Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 5, 2019

Werner Angress’s “Stillborn Revolution: the Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923” (part four)

Filed under: Werner Angress — louisproyect @ 7:45 pm

Although I can’t really remember how I made a connection between the 1923 abortive German revolution and the evolution of the “Leninist” organizational model, about 20 years ago I wrote a series of six articles collected under the title “The Comintern and German Communism” that broke with the “heroic Comintern” mythology of the Trotskyist movement. I discarded the illusions of my youth after reading Werner Angress’s 1963 “Stillborn Revolution: The Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923”, which convinced me that the German CP would have been better off if it had simply ignored the Comintern’s advice.

Much of the same story was told by Pierre Broué in his “The German Revolution, 1917-1923” that was published by Haymarket in 2006 although he was a bit more willing to give the Comintern the benefit of the doubt. Written in French in 1971, this was the first English-language translation. Although a life-long Trotskyist, Broué was unsparing in his assessment of the German events. You can read his book online and see for yourself. I have not read it but doubt that there’s anything in it that would encourage socialists today to look back at the early 1920s Comintern, prior to Stalin’s usurpation of power, as a model to emulate.

There were two fiascos that Angress described. The first was the infamous “March Action” of 1921 when the CP went off the deep end, trying to carry out a revolution that most workers were not willing to participate in. This account is contained in three chapters that is linked to here.

So disastrous was this action and so unwilling the CP ultraleft leaders to properly take responsibility for it, that Paul Levi—a critic of the leadership and former party chairman—took the extraordinary measure of writing a public critique that led to his expulsion for “breaking discipline”. His “Our Path: Against Putschism” took no prisoners. Despite being ostracized from the German CP and the Comintern, Lenin incorporated Levi’s united front strategy as a way of preempting ultraleft, putschist actions in the future.

Unfortunately, Lenin’s failing health prevented him from overruling the next foolish adventure that took place only two years later. This is reviewed in the final two chapters of “Stillborn Revolution”. Below you can read chapter XII, which is titled “Revolution in Preparation” that describes the Comintern foisting a foolhardy insurrectionary action on a party whose leader Heinrich Brandler had deep doubts about. This excerpt from the chapter will give you a good sense of the distance between his take on the state of the class struggle and the Kremlin’s wildly overoptimistic assessment:

The key words emphasized by the Russians were “[the proletariat] will attempt in Saxony to use the state power in order to arm itself.” This, according to Brandler, was putting the cart before the horse. Brandler argued that it would be a mistake to enter the Saxon cabinet before the country, including Saxony, was politically prepared for an uprising which a Communist-infiltrated government in Saxony might bring on much sooner than was desirable or prudent. The weapons, which such a coalition government was to obtain, would be useless if the masses were not yet properly prepared politically for a revolution, and, Brandler argued, such a government might not even have sufficient time for the procurement of arms if the Communists should enter the Saxon government prematurely. In short, Brandler disagreed with the Russians on the practical entry into the Saxon government. The Russians saw only the weapons, while Brandler saw primarily the absence of the political and psychological preparedness of the masses prerequisite for a successful uprising.

The next chapter that I hope to post next week covers what amounts to a stillborn revolution, as Angress puts it. So damaging was it to Zinoviev’s reputation, who was the president of the Comintern in 1923, that he offered up a proposal for “Bolshevization” at the 1924 Comintern. It was the critical organizational measure that facilitated Stalin’s seizure of power first of the Russian party and then the international movement.

You can get a sense of the stakes at hand in Germany from Isaac Deutscher in V. 2 of his Trotsky biography, even if he is loath to place much blame on Trotsky, who among other things convinced Brandler to set a date for what amounted to a putsch on the anniversary of the Russian Revolution:

Even if conditions in Germany had favoured revolution, the artificiality and the clumsiness of the plan and the remoteness of its direction and control would have been enough to produce a failure. The conditions were probably less favourable than they were assumed to be, and the social crisis in Germany less deep. Since the summer the economy had begun to recover, later the Mark stabilized, the political atmosphere had become calmer. The Central Committee failed to arouse the mass of workers and to prepare them for insurrection. The scheme for arming the workers miscarried: the Communists found the arsenal in Saxony empty. From Berlin the central government sent a military expedition against the Red province. And so when the moment of rising arrived, Brandler, supported by Radek and Pyatakov, cancelled the battle orders. Only through a fault in liaison did insurgents move into action at Hamburg. They fought alone and, after a hopeless combat lasting several days, were routed. These events were to have a powerful impact on the Soviet Union. They destroyed the chances of revolution in Germany and Europe for many years ahead.

They demoralized and divided the German party and, coinciding with similar setbacks in Poland and Bulgaria, they had this effect on the International whole. They imparted to Russian communism a deep and definite sense of isolation, a disbelief in the revolutionary capacity of the European working-classes—even a disdain for them. Out of this mood there developed gradually an attitude of Russian revolutionary self-sufficiency and self-centredness which was to find its expression in the doctrine of socialism in one country. Immediately, the German debacle became an issue in the Russian contest for power. Communists both in Russia and Germany delved into the causes of the defeat and were eager to fix the responsibilities. In the Politbureau the triumvirs [Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Stalin] and Trotsky laid the blame on each other.


CHAPTER XII

REVOLUTION IN PREPARATION

THE DECISION of the Comintern to engineer a Communist revolution in Germany was largely based on faulty premises. In their eagerness to revive the revolutionary wave in Europe, the Bolshevik leaders succumbed to wishful thinking, to a misjudgment of the true situation in Germany, and to the temptation to sponsor a “German October” uprising.

That the situation in Germany remained grave even after Cuno’s resignation cannot be disputed. Nevertheless, the apex of the 1923 crisis had been passed on August 12, although few contemporaries realized this fact at the time. With the collapse of the Cuno government, which had demonstrated a nearly unprecedented incompetence in dealing with problems both at home and abroad, the confused and embittered nation, except for extremists on the right and left, rallied hopefully behind the new chancellor and the Great Coalition cabinet which he headed.

Gustav Stresemann had several important advantages over his predecessor. His economic knowledge, acquired early in life during his years of apprenticeship in industry, was more profound than Cuno’s. He was also politically more astute, particularly with respect to foreign policy, and, unlike his predecessor, he possessed the courage to make necessary, though unpopular, decisions. Finally, he commanded greater confidence from German labor than had Cuno. All these were factors in Stresemann’s favor, but the new chancellor was fully aware of the enormous difficulties which his government would have to overcome in the immediate future. The seriousness of the over-all situation was clearly enunciated by the participating ministers at a cabinet meeting on August 20. The exchange rate to the dollar, which on August 13 had stood at 3,700,000 marks, had risen within a week to six million marks. Prices kept rising everywhere. Most parts of the country were faced by economic strikes, and the food problem grew daily more difficult. Radicalism on the right and the left grew in intensity as Bavaria, Saxony, and Thuringia seemed to be drifting into open rebellion against the Reich. In short, the home front was in need of drastic emergency measures.

The international picture looked equally somber. A brief ray of hope had been provided by the Curzon Note of August 11, in which His Majesty’s Government informed France and Belgium that Great Britain held the occupation of the Ruhr to have been in violation of international law. The note made it plain that the British government would not back France and Belgium in their contemplated move to demand from Germany the unconditional cessation of passive resistance in the Ruhr. The note was polite, assured the two continental powers of England’s good will, but left no doubt that France and Belgium would receive no British support for any future démarches to Germany in connection with the Ruhr.

This British demonstration of sympathy for Germany’s position might have boosted German morale had it been issued earlier. As it was, the effect was largely lost in the turmoil which accompanied Cuno’s resignation, although the note did achieve a temporary relaxation of tension. On August 21 the French Premier, Raymond Poincare, issued the statement that France would be willing to abandon her occupation of the Ruhr, gradually and by stages, if Germany would end her policy of passive resistance. Poincare’s gambit led to a series of statements and counterstatements on both sides of the Rhine, without, however, bringing the two countries closer to a satisfactory solution. Meanwhile the inflation reached astronomical proportions. On September 1, the dollar rate stood at 98,800,000 marks. Passive resistance proved an ever increasing burden on the German treasury, and made it mandatory for the government to terminate the hopeless struggle in the Ruhr. On September 24 Stresemann announced in a cabinet meeting that passive resistance would have to be abandoned. To do so was the only way out of a serious dilemma. A continuation of this policy could offer the nation no advantages, and there was no alternative solution to the problem which had not been tried. On September 26 passive resistance was officially ended by a joint proclamation of the Reich President and the government.

On the same day, President Ebert declared a state of emergency in Germany and transferred the executive power to Minister of Defense Otto Gessler. The decree announced stiffer penalties for all crimes pertaining to high treason, or violence vis-a-vis the state. The minister of defense received the right to transfer his executive power to the military district commanders whenever the need arose; he also had the power to appoint governmental commissioners to assist the military commanders in the field of civil administration. Gessler lost no time: he at once appointed the commanders of the seven military defense districts as regional executives.

These drastic measures had become necessary in the face of growing disturbances in several parts of the Reich. One very critical problem was that of Bavaria, which throughout the summer of 1923 seethed with conspiracy and terror, and where political tension led to Hitler’s beerhall putsch on November 9. Thuringia presented another trouble spot. There a Socialist government, ever since its formation in October 1921, had had to rely for support and for its very existence on Communist backing in the diet. Although the cabinet tried to steer a moderate course, under the leadership of Minister-President August Frolich, distrust of the Socialists by the middle-class parties, and constant Communist pressure, combined to drive Thuringia steadily toward the left. By 1923 the state began to drift into open opposition to the central government in Berlin. In March, Frolich justified in the diet the formation of proletarian defense organizations which, he said, wore necessary as long as right-wing fighting leagues were permitted to operate freely. During the month of May the Socialist ministers entered into negotiations with the Communists in an attempt to form a coalition government, but the negotiations collapsed on May 26 because Communist demands proved unacceptable to the government. Five days later the KPD moved a vote of no confident which was defeated only after the middle-class parties refused to support the motion, although they expressly declared that the government did not possess their confidence either.

Throughout the subsequent weeks, Communist pressure to force the resignation of the Frolich government increased. By August 4, the middle-class parties decided to force the issue, and in their turn introduced in the diet a motion of no confidence against the Frolich ministry. A vote on this motion was postponed with until September 11, however, presumably because the diet adjourned for summer vacation. The Socialists attempted during this period of grace to regain Communist support, but their efforts were in vain. When the day of decision approached, the KPD delegation joined with the middle-class parties in voting the Frolich government out of office. The Socialist government resigned, but it proved impossible to form a new one. Frolich and his colleagues continued to take care of the affairs of state and at the same time resumed their negotiations with the Communists, whose primary objective it was to impose a proletarian dictatorship upon Thuringia. This was to be a first step toward the creation of a “red bloc” in central Germany, consisting of Saxony, Thuringia, and Brunswick, The Socialist ministers faced a serious dilemma. None of the three party-blocs could form a government without support from one of the other two. The middle-class parties had initiated the ouster of the Frolich cabinet, with the aid of the Communists; in addition, the middle-class parties had moved to dissolve the diet, although no vote on that motion was taken. As it was quite unlikely that Socialists could come to terms with the middle-class parties, their only remaining hope was an agreement with the Communists with whom they had likewise been feuding for months, and who had just secured the downfall of their government. A deadlock ensued which continued for weeks. That it was eventually broken was largely due to the presidential decree of September 26, by which Thuringia was placed under the jurisdiction of General Walther Reinhardt, commander of the Fifth German military district. Constant altercations arose between the general and the caretaker government of Frolich. The ministers protested because Reinhardt insisted on his own prior approval of any political demonstrations and the publication of any new newspapers. He also forbade Communist mass meetings, and repeatedly banned KPD publications, measures which the ministry resented. In turn, the general did not take kindly to the government’s hostile attitude in regard to all so-called patriotic activities in Thuringia. He resented particularly the fact that the acting chief of the state police, Ministerialdirektor Brill, referred to patriotic organizations which had expressed a desire to celebrate a “German Day” as “national-socialist rabble.” In short, though he too had justified grievances, there is little doubt that General Reinhardt’s paternalism contributed, by mid-October, to the reconciliation of Frolich and his friends with the Thuringian Communists.

Saxony was an even thornier problem than Thuringia. At the end of January 1923 the Saxon government, which was headed by right-wing Social Democrat Johann Wilhelm Buck, was compelled to resign after a vote of no confidence had been passed by a coalition of middle-class parties and Communists.” To justify their action the KPD charged that the Saxon Social Democrats had betrayed the workers by clandestine arrangements with the “counter-revolutionaries.” The entire maneuver was an obvious move to drive a wedge between the rank and file of the Saxon SPD and their leaders. A subsidiary motive seems to have been to split the Saxon Social Democrats, whose left wing was stronger than their right one, in the hope of reaching a working agreement with the left wing, preliminary to the formation of a joint workers’ government. The SPD held its regional party convention at Dresden on March 4 and 5. A majority rejected a right-wing motion to form a new government with the Democratic Party, and resolved to continue negotiations with the Communists in the hope of finding a basis for future cooperation. A mixed commission of the two workers’ parties met on March 17 to work out directives for a common program, and two days later they announced the main points of a preliminary agreement. A new Saxon government would strengthen the power of the proletarian control commissions and would establish a chamber of labor. Furthermore, such a government would sponsor the formation of proletarian defense units which were to protect demonstrations, assemblies, and the property of the workers against “Fascist” attacks. Although the Communists declared that they would not join a new Saxon cabinet, they promised their support to a Socialist government if it followed the directive worked out and agreed upon by the joint commission. On March 21 the Saxon diet voted 49 to 46 to make Dr. Erich Zeigner, a left-wing Socialist, the new minister-president.

Zeigner, formerly minister of justice in the Buck ministry, formed his new cabinet on April 10, and outlined his program in an address to the diet the same day. The speech, like the composition of the cabinet, showed a decided trend toward the left. The new Saxon minister-president criticized the central government’s Ruhr policy and suggested to Berlin a course of moderation, and negotiations conducted on a reasonable basis. The German propertied classes would have to make sacrifices, and would have to pay their share of the costs which the French were liable to demand as a price for settlement of the Ruhr conflict. Zeigner announced that his government would do everything to speed up the transformation from private to collectivized economy. He followed up this promise with a bitter attack on the propertied classes, which fostered Fascist organizations in order to use them in their exploitation of German labor. To protect their lives and their interests, the working class would have to form defense units. Another blast was directed against the Reichswehr which, according to Zeigner, was turning into a threat to the republic, as were the numerous clandestine paramilitary organizations which the Reichswehr protected.”

Although Zeigner ended his speech with a profession of loyalty to the republic and a promise to keep his oath of office, in which he had sworn to defend the Saxon constitution, his accusations and veiled threats weighed heavier in the scales than did his closing statement, both inside and outside Saxony. But the tenor of his address went a long way toward pleasing the Communists. They could hardly help being overjoyed when the Saxon SPD leaders resolved on May 17, with the approval of the Zeigner government, to form joint proletarian defense organizations with the KPD. In the course of the summer, Zeigner’s attacks against the central government became more frequent and progressively less restrained. On June 16, in a speech delivered at Niederplanitz, he repeated his charges against the Reichswehr, accused German industrialists of corrupt practices and profiteering, and lashed out sharply against the Cuno government. When this speech was debated in the Saxon diet on June 28, the chairman of the Democratic Party delegation, Dr. Seyfert, accused the minister-president of having talked treason, having incited the masses to class warfare, and having lowered German prestige in foreign states. But a motion of no confidence, introduced by the middle-class parties, was defeated 48 to 43.

On July 11 the diet accepted a new communal administration for Saxony, by which the existing order was drastically changed. A new political “standard community” was created, former differences between large and small communities were eliminated, and the executive power, formerly held by mayors and city councilors, was transferred to the communal representatives. This reorganization was plainly designed to strengthen the political influence of the lower classes in the communities.

Despite Zeigner’s numerous concessions to the extreme left, he was not immune to attacks from that quarter. This was demonstrated a day after the communal reorganization law was adopted, when Paul Bottcher, speaking for the KPD, called a recent visit which Zeigner had paid to Cuno a “walk to Canossa.” Zeigner replied with dignity that, despite the differences of opinion which existed between the central government and that of Saxony, Saxon policies could not and would not be divorced from those of the republic as a whole. But he also repudiated charges, raised by the middle-class parties, that certain measures which his government had taken violated the spirit of the Weimar constitution. His entire speech reflected the precarious course which his government was pursuing. In trying to strike a balance between the the workers and the middle class on the one hand, the interests of Saxony and those of the Reich on the other, Zeigncr risked alienating all sides

With the beginning of August, as the national crisis was approaching its height, relations between Saxony and the Reich reached a new low. In a public speech on August 7, Zeigner repeated his assertion that a number of Reichswehr officers were anti-republican and a threat to the nation, because the Reichswehr maintained close relations with extreme right-wing organizations which had large arms depots at their disposal. These charges were reiterated a few days later in an article which lie wrote for the Sadchsische Staatszeitung. In response to Zeigner’s attacks on the Reichswehr, the ministry for defense issued orders to the troops stationed in Saxony not to participate in any celebrations which the Saxon government planned to conduct on August 11, Constitution Day. The ministry also instructed all military personnel to refrain from maintaining direct contact, in any form, with the Saxon government, except in case of a public emergency. And on September 5 the ministry, in an official announcement, condemned and rejected Zeigner’s charges against the military.

Contrary to what might have been expected, the creation of a Great Coalition government after Cuno’s resignation did not improve relations between Saxony and Berlin. Zeigner prohibited all celebrations of Sedan Day, which patriotic organizations in Saxony had scheduled for September 2. But on September 9 eight thousand workers gathered in Dresden for a muster of the proletarian defense units. The formations drilled for two hours under the command of a minor Social Democratic official, who then addressed the workers’ militia, telling them that the immediate future would show whether the republic could be saved. It was quite possible, he said, that very soon a decisive struggle would begin between the political right and left, a struggle in which each side would try to establish a dictatorship. If this showdown should come, it would be the task of the proletarian defense forces to fight in behalf of a dictatorship of the left. The muster ended with the units avowing, in chorus: “We all shall stand firmly together, as comrades united, come what may!

The Saxon question was discussed during a Reichstag caucus of the People’s Party delegation on September Chancellor Stresemann attended the meeting. A representative from Saxony described the local political conditions, and claimed that Saxon industries no longer received any business from outside the state on account of Zeigner’s radicalism. If businessmen elsewhere in Germany considered it too risky to entrust the manufacture of their goods to Saxon factories, half of the working population of this state would soon be unemployed. He predicted that both Saxony and Thuringia would turn to Communism unless the federal government soon took some energetic measures to counter this dangerous trend. A representative from Thuringia fully endorsed the opinion of his Saxon colleague, emphasizing especially that the economy of his state was being terrorized by the proletarian hundreds.

Throughout the spring and summer of 1923, the German Communists had watched the Saxon situation closely. The arrangement between the party and the Zeigner government proved on the whole satisfactory to the KPD. In contrast to the situation in Prussia, Bavaria, and most other German states, the party’s freedom of movement was unrestricted in Saxony. Here the Communists could train their proletarian hundreds unhampered by suspicious, or even hostile, police forces. But they were not blind to the dangers which their Saxon sanctuary posed. Before the formation of the Zeigner cabinet, Communist activities had been largely confined to the parliamentary arena. After their agreement with the new government in March, however, their activities extended beyond this sphere and included, for instance, the formation of joint proletarian defense corps. From then on they were, so to speak, on parade. Every move which they made in Saxony was open to the scrutiny of a suspicious public, a watchful central government, and a hostile array of nationalist organizations throughout the country.

The unique position which the party faced in Saxony (and to a lesser extent in Thuringia as well) remained a disputed issue within the KPD during the better part of 1923. The majority of the Zentrale believed that if constant Communist pressure were brought against the Zeigner government and the left wing of the SPD, on which the government was largely based, the Saxon Social Democratic Party would eventually disintegrate. The Communists could speed up this process by leading and intensifying the pressure for a change in the social order—a pressure already emanating from the desperate masses. At the decisive moment, the Saxon government would have to decide whether to join the masses in an all-out struggle against the bourgeoisie, or to draw back and thereby to destroy the last illusions still harbored by Socialist workers about the sincerity of their leaders. This view was rejected by the Left Opposition, whose members demanded the overthrow of the Zeigner government whenever the party came into conflict with the Saxon Social Democrats. The dispute over this issue lasted throughout the summer and part of autumn. It was only settled in October and, like most of the fundamental differences which divided the party at the time, it was settled from and by Moscow.”

Foreign political difficulties, the paper mark still falling in value, ominous developments in Bavaria, Thuringia, and Saxony—these were the principal problems which Stresemann faced during his first weeks in office. And these were not all. From September 14 to 24 the southwestern part of Baden was rocked by a series of wage riots, which for a while threatened to spread throughout the entire state. The upper-Badensian Wiesental, close to the Swiss border, was part of the demilitarized zone which lacked adequate police protection. The region was also suffering from large-scale unemployment. The KPD in upper Baden had been able to enlist many new members during the summer of 1923, but had not succeeded in organizing its new recruits, or in controlling them adequately. On September 14 an action committee of factory workers, with the blessings of the local Communist organization, called a general strike at Lorrach which led to demonstrations in the streets and demands for higher wages. These were granted, and the movement might have died down had not the Baden government grown panicky. The state’s ministry of the interior dispatched a special police force to Lorrach on September 17, a move which at once rekindled violence and led to armed clashes between demonstrators and police. New strikes, called in Lorrach proper and in the surrounding towns, soon led to street fights. What had started as a largely spontaneous movement, set off by economic grievances, threatened to turn into serious riots which were encouraged and supported by local Communist organizations. The Zentrale, however, had no desire to have an isolated uprising in a remote corner of Germany jeopardize the Communist party as a whole, merely because some of its local branches were lacking in discipline. Thus when the party’s Baden organization called a statewide general strike, which had not been authorized beforehand by the Zentrale, the latter sent orders from Berlin to avoid every act which could conceivably lead to any further clashes with the police. This interference by the Zentrale, coupled with the promise of the Baden government to withdraw its forces as soon as quiet and order were restored, brought the upheaval in Baden to a halt. By September 25 the strikes and demonstrations were over.

Nearly simultaneously with the Baden uprising, the Separatist movement in the Rhineland threatened to erupt in full finer, Public meetings, protected by the French occupation forces, weir held by the Separatists toward the middle of the month in Aachen. Large-scale demonstrations in Cologne, Trier, Wiesbaden, and Aachen on September 23 and 24, under the leadership of Achim Dorten, Joseph Matthes, and Joseph Smeets, led to street fighting with the local population. The Separatist movement, though, frequently violent and enjoying underhanded French support, never became strong enough to pose a serious threat to the republic. Its followers were rather confused; they were led by what an American scholar has called “an assorted group of criminals,” and their cause found little sympathy among the Rhenish population during the last two weeks of September the disturbances thy Rhineland added to the dangers which the central government faced, and therefore contributed to the pressures which finally prompted Stresemann to terminate passive resistance, and to lilt pose a state of emergency throughout Germany.

The positive factors at work in this period seem at first sight to have been eclipsed by the more obvious calamities. Nevertheless, positive aspects there were. They operated very subtly, and it is difficult to gauge their influence on the nation with any accuracy. Probably the most important factor, and one which was recognized by the Communists several months later, was the impact of the Great Coalition on the mass of Social Democratic workers: the fact that their party was prominently represented in the cabinet undoubtedly strengthened their confidence in the government of the Great Coalition.

Closely connected with this factor was the stormy relationship between Bavaria and the Reich, which in its effects on the nation was not entirely negative. Whereas the Communists were trying to create the impression that the Bavarian “Fascists,” the enemies of the working class, were in some sinister way connected with the national government and the entire German “ruling class,” events in Bavaria clearly invalidated this view. It did not require superior intelligence on the part of the public, including the by no means insensitive or illiterate German workers, to notice that the most vitriolic attacks emanating from Bavaria were reserved for the national government and the republic as such. As the majority of German labor either belonged to, or at least supported, the SPD, which, in turn, was in the Great Coalition, only devoted Communists could fail to realize that the national government and the workers stood side by side in defense of the republic against the various anti-republican forces in the south.

Hopeful signs appeared also on the economic front. The grain harvest proved to be above average in yield, thereby alleviating fears of an insufficient bread supply. With regard to the most pressing problem, the monetary inflation, the Stresemann government displayed more imagination and initiative than had the Cuno administration. As early as August 14, one day after the new chancellor had formed his cabinet, a law was passed to float “a loan of fixed value” (wertbestandige Anleihe), designed to make the sum of five hundred million gold marks available for public expenditure. To be sure, this step had no immediate effect on the inflation, for the value of the paper mark continued to drop at an alarming rate. But the measure demonstrated that the government was resolutely trying to stop the devaluation of the currency. In the meantime, while various schemes to that effect were investigated and tried, one of the most pressing problems was the adjustment of wages to the cost of living. Here an agreement, concluded on August 23 between representatives of the working class and of employers, proved at least temporarily beneficial. The agreement attempted to establish a method of payment by which the falling value of the mark was taken into account: wages were to be fixed on the basis of the prices expected to exist in the week when these wages would be spent. For this purpose a “multiplier,” deduced from the exchange rate of the dollar at Berlin on the day the wages were paid, had to be calculated on the basis of forecast prices. If a forecast proved inaccurate, it could be corrected by either supplementing the wages, or deducting from them, the following week. Unfortunately, the system proved to be far from foolproof but, uneven though it was in practice, it had a salutary effect on the morale of wage earners. On September 2 Stresemann announced in a public speech his intention of creating a new and sound currency, and from then on the government devoted its energies to this problem.” In mid-October it issued a decree for the creation of a Rentenbank, and with it a Rentenmark, a measure signifying the definite and final assault upon the inflation.

Germany, then, presented a complex and confusing picture in the fall of 1923. Hopes and fears, loyalties and defections, unifying and particularist trends, revolutionary threats from right- and left-wing extremists—all appeared to be operative at the same time, intermixing and bewildering, without providing any clue as to where the nation was going in the days ahead. Under these circumstances it is easy to see why the Bolshevik leaders mistook Cuno’s resignation for a sign of Germany’s impending collapse, and laid their plans accordingly.

Bolshevik leaders had watched the troubled country for months without having made any decisive move in the direction of a Communist revolution. Preoccupied as they were with their own factional strifes and the anticipation of Lenin’s death, they had been marking time and, at the meeting of the Enlarged Executive in June, had not even bothered to discuss the situation in Germany except in very general terms. After the meeting was over, most of the top ranking members of the Politburo and the ECCI had gone on vacation.

It was at their remote retreats in southern Russia that Zinoviev and Trotsky learned about the apparently mounting crisis in Germany. Zinoviev, it will be recalled, had already been stirred in the latter part of July by the plans for the anti-Fascist day. Now, only a fortnight later, he learned of the Cuno strike and of the formation of Stresemann’s Great Coalition government. Whatever the exact source or the nature of his information may have been, the news prompted Zinoviev on August 15 to communicate to Moscow that the KPD should take stock of the approaching revolutionary crisis, because “a new and decisive chapter is beginning in the activity of the German Communist Party and, with it, the Comintern.”

Equally enthusiastic was Trotsky’s reaction to the news from Germany. In the written exchanges which preceded the anti-Fascist day, Trotsky had refused to commit himself because he lacked sufficient information at his holiday retreat to make a decision. But after he learned about the Cuno strike and the new Stresemann government, he reached the conclusion that developments in Germany were, indeed, pointing toward a domestic crisis which the KPD ought to exploit. Eager to receive additional information, he invited two members of the German party, August Enderle and Jakob Walcher, to visit him at once in southern Russia. The two men were then serving as KPD delegates to the executive committee of the Profintern, and were for this reason stationed in Moscow. At the end of the conversation Trotsky sent one of the two men, probably Walcher, back to Berlin, presumably to act as his contact man and on-the-spot observer.

During the following week the Russian leaders broke off their vacations and returned to Moscow. On August 23 the Politburo met for a secret session which was also attended by Radek, Pyatakov—then deputy chairman of the economic supreme council—and possibly Tsyurupa, subsequently president of the Gosplan.

According to the only existing account of this session, Radek, the ECCI expert on Germany, presented what appears to have been an optimistic report on the rapid increase of revolutionary sentiment in that country, and asked the members of the Politburo for their comments. If this story is true—and we have only one man’s record of it—it again throws a peculiar light on Radek’s character. He may have sounded optimistic, but his subsequent behavior would indicate that his heart was not in the report he presented. During the weeks of negotiations that followed, he generally favored a cautious approach to the German problem, an attitude indicative of barely concealed scepticism as to the chances of a successful revolution. Such a position was indeed well in line with his article of August 2, in which he told the German Communists that the time for revolution had not yet come. On the other hand, Radek was not the man openly to oppose the general consensus of opinion, especially at a moment when the Bolshevik leaders, under the shadow of Lenin’s illness, were engaged in a bitter, though still subdued and premature, struggle for power. Thus it is conceivable that when he realized how strong an impression the Cuno strike had made, especially on Trotsky and Zinoviev, two men otherwise unable to agree on virtually anything, Radek would not have been Radek had he tried openly to oppose them. His forte was equivocation and subtle maneuver rather than frontal assault, and it is quite likely that at this session Radek presented a report which expressed the beliefs of his audience rather than his own, hidden, viewpoint.

In the ensuing discussion Trotsky spoke first, and warmly advocated that the KPD be encouraged to prepare for revolution. To the inventor and chief exponent of “permanent revolution,” the allegedly mounting revolutionary tide in Germany promised to justify the theory, which he had always maintained, of the close interrelation between the Russian and German revolutions. This theory he briefly reiterated at the meeting, and he closed with the prediction that a showdown in Germany was now only a matter of weeks.

Zinoviev generally concurred with Trotsky’s views, but did not share his optimism in regard to the time factor. Counseling prudence and soberness, he suggested that it would be safer to think in terms of months rather than weeks. Only Stalin, who spoke very briefly, voiced scepticism as to the imminence of a German upheaval. He doubted that it would occur in the fall, and was even dubious about its chances in the following spring.

Despite these differences of opinion, the Politburo decided to proceed without delay to a number of measures designed to stimulate the nascent revolutionary movement in Germany. A committee of four was appointed by the Politburo and charged with the preparations for, and subsequent supervision of, the German Aktion. It consisted of Radek, who as the representative of the ECCI was to keep in close touch with the Zentrale of the KPD; Pyatakov, who was put in charge of “agitation” and was also to maintain contact with Moscow; Unshlikht, then a high-ranking official of the secret police (later deputy commissar for war), whose task it was to supervise the formation of “red army” detachments in Germany; and finally Vasilij Shmidt, commissar of labor, who was commissioned with the organization of revolutionary cells in the German trade-unions.”

A fifth, though apparently “informal,” member of the committee, who was added to the original four shortly after the secret session, was Nikolai Krestinsky, the Soviet Union’s Ambassador to Germany. He was entrusted with the management of secret funds which were channeled into Germany during this period to finance the preparations for revolution.

The reasons for this abrupt about-face on the part of the Russian leaders have puzzled historians ever since the autumn of 1923. It has been suggested that Stresemann’s appointment to the chancellorship was interpreted in Moscow as a possible German move to come to terms with the West, at the expense of her still very recent and tenuous ties with Soviet Russia. This may well have been an important consideration, but the most decisive factor seems to have been the encouraging news from Germany, with its prospects of a “second October.” Throughout the weeks of deliberation which followed the initial decision to support an uprising of the German Communist party, the Bolshevik leaders inevitably invoked their own revolution, drew comparisons from it, and set it up as an ex-ample. The historical parallel which they thought they had detected kept them spellbound, and blinded them to the fact that Germany was not Russia, that 1923 was not 1917, and that the German Zentrale had neither a Lenin nor a Trotsky. Hard realists though they were in every other respect, they turned into sentimental dreamers at the thought that the greatest event of their lives might soon be re-enacted under their experienced guidance, marking another milestone on the road to worldwide Socialism.

