Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 17, 2013

Heinrich Blücher: street-fighting man

Filed under: Germany,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 9:07 pm

Heinrich Blücher

It was an eerie experience sitting through the press screening for Margarethe von Trotta’s “Hannah Arendt” at the Film Forum yesterday, a biopic that focuses on her reporting from the Eichmann trial with some flashbacks to her early affair with Heidegger.

Two of the major characters in the film were Heinrich Blücher and Hans Jonas, two professors I knew from Bard College and the New School Graduate Philosophy department respectively. I can’t say that I knew them all that well on a personal level but their teaching had a profound effect on my thinking.

This was especially true of Blücher whose insistence that principle and truth always trumped patriotism and the state, frequently citing the trial of Socrates in his Common Course, a humanities type required class. After discovering from von Trotta’s film notes that Blücher had been in the German CP in the 20s, I decided to stop by the Columbia University library and take out a few books that will help me prepare an in-depth article on the film. As is always the case with me, ideas take priority over tracking shots.

One of the books was Elizabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography of Hannah Arendt that was written in 1982. I had mixed feelings about her value since I knew her only from her hatchet job on Hugo Chavez.

To my utter amazement, I discovered that Blücher was a major player in the revolutionary struggles that were hobbled by Comintern “advice”. I only wish that I could get my hands on a time machine and travel back to 1963 and talk to him about what he saw and did. Back then I was too apolitical to know where to begin but now understand a lot better why he was so insistent on my writing an analysis of the Communist Manifesto. Fifty years ago my heart was in Camus and cannabis. It took an imperialist war to put me on the same path that Blücher had followed when he was my age.

From Elizabeth Young-Bruehl’s “Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World”:

Hannah Arendt had been eleven years old when her mother took her to the Konigsberg demonstrations in support of the Spartacists. She was thirty years old when she walked through the streets of Paris to watch the 1936 demonstrations in support of the Front Populaire government under the leadership of the Jewish Socialist, Leon Blum. Most of the political awareness she had developed in the intervening years had come in the context of her relationship with Kurt Blumenfeld and his concern with the Jewish Question. With Heinrich Blücher as her teacher, she added to her preliminary reading of Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky a feeling for “revolutionary praxis.” Blücher—not a university man but a proletarian, not a theorist but a man of action, not a Jew but a man for whom thinking was a kind of religion—was Hannah Arendt’s New World. Ten years after they met, she summarized what Blücher had meant to her intellectually, in response to words of praise Jaspers had bestowed on her own cosmopolitan and impartial political vision: “That I learned from my husband’s political thinking and historical observation, and I would not have come to it otherwise, for I was historically and politically oriented toward the Jewish Question.”

During those ten years, from 1936 to 1946, Hannah Arendt continued to concern herself with the Jewish Question, but what she learned from Blücher became, after the Second World War, central to the political philosophizing that animated The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Human Condition, Between Past and Future, On Revolution, On Violence, and Crises of the Republic. The learning relationship was not, however, completely one-way. Blücher, an avid reader of Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky, and Bukharin, and a convinced Communist, slowly gave up his Communism and became an incisive critic of doctrinaire Marxism. While Hannah Arendt was being introduced to revolutionary politics in Konigsberg, Heinrich Blücher was twenty years old and fighting as a Spartacist in the streets of Berlin. The stories he told her of his political past shaped her vision, both critical and constructive, her understanding of resistance and revolution, and her theory of republicanism. Blücher’s stories are not easy to reconstruct: he was hesitant to tell them, particularly after he had entered America without admitting on his immigration documents that he had been a Communist, and he was given to exaggerating and embroidering what he did tell. In Heinrich Blücher, the combination of cautiousness and hyperbole was always an astonishment. Those members of the Arendt-Blücher tribe who had known him since his youth understood his storytelling for what it was—a way of finding meaning in a chaotic world. His devotees were unskeptical, and his detractors charged him with mythomania. In truth, had he had a gift for writing equal to his gift for talking, he would have made a fine novelist.

Heinrich Friedrich Ernest Blücher was born on 29 January 1899 in southwest Berlin. His father, who had an equally long and historically weighty name, August Charles Heinrich Blücher, died in a factory accident several months before his only child’s birth. Klara Emilie Wilke Blücher raised her son alone. He attended a Volkeschule and helped his mother, who made her living as a laundress, by acting as delivery boy until he was able to continue his study at a preparatory school for teachers. In 1917, the First World War interrupted his studies, and a period in an army hospital with gas poisoning interrupted his scheduled sojourn in an officer’s training program.

