by Jacob Richter — March 6, 2010 @ 6:56 am

  9. After re-reading about Paul Levi, here’s what I mean exactly about “leaving his post”:

    – he resigned from the CC, along with Zetkin and a few others, ceding leadership and control of the party to the ultra-lefts who were under the influence of Bela Kun and Zinoviev.

    – he wrote to Lenin personally and promised not to criticize or attack the policy of the KPD and/or the International pending a review and clarification by Lenin and the International. (Levi hoped that greater oversight from Lenin and co. would help reign in the suicidal ultra-left emanating from Zinoviev’s deputies who travelled all over Europe wrecking Communist Parties, most recently in Italy and Germany.)

    – within a week of making that promise to Lenin, he criticized and attacked the KPD’s leadership and the International at a public meeting. Instead of fighting for his point of view on the CC and trying to minimize the damage that the March Action caused, he resigned from the CC and then attacked it from the outside. Levi was elected to his position by the members of the party at a party congress, so he had a democratic mandate and a political obligation to fight for his point of view on the CC. Instead, he gave up.

    – then, he published his pamphlet, which as Lenin said, only “deepened the contradiction.” (See http://marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1921/apr/16.htm) Levi abandoned the KPD when it needed him the most. The March Action was a complete and utter disaster, causing the party to lose 200,000 members in a few weeks. The remaining members, many of whom had followed the party’s lunatic orders and ended up in jail or fired from their jobs, would never listen to anything Levi had to say, no matter how right he, was because of his conduct.

    – he played into the hands of the ultra-lefts every step of the way, first by resigning, then by attacking them and the Comintern publicly in word and in print. (He compared the actions of the Comintern’s international representatives to the Cheka!) . His actions allowed the ultra-left to politically isolate Levi and paint him as an opportunist with no loyalty to the party. On the latter point, they were right, which is why Lenin was right to back his expulsion.

    Your post neglected to mention that Lenin offered a deal to Levi: if he worked to support and help the party via anonymous articles in the party press and in other ways, Lenin would push for his reinstatement into the party within a few months. Clearly, Lenin valued Levi very much as a revolutionary leader who, unlike many, “had a head to lose,” and was trying to find a way to mend fences with him. He even declared that Levi was “already a Bolshevik” in 1915-1916 in a letter to German communists in August of 1921 (see: http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1921/aug/14.htm)

    But Levi scorned Lenin’s conciliatory offer and gravitated back to the SPD.

    Levi was probably the most able and skilled leader the KPD ever had, but that doesn’t give him some kind of special right to ignore party discipline or loyalty. His actions got him expelled, decimated the KPD politically, and he rejected Lenin’s offer. Levi was not dissident or victim of the heavy-handed bullying of Zinoviev, the Comintern, or of “democratic centralism.” Levi was, as Lenin said, his own worst enemy. Contrast his behavior with that of Clara Zetkin, who agreed with him on the substance of all the issues he raised, and who also resigned in protest against the ultra-lefts and the factionalism instigated by the Comintern, but who remained loyal to the party. (For the record, Trotsky’s dismissal/excommunication of Levi stands in stark contrast to Lenin’s approach of patiently explaining and allowing room for political opponents to retreat. Sometimes I think Lenin’s methods of dealing with fellow communists would’ve been helpful to the Left Opposition/4th International.)

    I’d like to close my overly long post with an extended quote from Lenin on Levi from his letter to German Communists, because I think it both clarifies Lenin’s position regarding Levi and shows why he was right:

    Here I must explain to the German comrades why I defended Paul Levi so long at the Third Congress. Firstly, because I made Levi’s acquaintance through Radek in Switzerland in 1915 or 1916. At that time Levi was already a Bolshevik. I cannot help entertaining a certain amount of distrust towards those who accepted Bolshevism only after its victory in Russia, and after it had scored a number of victories in the international arena. But, of course, this reason is relatively unimportant, for, after all, my personal knowledge of Paul Levi is very small. Incomparably more important was the second reason, namely, that essentially much of Levi’s criticism of the March action in Germany in 1921 was correct (not, of course, when he said that the uprising was a “putsch”; that assertion of his was absurd).

    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.

    I defended and had to defend Levi, insofar as I saw before me opponents of his who merely shouted about “Menshevism”and “Centrism” and refused to see the mistakes of the March Action and the need to explain and correct them. These people made a caricature of revolutionary Marxism, and a pastime of the struggle against “Centrism”. They might have done the greatest harm to the whole cause, for “no one in the world can compromise the revolutionary Marxists, if they do not compromise themselves”.

