When history failed to turn

Issue: 108

Neil Davidson

A review of Pierre Broué, The German Revolution, 1917-1923, translated by John Archer, edited by Ian Birchall and Brian Pearce (Brill, Historical Materialism book series, 2005), Euro 129

‘This not a German event. There no longer are any “German events”.’1 With these words to the founding conference of the United German Communist Party in December 1920, its president, Paul Levi, declared the inseparability of the German Revolution from the global struggle for socialism. There had, of course, been many events in Germany during the preceding three years. And what events they were. Apart from Russia, no other country could boast of a comparable succession of revolutionary episodes in such a relatively short period of time.

But Germany was not just inseparable from the world revolution in the years following 1917: it was also central to its ultimate success or failure. In October 1923, only three years after Levi had optimistically greeted the formation of the United German Communist Party as the harbinger of the working class’s ascent to power, the party proved itself incapable of seizing the opportunities presented by the capitalist crisis. That defeat, that refusal to even seriously engage in battle, was a decisive precondition for the rise of Stalinism in Russia and Nazism in Germany itself.

An understanding of this moment in German history is therefore of considerable importance to contemporary socialists. Where should we turn to gain such an understanding? In his own book on the German Revolution, first published in 1982, Chris Harman noted that he had written it for ‘all those who are—like myself before I began work on the book—frustrated by the need to pull together a fragmentary knowledge of the German Revolution out of a plethora of different sources, some out of print and many of the best only available in German or French’.2 Thankfully, one of the French works to which Harman alludes, perhaps the best of all, Pierre Broué’s The German Revolution, has at last been published in English.3

Broué does full justice to the importance of his subject. This is a work conceived on an epic scale, comprising 900 pages of carefully researched text, plus a chronological table and biographical notes. The editors are particularly to be congratulated for giving up to date English references for Broué’s original Russian and German sources wherever these were available. The main problem with this excellent edition is that the publishers have neglected to provide an index—a quite extraordinary omission in a book of this size and one which is likely to prove the biggest obstacle to anyone trying to negotiate their way through it. Those prepared to try will, however, find it worth the effort.

Revolutions—even failed revolutions like the German—occupy definite periods of time, starting from the moment at which the victory of the contending class becomes possible and ending in either victory or defeat, but one way or the other with the passing of the ‘revolutionary situation’, at least for the immediate future. The periodisation of even successful revolutions has posed significant problems for historians; with unconsummated ‘revolutionary situations’ these difficulties are multiplied.4 Prior to Broué’s book first appearing in 1971, most discussions of Germany focused either on the few months between November 1918 and May 1919 when the most obvious ‘revolutionary’ activity took place (insurrection in Berlin, civil war in the Ruhr, the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic), or on the entire period from the end of the First World War to the triumph of Hitler in 1933. Broué’s focus on the six years between the strike by revolutionary metal workers in April 1917 and the aborted insurrection of October 1923 is wider than the first timescale, but narrower than the second.

Broué was one of the first modern Marxist historians to fully explore the decisive significance of the latter date. The British historian A J P Taylor once famously wrote of the failed bourgeois revolution of 1848 that ‘German history reached its turning-point and failed to turn’.5 Taylor makes too many untenable assumptions about the nature of ‘normal’ capitalist development for this to be true of 1848, but for the year 1923 the notion of a ‘turning point at which history failed to turn’ is apt. Broué notes that ‘even today, the international Communist movement has not devoted to this unprecedented disaster the minimum attention which it affords to victories or even to defeats of less importance’.6 Only two writers at the time seriously attempted to understand the significance of what had happened, Trotsky in The Lessons of October and Levi—by then writing from a left Social Democratic perspective—in his introduction to the German edition of the same work.7 Since then, outside of the ranks of the revolutionary left, only a handful of books have approached a comparable level of understanding.8

At the heart of Broué’s account therefore is the question of why the revolution failed. He recognises that Germany (and the West more generally) was not identical to Russia, but rightly does not see this as decisive. Neither was it because of any lack of revolutionary capacity on the part of the German working class. His answer is ultimately that the collective hero of his book, the Communist Party (KPD), the organisation which should have provided the necessary leadership to workers, was unable to play the same role in Germany as the Bolshevik Party had played in Russia.

The founding of the KPD was inspired in equal parts by rage at the betrayals of a Social Democracy that had led the German working class into the disasters of war, and admiration for what the Bolsheviks had achieved in Russia. But it was born in the very course of the revolution itself. Only a handful of leaders had any serious prior experience in the movement and many of them—above all, Rosa Luxemburg—were to die at the hands of the counter-revolution before the party or the revolution was more than months old. The neglect of socialists to build a revolutionary party prior to the outbreak of revolution was not, of course, some special failure on the part of the Germans: no one outside of Russia fully understood the need to build such a party before the October Revolution. Nevertheless, this fact meant that the KPD had to develop in conditions which called for a party already schooled in the class struggle.

