The KPD and the Crisis of World Revolution

Issue: 140

Yusuf Timms

This year marks the ninetieth anniversary of the “German October”, the aborted socialist revolution that came to mark the end of the post-war revolutionary wave that had washed away monarchical government from most of Central and Eastern Europe. For a time, in the autumn of 1923, there seemed a real possibility that a new front was about to be opened up in the communist revolution that had begun in Russia six years earlier. For the beleaguered Soviet leadership the conquest of workers’ power in an advanced capitalist state offered not only a qualitative transformation in the prospects of international socialism but salvation from their own internal crisis.

The Communist Party of Germany (KPD), which was founded in December 1918, rapidly came to represent the strongest communist movement outside Soviet Russia, yet it remained unable to convert successive waves of socio-economic and political crisis into a revolutionary overthrow of state power as the Bolsheviks had in 1917. To understand why this was it is necessary to assess the different strategies adopted by the KPD to forward its aim of communist revolution and to determine, on this basis, whether or not the organisation believed it was presented with a genuine opportunity to carry out a revolution in Germany.

Precisely what constituted a revolutionary situation was itself something that divided the organisation throughout the period. Winning the mass of workers away from reformist social democracy to revolutionary communism was an agreed prerequisite. However, unlike the Bolsheviks, who had competed on an almost equal footing with the Mensheviks for the hearts and minds of a small working class, the KPD confronted long established, mass social democratic organisations that held the political allegiance of millions of workers. Determining and implementing the correct strategy to win political leadership of these workers, specifically, what attitude the party should adopt in relation to the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Independent Social Democrats (USPD), formed in 1917 by the anti-war wing of the SPD, and the trade unions, was a source of continual tension within the organisation.

From its inception the experienced leaders of the KPD, headed by Rosa Luxemburg, had struggled to contain the revolutionary enthusiasm of their largely inexperienced and newly radicalised membership, who saw participation in the trade unions and elections to the new National Assembly as representing a step back from the direct action that had ended the war and swept away the Kaiser. The fact that the KPD was still a small minority in the working class movement seemed less important in the context of broadly based revolutionary action. This action, and the understanding that the party had to attract those involved if it was to build, exerted a pull on others in the leadership, perhaps most notably Karl Liebknecht, who were far more susceptible to the ebbs and flows of the struggle. It was precisely this tension, between those who sought to develop a revolutionary organisation guided by a sophisticated interpretation of Marxist theory, and those who expressed the impulsive, spontaneous rush of revolutionary fever, that led to the KPD attempting to place itself at the head of the Berlin uprising of 1919. This was despite the fact that the leaders knew it was a provocation, similar in some respects to the July events in Petrograd 18 months earlier, which was doomed to disaster. Over time these two distinct approaches were to find a more formal expression in the divisions between the “right” and “left” wings of the party that emerged after Luxemburg and Liebknecht’s death. The conflict between the right and left of the party created a continual instability within the leadership that prevented it from developing a consistent political doctrine that could be communicated in a unified manner to the working class.

The KPD’s deliberations over revolutionary strategy and the internal divisions that emerged from them can only be fully understood when taken in their international context. For the KPD was an integral part of the international communist movement developing rapidly in the wake of the Russian Revolution. From the spring of 1919 this movement was organised through the Communist International (Comintern). Founded by the Bolsheviks, the KPD and others as a means to organise and lead the world revolution, the Comintern came to play an important role in the history of inter-war Germany. Through a complicated process that arose out of the interconnection between the fortunes of the Russian Revolution and the Comintern, the KPD became increasingly subject to the guiding authority of the Comintern and Soviet leadership.

Tacking into the wind: 1920-1923

There can be few parties in the annals of our movement that have experienced the baptism of fire inflicted on the KPD. By the time the party reached its first birthday its most experienced leaders were dead, killed by government troops in the aftermath of the uprisings in Berlin and Bavaria, together with many hundreds, possibly thousands of their supporters and sympathisers. The party was outlawed in many of the German states and its members faced repression by the police and the employers. The demands placed on the party by the period—that it show its revolutionary élan and spirit of self sacrifice to the masses—had been satisfied at a terrible cost.

However, while the catastrophe of 1919 had left a profound impression on what remained of the KPD it was by no means a unified impression. While many of the new and inexperienced members could see that the party’s weakness had played a major role in its bloody defeats, they also saw its involvement in revolutionary opposition to the republic as being the single thing that would attract the thousands of workers who had participated in armed resistance to the Freikorps1 in the Ruhr region and elsewhere throughout 1919. Moreover, the actions of the SPD government had only confirmed to them the correctness of the decisions taken at the first KPD congress to boycott elections and remain outside the unions.

The surviving leaders, however, drew very different conclusions. Paul Levi, Heinrich Brandler, and others in the new leadership group had become convinced that the party’s actions were leading to its isolation from the mass of workers. At the second KPD congress, held in the autumn of 1919, Levi, resolved to shift party policy towards participation in elections and full involvement in the unions, forced a split with the party’s radical ultra-left, leading to the expulsion of nearly half the total membership of 100,000.