    I said to these people: Granted that Levi has become a Menshevik. As I have scant knowledge of him personally, I will not insist, if the point is proved to me. But it has not yet been proved. All that has been proved till now is that he has lost his head. It is childishly stupid to declare a man a Menshevik merely on these grounds. The training of experienced and influential party leaders is a long and difficult job. And without it the dictatorship of the proletariat, and its “unity of will”, remain a phrase. In Russia, it took us fifteen years (1903-17) to produce a group of leaders — fifteen years of fighting Menshevism, fifteen years of tsarist persecution, fifteen years, which included the years of the first revolution (1905), a great and mighty revolution. Yet we have had our sad cases, when even fine comrades have “lost their heads”. If the West-European comrades imagine that they are insured against such “sad cases” it is sheer childishness, and we cannot but combat it.

    Levi had to be expelled for breach of discipline. Tactics had to be determined on the basis of a most detailed explanation and correction of the mistakes made during the March 1921 Action. If, after this, Levi wants to behave in the old way, he will show that his expulsion was justified; and the wavering or hesitant workers will be given all the more forceful and convincing proof of the absolute correctness of the Third Congress decisions concerning Paul Levi.

    Having made a cautious approach at the Congress to the appraisal of Levi’s mistakes, I can now say with all the more assurance that Levi has hastened to confirm the worst expectations. I have before me No. 6 of his magazine Unser Weg (of July 15, 1921). It is evident from the editorial note printed at the head of the magazine that the decisions of the Third Congress are known to Paul Levi. What is his reply to them? Menshevik catchwords such as “a great excommunication”(grosser Bann), “canon law” (kanonisches Recht), and that he will “quite freely”(in vollständiger Freiheit) “discuss” these decisions. What greater freedom can a man have if he has been freed of the title of party member and member of the Communist International! And please note that he expects party members to write for him, for Levi, anonymously!

    First — he plays a dirty trick on the party, hits it in the back, and sabotages its work.

    Then — he discusses the essence of the Congress decisions.

    That is magnificent.

    But by doing this Levi puts paid to himself.

    Comment by Binh — March 8, 2010 @ 5:03 pm

  10. Bihn citing Lenin: “Levi had to be expelled for breach of discipline.”

    This, of course, is nonsense. As Levi made clear in his defense at the KAPD central committee, this is not how the Bolsheviks functioned–giving evidence of Lenin, Trotsky and Zinoviev’s words and deeds prior to October 1917. It was only after the victory that the Communist Party began to codify notions of “democratic centralism” that would eventually lead to the transformation of the Comintern into a corpse. This happened before Stalin’s rise to power under Zinoviev’s leadership as I have made clear elsewhere. I will eventually make the case very clear that a “democratic centralist” International is the road to ruin, not to speak of its tendency to create sects and cults on the national level.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 8, 2010 @ 5:14 pm

  11. So how does a party discipline members who abdicate their responsibilities (especially in cases where they were elected to lead politically and organizationally)? Obviously expulsion is not right in every case, but a party does have to have a way to deal with people who betray its principles or engage in actions that are counterproductive to it, no?

    Honestly I think the only reason Lenin did not really push to expel Zinoviev and Kamenev was because 1) the October insurrection was successful, in spite of their attempted sabotage and 2) they played a valuable and productive role at some level after the insurrection. Zinoviev in particular was very popular among Bolsheviks party workers (if my memory serves me, he received the 3rd largest number of votes at the party Congress in 1917, right after Lenin and Trotsky). Had the Russian bourgeoisie and its Provisional Government been nearly as aware, confident, and ruthless as its German brethren, Z&K’s leak about an impending insurrection could’ve led to either defeat or an even more costly, bloody victory than the one the Bolsheviks won.

    These difference are why I don’t buy the “this isn’t how the Bolsheviks did things” argument. They were operating in different contexts and faced different challenges. Although I will note that the Bolsheviks, at Lenin’s behest, did expel Bogdanov after the defeat of the 1905 revolution, even though the meeting at which the expulsion took place was not really democratic or representative of the faction’s rank and file.

    Furthermore, you continue to ignore the fact that Levi rejected Lenin’s genuine effort to bring him back into the KPD. Or are you saying only Lenin, Zinoviev et. al. should be held responsible for their decisions and actions, and not Levi? I reprinted Lenin’s comments on this issue to illustrate the point that it was Levi’s actions before the expulsion and after that placed him outside the ranks of the Communist International. Lenin had just defeated the ultra-lefts at the Congress, even though they probably had a majority, or something very close it; getting Levi reinstated would not have been too difficult, had Levi not made it so damn difficult.