The problems and dangers this late birth bequeathed were perfectly well understood and articulated by Levi at the founding conference of the United Communist Party of Germany in 1920.9 Unfortunately, those who thought like him were unable to prevail. On the one hand the party carried out policies which were wildly ultra-left. In some cases this led to abstention: it initially refused to participate in the general strike of March 1920 to stop the right wing Kapp Putsch—possibly the greatest moment in the entire history of the German working class—because the moment, apparently, was not yet right for socialist revolution. In other cases it led to attempts to force the pace of struggle without support from even a large minority of the broader class: in ‘the March Action’ of 1921 the KPD attempted an insurrectionary movement which involved, among other things, sending unemployed comrades into the factories to attack workers who refused to go on strike at its behest. But in reaction to these absurdities, the party just as often pulled so far back that it committed the opposite error of accommodating to existing reformist structures of the labour movement.

Of these twin errors, Broué writes: ‘The logic of both of them alike would lead the party to disaster, either as a sect isolated by the policy of putchism, the theory of the offensive—or in dissolution within a general unity, the price of conceding too much in order to forge a united front at any price’.10 The consequence was a cumulative loss of self-belief by the leadership: ‘Convinced by the leadership of the International of the magnitude of their blunder [in March 1921], they lost confidence in their own ability to think, and often failed to defend their viewpoint, so that they systematically accepted that of the Bolsheviks, who had at least been able to win their revolutionary struggle’.11

There were, of course, members of the KPD who attempted to change its direction. Two individuals dominate Broué’s book. The first is Paul Levi—the only significant leader that the KPD had after the annihilation of the original leadership in 1919. If Broué’s book does nothing else, it restores to the historical memory of the left one of the few figures involved in the Communist International outside of Russia—whatever his faults—who was capable of independent thought. The second is Karl Radek, the Bolshevik leader most involved in German affairs.

As Broué writes, ‘They had been the most important leaders of the party between 1918 and 1923, and were as completely eliminated from Bolshevik history as Trotsky had been, and whenever it was deemed necessary to mention their names, they were merely branded with the traditional epithets of “enemies of the people”, “traitors” or “renegades”.’12 But their reputation suffered even among the ranks of the revolutionary left: Levi because of his expulsion from the KPD in 1921 for breaching discipline and his subsequent retreat to reformist politics, Radek because of his capitulation to Stalin during the late 1920s. Broué devotes two chapters (45 and 46) to reassessing their contribution, not in order to exculpate them from their mistakes, but simply to treat them with the seriousness they deserve.

What emerges from Broué’s account is that many of the political positions which we tend to associate with the individual geniuses of Lenin or Gramsci were actually much more widespread and originated during the strategic debates within the KPD: ‘Lenin, in ‘Left Wing’ Communism: An Infantile Disorder, did no more than to systematise the themes which Radek and Levi had developed against the German opposition and the KPD, although, no doubt, with wider vision and less rancour’.13 Similarly, Radek’s arguments in The Development of the World Revolution and the Tactics of the Communist Parties in the Struggle for the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (1919)—one of the texts which anticipate ‘Left Wing’ Communism—also argues for the difference between Russia and the West in ways which clearly anticipate those of Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks.

Radek noted that, as a result of the absence of a revolutionary peasantry, but the presence of a more confident, experienced bourgeoisie and the greater strength of reformism: ‘The illusion of a quick victory arose from the incorrect interpretation of the lessons of the Russian Revolution, the conditions of which, although within an identical historical framework, were by no means the same as those of the European revolution’.14

This is a work of committed socialist scholarship, but it never reads—as many socialist histories unfortunately do—merely as Political Journalism with Historical Examples, where the subject has merely been chosen to illustrate a point the author wants to make (‘the need for the revolutionary party’, or whatever). There are lessons for us here, not least about the pointlessness of small groups of revolutionaries trying to force the working class into struggle through their own ‘exemplary’ actions. But these arise from Broué’s narrative and analysis, and rarely appear as pre-packaged programmatic points superimposed on the text. Nevertheless, it would be unrealistic to expect a work of this size and scope to be flawless, and indeed there are some problems and omissions here.

