Being right is not enough: Some thoughts on Paul Levi

Issue: 138

Ian Birchall

John Rose and Sebastian Zehetmair1 are quite right to welcome the publication of David Fernbach’s collection of Paul Levi’s writings.2 There is still much to be learnt from the early years of the Communist International.

For far too long the Trotskyist tradition remained defensive, contrasting a Leninist “golden age” to the subsequent Stalinist degeneration. So Tony Cliff’s Lenin—notably volume four,3 drawing on the work of Lenin’s contemporaries Victor Serge and Alfred Rosmer—helped to open up a new period of historical writing which, while recognising the basically positive role of the Comintern, was also aware of the weaknesses that existed from the very outset. This argument was taken further by Pierre Broué’s history of the Comintern,4 and by the work of scholars such as John Riddell, Jean-François Fayet, Reiner Tosstorff and others.5 It is on the basis of this work, and in the spirit of openly critical support, that we should look at the case of Paul Levi.

As many of us know, factional disputes can produce enormous bitterness and personal antagonism. This was even more the case in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution when the stakes were so high. It is not surprising that Levi felt betrayed by those he had regarded as his comrades, nor that his former comrades bitterly resented his public break with the German Communist Party (KPD). Ninety years on there is no point taking sides; but we can learn lessons from Levi’s life, and my view is that some of those lessons are rather more negative than John and Sebastian acknowledge.

Paul Levi was a man of penetrating intelligence and personal courage; he did not aspire to leadership of the KPD, but was thrust into it by the murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht. His promotion of the united front strategy was of great value. After his break with the KPD he remained firmly committed to the self-emancipation of the working class. As part of a stable leadership team Levi could have contributed much; but because the KPD had been formed so recently there was no such team.

In criticising Levi one should of course remember that his generation lived through difficult times. Choices had to be made which were quite literally a matter of life and death, and they had to be made quickly, for revolutionary opportunity was running out. Those of us who have the leisure of retrospective analysis should not judge harshly. But the whole point of studying history is to do better next time, so we should learn from our predecessors’ mistakes.

Sebastian notes Levi’s lack of tact. Indeed many who knew him noted personality defects. This in itself was not decisive; not all revolutionaries are nice people. But alongside his merits Levi had one very serious weakness. He had a fierce hatred of ultra-leftism and he did not know how to handle ultra-lefts. Now this is a fundamental problem for any revolutionary leader. In any revolutionary situation, indeed in any period of rising struggle, ultra-leftism will make an appearance. Newly radicalised people, especially the young, who have not experienced isolation and defeat, expect quick results. And they have a quite justifiable distrust of parliamentarism and the trade union bureaucracy.

Now ultra-leftism can be a serious problem for revolutionary organisation; it certainly was in the period following the Russian Revolution. John Rose commends Lenin’s little book “LeftWingCommunism.6 This contains some fundamental arguments, but it must be set in context.7 Lenin saw the dangers of ultra-leftism, but he wanted to persuade the ultra-lefts, not push them away.

In particular John cites Lenin on the importance of participating in parliamentary elections. Certainly electoral campaigns may be useful for socialist purposes. But we can hardly win the argument by quoting Lenin, since so much has changed in 90 years. In 1920 many workers—in particular women—were voting for the first time, and there was little experience of reformist parties in power. Lenin stressed that “the masses must have their own political experience”.8 But it was precisely such experience that led to abstention rates of nearly 75 percent in the Middlesbrough and Croydon North by-elections in November 2012.

Levi’s own failures with regard to ultra-leftism can be seen in three episodes: first, his conduct of the Heidelberg Congress of the KPD in 1919, which led to the exclusion of around half the party membership. There is a detailed analysis of this congress by Marcel Bois and Florian Wilde. They argue, convincingly, that the methods used by Levi and the party leadership had nothing in common with the later methods of Stalinism. The issues at stake—participation in parliamentary elections and work in the existing trade unions—were fundamental. They examine accusations of undemocratic practices, and show the difficulties caused by the fact that the party was working in illegal conditions. The disputed questions were debated in at least some regional conferences. They also note that the split with the ultra-lefts was a “necessary condition” for the fusion with the Independent Socialist (USPD) left achieved in 1920. The leftists were also intransigent, demanding expulsion of any members who participated in bourgeois parliaments. Bois and Wilde also claim that the Levi leadership tried to build bridges in order to win back some of those excluded.

