Germany’s lost Bolshevik: Paul Levi revisited

Issue: 136

Sebastian Zehetmair

A review of David Fernbach (ed), In the Steps of Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Writings by Paul Levi (Brill, 2011), €99

Introduction by John Rose

David Fernbach’s selection of the writings of Paul Levi allows us not only to reassess the German Revolution’s little known “lost” leader, but also to reassess the failure of the German Revolution itself.1 This could hardly be more pertinent at the present time. We are in the middle of a full-scale capitalist crisis in a potentially dangerous combination with the widespread view that communist and socialist ideas are not relevant to it. The claim is that these ideas have been tried and failed.

That “Soviet Communism” failed is not in doubt. But this journal is associated with a tradition that rejects the view that the failure was inevitable-rooted in a misplaced utopian scheme to impose totalitarian perfectibility on an unwilling human nature. On the contrary, the prospects of transforming the stunted human nature that capitalism imposes-ruthlessly
dividing society by social classes-was briefly offered by the successful socialist Bolshevik-led working class revolution in the mainly peasant country of Russia in October 1917. However, there was a vital precondition insisted upon by the Bolshevik leadership: the revolution must spread to the advanced industrial countries, otherwise the mainly peasant economy-and the surrounding capitalist states-would strangle it.

Germany was the country and the arena where this expectation was most likely to be realised. But this most advanced industrial economy in Europe also had an advanced industrial working class with deeply rooted ideas about how to make progress. And these ideas rejected revolution in favour of reform even in the aftermath of the defeat of Germany in the First World War and the chaos, economic breakdown, impoverishment, demoralisation and, yes, revolutionary ferment that ensued.

It is true that workers’ and soldiers’ councils, or soviets, did emerge as an exciting and potentially plausible response to the crisis, raising prospects for an alliance with the struggling socialist republic of the soviets in Russia. But they were dominated by reformist ideas and mainly reformist leaders.

This allowed the Social Democratic Party (SPD), while mouthing revolutionary slogans when appropriate, to contain the revolutionary mood that was momentarily widespread in the working class. Large minorities of workers were ready to push for insurrection, but the majority was not. This complicated situation allowed established revolutionary socialist leaders such as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht to be outmanoeuvred. It was a problem that would recur time and again in Germany between 1918 and 1923 and it required innovative tactics and strategies. Tragically, the assassination of Luxemburg and Liebknecht prevented them from learning the lessons and the minority revolutionary wing of the movement was beheaded. German Social Democracy consolidated its position with majority support in the working class, even though at least some German SPD leaders had Luxemburg’s and Liebknecht’s blood on their hands.

We have here a particularly cruel and bitter warning that revolutionary socialist tactics and strategies do not automatically and mechanically transfer from one situation to the next. Did Bolshevik principles apply to the situation in Germany and similar countries in the rest of Europe? The answer was yes, but on condition that the effort of imaginative political thinking was made to understand fully the strengths of reformism and then how to train a cadre with the appropriate tactics and strategies.

As we will see, Paul Levi, Rosa Luxemburg’s successor, understood this more than any other German revolutionary leader. But as a matter of fact the person who understood it most of all was Lenin.

“Politics”, Lenin wrote in “LeftWing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder in April-May 1920, “is a science and an art that does not fall from the skies… To overcome the bourgeoisie, the proletariat must train its own proletarian class politicians of a kind in no way inferior to bourgeois politicians”.2 Tony Cliff described Lenin’s pamphlet as of such importance that it could legitimately be compared to the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels.3

Its underlying principle called on revolutionary socialists to work wherever the masses are to be found.4 Lenin was particularly concerned that the growing wave of emerging young communist parties across Europe and beyond learned simultaneously to relate to the revolutionary minorities and the reformist majorities in the working class movements at the same time. Above all this meant working within the reformist trade unions as well as taking parliamentary, regional and local elections very seriously. This included standing communist candidates where appropriate.

Lenin even called it “obligatory” on the party of the revolutionary proletariat to stand candidates.5 Of course, there should be no illusions in the bourgeois democratic process but instead a sensitive recognition that most workers take such elections seriously and that they can provide a powerful public forum for revolutionary socialist ideas.6

Alas the KPD, the new Communist Party of Germany, had hardly had time fully to absorb Lenin’s message before it was hit by a very different line of political argument. This sought to activate the revolutionary minority for a revolutionary offensive as a trigger for mass action-for what became known as the March Action of 1921-by the wider majority in the working class movement, irrespective of the mood of the majority. And the argument carried enormous weight-because it appeared authorised by the leadership of the recently established Communist International, or Comintern. The “theory of the offensive” as it was known had the catastrophic consequences of simultaneously destroying Paul Levi as a revolutionary socialist and derailing, arguably permanently, the German socialist revolution.