While these expulsions made the party organisationally weaker, Levi hoped that a greater level of political homogeneity, coupled with a reorientation of the party’s line, would lead to growth on a much firmer political basis. However, many of those who remained inside the KPD held strong sympathies with those who had been expelled—even if they were not prepared to leave themselves. Levi may have prevailed at the conference but the new leadership were still some way from winning the party to their approach in practice and the left of the party remained particularly strong in Berlin.

There is not the space here to chart the complex dynamics between the left and right in the KPD and the leaders of the Comintern in Moscow. However, two events in particular, the attempted Kapp-Lüttwitz putsch of March 1920, and the KPD’s attempted national offensive of March 1921, served not only to highlight but also to deepen the divisions that dogged the party throughout the revolutionary period.

The attempted coup against the SPD government by sections of the military and the Freikorps, headed up by the conservative bureaucrat Wolfgang Kapp, sparked a national general strike, led by the right wing SPD union leaders. The scale of the strikes, together with armed resistance by workers in the Ruhr, quickly defeated the coup. While the KPD had moved in some areas to put itself at the head of the movement, the leadership had at first denounced the strike call as dragging workers into a fight between two sections of the ruling class. This created widespread confusion and, although sharp criticism from Levi and Brandler was able to drag the party back towards a more promising line, it came too late for the KPD to capitalise on events. Instead the main beneficiaries of the coup were the USPD, whose influence grew sharply in its aftermath.

The central question quickly moved on to what sort of government should be formed in its aftermath. The actions of the SPD leadership had severely undermined its influence on the mass of workers, who were not prepared to end the strike until the issue of a new government was resolved. It was in this context that the trade union leaders proposed the idea of a “workers’ government” made up of the working class parties (SPD, USPD and KPD) together with the unions. After some debate the KPD decided that it could not join such a government, as the majority of workers were not in agreement with its aims. However, it made it clear that it would view such a government as a positive development. On 26 March 1920 Die Rote Fahne2 outlined the KPD’s position:

The party declares that its work will retain the character of a loyal opposition as long as the government does not infringe the guarantees which ensure the freedom of political activity of the working class… The party will not prepare a revolutionary coup d’état, but will preserve complete freedom of action as far as political propaganda for its ideas is concerned.3

This position marked a very definite turn in KPD thinking with important implications for its relations with other working class organisations. The “loyal opposition” line, which echoed that of Lenin and the Bolsheviks between August and September 1917 in the aftermath of similar events, provided a basis for joint action around common aims with Social Democrat and USPD workers without compromising the KPD through involvement in a government that still operated within the confines of the bourgeois democratic republic and capitalist economic relations.4

The idea of a “workers’ government” was ultimately rejected by the USPD, whose left wing considered the proposal as nothing more than a reconstitution of the Social Democrat Ebert-Haase government of November-December 1918. Nevertheless, the shift in the KPD’s orientation towards the rest of the left enabled them to pursue local and national initiatives aimed at drawing non-communist workers closer to the party through joint campaigns.

This new approach was given further support by Lenin in the form of his pamphlet, “LeftWing”Communism: An Infantile Disorder, written in the spring of 1920 for the forthcoming Second Congress of the Comintern. Directing his criticisms primarily at the left wing of the KPD, Lenin attacked the idea that revolutionaries should not work together with Social Democrats in struggles over specific demands. Thus, while he castigated the KPD for its uncritical acceptance of the idea of a “workers’ government”, which Lenin denounced as utterly misleading, he nonetheless defended the formulation of a “loyal opposition”, stating: “This statement is quite correct both in its basic premise and its practical conclusions”.5

Lenin’s motivations for writing the pamphlet, which are discussed in detail by John Rose in International Socialism 138,6 were not only to warn of the dangers posed by the left wing but also to put in place a strategy for drawing the rank and file of the centrist parties of Europe, such as the USPD, closer to the Communists. This task was largely achieved in December 1920, when the USPD voted to accept the Comintern’s 21 conditions of entry and break with their right leaning leaders. The bulk of the party then merged with the KPD. This spectacular success, which the Comintern hoped would be repeated in France and Italy, raised hopes that a new era was beginning in which Communists would be in a position to assume the leadership of future struggles.

Merger with the independents transformed the KPD overnight from a small sect numbering tens of thousands, to a party of some 450,000 working class members, making it the first mass Communist Party outside Soviet Russia. Emboldened by the party’s new found strength, the left wing led by Paul Frölich, and two young intellectuals from the Berlin organisation, Ruth Fischer and Arkadi Maslow, began arguing for a more dynamic, active policy.

Yet Levi was unmoved. He believed that Lenin’s attack on the “lefts” and the success in splitting the independents vindicated his approach. Taking his lead from local party initiatives in Stuttgart, Levi, together with the Comintern’s representative in Germany, Karl Radek, drafted an “Open Letter”, addressed to all other workers’ organisations, calling for joint action around specific demands. The initiative was roundly rejected by the leaders of all the organisations it was addressed to, though it met with some success at a rank and file level.7 However, it was events elsewhere that were to seal Levi’s fate and set the KPD on a radically new course.