When the October 1918 armistice was signed, Blücher, who was nineteen, returned to Berlin and joined one of the Soldatenräte, the Soldiers’ Councils, which, with the Workers’ Councils, participated in the day of rioting on 9 November 1918 that ended with the proclamation of the German Republic. The German army had surrendered in the Forest of Compiegne and the troops returned to Germany at the beginning of December. Shortly afterward, on December 16, a National Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils met in Berlin and passed a number of startling resolutions designed to create a People’s army from the defeated German troops. In the hectic days that followed, these demands were largely ignored. On Christmas Eve, a battle between the Imperial army and a rebellious naval unit, helped by several thousand Berliners brought to the scene by the Spartacists, ended with the Imperial army in retreat. On Christmas Day, the Spartacists and another huge crowd took over the offices of the Socialists’ paper Vorwarts and used its presses to issue the call “All power to the workers and soldiers!” The Spartacist leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, agreed to a merger of their group with various small groups who had repudiated the new Socialist government, and a labor unit called the Revolutionary Shop Stewards. The merger gave birth to a new party in the last week of 1918: the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). Blücher, who had joined the Spartacists, joined the party.

The Communist party came into existence in the middle of a bitterly cold winter.  The Allies continued to blockade German ports, and food became scarcer and scarcer. Nonetheless the Communists called daily demonstrations in Berlin and tried to create the unity on the Left that Rosa Luxemburg thought should precede any mass action. Despite her strategy, on 5 January the situation took a new turn: a group of leftist leaders, calling themselves the Revolutionary Committee, proclaimed a general strike. Most of Berlin’s factories and facilities were closed; some 200,000 demonstrators filled the streets and seized the railroad stations and newspapers. Red flags flew, and the rifles the Spartacists had been collecting since November appeared. “Spartacus Week” had begun. But by its end the government’s miscellany of troops and volunteer units, the Freikorps, under the direction of the Socialist government’s minister of war, had gained the upper hand in Berlin, after brutally blasting the Spartacists out of their various strongholds with heavy artillery. Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were captured on 15 January and murdered. As Hannah Arendt noted in an essay on Rosa Luxemburg, her death “became the watershed between two eras in Germany; and it became the point of no return for the German Left.” When the election called for 19 January was over, the Social Democrats held a majority of the Reichstag seats, and the revolutionaries were forced to retreat and regroup; but they were unable, without their brilliant leaders, to prevent what Arendt called “the swift moral decline and political disintegration” of the party.

Heinrich Blücher participated, with the Spartacists and then the Communist party, in the unsuccessful battles and strikes of the spring of 1919. He briefly returned to his teacher’s training at a Lehrerseminar during the lull in the party’s activities in the summer of 1919, though he never finished the program. From 1918 through the worst inflation years, 1922 and 1923, he worked occasionally as a reporter for non-Communist and Communist papers, spending what time he could on his own education.

As an adolescent, Blücher had developed a hunger for learning—not for schooling, but for learning. Whenever he had money, he bought books; whenever he could avoid work, he did—and read. His political activity had begun when he was still an adolescent, and it took a very unusual form: he, a Gentile, joined a Zionist youth group, a section of the Blau Weiss. At fifteen, he began to discover German poetry and read Shakespeare’s plays in German translation. During the war he took up what Brecht referred to as the “Classics,” Marx and Engels, and then found in the work of Trotsky the ideas which were later at the center of his own political theories. When the turbulence of the brief revolution had passed, he sporadically attended lectures at various Berlin institutions in an enormous range of subjects. At the University of Berlin he heard the lectures on military history given by Hans Delbrfick, editor of the famous Preussische Jahrbücher and one of the Weimar Republic’s most outspokenly critical supporters. This experience he shared with Kurt Blumenfeld; when they met in 1941 in New York, they both waited impatiently for Delbruck’s famous axiom, “Germany cannot win a war on two fronts,” to be proven a second time.

When the Hochschule fur Politik was founded in 1920, Blücher attended lectures on political theory at that remarkable institution, which was alone among Germany’s institutions of higher learning in accepting students without Gymnasium degrees. At the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts, he occasionally heard lectures on art history, one of the great passions of his later, calmer life. Blücher’s haphazard, piecemeal formal education, complemented by extensive reading, was of no help to him in the Communist party. He had remarkable skill as an orator but he was not trusted by the leadership that eventually emerged after the deaths of Liebknecht and Luxemburg. Rosa Luxemburg’s consort, Leo Jogiches, became the party chairman, but was killed in the spring of 1919. Paul Levi, a lawyer and also a disciple of Luxemburg’s, assumed the KPD leadership, but was forced out early in 1921. Levi’s successors, Heinrich Brandler and Walter Stocker, were also committed to Rosa Luxemburg’s strategies, but they were even less able than Levi to control the increasingly powerful and militant Moscow-backed Left Opposition within the party or to halt the domination of the KPD by the Russians. The party suffered a crucial defeat during the “March Action” of 1921 and then another, while Brandler was at the head of the party, in the “German October” of 1923.