Sebastian Zehetmair, a young socialist historian from Germany, has done an excellent job in using the publication of Levi’s writings to deepen our understanding of the processes involved here. He develops arguments used by Broué, Cliff and Harman among others to show how the “theory of the offensive” reflected the impasse reached by the Russian Revolution following the civil war, and symbolised by the Kronstadt sailors’ uprising against the Bolsheviks and the introduction of the NEP, the New Economic Policy.7 In a sense he demonstrates that the breakdown of the Russian Revolution was itself a key factor in the failure of the German Revolution.

By coincidence International Socialism editorial board member Gareth Jenkins is currently translating into English Pierre Broué’s history of the Comintern from the French original.8 Gareth draws conclusions which confirm the arguments used here:

What comes through for me, I think, in Broué’s account is how sections of the already degenerating Russian leadership (Zinoviev, in particular) translate the necessity for revolution in Germany. Its organic development (Open Letter,9 patiently winning the majority of the masses from reformist and centrist leadership) is sacrificed to its forced development (building a centralised, militarised, disciplined party through Comintern envoys, directives from on high, etc) as a kind of short cut to help the Soviet state in its difficulties. The terrible irony is that this kind of forced development dovetailed with the impatience of leftists10-who thought that the new mass communist party (itself a qualitative breakthrough) could bring about the revolution irrespective of the actual state of the consciousness of the millions of workers outside it. Thus bureaucratic short-termism combined with voluntaristic short-termism made the theory of the offensive something that was deeply attractive to very different elements in the movement.

It would be a mistake to argue that the theory of the offensive sealed the Stalinist fate of the revolution. On the other hand its poisonous influence at a critical moment simultaneously in the evolution of Communism in Germany and the deepening crisis for Bolshevism in Russia significantly accelerated the degeneration towards Stalinism.



The fact remains that, during 1918-21, Levi was the only Communist leader outside Russia whose intransigent character and political penetration made him an interlocutor who could discuss with the Russian leaders on an equal basis, and that no one was able to fill the gap once he was expelled. He was the only person who posed in political terms the problem of Communism immediately after the victory of the revolution in Russia, how to graft on to the old solidly and deeply rooted tree of the Western workers’ movement the living graft of the revolutionary advance of 1917 and of conciliar power.11

This is how Pierre Broué, one of the most authoritative socialist historians of the German Revolution, characterised the lawyer Paul Levi. Levi’s name is almost unknown today outside a small community of specialised historians. But in the years 1919 and 1920 he was well known in Germany and abroad as the chair of the young Communist Party of Germany (KPD). He would become the most controversial figure in the German Communist movement. He was mainly responsible for building the KPD from a relatively small organisation in early 1918 into a truly mass party, but was then expelled in April 1921 after he publicly criticised the so-called “March Action”, an ill-fated attempt at insurrection by the KPD. In 1922 he rejoined the Social Democratic Party (SPD), to which he had already belonged between 1912 and 1917. For this reason, social democrats have tried ever since to use him as a key witness against “Bolshevism”. However, as an influential leader of the SPD’s far-left wing he remained in constant opposition to the SPD leadership until his death in 1930.

It is good news that a collection of Levi’s writings has finally been published in English, a valuable source for understanding some critical turning points in the history of German Communism. What follows is a short assessment of Levi’s contribution to this history in its early years and an analysis of the crucial conflict that led to his expulsion.12

The inventor of the united front

Paul Levi became leader of the KPD in March 1919 following the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.13

The KPD was founded amid a revolutionary mass movement after the downfall of Kaiser Wilhelm II at the end of 1918. In the first months of its existence it was far too small to have a decisive influence on the course of the revolutionary crisis in Germany, and only managed to assert broader political influence from 1920 onwards, when bourgeois rule in Germany had already begun to temporarily restabilise. This setting had a decisive impact on the development of the party. It had been formed by a small but experienced group of former left wing social democrats and initially attracted many newly politicised, often younger activists, who were excited by the first revolutionary wave of late 1918. The KPD’s influence within the mass organisations of the workers’ movement-the workers’ councils in 1918-19 and the trade unions-initially remained very limited. The bulk of the organised working class still adhered to social democracy (by that time called majority social democracy, MSPD) or its “centrist” split-off, the Independent Socialist Party (USPD). Levi, who based his politics firmly on the principle of the self-emancipation of workers, saw the main task for the KPD in the struggle for the hearts and minds of the majority of workers. In doing so he laid the basis for what would in later years be called the “united front” approach.

This approach was first implemented in Communist politics in the winter of 1920-1 through a series of “open letters”, with which the KPD addressed social democrats and the trade unions. These public letters made an offer of joint actions to defend workers’ interests around a number of limited topics. It was a tactic that was consciously designed to strengthen working class self-activity on the one hand and to show in practice the limits of social democratic reformism on the other hand. Both social democracy and the trade union bureaucracy promised reforms but were unwilling to organise mass movements for them. The tactics behind the open letters were based on the assumption that a huge gap existed between expectation and reality inside social democracy, which could be used to strengthen Communist influence in mass organisations.