However, they also note that the Comintern Executive accused the KPD leadership of “driving workers into the arms of the anarcho-syndicalist ranters”, and they conclude that the actions of the Levi leadership were “from the point of view of inner-party democracy undoubtedly problematic”.9 The point is not to blame (or commend) a long-dead leader, but to ask whether things might have been handled differently.

Nonetheless it is possible to imagine an alternative scenario. The ultra-lefts were not homogeneous. The new party they founded—the KAPD—flew apart within three years.10 As Chris Harman noted, it might have been possible to use “salami tactics”:

The party leadership would have done better to have pushed through its own policies at the congress and then taken on and removed the most irreconcilable opposition figures in the localities one at a time—especially since in the months that followed it became clear that different forms of impatience were driving the different oppositionists in completely different directions.11

Certainly Lenin regarded the outcome of the Heidelberg congress as little less than a disaster:

My impression is that they are very gifted propagandists, inexperienced and young, like our own Left Communists (“Left” due to lack of experience and youth) of 1918. Given agreement on the basic issue (for Soviet rule, against bourgeois parliamentarism), unity, in my opinion, is possible and necessary, just as a split is necessary with the Kautskyites. If the split was inevitable, efforts should be made not to deepen it, but to approach the Executive Committee of the Third International for mediation and to make the “Lefts” formulate their differences in theses and in a pamphlet.12

Levi’s role at the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920 was equally questionable. The Russian Revolution had inspired enormous hopes in the world working class, but it was isolated and under threat. Delegates had been invited from a broad range of political positions, including syndicalists and anarchists who rejected the need for a revolutionary party; many had got to Russia with great difficulty and at some risk. Levi proceeded to lecture them, telling them that “the majority of the western European working class” had resolved the questions “decades ago”.13 Among those who attended the congress Victor Serge noted Levi’s “Marxist insensitivity”,14 while Alfred Rosmer recalled that he was “obsessed” with the leftists excluded at Heidelberg and that “the conflict took on the appearance of a personal quarrel”.15 By contrast, Lenin and Trotsky went out of their way to minimise the differences between Bolsheviks and syndicalists.

It is easy to agree with Sebastian that the March Action was a disaster.16 The party that Levi had tried to build seemed to be disintegrating. But while his furious response is understandable emotionally, it nonetheless deserves serious criticism.

Fernbach’s collection gives us the full text of Levi’s pamphlet, Our Path.17 Levi’s main line of argument is indeed correct, but various aspects are open to criticism. Firstly, Levi issued this publicly, making it available to the party’s enemies at a time of massive repression.18 Indeed the whole style of the pamphlet set Levi apart from the party—as Lenin noted: “Paul Levi’s entirely negative criticism, which lacked that ‘feeling of oneness’ with the party, and embittered the comrades rather more by its tone than by its content, diverted attention from most important aspects of the problem”.19

As Lenin pointed out, Levi’s style actually played into the hands of the defenders of the “theory of the offensive”: “a feeling arose—it also extended to non-German comrades—in which the dispute concerning the pamphlet, and concerning Levi himself, became the sole subject of this contention, instead of the false theory and bad practice of the ‘offensive theory’ and the leftists: They have to thank Paul Levi that up to the present they have come out so well, much too well. Paul Levi is his own worst enemy”.20

Secondly, Levi’s characterisation of the March Action as a putsch was misleading. Thousands of Communist workers took part, many with enthusiasm, often former Independent Socialist Party members who had joined the KPD hoping for rapid action.21 The best estimate of those participating was over 200,000 workers on strike, plus unemployed and youth who took part in demonstrations: far too few for a bid for power, but rather a lot for a “putsch”.22 This was not simply something imposed by the Comintern (though the ECCI’s role was certainly questionable), but an expression of a real ultra-left current in the party. As Sebastian notes, the KAPD had exercised an influence on KPD members. There are no organisational solutions to political problems; the ultra-lefts had not vaporised simply because they had been expelled. (The Bolsheviks had had a similar problem in the “July Days” in 1917, but because they had a more stable and well-established leadership disaster was averted.)