    As for a “democratic centralist” International, I would argue that the Comintern never really was actually democratic centralist in practice. Zinoviev sending ultra-left flunkies (flunky as in stooge and flunky as in someone who flunked practical political tests) all over the world to interfere, hobble, and destroy other Communist parties is hardly democratic centralism. Zetkin had many practical proposals to fix the dysfunctional practice of the Comintern, but unfortunately defeating the ultra-lefts politically took priority over thinking through and debating her ideas. Lenin later came to regret the Comintern’s practice in 1922, saying that organization resolutions were “too Russian.” http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/nov/04b.htm

    The Comintern’s failure to create politically self-confident national leaderships that could stand up to (Russian) meddling is not the result of democratic centralism or the expulsion of Paul Levi. The argument that “democratic centralism” is at the root of the Comintern’s degeneration as convincing as the notion that Stalinism started in 1902-1903 with the birth of the Bolshevik faction. The notion that the Comintern was ever a functioning, democratic centralist “world party with national sections” is debatable at best.

    Comment by Binh — March 8, 2010 @ 6:55 pm

  12. Binh, I don’t how much simpler I can make this but I don’t think that the Comintern had any business foisting Kun and Radek on the German movement. This was how business was done in the early 20s and it was all fucked up. Read Trotsky’s First 5 Years of the Comintern and you will see numerous articles filled with what amounted to instructions to the French and Italian Communists what should be in their newspapers, etc. Lenin simply did not understand how bad this all was, even though he did suggest at one point that the Comintern headquarters should be moved from Russia. There is *virtually nothing* that we can learn from the Comintern’s functioning that would be useful for a new International. We would be better off studying how Fidel Castro related to left groups in Latin America from the 60s onwards.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 8, 2010 @ 8:27 pm

  13. On Kun, I agree with you. The problem I raised in an earlier post was why is it that the Comintern became the place for the political failures of the communist movement to run amock? Could the situation have been avoided if Lenin/Trotsky been more involved in the day to day business of the organization?

    The problem the Comintern faced was how to win and teach foreign communists to the methods that led to the Bolshevik victory in Russia within the space of a few months or years while the revolutionary wave sweeping Europe reached a crescendo. It was basically an impossible task, and how the Comintern was run made things worse, not better. Negative lessons are just as important as positive lessons, and the general principles, strategy, and tactics laid out in the Comintern’s documents I think are still very useful, but only if you take them as general guidelines and not some kind of mechanical schema.

    I think the Comintern was overly afraid of letting foreign communists make, and learn from, their own mistakes because the stakes were so high. The Russian revolution literally hung in the balance, and I think that made the stakes even higher than they “normally” are in a revolutionary situation.

    As for Radek, he was useful and I don’t think he was “foisted” on the KPD. He was active in Poland and in Germany before WWI, so he was “native” to those parties in a way that Bela Kun was not.

    Lastly, you still haven’t addressed how a party can appropriately discipline members who flout party policy or sabotage its work and you haven’t addressed Levi’s actions after his expulsion. You asked me to be exact re: Levi and I’ve done my best to do that and address the points/arguments you raised in your post. If you have another blog post that addresses the discipline question specifically I’d be happy to read it, since repeating yourself is never fun.

    Comment by Binh — March 9, 2010 @ 4:40 pm

  14. […] Proyect continues his series with a long and fascinating account of the history of the Third International, which one day I will respond to more thoroughly. He uses an important book by Werner Angress as a […]

    Pingback by Ish « Poumista — March 17, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

  15. All this re-reading and re-thinking I’m doing recently has led me repeatedly back to what Lenin said in Left-Wing Communism: “A political party’s attitude towards its own mistakes is one of the most important and surest ways of judging how earnest the party is and how it fulfils in practice its obligations towards its class and the working people. Frankly acknowledging a mistake, ascertaining the reasons for it, analysing the conditions that have led up to it, and thrashing out the means of its rectification — that is the hallmark of a serious party; that is how it should perform its duties, and how it should educate and train its class, and then the masses. By failing to fulfil this duty and give the utmost attention and consideration to the study of their patent error, the ‘Lefts’ in Germany (and in Holland) have proved that they are not a party of a class, but a circle, not a party of the masses, but a group of intellectualists and of a few workers who ape the worst features of intellectualism.”

    By this standard, the Comintern failed in its obligations to the class. I think I am in agreement with you Louis about “party” building efforts and the legacy of the 3rd and 4th internationals. It is a most unexpected turn for me.

    Comment by Binh — July 20, 2011 @ 4:46 pm


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