The open letters were not meant to be mere rhetorical demands. They were accompanied by massive campaigns for action in the lower ranks of workers’ organisations, which allowed the KPD to directly approach social democratic workers with an appeal for common struggle. This showed the willingness of the KPD for unity in action-and thereby protected the Communists from the common accusation of acting in a divisive way. Levi wanted to avoid the well-known ideological differences between the two parties becoming an obstacle for joint practical initiatives as he was convinced that broader layers of social democratic workers could only be drawn towards the Communist movement through their own practical experience in the common struggle. The KPD became a mass party in Germany from late 1920 onwards by consistently applying these tactics.

The development of the tactical doctrine of the united front met considerable resistance from the left wing of the party. Part of the membership feared it would lead the young KPD back into the now despised political traditions of social democracy from which they had just broken. While the new approach helped to dispel workers’ illusions about the reformism of the SPD and thereby strengthened the KPD in organisational terms, it still did not and could not spark real mass movements on a national scale by itself under the conditions of late 1920. This created considerable frustration among the left wing Communists who had expected a quick victory in 1918-19.

Levi and his close followers in the party leadership had to lead a sharp struggle against syndicalist and semi-anarchist currents that had dominated the KPD since its founding congress. The ultra-leftists argued for a principled denial of parliamentary involvement and a refusal to work in the existing unions. They could only resort to hopeless actions of radical minorities or a mere propagandistic approach. In order for the KPD to win over the left wing of the USPD Levi considered it to be necessary to push these currents out of the party-a decision that has proved controversial ever since.14 Following the Heidelberg conference in autumn 1919, the leaders of the ultra-leftist tendency left the KPD to form the Communist Workers Party (KAP). The result was that in some regions the KAP-considerably smaller than the KPD numerically-exerted constant political pressure on the KPD, and Levi, who was never known for dealing with his inner-party opponents very diplomatically, became their main target. Nevertheless, in December 1920 the majority of the USPD decided to unite with the KPD and become part of the Communist International (CI). This can be attributed to a large degree to the cautious yet determined tactics Levi had helped to develop.

The Soviet regime and world revolution

Under the political leadership of Levi and close companions the KPD (among them Clara Zetkin) took a tremendous step forward. But his achievements have since been largely overlooked because of the conflict which developed in the winter of 1920-1 and finally resulted in his expulsion
in April 1921. This conflict, the Levi affair, was a major turning point in the history of the KPD and also had international consequences in the CI.

A crucial turning point in the Levi Affair lay in the conflict between the majority of the German party leadership around Levi and the Executive Committee of the Comintern (ECCI), the highest organ of the CI between its world congresses. The ECCI was heavily dominated by prominent members of the Russian Bolshevik Party, and therefore a number of historians have portrayed this conflict simply as a clash between supposedly “authoritarian Bolshevism” and democratic “Luxemburgism”, that is, a conscious attempt to purge the KPD of any democratic traditions and bind it to the doctrines of Russian Bolshevism.15

Yet this portrayal rests on an ahistorical understanding of the concepts of “Leninism” and “Luxemburgism”. Levi was undoubtedly critically influenced by both Lenin and Luxemburg and quoted them repeatedly in his writing in 1921. He can neither properly be called a “Luxemburgist” nor a “Leninist”, simply because the notion of a distinct theoretical system of “Luxemburgism” didn’t exist at the time.16 Levi was well aware of a whole number of differences between Lenin and Luxemburg, yet he did not see them as representatives of two distinct “systems” but rather as fellow revolutionaries disagreeing on certain points and agreeing on others. Furthermore, the supposedly “monolithic” Bolshevik leadership was not at all united in the winter of 1920-1. On the contrary, the very fact that it was split over key questions contributed strongly to the unfortunate outcome of the conflict. Hence the “Levi affair” cannot be properly understood without understanding the dynamics of Bolshevik politics at the time.

In the years following the October Revolution, Bolshevik politics was based on the axiom that this initially successful revolution could ultimately only be secured if workers’ power spread to other European countries. Since the First World War the Bolsheviks had been eager to support revolutionary movements in other countries and had initiated the founding of the CI in 1919. At the end of 1920 the Soviet government in Russia had just been through two and a half years of bitter civil war, which they had only won very narrowly, and which had caused an enormous death toll and severe economic devastation. This led to bitter conflicts inside Russia. The working class, which had been relatively small even in 1917, had been further reduced by economic breakdown. The government relied on forced requisitions of food from the countryside to feed the starving towns, leading to repeated peasant uprisings that were repressed by force. Soviet Russia was in severe crisis-symbolised above all by the Kronstadt uprising in March 1921.

Throughout the years of civil war the problem of how to get out of this impasse had become very controversial within the Bolshevik leadership. In early 1921 two basic currents existed regarding the question of the international situation and the peasant question.17 One, including Lenin and Trotsky, argued for concessions to the peasants in Russia and temporary peace with the bourgeois governments in Western Europe in order to win some breathing space for Russian society to recover. They finally won the argument in March 1921 with the implementation of the New Economic Policy, or NEP.