Heinrich Brandler, who was Blücher’s closest friend, had spent some months in prison after the March Action, and then spent a year in Moscow. After he returned to Germany and assumed the party leadership in 1923, Brandler was reluctantly prepared for what his Russian backers hoped would be a “second October” in the fall of 1923. Germany was tom by mounting inflation, by the French occupation of the Ruhr, by increasing hostility between industry and labor, by a series of strikes, and by the resignation of one government, under Cuno, and the accession of another, under Stresemann; it was hoped in Moscow and among the Berlin-based German Left Opposition members that a revolutionary situation could be made out of this chaos. Russian organizers and advisors came to Germany early in the fall of 1923, and some German party members went to Russia for military training. Some of Blücher’s friends, who did not meet him until after this period, were under the impression that he had been sent to Moscow for training; others thought not. But all agreed that his role in the KPD in 1923 was to write and distribute in Germany a series of small pamphlets on armaments and guerrilla-warfare tactics.

The “German October” failed to become a “second October.” A violent uprising in Hamburg was crushed, and the KPD was banned—along with a group called the National Socialists, or Nazis, which had tried to stage an opposition Aktion in Munich. Brandler was severely criticized in Moscow (his star set along with Trotsky’s) and he and his followers were eventually excluded from KPD leadership positions as the Left Opposition, headed by Ruth Fischer, took over; the KPD was bolshevized. It was during this shift that, as Hannah Arendt noted in one of marks, “the gutter opened, and out of it emerged what would have called ‘another zoological species.’”

The decline and fall of the German Communist party, as Blücher recounted it, provided Hannah Arendt with a clear image—one she never failed to refer to—of what any revolution cannot be without: spontaneously organized, locally based councils, or Räte, which are controlled neither by existing party councils—in this case, those of the Social Democratic party—nor by external, foreign organizations, in this case, the Moscow party. The Räte which had been crucial to the early stages of the German revolution were, as the revolution developed, left behind. By the fall of 1923, the central tenet of Rosa Luxemburg’s theory of revolutionary change that “the organization of revolutionary action can and must be learnt in revolution itself, as one can only learn swimming in the water” had been completely forgotten. In 1923 the German and Russian leaders of the Communist party tried to “make” a revolution. And, as they did so, they grew more and more removed from their followers. Their power was not rooted, it did not come from below. Throughout her life as a political theorist, Hannah Arendt was harshly critical of any leadership that abandoned its local base, the true source of its power. In Parii afidaUring her early years in America, she focused her criticism of leadership on the Jewish leadership, which she thought lacked awareness of the need for Jewish solidarity; later, she extended her criticism to the leaders of postwar Europe, of Israel, and finally of her adopted country, America.

Heinrich Brandler provided Blücher and Arendt with a paradigmatic case of a revolutionary leader gone astray. A proletarian, born in Austria-Hungary in 1881, the son of a bricklayer, Brandler was an honest, simple man, an experienced local labor-union organizer, but quite unprepared for the national leadership role into which he was thrust after Jogiches’s death and Levi’s expulsion. He lost his connections with his people, the workers, and became a puppet of the Comintern. Returning to Germany after nearly four years of exile in Moscow, he tried to reverse the bolshevizing trend in which he had been caught; but his Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands-(Opposition), founded in 1928, had no influence.

Heinrich Blücher joined Brandler’s opposition group, the KPO, in Germany and then in Paris, where many of “the Brandler Group” went after 1933, but his friendship with Brandler deteriorated. Brandler was surprised, when he returned from Moscow in 1928, to find that his old friend was no longer the same. Blücher tried to tell Brandler about his educational pursuits and the friends he had made during the five intervening years and was greeted with an incredulous “Du spinnst! [You’re crazy!].”

2 Comments »

  1. Fascinating post, Lou.

    Comment by David Altman — May 18, 2013 @ 1:19 am

  2. Has there ever been a serious Marxist review of Origins of Totalitarianism? I was struck by how badly it fitted with cold war logic (for Arendt the Nazi’s were the real totalitarians with the Stalinists kind of lagging behind) and by the combination of intellectual and social history. I did think it was a text Marxists could profitably revisit.

    Comment by johng — June 6, 2013 @ 2:30 pm


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