The origins of the March Action are notoriously complex involving, as they do, a coalescing of interests between different groups in the KPD, Comintern and Soviet leaderships. A detailed look at Paul Levi, his demise as leader of the KPD and the events that followed, can be found in an excellent article by Sebastian Zehetmair and John Rose in International Socialism 136.8 Suffice it to say, once Levi and his supporters had resigned from the leadership, following what amounted to a vote of no confidence, the way was clear for the left to implement their “theory of the offensive”.

On 16 March the police occupied the Mansfeld mining district, provoking armed resistance from local workers that quickly spread across central Germany. Sensing an opportune moment, the Zentrale9 unfurled their plans. On the following day the KPD called the workers to arms and proclaimed open insurrection. The results were disastrous.10 After a week of bloody and futile clashes with the army and state police it was clear that the “offensive” was in fact a pathetic adventure that had achieved nothing but the deaths of the party’s most self-sacrificing elements. As the KPD, isolated as never before, reeled under government attacks, the Comintern’s representative, Béla Kun, departed for Moscow leaving the Zentrale to pick up the pieces. Levi’s subsequent attack on the March Action, printed independently (ie outside the publications of the party), drew heavy criticism from the party and Comintern leadership and eventually led to his expulsion from the party. However, once the dust had settled and it became obvious that the party had led itself to yet another terrible defeat, Leon Trotsky and Lenin resolved to take on the Comintern leadership and the left in Germany at the forthcoming Third Congress. Within six months the Comintern formally announced its conversion to the “United Front”, which effectively marked a return to the policy of Levi, though of course it was not politically expedient to admit as much, hence the delay.

In Germany spiralling inflation from June 1922 onwards had led to a resurgence of industrial militancy as workers fought to keep wage rises in line with price rises. In such conditions communist appeals for joint action for improved wages and price controls on essential goods won sympathy among non-communist workers and were harder for the local leaderships of the SPD and USPD to dismiss.11 In addition, the KPD played an active role in leading political campaigns, like those against fascism in the aftermath of the assassination of foreign minister Walther Rathenau by the far-right. Whatever the success of these individual campaigns, there can be little doubt that the united front helped rebuild the KPD’s shattered cadres and strengthened its influence among non-communist workers. Following a year of united front work, KPD membership had risen from around 150,000 in the aftermath of the March Action, to 328,613.12 The party still contained destabilising political currents, most importantly the “left opposition” around Fischer and Maslow that had a considerable base in Berlin, Hamburg and the Ruhr. Yet as 1922 drew to a close, the Zentrale could be satisfied that, on an organisational level at least, the terrible damage done to the party in March 1921 was well on the way to being repaired. Events, however, were about to take a dramatic turn.

October 1923: a date with destiny?

1923 was the year in which Germany’s already difficult economic situation developed into a catastrophe, wreaking hunger and destitution upon the German working class. It was also the year of deep political crisis that saw a sharp rise in support for the organisations of the far-left and right. The trigger to these events was the French army’s occupation of the Ruhr in January 1923, in reprisal for shortcomings in Germany’s reparation payments. The call of the right wing Cuno government for a policy of “passive resistance”, including what it described as “patriotic strike action”, received widespread support amid the wave of German nationalism that accompanied the occupation.

The KPD faced a complex political dilemma. It knew that while the government, the industrialists and the extreme right might benefit from the patriotic mood, there was a limit to their enthusiasm for working class action. Moreover, while workers across Germany suffered under the terms of Versailles and hyperinflation, the industrialists became ever richer. Its response was an intensification of the united front policy designed to unite the fight against economic hardships with an ideological campaign against the mood of national unity and the fascist right, a strategy summed up by the party’s slogan: “Fight Poincaré and Cuno on the Ruhr and on the Spree!”13

By the summer of 1923 hyperinflation had reached astronomic proportions, dragging not only the working class, but also the lower middle class into destitution and ruin. While the KPD pressed for ever more radical measures in the battle over wages and price controls, the Social Democrats continued to offer Cuno their support, using their influence in the trade unions to hold the struggle back. In such conditions, large numbers of workers began looking for a radical alternative and became increasingly involved in initiatives organised by the KPD. Perhaps the most important expression of this was the rejuvenation of the factory committees, which offered workers a way of organising outside the trade unions. By the summer of 1923 Victor Serge, who was in Germany reporting for the Comintern press agency, Inprekorr, could write:

The revolutionary situation is ripening in Germany. The remarkable and rapid growth of Communist influence is perhaps the best indication of it. After having remained for several months with an average print run of 25,000 copies, Die Rote Fahne of Berlin is now printing 60,000, more than Vorwärts [the SPD’s daily paper]. And it is, after all, only one of the KPD’s 30 daily papers. The growth in the party’s membership is also noticeable, as is the extension of its trade union influence and its moral leadership within the factory committee movement.14

However, while the working class were moving closer to the Communists, the lower middle class, traditionally conservative, were being drawn to fascism in alarming numbers. Aggressive anti-fascist activity, such as building the “Proletarian Hundreds”, quasi-workers’ militias organised to defend left wing meetings and demonstrations, formed an integral part of the KPD’s united front work. However, the party believed its real strength lay in its ability to offer hope to all the dispossessed and downtrodden sections of society. Perhaps the boldest and most controversial initiative designed to win the sympathy of the lower middle class was Radek’s infamous Schlageter speech, in which he attempted to appeal directly to the right wing paramilitaries on the basis that the better future they were prepared to fight and die for could only be achieved by a communist revolution.