The excitement stimulated among the Bolshevik leaders by their anticipation of the German revolution also communicated itself to the Russian people. Meetings were held throughout the country by Russian labor organizations and workers in local factories to debate the importance of the coming German events, and to vote resolutions to support their proletarian brothers in the West. Such resolutions, moreover, were not mere formalities. Russian workers were expected by the government to make genuine sacrifices in behalf of the German revolution. Thus, according to the records of the ECCI, “the Russian working-classes agreed to suspend the increase of their wages and to submit to reductions if it were necessary in the interest of the German revolution.” The workers were told that a defeat of the German proletariat would constitute a defeat of the Russian workers as well. Women were asked at public meetings to donate their wedding rings and other valuables for the German cause. The Trade Commissariat distributed circulars which stated that “the advent of the German revolution confronted the Trade Commissariat with new problems; the present routine of trading must be replaced by the establishment of two German reserves: gold and corn, for the benefit of the victorious German proletariat”; and the various agencies of this Commissariat within the individual soviet republics were ordered to send altogether sixty million feud of grain toward Russia’s western frontiers.5° The Russian Communist Party, by orders of the Politburo, drew up lists of members who spoke German, in order to create a Communist-trained reserve corps which could, at the appropriate moment, be transferred to Germany where it would assist the revolution.” Special attention was paid to the mobilization of Russia’s Communist youth organizations, whose members were told that they might have to risk their lives on behalf of the German proletariat and the cause of revolution.” In October, revolutionary slogans were coined: “Workers’ Germany and our Workers’ and Peasants’ Union Are the Bulwark of Peace and Labor,” and “German Steam Hammer and Soviet Bread Will Conquer the World.” And Soviet newspapers wrote that, if the German workers were successful, the new German government would join with Soviet Russia and thereby “unite in Europe the tremendous power of 200 million people, against which no war in Europe will be possible . . . because no one would be able to face such a force.”

It was to this scene of ebullition and fantasy that Heinrich Brandler, a man not easily given to romantic illusions, was summoned—for discussions of a German revolution which his Bolshevik hosts not only expected him to launch, but which to their minds was already as good as won. Brandler arrived in Moscow sometime during the latter part of August or the first part of September—the exact date has never been determined, and probably never will be.” He was followed in due course by Maslow, Thalmann, and Ruth Fischer. In addition, Edwin Hoernle and Clara Zetkin, two members of the Zentrale who belonged to the Brandler faction, were stationed in Moscow at the time as delegates of the KPD to the Executive Committee of the Comintern.

Brandler was in a peculiar and difficult position. He had been called to Moscow for consultations in connection with the projected German revolution. Another man might have cherished the idea that he was to be cast in the role of a martial people’s tribune. But the role did not fit Brandler, and he knew it. The greatest virtue of this sober, cautious, and essentially shrewd ex-union official was his sense of responsibility and proportion. This quality had failed him only once, in March 1921, and the memory of that fiasco had served to strengthen his aversion to gambling. And now, only two and a half years after the abortive March uprising, he was in Moscow to prepare for what he was convinced would be another gamble, with the odds stacked once more against the party to which he was dedicated. On the other hand, Moscow was the capital of the revolutionary motherland, and here, for weeks on end, Brandler was exposed to the pressure and influence of men whom every Communist in the world acknowledged as prophets and veterans of the revolutionary cause. When he stepped out of the Kremlin he found the streets bedecked with slogans welcoming the German revolution. No wonder that he was torn between the demands made upon him and his own bitter forebodings, that he began to act inconsistently, and that he eventually faltered.

During the drawn-out negotiations which lasted until the first week of October, Brandler was gradually worn down by the arguments of the Bolshevik leaders and by his own colleagues, the members of the Left Opposition. The latter presented the German situation in a light which reflected their own wishful thinking rather than reality. Conditions in Germany, according to their estimates, favored a Communist revolution in the near future. Their views on this matter were shared to varying degrees by Trotsky, Zinoviev, and the majority of the Politburo. The decisive factor which determined their views was not so much the political uncertainties which the Stresemann government had to face, though these, of course, entered into their calculations, but rather their optimism in regard to the influence which the Communists would be able to exert over German labor in a revolutionary situation. It was Zinoviev in particular who played a rather curious numbers game. He wrote, in October 1923, “in the cities the workers are definitely numerically superior [to the rest of the population],” and “the forthcoming German revolution will be a proletarian class revolution. The twenty-two million German workers who make up its army represent the cornerstone of the international proletariat.” Finally, in a euphoric lapse of all commonsense, he stated that “in the forthcoming decisive events, seven million agricultural workers will exercise a great influence on the countryside.

Overwhelmed by such buoyant confidence in the chances for a successful German revolution, Brandler began to yield. He did so despite his secret doubts as to the wisdom of the projected uprising. Only a few weeks earlier he had warned the party that the distribution of strength was not yet in favor of the Communists, and that they must work harder than ever to tip the scales in their direction. Now, under duress, he bowed before the superior knowledge and experience of the Bolshevik veterans who, moreover, were strengthened in their optimism by the members of the Left Opposition. Brandler acknowledged that a revolution could and should be at-tempted, and that seizure of power by the Communists would be “a fully practicable task,” though he added that it would be “more complicated and difficult” to retain power.

But although Brandler consented to the feasibility of a revolution in principle, he remained a stumbling-block whenever the planning reached a point where a practical, concrete issue was involved. Of these there were several, all interrelated, and every one led to heated arguments.

The point of departure for the revolution was to be Saxony. Here was a government which for months had cooperated with the Communists, had tolerated, and even actively supported, the formation of proletarian hundreds, and which was not averse to a workable government coalition with the KPD. Zeigner was a left-wing Social Democrat, suspect to the right wing of his party, but he enjoyed popular support in his state. The Russians, and notably Zinoviev, believed that the Communists should enter this government, and from their strategic position lay the groundwork for an armed uprising. The problem was subsequently put most succinctly by Radek. “The proletariat concentrates its strength [marschiert auf] in Saxony, taking its start from the defense of the workers’ government, into which we enter; and it will attempt in Saxony to use the state power in order to arm itself and to form, in this restricted proletarian province of central Germany, a wall between the southern counter-revolution in Bavaria and the Fascism of the north. At the same time the party throughout the Reich will step in and mobilize the masses.”

The key words emphasized by the Russians were “[the proletariat] will attempt in Saxony to use the state power in order to arm itself.” This, according to Brandler, was putting the cart before the horse. Brandler argued that it would be a mistake to enter the Saxon cabinet before the country, including Saxony, was politically prepared for an uprising which a Communist-infiltrated government in Saxony might bring on much sooner than was desirable or prudent. The weapons, which such a coalition government was to obtain, would be useless if the masses were not yet properly prepared politically for a revolution, and, Brandler argued, such a government might not even have sufficient time for the procurement of arms if the Communists should enter the Saxon government prematurely. In short, Brandler disagreed with the Russians on the practical entry into the Saxon government. The Russians saw only the weapons, while Brandler saw primarily the absence of the political and psychological preparedness of the masses prerequisite for a successful uprising. Entry into the Saxon government, in the opinion of Brandler, should not be undertaken on a coalition basis, and was not to serve primarily as a convenient means for the procurement of arms. Rather, the Communists should enter the Saxon cabinet fully when they could be assured that such a step would have popular backing, which would make it possible to create a genuine workers government. Once Saxony had a genuine workers’ government, this could serve as a signal for revolution. By then the party could Ito reasonably sure of receiving substantial mass support, in Saxony as well as in Thuringia, and beyond, in the rest of the Reich.

The problem of when the revolution was to be attempted limed equally knotty. Should a date be fixed, or should the proper liniment be left to the discretion of the KPD? The foremost proponent fat fixing an exact date was Trotsky, and his attitude seems to have been determined in part by his intense preoccupation wit historical parallels. On September 23, 1923, Trotsky published an article in Pravda which he entitled “Is It Possible to Fix a Definite for a Counterrevolution or a Revolution?” Trotsky thought that it was.

“Obviously, it is not possible to create artificially a political situation favorable for a . . . coup, much less to bring it off at a fixed date. But when the basic elements of such a situation are at hand, then the leading party does . . . choose beforehand a favorable moment, and synchronizes accordingly its political, organizational, and technical forces, and—if it has not miscalculated—deals the victorious blow. . . .

“Let us take our own October Revolution as an example. . . . From the moment that the Bolsheviks were in the majority in the Petrograd Soviet . . . our party was faced with the question—not of the struggle for power in general, but of preparing for the seizure of power according to a definite plan, and at a fixed date. The chosen day, as is well known, was the day upon which the All-Russian Congress of the Soviets was to convene. . . .”

Armed with these arguments, the Father of the Red Army insisted on fixing a date for the outbreak of the German revolution. Over the protests of Brandler, whose misgivings were apparently shared by Radek, November 9 was chosen. It was a fine historical landmark. On November 7, 1917, the Russian Revolution began, and on November 9, 1918, the German revolution. At this point, however, Brandler balked and refused to be bound by any definite date. What resulted, judging from the very confusing and inconclusive evidence available, was a compromise. Zinoviev, who was then engaged in a fierce intraparty fight with Trotsky in connection with the struggle for succession to Lenin, stipulated that the date was to serve merely “for orientation,” and that the uprising was to take place sometime during the next four to six weeks. As the deliberations took place at the end of September, early November remained, in principle, the target date. But no specific day was named—in this matter Brandler had been given some leeway.”

Three additional questions had to be settled before the deliberations could be ended. The first one was raised by Brandler and concerned the supreme command of the projected German revolution. Brandler, as he himself put it, was not “a German Lenin,” and he asked both Trotsky and Zinoviev whether the former could not be assigned to take charge of the German operations—to come incognito and establish himself either in Saxony or Berlin. Trotsky was tempted to go. He was at the time thoroughly disgusted by the in fighting which took place, day after day and behind closed doors, among the Bolshevik leaders. But Brandler’s request was rejected, presumably because Trotsky’s enemies, notably Zinoviev and Stalin, preferred to hold him at home where he could be kept under surveillance. The commission of four which had originally been appointed remained in charge.”

The second question revolved around another historical parallel: should the outbreak of the revolution in Germany be accompanied by the immediate formation of soviets, on the Russian model or should the movement rely instead on the factory councils which were already in existence and did not require special organizational efforts? Zinoviev argued in favor of soviets, but he was opposed by Trotsky and Brandler who, on this issue at least, won their point, Trotsky argued that the organization of soviets in the midst of revolutionary activities would merely handicap operations; their creation prior to the revolution would be a “dead giveaway” to the government that the Communists were planning an insurrection. It was resolved that after the revolution had succeeded a special congress of factory councils should be called, which was to proclaim a German soviet republic and thereby sanction the fait accompli.

One unpleasant detail still remained; it concerned another of the many intraparty squabbles among the Left Opposition members and Brandler. The constant disagreements and disputes within the German delegation during its stay in Moscow aroused Trotsky’s apprehensions. Although he could not have been unaware of Brandler’s sceptical approach to an undertaking which the Bolshevik veteran anticipated with something approaching gusto, Trotsky shared Brandler’s distrust of his Left Opposition colleagues. They had acted irresponsibly in the past. They had repeatedly come close to an open violation of party discipline. It was safer to keep at least Maslow and Ruth Fischer in Moscow. But this led to another row between Trotsky and Zinoviev and ended once again in a compromise. Ruth Fischer was permitted to return to Berlin, but Maslow was retained. He had to submit to an investigation, conducted by a special commission of the Comintern, in connection with his past party record, and returned to Germany only at the end of the year. Interestingly enough, no one seems to have thought of retaining Thalmann as well. “Teddy” was not yet taken seriously by either the Russians or Brandler.”

By the end of September, all the decisions had been made. Brandler had yielded, “in principle,” on most points of controversy: the entry of the Communists into the Saxon cabinet, himself included; the launching of the uprising within the next four to six weeks; and the appointment of a commission, headed by Radek rather than Trotsky, to supervise the coming operations. Overawed by the enthusiasm which he encountered in Moscow, Brandler set aside his own misgivings, and even became affected by the spirit of optimism which reigned among the Bolshevik leaders. In the end he seems to have gone so far as to claim that the Communists could count on the active support of from 50,000 to 6o,000 proletarians in Saxony, an estimate which was to prove woefully wrong.

On October 1, 1923, Zinoviev, in the name of the ECCI, sent th following telegram to the Zentrale of the KPD: “Since we estimate the situation in such a way that the decisive moment will arrive not later than in four–five–six weeks, we think it necessary to occupy at once every position which can be of immediate use [to our purposes]. On the basis of the [present] situation we must approach the question of our entry into the Saxon government in practical terms. We must enter [the Saxon government] on the condition that the Zeigner people are actually willing to defend Saxony against Bavaria and the Fascists. 50,000 to 60,000 [workers] have to be immediately armed; ignore General Muller. The same in Thuringia.”

This telegram signified the end of the deliberations in Moscow. The decision to start a revolution was made, the blueprints written drawn, and Russian hopes were high. Brandler left Moscow sometime during the first week of October. He arrived in Germany on October 8 and, if we can trust Ruth Fischer’s description of his departure, he carried with him the trust and good wishes of at least Leon Trotsky: “As I left the Kremlin, I saw Trotsky bidding farewell to Brandler, whom he had accompanied from his residence inside the Kremlin to the Troitski gate—an unusual gesture of extreme politeness. There they stood, in the sharp light of an autumn afternoon, the stocky Brandler, in his unpressed civilian suit, and the elegant Trotsky in his well-cut Red Army uniform. After the last words, Trotsky kissed Brandler tenderly on both checks in the usual manner. Knowing both men well, I could see that Trotsky was really moved; he felt that he was wishing well the leader of the German revolution on the eve of great events.”

* * *

The period between the Cuno strike and Brandler’s return from Moscow proved rather trying for the KPD. For several weeks, while Brandler and his colleagues were deliberating with the Bolshevik leaders in the Kremlin, the Zentrale in Berlin continued to work toward the capture of mass support, the party’s most pressing objective. Although the Communists did not know what decisions would be taken in Moscow, they had to count on the possibility that they would be ordered to act while the situation in Germany seemed favorable for an insurrection. And they did not doubt that the situation was indeed favorable. The Cuno strike, its inconclusive results for the KPD notwithstanding, had raised expectations within the party that a revolutionary situation might soon be shaping up. But since no one knew when or how it would come, nor what directives Brandler would bring home from Moscow, all the party could do was to keep political agitation at a high pitch, without setting off isolated and premature incidents which could easily lead to drastic and possibly disastrous countermeasures by the authorities. It was a difficult task, which required more skill than either Thalheimer or the other members of the caretaker Zentrale could muster!”

The increasingly aggressive tone of the Communist press, from mid-July on, did not escape the attention of the German authorities. Not very much had been done about it until the day of Cuno’s resignation, but from that moment on the attitude of the national government and of the individual states toward the Communists became noticeably more determined. In a discussion on August 13 between Stresemann and Lord D’Abernon, the British ambassador, the new chancellor left no doubt that he was aware of the Communist threat, and that he was fully prepared to meet it.” On August i6, the Rote Fahne printed a little poem, signed by one Mally Resso, which expressed the Communist spirit of the day very neatly, and thus seemed to justify the apprehensions of the government: Entitled: “It Approaches!” (Sie naht!), the poem ran as follows:

Tough, like ivy creepers
Our thoughts are twisting
Around the goal!
Many Have run ashore on the way to it,
Landed Have in spirit already the prophets,
They have seen the proletarians
Depending on their own strength
As Lords of the World.
Pioneers, what you envisioned,
For the freeing of the slaves,
The deed,
Fighters for justice,
It approaches!

The poem marked the beginning of a tug of war between the German Communists, with their “thoughts twisting around the goal,” and the republic, which was threatened by the “approaching deed.” One day after the poem appeared, the Prussian Minister of the Interior Carl Severing announced that the Federal Committee of Factory Councils and its subcommittees, all situated in Berlin, were dissolved and banned. The KPD was outraged. “The first act of the Great Coalition,” jeered the Rote Fahne, and put the entire blame for the measure on the Social Democrats, who were now represented in the federal as well as in the Prussian government. The Communists charged that the Social Democratic ministers in Stresemann’s cabinet were the spiritual fathers of the blow against the factory councils, duly executed by the Prussian Social Democrat Severing. “We shall take up the challenge of the Social Democrats,” wrote the Rote Fahne, “but the consequences they will have to bear them-selves.”

Severing’s move against the Federal Committee of Factory Councils was a severe setback for the KPD. Although the agency was not officially connected with the party, the Communists controlled it well enough to allow them considerable influence over the important German Factory Council movement. The ban, against which the party press protested vociferously but ineffectively for days, made it necessary to move the Committee from its strategically located position in the German capital to the more congenial, but also more remote, regions of Thuringia.”

The days which followed the ban saw the party in a defiant mood. Its press on August 19 depicted the country as a passenger taking a “ride into the abyss,” predicted new struggles ahead, and reprinted a chapter from S. J. Gussev’s brochure, Lessons of the Civil War, entitled “Let the Proletariat Prepare Itself.” Two days later, under the heading of “Preparations for a New Struggle,” the Rote Fahne told its readers that new and difficult struggles lay ahead for which the proletariat must arm. “Workers’ control and workers’ government, these are our aims. . . . Workers! Employees! Officials! Arm for battle.” On August 22 the same paper carried an appeal by the Zentrale “To the Workers of the SPD and USP,” in which the two parties were violently condemned and their members invited to “get out of the SPD . . . the accomplice of the class enemy . . . and the harmful, illusory . . . impotent USP. . . Join the KPD, that is the demand of the hour! Long live the proletarian class struggle!. . . the dictatorship of the proletariat! . . . the Communist International!”

The last week of August brought a series of repressive measures directed against the Communists. On the 22nd, the government of Wurttemberg banned the regional party convention which was scheduled to meet in Stuttgart on the 25th and 26th. On the 24th, the French occupation forces prohibited the publication of every Communist newspaper—five altogether—in the Ruhr region. The Rote Fahne of August 26 was seized in the early morning hours by the orders of the police president of Berlin. No reasons for this act were given. August 28 was an especially black day. The police once again raided the editorial offices of the Rote Fahne in Berlin, confiscated a number of files, and arrested five party functionaries who happened to be on the scene. In Hamburg, the local party organ Hamburger Volkszeitung was banned for three days. And Carl Severing outlawed the Central Committee of the Factory Councils of Greater Berlin which, his decree pointed out, had become a front organization for one of the subcommittees of the Federal Committee of Factory Councils that had been banned two weeks earlier. The Prussian Minister of the Interior explained that it had become apparent, on the basis of material seized from the offices of the Rote Fahne a few days earlier, that the Central Committee of Berlin’s factory councils was actually run by the Communist district command of Berlin-Brandenburg, notably by Ruth Fischer and Arkadi Maslow. On August 29, presumably as a result of this incriminating information (some of which must have been known beforehand to the local authorities), the police raided the offices of the party’s Berlin district command. The apartments of party leaders were also searched by police officers who had warrants for the arrest of the entire Communist hierarchy of the district Berlin-Brandenburg. But since five leading functionaries had been apprehended the day before in the office of the Rote Fahne, and a number of others were apparently “unavailable,” only two additional party leaders were actually arrested that day. A warrant against Ruth Fischer was issued, but could not be served, because she was by then already on her way to Moscow.”

Far from being intimidated, the Communists continued their propaganda offensive throughout the better part of September. They now concentrated with increasing tenacity on the exploitation of grievances held by segments of the population outside the ranks of labor. Peasants with marginal holdings, farm workers, and especially government officials became targets of their agitation. “The Rote Fahne has virtually become an officials’ newspaper,” noted the recorder of the chancellery for the information of Stresemann on September 11. But the party’s chief concern and principal propaganda target remained the mass of non-Communist workers. To demonstrate the alleged gap between the words and deeds of the Socialist leaders, the KPD demanded, in the parliaments of the states and in the individual communities throughout the country, that communal efforts be made to aid the starving poor. To accomplish this, the Communists proposed a redistribution of goods. They suggested, in practical terms, that communal stores of provisions and goods be given free of charge to wounded war veterans, the unemployed, and those on the rolls of the social welfare department. These goods should be sold at reduced prices to all low-income groups. They further suggested a graduated charge for public utilities according to the income and the number of children of each family, to “soak the rich and spare the poor.” Homeless proletarian families were to be given quarters in the large apartments of the bourgeoisie, while all wealthy and childless middle class families were to be resettled in the “cave dwellings” of the proletariat. Finally, they demanded the immediate institution of public food kitchens where pregnant proletarian women, nursing mothers, and working-class children would be able to receive a balanced diet free of charge and at public expense. These were the principal items of the Communist program to alleviate the worst effects of the economic crisis.”

Such positive suggestions could not help but appeal to workers even if they did not agree with the Communists on other matters. It is revealing that the circulation of the Communist press increased in the summer and fall of 1923, at a time when the rising cost of living caused a decline of subscriptions among most other German newspapers. Nor could the government and the captains of industry and business fail to notice the benefits which the Communists derived from the critical economic situation. They could not deny the truth when the Rote Fahne claimed on August 31 that the mark stood at two million to the dollar, that there was a shortage of food, and that queues were forming in front of stores. And one copy of the Rote Fahne itself cost l00,000 marks. The seriousness of the situation was frankly admitted by Stresemann who met in conference with the members of the People’s Party’s Reichstag delegation on September 11.One participant, Siegfried von Kardorff, pointed to the importance of keeping the nation’s food supply steady, and added, with reference to the conditions in Saxony: “One cannot shoot at starving women.” Hugo Stinnes predicted at the same conference that the country could expect civil war to break out within a fortnight.

The appeals in the Rote Fahne became more ominous in tone and content. On September 1, the Zentrale published a proclamation to “Workers, Employees, Officials!” in which the party reviled the government, the middle class, and the Social Democratic ministers—these last were called the figleaves of the bourgeoisie. The proclamation repeated the Communist demands for the control of production by the workers, the confiscation of real values [Sachtewertel], and the creation of a government of workers and “small” peasants. The appeal ended with the slogan: “Let us fight then victory will be certain!” The same issue carried an article by Zinoviev, written for the occasion of the 9th International Youth Day, in which the chairman of the ECCI predicted that the German proletariat was moving rapidly toward decisive struggles. “There is no power on earth that can defeat twenty million proletarians! Twenty million proletarians, . . . every man able to read and write. . . .” But the non sequitur paled beside the magic figure of twenty million! Finally, the issue carried an unsigned article which was headlined “Onward to the Decisive Battle!”

On the following day the paper outdid itself. The front page carried a joint appeal to the workers of all countries by the executive committees of the Comintern and the Profintern, as well as an article by Radek entitled “Hands off Germany!” The former urged world-wide support for the German proletariat and, in effect, urged the international working class to prevent foreign interference if and when the German proletariat engaged in a revolutionary struggle with the German bourgeoisie. Such a struggle was seen to be approaching, and the appeal contained a note of concern that it might come prematurely: “The [German] working class is to be driven to despair, is to be provoked into battle, before it has put its ranks in order.” The joint appeal was directed at the international labor movement, but Radek addressed himself to the governments of the western nations, warning them that Soviet Russia would not take it lightly should any nation interfere with the affairs of Germany while that country was engaged in a revolutionary struggle.

“Soviet diplomacy will do everything to make it clear to all concerned that it would be best for the capitalist part of the world to leave the decision of Germany’s fate to the mass of the German people rather than to throw the sword into the scales of history; for not only the capitalist powers hold a sword, but also the first proletarian state, Soviet Russia.” No government could afford to ignore such an array of cold-blooded affronts, and from such formidable quarters. On September 4, the German Minister of Interior, the Social Democrat -Wilhelm Sollmann, banned the Rote Fahne and another Communist paper, the Volkswacht, for a period of eight days. In his explanation of the reasons for the ban, which the paper printed in full before closing down, the minister presented a long list of offenses which the Communist papers had committed in violation of the presidential decree of August 10, 1923. Quoting chapter and verse from a series of utterances designed to incite the population to revolution, Sollmann’s list was impressive and disturbing. Apparently from a sense of diplomatic delicacy the explanation omitted mention of the Russian contributions of September 2, and instead closed with the quotation of a little verse by one Hardy Worm [sic] which had appeared the previous day.

Proudly form ranks for final strife!
Unite, be brave, till victory’s here!
Unfold the flags, as red as life,
And sacrificial death don’t fear!

It was quite appropriate, therefore, that the Rote Fahne printed another poem on the first day of its reappearance, September 11. It was entitled: “You Cannot Force Us!” [Ihr zwingt uns nicht!], the text of which the reader shall be spared. But it soon became evident that the poem’s title expressed the attitude of the German Communists. Issue after issue of the Rote Fahne contained incendiary headlines, articles, appeals, and “theoretical” discussions of Russian civil war tactics. “Down with the Regiment of Blood and Hunger!” read the headline on September 15. On September 19, the paper printed a resolution taken by the Moscow Soviet on August 28. The resolution, which pledged the support of the Russian workers and soldiers to the German proletariat, had been adopted after an address by Radek. The meeting had been attended by representatives of the Russian labor unions and the Red Army. On September 21, the Zentrale published another proclamation, “To the Working Population of Germany!”, this time to protest against the rumored termination of passive resistance in the Ruhr. The document contained the usual diatribes against the government, together with the customary gamut of Communist objectives. It ended by calling on the workers, employees, officials, “small” peasants, and members of the (lower) middle class to hold mass meetings and demonstrations, and to prepare for a political mass strike, the principal aims of which were the overthrow of the Stresemann government, creation of a workers’ and peasants’ government, and “closest” alliance with Soviet Russia. Two days later, when the paper carried on its front page an article headed “The Road to the Proletarian Dictatorship in Germany (An Additional Word to the Social Democratic Worker),” the government decided to step in again. The next day, September 24, the Rote Fahne was banned once more, and this time for a fortnight. As on the previous occasion, the agency from which the ban emanated—this time the police president of Berlin—presented a bill of particulars.

Thus for two crucial weeks the central organ of the Communist party was not published, depriving the party of its principal mouthpiece just at the moment when the Zentrale received word from Moscow to prepare for revolution in from four to six weeks’ time. This two-weeks’ ban coincided with a series of portentous developments. On the day after the central government announced the end of passive resistance in the Ruhr and proclaimed a national decree of emergency, the National Socialist newspaper Volkischer Beobachter, in Munich, printed an unrestrained attack on President Ebert, Chancellor Stresemann, and the commander of the Reichswehr, General von Seeckt. This led to an exchange of communications between Seeckt and General Otto von Lossow, the Reichswehr general in command of the army contingents stationed in Bavaria, centering around Seeckt’s order to Lossow to proceed at once against the Volkischer Beobachter. Lossow, backed by the newly appointed general commissioner for the state, Gustav von Kahr, refused to obey, with the result that the Bavarian army contingents virtually “seceded” from the rest of the Reichswehr and, under Lossow’s leadership, took an oath of allegiance to the state of Bavaria on October 22. The extremely belligerent attitude which Bavaria adopted toward the central government was paralleled by a series of repressive measures which von Kahr applied against the Bavarian labor movement, such as the outlawing of strikes and the banning of Socialist paramilitary defense organizations.

The Bavarian problem, combined with controversies between the SPD and the People’s Party over the nature of a contemplated Enabling Act and over the eight-hour working day, threatened to break up the Great Coalition and led to a government crisis. On October 3 the cabinet resigned. A number of compromises, including the continued inviolability of the eight-hour day (a concession to the SPD) , the chancellor’s decision for the time being not to interfere actively in Bavaria (partly as a concession to the People’s Party), and a change of ministerial appointments for the posts of Finance and Economy saved the Great Coalition. On October 6 Stresemann was able to form his second cabinet.

The government crisis had been accompanied by an abortive right-wing putsch which a Major Bruno Buchrucker staged against the Reichswehr garrison of Küstrin on October 1. Buchrucker, who commanded five hundred members of the clandestine Arbeitskom-mandos, or Black Reichswehr troops, seems to have had only the vaguest concept of his ultimate objective. The putsch was unsuccessful, and led to Buchrucker’s arrest and subsequent trial and conviction. But its occurrence at this particular time further aggravated the prevailing political tension.

In this troubled atmosphere the KPD approached the moment of decision. On September 27 the party issued another proclamation to the German working class in those of its publications not banned by the government. The proclamation took issue with the cessation of passive resistance and warned that the “German imperialists” were now preparing to move against the proletariat. To counter this threat, the workers were urged to arm themselves and stand together. The document ended with the battle cry: “Long live the mass strike! Long live the struggle!”

A day before the party received Zinoviev’s telegram, presumably on September 30, the Zentrale held a meeting to discuss what action the situation required. One unidentified member of the Zentrale suggested that if circumstances in Saxony were “ripe,” the party ought to start an uprising [losschlagen]. The suggestion was rejected out of hand because it was considered to smack of putschism. Then, as Remmele, the source of this information, has related, the telegram arrived and “the whole policy of the party became focussed on what had been rejected the day before.”

The German Communists threw themselves into preparations for the contemplated uprising with feverish intensity. The target date, according to party calculations based on Zinoviev’s telegram, was to be sometime in the first half of November. The remaining six weeks had to be used to mobilize the party for action, to coordinate the political and military preparations, and to draw up a strategic plan for revolutionary conquest. From the inconclusive and often vague evidence available, it appears that the party gave most of these measures its wholehearted and undivided attention only after October 1. Whatever was done prior to this date—as far as can be established at all—consisted of conspiratorial work conducted by the military-political Apparat. But in the absence of definite plans and clearly defined objectives, these activities were restricted to preliminaries, and seem to have suffered from a multiplicity of frequently overlapping and poorly coordinated secret agencies. A great deal has been written about the technical preparations for the projected uprising, notably on their so-called “military” aspects. Much of the information has been provided by former Communist agents who in one way or other participated in the work of the clandestine party Apparat. Unfortunately, the reliability of most of these accounts is open to serious doubts, so that any historical treatment of this particular phase of Communist activities must remain, in part, conjectural.

It has been mentioned earlier that, after the Second World Congress of the Comintern, the KPD and all other Communist parties affiliated with the Comintern were expected to create an illegal party apparatus. At that time, the haphazard organization which had existed in Germany prior to the summer of 1920 was scrapped, and a new one established in its place. This is when the military apparatus (M-Apparat) and intelligence apparatus (N- or Nachrichten-Apparat) were created. For the next two and a half years these agencies played a very subordinate role, though the exact extent of their effectiveness, or lack of it, cannot be established with any certainty. But while the party was preoccupied with winning mass sup-port, i.e., while the united front policy dominated the tactics of the German Communist Party, cloak and dagger activities could serve no useful purpose, and we have seen that even during the March uprising of 1921 the role of the Apparat was negligible.

The situation changed after the Ruhr occupation in January 1923. Soon after this event a group of twenty-four Russian “civil war” experts arrived secretly in Germany and apparently acted for several months mainly as observers. There is no reliable indication, however, that any decisive steps to prepare the party for the anticipated fighting were taken before the late summer, or even early autumn, of 1923. Initiation of the most elementary measures required for the contemplated revolution came in the course of negotiations between the Bolsheviks and representatives of the German party in September. On Brandler’s request the Russians agreed to send one of their civil war generals, Rose, alias Gorey, but most commonly known as Petr Aleksandrovich (or Alexis) Skoblevsky, reputedly a Lett by birth, to assist the KPD on questions of military organization. Shortly after this decision was taken, the actual build-up of the German Apparat began in earnest.

What emerged, at least in skeleton form, was an elaborate network of organizations. The “general staff” of the planned uprising was a “Revolutionary Committee,” abbreviated to REVKO. It was headed by August Guralsky-Kleine, of March 1921 fame, and since January 1923 a member of the Zentrale. REVKO had to prepare and organize the party for the coming struggle, which was con-ceived primarily in terms of partisan warfare. But the committee was not in charge of military operations. These were entrusted to General Skoblevsky, supreme commander (Reichsleiter) of the party’s military-political (MP) organization. He was assisted by a military council (Militarrat), headed by Ernst Schneller (later a member of the party’s organizational bureau, or Orgburo) and composed of leading party members, including Walter Ulbricht, who was then a member of the Zentrale. Subordinate to Skoblevsky and his military council were six regional military-political commanders (MP-Oberleiter), each of them responsible for the military organization and the anticipated operations of the KPD in his region. The regions approximated the military defense districts of the German Reichswehr: West, North-West, Central Germany, Berlin, South-West and East Prussia. Bavaria, for obvious reasons, was for the time omitted from the strategic calculations of the KPD. The regional commanders were trusted party leaders, each of them assisted by a military adviser who functioned as chief of staff, but had no command position.