The other current argued for a continuation of the hard line towards the peasants in Russia, and hoped to get relief by launching a “revolutionary offensive” against the bourgeois governments in the West. The most prominent supporters of this “leftist” tactic in 1920-1 were Nikolai Bukharin and Grigori Zinoviev, both of whom held leading positions in the leadership of the CI. The fierce debate between these two camps peaked at the end of 1920 in a disagreement over the question of a feasible peace treaty with Poland (with which Soviet Russia had been at war for two years).

Bukharin had already demanded the right of “red intervention” by the Red Army in Europe at the Second World Congress of the CI in summer 1920, when the campaign in Poland was near its point of culmination and many (at that time including Lenin who would shortly afterwards change his mind) hoped that the Red Army would quickly reach the German border.18 Bukharin declared the possibility of speeding up the revolution in Western Europe by military means. In winter 1920-1, when the momentum of the Red Army in Poland was lost, he kept publishing articles in which he explained his theory of the offensive. Zinoviev clearly sympathised with this theory although he articulated it in more cautious terms.19

The ECCI recruited a group of Communists exiled in Russia (Kun, Rakosi and Pogany among others) who shared their impatience, but lacked their experience and theoretical understanding. A number of them had set up a journal called Kommunismus in 1920, in which they had developed their own version of the theory of the offensive. The ideas of the Kommunismus group were based on a philosophy which had little to do with Lenin or Marx: the concept of a determined minority that could initiate mass struggles by armed action. For the Kommunismus group any kind of defensive tactics were considered “social democratic”, the “offensive” being the only approach permitted to Communists. Nevertheless Zinoviev and Bukharin expressly agreed with their views in late 1920 and integrated them into the “Small Bureau” of the ECCI.20

The ideas of the Kommunismus group obviously fitted their own desire quickly to open up a second front in Germany and by the spring they were operating in Germany with the authority of the ECCI. It was this group which gave the final impetus to the March Action in Germany.

There was almost certainly never a direct order for the March Action in the ECCI. But there was a group of irresponsible functionaries of the CI acting in Germany who were believed to act on the direct orders of the ECCI as their arguments echoed Zinoviev’s and Bukharin’s general arguments about the “revolutionary offensive”. And there were left wing communists inside the KPD who were already impatiently waiting for an opportunity to “go on the offensive” and were now happy to take up the confused initiatives of Kun, Rakosi and their companions.

Open break

Levi had been on friendly terms with Bolshevik leaders during the world war, a number of whom he knew personally from his exile in Switzerland (amongst them Lenin, Bukharin and Karl Radek). As Lenin noted later, Levi had been a “Bolshevik” well before the Russian Revolution, supporting the attempts of the Bolshevik leaders to form a new international during the war.21 But in late 1920 tensions between the ECCI and the group around Levi and Clara Zetkin in the KPD leadership grew over the contradiction between the united front approach of the KPD Zentrale (Central Committee) and the voluntarist tendencies described above that were gaining ground in the ECCI. A central factor in these conflicts was the fact that the bourgeois order in Western Europe had stabilised temporarily, while in Russia internal tensions grew within the Bolshevik leadership, resulting in differing tactical approaches, although there was a shared understanding about the ultimate need to spread revolution to Western Europe.

The ECCI’s increasing obsession with “speeding up the revolution” meant that the whole approach of the united front was put into question as it was a tactical doctrine designed for times of defensive struggles, not the moment of insurrection itself. Both Bukharin and Zinoviev were strongly opposed to the tactic of the “open letter” in January 1921, viewing this manoeuvre as a dangerous sign of “opportunism” and “passivity”. The relationship between the KPD and the KAP became an additional source of conflict. 22 If revolutionary insurrection was possible in Germany in the short term, then it was imperative that the KPD set aside its quarrels with the most energetic and enthusiastic supporters of the “revolutionary offensive” in the KAP and link arms with them.

Radek, who was at the time working in the German party leadership as Bolshevik representative, vacillated for some months between the ECCI and the position of Levi and Zetkin, arguing for the united front approach in Germany and rejecting the idea of military export of the revolution. But Radek also called for a “more active” attitude by the KPD and for close collaboration with the KAP. In January 1921 he joined Levi in defending the “open letter” initiative and was narrowly able to prevent the ECCI from officially condemning it (also thanks to political support by Lenin).23 However by the beginning of February 1921 Radek had made up his mind: he decided to support Zinoviev and Bukharin and told Levi frankly that he would be crushed if he thought about attacking them publicly.24

The growing alienation between the ECCI and the Levi-Zetkin group in the KPD finally became public in the debate about the tactics of the CI towards the Italian Socialist Party (PSI). This concerned the fundamental question of how the parties of the International should be built in the West. The left had stood their ground in the PSI more successfully than in the SPD. In 1920 there was no organised revolutionary force to the left of the PSI in Italy, which contained both reformists and revolutionaries alike. The mass of its members had opted for official affiliation to the CI before the Second World Congress in 1920. The question was how to get rid of the reformist minority in the leadership without losing the majority of party members who were reluctant to expel them. Levi and Zetkin distrusted the right wing but argued that the left in the Italian party should essentially work along the lines of “concentration” they themselves had practised in Germany, drawing a larger number of workers around them in mass campaigns and thereby exposing the right wing leaders in practice. This process of common political experience should improve the left’s position before a split. The ECCI on the contrary decided to support the far-left wing of the PSI that favoured an immediate split even at the cost of losing the majority of party members. It championed this line at the Congress of the PSI in Livorno at which Levi was also present.