But John and Sebastian’s main complaint seems to be the alleged “cover-up” of the Levi affair and the March Action by the Third Congress of the Comintern. In this they closely follow Tony Cliff, who devoted a whole chapter of his Lenin to “The Great Cover-Up”.23 Cliff at this point seems to have been concerned to stress the fallibility of the Comintern. While his primary intention in Lenin was to defend the Leninist tradition, he did not want to encourage an uncritical use of the Comintern as a model. So here he was “bending the stick” back in the opposite direction—perhaps a little too far.

We do not yet have John Riddell’s edition of the proceedings of the Third Congress, which may cast additional light on the whole question. The minutes24 show that, out of the congress’s 21 days, five sessions over three days (21 hours of debate) were devoted to Radek’s report on tactics, to which the March Action was central. Speakers included Lenin,25 Trotsky, Bukharin, Georg Lukács and representatives of the KAPD; Clara Zetkin, who defended Levi, was given (at Zinoviev’s proposal) an extra 15 minutes. She insisted that the “mistakes” of the March Action were “organically founded in the erroneous theory of the offensive”.26 Earlier in the congress Zetkin had delivered a speech of around two hours (greeted with “vigorous approval and applause”) in defence of Levi.27 This is not what most people would describe as a “cover-up”.

The problem is that the final resolution did not make an unambiguous condemnation of the March Action, but described it as a “step forward”, while noting that the KPD “made a number of mistakes, of which the most important was that it did not emphasise the defensive character of the struggle”.28

The Third Congress took place in the aftermath of Kronstadt and the introduction of the New Economic Policy. It was no time to force a split at the very top of the leadership of the Russian Party and the Comintern. Even if one accepts Serge’s judgement that Zinoviev was “Lenin’s biggest mistake”, pushing the point would have meant a confrontation with Bukharin and Radek—again we have Serge’s testimony that Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin and Radek were “the brains of the revolution” who understood each other so well that “they seemed to think collectively”.29 Moreover the theory of the offensive had many thousands of supporters in the KPD and other sections of the Comintern.

If John and Sebastian think there should have been a confrontation with Zinoviev and his allies, this raises the question of who should have replaced him. There were scarcely any able but underemployed comrades hanging around looking for a job.

Revolutionary leadership requires both unity and clarity. Sometimes the two conflict and getting the balance right is not easy. As Lenin pointed out, revolutionary leadership is an art as well as a science.30

Sebastian refers to Clara Zetkin’s31 record of her conversations with Lenin during the Third Congress. Unfortunately he does not examine or quote from this remarkable document,32 which shows Lenin at his best.

Lenin condemned the “theory of the offensive”, dismissing it as “an illusion…romanticism, sheer romanticism”. But he put forward the need for compromise. It was necessary to defeat the ultra-lefts without humiliating them, in order to keep them within the movement:

If the tactics to be decided upon by the congress are agreed upon as quickly as possible, and with no great friction, becoming the guiding principle for the activity of the Communist Parties, our dear leftists will go back not too mortified and not too embittered. We must also—and indeed first and before all—consider the feelings of the real revolutionary workers both within and outside the party.

Well, we shan’t deal roughly with the leftists; we shall put some balm on their wounds instead. Then they will soon be working happily and energetically with you in carrying out the policy of the Third Congress of our International. For that means rallying large sections of workers to your policy, mobilising them under Communist leadership and bringing them into the struggle against the bourgeoisie and for the seizure of power.33

He urged Zetkin to stay in the party and work patiently for unity: “Your duty now is to keep the party together. I make you personally responsible for seeing that there is no split, or at the most, only a small splitting off. You must be strict with the young comrades who are still without any deep theoretical knowledge or practical experience, and at the same time you must be very patient with them”.34

Finally, two more general observations on the implications of the Levi affair. Lenin observed to Zetkin that he wished to keep Levi because there was a shortage of able comrades: “We must not lose Levi. For his own sake and for our cause. We are not over-blessed with talent and must keep as much of what we have as we can”.35 Levi himself noted that the Russians could not commit their “best forces” to the Comintern, as they were irreplaceable at home.36 The collapse of the Second International had meant the loss of most of the cadre accumulated by the international socialist movement over the preceding decades. Hence the Comintern often had to rely on relatively inexperienced comrades and on people who were not up to the job. The fact that major responsibilities were given to Zinoviev, despite his appalling behaviour in 1917, and to Bela Kun (whose stupidity Lenin condemned) was a symptom of this lack of cadre.37