A corresponding setup to that of the regional MP-Oberleitung existed on the district and sub-district levels. The latter were commands (Kampfleitungen) which were expected to organize and train the proletarian hundreds, and eventually lead them into battle.

Parallel to the MP-organization the Communists created, or in some cases merely revitalized, auxiliary agencies designed to aid anti supplement the work of the military-political Apparat. To these belonged the T- (for Terror) and Z- (for Zersetzung, i.e. infiltration and subversion) groups, as well as the highly important Office for the Procurement of Weapons and Ammunition (Waffen-und Munitionsbeschaffungsamt, abbreviated as WUMBA) . These were apparently coordinated by the chairman of the party’s organizational bureau (Orgbüro), mild-mannered and quiet Leo Fleig who was also in charge of administering the secret funds which, in dollar currency, flowed from Moscow to Germany via the Russian Embassy in Berlin. The connecting links in these transactions, which Ruth Fischer used to call the Russian water-pipe line (russische Wasserleitung), were the Soviet Ambassador Krestinsky and the representative of the Comintern’s Department for International Liaison (Otdel Mezhdunarodnoy Syvazi, or OMS), Jacob Mirov-Abramov, who resided in the Russian Embassy where he nominally belonged to the press department. Finally, it must be remembered that all these different agencies were expected to function, when the time came, under the supervision of Radek and his three fellow representatives of the ECCI.

The formation of conspiratorial agencies was accompanied by training and mobilization of the party’s rank and file, including the communist youth groups. Military training was largely left to the proletarian hundreds, who drilled, paraded, and conducted secret tactical maneuvers in isolated parts of the country, where they were protected against detection by police or political enemies by rigid security measures, such as outposts and patrols. Practice alerts were conducted, and special courses given on the handling and use of weapons. Consumption of alcoholic beverages during training sessions was strictly forbidden.

Local party headquarters throughout Germany drew up lists of places where vitally needed goods were stored, such as food, fuel, and clothing, and special Erfassungsgruppen (procurement squads) were appointed to secure these goods as soon as the revolution broke out. Everywhere party cadres were formed to take over local administrative duties, a process which involved a preliminary screening of those officials who would be allowed to stay on their jobs, and those who were subsequently to be arrested or liquidated. To this must be added the pinpointing of special targets such as power plants, tele-phone exchanges, and centers of communication and transportation, all of which were to be secured when “The Day” came.

These preparations (and this account does not pretend to have exhaustively covered them) looked impressive and formidable. In practice, however, the whole plan, including the preparatory measures, suffered from a variety of shortcomings and inefficiencies. There was, in the first place, the strategic blueprint for the uprising, which had been drawn up by the regional military supreme commanders. On the day of the uprising, the signal for which was to be either the proclamation of a general strike or an important conference of labor groups, the Communist-led red hundreds were to rise in every part of Germany except the occupied Ruhr region. There the proletarian formations were to march in closed formations into unoccupied territory and arm themselves at once. The Communist forces in southwestern and central Germany were to take over power, secure their positions, and then dispatch all available units to Berlin where the decisive battle was expected to take place. Bavaria was to be sealed off, and in northern and northeastern Germany, where the rural population was hostile to Communism, the proletarian hundreds were to wage partisan warfare to prevent the enemy from rallying his forces, and were also to capture arms, ammunition, vehicles, and other needed equipment. Skoblevsky had calculated that in order to carry out this plan successfully it would be necessary to confront each unit of the Reichswehr and police with Communist forces three times as strong, and he had given his orders accordingly.

The “plan” had a number of evident loopholes. To outnumber every “enemy” unit three to one would have required a minimum of 750,000 well-armed Communist fighters. Furthermore, the l00,000 men who composed the Reichswehr and the 150,000 police were not only superbly trained, but were in possession of weapons and equipment such as the Communists could only hope to capture in the process of revolution. Finally, the plan left out of account the paramilitary right-wing organizations, many of which had never been effectively disarmed, and most of which were strategically concentrated in Bavaria which the Communists hoped to “seal off.”

This raises the questions of Communist strength and procurement of arms. According to party estimates, total membership of the KPD amounted in the fall of 1923 to 294,230, including women and, presumably, older persons unfit for combat.109. According to a recent East German estimate, the total number of proletarian hundreds in October 1923 amounted to eight hundred, with an over-all strength of l00,000 fighters. These, however, are paper figures and we can only guess at the true effective strength. The fact that some members of these organizations did not participate in training exercises with the excuse, “We’ll be there for the real thing,” casts a dubious light on the discipline of the troops. In some areas, local party organizations apparently submitted lists of proletarian hundreds which had been compiled from the files without notifying the persons concerned that they were now members of a Communist fighting unit. And occasionally a simple resolution voted on by a Communist-infiltrated union local or factory council sufficed to “create” a proletarian hundred, although presumably the process began and ended with the vote and a report submitted to higher echelons.

To make a revolution, men alone are not enough. They have to be armed, and the KPD tried hard to meet this requirement. Like the question of strength, estimates as to how many weapons were at the disposal of the German Communists vary widely, ranging from six hundred to fifty thousand rifles. How many there really were is impossible to establish, and judging from the way in which the party proceeded to arm its members it is very doubtful that anyone, including the Zentrale or the Communist military high command, knew even remotely the approximate number of weapons available. A number of schemes for the procurement of weapons existed. By far the easiest was a “do-it-yourself” system which was used to produce hand grenades and explosives. All that was needed was dynamite, usually stolen from stone quarries and construction projects, old tin cans, and fuses. Production of such homemade weapons was entrusted to the proletarian hundreds. For the purpose of blowing up trains, power stations, and other targets, the party also manufactured makeshift bombs, such as sticks of dynamite placed in a small paper carton, which was then made to look like a piece of commercial pressed coal (briquette) . Home production of weapons was limited, however, and had to be supplemented by other means of procurement. Theft was one of these. Apart from stealing explosives, the party had plans to pilfer secret arms caches of right-wing organizations, armories of the Reichswehr and the police, gun stores, and weapons of individual, non-Communist, citizens, especially the guns of farmers. It was in the nature of these ventures that they could not be carried out on a large scale, and in many cases the thefts remained projects. This meant that “intelligence reports” were compiled by the local party organizations as to where weapons could be easily and quickly obtained once the signal for the uprising had been given. At that moment, special squads (“action committees” ) were to raid the places previously earmarked, and the weapons and vehicles thus obtained were to be quickly distributed among the Communist troops. It appears that under this scheme many a patty member came to look at the pistols, guns, and rubber truncheons hanging from the belts of the local police force as future booty. In some cases weapons were “confiscated” from private persons by party members posing as plain-clothes police officers.

Finally, there was the method of buying weapons. Ample funds for this purpose were available to the German party through the Russian Embassy. WUMBA’s purchasing agents, usually equipped with U.S. dollars, roamed the country in quest of arms. It soon became apparent, however, that the Communists were not too well suited to the capitalist game of doing business. As all purchases had to be conducted in a conspiratorial manner, the process allowed for all kinds of shady dealings. Despite the fact that the party tried to control its own buyers through special control agents, usually members of the Terror-Apparat, some comrades succumbed to the temptation of filling their own pockets while conducting transactions with corrupt police officers, army quartermasters, and even members of paramilitary right-wing organizations. After all, it sufficed to list in the party’s accounts a figure higher than the actual price, a procedure which was easy to suspect, but virtually impossible to prove. It also happened that weapons, which had been painstakingly obtained and hidden, were detected by right-wingers and stolen, only to be bought a second time by Communist agents. On some occasions, the party’s buyers were deceived, and purchased boxes of rocks, carefully hidden beneath a top layer of rifles.

All these preparations were conducted intensively and, it appears, with a real sense of anticipation. And yet one cannot escape the impression that much of what was done was amateurish, and carried out in a spirit of juvenile, if not frivolous, exuberance. Granted that the young men of the proletarian hundreds probably enjoyed the war games with improvised or simulated weapons in the depths of the German forests, that the cloak and dagger activities of mapping targets, ferreting out hidden arms caches, and stealing shotguns from isolated farmhouses at night provided excitement as well as a sense of importance. The fact remains that these activities failed to take into account the real odds which the party would be facing in the case of an armed uprising. Besides their unbelievably naïve disregard for the excellently trained and equipped forces at the disposal of the government, the party leaders also failed to give their attention to the popular support they could expect in a revolution. Throughout the preceding months the German masses, restless and irritated though they were, had at no time given any clear indication that they were prepared to follow the lead of the KPD. The May strikes in the Ruhr, the mass strikes during the height of the summer, the anti-Fascist day, the Cuno strike, all these occasions had shown that the Communists were unable to wrest the allegiance of the working class as a whole away from the SPD and the unions. Nor had the Schlageter line been a glowing success. True, the party had made inroads here and there, had captured control of many factory and had grown in numbers. But all these factors did establish the KPD as a leading force in the German labor movement the only position from which it could hope to carry the proletariat to victory. Moreover, nothing had happened since the Cuno strike to change this picture materially—nothing, that is, but minds of the Russian leaders. The men in the Kremlin thought they detected a growing revolutionary spirit in Germany after Cuno’s resignation. They thought in terms of twenty million proletarians poised for action and eager to do battle. They held illusions with regard to the “working-class elements” in the Reichswehr at a decisive moment “which will not defend the bourgeoisie very stoutly.” They believed that arming the German workers required merely the presence of a few Communist ministers in the government of medium-sized German state, and for this purpose transferred sizeable sums to the Russian Embassy in Berlin. In short, Moscow was steeped in illusions, and on the basis of these illusions the German party prepared itself for an uprising.

 

July 29, 2018

Werner Angress’s “Stillborn Revolution: the Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923” (part three)

Filed under: Werner Angress — louisproyect @ 8:35 pm

This is the third chapter from Werner Angress’s “Stillborn Revolution: The Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923” that deals with the March 1921 Aktion that was an ultraleft adventure sanctioned by the Comintern. When it turned out to be a disaster, Paul Levi, who had already been ousted from party leadership, wrote a blistering and public critique titled “Our Path: Against Putschism” without bothering to get the whacked-out CP leadership’s approval. This got him expelled from the CP even though Lenin plagiarized his analysis and defended it at the Third Congress Of The Communist International that met in Moscow between June 22-July 12, 1921.

Unlike Pierre Broué, whose history of the German CP in the 1920s shares the same criticisms, Angress sees the Third Congress as the first step in the Comintern’s assumption of a centralizing dynamic that prefigures Stalin’s totalitarian control. Even if Lenin and Trotsky had the authority to read the German ultraleft the riot act and set the CP’s on a more rational course, that authority served to rob the CP’s of the independence they once enjoyed. Specifically, in the case of Germany, it meant undermining the Rosa Luxemburg’s conception of how a revolutionary party should function that was defended by Paul Levi, her successor.

In my next series of excerpts, I will be dealing with another fiasco imposed on the German CP by the Comintern that led to the Fourth Congress’s “Bolshevization” turn, which in turn led to the sect formations the left has been trying with mixed results to supersede in the past 30 years or so.


THE BATTLE was over, the party counted its losses, and victors proceeded to punish the vanquished. Public opinion was bitterly hostile to the Communists, particularly because, during the last stages of the uprising, the fighting in Prussian Saxony been ferocious, and charges of atrocities were raised by both sides. On March 29 the Prussian government established special courts for the prosecution of captured agitators, and for weeks after the end of hostilities the legal mills ground out sentences which altogether amounted to an estimated 3000 years of prison and penitentiary terms for 4000 insurgents. Five years earlier, when the British under somewhat similar circumstances crushed another Easter rebellion, that of the Sinn Feiners, they executed Sir Roger Casement and fifteen other leaders, but showed marked restraint in dealing with the rank and file of the Irish Volunteers and the Citizen Army. In Germany, on the other hand, only two prominent leaders, Max Hoelz and Heinrich Brandler, were tried and convicted, whereas on the rank and file, who had borne the brunt of the fighting, fell most of the retribution that followed. It was therefore hardly surprising that the membership of the Communist Party, which at the beginning of the uprising had numbered about 350,000, dropped to a mere 180,443 by the summer of 1921.

As soon as the insurrection had collapsed, the Communist Party underwent a grave internal crisis, set off by Paul Levi. News of the Aktion had reached him in Vienna, on his way to Italy, and he returned at once to Germany. As he was no longer a leading official, Levi had to gather his information from friends and acquaintances who had participated in the various decisive conferences held by the party prior to and during the initial stages of the uprising. On March 29 he sent a summary of his findings to Lenin in a confidential letter in which he made it quite clear that he felt in no way responsible for what had occurred, but that he would not interfere while the uprising was in progress.

The first Central Committee meeting after the debacle was held on April 7 and 8. The new leadership failed to invite Levi, presumably because they did not care to have him state his views on their conduct of the party’s affairs. But they could not very well exclude Clara Zetkin, then in her sixties. After Brandler had given his version of the recent developments, the old lady proceeded to castigate the Zentrale for having recklessly precipitated an Aktion. She criticized the use of extreme and unrealistic political slogans which, she said, had turned the masses against the KPD. She called for an end to “revolutionary calisthenics” and for a return of concern for the interests of the masses; she concluded her speech with a motion for a vote of censure of the Zentrale’s policy and asked for a special party congress (ausserordentlicher Parteitag) in the near future to air all problems in open debate. After a brief discussion, Clara Zetkin’s motion was put to the vote and defeated 43 to 6, with three abstentions. Encouraged by this initial victory, the Zentrale introduced a resolution of its own which turned into a lengthy and involved justification of the revolutionary offensive, presenting it as the only proper revolutionary approach in the face of counterrevolutionary provocation and assault: “The overall situation . . . required . . .the sharpest class struggles; it demanded that the working class seize the revolutionary initiative . . . resolve upon independent action, and meet the counterrevolution in a powerful counterattack. . . .” In answer to Zetkin’s criticism that faulty tactics had alienated the masses, the Zentrale produced the excuse that the German workers had remained passive as a result of unemployment and Socialist demagogy. Under the circumstances the KPD could not afford lo wait until the reluctant workers took courage, and the party chose to risk defeat rather than to do nothing. The resolution, meandering on through twelve paragraphs, praised the fighting spirit displayed by the party, re-emphasized that revolution was the ultimate duty of every Communist, and consigned responsibility for defeat to the counterrevolutionaries and their Socialist lackeys. It concluded with the same tone of self-righteousness with which it began: “Therefore the Central Committee approves of the political and tactical attitude taken by the Zentrale; condemns in the strongest terms the passive and active opposition of individual comrades during the Aktion; and calls upon the Zentrale to put the organization into top fighting condition by introducing all measures required to do so. The resolution was voted upon and passed 26 to 14. A number of additional motions, dealing primarily with organizational improvements, enforcement of discipline, and the right of the Zentrale to expel any individual who was found unworthy of remaining a party member, passed equally handsomely and enhanced the triumph of the Zentrale. One of its members, Max Sievers, was deprived of hit office because he had broken party discipline during the uprising, and the Central Committee adjourned.

The failure of Clara Zetkin’s criticism prompted Paul Levi to address himself directly to the public. As soon as he was informed of the outcome of the Central Committee meeting, he sent to press a polemical pamphlet on the Aktion which he had written a few days earlier, April 3 and 4. Unser Weg was a blistering attack on the methods and errors of the Zentrale, interspersed with several oblique references to Kun and his colleagues. Levi wrote the pamphlet with a lawyer’s touch and the pathos of a thwarted lover. He had been forced to watch the party, which he had helped to found, fall into the hands of incompetents, adventurers, and misguided idealists who, within the short span of a week, had almost succeeded in thoroughly discrediting the Communist cause. All the bitterness, the disappointment, the indignation of the author were reflected in the sharp and aggressive tone of the pamphlet. Levi revealed, sometimes openly, sometimes by insinuation, that the initial plan for an uprising did not originate within the KPD; that the theory of the revolutionary offensive dominated the thinking of party leaders, thus belying the insistent use of the word “defensive”; and that provocations were employed as a means of creating mass action. At the Central Committee meeting on March 16, Frolich had said that the proposed course of action was “a complete break with the past.” Levi commented sarcastically: “It is indeed an innovation in the history of the party which Rosa Luxemburg has founded; it is a complete break with the past that the Communists should labor like juvenile male prostitutes [Achtgroschenjungen] to provoke the murder of their brothers.” But Levi reserved the highest pitch of his angry eloquence for the manner in which the Zentrale had ordered the rank and file into battle, while the leaders themselves stayed in Berlin.

“The Zentrale accelerated the action [steigerte die Aktion]. Squad upon squad rose. . . . Heroic and disdainful of death, the comrades got ready. . . . Squad upon squad prepared for the assault—as the Zentrale ordered. Squad upon squad moved up into battle—as the Zentrale ordered. Squad upon squad met with death—as the Zentrale ordered. [Fahnlein urn Fahnlein ging in den Tod—wie es die Zen-trale gebot.] Ave morituri to salutant“. This passage contained the gist of Levi’s argument: the Zentrale, acting with criminal irresponsibility, had needlessly caused the death of many of its followers. Levi demanded that the guilty ones resign from the leadership of the party.” The pamphlet was published on April 12 and caused a sensation in party circles. The Zentrale was outraged, not only because former chairman washed the party’s dirty linen in public, but also because he revealed secrets which most Communist leaders were not eager to see in print. The only ray of light was the receipt of a congratulatory message from the Communist International, dated April 6, 1921, which was printed in the Rote Fahne immediately after the appearance of Levi’s accusations. Its closing words lead: “The Communist International says to you: You acted rightly! The working class can never win victory by a single blow. You have turned a new page in the history of the German working class, prepare for new struggles. Study the lessons of your past struggles Learn from your experience. Close your ranks, strengthen your organization, legal and illegal, strengthen proletarian discipline and Communist unity in struggle . . . .

Long live the Communist proletariat of Germany!

Long live the proletarian revolution in Germany!

Long live the Communist International!”

Encouraged by the emphatic slap on the back, the Zentrale prepared to deal with Levi, whose expose made him liable to disciplinary action. But Levi did not stand alone. Many of his friends. some still in leading positions, shared his views. One of them, a former leader of the Revolutionary Shop Stewards, Richard Muller, had gone at the height of the uprising from one Berlin factory to the next in order to dissuade the metal workers from supporting the general strike. Others, too, had made no secret of their disapproval, In short, the Zentrale knew that the party faced a crisis. But most of its members, irritated by the defeat and stung to the quick by Levi’s public exposure of their actions, were eager to turn on the rebel and his supporters. On April 15, 1921, he was formally expelled from the party on the grounds that he had violated party discipline and solidarity. Upon being asked to surrender his Reichstag seat, Levi refused and appealed to the Central Committee for a hearing.

Levi’s expulsion had immediate repercussions. Eight prominent Communists sided with him by affirming their solidarity with his aims and endorsing his charges against the Zentrale. Four of the frondeurs, Clara Zetkin, Adolf Hoffmann, Ernst Daumig, and Otto Brass, were former members of the Zentrale; one, Curt Geyer, was a member of the Brandler Zentrale, and the remaining three, Heinrich Malzahn, Paul Neumann, and Eckert, were members of the party’s ReichsgewerkschaftsZentrale, a subdivision of the Zentrale in charge of union affairs. Yet the majority of the Communist leaders remained unimpressed. Neither Levi’s criticism nor the demonstrative attitude of his supporters could shake their conviction that they had done the right thing. By way of emphasis they put themselves on record when in mid-April they published a defense of the March uprising under the title Taktik and Organisation der Revolutionaren Offensive: Die Lehren der Marz Aktion.

The Central Committee held another meeting from May 3 to 5, and on May 4 invited Levi to appeal his expulsion. Since Brandler had been arrested by the police on April 18, Wilhelm Pieck presided as acting chairman. It had been Pieck’s intention to restrict the discussion of the “Case Levi” to the question of whether or not Levi had committed a breach of party discipline. To the chairman’s chagrin, Levi shifted the issue by asking whether the March uprising was justifiable or not. He answered this question in the negative and proceeded to repeat the charges which he had made earlier in his pamphlet Unser Weg. Taking issue with such terms as “offensive,” “defensive,” “transition from agitation to action,” all of which were being bandied about indiscriminately by the Zentrale, Levi pointed out that the use of these terms amounted to hairsplitting because throughout the uprising the party leadership had exhibited an offensive spirit. Only necessity had eventually transformed the Aktion into a defensive struggle. Furthermore, the party’s policy during those fatal March days had been full of irresponsible decisions, faulty judgments, inadequate preparation, and poor organization. Terrorist measures—the responsibility for which Levi ascribed, by implication, to Kun—and ill-conceived strategy had ruined the party’s hold on a district which had been one of the foremost Com. munist strongholds in Germany. In addition, the Zentrale had given no thought to public opinion and had grossly overestimated the in. fluence and strength of the KPD.

In this context Levi said: “And now, comrades, another matter . . . It is now being said that it is the duty of the vanguard to engage in an Aktion in order ‘to speed up the [coming of the] revolution,’ Let me read you the following passage: ‘The most important thing is the ideological conquest of the vanguard. Without it even the first step toward victory becomes impossible. Yet from there to the final victory is still quite a distance. One cannot win with only the vanguard. To engage the vanguard in a decisive struggle before the entire class . . . and the broad masses have taken a position by which they can either support the vanguard directly, or at least express their benevolent neutrality . . . would not be merely folly, but a crime as well.’

“The man who wrote this is fortunate that he has not yet been labeled a `Levite’; though he still has every chance to become one, He is Lenin.”

If Levi had any illusions that he could achieve a reversal of the original decision to expel him, he was disappointed. The Central Committee was unimpressed by his eloquence. Reuter-Friesland voiced his regret that Levi’s expulsion was to be based solely on his breach of discipline. Presumably he was more concerned with the heresy of Levi’s behavior, a sentiment quite in line with the fiery defense of the Aktion which Reuter-Friesland had offered at a meeting of Berlin’s KPD leaders a few days earlier. At that meeting, Levi had watched with dismay the enthusiastic reaction of the audience and had commented resignedly with a pun on a line from Schiller’s Wallenstein, “It must be night where Friesland’s [Friedland’s] stars are shining!” The night did not lift at the meeting of the Central Committee which, by a roll call vote, upheld Levi’s expulsion 36 to 7.

With the “Case Levi” apparently closed, the Central Committee got ready to deal with Levi’s supporters. On April 20 the Zentrale had notified the eight principal “Levites” that those of them holding Communist seats in the Reichstag must surrender them to the party at once. Following Levi’s example, they refused, and they persisted in their refusal when the Central Committee reiterated the order on May 4. Faced with what amounted to open rebellion, the committee resorted to a half-measure by passing a vote of censure (31 to 8) against the recalcitrant group, probably in the expectation that the matter would be taken up anyway at the Third Congress of the Communist International which was scheduled to meet in June. There remained one piece of business, a reshuffling of the Zentrale. Max Sievers had been already expelled from his post. Now Paul Wegmann and Curt Geyer joined his fate. The three openings were filled by Jakob Walcher, Emil Hollein and Hugo Eberlein, all old party hands who could be trusted to support the present Zentrale.

The first leader purge conducted by the German Communist Party war over. A renowned party member, a protege of Rosa Luxemburg, and a man who for a crucial year had occupied the highest office the KPD could bestow, had been driven from the party in disgrace. In addition, eight of Levi’s supporters faced the prospect of sharing his fate before long. It would be wrong to assume, however, that the “Right Opposition,” as the group came to be called at the Comintern Congress, had rejected Communism. Levi and his friends were still loyal adherents to the cause, and some of them, notably Clara Zetkin, remained so to their death. They were up in arms because they felt that the new Zentrale had abandoned the course which Rosa Luxemburg had laid down for the party. The Zentrale, with the full support of the left wing, indignantly denied this charge. Neither faction perceived that the fundamental issue was not whether the Levites or the Brandlerites had followed the right course, but to what extent both had failed, and what consequences this would have for the future. None of them, in fact, real-ized that the KPD had arrived at a major crossroad.

The split within the party remained unresolved during the preparations for the Third Comintern Congress. The official delegation of the KPD, all firm champions of the March action, was led by Thalheimer and Frolich. Together with the Communist youth group, it numbered thirty-three delegates. Clara Zetkin, virtually constituting a delegation of her own, went as representative of the Communist Women’s League and also acted as the unofficial spokesman of the Right Opposition. In addition, and by special request from Lenin, Heinrich Malzahn and Paul Neumann attended the congress to state the views of the opposition. As they had not received a mandate from the Zentrale to speak for the party, they had only an advisory vote, and attended to all intents and purposes as a disenfranchised grievance committee. Finally, the KAPD sent four delegates, which put the Germans, divided though they were, among themselves, in second place as far as numerical strength at the congress was concerned. But they, and everyone else, were dwarfed by the Russian delegation of seventy-four voting members.

The German delegation left for Moscow with the expectation that the Russian leaders would receive them as heroes, especially after the ECCI, on April 29, had endorsed Paul Levi’s expulsion from the party in a letter bristling with expressions of disgust and contempt for “the traitor.” They were to be disappointed. The Russians had in the meantime “reinterpreted” the March uprising. The process had been accompanied by severe factional struggles, because the debate on the uprising was only part of a more fundamental problem, the future of world revolution. Ever since the Russo-Polish War of 1920, the revolutionary wave in Europe had subsided, a development which Lenin, at least, was unwilling to ignore. During the winter of 1920-1921, when general unrest all over Russia culminated in the Kronstadt mutiny and made it abundantly clear that the Bolshevik government could strengthen its hold on the people only by giving the country a chance to recover from the civil war, Lenin decided to buy time by making concessions at home and abroad. The first of these was the introduction of the New Economic Policy, which included vigorous efforts to improve trade relations with Western capitalist countries. The German March uprising was thus completely out of tune with the trend that was developing in the fatherland of the revolution. On March 16, the day that Hörsing’s appeal was published, and the German Central Committee listened to Brandler’s variations on a theme by Kun, Russia signed a trade agreement with Great Britain. The Kronstadt mutiny was crushed on March 17, and Lenin had officially introduced N.E.P. on March 15. No wonder that Lenin was unenthusiastic about the German events, that he was hardly surprised when the uprising failed, and that he profoundly disapproved of the whole adventure.

Since the KPD was the strongest Communist party outside Russia, its fortunes and misfortunes served as a useful gauge to assess the chances for further revolutions in Europe. The recent fiasco, therefore, confirmed Lenin’s view that a temporary retreat on the revolutionary front was necessary, and he wanted to impress this view on the congress by making the German debacle a starting point for a change in over-all Comintern strategy. In order to be effective, Lenin had to secure prior unanimity among the Russian leaders, which was not easy. Trotsky and Kamenev sided with Lenin in condemning the German putsch, but Zinoviev, Bukharin, and Radek defended it. We do not know the details of these factional struggles which preceded the opening of the congress; nor do we know whether a personal report by Clara Zetkin to Lenin was made before or after the Russians had settled the matter. It is very likely, however, that Zetkin’s detailed description of what had occurred in Germany strengthened Lenin’s determination to disavow the Kun-Brandler-Thalheimer-Frolich theory of the revolutionary offensive, especially after Zetkin’s report was confirmed and elaborated by Neumann, who were likewise questioned by Lenin. Whatever the exact sequence of events may have been, by the time the congress was about to convene the Russians presented a united front on the German question. The Lenin-Trotsky faction overruled Zinoviev and Bukharin after Radek, always a flexible man, abandoned the latter, an action which netted him their angry abuse.

News of the latest official Russian position came as a shock to the German delegates. After the initial congratulatory message from the ECCI they had counted on full Comintern endorsement of their policy. Now, on the eve of the congress, they were informed that they had blundered, and that they must under no circumstances embark on a similar unprepared venture in the future. Although the Russians upheld the German party in the matter of Levi’s expulsion, Lenin let it be known that he basically agreed with Levi’s criticisms and only objected to the methods which the former party chairman had employed in making them.

“The Congress will condemn Paul Levi, will be hard on him… But his condemnation will be only on account of breach of discipline, not of his basic political principles. How could it be otherwise at the very moment when those principles will be recognized as correct? The way is open for Paul Levi to find his way back to us, if he himself does not block the road. His political future lies in his own hands!”

By the time the proceedings began, Lenin and Trotsky were assured of the unconditional, though not entirely enthusiastic, support of their Russian colleagues. They had whipped the ECCI into line and had duly warned the German delegation to prepare for some rough treatment. With these preliminaries out of the way, they could entrust the issue to the congress, confident that their views would prevail. And so they did. Despite occasional fierce verbal duels, indignant interjections, and angry charges and countercharges, an air of unreality pervaded the debates whenever the March uprising was on the agenda. The Russians had set the stage very well. Any direct references to such precarious subjects as the role of the ECCI, especially as far as the Kun mission and Zinoviev’s share in it were concerned, and the Zentrale’s attempts to create a revolutionary spirit artificially, were excluded from open debate. These topical taboos benefited the ECCI and the Bolshevik leadership, and restricted both German factions in their arguments. The critics of the uprising had to couch their charges in carefully worded insinuations, and the proponents of the revolutionary offensive could not invoke Kun, Zinoviev, or any other member of the Executive Committee in their defense. Nor does it seem a coincidence that on the Russian side the principal speakers were Radek and Trotsky rather than Zinoviev, who would have been the logical person to place the “German question” before the congress, since he was chairman of the ECCI. Zinoviev had evidently been too deeply implicated in the German imbroglio, and was moreover too reluctant a convert to the official Russian position to serve as its most suitable spokesman. His references to this explosive topic in his official report on the activities of the Executive Committee were accordingly brief and rather innocuous. He complimented the German party for having fought bravely in a struggle imposed from the outside, but when he touched upon the crucial problem of the revolutionary offensive, he skillfully spouted commonplaces with great oratorical emphasis while dodging the issue.

“Too much loose talk has been wasted on the revolutionary offensive. May God preserve us from a repetition of such foolishness…. The enemy attacked us. You need not lament about the mis-conceived offensive. Many mistakes were made, many organizational weaknesses were revealed. Our comrades in the German Zentrale have not shut their eyes to them; they want to correct their mistakes.”

After posing the rhetorical question whether the past struggle constituted a step forward or should be labeled a putsch, Zinoviev said emphatically: “The Executive is of the opinion that the March action was not a putsch. It would be ludicrous to talk of a putsch when half a million [sic] workers have fought. . . . We must clearly point out the mistakes [committed by the KPD] and learn from them. We conceal nothing, we don’t conduct . . . secret diplomacy. And we are of the opinion that, by and large, the German party need not be ashamed of this struggle, quite the contrary.”

Zinoviev delivered his report on June 25. The following five days were taken up by discussions of the report, with the Comintern bosses presiding from the bench rather than sitting in the dock. They had, moreover, used their privileged position to help formulate the “Resolution to the Report of the ECCI,” Article II of which dealt with the German question. In its relevant part it read as follows: “The Congress . . . sanctions completely the attitude of the Executive in regard to the further developments within the V.K.P.D. The Congress expresses its expectation that the Executive will apply in the future these principles of international revolutionary discipline with equal strictness.””

The resolution, including its Article II, was scheduled for a vote of adoption at the end of the discussion period. In spite of its deceptive vagueness its significance could hardly be missed. Its wording clearly expressed the right of the ECCI, retroactively as well as for the future, to interfere in the affairs of a member party. In this particular instance, the interference to be sanctioned by the congress referred to the approval by the ECCI of Paul Levi’s expulsion from the KPD. In this respect, therefore, it appeared to be intended primarily as a chastisement of the so-called Right Opposition, but at the same time the phrasing provided sufficient leeway to allow for its application to any other faction. That the resolution made no mention at all of any possible connection between the March uprising and Comintern was hardly surprising.