Levi protested in an article against the tactics of the ECCI. Radek replied and accused Levi of placing the authority of the ECCI in question. This hitherto unspoken public accusation finally turned the ongoing conflict into an all-out struggle. At the end of February the plenary session of the ECCI decided that there was a need for a reshuffle of the KPD Zentrale. The ECCI had finally decided to push Levi out.25 Levi was informed about that discussion from the KPD representative in Moscow.26 He lost the debate about Italy in the German leadership and decided to resign from the German Zentrale. He was followed by a number of his collaborators. This finally provided the opportunity for the theory of the offensive to be put into practice in Germany.

Levi’s general perspective in 1920-1-even after leaving the party leadership-was not to break with the CI altogether. He still believed that his existing differences with the ECCI could be resolved, but he already saw that there was more at stake than mere personal disagreements. He understood the ECCI’s misjudgement of the situation in Western Europe as a consequence of the Russian comrades’ desire to relieve pressures at home. But as the conflict dragged on he posed the problem in more general terms: he saw the possibility that a gap could develop between the interests of the Russian state and the interests of the international workers’ movement, which could become a serious obstacle for the further development of the CI in the long run.27 Only one year after his expulsion he would argue that the internal tensions in Russian society had already begun to change the class nature of Soviet society.28 But in spring 1921 Levi was not yet fully aware of the far-reaching implications of his questions.

The March Action and Levi’s critique

Even before the March Action a decision had been made by the ECCI that the KPD leadership should get rid of Levi. The controversy following the March Action therefore seems to have delivered only a pretext for taking this campaign a step forward.

As the March Action itself has been covered in depth in various analyses, it will be sufficient only to outline the basic story here.29 The newly formed KPD leadership wanted to utilise a minor local conflict between the Prussian police and miners in the Mansfeld region in central Germany to incite a general uprising on a national scale. It assumed that an escalation of this conflict would draw larger numbers of non-Communist workers alongside the KPD into direct confrontation with the state. This prediction proved to be completely wrong. A substantial part of the party membership took the call to arms seriously, but there was only a small positive reaction from the workers outside the party’s ranks.30 For about two weeks the party centre tried to fuel the fire, appealing to its members to go on strike, procure weapons and blow up railway bridges. Finally it even issued threats against workers who refused to join the struggle. Physical fights broke out between Communists who wanted to carry out the decision of their party leadership and other workers who saw no reason to go on strike.

In the end the unrest was suppressed relatively easily, although the police spilled a lot of blood in the process. Thousands of people were injured in the fighting, and 180 were killed. Some 6,000 Communists were imprisoned, four of them sentenced to death, and thousands more lost their jobs for trying to go on strike while their workmates were not ready to follow them. The party lost nearly two thirds of its membership. The SPD leadership gleefully accused the KPD of “putschism” and argued that the KPD would achieve its goals through the use of violence against other workers. The feeling of distrust against the party among trade unionists and social democrats grew. Well-known Communist militants were purged from union organisations. The March Action weakened the industrial base that the KPD had patiently built up over two years, and so it was no wonder that a large number of those who left the party in disappointment were trade union veterans. The KPD press was banned in a state of emergency. Virtually nobody outside the party was prepared to stand up for the KPD against this kind of repression.

In a literal sense it was incorrect when Levi later characterised the March Action as simply the “biggest Bakuninist putsch in history”. The initial unrest in the Mansfeld region that had led to the police campaign in the first place was not caused by party appeals. But there can be no doubt that the appeals of the KPD had contributed strongly to the bloody outcome. There was no need for the party to force this limited conflict into open insurrection. A number of small-scale skirmishes between workers and the police had taken place all over Germany in the years 1919 to 1923. Although the party had sometimes argued fiercely over how to relate to them, it had never before taken decisions like that taken in March 1921. The party could have protested against the intervention of the police and resorted to more limited methods of mobilisation against them-as it had repeatedly done in the past. The KAP would have criticised the KPD (as it had also done before), but in the long run the KPD could have continued to build its influence much more successfully by the united front approach until the conditions for open confrontation were more favourable.

Levi argued that in a political sense the ECCI was responsible for the disaster. This was basically correct, even if the ECCI did not give direct orders for insurrection. Without the pressure of its emissaries in Germany the March Action would not have taken place in that way. They had systematically encouraged the KPD left to action and at the same time bullied the more cautious members after the retreat of Levi and Zetkin from the leadership. The party undoubtedly felt itself under immense moral pressure in March 1921 because of its boasting about the “revolutionary offensive” in the preceding weeks. It had become, as Levi put it, “the prisoner of its own slogans”. It felt it could not take a more cautious stance in March 1921 without losing radical face, and for this the ECCI was to blame to a large degree.