The implementation of the “Schlageter line” was accompanied by their most active anti-fascist activity yet. For it was becoming evident, even to those of a more cautious persuasion such as Brandler, that Germany’s catastrophic economic, social and political situation was in fact developing towards a crisis of confidence in the entire social order, which required a more aggressive response from the KPD. On 12 July Brandler published an appeal on the front page of Die Rote Fahne, entitled To the Party! which marked a radical shift in emphasis:

We Communists can win this battle with the counter-revolution only if we succeed in leading the Social-Democratic and non-party workers into the struggle with us… Our party must raise the combativity of its organisations to a height that can ensure that they are not taken unawares when civil war breaks out.15

The appeal caused some consternation among the Zentrale. However, Brandler was able to persuade his traditional supporters on the right of the party, while the left, who had continually called for a more aggressive policy, could hardly protest now one was being offered. The same edition carried a call for an “Anti-Fascist Day” of action on 29 July to consist of demonstrations and meetings across Germany. In the context of Brandler’s article, the Anti-Fascist Day provided the KPD with an important opportunity to mobilise outside its own ranks and assess its growing influence among non-communist workers.16

The proposed demonstrations were attacked in the press as a prelude to an armed communist uprising and quickly outlawed across Germany, with the exception of Saxony and Thuringia, which were controlled by left wing Social Democrats. The stakes had been raised. Haunted by visions of 1919 and 1921, Brandler was uncertain how to proceed. Was this the moment to galvanise the party’s support and intimidate their opponents by a decided show of strength or could the KPD be heading into another trap designed to destroy the party? The left wanted to press ahead. Brandler was not sure. Divided and lacking confidence in its own decision-making abilities the Zentrale looked to Moscow for answers.

Following yet another stroke in March, Lenin was forced to retire permanently from political life. At the time when Brandler telegraphed Moscow, the twelfth party congress had just come to a close, exposing the deep divisions inside the Soviet leadership. The immediate issue, the so called “scissor crisis”,17 over the direction of economic development revealed a growing political fractionalisation between Trotsky on the one hand and the “troika” of Gregory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev and the party general secretary, Joseph Stalin, on the other. Brandler’s wire found Moscow deserted, the principal Bolshevik leaders having all gone on holiday following the conference. Only Radek had been left to hold the fort, and since he, like Brandler, had erred in 1921 his inclination was to avoid a confrontation unless victory was certain. However, his past performance did not inspire him to make such a bold decision and so he telegraphed Zinoviev and Nikolai Bukharin, who were both of the opinion that the Anti-Fascist Day should go ahead. Radek, however, was not entirely convinced and contacted Stalin and Trotsky. Stalin, wanting to play it safe in an area he knew next to nothing about, stated he thought the action should be called off. Trotsky was alone in being honest enough to admit he lacked up to date information on Germany and therefore could not give an answer. On 26 July Radek replied to Brandler: “The presidium of the Comintern advises the abandonment of street demonstrations on 29 July… We fear a trap”.18

The Zentrale duly called off the planned demonstrations in favour of indoor meetings. Nevertheless, the meetings were well attended with hundreds of thousands participating around the country. Die Rote Fahne boasted:

If the Communists had intended, as the government claims, to have begun the civil war on the 29th, no one could have stopped them. But they had no thought of joining battle at the moment chosen by the enemy.19

Yet nothing could remove the fact that in the face of government repression the party had retreated, and in doing so lost a valuable opportunity to test the real strength of its forces. Clearly it had been able to mobilise well outside its own ranks, but to be victorious a movement requires more than growing numbers. It must inspire its participants with growing confidence in their own strength and that of their leadership, while striking a corresponding lack of confidence in its opponents. Such a process can only take place through a series of confrontations in which the balance of forces is tested. Yet because of their past mistakes this was a crucial step that the party leaders were unwilling to take, and when, a few weeks later, Germany was hit by its largest strike wave yet, the party was still not certain of the true strength it commanded.