The discussion which preceded the vote on the first vital resolution also touched on the German insurrection, even though this topic was officially scheduled for later debate. Ostensibly the arguments centered around Paul Levi’s role, since the pending vote would determine once and for all his status as a Communist. But actually the charges and countercharges hinged on the larger question of principles and thereby constituted a continuation of the German intraparty feud, only now being fought coram populo. The high point of these preliminary skirmishes was a debate between Clara Zetkin and Ernst Reuter-Friesland, each expressing the point of view of his own faction with great frankness. Zetkin put up a spirited defense of Paul Levi. With her usual bluntness the old lady lashed out against all her opponents in the KPD and the ECCI, and even included the German police who had confiscated all her documentary ammunition. Her principal point was that both the ECCI and the apologists of the March action were trying to make Paul Levi the scapegoat for their own blunders and, while she was careful not to endorse Unser Weg, in essence she repeated many of the charges Levi had raised in his brochure. “It remains a fact . . . that representatives of the Executive bear indeed a large share of responsibility for the way in which the Marzaktion was conducted, [and] that representatives of the Executive bear a large share of responsibility for the wrong slogans, the wrong political attitude of the party, or, more correctly, of the Zentrale.” Equally outspoken was her opinion on the attitude of the Brandler Zentrale: “If Paul Levi is going to be severely punished for his criticism . . . and for mistakes which he has undeniably committed, what punishment, then, deserve those who are really guilty? The putschism against which we have raised our charges did not consist of the actions of the fighting masses . . . but was endemic in the heads of the Zentrale who led the masses in this manner into battle.”

Measured by the limited degree of free speech which prevails nowadays at Communist conferences, Zetkin’s performance was indeed daring. It must be remembered, however, that in the early twenties, before the days of Stalin, debates among Communists were still relatively unimpeded by fear of retribution. Moreover, Clara Zetkin knew that Lenin was in agreement with her on this question. For this reason she made hardly any effort to defend Levi against the charge of having broken party discipline but concentrated instead on the substance of his criticism, which coincided with her own views and Lenin’s. From the lengthy talk she had with Lenin before the congress opened, she knew that he was less concerned with crushing the right wing of the KPD than he was with labeling as harmful the principles underlying the Marzaktion. It was a foregone conclusion that once the “Case Levi” had been settled by the vote on the “Executive Report,” attention would be focused on the uprising proper, during the “Debate on Tactics.” Then the Bolshevik leaders would be free to bear down on the Brandlerite errors, since they had successfully barred any further debate on the role of the ECCI by means of the innocuously phrased “Resolution to the Report of the ECCI.”

Zetkin’s attack on the errors of the Zentrale were met by a no less fiery counterattack from Ernst Reuter-Friesland. The man who only six months later was to share Paul Levi’s fate now directed all his indignation against Levi and his supporters, notably against Clara Zetkin whom he accused of intellectual dishonesty. While admitting that the March uprising had suffered from mistakes committed by the party leadership, he made it clear that “we shall talk about these mistakes only with those comrades who fought alongside us, and not with those who systematically sabotaged the Aktion.” After a lengthy diatribe against Levi, whom he accused of having persistently undermined the reputation and influence of the ECCI ever since the Second Comintern Congress, Friesland invited Levi’s followers at the congress to take an unequivocal stand condemning him, or forfeit the right to call themselves Communists and members of the Communist International. Shortly before the vote on the “Resolution on the Report of the Executive,” Malzahn and Neumann, the two right-wing opposition delegates who had only an advisory vote, requested that a final vote on the resolution be postponed until after the full-fledged debate on the uprising. They argued that only at the conclusion of this debate could the members of the congress properly judge whether or not Levi ought to be definitely excluded from the Communist movement. Radek employed all the biting sarcasm for which he was famous to discredit the two hapless Levites, badgering them mercilessly.

When he had finished, Malzahn and Neumann asked the congress once again, this time formally, to postpone voting on the resolution until after the discussion on the March uprising. Their plea was read aloud and then ignored. Five minutes later the “Resolution on the Report of the Executive Committee of the Communist International” was adopted. The only delegation which abstained from voting on Article II was that of Yugoslavia. No one voted against, but Clara Zetkin stated publicly that the “Case Levi” had been settled “over our protest.” It was a clear-cut victory for the ECCI, though not for the Brandlerites, as they were soon to find out.

Now that the Executive had effectively removed itself from the sphere of controversy, the Bolshevik leaders felt free to encourage wide-open discussion of the March Aktion on the floor. Up to this point the debate had centered around Levi’s attitude, with special reference to his criticism of KPD and ECCI. From then on the uprising proper became the chief issue and was discussed within the framework of the “Tactics of the Communist International.” By the time this phase of the congress began, the behind-the-scenes efforts of the Russians had succeeded in noticeably narrowing the gap which divided the views of the Right Opposition from those of the Zentrale, although many important points of conflict were still unresolved.4

The vital debate on tactics was introduced by a lengthy speech by Radek, who was the first member of the ECCI to criticize the mistakes of the Zentrale publicly and in detail. But the part of his speech that dealt with the German party lacked force and conviction; his heart apparently was not in it. His introductory remarks amounted to a virtual apology to those whose mistakes he was about to discuss, and one wonders whether this unusual civility was not partly due to the realization that his own role in the March event had not been free of ambiguity.

Radek’s criticism of the March uprising included most of the major points later to be incorporated in the official theses of the congress, e.g., the need for capturing the masses prior to any revolution; the need for better party organization and discipline; and the dogma that the uprising had been a defensive action which us spirit of its failure constituted “one step forward.” He carefully concealed how many arguments he had borrowed from the opposition. Moreover, he did not mention that without the constant pressure for “greater activity” which the Executive had applied to the German party, and which culminated in the Kun mission, many of the “errors” would never have been committed in the first place. He was not challenged on these omissions, due to the “oratorical taboos” so prudently devised by the ECCI.

Although Radek’s arguments were couched in the deceptively optimistic phrases so peculiar to Marxist rhetoric, the underlying call for a strategic retreat on the revolutionary front was unmistakable. Even when read today, his sophistries sound hollow and they must have impressed his listeners in that way on the afternoon of June 30, 1921. With capitalism inevitably on the decline, he argued, Communism is moving forward to great struggles. However, the decline of capitalism does not proceed in a straight line; nor does revolution, which. has its ebb and flow. If Communists want to fight and win, they must prepare for the struggle—which does not mean that preparation and propaganda should become a substitute for action. But action lies still in the future, and in the meantime the Communists must be the bell which calls the living to battle. The watchword of universal Communism must be, “first and foremost, to the masses, with all means.” The Communists must actively prepare the masses for the eventual struggle by means of propaganda and agitation.

“Prepare yourselves and the proletariat for the [coming] struggles . . . , lead it into the struggles which history will produce. It will not be necessary to look for these struggles; they will come to us. And we shall fight the better if we prepare for them. The mistakes we make always mean a step backward, and there is no doubt that we have suffered such a setback . . . in Germany. . . . If the left comrades have made mistakes . . . during the March Aktion, then I say that these mistakes speak in favor of them [as] they demonstrate the will to fight. For this reason we were with them, their mistakes notwithstanding. But it is better to win than merely to prove that one wanted to win. And therefore, comrades, our tactical line is focused on world revolution. We see the road toward world revolution in the conquest of the great masses. These masses we want to lead into the great struggles which history has decreed for us. . . . We stand at the threshold of a historical turning point, and there is no power . . . which can save capitalism. We want to hasten its death, and this can only be done if we unify the great masses under the Communist banner. We are but the heralds, the organizers. The proletariat will bury capitalism. The proletariat will also be the hammer driving the nail into its coffin.”

Radek’s report heralded a decisive swing to the right, but, as was to be expected, this projected shift of policy was promptly challenged from the left. On the following day a speaker of the KAPD, Hempel, agreed with Radek on only one point, the impending decline of capitalism. The rest of the report he rejected, with all its implications, defending in particular the justification of the revolutionary offensive and partial actions (Teilaktionen), which must precede the all-out revolution. Since the KAPD was not affiliated with the Comintern and its delegates attended merely as guests, this first assault could be ignored by the ECCI. It was a more serious matter, however, when Ernst Reuter-Friesland requested in the name of the German delegation that the next speaker, Comrade Terracini from the Italian Communist Party, be granted a longer speaking time than was customary to justify a number of suggested amendments to the theses developed by Radek. He added that these amendments had been drafted by the German, Italian, and Austrian delegations, and that additional delegations would most probably endorse them at a later time. The request was granted.

Terracini, like the KAPD speaker before him, criticized Radck’s report from a radical point of view. He took issue with the condemnation of the theory of the offensive and charged that Radek’s critics were too pronouncedly directed against the radical left wing of the Comintern and its affiliates. As he was probably unaware of the hectic behind-the-scene struggles among the Bolsheviks which had preceded the congress, Terracini said naïvely, “Comrade Zinovicv has spoken at length in his Report on the Executive against rightist tendencies. If we now suggest amendments to the theses on tactics, we herewith merely endorse once again the arguments of Comrade Zinoviev. We do not think that Comrade Radek will raise object ion4 to our amendments.” It was not Radek who raised objections, but Lenin. In a brief speech, delivered in a mildly ironic vein which barely concealed the underlying intensity of his arguments, Lenin tore into the leftist s by ridiculing their charges and amendments. He stated bluntly that all future feuds against the so-called “centrists” within the various Communist parties would have to cease, as the real centrists (Inclining Levi) had been expelled. Violations of this injunction would be fought ruthlessly by the Comintern. He reiterated the necessity to win the masses prior to any future Communist revolution, and defended those passages in the draft which bore on this question and which had become subject to a leftist amendment.

Lenin said, “Whoever does not understand that we must conquer the majority of the working class in Europe, where nearly all proletarians are organized, is lost to the Communist movement. . . . Comrade Terracini has not understood the Russian Revolution very well. We in Russia were a small party, but we had a majority  in the workers’ and peasants’ councils throughout the country. Where do you have anything like it? We had at least half of the army, which then numbered at least ten million men. Have you the majority of the army? Show me such a country. If these intentions [to make amendments] of Comrade Terracini are supported by three delegations, then something is rotten [krank] in the International. Then we must say: Stop! Fight to the bone! [entschiedener Kampf] otherwise the Communist International is lost.”

After he had repeated in no uncertain terms that the theory of the offensive, as applied in the March uprising, was wrong, Lenin gave his definition of “the masses” as “not only the labor movement, but also the majority of the working and exploited rural population. Then he came back to intraparty feuds: “We have not only condemned the centrists, but also chased them away. Now we must turn against the other side, which we also deem dangerous. We must tell the comrades the truth in the politest possible way. Our theses are also held in a congenial and polite form, and nobody can feel hurt by our theses. We must tell them: we now have other tasks than to hunt centrists. Enough of this sport. It is already getting a little boring.”

Lenin’s unequivocal defense of the theses, and his equally unequivocal rejection of the attempts by the left to amend them, did not end the debate on tactics in general, nor on the tactics of the Marzaktion in particular. One German speaker after the other, Heckert, Reuter-Friesland, Thalheimer and Ernst (“Teddy”) Thalmann, the future idol of the German proletariat, tried to salvage as much of their point of view as was possible. Ignoring Lenin’s warning not to prolong the feud with the former Levites, the spokesmen for the Zentrale, and especially the extreme left-wingers of the German delegation, Reuter-Friesland and Thalmann, persisted in hurling charges at Zetkin, Malzahn, et al. Their bitterness increased the more they realized that they were fighting a losing battle. Their colleagues of the Right Opposition had won a significant advantage when they signed a statement that they were now willing to go along with the general interpretation which the Comintern had given to the March uprising. This left the German majority delegation in the uncomfortable position of obstructionists who held up a generally desired settlement of their intraparty feud, not to mention their reluctance to bow to the ECCI on the crucial issue of tactics

The last speaker on the question of “Tactics of the Cominlen was Trotsky. He had angered those who defended the Marzaktion on principle by an earlier report, “The World Economic Crisis and the New Tasks of the Communist International,” delivered at the beginning of the congress. In this report he had given an estimate of the worldwide economic situation and its probable effect on revolution. While predicting the inevitable collapse of capitalism in the long run, he had been outspokenly sceptical with regard to revolution in the near future: “. . . In a word, the situation now at the time of the Third Congress of the Communist International is not the same as at the time of the First and Second Congresses, for the first time we see and feel that we are not so immediately near to the goal, to the conquest of power, to the world revolution. At the time, in 1919, we said to ourselves: ‘It is a question of months. Now we say: ‘It is perhaps a question of years.'”

It was under the shadow of Trotsky’s essentially pessimist evaluation that the debates on the March action took place. The left-wingers at the congress, and not only the Germans, proved unwilling to accept his perspectives at face value. Most of them not see, or did not want to see, that the debate on the uprising essentially served as a rallying point for two opposing schools of thought concerned with the most fundamental issue confronting the Congress, namely what course the Communist movement was to take in the days ahead. Trotsky alluded to this point when he again addressed the congress, prior to Radek’s summary, to wind up the debate on the German question. After a few brief and condescending remarks directed at Thalmann, who had been the last of the enrages to defend the leftist position, Trotsky turned his attention to the essence of the March action. Many delegates, he said, had complained to him that the German delegation took up so much of the congress’ time in discussing its internal affairs. Such an impatient attitude on the part of these critics was unwarranted. The March action was the main issue under discussion. The congress had to choose between two tendencies. One was represented by Lenin, Zinoviev, Radek, and himself. The other tendency was expressed by the various amendments to the theses on tactics that were soon to be submitted for a vote.

Trotsky granted the German delegation that the March action, as compared to the past history of the party, constituted a step forward, “but it does not mean that the first action, this first attempt to play an independent leading role, has proved successful.” With considerable sarcasm Trotsky then leveled his guns at the Brandlerites: “They tell us that they have learned a great deal from it [the March action] and, moreover, precisely from their own mistakes. That is what their own amendments say. . . . They state that the major merit of the March action consists precisely in this, that it provided an opportunity for clarifying the mistakes committed therein, only in order to eliminate them subsequently. Isn’t it a little too audacious to seek for special merits in this connection?”

Trotsky proceeded to expose the errors of the March action, and to enumerate the contradictory reports on the uprising which members of the German delegation had given at the congress. All these reports, he thought, served primarily to confuse and becloud the issue. “From all this one gets the impression that the members of the German delegation still approach the issue as if it had to be defended at all costs, but not studied nor analyzed. . . . I think that for your situation in Germany it is best to introduce clarity into this question. I don’t believe what Levi has said, that is, that the party will perish from it. However, the congress must say to the German workers that a mistake was committed, and that the party’s attempt to assume the leading role in a great mass movement was not a fortunate one. We must admit that this attempt was completely unsuccessful in this sense—that were it repeated, it might actually ruin this splendid party. . . . It is our duty to say clearly and precisely to the German workers that we consider this philosophy of the offensive to be the greatest danger: and in its practical application to be the greatest political crime.”

As soon as Trotsky had finished, a motion was made by the American delegation to close the debate and to let Radek give his summary. But Trotsky’s speech, in which he had expressed the attitude of the Bolshevik leaders more plainly than any of the preceding speakers, including Lenin, had stirred up the emotions of many delegates. Bela Kun rose to protest against the motion to terminate the debate: “Comrade Trotsky has just spoken for one hour against the so-called Left; he has done so in such a tone that we must absolutely [unbedingt] reply to his speech. . . . In my estimation that motion . . . is a low political trick [Schiebung] and against this, a trick I firmly protest.” But the motion was passed, and Radek made a summarizing speech which was remarkable for its conciliatory tone. When he had finished, the congress prepared to vote on whether the theses on tactics, in their existing draft form, were acceptable to the delegates in principle. If the vote was in the affirmative, the draft was to go to a committee where the final version would be worked out for subsequent approval by the congress, However, a few minutes before the vote, the left die-hards made what can only be called a demonstration against Trotsky, in the form of a “declaration.”

“The undersigned delegations, Poland, Germany, Youth International, Hungary (majority), ‘Deutschbohmen,’ and Austria declare that they will accept, in principle, the tactical theses suggested by the Russian delegation, but that they make express reservations concerning the interpretation which Trotsky has given to the theses in his speech.” Thalheimer and Kun were among the signers. The congress then voted to send the draft of the theses to the committee. The great debate on the March uprising was over.

While the congress moved to less controversial issues, such as the trade-union question, the economic question, the women question, etc., the committee which worked on the definitive version of the theses on tactics made every effort to eliminate all remaining differences between the two German factions, in order to secure unanimity in the final vote. The Russian leaders were clearly worried by the possibility of a further split within the KPD. During the debate on tactics, Zinoviev had said, “There can be only one answer: under no circumstances must there be a further split in the ranks of the German Communist Party. . . . Therefore the congress must press for an agreement.” On the surface at least such an agreement was reached. On July 9, three days before the theses on tactics were adopted, the congress passed a special “Resolution on the March Action and the Internal Situation in the V.K.P.D.,” which bore all the earmarks of compromise inasmuch as its tone was conciliatory toward the defenders of the uprising, although the congress had rejected their policy. The resolution, proposed by Zinoviev in the name of the Russian delegation, reemphasized that “The congress considers any further disintegration of forces within the VKPD, any factionalism—not to mention a split—as the greatest danger for the entire movement.” The congress, the resolution continued, expected that the Zentrale and the party majority would treat the former opposition with tolerance, and expected from the members of the opposition that they would loyally carry out the decisions reached at the Third Congress. The resolution concluded with a warning.

“The congress demands of the former opposition … the immediate cessation of any political collaboration with persons expelled from the party and the Communist International. . . .

“The congress instructs the Executive to observe carefully the further development of the German movement, and in the event of the slightest breach of discipline to take immediately the most energetic steps.”

Before the congress voted on this resolution, Malzahn presented in the name of the former opposition an alternate version. Thalheimer immediately protested because Malzahn’s version, signed by Malzahn himself, Clara Zetkin, Paul Neumann, and Paul Franken, was too vague in form and content. Zinoviev supported Thalheimer and suggested that the former opposition offer their draft as a mere declaration rather than as a formal countermotion. The suggestion was accepted, and the Russian-sponsored resolution was unanimously adopted a few minutes later.

The adoption of the theses on tactics on July 12, the final day of the congress, presented no more difficulties. They expressed with meticulous conciseness the principal tenets which the leaders had previously developed in their speeches. Although they bristled with militant expressions, the call for a retreat from an aggressive revolutionary policy was too plain to be missed. “The world revolution, that is, the downfall of capitalism . . . will require a fairly long period of revolutionary struggle,” read the first sentence of the second section. The third section began with the statement that “The most important question before the Communist International today is how to win predominating influence over the majority of the working class, and to bring its decisive strata into the struggle.” The fourth one warned that “The attempts of impatient and politically inexperienced revolutionary elements to resort to the most extreme methods . . . frustrate for a long time the genuine revolutionary preparation of the proletariat for the seizure of power.” All parties were admonished to reject “these extremely dangerous methods.”

Section seven, “The Lessons of the March Action,” was a document the tone of which was on the whole rather unenthusiastic. Perhaps its most important statement was the first sentence, with roundly asserted that “The March action was a struggle forced on the VKPD by the Government’s attack on the proletariat of Central Germany.” This statement became a Communist dogma from which no party publication has deviated since. There followed an enumeration of the mistakes committed by the party, with special emphasis on the fact that the mistake of not having clearly defined the “defensive” nature of the struggle “was aggravated by a number of party comrades who represented the offensive as the primary method of struggle. . .” Despite the errors, however, the congress was willing to grant that it considered the uprising “as a step forward.” The Russian leaders had been initially content with letting the matter stand at that, but in the process of formulating the final draft in committee had decided to elaborate on the meaning of this phrase. The uprising constituted one step forward because “it was a heroic struggle by hundreds of thousands of proletarians against the bourgeoisie,” and because the KPD, “by assuming leadership . . . showed that it was the party of the revolutionary German proletariat.” With these sparse compliments the German party had to rest satisfied. The balance of the section on the March action contained once again the look-before-you-leap sort of warning with regard to future revolutionary situations, although the congress stated explicitly that once the party had decided on action, everyone must obey and co-operate to the best of his ability. Criticism of an action was to be allowed only after the action was over, and then only within the framework of the party organization. The congress pointedly reminded all potential future critics that Levi had been expelled for having violated this basic principle of party discipline.

On that same day, July 12, 1921, the “Theses on the Communist International and the Red International of Labor Unions” were also adopted.” The gist of what the Bolsheviks envisaged in the fore-seeable future as the principal task of all Communist parties was contained in section IV: “In the forthcoming period the chief task of Communists is to work steadily . . . to win a majority of the workers in all unions . . . to win the unions for Communism by the most active participation in their day-to-day struggles. The best measure of the strength of any Communist party is the influence it really exercises over the working masses in the trade-unions. The party must learn to exercise decisive influence in the unions without subjecting them to petty control. It is the union cell, not the union as such, which is under the authority of the party.”

Here was spelled out in very practical terms the new party line which all the member organizations of the Comintern were expected to follow. They were not to engage in putsches, but were to talk softly and persuasively to their fellow proletarians in the unions and Socialist parties. Direct action had dismally failed in the German March uprising. Capitalism was dying much more slowly than had been anticipated. Finally, since the Russians needed that breathing space which the Bolshevik leaders so tenaciously pursued, and so manifestly expressed by NEP and international trade agreements, the Communist International switched its emphasis at the Third Congress from crusading to missionary work. “For the power of capital can only be broken if the idea of Communism is embodied in the stormy pressure of the great majority of the proletariat, led by mass Communist parties which must form the iron clamp holding together the fighting proletarian class. To the Masses -that is the first battle-cry of the Third Congress to the Communists of all countries!”

The congress was over. Before the German delegation left for home to devote itself to its new tasks, the Russian leaders arranged for one more meeting with both German factions. The purpose of this get-together was to confirm the “treaty of peace” that had been concluded so laboriously and, as time was to show, so superficially between the majority delegation and its Right Opposition, Harmony seemed to have been established. Significantly, Reuter-Friesland who had held many private conversations with Lenin and other leading Bolsheviks, had been won over to the newest shift in policy as expressed in the slogan “To the Masses!” Thus the Russians had every reason to be pleased with the outcome of the Third Comintern Congress.

This peace treaty marked a turning point in the development a German Communism. A distinct phase had come to a close. For when the conflict which divided the KPD after the March uprising was settled by the Russian-dominated Third World Congress, the German party unwittingly surrendered to Moscow a large share a its former independence which it was never to regain. Luxemburg’s maxim of friendly aloofness was buried for good, and its place was taken by Leninist centralization and discipline. The spirit of independence which Rosa Luxemburg had infused into the KPD had still been very pronounced during the first two Comintern congresses. The Zentrale had then felt free to weigh any advice the Bolsheviks gave, had argued with the Russian leaders from a position of strength and confidence, and in the end had made its own decisions. True, as an affiliate of the Comintern, the party had been bound by the over-all policy adopted at the first two congresses, especially by the twenty-one conditions of the Second Congress. But as long as Levi was chairman of the Zentrale, these policies had been interpreted liberally and with discretion. The Third Congress, where the intraparty feud over the March uprising became the key issue of debate, put an end to all this. The change came about for a number of reasons. In the summer of 1921 the Soviet Union, for the first time since the revolution, was in a position to exert more than a nominal influence over the Communist parties of Europe. Foreign and civil war, and Allied intervention, were past, making physical contact with the West easier, and at the same time giving Russia time to recover. Lenin was eager to utilize the relatively favorable situation to stabilize Bolshevik gains at home, and to strengthen the Communist movement abroad. As far as Lenin was concerned, the latter task could only be accomplished if the Russian Communist Party strengthened its control over the various European parties, something which he had always thought necessary and which now, for the first time, had become possible of realization. It was done at the Third Congress by tightening the bonds of organization and discipline within the Comintern. Special emphasis was placed on the authority of the ECCI over the member parties, thereby ensuring a better control over the Communist movement than had been possible in the past.

The KPD, second in strength and importance only to the Russian party, facilitated the task of the Bolsheviks in no small measure. In their effort to change the general course of Communist strategy, Lenin and Trotsky in particular made the German question a key issue at the congress, incorporated the specific lessons learned from the March uprising into the theses and resolutions, and thus turned the German disaster into a Bolshevik asset. What was more, in the process of making the March action a convenient vehicle for implementing a major shift in policy, the Russians effectively destroyed most of the still remaining sparks of independence among the KPD leadership. Both factions of the German delegation had gone to Moscow in the hope of winning approbation for their respective stands on the uprising, and they were so deeply involved in their intraparty feud that they failed to see how much their disunity benefited the Russians. Without the coarse dictatorial manner which Stalin was to employ on similar occasions in later years, Trotsky, Radek, and Zinoviev displayed excellent teamwork in their handling of the German delegates. In private talks and on the floor of the congress, both factions were subjected to unsparing criticism but with the exception of Levi no one was punished for his or her past errors. After the Russians had censored the Right opposition for having abetted Levi, they turned around and used many of Levi’s and Zetkin’s arguments to chastise the Zentrale and its left-wing supporters. When it was all over, the German delegates could not help but agree that the Kremlin knew best. So strong was the prestige and personal magnetism of the Bolshevik leaders that the Germans submitted, however reluctantly in some cases, to the demands made of them. They let themselves be maneuvered into accepting theses and resolutions which, at least in part, were distasteful to them. Clara Zetkin was honored by the congress on her sixty-fifth birthday, and the Russians scored a minor triumph when Heckert delivered the principal ovation in the name of the German delegation, and showered the old lady with good wishes. Only four days earlier he had been one of her most outspoken critics. Finally, after Lenin had persuaded both Zetkin and Reuter-Friesland of the rightness of the Russian position, the way was clear to a general reconciliation, and in the interest of the common cause both Getman factions buried their differences, at least on the surface.

Thus, as far as the KPD was concerned, the most significant result of the Third Congress was the increase of Russian influence over the affairs of the party. This was a notable achievement by Lenin and Trotsky, whose dialectical skill and singleness of purpose were not matched by the divided German leadership. The old argument tween Lenin and Luxemburg over the tactical questions of discipline and centralization had been finally won, for all practical purposes, by Lenin. The victory had been made easier by the default of the KPD, which no longer had a Luxemburg to defend its independence, and which had now lost in Levi the last strong champion of the Luxemburg tradition. The position of the Comintern had been immeasurably strengthened. Not only had the congress expressly endorsed that body’s recent interference in the affairs of member parties, notably those of the KPD, but had also voted to give it enlarged and additional powers for the future. Thus the right of the ECCI to dispatch meddling Turkestaner to the member parties remained unimpaired; this was a distinct victory over the western organizations by what Levi had sarcastically called “the mullahs of Khiva and Bokhara.”

Essentially, then, strong Russian influence over the affairs of the KPD dates from the Third Congress rather than from a later date. To be sure, it was initially neither as noticeable nor as rigid and oppressive as it was to become in Stalin’s time; yet it was there. Its foundation had been firmly laid by Lenin and his colleagues, firm enough for Stalin to build on and to make more effective. This is not to say that there was henceforth no more opposition to Russian interference in the German party. But what opposition there was never had a chance to restore the original spirit of independence, after Lenin had so successfully disposed of the Luxemburg tradition.

In March 1922 Lenin wrote: “Paul Levi now wants to get into the good graces of the bourgeoisie . . . by publishing precisely those works of Rosa Luxemburg in which she was wrong. . . . Rosa Luxemburg was mistaken on the independence of Poland; she was mistaken in 1903 in her appraisal of Menshevism; she was mistaken in July 1914. . . She was mistaken in the works she wrote in prison in 1918, especially her book on the Russian Revolution. . . . But in spite of her mistakes she was and remains for us—an eagle.” Indeed, Lenin was by then quite safe in calling her that. He did not need to add that the wings of this eagle had been securely nailed to the wall, to serve as decoration for Communist meeting-halls and party offices—and that it was a very dead eagle.

 

July 5, 2018

Werner Angress’s “Stillborn Revolution: the Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923” (part two)

Filed under: Werner Angress — louisproyect @ 12:22 am

This is the second in a series of reproductions of chapters in Werner Angress’s “Stillborn Revolution: the Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923”. In the first installment, I posted the chapter on “The Genesis of the March Uprising” that discussed the factors that led to what Paul Levi called the “greatest Bakunist putsch in history”. This chapter titled “The March Uprising and its Failure” is a horrifying narrative of how the Communist Party of Germany under the direct influence of a Comintern emissary named Bela Kun staged an ultraleft adventure that in some ways makes the Weatherman “Days of Rage” in 1969 look sane by comparison.

As a preface to the chapter, there are some terms that need clarification.

  • The“Zentrale” was the central committee of the German CP that got its marching orders from Bela Kun.
  • The “Rote Fahne” was the newspaper of the CP that served as the main propagandist for the so-called March Action.
  • The “Orgesch” was an anti-Semitic militia that was a forerunner of Hitler’s Stormtroopers.
  • The “KPD” is the initials for the CP.
  • The “KAPD” is the initials for the Communist Workers Party of Germany that was a split from the KPD, on an even more ultraleft basis. Among the better-known members were Antonie Pannekoek, Karl Korsch, and Paul Mattick.

Politically, the disastrous outcome was a major factor in the rise of Nazism because it discredited the CP. Some of Angress’s chapter might be unfamiliar to those who have not studied the scandalous “March Action”. As background, I recommend this brief article by Pierre Broué, who like Angress, wrote an important book on the German Communist Party in the 1920s: https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/broue/works/1964/summer/march-action.htm


CHAPTER V

THE MARCH UPRISING AND ITS FAILURE

Horsing’s move became known at the Central Committee meeting on the morning of March 17 and found the Communist leaders unprepared. As there were at the moment no details, apart from the text of the appeal, the assembled delegates refrained from dealing with the unexpected development except for agreeing on the advisability of postponing any direct involvement in central Germany until after Easter. The fourday holiday, from Good Friday to Easter Monday, was held to be unsuitable for strikes and related actions. The party organizations in the affected region were advised, presumably through those of their members who attended the conference in Berlin, that they should merely threaten to call a general strike once the police marched in, but were not to carry out the threat until the plants and mines were actually occupied. Before the day was over, however, this prudent attitude was abandoned by the Zentrale in favor of a barely disguised attempt to exploit the new situation. According to the Communist version, the initial desire to avoid a struggle in Prussian Saxony prior to Easter week was foiled by the Mansfeld miners, who reacted to Horsing’s “provocation!’ by precipitating a spontaneous uprising, and thereby compelled the KPD to rush to their assistance.

In the light of subsequent events this argument is not convincing. it is much more likely that, after the immediate impact of Horsing’s appeal had worn off, at least some members of the Zentrale experienced a change of heart by the time the conference adjourned on March 17. Once again, all signs point to the machinations of Kun with his flair for concocting illstarred revolutions. In view of the delicacy of his mission, neither he nor his associates attended the Central Committee meeting—the presence of the Comintern agents was to be known only to a restricted circle. It stands to reason, however, that Kun was informed of the outcome of the conference as soon as it stood adjourned, and that he then gave his views on the situation. If Kun had come to Germany with the express purpose of goading the KPD into action, the news of Horsing’s intention to move police into Prussian Saxony was in perfect accordance with his plans. All he had to do was to persuade those members of the Zentrale who had already fallen under his influence that the projected police occupation offered an excellent opportunity for the German Communists to launch the revolution which they had just decided was in the offing anyway. He may well have pointed out that any delay would diminish the chances for a successful operation. There were nine more days until Good Friday (March 25), time enough for Horsing’s forces to get a firm foothold in the occupied region unless they were met by organized resistance. And who but the KPD could furnish the leadership for such resistance?

Whatever the circumstances which prompted the Zentrale to reverse its earlier decision to postpone action, the fact remains that from March 17 on the KPD sounded and acted like a party resolved upon revolution. At the same time, in order to justify the party in the eyes of the working class in general, and of the Communist rank and file in particular, great pains were taken to give the impression that German Communism was merely responding to the wishes of the treacherous bourgeoisie.