Fernbach’s collection includes Levi’s pamphlet about the March Action in its entirety.31 It is one of the most systematic accounts of the political tactics that had inspired the KPD leadership between 1919 and Levi’s resignation in February 1921. It includes an assessment of the political balance of forces in the German working class at the time and in addition Levi outlines his own approach to the strategic problem of insurrection here. In doing so he borrowed heavily from Lenin’s famous pamphlet “LeftWing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder. In that sense it was not original in its theoretical essence, but was nevertheless one of the most serious attempts to apply Lenin’s general approach to the specific circumstances in Germany in 1921. Levi’s pamphlet thus surpasses by far most writings of his party opponents at the time and his later slanderers.

The cover-up at the Third CI Congress

On 15 April 1921, three days after the publication of Our Path, Levi was officially expelled from the KPD for slander.32 He protested against this decision and a whole number of Communist veterans, most prominently Clara Zetkin, spoke in his defence and testified to the depiction of events he had given in his pamphlet. Members of the KPD Zentrale wanted to expel them all but decided not to do so after the intervention of the ECCI.

The debate about the March Action was put on the agenda of the Third World Congress of the CI, which took place some two months later in Russia. The general line which was decided at the Congress confirmed the essentially defensive line which Levi, Zetkin and their followers had been consistently pursuing with the open letters. The “Theses on Tactics” adopted there declared: “It is absolutely incontestable that on a world scale the open revolutionary struggle of the proletariat for power is at present…slowing down in tempo. But in the very nature of things, it was impossible to expect that the revolutionary offensive after the war, insofar as it failed to result in an immediate victory, would go on developing uninterruptedly along an upward curve”.33 The tactic of the open letter was explicitly approved by another resolution,34 while Lenin condemned the theory of the offensive before the German delegates in the strongest terms.35 This sounded much like Levi’s previous arguments.

But when it came to the March Action itself, the decisions of the Congress were remarkably weak. It was portrayed as an essentially defensive struggle that the German party had wrongly turned into an offensive due to an incorrect assessment of the situation. The resolution declared that the struggle had been “forced upon” the party, implying that there had been no real alternative to bold engagement. At the same time, it was called a “step forward” for the party. There was not a word in the resolution about the role of the ECCI.36 It was designed primarily to allow those responsible keep their face in front of the Congress, and not to decisively answer the questions at stake.

The theory of the offensive had already been defeated in Russia at the very same time that the preparations for the March Action were beginning in Germany. The “concessionist” camp in the Bolshevik Party had won the debate about the theory of the offensive in Russia itself at the Bolshevik Party Congress in mid-March, which had voted for the NEP and for peace with Poland just as Kun and Rakosi were pressing for action in Berlin. It had also introduced the infamous ban on factions in the party for the first time. This made it difficult for the Soviet delegation to be honest at the subsequent World Congress. After complicated negotiations in the Russian delegation Zinoviev and Bukharin remained silent there in order to preserve the impression of closed ranks in the Bolshevik leadership towards foreign delegates. They could not defend their cause in the Comintern even if they had wished to do so. Their inner-party opponents Trotsky and Lenin would attack the theory of the offensive in general terms, but at the same time were cautious in order to preserve the newly found unity in their own party. The resulting cover-up of the role of Bukharin and Zinoviev was only possible if Levi’s criticism was silenced. The need to find a compromise formula about the March Action stemmed, therefore, at least partly from the need to preserve the unity of the Russian party.

Levi’s expulsion was confirmed by the Congress, although it was now based on the accusation of having “broken party discipline”. At the same time there were considerable efforts to prevent his supporters from leaving with him. The formalistic argument about breaking discipline was obviously designed to cool down the debate over the political arguments raised by Levi. The custom of criticising supposed errors of the party in public had been well established in both the KPD and the Bolshevik Party in the preceding years. Even Zinoviev himself had committed this “crime” in a far more serious situation than March 1921, in the days before the October insurrection in 1917.

Lenin had argued a hundred times before that it would be far worse for the party to hide its errors from the public, for fear of playing into the hands of the class enemy, than to openly admit them and enable a necessary learning process. Similar reasoning also led Levi to reject the demand to stay silent about the March Action. He argued:

It’s a completely false attitude that Communists can sort out their mistakes in a quiet little room. The errors and mistakes of Communists are just as much a component of the political experience of the proletariat as their achievements. Neither the one nor the other should be withheld from the masses. If they made mistakes, they did not make these for the party, and even if the party collapses as a result-if this is the only way in which the proletariat can draw the lessons from experience-then it has to be so, as the party exists for the sake of the proletariat and not the other way round. 37

Levi’s attempts to join the party again were not handled honestly. He was not allowed back in at the World Congress but behind the scenes was given some vague promises about later-provided that he agreed not to make any further public criticisms of the March Action. Meanwhile the Communist press started-for the first time in the history of the German party-a vicious personal slander campaign against Levi, thereby making his return effectively impossible. Levi tried for a few months following his expulsion to be allowed back into the KPD but finally gave up his efforts after one year in early 1922. A short time later he decided to go back to the SPD broken-hearted.38

Long-term consequences of Levi’s expulsion

The outcome of the Levi affair at the Third World Congress had some important long-term consequences for both the CI and the KPD.