As can often be the case with revolutionary parties in critical periods, the KPD was surprised by the scale of strikes and go-slows that erupted across Germany in the summer of 1923. While each strike had its own, largely economic, demands, the KPD moved quickly to try and develop the action into a general strike against the Cuno government. For the past year the party had been building its influence inside the growing networks of local and national factory committees. As organs of class struggle the factory committees sat somewhat awkwardly between the soviets, as established in Russia, that attempted to organise the whole working class, and the trade unions. Like unions they were organised around the workplace. However, they were made up of rank and file representatives without a permanent bureaucratic apparatus and cut across different trades bringing all the workers of a particular factory together. As such, they represented an alternative industrial power that could challenge both the employers and the official unions, but not necessarily an alternative political power to the capitalist state in the way the soviets were (and one could write a separate article over this particular debate).

Nevertheless, communist influence inside the factory committees was huge and growing fast. Much would rest on whether or not the KPD could utilise its growing dominance in the committees, won through united front struggles of a defensive nature, to lead an offensive struggle for state power.

The collapse of the Cuno government in the face of determined and militant strike action, and its replacement by a broad coalition under Gustav Stresemann, woke the Soviet leadership to the scale of the German movement. On 23 August the Russian Political Bureau met in Moscow to discuss the “approaching revolutionary crisis”.20 Trotsky was adamant that Germany was on the cusp of the long awaited workers’ revolution that would save Soviet Russia from its isolation. For this reason, Trotsky argued that the KPD must begin to make the necessary political and technical preparations for an armed uprising. Zinoviev, despite his pronouncements, was somewhat more cautious. Though he agreed with Trotsky’s overall analysis of the situation, he preferred to reckon in terms of months rather than weeks. Stalin was more cautious still, seeing no prospect of revolution for six months or more. However, Radek, who had offered the most cautious estimations of success up until this point, shrugged off his scepticism in the face of agreement between Trotsky, who he was close to, and Zinoviev, who he was not. Thus the Politburo committed itself to building for the German revolution.21

Preparations within the KPD and the Soviet leadership began apace. Throughout August Die Rote Fahne ran a series of articles under titles such as: Let the Proletariat Prepare! and Preparations for a New Battle, which discussed the tactical problems of obtaining arms. On August 24 the paper published an open appeal To the Working People in the SPD, calling on them to break with the leaders and join the KPD for the final struggle.22

Late in August the Comintern summoned representatives from both wings of the KPD to Moscow to discuss preparations for the coming revolution. They arrived to find the Russians apparently united in their estimation of the situation and keen to press ahead with detailed plans. Initially there seemed to be no open differences of opinion. However, it was not long before Brandler and Trotsky found themselves disagreeing over the vexing question of setting a date for the insurrection. Trotsky was keen that a date be set and took up the question in an article entitled “Can a counter-revolution or a revolution be made on schedule?” published in Pravda on September 29:

Obviously, it is not possible to create artificially a political situation favourable for a reactionary 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, as we have seen, choose beforehand a favourable moment, and synchronises accordingly its political, organisational, and technical forces, and—if it has not miscalculated—deals the victorious blow.23

Here Trotsky was referring to reactionary counter-revolutions but asserted that “this applies all the more to the proletarian revolution”. His position was supported by the German lefts and Zinoviev, and taking into account the time necessary to complete the preparations, Trotsky suggested the symbolic date of 7 November. However, Brandler, supported by Radek, stubbornly resisted, arguing that the date could only be chosen by the KPD in accordance with its reading of the political situation. A compromise was eventually brokered by Zinoviev who suggested that the date serve merely for orientation with the implicit understanding that the uprising was to take place in the next four to six weeks.24 This seemed to satisfy everyone concerned and the discussion moved on. Yet what could be brushed aside as a difference in styles in fact pointed to something far more worrying, namely that neither Brandler nor Radek wholeheartedly subscribed to the optimistic analysis of imminent revolutionary success shared by the Russians.

This difference between Brandler, the Soviet/Comintern leadership, and the left within his own party was further highlighted by the substantive issue of how the seizure of power should be carried out. The basic plan, proposed by the Russians, was that the KPD enter the state governments of Saxony and Thuringia, where radical left wing Social Democratic administrations ruled with Communist support. This, they argued, would provide the KPD with the opportunity to acquire arms, and once the government moved against it, to rally the working class for the seizure of state power.

The left faction in the KPD, though they did not like the idea of a workers’ government, were nonetheless prepared to accept the strategy as a means to initiating the revolution. However, Brandler, previously supportive of a coalition as a continuation of the united front policy, opposed the initiative, arguing that while the leadership of the party were in Moscow making military and technical preparations for the revolution, they had not yet made sufficient political preparations among the masses for such an offensive. Brandler was supported in this view by August Thalheimer, who wrote from Berlin: “We shall have to travel a long road, both on the political and the organisational plane, before we meet the conditions which will ensure the victory of the working class”.25

Moreover, as Brandler told Trotsky’s biographer Isaac Deutscher some 25 years later: “I kept on explaining to them that the Saxon government was in no position to arm the workers, because since the Kapp putsch all weapons had been taken away from Saxony and neighbouring provinces.” Zinoviev “thundered and banged his fist on the table” and Trotsky “tried to persuade me that I should submit to the decision of the Comintern.” Only Radek, according to Brandler, “was convinced of the unreality of all these decisions”. In the end, despite his reservations, Brandler submitted to the authority of the Russians and allowed himself to be overruled.26

