A revolutionary of the “second rank”? Rediscovering Karl Radek

Issue: 181

Kevin McCaighy

A review of Radek: A Novel, Stefan Heym (Monthly Review Press, 2022), £20

Who was Karl Radek? At one point in this epic work of historical fiction, Radek refers to himself as belonging to “the second rank” of Bolshevik revolutionaries, but that is far from the truth. In fact, he was one of the most important figures of the struggles that eventually led to the October Revolution—first, as one of the Polish socialists who participated in the 1905 uprising in Warsaw, then as a ­prominent journalist for the Social Democratic Party (SPD; Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands) in Germany prior to the First World War. Later, after the Russian Revolution, he became a key figure within the Communist International. These responsibilities, and many others besides, were the preoccupations of a tumultuous life amid epochal upheavals across the world.

This novel’s author, Stefan Heym, is a compelling figure in his own right. Born Helmut Flieg in Chemnitz, Saxony, in 1913, he adopted his pseudonym as a newspaper writer in Czechoslovakia after fleeing the Nazis’ rise to power in the early 1930s. During the Second World War, he worked as part of a United States Army unit known as the Ritchie Boys, which engaged in psychological warfare campaigns against German troops. After the war, Heym moved to East Germany and became a freelance writer. An introduction to the novel, written by US-born author Victor Grossman (who defected to the Eastern Bloc while stationed as a soldier in Germany in 1952) acts as a warm but nuanced appraisal of Heym as a writer and committed socialist; sadly, however, it is so riddled with Stalinist formulations and apologias that the fulsome merits of Grossman’s words are almost overshadowed.

Like all historical fiction, Stefan Heym’s novel is a combination of conjecture, imagination and research. It is a rare book that can work all of these competing elements into something coherent, but Heym is able to keep them all in play by breaking several rules of the historical fiction form. Despite running to 600 pages, Radek: A Novel is not a conventional birth-to-(premature)-death account of the life of a revolutionary. Indeed, it is as remarkable for what it leaves out as for what it includes. There is no discussion of his early life or childhood, other than fragmentary recollections; there is no exploration of great moments in revolutionary history such as the creation of the Communist International; and there is no account of the part played by Radek in the famous Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East in September of 1920.1 Radek’s political trajectory—from the Polish nationalism of his formative years to becoming a socialist activist and firebrand journalist in Germany and Switzerland prior to the First World War—is left unremarked upon. What we have instead is an elliptical yet immersive narrative, which is separated into eight distinct “books”, with each section concentrating on pivotal events in Radek’s life, both personal and political.

The story starts in 1911, the year of the so-called Radek affair within the SPD, a terrible inter-party struggle in which Radek was accused of ­embezzlement. Radek was hounded by sections of the SPD, but vigorously defended by ­important ­radical figures such as Leo Jogiches and Rosa Luxemburg. This is a bold opening; it is a gamble for the author to begin by recreating an obscure event, which he seems to recount almost in real time for the reader. This, ­however, goes to the heart of Heym’s daring. He skilfully evokes the lives of countless people whose names we know (and some of whom we perhaps even care about), but often have no way to relate to on a human level: Lenin, Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky and Stalin. A great many of the other characters in Radek are n0 more than names in revolutionary texts to most of us—for example, Karl Brandler, Paul Levi, Alexander Parvus and August Thalhaimer—but Heym places them in their rightful context. The novel blows the cobwebs of neglect off such revolutionary figures and places them right by the reader, as if you are sitting across from them. Heym’s characterisation of Lenin, for example, is a far cry from the grim, maniacal caricature found in other literary portrayals such as Andrea Codrescu’s The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess. This is crucial to the novel’s power.

There are several literary conceits that play out across the novel. Heym uses the phrases “he, Radek” and “him, Radek” as a persistent incantation throughout the book, and the characters constantly refer to their pseudonyms, as if playing up the absurdity of their clandestine activities. (Radek was born Karol Sobelsohn in the Ukrainian city of Lviv, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1885. He chose the name “Radek” in his teenage years, and would later write under other pseudonyms such as Parabellum.) In moments of repose, great meals are shared; in moments of tension, antagonists blow smoke in each other’s faces.