The most obvious was that during the faction fight the KPD lost not only one of its most gifted leaders but a whole layer of experienced trade union veterans, which seriously weakened the party in the following campaigns for the united front. However one might judge Levi’s own later political trajectory (this would be another broad topic in itself, to which Fernbach’s book provides some sources), it simply cannot be separated from his experience of the cover-up and the slander campaign by the Comintern.

There were also other consequences of the Levi affair that seriously affected the KPD in subsequent years. The decisions at the Third World Congress hampered what could have been a potentially healthy process of political clarification about the tactical questions at stake inside the KPD as it set strict limits on the debate from the beginning. Although the World Congress finally called for the united front approach, essentially generalising what Levi, Zetkin, Radek and others had begun in Germany in 1920, the legitimate questions about the inner workings of the ECCI and the role of the Bolshevik Party leaders in the conflict were never openly discussed in the KPD afterwards.39

The distorted depiction of the roots of the March Action itself-the story of the “enforced defensive struggle”-blurred some decisive points about tactics. When debating the lessons of the March Action the various factions in the German party would point to the resolution of the World Congress to argue their case. But the grave differences that had existed before the March Action continued to exist. The party was not permitted to learn from past errors through honest and open debate, which led to an unclear outcome in the KPD leadership itself. In the following two and a half years it consisted of a somehow artificial and uneasy alliance of ultra-leftists and supporters of the united front approach. This was basically bound together by the overarching authority of the ECCI.

This leads directly to the third long-term consequence of the Levi affair: it was the first major step in a process by which the Russian party would slowly but irreversibly become the all-decisive last instance in all internal conflicts of the Comintern. The relative weight of the Russian-dominated ECCI against the Western European party leaders increased significantly with the expulsion of Levi, previously acknowledged as one of the most capable “Western Bolsheviks”, and the ECCI became the generally accepted referee in all future party disputes.

The habit of “turning to Moscow” to decide internal disputes had been largely unknown before 1921, but became regular practice in the following years. It undermined critically the ability of the national leaderships to judge and act by themselves, even where the rapidly changing dynamics of revolutionary crises demanded it. This was especially true in the summer of 1923, when the leadership of the KPD repeatedly travelled to Moscow to let the ECCI mediate between the ultra-lefts and the supporters of the united front approach while a political and social crisis of world historical dimensions was ripening in Germany itself. And this also meant that the German party leadership ultimately remained helpless when the rise of the Stalinist dictatorship in Russia itself began to gain momentum after 1924.

Finally, the political prestige of Zinoviev and Bukharin as leaders of the CI was preserved by the treatment of the Levi affair at the Third World Congress. Both would play a nasty role in the Stalinisation of the CI only a few years later by providing critical support for Stalin’s rise (only to fall into disgrace themselves shortly afterwards).

It would, however, be wrong to attribute all these long-term consequences to a conscious plot by the Bolshevik leaders in 1921. The later degeneration of the KPD into an obedient tool of the Stalinist dictatorship in Russia cannot be traced back in a straight line to the Levi affair in 1921, as some have implied.40 The road to Stalinism was certainly not yet paved in 1921 and it would be some years before the top leadership of the Bolshevik Party would become a self-conscious ruling class. In 1921 neither the destiny of Soviet Russia nor the future of bourgeois Germany had been decided irrevocably. But the outcome of the Levi affair certainly narrowed the options for the development of the KPD in Germany as well as the CI as a whole significantly.

David Fernbach’s book makes plenty of source material available for socialists who want to obtain a deeper understanding about the relationship between the CI and the Communist movement in Weimar Germany. It should be read alongside the existing general studies on the history of the KPD and the CI.41


1: A cheaper edition was published by Haymarket in summer 2012.

2: Cliff, 1985, p30.

3: Cliff, 1985, p24.

4: Cliff, 1985, p29.

5: Cliff, 1985, p28.

6: The principle is just as relevant today. For example, revolutionary socialists in the Egyptian Revolution have to relate to the widespread popularity of Islamist reformist ideas.

7: Cliff, 1985, pp132-134, 138-160.

8: Broué, 1997.

9: Levi’s united front tactic in the reformist German trade unions-see below.

10: Paul Levi’s understandable hostility to ultra-leftism spilled over into a sectarianism that considerably weakened his position when he stood out against the “theory of the offensive”. Lenin complained about his high-handed manner to Clara Zetkin: his “wholly negative criticism…indicated no sense of solidarity with the party”-quoted in Harman, 1997, p217. He showed no willingness to try to understand why considerable numbers of workers, employed as well as unemployed, could get drawn into lunatic ultra-left actions. On the other hand Levi’s weakness here in no way justified the lies that were told about him at the Third Congress of the Comintern that frankly anticipated later Stalinist practices.