On March 17, the Communist press, led by the Rote Fahne, opened a propaganda barrage so violent as to be inconsistent with the party’s alleged intention to hold the line until after Easter week. Under the heading “The Counterrevolution Strikes,” the early edition of the Rote Fahne carried a leading article urging the proletarians to abandon their previous passivity, which had merely encouraged the reactionaries. “It is not enough,” the paper warned, “to only announce the immediate fight of the proletarian masses against . . . the counterrevolution can frustrate its criminal intentions.” There was but one way out of the present crisis: alliance with Soviet Russia which, however, could only be realized “over the bodies of the bourgeoisie.” Excerpts from Horsing’s appeal appeared in the early edition, and the full text was printed in the evening edition of the Rote Fahne. The Communist targets on March 18 were the Orgesch and the SPD. Pointing to Bavaria’s refusal to disarm her civil guards, the paper commented at length on the helplessness of the unarmed workers. “The gang of majority Socialists” had agreed that, under the pretext of law, armed might in Prussian Saxony should be permitted to march against “the naked chest of the working class.”

“The bourgeoisie stands in arms and refuses to surrender them .. . and the German workers have no weapons! It was not the Entente that disarmed them—the Entente cannot even disarm the Orgesch. The German bourgeoisie and the rabble of Social Democratic leaders have wrested the weapons out of the hands of the proletarians. . . . Now the law means nothing any more; nor does Versailles. Weapons will decide, and the counterrevolutionaries refuse to surrender theirs. . . . Every worker will simply ignore the law [pfeift auf das Gesetz] and must seize a weapon wherever he may find one!

This blast, drafted by Kun himself, led to the confiscation of the issue by the Prussian authorities, whereupon the identical text was promptly reprinted in the Rote Fahne on the following day. The entire approach was so clumsy that it met with the disapproval even of Ernst ReuterFriesland, who registered a protest with the Zentrale. Yet the same argument was put forth on March 18 in the Reichstag where the KPD deputy Däumig demanded that the proletariat be armed because the Reichswehr was counterrevolutionary and anti-proletarian.

On March 19, the day the police occupation of Prussian Saxony went into effect, the Rote Fahne announced that the Central Committee had decided at its recent meeting to mobilize the party, organizationally and spiritually, for the coming struggle against a bourgeoisie which was collaborating with the Entente in a joint effort to exploit the workers. “The difficulties faced by the government in the Upper Silesian plebiscite and the sanctions make it essential that the proletariat develop the greatest possible activity!” All workers would have to be prepared to fight in answer to Horsing’s provocation.’

Although the logic of the article left much to be desired. Inasmuch as collaboration between Germany and the Entente was mentioned in one breath with Allied sanctions, the general tenor was clear enough. Every stop of the propaganda organ was pulled in order to bracket events in Prussian Saxony with all the other crisis factors, real or imaginary, that loomed so large in the imagination of the party strategists. It was quite in line with this policy to devote the evening issue of the Rote Fahne on March 19 to the problem in Upper Silesia, where the plebiscite was scheduled to be held the next day. The paper pointed out that Polish and German counter-revolutionaries were facing each other in Upper Silesia and were ready to engage in combat. The Orgesch in that part of the country was spoiling for a fight because the spirit of nationalism there was strong. The Silesian plebiscite, the Rote Fahne informed its readers, was no local affair but concerned every proletarian. The adventure planned by the German counterrevolutionaries in these regions was to be the first battle of the Orgesch, to be followed by a second, the battle against the German proletariat. “Once the Polish and German counter-revolutionaries in Upper Silesia begin to clash, the iron fist of the proletariat from both countries must smash in between the [combatants].

On March 20, the day after the police occupation had gone into effect, the Rote Fahne carried the banner line: “Horsing orders his gang of murderers to march in!” The days of the Bloodhound Noske had returned. The workers in central Germany had decided to offer resistance and thus had set an example which should be followed by workers throughout the country. SPD and Independents came in for a sharp attack because they supported Horsing, and Severing and Weismann were labeled “henchmen of the Orgesch.” Once again the Rote Fahne demanded: “Weapons into the hands of the workers!” And the entire German working class was urged to come to the assistance of their embattled brothers in central Germany. This frantic appeal to the German working class at large was neutralized by an editorial in the same issue, entitled, “He Who Is Not For Me, Is Against Me! A Word to the Social Democratic and Independent Workers.” This editorial, instead of addressing the Socialists as potential allies, told them that they, and the rest of the German proletariat, were on the wrong road; only the Communist Party knew where it was going. After a lengthy enumeration of the virtues inherent in the Communist cause, the Rote Fahne listed a number of conditions under which the misled workers might join the Communist ranks, one of which was a barely concealed suggestion that the Socialists should string their own leaders from the lamp posts. It was, in Levi’s words, “a declaration of war against four-fifths of the German workers at the beginning of the Aktion.” The ineptness of the Communist propaganda effort was succinctly expressed by Vorwärts when it told its readers: “Moscow needs corpses . . . . We warn the working class. . . . Do not let yourselves be provoked!”

Although slogan after slogan rolled off the Communist presses, no serious unrest accompanied Horsing’s appeal in Prussian Saxony. The Zentrale, which gradually realized that it was illusory to rely on the spontaneity of the population, decided that some outside help was needed to arouse the masses, and acted accordingly. On March 18, the Communist district executive for Halle-Merseburg received orders from the Zentrale to start a revolutionary action at once. The directives stipulated that Horsing’s police measures were to serve as an excuse for the insurrection. Two local party leaders, Lemck and Bowitzki, were entrusted with the direction of the operations (Aufstandsleitung), with headquarters to be situated at Halle. The next day, March 19, the Halle district committee of the KPD met for a conference to determine the line of action which the party was to take in the region. Representatives from various subdistricts and individual towns attended the conference, which was chaired by a leading official of the Halle district, Fred Oelssner. Oelssner started out by giving a brief summary of the domestic and foreign political problems which Germany faced, a résumé that followed closely the familiar arguments of Kun. The situation in Upper Silesia, according to the speaker, was tense, and in Bavaria the Orgesch was on the move. Large-scale strikes by farm workers in Germany’s eastern provinces were assuming political overtones. In view of these circumstances the KPD had to decide on how best to exploit the situation to produce revolutionary action. The problem, thus stated, was then thrown open for discussion. The prevailing atmosphere at the conference was later described by a participant: “We were all convinced that Horsing’s decree would never suffice to produce an Aktion in Germany, but that we had to resort to provocation . . . the first shot, the notorious first shot, had to come from the side of the enemy.” It was suggested in the course of the discussion that favorable results might be achieved by harassing the police, who sooner or later were bound to open fire. Some of the members present were less than enthusiastic, but all indications of faintheartedness were speedily quashed from the chair. Oelssner terminated the conference by stating, contrary to the facts, that fighting had already begun and that it was now the duty of the party to increase the intensity of the struggle. The immediate objective was to arm the workers, then to capture political power.

During the session of the district executive at Halle came the first reports that the police occupation was already in progress. Another conference was called in Halle for March 20, this time by the regional executive, and all central German districts sent representatives who gave their individual situation reports. The conference was overcast by a cloud of deep depression. It was the general consensus that the spirit among the population was anything but revolutionary, and that artificial means would have to be used in order to bring matters to a head (um die Sache hochzubringen). Indeed, all was not well with the revolutionary spirit of the masses, which had figured so prominently in the calculations of the party leaders. The proletarians in Prussian Saxony, who according to subsequent Communist claims were so desperately in need of assistance, behaved initially with unforeseen timidity in the face of the Prussian police uniforms. Despite some ripples of discontent and attempts by agitators to stir up the workers and get them to stage walkouts, everything remained calm throughout March 19 and 20 (the latter being a Sunday) in the Eisleben area which had been the first to be occupied. Only on Monday, March 21, had agitation progressed sufficiently to encourage the Communist district executive of Mansfeld to call for a general strike, and on that day leaflets were distributed throughout the mining region which, in part, read as follows:

“Mansfeld workers! The reactionaries have carried out their threats and have turned your peaceful homes into a staging area for the White Guards. . . . They did not come with the ordinary weapons of the police forces but armed with machine guns and handgrenades . . . Mansfeld workers! Show that you are not slaves and use your power to repulse this onslaught. A general strike must be called. All wheels must stop turning . . . . Workers! you hold the power in your hands. Use it in proper time and be prepared for all eventualities (seid gewappnet fur alle Fälle].” The appeal was reproduced the same day in the Mansfelder Volkszeitung, the local Communist paper, and the strike began to spread, with moderate success, in the heart of this mining area. Yet outside of the immediate Mansfeld district most factories went on working, and there was still no sign of open violence.

Up to this point the Zentrale had been content to sit back and grind revolutionary tunes on the propaganda organ. But when the proclamation of the general strike failed to have the desired effect, Hugo Eberlein, who had recently been put in charge of the party’s military-political organization (MP-Apparat), was dispatched to central Germany on March 22. Eberlein was a Spartacist veteran who had participated in the founding of the KPD, and who in March 1919 represented the young party at the Founding Congress of the Communist International. He was a member of the Zentrale from the founding of the party up to the unification with the USPD, and it is conceivable that he was not elected into the Levi-Daumig Zentrale because of his delicate position as chief of the MP-Apparat. Eberlein enjoyed in party circles a reputation as an experienced saboteur, and was known among the rank and file as “Hugo mit der Zündschnur (Hugo with the fuse).”

As soon as Eberlein arrived in Halle he conferred with the local party functionaries. He told them that the Zentrale had ordered him to direct strategy in the region and to do his utmost to accelerate the pace of the projected operation. When some scepticism was ex pressed by two local leaders, Eberlein left no doubt that he intended to carry out the uprising under any circumstances. He rejected all talk of calling off the general strike, and then proceeded to develop his plans. It was essential, Eberlein argued, to win mass support, first in central Germany and ultimately in the rest of the Reich. Artificial means would have to be used to arouse the workers from their passive attitude. He suggested that trusted comrades were to commit acts of violence which could be blamed on the police—in this manner, even the most reluctant of workers would be provoked into action. But Eberlein’s fertile imagination provided a number of additional suggestions. He wanted to stage a mock-kidnapping of the two regional Communist leaders, Lemck and Bowitzki, who were nominally in charge of directing the Aktion. Other popular leaders should disappear for a day or two, only to re-emerge with fairy tales about how they had been liberated from the reactionaries. Another scheme was to blow up an ammunition train of the police and then to charge in the Klassenkampf, the Communist newspaper in Halle, that carelessness on the part of the reactionaries had ruined the homes of numerous workers, and had caused the death of hundreds of victims. Once it became known that the report was false, the paper could print a correction a few days later. Two more targets for Eberlein’s store of dynamite were an ammunition factory at Seesen, and a workers’ producers’ cooperative (Produktivgenos-senschaft) in Halle.

None of these projects was carried out successfully, although several abortive attempts were made to blow up both the ammunition factory and the producers’ cooperative. Eberlein’s reaction to the initial failure of the dynamiting exercises was a blast at the inefficiency of the local illegal apparatus which, he complained, did not even own a decent piece of fuse to do a reliable job. Yet before the day (March 23) was over, Eberlein’s tactics were largely overshadowed by the activities of a less sophisticated, albeit more renowned, revolutionary figure who had appeared in the Mansfeld district—Max Hoelz. Hoelz was no unknown to the revolutionary movement. He had first won prominence in 1918, when he organized the unemployed in his Saxon hometown of Falkenstein in the Voigtland during the revolution. His activism and initiative attracted the attention of the entire region at the time, and he won nationwide fame during the Kapp Putsch by his talented organization of workers’ brigades, which he led in guerilla warfare all over Saxony. In the course of the fighting he came into conflict with the leader of the Communist Chemnitz branch, Heinrich Brandler, who resented what he termed Hoelz’s undisciplined inroads on Brandler’s territory. The grudge continued, and after the Kapp Putsch Brandler had Hoelz expelled from the party, which he had joined in 1919. His expulsion from the KPD did not discourage Hoelz from continuing in his role of a German Robin Hood, a “condottiere with a social conscience nod the temperament of a rebel fighting for the poor and oppressed.”

When Hoelz learned on March 21 that a general strike had been called in the Mansfeld district, he left Berlin, where he had lived underground ever since the spring of 1920, and journeyed into the industrial region of Prussian Saxony. He arrived at Kloster Mansfeld late at night, but still in time to attend a meeting on the general strike. There was, as yet, no mention of armed insurrection. The situation changed on the following day, March 22, when walkouts increased in the Mansfeld-Eisleben mining district, and armed bands prevented non-striking mining crews from entering the pits. During the day Hoelz addressed strike meetings at Hettstedt, Mansfeld and Eisleben, and it was as a result of his Eisleben speech that the situation got out of hand. According to a Prussian police major, Hoelz spoke in support of the general strike, urged his audience to arm themselves, and allegedly incited them to beat up police patrols. His suggestion was followed immediately after the meeting was over, when a group of his listeners marched to Eisleben’s market square and attacked four policemen who were out shopping, armed only with dress bayonets. The policemen were rescued before long, but the incident encouraged many unruly elements in the neighborhood, and from the night of March 22-23 on the strike movement began to turn into an open, and spreading, insurrection. Incited by Hoelz and his “adjutant” Josef Schneider, the editor of the Mansfelder Volkszeitung, a growing number of persons among the local population provided themselves with rifles, machine guns, and large amounts of explosives, which were easily obtained in a mining area. Some of the weapons came from secret depots which dated from the days of the Kapp Putsch and its aftermath; others were either captured or stolen from the police. Hoelz then began to form shock troops. He recruited strikers and unemployed miners most of whom were in possession of arms, organized them into units, and then descended with his motley troops upon the region around Mansfeld, Eisleben, and Hettstedt. For the next ten days Hoelz’s “army” terrorized the countryside by arson, looting, bank robberies, and the dynamiting of buildings, trains, and other suitable targets. Aimless though most of these activities were, Hoelz nevertheless succeeded where the KPD, Eberlein’s exertions notwithstanding, had so far failed: only two days after he came to the region, Hoelz had transformed the strike movement into a bloody insurrection. 27 Drobnig, pp. 9-10. Hoelz has presented a different version of this incident. According to his account (pp. 139-140), he had only urged the workers to support the general strike. Trouble started when the police, following his Eisleben speech, arrested and maltreated several strikers who had attended the meeting. When their comrades tried to liberate them by force, fighting broke out. The incident convinced the workers and Hoelz that it was time to seize weapons and organize fighting units.

From March 23 on, the situation in central Germany was extremely confused. Although the strike was spreading, and resistance to Horsing’s police was gathering momentum, the SPD, Independents and unions continued their initial opposition to what they felt was an irresponsible Communist adventure, and made every effort to prevent the workers in Prussian Saxony and elsewhere in Germany from lending support to the movement. There was, moreover, little or no coordination among the various proletarian groups that participated in the insurrection. Communist headquarters at Halle lacked effective control over the operation as a whole, and in particular over developments in the vital mining district around Mansfeld, Hettstedt and Eisleben. Eberlein’s presence in Halle could not change this fact. He was given but lukewarm cooperation from the local party leaders, and most of the attempts to extend the scope of the uprising in accordance with Eberlein’s unorthodox directives were either bungled, or they actually backfired. For example, the repeated dynamiting and derailing of passenger trains alienated railroad personnel, whose support of the insurrection would have been of vital importance for its success.

Most of the actual fighting took place in the Mansfeld district, the heart of the insurgent region, where Hoelz and his guerilla bands wreaked havoc and stole the Communists’ thunder. Supported by scattered contingents from the KAPD, hordes of unemployed, and the inevitable sprinkling of undefinable drifters who participated in the uprising for reasons of their own, this latter-day Schinderhannes battled police and ransacked the countryside, all in the name of social justice. There was little system to his burning, dynamiting and plundering, but no one, least of all the local KPD, could control him or gain his cooperation. Stubborn and self-righteous, he did not accept advice, much less orders, from anyone. Whoever joined his forces became subject to his command: this happened to a few impatient hotheads from the KPD organization in Halle who, without authorization from headquarters, collected six thousand men during a street demonstration, marched them to the Mansfeld district, and there joined Hoelz.

Relations between KPD and KAPD were also poor during the entire course of the uprising. The radical KAPD men admired Hoelz and hardly disguised their contempt for the KPD. Hoelz rewarded this admiration by handing over to the war chest of the KAPD the money that his desperados robbed from the local banks, and this incurred the jealousy of the rival party. Lack of cooperation between the two Communist organizations was prominently displayed in the “defense” of the chemical works at Leuna, south of Merseburg. This large industrial complex, which employed roughly twenty thousand workers, would have been eminently suited as a strong. point for the entire insurrection, but the potential strength of the Leuna works was never effectively utilized. A mammoth protest meeting, attended by an alleged eighteen thousand employees, was held on March 21, and an action committee was elected. Two days later, the Leuna works joined the regional general strike. The majority of workers went home, either to stay there and await the resumption of work, or to join battle against the police. At Leuna proper, a garrison, consisting of an estimated two thousand armed strikers, barricaded themselves inside the works and prepared to defend the compound against a police assault. But the defenders were neither unified nor well organized. The action committee which had been elected on March 21 was dominated by KAPD men who quarrelled incessantly with their comrades from the KPD. No agreement was reached on the essential question of whether they should remain on the defensive, or take the initiative and partake in the regional fighting. A further reason for controversy was the problem of emergency maintenance of the plant’s most vital installations, a measure which the KAPD opposed. Mutual recriminations among the members of the action committee, coupled with the failure of KPD headquarters to maintain contact with the garrison, left Leuna an isolated, albeit armed, citadel.

Thus Hoelz’s excessive violence, the ineffective efforts of the KPD to gain control over the movement, and the factional rivalries, all combined to jeopardize the chances of the uprising from the outset. Yet, for a few days after the outbreak of fighting, the fate of the insurrection hung in the balance; success or failure depended on whether the government could suppress it before the Zentrale extended it beyond central Germany.

On March 23, news of the radical turn of events in Prussian Saxony reached Berlin and was discussed by the cabinets of the Reich and Prussia. Additional bad news came from Hamburg, where labor trouble had erupted the same day, and the authorities had to find means of protecting the country from possible civil war. After some deliberations, which concentrated on central Germany, it was decided not to declare martial law in the insurgent region unless such a step should become unavoidable. Probably at this point, or very shortly thereafter, a decision was reached to rely primarily on police forces, but to keep several army units in readiness. They were to be employed only in case of emergency. The question of whether these Reichswehr contingents would then come under the command of the police or would act independently was temporarily left open.

Meanwhile, disturbing reports continued to reach the capital. Toward evening it became known that fighting around Eisleben had grown more intense, that the Leuna works had been hit by a general strike, and that the insurrection threatened to spread to the state of Saxony, where bomb plots against law courts had been discovered in Dresden, Leipzig and Freiberg. In Halle, where Communist headquarters in charge of regional operations was located, no strikes had developed so far, but the insurgents had distributed pamphlets with the following text: “On to the barricades, long live Soviet Russia! The revolutionary Ruhr district has been cut off by imperialist designs of the Entente powers, and central Germany has therefore become the heart of the German revolution. On to the barricades! Conquer the world!”

Equally somber was the news from Hamburg, where the senate had imposed a state of emergency that day at 4 P.M. Under the impact of these reports, President Ebert became convinced that drastic measures were needed. During the night he consulted with federal and Prussian officials and, still shying away from a declaration of martial law, proclaimed on the morning of March 24 a non-military state of emergency for Hamburg and the province of Saxony. Horsing was appointed (federal) civilian commissioner and entrusted with the execution of all measures which he deemed necessary for the restoration of order.

As the government was trying to find ways and means to quell the insurrection, the Communist Zentrale in Berlin made every effort to spread it beyond central Germany. Placards all over Berlin announced that in Prussian Saxony the (legal) factory councils had been replaced by revolutionary workers’ councils, an example which proletarians everywhere should follow. On March 22, the morning edition of the Rote Fahne called for mass demonstrations, to be held in the evening of March 24 at four points in the capital. The demonstrators were urged to protest Horsing’s police action and to express their solidarity with their comrades in central Germany. To add some local color, the Berlin workers were also asked to register a protest against the arrest of Ernst Reuter-Friesland by the police. In the course of the day the Zentrale changed its mind and scheduled the demonstrations for the same evening, March 22, presumably because somebody had realized that to hold a mass meeting on Maundy Thursday, shortly before the Easter holidays, was inpropitious. Despite the short notice the meetings were well attended, but revolutionary fervor was strikingly absent. Some wind had been taken out of the Communist sails when Reuter-Friesland was released shortly before the demonstrations were held—after he had spent two days in jail the police revealed that his arrest was a case of mistaken identity. His return deprived the Zentrale of an effective local slogan and made it necessary to concentrate solely on central Germany. Party spokesmen addressing the crowds urged all workers to stand by and be prepared to come to the aid of their imperiled comrades. The audience listened attentively but without any display of emotion. When some hecklers from the KAPD registered their dissatisfaction with mere preparedness, and demanded that a general strikc be called at once, they elicited hardly any response.

The evening edition of the Rote Fahne that day was likewise devoted to the situation in central Germany. The editorial emphasized, with unconcealed gratification, that this was the third time since the end of the war that the workers in the Mansfeld district were attracting everyone’s attention. This time, however, neither Horsing nor the Orgesch would succeed in provoking the workers to dissipate their collective strength in isolated skirmishes. Nor would the German labor movement as a whole be misled again by so-called anti-putschist phrases which had bred so much cowardice and passiveness in the past. The general strike called by the workers in central Germany was no putsch. It was the beginning of a collective action (Gesamtaktion), essential for the German proletariat if it was to prevent in time the disastrous consequences of the inevitable collapse of capitalism. The editorial ended with the usual revolutionary ruffles and flourishes: “The proletarian battalions in central Germany stand ready to fight. German workers, show your revolutionary solidarity, join your brothers, cast off your indifference, get rid of your cowardly and treacherous leaders, and fight—or you will perish!”

Despite all inflammatory slogans the Berliners did not stir. Not even the Communist-sponsored mass demonstrations elicited as yet more than polite curiosity, mixed with the traditional scepticism for which the population of the capital was famous. But on March 23 the Zentrale was compensated by encouraging news from Hamburg, Germany’s second largest city, where the propaganda efforts of the Red press had fallen on fruitful ground. Widespread unemployment had created a dangerous atmosphere which the KPD skillfully exploited. Communist agitation became noticeable in Hamburg on March 22. On that day the city’s Communist leaders, Ernst Thalmann among them, held a conference in the business office of the KPD in order to determine how the Hamburg workers could render immediate assistance to the proletariat in central Germany. It was resolved, among other things, to make use of the unemployed in any mass actions taken.

The local party organ, Hamburger Volksblatt, set the tone in an impassioned report on events in central Germany, and called on the workers of Hamburg to prove their solidarity with their comrades in Prussian Saxony. The paper demanded that the government disarm the Orgesch, arm the proletarians, create jobs for the unemployed, and call off Horsing’s police action in central Germany. The paper threatened a general strike by Hamburg’s proletariat if the government should reject these demands. In order to lend some substance to their threats, the Communists scheduled a protest meeting for March 23 at the Heiligengeistfeld, a fairground not far from the waterfront.

Radical Communist agitation proved more effective in “red” Hamburg than in Berlin. On the morning of March 23rd a huge crowd of unemployed, led by the KPD, marched to the waterfront and invaded three of Hamburg’s largest shipyards, Blohm & Voss, Vulkan, and Deutsche Werft. The plant managers tried to order the crowd off the premises by threatening to close down the yards unless they were obeyed. The unemployed shouted back that they wanted jobs and urged the workers in the shipyards to support them. Support was not forthcoming, nor could it have been expected, since most shipyard workers were loyal supporters of the Social Democratic Party. The issue did not long remain in doubt, Arguments led to threats of force, and strong-arm tactics eventually succeeded in dislodging from the yards all opponents of the Communist-led mob. The managers retreated along with thy Socialist personnel, and the invaders occupied the premises. Once in possession, they elected ad hoc action committees and hoisted red flags The KPD had attained its objective of infusing revolutionary spirit into a section of Hamburg’s labor movement, although this done at the expense of unemployed desperate enough to act as shock troops for the “revolutionary vanguard.” Nothing constructivc could have been accomplished in the long run by the forceful occupation of the yards, as the Communist leaders undoubtedly knew.

And the occupation proved of short duration. The KPD had issued instructions to keep the yards occupied, but the crowd within the gates, the group which occupied the Vulkan wharf, left the yards in the early afternoon perhaps through some misunderstanding, and marched into the city, presumably to attend the protest demonstration at the Heiligengeistfeld which was scheduled for 5 P.M. They were met by police forces, who tried to break up the formation, and after heavy street fighting succeeded in dispersing the would-be demonstrators, including those who had already reached the Heiligengeistfeld. The police then surrounded the wharves of Blohm & Voss, firing into courtyards and buildings. By early afternoon the shipyards were cleared, but Hamburg remained dangerously restless. Street battles between unemployed and police continued throughout the rest of the day in various parts of the city, and at 4 P.M. the senate proclaimed a state of emergency, which was given full backing the following day by the federal emergency decree of President Ebert.”

The president’s proclamation of a state of emergency for Hamburg and Prussian Saxony on March 24 posed a challenge to the Communist leaders which they decided to meet head on. With the Easter holidays just ahead, the Zentrale had to do something to sustain the movement and, if possible, to accelerate its intensity. For this purpose the KPD called a nationwide general strike on March 24, urged the proletarians to seize arms, to get organized, and to join the struggle against the counterrevolution. It was a desperate step, for all plants closed down anyway from Good Friday (March 25) through Easter Monday. But the response to the Communist appeal was negligible. Both Socialist parties countered the call for a general strike by instructing their members to ignore it. In Berlin, the seat of the Zentrale, the strike movement was a total fiasco. Most workers reported to their jobs on the 24th, and only a few factories were idle, despite the aforementioned attempts by the KPD to enforce the shutdown of working plants through attempted invasions by unemployed. These methods aroused sharp criticism even from within the party. Ernst Daumig, for instance, sent a furious letter to the Zentrale in which he protested the practice of pitting proletarians against proletarians. Equally indignant were the party officials in charge of trade-union activities, who complained that the tactics employed by the Zentrale were wrecking their influence within the unions.

The Zentrale scored slightly better in the Ruhr region and the Rhineland. In the Communist Ruhrecho, and through handbills, the regional KPD organizations followed the lead of the Zentrale by exhorting the population to join the general strike. Throughout March 24 and 25, the Communists kept up an untiring propaganda barrage by calling for demonstrations, for support of the embattled comrades in Prussian Saxony, and for support of the general strike. Party leaders recommended “Easter promenades” through the streets, especially in the working-class districts. They hoped in this way to keep the issue alive over the holidays, and to win support from non-Communist labor for the intensified struggle which they expected in the days ahead. On Easter Monday, armed clashes betwcen workers and police occurred in Essen. During the next few days similar incidents took place in a number of mines, and in nearly every sizable city of the Rhenish region. Only a fraction of the population, however, supported the general strike, most walkouts that were staged were of short duration and, by March 30, order was restored to the region except for some isolated pockets. Germany’s largest industrial area, traditionally a radical stronghold, had proven of little help to the KPD.

Equally unspectacular was the impact of the insurrection on southern Germany, the northern plains, and the East Elbian region. Only token strikes and isolated minor riots briefly disturbed these otherwise quiet areas. Thus, in the last analysis, success or failure of the uprising hinged on developments in central Germany, where the fighting had taken a more violent turn after President Ebert’s decree had become known. Because Horsing’s police forces were restricted in numbers, and the Reichswehr units continued to stand by without participating in the fighting, the operations of the government proceeded at first at a rather slow pace. On March 24, insurgent forces held Eisleben and Hettstedt against the police, and Halle and Merseburg were affected by the strike movement. There were reports that in the area around Leuna, now occupied by armed strikers, every male between the ages of fifteen and fifty had become eligible for “conscription” into the ranks of the insurgent proletariat, and that compulsion was used on some occasions to enlist unwilling recruits.”

Heavy fighting continued for several days. On March 25, government forces gradually won the upper hand in Eisleben and Hettstedt, and on the following day took Mansfeld, Helbra, and Sangershausen. At the same time, however, they suffered some setbacks when new riots broke out in such peripherally situated towns as Wittenberg, Delitzsch, and Bitterfeld, which until then had not been affected by the insurrection.

On Good Friday, some confusion was thrown into the ranks of the insurgents when rumors circulated throughout the region that Horsing had offered immunity from punishment to anyone willing to surrender and to hand his weapons over to the police. Whatever substance there may have been to this rumor, it was quickly quashed. On March 26, Severing sent a telegraphic order to the government forces, forbidding all negotiations with the fighting workers, and instructing the police to proceed without leniency.”

The attitude of Communist headquarters in Halle was equally uncompromising, as was evident from the instructions issued by this body on Good Friday: “Provocation at any price! Overturn street cars, throw handgrenades . . . !” But in spite of these desperate exhortations, from March 27 on the Aktion turned gradually into a rout, as bands of insurgents, varying in size, engaged in desperate and usually fruitless rearguard skirmishes with the police. Hoelz’s account of his own movements during these last hectic days constitutes very representative description of the collapse. He and some of his men spent Easter Sunday (March 27) at Schraplau, a small town roughly ten kilometers southeast of Eisleben, where he paid his “troops” for the first time. Hoelz has recounted this momentous occasion with customary modesty: “The finance and commissariat department of the troops was entrusted with the payment. Each received fifty marks.” He does not indicate the source of the money.

At Schraplau he met Lemck (Hoelz calls him “Lembke”) and Bowitzki, nominally the Aufstandsleiter appointed by the KPD, who had, however, lost contact with their own headquarters. Hoelz planned originally to march to the Leuna works and reinforce the garrison there, but changed his mind and set out for Halle, by way of Ammendorf. He intended to launch a surprise attack upon Halle in the hope of capturing some artillery pieces. In the night from March 27 to 28, Hoelz led his men in a belated Easter parade from Schraplau to Ammendorf, a distance of roughly twenty-five kilometers. On the following day he advanced on Halle with two thousand men, but ran into police who surrounded his force before he reached the city. Hoelz sent Lemck to the garrison of the Leuna works with the urgent request for immediate reinforcements, and ordered his men to hold the line until the expected relief arrived. It never came, although Lemck returned, after two hours, in a car with one thousand rounds of ammunition and the promise of speedy aid from Leuna. After waiting in vain for some time, while the police were tightening their ring, Hoelz’s troops began to disperse in an effort to escape from the trap before it was too late. In the ensuing confusion Hoelz became separated from his men and hid in a mine-shaft. When he emerged from his concealment, his troops had disappeared. During the next few days he wandered north, sometimes alone, sometimes accompanying small groups of stragglers and participating in running fights with police, in the hope of eventually reaching Mansfeld where he expected to find the remnants of his troops. But he never reached his destination. On March 31 he found himself in Beesenstedt, a village halfway between Halle and Mansfeld, and here on April 1 he joined in the last sizable battle of the insurrection. The outcome of the workers’ last stand at Beesenstedt was never in doubt. Hoelz was captured after the police closed in, but got away two days later when he successfully fooled his captors with false identity papers and the brazen tale that he was unjustly arrested while peacefully buying eggs from a local farmer. With a price of 185,000 marks on his head, Hoelz made his way to Berlin where he was soon arrested, tried, and sentenced to life imprisonment. His revolutionary career was over for good when the March uprising, in which he had played such a prominent part, collapsed before his eyes.

The backbone of the insurrection as a whole was, in effect, broken several days before Hoelz saw its last dying spasms at Beesenstedt. Hamburg was the first area where order was restored. The riots which had broken out on March 23 were quelled three days later, and by March 29 most shipyards began to resume full operations. On that day the insurrection suffered another blow, as police forces, reinforced by one battalion of Reichswehr artillery, captured the Leuna works and took most of the defenders prisoner. Although Leuna had played a rather undistinguished role in the regional struggle, the mere fact that the famous chemical works were in the hands of proletarian fighters had been played up for days by the Communist press as a symbol of revolutionary triumph.