With the plan agreed and the timetable set, there remained one important matter, the left wing. Though they had sworn to uphold the decisions of the Zentrale, Brandler did not trust them and wanted them removed from the leadership during the critical weeks ahead. While in Moscow, Trotsky had witnessed first-hand the state of relations between the party factions and was inclined to agree with Brandler. However, Zinoviev, well aware of the Bolsheviks’ own inter-party struggle, had no intention of cementing an alliance between Brandler, prospectively the leader of the German Revolution, and Trotsky, leader of the Russian Revolution. In the end a further compromise was reached. Grounds were found to keep Maslow in Moscow, while Fischer and the other lefts returned with Brandler to Berlin.

Events now moved rapidly to a climax. On 10 October the Communists took up three ministerial posts in the Saxony government, though crucially not the position of interior minister, which they had hoped would gain them access to arms. In Moscow the leaders awaited news with bated breath. Yet as late as 12 October Brandler reported to the Zentrale: “Our entry into the Saxon government permits us to regroup and prepare for civil war…but the situation regarding arms is catastrophic… Our duty is to temporise”.27

The situation did indeed contain some worrying omens. As early as 4 September the government had placed a week-long ban on Die Rote Fahne. The paper was suspended again at the end of September and only appeared twice in legal editions between 11 and 20 October. In contrast to the Bolsheviks, who after having their press banned by the Provisional Government simply reopened it with the assistance of pro-Bolshevik soldiers, the KPD seemed reluctant to provoke confrontations that might upset their timetable, a point made some time later by August Thalheimer:

It must be understood that after the Cuno strike the enemy dealt the workers’ movement a whole series of blows to which the party did not reply because it did not want to waste its energies in partial struggles. By doing this the party neglected to link up the rest of the masses and to establish which forces among the masses it could control.28

Martial law was declared throughout Germany with General Müller assuming power in Saxony. The SPD-KPD governments in Saxony and Thuringia organised mass rallies of the banned Proletarian Hundreds in protest, yet their show of strength remained unconvincing. Despite the general’s threat of force, little effort was made to procure arms for the Hundreds. Thus, on 20 October, when the general issued his final ultimatum to the Zeigner government in Saxony to disband the Hundreds, the Saxon workers were in no position to mount a successful defence of their stronghold. Nonetheless, Müller’s ultimatum was rejected and so his troops began their advance. In the words of E H Carr, “The Reichswehr had done what Brandler had shrunk from doing. It had fixed the date on which the Communists must either act or confess their impotence”.29

What followed can only be described as a debacle. A conference of workers’ organisations was held in Chemnitz, Saxony, on 21 October. Brandler and the Communists, realising that the moment had come, called for a general strike in protest at the impending military incursion, but the demand fell flat. The Social Democrats were clearly not ready to contemplate civil war with the Reichswehr. Panic set in among the Communists. If the SPD in Saxony were not prepared to join them in a struggle to defend their own government, then what chance had the revolution in other parts of Germany? Brandler and the Zentrale drew the logical conclusions. The insurrection, that had seemed only hours away, was called off. The following day Radek and his party of Comintern officials arrived in the Saxon capital. Brandler explained his reasoning, and Radek concurred. Unfortunately, through a fault that has never been properly explained, the delegates from the Hamburg KPD to the Chemnitz meeting left before the decision to call off the insurrection had been made. On their return, believing that the plan was still in effect, they launched an isolated rising in the city that led to a bloody 24 hours of fighting before the Communists were crushed. The “German October” was over.

The crisis of the world revolution

Though it was not immediately obvious to either the leaders of the KPD or the Comintern, the debacle in Saxony marked the end of any hopes for a revolutionary outcome to Germany’s post-war crisis. The German bourgeoisie, having faced down the Communist challenge, wasted no time going over to the offensive. On 2 November the SPD resigned from the government as Stresemann implemented stringent measures, including the scrapping of the eight-hour day and a squeeze on credits that saw wholesale factory closures until 28 percent of union members were unemployed and 42 percent were on short time working.30

Where the blame lay for the KPD’s defeat became the subject of increasingly acrimonious disputes within the KPD and Soviet/Comintern leadership. It was not only the fate of Germany that was in the balance. Since October 1917 the Bolsheviks had looked to the West, and in particular Germany, as the crucial next stage in the world revolution. Years of disappointment and isolation had demoralised the Soviet leadership and forced innumerable compromises in an already economically backward and devastated country. For a time in the summer of 1923, when it seemed that the spectre of communism had providentially returned just in time to save the Bolsheviks from their internal difficulties, the inter-party feuds subsided. For a brief, final moment the Bolshevik leaders were united behind the KPD’s attempt to seize power. But it was not to last.