Secondly, John and Sebastian are quite right to point to the centrality of the united front with reformist workers, and Levi is to be wholly commended for his role in instigating and promoting this. But the united front takes many forms. What Lenin and Trotsky—but few others—seem to have wanted was a united front with the reformists on the one hand, but on the other hand an alliance with the various ultra-lefts (especially syndicalists) who had some real base in the European labour movement. The besieged revolution needed allies in every quarter.

Could such a “triple alliance”—revolutionaries, reformists, ultra-lefts—have been created to defend and spread the revolution?38 There would have been many contradictions, much friction. But as I recall Tony Cliff once asking a district aggregate: “Did you think it would be easy?”


1: Zehetmair and Rose, 2012.

2: Fernbach, 2011.

3: Cliff, 1979. Cliff’s biography originally appeared in four volumes. The 1986 reprint combined the third and fourth into a single volume.

4: See Broué, 1997; also Birchall 1999.

5: Thus Cliff’s work is in some senses now dated. It contains enormously valuable insights, but these should be checked against more recent studies.

6: John is unwise to quote Tony Cliff on this point. Cliff’s writings contain many valuable observations and repay study. But he also tended to make overstatements for the sake of effect (“bending the stick”). His comparison of “Left-Wing” Communism with the Communist Manifesto is, to say the least, unhelpful. Moreover John misquotes Cliff. Cliff did not claim that “Left-Wing” Communism was as important as the Communist Manifesto (which contains the first outline of the whole of historical materialism), but said that its influence was as great-Cliff, 1979, p24. It is a bizarre comparison, since the influence of the Communist Manifesto, though enormous over the following century, was very slow for some decades-there were few Marxists in the Paris Commune.

7: See Rosmer, 1987, and especially Rosmer, 1971. I develop some of these arguments in Birchall 2010.

8: Cited in Cliff, 1979, p28. For the full text of Lenin’s book see Lenin, 1920.

9: Bois and Wilde, 2007.

10: Reichenbach, 1969.

11: Harman, 1982, p153.

12: Lenin, 1965a, pp87-88.

13: Riddell, 1991, volume 1, p166.

14: Serge, 2012, p121.

15: Rosmer, 1987, p35.

16: Broué, 2005, pp491-525.

17: Fernbach, 2011, pp119-165. Cliff does not seem to have consulted this text, since he quotes it via extracts published in an article in Survey-Cliff, 1979, p111.

18: Does John think the SWP should have issued a-well-deserved-public denunciation of the Class War grouping’s ultra-left tactics in the immediate aftermath of the 1990 Poll Tax riot?

19: Zetkin, 1934. John cites this at second hand, but fails to draw out the importance of Lenin’s analysis of Levi developed in his conversations with Zetkin.

20: Zetkin, 1934.

21: Morgan, 1975, p397.

22: Koch-Baumgarten, 1986, pp228, etc.

23: Cliff, 1979, pp110-121.

24: Protokoll, 1921.

25: Lenin’s speech is at Lenin, 1965b, pp468-477.

26: Protokoll, 1921, pp431-671.

27: Protokoll, 1921, pp278-300.

28: Degras, 1971, p252.

29: Serge, 2012, pp207, 158.

30: Cited in Cliff, 1979, p30.

31: Zetkin is the one who comes out best from this episode. She backed Levi’s position, but stayed to fight inside the party. It is intended to produce an issue of Revolutionary History devoted to her writings.

32: Zetkin, 1934.

33: Zetkin, 1934.

34: Zetkin, 1934.

35: Zetkin, 1934.

36: Fernbach, 2011, p161.

37: Cliff discusses this problem of shortage of cadre in Russia and in the Comintern-Cliff, 1978, pp6-7, Cliff, 1979, pp59-65. For a development of the argument see Birchall, 2000.

38: I leave readers to consider possible parallels with the present day.


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