With Hamburg pacified, the rumblings in the Rhineland subsiding, and the Leuna works captured, the Zentrale could see the handwriting on the wall. Everywhere the movement was collapsing; everywhere the Communists found themselves isolated. The majority of German labor followed the lead of the two Socialist parties and the trade-unions, whose spokesmen were denouncing the putschism of the KPD in no uncertain terms. In view of these circumstances the Zentrale called a high-level conference on March 30 to deliberate on whether or not to continue the uprising. An emissary, just arrived from the Rhineland, reported on the situation in western Germany and demanded that the Aktion be called off at once. His bleak account prompted four leading members of the Zentrale, Brandler, Heckert, Thalheimer and Stoecker, to speak in favor of ending the fighting, and one unidentified member sighed that he wished the police in Berlin would lose their nerve and start antagonizing the workers. The pessimistic mood which permeated the conference was dispelled, however, when another participant in the conference rose, banged the table, and asserted that contrary to prevailing opinion the uprising was still gathering force and should be allowed to continue, at least for a few more days. Clinging tenaciously to the belief that the tide might yet turn in favor of the Communists, the speaker cited a number of encouraging examples from various parts of the country in support of his position. Although we know no further details of the ensuing debate, its outcome was a resolution to hold out for another two or three days. During this period of grace the Zentrale was to prepare a suitable plan for ending the struggle as uniformly as possible.

Thus, a day after Leuna was taken and Horsing’s control of the insurgent region virtually assured, the Zentrale made a last desperate effort, against the better judgment of some of its members, to postpone the inevitable. On the same day the Rote Fahne appealed once more to the German workers to support the uprising. But in doing so, the paper hurled one vituperative insult after another against the leaders of the same Social Democratic and Independent rank and file whom the Communists were trying so hard to win as allies. All the setbacks which the Communists had just suffered the Rote Fahne blamed on the Socialist leadership, and the paper ended the appeal on a note of “revolutionary solidarity” with “all workers.” Finally, the attempt to win friends was topped by the last sentence of the editorial which appeared in the same issue of the paper: “Shame [Schmach und Schande] upon the worker who at this moment still stands aside; shame upon the worker who still does not know where his place is.”

The decision to prolong needlessly the agony of those who did the fighting, taken by a few party functionaries in Berlin, introduced to the KPD a pattern of thinking which in the years ahead was to become primary law for over one-third of the world’s population: the individual is nothing, the party everything. “For the movement was without scruples,” writes Arthur Koestler in Darkness at Noon, “she rolled toward her goal unconcernedly and deposed the corpses of the drowned in the windings of her course.” But the proletarians who in March 1921 manned picket lines, were wounded or killed, or lost their jobs, did not realize that in the eyes of their leaders they were expendable. The rank and file, whether party members or sympathizers, knew nothing of Comrade Bela Kun. They did not know that Brandler’s theory about an existing revolutionary situation had been imparted to him by a few ill-informed and reckless individuals. The rank and file joined in the insurrection because their press told them that Horsing had attacked the German workers; that they must show their solidarity with their brothers in Mansfeld and Eisleben; that the Orgesch was about to slaughter the “defenseless” workers; and that the capitalists everywhere were plotting a new war for which the proletariat would have to foot the bill. Deceived and poorly led, they fought and died for the most part in good faith, the victims of what Levi came to call the “greatest Bakunist putsch in history.”

For two more days, following the conference of March 30, the Zentrale waited in vain for a miracle. Rumors of growing unrest among the farm workers of three eastern provinces briefly rekindled sparks of hope, only to prove another disappointment when no uprisings materialized. On April 1, even the most stubborn diehards among the Communist leaders had to recognize the futility of further waiting, and the Zentrale resolved to end the insurrection by calling off the “nationwide” general strike. The proclamation by which this decision was communicated to the party at large blamed the defeat on the counterrevolutionaries, ranging from Ludendorff to Hilferding, and culminated in the promise that the Communists would fight another day: “The strike and the insurrectionist movement have been crushed. Hundreds of proletarians lie murdered on the battlefield. Thousands remain out on the streets, punished by their employers. . .” Despite the defeat, however, the party’s spirit had remained unshaken, and its members were looking forward to new challenges ahead. “Let us not waste time. Close ranks for the coming fight. Be prepared. Soon we shall hear again: tighten chin straps! Forward, against the enemies. . . . Long live the German Revolution! Long live the World Revolution!” On this note of defiance the Marz Aktion ended. In view of the facts, the self-righteous attitude which the Zentrale assumed in blaming others for the failure of the uprising was, to say  the least, inappropriate. From the moment of its conception until the final call for retreat on April 1, the entire operation, with its grandiose scheme of capturing the power of state, was conducted by a few Communist leaders who approached it in a spirit of recklessness and irresponsibility. Without a careful appraisal of the situation, these men proceeded from the premise that a revolutionary opportunity was shaping up and should be exploited by the party. This was a misconception, as no less a person than Trotsky was to tell them later on at the Third World Congress. Based, as it was, on a contrived analysis of the national and international situations, the project was then pushed down the throats of an unenthusiastic and sceptical assembly of party officials who were left with the impression that the enterprise in question would be undertaken only when the time was ripe, and in any case not prior to the Easter holidays. To all appearances, this original plan was to be adhered to even in the face of Horsing’s announcement that a police occupation of Prussian Saxony was impending. But appearances proved deceptive. The decision to postpone any overt action by the KPD until after Easter was quietly dropped in favor of interference in central Germany, and strenuous efforts were made to utilize Horsing’s so-called provocation for triggering all the other anticipated crises, mostly mythical in nature, on which the original plans had been based. There is good reason to assume that the party reversed itself on this issue primarily because of Kun, and because of the support he received from those members of the Zentrale who had advocated a more aggressive course even before the arrival of the Comintern agents. But neither Kun nor his German disciples took the trouble to assess the chances for a Communist-led revolution at this particular moment; nor did they give any serious consideration to the party’s state of preparedness, an omission which in view of the stakes involved bordered on criminal neglect. Impulsive, ignorant of the true political situation, and without a clear conception of the risks involved, the Communist leaders plunged the party into a disastrous adventure.

Everything went wrong from the beginning. Contrary to later legends, the Mansfeld workers and miners did not rise “spontaneously” after Horsing’s appeal had been published, not even when local Communist organization proclaimed a general strike. It took Max Hoelz with his revolutionary experience and his personal magnetism to get the workers to move. But neither Hoelz’s ends nor Hoelz’s means were those of the KPD. He came to the Mansfeld region on his own initiative, because he wanted to render whatever assistance he could to the local proletariat. Hoelz had his own ideas on how to be helpful, and he did not want anyone to tell him what to do. Once he was on the scene, the old revolutionary zeal carried him away, and he succeeded in transforming what began as a strike movement into a bloody orgy. The haphazardly recruited insurgent bands under his command terrorized the mining district without a clearly defined aim, without a strategic plan, and with a minimum of discipline.

It was bad enough for the KPD that Hoelz usurped control and leadership over the mounting insurrectionist movement. But in addition to this sizable handicap, the party’s own organizational efficiency proved none too adequate. Confusion and poor coordination bedeviled operations from the first to the last day. Communications between the Zentrale in Berlin and the party organizations in central Germany were never effectively established. Despite the presence of Hugo Eberlein, Communist headquarters in Halle dragged its feet. Chemnitz waited for Halle to take decisive measures, Leipzig felt altogether too weak to do anything, and other local KPD organizations wanted to be assured of a successful outcome before taking any initiative. And so it went everywhere.

The party’s failure to provide adequate direction and purpose to the insurrection in central Germany was also evident in other trouble spots in the nation. The sporadic strikes in the Rhineland and Ruhr, the protest demonstrations in south Germany and Berlin, the unrest among East Elbian farm laborers, and the abortive riots in Hamburg remained isolated and relatively ineffective incidents. Although they all possessed some nuisance value, they never developed into he strong, coordinated revolutionary movement on which the initial plans of the Zentrale were based. But the most decisive factor in the defeat of the March uprising was the lack of mass support. The KPD proved incapable of rallying the millions of non-Communist workers behind the revolutionary banner. “The March struggle broke on the passiveness of the German workers,” a Communist leader subsequently complained; he might have added that such passiveness was inevitable because no genuine revolutionary situation existed on a nationwide basis. Whatever the party did to create such a situation, whether by “artificial means” or by clumsy and tactless propaganda, only repelled the majority of German workers, and without their backing and participation any revolution in Germany was doomed from the outset. In short, the March uprising was an undeniable fiasco, the aftereffects of which were to haunt the KPD for the remainder of the year.

 

June 12, 2018

Werner Angress’s “Stillborn Revolution: the Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923” (part one)

Filed under: Werner Angress — louisproyect @ 8:09 pm

A couple of years before an English-language version of Pierre Broue’s “History of the German Revolution 1917-1923” was published, I was motivated to find out about this period since I was fairly sure that the catastrophe in Germany not only led to the rise of Nazism but to the “Leninist” model adopted by the entire left.

In searching for a scholarly account of the defeat of the German revolution, I turned to a book by Werner Angress titled “Stillborn Revolution: the Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923” that gave me the details I needed to flesh out an article written in the early 2000s titled “The Comintern and the German Communist Party”, which covered Paul Levi’s opposition to the insane ultraleft March Action of 1921 as well as another fiasco two years later that was orchestrated by Gregory Zinoviev. When Zinoviev’s meddling in the German class struggle damaged his reputation almost beyond repair, he sought to keep a lid on discontent in the world Communist movement by carrying out a “Bolshevization” turn in 1924 that codified a rigid “democratic centralist” method of functioning that has led to sect and cult formations everywhere it has been followed. To show you how universal it became, James P. Cannon voted enthusiastically for the turn and even after he became a Trotskyist, he never abandoned this dogmatic version of Bolshevik practice. Neither did Trotsky, for that matter.

Following the release of Broue’s book, the name of Paul Levi became well-known on the left and was invoked by Marxist scholars grappling with the problem of sectarianism. This matter came up recently when John Riddell, a major scholar of the early Comintern, posted an article by Paul Le Blanc on his blog that originally appeared in Historical Materialism as a critique of Antonio Negri who had written a broadside against Leninist parties on the basis that Zinoviev’s “Bolshevization” made them “cut some vanguards off at the legs and made it impossible for them to make themselves adequate to the particular situations they were meant to intervene in.” I tend to agree with this even though I generally regard Negri as even more foolish than those responsible for the March Action. In fact, it was his support for Italian “autonomists”, who were in the habit of breaking the bones of professors who they disagreed with politically, that helped to destroy the Italian left.

Like Broue, Le Blanc believes that the March Action and the 1923 abortive revolution that Zinoviev tried to direct from afar were mistakes but credits the sublime wisdom of Lenin for trying to triangulate between Levi, who had been expelled from the German CP for his public critique of the March Action, and the ultraleft CP leadership and the Comintern emissaries (Bela Kun and Karl Radek) who were their partners in political mayhem. Le Blanc puts it this way:

This deference to a majority in the German Communist leadership actually reflects democratic rather than bureaucratic tendencies in the early Comintern (even though Lenin agreed with Levi’s critique of what the hotheads had done).

I have a different take on this entirely. There was never anything “democratic” about the early Comintern. As I point out in my article, Leon Trotsky gave instructions to the French CP about what should go on the front page of their newspaper and even cajoled the feckless German CP leader Heinrich Brandler into scheduling the misbegotten 1923 uprising to coincide with the anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

I have no problem recommending Pierre Broue even though he comes at things from the same angle as Paul Le Blanc. Broue, who died in 2005, was a member of Pierre Lambert’s movement and could obviously not go so far as to repudiate the Comintern. For the ISO, there is much less of that kind of baggage since they broke from Tony Cliff’s mother ship.

Since Le Blanc’s article generated a lot of very good discussion on FB and since the role of Paul Levi continues to be a hot topic on the left, I am starting a series of posts that are drawn from the chapters in Werner Angress’s books that deal directly with the March Action and Zinoviev’s 1923 adventure.

A word or two about Angress is in order. He died in 2010 at the age of 80. He and his family left Germany in 1937, barely escaping the holocaust. He was drafted in 1941 and ended up serving with the “Ritchie Boys”, a group of German-speaking paratroopers who fought behind German lines just like in “Inglourious Basterds”. After the war, Angress became a history professor and taught at SUNY, Stony Brook for 25 years.

Below you will see the chapter titled “The Genesis of the March Uprising” sans footnotes. They would be too laborious to reproduce and are not necessary for understanding the analysis. The word Zentrale appears repeatedly. It is a reference to the KPD’s (German CP) Central Committee that Levi had resigned from after he and his supporters lost a vote involving who to support in the Italian CP. Except for the fact that those who had a majority on the Zentrale were bonkers ultra-left, it is not worth getting into.


Any inquiry into the origins of the series of events, which in Communist parlance has become known as the into the origins of that complex series of events known as the März Aktion of 1921 must take into account the KPD’s rise to the status of mass party. Although its estimated importance may have been unrealistic when compared to the overwhelming labor support that was given to the two Socialist parties, the mere concept of being an organization which claimed half a million members created in party ranks a confident and optimistic mood. Veteran Spartacists and newcomers from the Independents alike expected the party to follow henceforth a more dynamic, more activist course, and watched eagerly for any indication of growing Communist influence on the German domestic scene. Electoral gains In Prussia, Lippe-Detmold, Hamburg, and even an increased Communist vote in union elections of the Berlin woodworkers and railway workers were interpreted as signs of mounting party strength. The buoyant spirit of the rank and file was in sharp contrast to the continued cautious policies of Levi. The result was a progressive dissatisfaction with the Zentrale among the party membership, a development which in the weeks following the unification congress of December 20 led to an increase of independent activities on the part of local Communist organizations. By far the most serious effect of this trend was an increase in sporadic underground work.

It had been resolved at the Second World Congress of the Communist International that all Communist parties were immediately to form “illegal organizations . . . for the purpose of carrying out systematic underground work. . . .” This was presented as a defensive measure made necessary by reactionary persecutions of Communists everywhere. Underground organizations for illegal political work had existed in Germany ever since the war years, but they had originated with the Revolutionary Shop Steward movement, not with the Spartacists. In the summer of 1918 the Shop Stewards had come under the leadership of Ernst Daumig, who was then still a member of the Independent Social Democratic Party. The two organizations had an informal and non-committal relationship. The Revolutionary Shop Stewards were the earliest advocates of a system of workers’ councils, and in November 1918 were far more influential in creating them than were the Spartacists. Even before the revolution broke out they had begun to buy weapons and to form secret military detachments, referred to as Der Apparat ( the apparatus) and directed by Daumig in close cooperation with two other Shop Steward leaders, Emil Barth and Richard Muller. Der Apparat formed the model for future Communist underground organizations. After the November revolution and the founding of the KPD, such Communist underground organizations sprang up haphazardly throughout Germany but remained without effective coordination and control from the Zentrale in Berlin. During the proletarian uprising in the Ruhr region in March and April 1920, the police discovered in several local party offices blueprints for a red army and other documents pertaining to Communist military plans. Whether the organizations responsible for these materials were offshoots of the old Daumig apparatus, or whether they were the more recent creations of local KPD cells is impossible to say. But on no occasion between 1918 and 1920 was the role of Communist underground organizations of vital importance, because, lacking central direction, they were weak and ineffective

Communist underground work intensified after unification with the left-wing Independents. Two principal illegal “Apparate” were created prior to 1921, an N-group (Nachrichtenapparat) for intelligence work, and an M-group (Militarapparat) intended to train cadres of Communist fighters. Both groups had the additional mission of maintaining liaison with Russian agents passing illegally through Germany. The formation of these groups was in accord-ance with the directives of the Second World Congress, which the party was obligated to obey. There is no indication, however, that they functioned efficiently, or that they were effectively supervised and coordinated by the Zentrale while Levi was still its chairman. Moreover, basic disagreement existed between the Zentrale and the party’s underground on what the functions of the illegal groups were to be. The latter stressed the need for storing weapons and ammunition for future use, while the Zentrale tried to divert the conspiratorial ambitions of the would-be underground fighters into relatively harmless channels. This was done by forming them into study groups on military theory and by using them as guards at party meetings. But it was in the nature of the situation that the restraining efforts made by the leadership met with only limited success. Local Communist underground organizations frequently acted on their own initiative and, as was inevitable, incidents occurred which aroused the suspicion of the German authorities that the KPD was secretly but actively preparing for revolution. On January 19, 1921, Prussian police raided Communist offices in Essen, Dusseldorf, Elberfeld, and Luenen, near Dortmund, arested a number of Communist leaders, and confiscated party files.

On the basis of what Dr. Robert Weismann, Prussian State Commissioner for Safeguarding Public Security, termed “partial confessions,” and after an examination of the captured material, Weismann reported to his superiors that he had discovered evidence for the existence of a red army. Its headquarters, the report said, was in Berlin, and several subordinate command posts (Kommandobe-horden) were in western and central Germany. Weismann claimed to have found proof beyond doubt that the organization was designed to overthrow, by force, government and constitution: its ultimate objective was to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat. On February 3, 1921, State Commissioner Dr. Weismann made another discovery. This one involved the Soviet Mission in Berlin, headed by Victor Kopp. It appears that staff members of this mission were engaged in a series of occupations totally unconnected with their official duty of negotiating with the Germans for the exchange and repatriation of prisoners of war. A number of copied documents, which had found their way into Weismann’s office, contained strong indications that the Soviet Mission was involved in smuggling arms and explosives, furthering Communist propaganda, and financing Communist underground activities in Germany and other parts of Europe. Later in the month, raids on Communist party offices in Magdeburg, Stendal, and Frankfurt am Main led to the arrest of several local KPD functionaries. Dynamite, arms, and other military equipment had been found.

Alarmed by these ominous discoveries, a number of German, and particularly Prussian officials became firmly convinced that the KPD was preparing for an uprising sometime in the spring. Throughout the first two months of 1921, rumors of a red underground army caused particular concern in official quarters. State Commissioner Weismann maintained in his report of January 20 that the KPD was directly supporting the formation of such an army. His assertion was based on documents found during raids on the party offices in the Rhineland. But either because the evidence proved too inconclusive, or because the Zentrale habitually (and perhaps not always untruthfully) denied all knowledge of these uncovered plots, Weismann refrained from taking statewide action against the party as a whole. He continued instead to rely on preventive measures, keeping the party’s activities under constant surveillance in the expectation that sooner or later local organizations would become careless enough to lay themselves open to police raids. Thus, despite their suspicions of Communist intentions, the authorities took no steps to arrest the Zentrale. Levi was allowed to travel abroad to attend the Leghorn conference and, understandably enough, nothing was done about the delicate problem posed by Victor Kopp’s Soviet Mission. How correct were the appraisals concerning the threat of an armed Communist insurrection that were voiced by various German officials early in 1921? Ironically enough, no specific plans for such an uprising existed prior to March of that year; and when the uprising did occur, unprepared, improvised, and absolutely unorganized, no red army materialized even in central Germany, the heart of the insurgent region. This is not to say that the KPD was a peaceful club. Nor does it mean that among the German Communists there were not some who seriously advocated a revolutionary offensive at the earliest possible opportunity. But dedication to the principle of revolution and actual preparation for such an event are not the same, and while the KPD never denied that revolution was its ultimate aim, no practical measures to implement it seem to have been taken by the Zentrale, certainly not while Levi was still its chairman. The plots which the German authorities discovered during January and February were examples of the same naïve and irresponsible “putschist” attitude which since the days of Luxemburg and Liebknecht had made it so hard for the party leadership to control the radical elements, especially on the local level. Moreover, the tendency to indulge in cloak and dagger games was hard to block after the ECCI had made underground work by all Communist parties mandatory. But the government officials who sounded the alarm and predicted bloodshed in the near future can hardly be blamed for being misled by overenthusiastic Communist busybodies. Only when the insurrection finally came, at Easter, and apparently justified the most dire predictions of the German security agencies, did it become evident that the KPD had acted on impulse and faith, without benefit of either organization or preparation.

The various steps which led to the March uprising are even today a matter of controversy. Whoever wants to reconstruct the complex and involved circumstances must take into consideration that both the Communists and the various government representatives have tried to obscure many of the issues in their respective accounts. To this must be added that official Communist interpretation moved through several phases before the final version was adopted at the Third Congress of the Communist International in the summer of 1921. According to this version, which is still upheld today, the March uprising was the result of calculated provocation of the workers by the Prussian government. Because it contained a few grains of truth, this formula proved to be the most feasible way in which a number of very inconvenient facts could be left unexplained in official Communist annals, past and present.

The key factor that made a Communist insurrection possible in the first place was the change in leadership of the Zentrale. Heinrich Brandler, the new chairman, was a simple and pedestrian man whose intellectual qualities were overshadowed by most of his more sophisticated colleagues, especially Ernst Meyer, Paul Frolich, and August Thalheimer. Levi had led the party without paying too much attention to views which did not coincide with his, thereby alienating large segments of the party, but Brandler went to the other extreme and too often accepted the opinions of others as his own. He had proved his mettle in the past in trade-union work, and during the proletarian uprisings that followed in the wake of the Kapp Putsch he acted as a capable though cautious commander of the armed Saxon workers. But now he had assumed a much greater responsibility, ant he was to show before long how difficult it was to live up to it.

It soon became apparent that the switch in the Communist high command caused a great deal of consternation within the party. Although Levi had been a controversial figure from the first to the last day that he served as chairman of the Zentrale, he still commanded the allegiance of many party members who saw in him the heir and disciple of Rosa Luxemburg, and who respected his ability even when they did not care for his personality. The fact that Zetkin, Brass, Daumig, and Hoffmann, some of them old war-horses who had won renown in the prewar SPD, had declared their solidarity with Levi created additional unrest and uncertainty in party circles. Thus the new Brandler Zentrale faced a difficult situation from the start. On the one hand Moscow, where Levi’s cavalier attitude toward revolution had incurred strong disapproval, wanted the German party to adopt a more vigorous policy, although what exactly was expected of the KPD remained for the time being uncertain. On the other hand, the resignation of the Levi faction had aggravated rather than eliminated the internal crisis of the party. How could Moscow’s expectations be met when the Communist leadership was divided on the principal issue of the day, the prospects for a proletarian revolution in Germany? On this point all factions disagreed. While it was generally recognized, in a vague and hazy way, that the Communists as the vanguard of the proletariat had to win influence over the masses in order to lead them to victory, the propitiousness of the moment as well as the tactics to be applied toward this end remained constant subjects of controversy among the party hierarchy.

Up to the moment when the Levi Zentrale resigned, the views of the party’s right wing had determined policy and set the course. While its spokesmen had admitted to the presence of “objective” factors which favored revolution, particularly rising unemployment, the threatened financial collapse of the state, and the growing misery of the masses, they had maintained that such “subjective” factors as the relative strength of the Communists vis-à-vis the state, and the absence of a genuine revolutionary spirit among German labor, offset the aspects favorable for a successful revolutionary movement. The right wing, under Levi’s guidance, had advocated that for the moment the only feasible slogan which the party could employ with any hope of success was that of “Alliance with Soviet Russia.” Levi thought this slogan particularly opportune in view of the growing tension between Germany and the Western Allies, a theory which he elaborately defended before and after the March uprising. In April 1921 Levi wrote: “With the Paris demands [Diktat] the German Reich entered upon a new, acute crisis, and this acute crisis, as was self-evident, had to be utilized for an Aktion. . . . The former Zentrale accepted the slogan [Alliance with Soviet Russia] . . . unanimously. . . . At the first sign of crisis it [the KPD] marched forward with the corresponding slogan . .. [and] this slogan—`Alliance with Soviet Russia’—had to become, of course, the leitmotif of all Communist propaganda during the weeks preceding the actual crisis. . . . We were convinced that this common struggle . . . would for the first time really close the ranks of the party.”

Whatever Levi may have meant with his vague reference to an Aktion in the event of possible conflict between Germany and the West, he had certainly not visualized a putsch. This is evident from his own interpretation: “During times of crisis when the masses are in a state of political turmoil . . . the Communist party has the duty to show a positive way out of the present dangers. The slogans of the V.K.P.D. must not be humdrum, everyday slogans, but must issue directly from any given crisis. . . . Such a slogan can only be `Alliance with Soviet Russia’. . . . It had been issued as a concrete slogan, i.e. one which could also be immediately realized by the bourgeois government, and at the same time could guide the proletariat in its struggle for the fulfilment of these demands.”

In short, the party’s right wing set its hopes upon a possible conflict between Germany and the Western Allies, a conflict which might lead to a Russo-German alliance. How exactly the German Communists were to profit from such an alliance Levi never made clear. What he did make clear was his determination not to permit rash actions to anticipate events, but to wait for an international crisis, and meanwhile to prepare the proletariat for a war in which the Western powers would be faced by the Soviet Union and its ally—the German bourgeois republic!

It will be recalled that Levi’s views had evoked vehement criticism from the Left Opposition. In contrast to Levi and the majority of his colleagues in the Zentrale, the Berlin Left believed that a new revolutionary wave was in the offing, and that the party had to prepare its own members and as many non-Communist workers as possible for the event. On February 12 the Rote Fahne had published an article by Reuter-Friesland in which he had clearly enunciated the position of the Left.

“We were all of the opinion, up to now, that the German bourgeoisie is not oppressed, that the German bourgeoisie enjoys life, and that it counts on the fraternal support of the Entente imperialists while oppressing the German proletariat . . . ; it is exactly for this reason that we have made it our task to fight against every nationalist slogan. Let me remind you that the Communist party neither approved of the Versailles treaty, nor opposed it, but demanded the revolutionary solution of the world crisis. . . .

“For the time being, the German proletariat must first solve its mission in Germany. Hic Rhodus, hic salta!. . . . Let the German proletariat first break the resistance of this [bourgeois] society; let the German proletariat first secure possession of all factories and [other] enterprises; then we shall see how this struggle for liberation waged by the German workers will affect the proletariat of England, France . . . of the western countries. . . . We do not want contrived [an den Haaren herbeigezogen] measures designed to convince either the German workers or the Executive [of the Comintern] how active we are. We want to show the German working masses the clear, unequivocal, though difficult road to the German revolution.”

The conflicting opinions on party strategy were still a burning issue when Levi and his friends resigned, saddling the Brandler Zentrale with the thankless task of choosing a proper solution. It soon became apparent that the views of the Left were gaining ground. They did so despite the fact that this faction was not represented in the new Zentrale, and that its criticism of the right wing had been voted down in the same meeting which had culminated in the resignation of the Levi group. But the spokesmen of the left wing were also in control of the party’s strong and radical Berlin organization, which Reuter and two of his colleagues represented in the Central Committee. And since the Zentrale likewise had its headquarters in Berlin, it was constantly exposed to the influence of the Reuter-Fischer-Maslow triumvirate. After Levi and his friends were no longer in positions of authority, the Berliners had the field largely to themselves, and they made good use of their opportunity.

The Left tried hard to convince the new leadership that now was the time to show the German working class the road to the German revolution. This approach had in its favor the awareness of the new Zentrale that Moscow and large segments of the KPD expected German Communism to adopt a more vigorous approach toward its ultimate objective. Nevertheless, the underlying preconceptions held respectively by the Berliners and the Brandler Zentrale were fundamentally different. While Reuter, the most prominent figure of the Left, wanted the party prepared to make use of he new revolutionary wave which he sincerely anticipated, the Wandler Zentrale wanted to conjure up a revolutionary situation, even though few of its members shared Reuter’s optimistic view of the revolutionary wave on the horizon. They were primarily concerned to demonstrate that the KPD, under new management, would no longer be a do-nothing party, but a party of action, and that it would daringly lead the lethargic German workers out of the bondage of bourgeois capitalist exploitation. With the Communist mission thus formulated in theory, the sole remaining question was how to go about it in practice. To find the answer, the new party leaders began to scan the national and international scenes the hope that they would somehow, somewhere, find both an occasion and a justification for an Aktion.

During the first three months of 1921 the international situation was tense. The Allied conference which was held at Paris between January 24 and 29 had yielded some definite proposals for German reparation payments, and a German delegation was invited to come to London on March 1 to negotiate on the foundation laid by the Paris conference. Public opinion in Germany was unanimously hostile to the Paris decisions, and the German plenipotentiaries were not expected to display a very conciliatory attitude in London. This expectation proved to be correct, and the negotiations which began on March 1 ended in an impasse. An ultimatum to comply with Allied demands on reparations was rejected by Germany on March 7, and at 7 A.M. of the following day French troops occupied the cities of Duisburg, Thisseldorf, and Ruhrort in the Ruhr region. The situation was critical, and no rapid solution was in sight. The Allies remained firm, threatened that further sanctions might be applied, and demanded payment of twenty million gold marks by May 1. In addition, a new customs line was drawn along the Rhine, which cut off normal commercial intercourse between the Reich and its territory on the left bank of the river.

Difficulties between Germany and the Western Allies were intensified in the East by the approaching plebiscite in Upper Silesia, which was to determine where the German-Polish frontier would be drawn. Throughout 1920, and especially in August of that year, armed clashes between Poles and Germans had occurred sporadically along the disputed border region. The threat of new outbursts of violence remained constant. As the day of the plebiscite approached (March 20, 1921), tension mounted in Upper Silesia, partly because of renewed anti-German agitation in the Polish press. The situation was decidedly dangerous.

One domestic problem, Bavaria, flared up with fresh bitterness early in 1921. All attempts by the German government to make Bavaria disband her civil guards (Einwohnerwehren), particularly the controversial Orgesch, had failed. The Bavarians justified their obstinacy with the argument that the civil guards alone stood between the security of the population and Communist anarchy. On February 5, 1921, a conference of prime ministers from the individual German states (Lander) met in Berlin to discuss the whole sordid question once again. The Allied conference at Paris had issued a final injunction on January 29 under which the German government was instructed to enforce the disbanding of all paramilitary organizations inside the Reich by June 30, 1921. But despite the urgency of the matter, the conference of prime ministers reached no agreement. The central government insisted that the Allied demands would have to be met, and Bavaria’s Minister President von Kahr refused to comply. Kahr added that Bavaria would await the outcome of the London conference before making a decision. This stand was reaffirmed on February 8 by a council of the Bavarian ministry, and reiterated by Kahr before the Bavarian diet on February 17 and March 7. At this point the German government finally lost patience. Faced with Allied sanctions in the West on account of the reparations deadlock, and threatened by possible international complications arising from the Upper Silesian plebiscite, the government was determined to stave off additional trouble with the Allies by taking a firm stand on the civil guard issue. On March 12, a draft bill was introduced in the Reichsrat, the German upper house representing the individual states, which provided for general German disarmament in accordance with articles 177 and 178 of the peace treaty. The bill went to the Reichstag on March 14, was slightly revised in committee, and finally passed into law inn March 19, 1921. It was another two and a half months, however, before Bavaria finally admitted defeat and agreed to comply with time law. In the meantime, the issue continued to hang in the balance.”

The combination of domestic and foreign political problems which the republic faced by the end of February was indeed formidable—a fact which was not lost on the German Communists. But although they recognized the political potentials of the situation, they were so overwhelmed by what appeared to be a wealth of opportunities that they did not know how to deal with them. The Brandler Zentrale resembled a group of explorers at the edge of a vast wilderness, impatient to go, but undecided where to start and how to proceed. Thus in the absence of a clear and suitable plan the Communist leaders resorted to half-measures and improvisations. The program—if the muddle which resulted can be honored with this term—consisted merely of a formula which had served the KPD repeatedly, albeit ineffectually, in the past: strengthen the party, prepare it for action, and infuse revolutionary spirit into the German working class! But there was as yet no clear conception of what kind of action the party was to prepare, nor any clear idea as to what exactly it was to accomplish. In the absence of more substantial plans, the Zentrale restricted its activities for the moment to the dissemination of revolutionary propaganda to the masses, leaving the rest of its program to the future. In spite of the recent fiasco of the first Open Letter (January 8, 1921), the Zentrale, mindful of the fact that persistence was a virtue, published another manifesto in the Rote Fahne on March 4. The appeal was addressed “To the German Proletariat,” and began with the jeering observation that the diplomatic negotiations at London had led the German capitalists nowhere. Their surrender to the demands of the Entente powers was imminent, and the present negotiations had but one objective, to sell out German workers in order to reap benefits for German capitalists. The working class had only one alternative—the overthrow of the bourgeois government. No God was going to help the workers; they must help. themselves. Then the tone became shrill.