In late October, seeing that the Zinoviev/Kamenev/Stalin troika was moving to undermine his position, Trotsky brought the inter-party struggle out into the open with two letters to the Bolshevik Central Committee denouncing the rise of the bureaucracy. Trotsky’s letters were followed on 15 October by a letter from 46 leading Communists (the so-called platform of the 46) that attacked the policy of the Soviet leaders in the same vein. Once Moscow had accepted the finality of the defeat in Germany, reasoned analysis of its causes gave way to fierce factional struggles. Indeed, in Thalheimer’s account of 1923, he cites the internal struggles in the Russian party as the decisive moment at which the Comintern, in the form of Zinoviev, began to distance themselves from the decisions of the Brandler Zentrale. Discussing a speech by Radek in which he claimed support for Trotsky among the leading parties in the International, Thalheimer states:

A few days later, Zinoviev sent a letter to the leadership of the German party in which he completely changed course and opened up a violent attack against it. In this way, there began the general witch-hunt against the leadership.31

The outcome of these events was a concerted attempt by Zinoviev, on behalf of his faction inside the Russian Communist Party, to look for allies of his own among the parties of the Comintern, starting with the KPD. This was easier said than done, for the battle lines that were drawn over the October debacle in Germany criss-crossed one another in such a way that demarcation was complicated. Nonetheless, two basic positions emerged. The first, which was held by Brandler, Radek and the right of the KPD, was that though Germany was, in the broadest sense, passing through a revolutionary crisis, the moment had not yet arrived for the open struggle for power. The party had won a massive influence inside the working class, but not yet the “clear and unambiguous majority” that Luxemburg had deemed necessary. Years later Brandler was to write: “I did not consider the situation to be acutely revolutionary, but was of the opinion that it could still become so”.32 Thalheimer took a similar view:

During 1923 [the party] did not succeed in winning over the majority of the working class to the struggle for power by means of the united front. But this is a partial truth, for without the previous success gained through the united front tactic, the question of taking power in 1923 could not even have been raised.33

The conclusion implicit in this line of reasoning is that the blame for the defeat rested with the executive committee of the Comintern (the ECCI) and the Russian Politburo that had ordered revolutionary action, and not the leadership of the KPD, which had taken a more cautious line.

Radek, in a speech made soon after the October events, was more self-critical. Reflecting on the general failure of the party to shift from the defensive to the offensive he noted:

We said in the resolution of the Leipzig conference [in January]: this phase will end in civil war. We were right theoretically but we did not draw the practical conclusions. We should have developed the growing mass struggle from May onwards, as the failure of the Ruhr action [the Cuno government’s strategy of “passive resistance”] was obvious and as the elements of social decomposition grew…we said we must first gain the masses. This period lasted until the Ruhr struggle. Then we could no longer be propagandists, but had to move over to action. But we did not move quickly enough.34

The second analysis was that held by Trotsky, who had been the most enthusiastic among both leaderships about the prospects for revolution in Germany. Trotsky was clear where the blame lay and shortly afterwards wrote:

If the [German] Communist Party had abruptly changed the pace of its work and had profited by the five or six months that history accorded it for direct political, organisational, technical preparation for the seizure of power, the outcome of the events could have been quite different from the one we witnessed.35

Therefore by implication the fault lay not with the Soviet leaders but with the KPD Zentrale. This was, in effect, similar to the position of the left inside the KPD, who had agreed with Trotsky on the need for a more aggressive course earlier in the year and blamed Brandler, Thalheimer and Radek for the debacle—though even the left conceded the necessity of calling off the insurrection, given the circumstances. Yet despite this, Trotsky never sided with the left, but instead agreed with Radek that despite their mistakes nothing could be gained from deposing the right leadership and replacing them with the left. In my own view this apparent contradiction expresses a deeper tension in Trotsky’s analysis. On the one hand he repeatedly attacked the German leadership for what he saw as their panicky retreat in October and chastised them for handing the initiative back to the bourgeoisie without an open confrontation. However, in two important essays written in the months after the defeat in Germany, The New Course and The Lessons of October, as well as his speeches from the period, he also reiterates the point made in the quote above that in fact the KPD’s work suffered from an inability to transform itself from a defensive to an offensive character and that such a turn should have been implemented several months before October. In other words, the party had not sufficiently prepared itself or a majority of the working class for an open struggle for power, an analysis that would seem to support the conclusions drawn by the KPD leadership.

Thus a complex picture emerges with Brandler, Radek and Trotsky on one side, despite their fundamentally different appraisal of events, while on the other side the left were becoming increasingly aligned with Zinoviev, and in turn Stalin, even though Zinoviev’s original position was somewhere between Brandler’s and Trotsky’s, and Stalin’s was more cautious. However, as head of the ECCI, Zinoviev could not avoid some responsibility, nor could he distance himself convincingly from the overall strategy. Rather, defending the original strategy, he had to concoct a theory that the fault lay with its bungled implementation by the leadership.36 On 4 February 1924 he attacked the German leadership in Inprekorr:

The political error was a necessary consequence of your overestimation of the degree of political and technical preparation. We here in Moscow, as you must be well aware, regarded the entry of Communists into the Saxon government only as a military-strategic manoevre. You turned it into a political bloc with the “left” Social Democrats, which tied your hands… You turned participation in the Saxon Cabinet into a banal parliamentary coalition with the Social Democrats. The result was our political defeat.37

Zinoviev’s argument, while it may be accidentally correct in parts, seems nothing more that a contrived fiction designed to align him with those forces opposed to Trotsky’s allies in the German party. The subsequent hardening of the Soviet bureaucracy’s position with regard to both the right in Germany and the “Opposition” inside Russia, seems only to confirm this.