At the heart of all of this is our protagonist, Radek himself, whose side we never leave. The book masterfully portrays his evolution from an exuberant and talented journalist—erudite and cosmopolitan, verbally assertive to the point of arrogance—into a careworn Bolshevik elder whose skill and wordplay are unable to save him from mortal danger. Heym has Radek cross swords with everyone from Luxemburg and Trotsky to German military officials and even Stalin himself. The influence of the great German dramatist Georg Büchner can be detected here, especially his play “Danton’s Death”. Heym’s characters all speak on the knife edge of the polemical and the provocative, in barbed and brutal exchanges where everyone wants the last word. Two prominent chapters achieve this via evocations of two of the biggest tests of revolutionary nerve in human history: the journey of leading revolutionaries from Germany to Russia via the “sealed train” in 1917 and the brinksmanship of the negotiation of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918, when the Bolsheviks agreed peace with imperial Germany and its allies.

Heym’s novel conveys such a feeling of authenticity and its prose is so persuasive that it would be all too easy to accept it as a historical work. Nonetheless, there are extraordinary details that shake the reader back to reality: was there really a peasant named Roman Stashkov present during the Brest-Litovsk negotiations? Did Walther Rathenau, the German industrialist and founder of electrical engineering giant AEG, really visit Radek during his imprisonment in Berlin-Moabit Prison in 1919? With some research, this last plot point can be evidenced, but the lack of historical information about Radek means that other such incidents remain unverified.

The only biography of Radek, written by US academic Warren Lerner, is long out of print and hard to obtain.2 However, it remains a perceptive and nuanced biography that sheds a lot of light on its subject. Notably, Lerner deals well with the various ideological permutations of Radek’s politics, acutely describing him not as a revolutionary with his own theories but as “a defender of the faith” who eagerly put his various skills to the use of the organisations to which he belonged. His own political positions were sometimes contrary to the official Bolshevik line, such as when he advocated a revolutionary war with Germany instead of peace talks.

Radek’s personal confrontations with figures such as Grigori Zinoviev (the two regarded one another with nothing less than loathing) led to many difficulties in later life. In Heym’s book, when Radek is blamed for the German Revolution’s failure in 1923, Zinoviev is the main accuser; these pages evoke the tension and emerging paranoia of that era. The most affecting and ascendant parts of the novel concern Radek’s love affair with the journalist and Red Army veteran Larissa Reissner. Their partnership and the ensuing complications of their personal and professional lives are magnificently conveyed. The passages relating to her tragic early death at just 30 years of age are truly agonizing in their intensity. After her death, Reissner’s ­masterful reportage from Germany was assembled into the anthology Hamburg at the Barricades—another book eminently deserving of republication.3

Later, Radek, who had once played a key role in the Left Opposition, first repudiates Trotsky and then capitulates to Stalin, and we see the decline of a once great internationalist figure. Dandled on the knee of the Stalinist regime as a symbol of Bolshevik authenticity, Radek churns out articles of ­hagiographic rubbish in praise of the man he declares “the Great Architect”. Here, Heym is referencing the notorious paean to Stalin penned by Radek in 1934, entitled The Architect of Socialist Society.4 Radek writes this work of ­staggering hero worship as a way to expose the truth, designing it to be so over the top that it could not possibly be believed. Yet, in such a paranoid world, and on the eve of the purges and show trials, the text is believed and, at Stalin’s behest, it is widely disseminated. At this point, Radek has outlived his usefulness and is finally arrested. The tragedy of the novel’s last pages is immense.

First published in Germany in 1995, Radek: A Novel is a remarkable achievement and is only the third work by Heym to have been translated into English.5 Monthly Review Press has provided a great service by bringing this superb book to the wider readership it richly deserves.

Kevin McCaighy is a member of the Socialist Workers Party and a writer and activist based in York.


1 For an account of the conference, see Crouch, 2006.

2 See Lerner, 1970.

3 See Reissner, 1977.

4 Radek, 1934.

5 The other two are The Architects (Northwestern University Press, 2006) and The Wandering Jew (Rineheart and Holt, 1984).


Crouch, Dave, 2006, “The Bolsheviks and Islam”, International Socialism 110 (spring), https://tinyurl.com/2e67z4mt

Lerner, Warren, 1970, Karl Radek: The Last Internationalist (Stanford University Press).

Radek, Karl, 1934, The Architect of Socialist Society (International Publishers).

Reissner, Larissa, 1977 [1924], Hamburg at the Barricades and Other Writings on Weimar Germany (Pluto).