“The German working class faces once again an hour of destiny. Your fate will not be decided in London, but in Germany and by you.. . . The choice is yours. . . . You cannot evade this struggle. . . . Hesitate no longer. You have nothing to lose. Be resolved to take action. Demonstrate on Sunday [March 6], stir up all who are dilatory. March against your oppressors! Against the dual yoke of foreign and German exploiters! For the Communist reconstruction! Away with all bourgeois governments! For the rule of the working class! Alliance [Schutz-und Trutzbandnis] with Soviet Russia! Economic Union with Soviet Russia!”

This appeal elicited a letter from Paul Levi the following day. Directing himself to the Zentrale, the former party chairman called the appeal mere irresponsible propaganda, and its slogans unconvincing except to members of the KPD. He charged that the Zentrale had surrendered to the Berlin Left when the new line of propaganda was adopted. Instead of expounding highly unrealistic aims in the appeal, the Zentrale should have retained “Alliance with Soviet Russia” as its only slogan, without the other nonsense which at the moment could have no effect on most Germans. His letter closed with the words: “I see in the general attitude a weakness of the German Zentrale, the consequences of which I am as yet unable to foresee!”

This letter resulted in a meeting on March 8 in Berlin between the members of the Zentrale and the Communist Reichstag delegation, which included Levi and Zetkin. Levi’s account of this meeting is the only available source. According to him, all but one member of the Zentrale, Paul Frolich, proved amenable to his criticism of the most recent party line. Frolich defended the appeal, and demanded that once matters came to a head the party should issue the slogan: “Overthrow the Government and Elect Workers’ Councils.” Although no formal decision was taken on the matter, Levi left the conference apparently in the belief that he had convinced all members of the Zentrale, except Frolich, of the clumsiness and untimeliness of the party’s latest approach to revolution. He was soon to learn that he had been mistaken.

For in the first days of March, 1921, the German Communists received an unexpected visit. From the East appeared three emissaries of the ECCI, the Hungarians Bela Kun and Joseph Pepper, alias Pogany, and the Pole August Guralsky, alias Kleine. The latter two, it appears, kept discreetly in the background and left the transaction of business to Kun. After a short and unhappy career as leader of the Hungarian Communist revolt in 1919, Bela Kun had found a job and a home with the Executive Committee of the Third (Communist) International, where he soon made a name for himself by his unscrupulous tactics and extreme left-wing orientation. Sir Harold Nicolson, who met Kun in April 1919, has given a thumbnail sketch of the then triumphant revolutionary chief: “A little man of about 30: puffy white face and loose wet lips: shaven head: impression of red hair: shifty suspicious eyes: he has the face of a sulky and uncertain criminal.”‘ And now Kun had come with his fellow travelers to Germany in order to launch the KPD on the road to revolution.

The situation which they encountered upon their arrival proved very favorable for their plans. The leaders of the KPD, eager to prove their mettle but at a loss how to proceed, were easy prey for Kun who, in their eyes at least, represented the will of the Kremlin. Whether the party’s appeal of March 4 was the handiwork of the “Turkestaner,” as Levi called them, is doubtful; it is certain only that no final decision was taken during the first two weeks of March. Kun used this time to convince the Zentrale that the KPD must exploit the unique combination of national and international crises for an action of its own. The party, Kun urged, must take the offensive even if it should have to resort to provocative measures. Once an offensive was launched, two to three million German workers would follow the lead of the Communists. Kun was generous with optimistic estimates, and his enthusiasm captured the imagination of most members of the Zentrale. By March 10 Kun felt sufficiently sure of his success to reveal his ideas to Clara Zetkin, who was so shocked by what she had heard that she immediately informed Paul Levi and told him that she refused to have any further conversations with Kun unless witnesses were present. On March 14 Levi himself talked to Kun and was treated to the same grandiloquent schemes which had outraged Clara Zetkin a few days earlier. One might have expected that the former party chairman would have tried his utmost to block Kun’s ventures then and there, that he would have used whatever authority his opinion still carried to beat the alarm, to warn his comrades not to listen to a tempter whose ineptness had been so clearly revealed during the Hungarian revolution of 1919. But if Levi did so he has left no record of his attempts. Perhaps he refused to take Kun’s revolutionary overtures seriously; perhaps he put his faith in the sanity of his former colleagues or, conscious of his political eclipse, fatalistically shrugged off any further responsibility. -Whatever his reasons may have been, Levi resolved to take a vacation and, shortly after his talk with Kun, departed for Vienna, with Italy as his ultimate destination.

On March 16 and 17, 1921, the Zentrale met with the Central Committee in Berlin for a high-level conference, to determine what strategy the KPD was to adopt in the immediate future. Brandler presided and delivered the keynote address, which began with an analysis of the political situation as he saw it. The analysis presented the assembled functionaries and the Communist newspaper editors from every German district with a number of amazing statements. In addition to a sweeping and rapid recapitulation of all existing crises at home and abroad, which ranged from the effects of the London conference and the Upper Silesian plebiscite to the counter-revolutionary plans of the Orgesch, Brandler outdid himself by conjuring up the acute possibility of war between the United States and Great Britain. The new party chairman, perhaps affected by Kun’s optimism, stated that the chances of conflicts along Germany’s borders were nine to one, and that in the event of their outbreak the influence of the KPD would extend beyond the four to five million [sic!] Communists.

“I maintain that we have in the Reich today two to three million non-Communist workers who can be influenced by our Communist organization, who will fight under our flag . . . even in an offensive action [started by the KPD]. If my view is correct, then the situation obligates us to deal with the existing tensions at home and abroad no longer passively; we must no longer exploit . . . [them] merely for agitation, but we are obligated … to interfere through Aktionen in order to change matters in our sense”.

The speech was followed by a general discussion in which the members of the Zentrale voiced their support of Brandler’s theses. The most enthusiastic endorsement came from Paul Frolich, who called the projected plan of action a “complete break with the past” because the Communists, up to then always on the defensive, had finally reached the point when they would have to challenge fate by way of revolution. Frolieh elaborated that “we must now . . . go over to the offensive. . . . We can aggravate the existing [international] complications tremendously by calling on the masses in the Rhineland to go on strike, thereby sharpening . . . the prevailing differences between the Entente and the German government.” In Bavaria the party’s task would be provocation of the civil guards, in order to stir up trouble in that region.

Similar sentiments were voiced by Ernst Reuter-Friesland, who represented the Berlin organization in the Central Committee. He told the conference that the party must take action now, even if the Communists should find themselves fighting alone in the coming struggle. But the activists were not unopposed. Dissenting voices were raised, one of them by Heinrich Malzahn, a union official, member of the Reichstag, and an adherent of the Levi faction. Malzahn, unimpressed by Brandler’s rhetoric which struck him as exceedingly hazy, suggested that it was inadvisable to sanction blindly any future commitment by the party for a revolutionary offensive.” But his objections and those raised by like-minded sceptics carried no weight. The opponents of the suggested policy of action were hesitant and irresolute in their attempts to combat the bravado of the assembled party leaders. “The best lack all convictions, while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” wrote William Butler Yeats in 1919, and his words well sum up the atmosphere in which the KPD leadership in March 1921 decided to embark upon revolution. Kun and his friends, though not personally in evidence during the conference, ultimately carried the day. In a series of resolutions it was decided to alert the party and to work toward a further increase of tensions wherever feasible. The party was to engage in armed struggles as soon as the combination of crisis atmosphere and Communist agitation produced an outbreak of violence anywhere. The overthrow of the existing German federal government was to be the first objective of the projected operation. “Overthrow the Government” was to serve as a fighting slogan in conjunction with the familiar demand, “Alliance with Soviet Russia.” Finally, in order not to jeopardize needlessly the success of the whole scheme, the conference resolved to make every effort to postpone the Aktion until after Easter week, a period unsuitable for strikes since factories were closed.

The decision was reached, the plans were laid, but the party’s freedom of action was lost even before the conference voted to adjourn. In her last editorial, published in the Rote Fahne on January 13, 1919, Rosa Luxemburg had warned that “the revolution just does not operate of its own accord, on an open battlefield, and according to a plan cleverly laid by ‘strategists.’ Its opponents can also take the initiative; moreover, they usually avail themselves of it more often than does the revolution.” Brandler, his colleagues, and Kun and company were soon to learn how true her observation was. While the conference was still in session, on March 17, the Communist leaders received word that the Social Democratic Oberpräsident (approx.: governor) of the Prussian province of Saxony, Otto Horsing, had the day before issued a proclamation announcing his intention to dispatch police forces into the Eisleben-Mansfeld districts of the province. The proclamation stated that the purpose of this measure was the restoration of order and security in that strike-ridden industrial region. The occasion for which the Zentrale had been waiting so eagerly had arrived, but prematurely, and from an unexpected quarter. All of a sudden the Communists were forced to face an unforeseen situation in which their opponents had taken the initiative.

* * *

Situated in the heart of Germany, the Prussian province of Saxony and the neighboring states of Thuringia and Saxony formed an economic unit which in industrial importance ranked with the Ruhr region and Upper Silesia. Prussian Saxony was the home of the Leuna Works which produced gasoline and chemicals; it was also a mining center where lignite, potash, and copper slate were dug. It rated high in steel production and had a number of processing industries.

The region was densely populated by industrial workers and had already seen labor trouble before the war. In January 1910, during a strike wave in the Mansfeld coal district, the regular army was sent in to maintain order. The district of Halle, one of six regional organizations which as early as 1913 belonged to the left wing of the SPD, was expelled by that party in the fall of 1916, and in the spring of 1917 participated in the founding of the Independent Social Democratic Party. After the November revolution, radicalism in the region became endemic. The rapidly expanding lignite mining and chemical industries attracted many newcomers, especially from the western provinces, after Germany, under the terms of the peace treaty, lost the large hard coal deposits of Alsace-Lorraine and Eupen-Malmedy. The new arrivals included a good number of rootless and shiftless people, many of whom had been toughened, if not brutalized, by years of trench warfare. Apart from these local conditions, the region shared with the rest of the country the political confusion, economic dislocation, and the disillusionment and de-moralization which followed in the wake of the lost war. Itinerant agitators, roving from mining town to mill town, addressed audiences of disgruntled and hungry workers who listened eagerly to anyone who offered to improve their miserable lot. Immediately after the war the region became a stronghold of the USPD, but, as economic conditions deteriorated further, the Communists gained around. In the elections to the Prussian diet on February 20, 1921, in the electoral district of Halle-Merseburg, the KPD obtained 197,113 votes as compared to 70,340 for the SPD, and 74,754 for I he USPD.

The Prussian government realized as early as 1919 that the province of Saxony, notably the Halle district, was a center of economic and political unrest. Wildcat strikes, clashes between workers and police, and thefts in factories and on the farm lands occurred with Increasing frequency. After the Kapp Putsch, a state of siege was proclaimed in the province and was not lifted until September 1920. In the following month the Prussian Minister of the Interior Carl Severing suggested to the Obärprasident of Prussian Saxony, Otto Horsing, that a drastic reorganization of the police in the troubled region was essential if order and security were to be restored. It was also known that the population had surrendered only a small number of arms after the upheavals which had followed the Kapp Putsch, and the existence of undiscovered arms caches was a constant source of concern to the Prussian authorities.

The situation continued to deteriorate during the winter months of 1920-1921. The Prussian government received complaints from factory owners and farmers who charged that thefts were increasing. All attempts to prevent theft by means of private plant detectives, bodily searches, and stricter supervision were answered by spontaneous strikes, beating of guards, sabotage, and other terroristic acts. Conditions were particularly tense in the Leuna Works near Merseburg, and in the Eisleben copper slate works. Both industrial plants were harassed by strikes at the end of January and the beginning of February, 1921. At Leuna the issue was a demand for shorter hours, at Eisleben resistance to the presence of plant detectives. Both strikes were settled, apparently by promises on the part of management which satisfied the workers.

In view of the constant stream of complaints which reached the office of the Obärprdsident, Horsing called a conference at Merscburg for February 12 to which he invited the Landrdte, mayors, and chief representatives of industry from the region. The discussions at the conference revealed a gloomy picture, and Horsing was particularly shocked by reports that farmers had their manure carted away under cover of darkness. It is uncertain whether the decision to send a police expedition into the Eisleben-Mansfeld districts was reached on that occasion or only on February 28, when Horsing called another conference with the same participants. In any event, plans for such a measure were definitely made in February. The original plan called for the occupation of Eisleben by 300 policemen, and of Hettstedt by 200. The occupation was not to commence be-fore March 19 in order not to jeopardize the plebiscite in Upper Silesia, scheduled for March 20. Horsing was afraid that an operation at an earlier date might harm the German cause in the plebiscite by reducing rail transportation needed to take voters to the region, and by prompting possible sympathy strikes on the part of railway personnel.

It seems that up to this point Horsing considered the pacification of his bailiwick as strictly his own responsibility, to be handled by local officials and local police forces. Though he kept the Prussian government abreast of developments, Horsing was apparently not eager to have his superiors interfere in what he believed were his own affairs. There was in addition a distinct difference of opinion as to what exactly the projected police occupation was to accomplish, and against whom it was to be primarily directed. Horsing went out of his way to emphasize the non-political nature of the disturbances, and before and after the uprisings in central Germany insisted that all his efforts were directed toward restoring the authority of the state (in this case, Horsing’s authority), which was being undermined by criminal elements and trouble makers.

In contrast to Horsing’s parochial views, the Prussian State Commissioner for Safeguarding Public Security, Dr. Weismann, saw central Germany primarily as a political powder-keg which at any moment could be blown sky high by Communist conspirators. But Weismann was in a difficult position. His suspicions were largely hosed on intuition, a fact which he admitted after the uprising, and ns he was unable to prove that left-wing radicals in Prussian Saxony were planning a revolt, he could not convince either Severing or Horsing of the validity of his point of view.

Severing’s ideas on how to handle the unruly province differed from both Horsing’s and Weismann’s. Severing was willing to allow the Oberpräsident a free hand as long as unrest remained restricted to Prussian Saxony and did not acquire political overtones. Thus he kept in touch with developments and, although he was unimpressed by Weismann’s somber predictions of a putsch, he did not rule out the possibility that the Communists would sooner or later exploit  the tensions in the Mansfeld region. In such a case, Severing was determined to “clear the air” by every means at the disposal of the Prussian government. The moment when Severing decided to interfere arrived on March 13, 1921. On that day, an unsuccessful attempt was made to dynamite the Siegessaule (victory column), a famous and venerable land-mark in the heart of Berlin. Twelve pounds of high explosives, packed in a cardboard box, were discovered by visitors to the monument on the morning of March 13. Only a defective fuse had prevented damage, and possibly casualties.

A number of East German historians, who in February 1956 conducted a colloquium on the March uprising, have once again proffered a charge, which dates back to 1921, that the attempt against the Siegessaule was part of a deliberate plot by the Prussian government to implicate the Communists, and that the dynamite was in fact placed by police spies. Since this charge constitutes the key argument on which the Communists, then and now, have based their interpretation of the origins of the March uprising, it will be necessary to dwell briefly on the bomb plot.

When the dynamite was discovered, 50,000 marks were offered as a reward to anyone who could lead the police to the persons who had placed it. In addition, a thorough description of the bomb and its wrappings appeared in the newspapers. The description stated that six kilograms of dynamite had been placed in a cardboard box marked “Dr. Oetkers Saucenpulver,” that the color of the box was brown, and that the detonation caps were marked “Anhaltische Sprengwerke.” On March 21, thus after the police occupation in central Germany had begun, the Berlin police arrested eleven persons, some of whom carried membership cards of the KAPD. These men confessed that they placed the bomb. The explosion, according to the testimony of some, was intended to intimidate the population, initiate a new revolutionary wave and, incidentally, mark the first anniversary of the Kapp Putsch. None of the prisoners revealed the identity of the man who had given them their orders. None of them was a member of the KPD.

There is little doubt that this project was neither conceived nor executed by any political party, but was a typical example of “individual terror” on the part of revolutionary cranks, who abounded in Germany during the postwar period. According to the account of Max Hoelz, one of the most colorful revolutionaries of this period, the idea of blowing up the monument came from a freewheeling radical named Ferry, alias Hering. Ferry met Hoelz in Berlin (no date is indicated, except that Hoelz went to Berlin in December 1920), and asked for money with which to buy explosives necessary for his plot. He promised in return to manufacture bombs and hand grenades for Hoelz. The deal went through, to the satisfaction of both individuals concerned. The Siegessaule incident convinced Severing of the need for a large-scale, state-supported operation in central Germany. Since all indications pointed toward the plot’s having originated in the province of Saxony, Severing dispatched police agents of the criminal detachment to the region, with instructions to investigate whether dynamite had been stolen there. He also ordered police reinforcements from Berlin and other places to be alerted for the projected operation, and arranged with Horsing that another conference be called at Merseburg on March 17. One day before the conference was held, Horsing published his proclamation to the workers in the central German industrial districts. It was a lengthy appeal which began with a description of diverse lawless acts that of late had increased in number and severity. Wildcat strikes, robbery, looting, and terrorist activities by roving armed bands headed the list of offenses. The damages done to agricultural and industrial property were mentioned, and also bodily injuries inflicted on guards who had tried to prevent theft and looting. The appeal called attention to the fact that workers who had refused to go on strike had been threatened, and at times brutally beaten. Furthermore, lawfully elected factory councils had been replaced on many occasions by so-called action committees. Horsing pointed out that his impression during a recent tour of inspection had been that these outrages were not instigated by Communists, but by “international criminals” who were posing as Communists and were using the most absurd slogans in their attempts to stir up trouble.

The appeal closed as follows:

“In the interest of labor, agriculture, industry, commerce, and trade I have given orders that strong contingents of police forces will be sent into many towns of the industrial region within the next few days. . . . The police forces will treat with equal firmness both the criminals themselves and all those who should attempt to prevent the forces from carrying out their duty, offer open opposition, or try to incite the population . . . in an effort to hinder the police forces in the execution of their mission.”

The conference on March 17 was attended by Horsing, Severing, Weismann, the highest administrative official of the district of Merseburg, Regierungsprasident von Gersdorff, and representatives of all political parties except the Communists. The discussion was primarily concerned with strategy, and two days later, March 19, the police occupation began.

Who, then, bore the largest share of responsibility for the ensuing disorders? The Communists put the entire blame on the Prussian government in general, and on Severing in particular, charging that lie workers of central Germany were to be provoked into active opposition, so that Severing could crack down and settle accounts with Ilse Communists. But the proponents of this theory conveniently disregard a number of relevant facts. They discount, or even deny, the role played by Bela Kun and his fellow “Turkestaner,” who spent the first half of March trying to sell their plan for a revolution to the Zentrale of the KPD. They also misrepresent the tenor of the debate at the Central Committee meeting on March 16 and 17, falsify the reasons why the conference was called in the first place, and do not mention either the Zentrale’s intention to prepare for an uprising before Horsing’s appeal became known to the delegates, or the objections that were raised against these plans by some of the functionaries present. Although the fact is mentioned that one faction at the conference favored a theory of revolutionary offensive, no attempt has been made to point out the effect of this theory on the decisions taken by the party caucus on March 17. True, the uprising which the KPD originally conceived was to have taken place after the Easter holidays, and, according to the party theoreticians, was to have grown out of international complications. What happened instead was that the Prussian government unwittingly anticipated the insurrectionist intentions of the Zentrale by its decision to execute a police occupation of Prussian Saxony. Taken unawares, the Communists, for reasons which will be discussed shortly, allowed themselves to become involved in a struggle at a time and place not of their own choosing, and under circumstances that favored the Prussian government, which had seized the initiative.

It is conceivable that the March uprising would not have occurred at all if the bomb plot against the Siegessdule had not prompted the Prussian government to make a show of force. Persuaded by Severing, Horsing revised his earlier plan to deal with the disturbances in the province exclusively with his own police forces. The area of occupation, which originally was to be confined to the Eisleben-Mansfeld districts, was extended to include the Merseburg area as well, and the number of police contingents was doubled by calling on out-side reinforcements. These measures gave the operation from the beginning an appearance quite out of proportion to its alleged objective, the suppression of a local crime wave. The man behind these changes was Severing. There is good reason to believe that after the Siegessdule plot Severing, and through him Horsing, were converted to Weismann’s point of view that the series of incidents discovered during the early part of 1921 were indicative of a contemplated Communist putsch. They happened to be right, but the indications on which the Prussian officials based their assumptions were largely incidental and not part of the actual plan which the KPD finally adopted on March 17.

Despite their suspicions, Severing, Horsing, and Weismann upheld the official version that the police occupation of Prussian Saxony had no political motives, but was entirely a measure designed to stamp out crime. In view of the fact that the Communists were the only political party not represented at the Merseburg conference of March 17, coupled with the large-scale preparations for the his pending move, the argument is unconvincing. It was nevertheless maintained after the uprising had been crushed, except for a revealing remark made by Severing. He was questioned by a member of the investigation committee appointed by the Prussian diet as to whether it was true that the police forces employed in Saxony were intentionally kept below the numbers required for a quick operation lest “the thunderstorm would not have broken, leaving the atmosphere sultry.” Severing denied the intention but agreed that the relative weakness of the police proved a blessing in disguise, because it brought the simmering insurrection out into the open where it could be fought. In his memoirs, Severing went even further by adding that “it was not, after all, the objective of the police action merely to punish the misdeeds of a few evildoers, but to pacify the region by means of a thorough disarmament action (Entwaffnungsaktion).” To this extent, and only to this extent, can the Communist charge of government “provocation” be eonsidered justified. But it must also be kept in mind that the Prussian officials were leaning over backward not to challenge the KPD openly, going so far as to maintain the legal fiction of an operation against crime. Under these circumstances, the Communist leaders could easily have ignored Horsing’s appea1. That they chose not to do so was to cost the life of many a comrade from the rank and file.

 

August 16, 2018

The Ritchie Boys

Filed under: Film,Jewish question,WWII — louisproyect @ 6:00 pm

Not too long ago I discovered that Werner Angress, the historian from whose “Stillborn Revolution: The Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921–23” I have been posting excerpts, was a Ritchie boy. After he died in 2010, The American Historical Association commemorated his life, including information on Ritchie:

Drafted into the army in 1941, he was trained as an interrogator at Camp Ritchie (he is featured in the film, The Ritchie Boys, about this remarkable institution), and parachuted (his first jump) into France with the 82nd Airborne on D-Day. Despite his extraordinarily youthful appearance and rather small stature, Angress was a tough and resourceful soldier who was eventually promoted to Master Sergeant and awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.

In going through a backlog of DVDs received from publicists about a decade ago, I discovered that I had one for “The Ritchie Boys”. In extracting it from the package, it accidentally was damaged. Not willing to be deterred from seeing the film, I got a copy through the Columbia Library and was richly rewarded by a documentary that might be regarded as the ultimate alternative to Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds”.

Although Werner Angress and all the other German and German-speaking Jewish immigrants had every reason to want to kill every Nazi they got their hands on, the allied cause was better served by them functioning as “soft cops” to get information that could save the lives of fellow soldiers as well as civilians. Additionally, the Ritchie boys discover that many if not most of the German soldiers were ordinary workers forced to kill or be killed as deserters. The same thing was true of the German civilians they came in contact with.

Every Ritchie boy interviewed in the film was as ethically and politically informed as Angress, with some demonstrating the leftist politics they probably absorbed growing up in Weimar Germany. Among the most interesting is Si Lewin, a Polish Jew who was born in 1918 and died two years ago at the age of 97. Like all the other Ritchie boys, including Angress whose parachute got caught in a tree in Germany not long after D-Day, he has an amazing story to tell.

He was assigned to convince German soldiers to surrender by speaking to them through high-powered speakers wired to a batteries in a jeep. Routinely, German artillery honed in on Lewin and his comrades by geolocating the sound of the speakers until they figured out how to position them far from the jeep.

Si Lewin’s website is still up and running. In the about page, we learn that he was a close friend of Art Spiegelman who wrote “Maus”. In a Harpers Magazine article, Spiegelman describes “Parade”, one of Lewin’s most celebrated works:

By 1950, Si was pursuing an idea that had begun to gestate while he was still a soldier. Inspired by a lifelong love of movies — and in conscious resistance to the pure nonrepresentational abstraction that was coming to dominate contemporary art — he made the Parade.

The work begins with an excited crowd of flag-waving parents and children who gather to cheer a military procession of soldiers that turns into an abstract engine of war. Little boys playing with toy guns are beckoned from the arms of their mothers into the arms of a shrouded Grim Reaper, who transforms the children into helmeted, goose-stepping cannon fodder — interchangeable cogs in a relentless war machine. A series of vignettes focuses on scenes of escalating havoc and suffering — the disasters of war — replete with bayoneted mothers and babies, terrorized families fleeing bombed-out cities, and devastated farms. The images accumulate into a panoramic harvest of blood and death. The parade turns into a hanging row of severed heads, a procession of the wounded and maimed, a march of ravaged survivors staggering under the weight of the coffins they carry.

I had to make a tough decision in writing an article about “The Ritchie Boys” since it was neither available as VOD or even as a DVD with the standard pricing. The director Christian Bauer, a German, died in 2009 and the distribution company he founded died along with him. The only way to see the film is to buy a DVD on Amazon that is now going for $70 when it was available.

I saw no alternative except to put it up on Youtube, which took a bit of time and money to accomplish. Since the DVD is copy-protected, I had to pay $100 to have someone bypass the copy protection and make it uploadable. I doubt that Youtube will be hearing from anybody about copyright protection but just in case I wouldn’t waste any time watching this film since it is absolutely terrific.

May 19, 2014

A response to the Kellogg-Riddell exchange on the early Comintern

Filed under: Comintern,Germany,national question,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 9:46 pm

John Riddell

Paul Kellogg

I strongly recommend that you read two important contributions to understanding the role of the early Comintern. The first is an article by Paul Kellogg titled “Substitutionism versus Self‐emancipation: The Theory of the Offensive, the Russo‐Polish War of 1920 and the German March Action of 1921” that can be downloaded from here. I was particularly interested to read this since I had learned from Paul that it was in the works back in April 2013 at the HM Conference. He related a positively hair-raising narrative of the Red Army invading Poland to extend the Bolshevik revolution at the point of a bayonet led by a former Czarist officer who was a raving anti-Semite. This was Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a very capable military man who was among those to face a firing squad opon Stalin’s orders on the eve of WWII.

In the interests of transparency, I must confess a strong identification with Paul Kellogg’s analysis, especially on the importance of Comintern’s role in the German disaster of the early 1920s. He has written a defense of Paul Levi who opposed the bumbling diktats of the Kremlin that relies on the same material I found useful—Pierre Broue’s history of the ill-fated German revolution as well as Werner T. Angress’s “Stillborn Revolution; The Communist Bid For Power In Germany, 1921 1923”. Based on my review of the German events, I came to the conclusion that the Comintern imposed a “Zinovievist” party-building model on the Comintern that led to both Stalinists and Trotskyists turning away from what was truly revolutionary about Lenin’s party—its ability to draw revolutionary-minded workers into struggle without bureaucratic or sectarian limitations. The “Zinovievist” model put a premium on “democratic centralism” and discipline for good reasons. After the German disaster, it became necessary to circle the wagons and protect the leadership in Moscow from the responsibility of defending an indefensible policy. Many years later, I saw the same tendencies at work in the American SWP, a group whose “turn toward industry” was just as disastrous but fortunately limited to a marginal sect on the American left rather than the working class in its millions.

Paul Kellogg’s article was a review of John Riddell’s Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922, a book published by Haymarket. Since I think this is a book that belongs on everybody’s bookshelf, it is too bad that the publisher has put a $55 price tag on it. Years ago, when Riddell was a member of the Trotskyist movement in Canada, Pathfinder Press in the USA—the publishing arm of the SWP—came out with a number of books by Riddell on the Comintern. I should add that I have a somewhat different take on where things like the Comintern proceedings belong. They should be on the Marxist Internet Archives along with the rest of the core literature of our movement and not for sale by small propaganda groups or outfits like Lawrence-Wishart. If Haymarket had made such a decision, their political capital would have increased immensely even if their bottom line had decreased. Forget about Pathfinder—they sicced their corporate lawyers on MIA some years ago when the comrades put some of their copyrighted material on the Net.

Riddell has come a long way since his original work on the Comintern for Pathfinder when he (and I) saw its early history after the fashion of Christian fundamentalist understanding of the Garden of Eden myth. Before the snake tempted Eve, there was perfect goodness—afterwards perfect evil so much so that God flooded the Earth and started over. In our theology, it was Stalin rather than the snake that led to perdition.

While only small Trotskyist sects still hold to this view, most serious scholars and activists have a more nuanced view of the early Comintern. A careful study of the pre-Stalin years will reveal disasters of biblical proportions to extend the analogy a bit. There is no disagreement between Riddell and Kellogg on this, only on what Riddell describes as Lenin and his comrades coming to their senses.

Riddell reminds his readers that even if the Comintern’s legacy is mixed, it made many decisions that are relevant to today’s world especially since they might be aimed at those who pursue ultraleft and sectarian positions at odds with its program. For example, Riddell views the position on bourgeois revolutionary struggles as antithetical to the typical ultraleft dismissal of the Bolivarian revolution, including one made by Duncan Hallas, a leader of the British SWP (now deceased:

The Comintern’s Second Congress in 1920 agreed, on Lenin’s proposal, to support “bourgeois liberation movements” in colonial and semi-colonial countries provided they are “genuinely revolutionary.” (The term “bourgeois” referred here not to class composition but chiefly to a program that did not go beyond the limits of a bourgeois [capitalist] order.) Hallas dismisses this position on the grounds that a “bourgeois liberation movement” necessarily fears arousing the masses and is therefore not genuinely revolutionary (p. 50–51).

The objection is not small, given the role of national liberation in revolutionary struggles throughout the twentieth century and into the new millennium, as for example in Venezuela. Many Marxist currents share Hallas’s viewpoint, and their aversion to the Comintern’s position on nationalism has a major impact on practical policy.

I would only add that even if Lenin were resurrected today in a Marxist version of Jesus showing up on Easter, it would make no difference to today’s sectarians whose hatred of Venezuela is so visceral that they are beyond hope. At certain point, data and logic make no difference to dead-end sectarians. Just read the Militant newspaper on Venezuela—a group that detested Hugo Chavez while at the same time hailing the Obiang kleptocracy in Equatorial Guinea.

But beyond this there is an additional problem. Even when Comintern resolutions said the right thing, there were times when the words clashed with the action. I am reminded of this now that I am immersed in Ukrainian history of the period demarcated by Riddell’s book, when relationships between the Kremlin were as troubled as the intervention into Germany. Indeed, I would include the policies on the Ukraine as ranking with those in German and Poland in terms of undermining the goal of world revolution as even those responsible for the policies were deeply committed to achieving them.

You would assume, for example, that Lenin was totally for the self-determination of Ukraine when he wrote these words on December 28, 1919:

The independence of the Ukraine has been recognised both by the All-Russia Central Executive Committee of the R.S.F.S.R. (Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic) and by the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks). It is therefore self-evident and generally recognised that only the Ukrainian workers and peasants themselves can and will decide at their All-Ukraine Congress of Soviets whether the Ukraine shall amalgamate with Russia, or whether she shall remain a separate and independent republic, and, in the latter case, what federal ties shall be established between that republic and Russia.