Nevertheless, despite their differences, there is one thing that all sides were more or less agreed on, that the crisis inside German society during 1923 contained the potential for a revolutionary overthrow of the existing order and its replacement with a system of workers’ power. Whether this potential can be reduced to a specific date that was then missed by the KPD is, I think, highly debatable. Their climb-down over the Anti-Fascist Day of Action and their failure to successfully challenge the attacks on their press indicate, as Thalheimer suggests, a more general failure to deepen the relationship between the party and the working class by connecting the struggle to defend the party from attack to the wider struggle being waged by workers. Though too close a comparison is not necessarily helpful, it was in this respect that the Bolsheviks, from the defeat of Kornilov onwards, were so successful.

What can be said is that the ending of the revolutionary period that had lasted from the mutiny in Kiel in November 1918 to the debacle in Chemnitz in October 1923 had a profound effect, not only on the KPD but on the internal dynamic in the Soviet Union. As Trotsky was to write many years later:

The panicky retreat of the German Communist Party was the heaviest possible disappointment to the working masses of the Soviet Union. The Soviet bureaucracy straight away opened a campaign against the theory of “permanent revolution”, and dealt the Left Opposition its first cruel blow.38

This argument is taken up by Broué who concludes his study by arguing that: “Within the Communist International, beginning with the Russian Communist party itself, the defeat of 1923 represented, if not the starting point, at least the decisive acceleration in a process of degeneration”.39

Consequently the defeat of the revolutionary period in Germany emerges as an event of world historic importance that decisively shaped the 20th century. In many ways the problems confronted by the KPD were more akin to our own than those confronted by the Bolsheviks. Their attempts to formulate a strategy that allowed the party to work both with and against the mass Social Democratic organisations, drawing their members into joint activity while simultaneously trying to break the stranglehold of reformism, helped develop the strategy of the united front adopted by the Comintern, and of such importance to us today. Indeed, whether trying to develop workers’ resistance to austerity in Britain, or attempting to relate to the millions involved in revolutionary action in Egypt, the experience of the KPD in the early 1920s is of great value to revolutionaries in the 21st century. It is an experience of spectacular successes and terrible defeats. But as Rosa Luxemburg had written in her last known article, “revolution is the only form of ‘war’…in which the ultimate victory can be prepared only by a series of ‘defeats’”.40


1: Extreme right wing paramilitaries created to assist the army with putting down internal revolt.

2: The Red Flag, main paper of the KPD.

3: Broué, 2005, p369.

4: Lenin, 1964, p305.

5: Lenin, 1966, p109.

6: Rose, 2013.

7: Broué, 2005, p472.

8: Zehetmair and Rose, 2012.

9: The KPD’s equivalent of a central committee.

10: Carr, 1953, p336.

11: Harman, 1982, p234.

12: Broué, 2005, p628.

13: Poincaré was the French prime minister. There is some conjecture surrounding this headline-both Angress and Carr cite it as belonging to the 23 January edition of Die Rote Fahne, while Broué cites it as 23 February. It seems reasonable to assume that this is an error on Broué’s behalf. There also exists a story, emanating from Ruth Fischer and Erich Wollenberg, that Radek had the journalists responsible removed from the paper and the headline rewritten “Fight Cuno and Poincaré on the Spree and on the Ruhr”, ie with a change in emphasis. However, according to Broué, there is no evidence of such an edition.

14: Serge, 1999, p30.

15: Broué, 2005, p736.

16: Angress, 1963, p359.

17: Carr, 1954, p21.

18: Broué, 2005, p741.

19: Broué, 2005, p741.

20: Broué, 2005, p756.

21: Carr, 1954, pp202-203.

22: Broué, 2005, p760.

23: Trotsky, 1996, p347.

24: Angress, 1963, p402.

25: Broué, 2005, p774.

26: Deutscher, 1977, pp51-52.

27: Broue , 2005, p798.

28: Thalheimer, 2004, p116.

29: Carr, 1954, p221.

30: Harman, 1982, p293.

31: Thalheimer, 2004, p103.

32: Deutscher, 1977, p80.

33: Thalheimer, 2004, p102.

34: Quoted in Harman, 1982, p257.

35: Trotsky, 1980, p105.

36: Carr, 1954, p228.

37: Broué, 2005, p821.

38: Trotsky, 1977, p91.

39: Broué, 2005, p899.

40: Luxemburg, 1919.


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