11: Broué, 2006, p887. Conciliar power means workers’ councils or soviets. Thanks to John Rose, Phil Butland and Kate Davison for ideas and comments on this article.

12: Fernbach’s edition also includes important Levi writings from the later period, especially 1923, the year of the final attempt at revolution in Germany, which unfortunately cannot be covered in this journal for reasons of space.

13: The following is based on the general accounts given in Angress, 1972, Harman, 1997, and Broué, 2006. See also Riddell, 2011.

14: Harman, 1997, considered this split a tactical mistake although he argued that Levi was correct in his principled opposition to the ultra-leftists. Marcel Bois and Florian Wilde concluded recently that in the end the split was hardly avoidable although the methods of Levi were disputable-Bois and Wilde, 2007.

15: This is true of Sigrid Koch-Baumgarten, 1986, and also Richard Löwenthal, 1960. However, despite this faulty assumption, both studies contain valuable source material about the conflict discussed here.

16: It was only coined during the process of Stalinisation in the Soviet Union after 1924.

17: It must be noted that the contemporary controversy inside the Bolshevik Party also covered other topics with different inner party alignments, eg on the trade union question Trotsky was closer to Bukharin and disagreed with Lenin, while he aligned with Lenin against Bukharin on the question of international perspectives. The inner-party controversies in Russia at the time were complex in general and the lines not always as clear cut as in regard to the international question touched here. For a detailed account of these controversies see Cliff, 1985, pp327-344, Carr, 1953, and Harman, 1997.

18: Broué, 2006, p461.

19: Reisberg, 1971, p91; Koch-Baumgarten, 1986, p78.

20: Koch-Baumgarten, 1986, pp79-82.

21: Lenin, 1965.

22: There was already conflict about the KAP at the Second World Congress of the CI in 1920, but the Russian delegation shied away from an all-out confrontation. But it sharpened again after the unification of the KPD and left USPD in December 1920.

23: Koch-Baumgarten, 1986, p83; Reisberg, 1971, p91.

24: Broué, 2006, p479.

25: Koch-Baumgarten, 1986, p84.

26: Angress, 1972, p133 (quoted in the German edition).

27: “The Russian comrades are a state power and a mass organisation. As a state power, they have to undertake in relation to the bourgeoisie measures which they would never undertake as a party for the sake of the proletarian masses… We can, of course, theoretically conceive that there is a risk here, the risk that if the link between the Communist International and the state power became very close, the Communist International would no longer act as a party or a super-party, as it were, inspired solely by the standpoint of Communism, but that it would become involved in the diplomatic game between the bourgeois forces of which the Bolsheviks must take account not as a party but as a state apparatus”-Broué, 2006, pp456-457.

28: For his full arguments see his Introduction to The Russian Revolution by Rosa Luxemburg, in Fernbach, 2011, pp220-265. In 1922 Levi saw the main danger to workers’ power in Russia coming from the peasants in the first place and the merchants and foreign capitalists getting business concessions in Russia in the second place. He clearly did not foresee the later development in Russia. Still he was asking the decisive question already in 1922: which class will determine the politics of the Bolshevik Party in the long run?

29: For more detailed accounts read Broué, 2006, Harman 1997, Koch-Baumgarten, 1986, and Angress, 1972.

30: Lenin’s claim that “hundreds of thousands of workers” in Germany were waging a heroic defensive struggle in March 1921 was based on a misjudgement. For an assessment of the numbers involved in different areas see Koch-Baumgarten, 1986 .

31: Our Path: Against Putschism, in Fernbach, 2011, pp119-165. See also What is the Crime? The March Action or Criticising it?, pp166-205, published shortly afterwards-Fernbach, 2011, pp166-205.

32: Broué, 2006, p506.

33: Hessel, 1983, p203.

34: Hessel, 1983, p289.

35: He called it “an absurd theory which offers to the police and every reactionary the chance to depict you as the ones who took the initiative in aggression”-Broué, 2006, p539.

36: Hessel, 1983, pp290-291.

37: Fernbach, 2011, p205.

38: Lenin-in contrast to Radek and Zinoviev-seriously hoped to win Levi back and decided to hold back further public polemic for some time. He changed his mind definitely just after Levi published Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of Bolshevik policies in 1922. An account of the discussions going on behind the scenes is given by Zetkin, 1934.

39: An instructive case is Clara Zetkin. She shared many of Levi’s criticisms, but finally decided not to attack the ECCI in public. She stayed in the KPD and would later become a sharp critic of the politics of the Stalinists in the CI-but always just in her private letters, never in public.

40: This is the core argument in Löwenthal, 1960, and Koch-Baumgarten, 1986.

41: Broué, 2006, is highly recommended for further reading on Paul Levi. It contains-next to a broad account of the general development-a sophisticated assessment of Levi’s politics. Harman 1997 gives a more general overview.


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Bois, Marcel, and Florian Wilde, 2007, “Modell für den künftigen Umgang mit innerparteilicher Diskussion? Der Heidelberger Parteitag der KPD 1919”, in Jahrbuch für Forschungen zur Geschichte der Arbeiterbewegung, number 2.

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