Yet just three months later Lenin had this to say about the Borotba Party that the Ukrainians had democratically elected:

When we said in the Central Committee that the maximum concessions should be made to the Borotbists, we were laughed at and told that we were not following a straight line. But you can fight in a straight line when the enemy’s line is straight. But when the enemy moves in zigzags, and not in a straight line, we have to follow him and catch him at every turn. We promised the maximum concessions to the Borotbists, but on condition that they pursued a communist policy. In this way we showed that we are in no way intolerant. And that these concessions were made quite rightly is shown by the fact that all the best elements among the Borotbists have now joined our Party.

In other words, Lenin saw the bloc with the Borotbists as a necessary evil. As long as Denikin was threatening the security of the USSR and using the Ukraine as a launching pad for armed forays, there would be a need for keeping the Ukrainians on your side. But this was just a maneuver. The Borotbists were really an enemy, a group that Lenin had compared to the Right SR’s on occasion, and not genuine allies. But the statement that really hits home is this: We promised the maximum concessions to the Borotbists, but on condition that they pursued a communist policy.

How does this square with the statement of the Comintern that bourgeois liberation movements in colonial or semi-colonial countries should be supported? Apparently, there is an exception clause for those countries that were in the Czarist Empire. The movements had to pass a “communist” litmus test.

It didn’t matter that the Borotbists held the Comintern in high esteem or that they favored a government based on workers and peasant’s councils. They were still not sufficiently “communist”. In early 1920 they applied for membership in the Comintern, not the sort of act one would associate with a party that was similar to the Right SR’s. The Comintern turned down their application as conveyed in a letter found in Ivan Maistrenko’s “Borot’bism: A chapter in the history of the Ukrainian Revolution”. They were told that their agitation against the Red Army was counter-revolutionary, even if the Red Army was backing a Bolshevik like Christian Rakovsky who said that the Ukrainian nation did not exist.

They were also told that they had conducted agitation against Russians living in the Ukraine, an act that was “reminiscent of the darker activities of the Second International”. What brass to tell this to the Ukrainians when Soviet officials were asking Ukrainian peasants: “Do you want to learn Russian or Petliurist at school? What kind of internationalists are you, if you don’t speak Russian?” Such incidents were reported in Polish Trotskyist Zbigniew Kowalewski’s article reproduced here. (“Petliurists” refers to Petliura, a former head of state in the Ukraine far to the right of the Borotbists but arguably within the domain of the “bourgeois” liberation movements endorsed by the Comintern.)

Finally, I want to point out that the “German March Action of 1921” referred to in Paul Kellogg’s title was not the end of Soviet mistakes. Even after the Comintern had adopted the United Front originally proposed by Paul Levi, there was another blunder of biblical proportions as I indicated in my article “The Comintern and German Communism”.

The decision to launch a revolution in Germany in the fall of 1923 was made in Moscow, not in Germany. Germany had definitely entered a pre-Revolutionary situation. French occupation of the Ruhr, unemployment, declining wages, hyperinflation and fascist provocations all added up to an explosive situation.

The crisis was deepest in the heavily industrialized state of Saxony where a left-wing Socialist named Erich Zeigner headed the government. He was friendly with the Communists and made common cause with them. He called for expropriation of the capitalist class, arming of the workers and a proletarian dictatorship. This man, like thousands of others in the German workers movement, had a revolutionary socialist outlook but was condemned as a “Menshevik” in the Communist press. The united front overtures to Zeigner mostly consisted of escalating pressure to force him to accommodate to the maximum Communist program.

The Bolshevik leaders were monitoring the situation carefully. Lenin at this point was bed-ridden with a stroke and virtually incommunicado. Any decisions that were to be made about an “intervention” in Germany would rest on Zinoviev, Stalin, Kamenev, Bukharin, Radek and Trotsky who were the key leaders in Lenin’s absence.

At a Politburo meeting on August 23, 1923 Germany’s prospects were discussed. Trotsky was optimistic about victory and predicted that a showdown would occur in a matter of weeks. Zinvoiev was also optimistic, but was reluctant to commit to a timetable. Only Stalin voiced skepticism about an immanent uprising. A subcommittee was established to supervise the German revolution. Radek, who had only a year earlier made a batty proposal for an alliance with the ultraright, became the head of this group.

The German revolution became the dominant theme of Russian politics from that moment on. Workers agreed to a wage freeze in order to help subsidize the German uprising. Women were asked at public meetings to donate their wedding rings and other valuables for the German cause. Revolutionary slogans were coined, like “German Steam Hammer and Soviet Bread will Conquer the World!”

There was only slight problem. The head of the German Communist Party was simply not up to the task of leading a revolution and was the first to admit it. This cautious, phlegmatic functionary was a former trade union official and bore all the characteristics of this breed. He had been implicated in the failed ultraleft uprising of 1921 and was not eager to go out on a limb again.

When Brandler got to Moscow, the Bolshevik leaders cornered him and pressured him into accepting their call for a revolutionary showdown. What was key in their calculations was the likelihood that a bold action by the Communist Party would inevitably galvanize the rest of the working class into action. Once again, an element of Blanquism had colored the thinking of the Bolshevik leaders. They assumed that the scenario that had occurred in Russia in 1917 would also occur in Germany. This was an unwarranted assumption that was fed by a combination of romanticism and despair. Romanticism about the prospects of a quick victory and despair over the USSR’s deepening isolation.

It was Zinoviev, the head of the Comintern, who was most self-deluded by the strength of the German Communist Party. He wrote in October 1923, “in the cities the workers are definitely numerically superior and” and “the forthcoming German revolution will be a proletarian class revolution. The 22 million German workers who make up its army represent the cornerstone of the international proletariat.” What Zinoviev didn’t take into account was that while the working class may be united socially and economically, it was not necessarily united politically. This turned out to be a fatal miscalculation. Brandler was so swept up by the enthusiasm of the Bolshevik leaders that he joined with them in pumping up the numbers. In the end he went so far as to claim that the Communists could count on the active support of 50,000 to 60,000 proletarians in Saxony.

The Bolshevik leaders finally wore Brandler down and he agreed to their plans, which involved the following:

1) The Communists would join Zeigner’s government in Saxony as coalition partners and arm the workers. The state of Saxony would then provide a base for a military and political offensive in the rest of Germany.

2) A date would be set for the seizure of power. Trotsky was the main advocate of setting a date. Over the objections of Brandler, Trotsky insisted that the date be November 9th. This was meant to coincide closely with the Bolshevik revolution of November 7th, 1917. Trotsky said, “Let us take our own October Revolution as an example…From the moment that the Bolsheviks were in the majority in the Petrograd Soviet…our party was faced with the question–not of the struggle for power in general, but of preparing for the seizure of power according to a definite plan, and at a fixed date. The chosen day, as it is well known, was the day upon which the All-Russian Congress of the Soviets was to convene…” Trotsky simply could not perceive that Russian revolutionaries setting a date for themselves is much different than setting a date for revolutionaries in another country. This distinction would have been lost on Trotsky who had gotten in the habit of laying down tactics for other Communist Parties in his capacity as Comintern official. He had the audacity to tell the French Communist Party, for example, what should go on the front page of their newspaper L’Humanite.

The next few weeks witnessed escalating confrontations between the left-wing government in Saxony and the German capitalist class. The Communist newspaper “Red Flag” printed daily calls for arming the workers and preparing for an offensive against the bourgeoisie. A telegram from Zinoviev arrived on September 31 who confirmed that the date for seizure of power would come in the first half of November. The problem, however, is that an enormous gap existed between the feverish proclamations of their newspaper, Zinoviev’s green light and the actual preparations for an armed offensive. In fact, the problem was that very little attention was paid to technical and organizational details up to this point. While the Comintern had stressed the need for an underground apparatus, there was little evidence that the German party had paid any attention to such matters. The dichotomy between ultraleft braggadocio and painstaking preparation proved to be the party’s undoing.

Specifically, their military plan required a 3 to 1 numerical superiority over the army and police. However, the Communists could not rely on such numbers. There were 250, 000 well-trained cops and soldiers while the Communist Party membership was only about 300,000, including many people either too young or too old to be effective fighters.

The bigger problem turned out to be political, however. The German Communist Party had simply overestimated its ability to command the allegiance of the rest of the working class and its parties. While this mass party had some claim to be the “vanguard” of the German working class as compared to the Maoist and Trotskyist sects of today, it still had not won over the masses completely as the Bolsheviks of 1917 had.

The German central government had reacted to the insurrectionary developments in Saxony as one would expect. They assembled a fighting force under the command of General Muller in order to restore order. As soon as the Communists heard about this white guard’s pending attack, they assembled a conference of left-wing and labor leaders in Chemnitz, Saxony on October 21 to put together a united defense against the counter-revolution.

Aside from 66 Communist delegates, there were 140 delegates from factory councils, 122 representatives of labor unions, 79 delegates from control commissions, 15 delegates from action committees, 16 from unemployed committees and 7 from the Socialist Party. Brandler took the floor and called for a general strike. His call was met by stony silence. What he had not counted on was the hostility of the rest of the workers movement. As much as they feared the consequences of General Muller’s offensive, they were not ready to follow the lead of a sectarian Communist Party that had unilaterally made decisions for the mass movement.

On the day of the conference, the German army marched into Saxony and the Communist Party was forced to call of its revolution. Or, to be more accurate, the Communist Party was forced to call off the revolution of Zinoviev, Radek, Stalin and Trotsky.

April 28, 2013

Historical Materialism Conference 2013

Filed under: Academia — louisproyect @ 7:44 pm

The origins of capitalism according to the “political Marxists”

Historical Materialism is a quarterly journal that costs $78 for a yearly sub.  Like New Left Review, with which it shares editorial perspectives and an editor (the ubiquitous Sebastian Bludgeon), it is a mix of the substantive and the trivial. As a Columbia University retiree, I have access to the journal but only for issues at least a year old, like issue number one of 2012. You can find both a useful article on the trade union movement by Kim Moody and something titled “Manfredo Tafuri, Fredric Jameson and the Contestations of Political Memory” that I found relatively easy to ignore.

It also publishes scholarly Marxist hardcover books at the same price point. For example, a hardcover version of Jairus Banaji’s Deutscher Prize-winning “Theory as History” costs $135. Fortunately Haymarket Press publishes paperback versions of HM books, one of the ISO’s major contributions to the movement.

I am not sure when HM began organizing conferences but I attended my first yesterday at NYU. I wondered beforehand why there was a need for HM Conferences when we have a Left Forum in NY as well. But it became clear throughout the day that HM addresses a need that Left Forum does not. Generally, you will find a sharper Marxist focus at HM while the Left Forum is far broader with many panels featuring movement activists. The HM conference, by contrast, is much more of an academic conference with just about every speaker holding an academic post.

10am-12pm: Neil Davidson’s “How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions?”

This featured Neil presenting the main ideas of his new book, followed by “discussants” Jeff Goodwin and Charles Post.

Some background is in order. Post is a Brennerite, in other words an acolyte of the prize-winning UCLA professor Robert Brenner who developed a theory in the 1970s that capitalism originated in the British countryside in the 1500s quite by accident due to demographic changes brought on by the bubonic plague. Without going into any boring and unnecessary detail, the loss of population led to a series of social-economic transformations that fostered the creation of tenant farming out of but against feudal institutions. With the widespread adoption of tenant farming, Britain enjoyed a “take off” that was not possible anywhere else. That “take off” explains the rise of the British Empire and the diffusion of capitalism to the rest of Europe and everywhere else in the world. Without those diseased rats, Britain might have followed an evolution like Kenya or Uganda. For all we know, the Kenyans might have enslaved Britons and put them to work in the cotton fields of Africa if contingency had blessed them with dukes, duchesses, and diseased rats.

As an ancillary of the Brenner thesis, a school known as “political Marxism” has taken root in the academy that denies that there is such a thing as a bourgeois revolution. This has led to some intriguing hypotheses, including the claim that France was not only devoid of capitalist property relations before 1789 but even afterwards. The Brennerites have categorized the social system that existed in the early 1800s in France as precapitalist. That term, of course, could also be applied to the Britain of Robin Hood and Ivanhoe, as well as the igloo-dwelling Inuit people that Admiral Peary took advantage of. The category precapitalism serves their theoretical needs even if it is rather imprecise. It is like calling animals nonhuman. It does not help us to distinguish between a jackal and a butterfly.

I have no idea whether Jeff Goodwin is a member in good standing of the “political Marxism” school but he agrees with them that there is no such thing as a bourgeois revolution. In his remarks, he made the point that capitalism can evolve through different paths—something that sounds a bit like the point made by Karl Marx in his late letters to the Russian populists.

Although I have not had the chance yet to read Davidson’s book, I have commented on his ideas when he began to raise them in the journal of the British SWP in 2006, a group that he has belonged to for a number of years.

Davidson’s summary of his book repeated points made in his 2006 article that were similar to those made by Isaac Deutscher in his Stalin biography and his last book “Unfinished Revolution”. Here’s Davidson quoting Deutscher from the latter:

The traditional view [of the bourgeois revolution], widely accepted by Marxists and non-Marxists alike, is that in such revolutions, in Western Europe, the bourgeois played the leading part, stood at the head of the insurgent people, and seized power. This view underlies many controversies among historians; the recent exchanges, for example, between Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper and Mr Christopher Hill on whether the Cromwellian revolution was or was not bourgeois in character. It seems to me that this conception, to whatever authorities it may be attributed, is schematic and unreal. From it one may well arrive at the conclusion that bourgeois revolution is almost a myth, and that it has hardly ever occurred, even in the West. Capitalist entrepreneurs, merchants, and bankers were not conspicuous among the leaders of the Puritans or the commanders of the Ironsides, in the Jacobin Club or at the head of the crowds that stormed the Bastille or invaded the Tuileries.

At any rate, I am anxious to read Neil’s book the first chance I get since I am impressed with what he has written in the past.

In the Q&A, I raised the question of the East India Company, an entity that belongs to the “precapitalism” of the Brennerite tendency. I proposed that it exemplified merchant capital, a precursor to industrial capitalism. To which Charles Post responded that “merchant” and “capital” are contradictions in terms. Someone involved in merchant capital takes advantage of different levels of economic development in order to “buy cheap” and “sell dear”, the classic instance of British trading monopolies in India and China.

I always wonder how much familiarity the Brennerites have with Marx’s writings but in his discussion of primitive accumulation in V. 1 of Capital, he refers to the East India Company as being an example of “primitive accumulation . . .without the advance of a shilling.” For them, primitive accumulation means one thing and one thing only, the changes in the British countryside that led to the transformation of peasants into wage laborers even if Karl Marx thinks otherwise. Well, I don’ t know. Maybe they have a point. Just like the advice that Mr. McGuire gave to Benjamin in “The Graduate” about plastic, the Brennerites would seem inclined to breathlessly invoke the magic words that explain the origins of capitalism: diseased rats.

1:30-3:30pm: Leninist Lineages

There were four presenters, including two of my favorite Marxist thinkers. One was Lars Lih speaking on “Two Cheers for Lev Kamenev” that made the case that the standard narrative on Kamenev opposing the April Theses as a kind of semi-Menshevik was unfair. Lih’s analysis was based on a close reading of the Russian texts that supported the idea that Kamenev’s opposition had more to do with the April Theses being a projection of a communism in the hazy future rather than a call for taking power. I won’t try to recapitulate Lih’s arguments since I expect an article from him before long. When I spot it, I will post a link.

Now to Paul Kellogg. Paul and I had a long talk a week earlier, a day before the ecosocialism conference. He had dropped out of the Canadian I.S. after 30 years or so and largely because of the British SWP rape scandal. I discovered that he has the same exact analysis of the “Leninist” problem that is developing among the comrades Richard Seymour is working with whose conclusions I largely agree with. Now working on a modest regroupment project with John Ridell in Canada, Paul’s efforts are key to helping us get out of the mess we are currently in. I urge comrades in Canada to keep an eye on what John and Paul are up to since they are two wise and seasoned veteran revolutionaries.

Paul’s talk covered two major errors that Lenin had some responsibility for, either directly or indirectly. The first is the March 1921 Action in Germany that was an insurrectionary bid led by the German CP and opposed by the other left parties. This is covered in Pierre Broue’s book on the German Revolution and something I have written about in the past.

But the other error has not received the attention it deserved and that will be the subject of an HM article by Paul down the road. It involves the Russian invasion of Poland in 1919 that Lenin favored and Trotsky opposed. Trotsky warned that it would lead to the Polish peasantry rallying around their nationalist rulers, which is exactly what happened.

I am in the process of reading Werner Angress’s book on the German Revolution that provided most of the background for my article referred to above and came across a reference to the Poland question:

The war against Poland went exceedingly well in late July and early August as the Red Army moved closer to Warsaw, and the military successes created an atmosphere of hopeful anticipation at the congress. Was it not possible, after all, that the victories of the Red Army might spark the eagerly anticipated revolutions in central and western Europe? To what extent even Lenin was affected by the buoyant optimism of the moment may be illustrated by an incident which occurred at the congress and involved Levi and two other German delegates. Standing before a large strategic wall map of which Zinoviev has left us a vivid description, Lenin invited the three Germans to join him and began to explain the military situation. He said that according to Trotsky’s estimates the Red Army would reach the eastern frontier of Germany within the next few days, and, turning to his listeners, he asked: “In your opinion, Comrades, what forms will the uprising in East Prussia take?” The three Germans stared at him in amazement. East Prussia was known as one of the most conservative German regions, and an uprising of the East Prussian peasants in support of the Red Army sounded like a poor joke to Levi and his colleagues. One of them, Ernst Meyer, gave a sceptical reply. This irritated Lenin, who now turned to Levi and asked: “And you, Comrade Levi, do you also agree that there will be no uprising?” Levi remained silent, and Lenin terminated the conversation by remarking acidly: “In any case, you ought to know that we of the Central Committee [of the Russian C.P.] hold quite a different opinion.”

When Lenin told Levi that “we of the Central Committee hold quite a different opinion,” you really get a sense of the problems that “Leninist” parties faced early on. The almost nonstop abuse of power in such parties from a Jack Barnes to an Alex Callinicos can be tied to mistakes made early on in Soviet Russia. Now Lenin died too early to get a handle on them and go in another direction (something he sensed was necessary when he considered moving the Comintern to another country) but until our movements root out this kind of “verticalism” and adopt a more transparent and democratic model, we will continue to face crises of our own making.

Paul Le Blanc’s talk was an attempt to rescue the legend of the “heroic Comintern” against evidence that is becoming impossible to ignore. He even tried to put a positive spin on the 21 Conditions that despite its ultraleft errors were a sincere effort to build a Bolshevik International. I am actually planning on writing a long piece on Lenin’s post-1917 organizational initiatives that challenge Paul’s interpretation but at this stage will only say that the 21 Conditions were about as meat-headed a manifesto that can be imagined, like something out of Bob Avakian. Here’s condition number two:

Every organisation that wishes to affiliate to the Communist International must regularly and methodically remove reformists and centrists from every responsible post in the labour movement (party organisations, editorial boards, trades unions, parliamentary factions, co-operatives, local government) and replace them with tested communists, without worrying unduly about the fact that, particularly at first, ordinary workers from the masses will be replacing ‘experienced’ opportunists.

Unbelievable.

The last five minutes of Paul’s talk were devoted to a defense of Zinoviev, another unwise decision given the preponderance of evidence that he was a total screw-up. After Paul was finished, Joel Geier, a long-time member of the ISO and the IS before it, gave a talk on Zinovievism that sounded almost as if it could have been plagiarized from my own. He diverged, however, by portraying the Zinoviev of the pre-“Bolshevization” Comintern as an exemplary leader. In my comments, I tried to explain that the “Bolshevization” of the Comintern was a response to a crisis brought on by the March 1921 fiasco in Germany. A circling of the wagons took place that led to a further verticalization of the “Leninist” organizational model, not that much different than what is taking place in Callinicos’s movement.

4-6pm: SYRIZA and the Strategic Challenges of the Greek Left

This was a really excellent panel that included two critical supporters of SYRIZA (Costas Panayotakis and Despina Lalaki), an ANTARSYA supporter (Iannis Delatolas), and Peter Bratsis, a sort of anti-political academic who views fighting for pensions, etc. as buying into the capitalist system about whom the less said the better.

Costas and Despina agreed with many of the points being made by Iannis but continue to support SYRIZA. The problem with groups like ANTARSYA, as is the case with the small “vanguard” formations that make up its coalition, is that while being formally correct have no prospects of reaching a majority. While deeply involved in mass actions, their proposals for changing Greek society are out of sync with the current level of consciousness. In some ways, it probably does not matter to them since they share a widely shared belief among “cadre” organizations that it is necessary to uphold a “revolutionary” program that will be embraced by the masses once they have achieved a revolutionary consciousness. It is a sectarian formula, needless to say.

In the remarks period, I stated support for SYRIZA is necessary not so much on the basis that the current leadership is going to lead a revolution but that it provides a vehicle for the revolutionary left to advance its ideas among the broader population, a view that Peter Camejo advanced with respect to the Green Party when it was solidly behind Ralph Nader. We should only be lucky to have a party like SYRIZA in the U.S. that enjoys the support of “only” 30 percent of the population.

Paul Blackledge, a British SWP leader, spoke in support of ANTARSYA from the floor after me. It was interesting to hear such an articulate defense of ultraleftism. Even when they are totally wrong, they can be very impressive.

Postscript:

At the SYRIZA panel discussion on Saturday at the HM conference, Peter Bratsis bemoaned the fact that 20 general strikes have done nothing to stop austerity. It was pointed out to him, by Costas I believe, that these are not really general strikes since workers in private industry do not take part because of a fear of reprisal. Public workers, who have a relative degree of job protection, make up the bulk of the actions. But he warned that this is about to change, referring to proposed legislation that just passed:

NY Times April 28, 2013
Greek Parliament Passes Plan for Layoffs
By NIKI KITSANTONIS

ATHENS — Greece’s Parliament late Sunday approved a contentious plan to dismiss 15,000 civil servants by the end of next year as part of a new package of economic measures that the country must enforce to clinch crucial financing from foreign creditors.

Euro zone officials meeting in Brussels on Monday are expected to approve the release of about 2.8 billion euros, or about $3.65 billion, in loans. The money had been due in March but was delayed after negotiations between Greece and the so-called troika of its foreign lenders stalled over the lenders’ demands for civil service cuts.

The troika, which comprises the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, has been meting out aid in exchange for belt-tightening measures. They are to decide on another six-billion-euro installment in May, assuming Greece adopts further reforms, including an overhaul of a tax collection system.

The latest measures passed into law in a vote held shortly before midnight on Sunday with 168 votes in the 300-seat House.

A last-minute amendment allowing local authorities to hire young Greeks for less than the minimum wage of 586 euros per month fueled protests during the debate. But the inclusion of measures aimed at easing the burden on Greeks, including a 15 percent reduction to a contentious property tax, clinched the support of lawmakers in the three-party ruling coalition.

Defending the bill during a heated debate, Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras insisted that Greece had no choice but to implement the economic reforms. “Greece is still cut off from the markets,” he said, noting that the government’s chief aim was to achieve a primary surplus before seeking a further “drastic haircut” to its debt, which stood at 160 percent of gross domestic product at the end of last year.

His claims were derided by political rivals who denounced the lawmakers as beholden to the nation’s lenders. “With blood, tears and looting, they will achieve surpluses like those achieved by Ceausescu in Romania and Pinochet in Chile,” said Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the main leftist opposition party Syriza. “Claim back your lives and your country that they are stealing,” he said as a few hundred Greeks, mostly civil servants, staged a rather low-key protest outside Parliament.

Mr. Tsipras, whose party wants to revoke Greece’s loan agreement, has insisted that Greeks have an alternative to constant belt-tightening, pointing to a strong reaction against austerity across Europe.

The ruling coalition, led by Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, faces a difficult balancing act to reassure its foreign creditors and its long-suffering citizens, who have seen their incomes dwindle by a third and Greek unemployment skyrocket to 27 percent in the past three years.

Eager to bolster the prospects for investment, the prime minister is also said to be planning a series of international trips, starting with a visit to China next month.

He is expected to meet with entrepreneurs and promote Greece as a destination for tourism, virtually the only robust pillar of Greece’s shaky economy.

March 1, 2010

The Ritchie Boys

Filed under: Fascism,Film,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 6:48 pm

In my post yesterday about the Comintern, I mentioned that Werner Angress, the author of an important history of German Communism in the 1920s, was profiled in the documentary “The Ritchie Boys” that was about Jews who fought as paratroopers behind Nazi lines. Happily, the documentary can be seen in its entirety at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Eem4BJDfQ4

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.

March 11, 2009

The Leninist Party: an annotated bibliography

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 6:08 pm

Last week I received this request:

Louis,

I want to ask you a favor….

I am engaged on a major writing project criticizing the rigid model of “leninist vanguard party” that was established (and mythologized) in the 1920s in the comintern. And (obviously) it is part of a larger project of conceiving of new forms of communist organization for now.

I’m well aware that this whole issue has been close to your heart…. so i want to ask you a favor:

Can you point me toward all your writings and explorations of this? Can you suggest what other writings I should give a close study? Are there valuable books demythologizing the Cominterns “bolshevization” campaign? The Zinoviev decisions of universal party formation? etc.?

Where are creative writings on the other possible forms and conceptions of communist organization?

I’m hoping that the names of works are at the tip of your tongue — so that it won’t be a lot of work to share them with me.

Thanks (in advance) for your help and advice.

This is a preface to the list of electronic and print resources below that might help put my response to this request in context.

To start with, I should begin by stating that my interest in Lenin’s party-building concepts is completely separate from what have been called “programmatic” questions. For example, I agree with perhaps 90 percent of what the Socialist Workers Party in Great Britain or the Democratic Socialist Perspective in Australia have written about ecology, the war in Iraq, the labor movement, etc. But I have sharp differences with them on organizational questions. When I first joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967, I was told that political and organizational questions cannot be separated. I no longer believe that.

In particular, I believe that unless revolutionaries really get to the bottom of what Lenin was trying to do when he built the Bolshevik Party they will continue to end up with sectarian formations no matter their best intentions. In my opinion, the following set of overlapping assumptions that “Leninists” share today have little to do with the way that the Bolshevik party functioned historically:

1. Democratic centralism must include defense of the party’s analysis of political questions in public as well as its discipline in actions such as demonstrations, strikes, votes in parliament, etc.

2. Party members must avoid disagreeing with each other in the mass movement. In the labor movement and the social movements, the party must speak with a single voice.

3. Debates in the party must be internal. Prior to conventions, party members have the freedom to submit resolutions that go against the current party line but once the convention is over, the debate ends as well.

4. Violations of these “norms” must be punished by expulsion.

5. Deep political differences reflect different class orientations. The Leninist party is subject to class pressures from outside society and must periodically purge elements that have caved in to petty bourgeois prejudices.

This bibliography is organized in chronological order roughly, but it also follows a certain conceptual framework since my thinking has naturally evolved over the years. For example, in the very first article I ever wrote on organizational questions I referred to the ANC and the Workers Party positively. History has of course rendered its unfavorable judgment on these two parties, at least from the standpoint of Marxism.

1) Peter Camejo’s “Against Sectarianism

In 1983 I became increasingly concerned about the SWP’s abstention from the Central American solidarity movement and began asking current members and ex-members like myself what was going on. Librarian union leader Ray Markey, who was still in the party but on his way out, sent me a copy of Peter’s article “Against Sectarianism” that had a major impact on my thinking about these questions. Although Peter was focusing on the SWP’s workerism, much of what he wrote has a general application.

2. Lenin in Context

In 1995, on the original Marxism list operated by the Spoons Collective, John Plant, a British Trotskyist who belonged to no party as far as I know, asked whether Lenin’s party-building concepts were still viable. This led me to post a series of articles that included the favorable reference to the ANC and the Workers Party. Except for the deletion of this reference, nothing has changed.

3. Three important books

In writing the article above, I found Lenin’s “What is to be Done” very useful but two books on Lenin helped me sharpen my analysis. One is Neil Harding’s “Lenin’s Political Thought” that received the Isaac Deutscher prize in 1981. The other is Paul LeBlanc’s “Lenin and the Revolutionary Party” that was written in 1993. Harding’s book, alas, is out of print but Paul’s is now available in paperback. Harding’s book was a scholarly effort to understand Lenin in his historical setting in the same spirit as Lars Lih’s recently published “Lenin Rediscovered“, a study of “What is to be Done”. Although I have not read Lih’s book, it is consistent with Harding’s analysis that “democratic centralism” and “vanguard” were not innovations by Lenin but concepts that he borrowed from Western European social democracy. Paul wrote his book for pretty much the same reason Peter wrote “Against Sectarianism” and I began writing about party-building questions. It was an attempt to diagnose the degeneration of the SWP into a workerist sect. George Breitman, a long-time SWP leader who had been expelled with LeBlanc from the SWP, pretty much commissioned Paul to write the book. They were grappling with the problem of what went wrong. Although I found much useful information in Paul’s book, it did not really go to the roots of the SWP’s collapse. He and Breitman pinned their hopes on a return to the party-building norms that were in place under SWP founder James P. Cannon and his successor Farrell Dobbs but I had come to believe that it was these “norms” that sank the SWP. This was the focus of my next article below.

4. The Comintern and the German Communist Party

In August of 1998, I began writing a series of articles on Marxmail, which had been launched in May of that year, about the origins of Zinovievism, a term I coined to describe the kind of mechanical “democratic centralism” that was accepted by virtually all self-styled Leninist organizations whether Maoist, Trotskyist or Stalinist. I used that term since the organizational principles were the product of the 1924 “Bolshevization” Congress of the Comintern which adopted a proposal by Zinoviev to launch parties using the schemas I alluded to in my preface. I found Werner T. Angress’s 1963 “Stillborn Revolution, the Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923” very useful as background material but it does not really address the organizational problems that were of interest to me.

5. The Cochranites

Not long after Marxmail was launched, someone named Sol Dollinger became a subscriber. The name rang a bell. I remembered that Genora Dollinger was a leader of the woman’s auxiliary in the Flint Sit Down strikes of 1938 and I asked if he was related. It turned out that this was his wife who had died in 1995. I also learned that the two were very involved with a non-sectarian initiative called the American Socialist Union that had split with the SWP in 1953 because of objections similar to those that Camejo and I had raised. Sol put me in contact with Cynthia Cochran, the widow of Bert Cochran who led the ASU with Harry Braverman, who would eventually join Monthly Review after the ASU folded in 1959. I scanned articles from their magazine American Socialist which can be read here.  I also made available a number of documents related to the Socialist Union that deal with party-building questions including Bert Cochran’s “Our Orientation” that is of key importance to me.  Another document worth reading is my own on “The Cochranite Legacy” that was presented to a conference on American Trotskyism organized by Paul LeBlanc in 2000.

6. Hal Draper

Around the time I began writing about Leninism on the Internet, I discovered Hal Draper’s writings. Like Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman, this veteran of the Trotskyist movement in its Shachtmanite flavor had rethought many of the same questions. I recommend the following:

1971 – Toward a New Beginning – On Another Road: The Alternative to the Micro-Sect

1973 – Anatomy of the Micro-Sect

1990 – The Myth of Lenin’s “Concept of The Party”

7. Critiques of the DSP, Socialist Alternative, and the British SWP

In the most recent past I have tried without much success to persuade the Australian DSP that they were going about things in the wrong way. I suppose if Peter Camejo could not penetrate through their thick wall of “Leninist” orthodoxy, there was not much I could do. Peter wrote a superb article in 1995 titled “Return to Materialism that like “Against Sectarianism” has general interest even though it was offered as advice to the DSP. My own advice was proffered in an article titled A debate with Links over the revolutionary party. The comrades don’t appreciate my advice but I will continue to offer it when the need arises. Socialist Alternative is a “state capitalist” formation in Australia that is sort of Avis to the DSP’s Hertz. Although they will have none of my ideas on party-building either, they at least took the trouble to publish my critique of the orthodoxy contained in an article by SA leader Mick Armstrong.  It is a useful summary of my views on “Zinovievism”. Finally, as many of you know, the British SWP has been going through a crisis that I view as rooted in “Zinovievist” misconceptions, although they obviously would not see it this way. The articles can be found on my Columbia web page on organizational problems of the revolutionary movement, along with a number of other articles not mentioned in this piece.

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