Some involve relatively minor theoretical issues. Broué too easily accepts that the German bourgeois revolution was ‘incomplete’, prior to the November Revolution of 1918, which brings with it the inevitable corollary that the November Revolution was in some sense its completion.15 This position is a strange one for a Trotskyist like Broué to hold, given that (as he himself notes) it was the official position of the Stalinist regime in the German Democratic Republic. Trotsky himself provided a more realistic assessment: ‘As to the German Revolution of 1918, it was no democratic completion of the bourgeois revolution, it was proletarian revolution decapitated by the Social Democrats; more correctly, it was a bourgeois counter-revolution, which was compelled to preserve pseudo-democratic forms after its victory over the proletariat’.16

Some important episodes pass by with far less attention than they merit. The short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic, for example, is dealt with in a handful of pages.17 Yet this debacle demonstrates in microcosm the reasons why the failure to build a revolutionary party in advance was disastrous. Harman’s shorter book spends proportionately far more space discussing this episode and, in this respect, is stronger as a result.18

By far the greatest weakness, however, is the obverse of the book’s greatest strength: its minute reconstruction of the political and theoretical life within the KPD and the relationship of its various factions with the Communist International. Now, these are important issues. The role played (and, in the end, not played) by the KPD is absolutely central to the outcome of the revolution; the influence of the Communist International, for good or bad, was inescapable. But Broué’s relentless focus on these themes is undertaken—for the most part—at the expense of the society which the KPD sought to transform.

Perry Anderson once wrote, ‘Any decent history of a communist party must take seriously the Gramscian maxim, that to write a history of a political party is to write the history of the society of which it is a component from a particular monographic standpoint.’ Such a history, writes Anderson, ‘must be constantly related to the national balance of forces of which the party is only one moment, and which forms the context in which it must operate’.19 Broué fails to do this and indeed, almost tends to reverse Anderson’s formulation, so that the history of Germany is seen through the filter of the KPD—and Broué’s book is ostensibly a history of the revolution, not the party.

In the end, revolutions are made by social classes, not organisations, and what is missing here is a sense of the changing condition of the German working class, of its consciousness, its readiness or otherwise to fight, and so on. However, the working class do at least appear in motion from time to time: the ruling class does not, at least in any serious sense. But without a sense of who the revolution was being made against—a class whose representatives were very far from being passive during these events—the picture we receive is misleadingly partial. In fairness to Broué, this approach was quite common in the late 1960s and early 1970s; it identifies the book as belonging to its time far more than, say, the failure to discuss the role of women of which Eric Weitz complains in the Introduction.

The greatest problem, however, is not one that Broué or perhaps anyone could have dealt with. It is the issue of what would have needed to happen for the German Revolution to be successful. This raises issues of historical causation too vast to be adequately discussed here, but the outlines of an answer can be suggested.

The death of Rosa Luxemburg and those of the other capable leaders, notably Jogiches and Levine (and not the heroic but politically inept Liebknecht, with whom Luxemburg broke shortly before their assassination), removed the possibility of the KPD developing an understanding of how to operate within the short time available to it. If they had survived then it is just possible that the KPD might have seen the possibilities of the strike in response to the Kapp Putsch, would not have committed the absurdities of the March Action, would have taken a decisive lead in October 1923—and of course a different response to each of these would have changed the conditions under which the subsequent events took place.

The role of the individual in history was as crucial in a negative sense in Germany as it was in a positive sense in Russia. But we have to have the courage to accept the implications of this, which are that, after January 1919, the chances of the German Revolution succeeding were greatly reduced. After the expulsion of Paul Levi in 1921 they were virtually non-existent. And this was not only a problem in Germany, but for the entire International: ‘After Liebknecht and Luxemburg were killed, and after Paul Levi left the movement, there was no person in the international Communist movement, and in particular in Germany, comparable to the Bolshevik leaders’.20

The working class response to the Kapp Putsch still offers us a tantalising glimpse of what might have been, as Broué recounts in some of his most gripping pages:

‘But the German workers did not hear [the KPD’s] appeal for passivity. On 14 March, a Sunday, it was possible to judge the ardour and the scope of their resistance. One after another the trains ceased to move. By five o’clock in the evening there were in Berlin no trams, no water and no electricity… In Chemnitz the workers’ organisations decided immediately to recruit 3,000 men to the workers’ militia… The reality was that by the 15th, the Kapp-Luttwitz government was completely paralysed. The Belgian socialist Louis De Brouckere wrote: “The General Strike now grips them with its terrible silent power”.’21

In spite of problems which I have sketched out here, Broué’s magnificent work is imbued with the spirit of this moment. It is in the same spirit that we should read it today.


1: P Broué, The German Revolution, 1917-1923 (Leiden and Boston, 2005), p449. The price of this book may put off some readers—make sure you get it into your local or university library.

2: C Harman, The Lost Revolution: Germany, 1918 to 1923 (London, 1982), p12.

3: The German Revolution is fifth in an excellent book series from the journal Historical Materialism, consisting of out of print classics, books hitherto untranslated into English and new works of Marxist scholarship. One subsidiary reason for wishing this volume every success is that it might encourage some enterprising publisher finally to translate Broué’s biography of Trotsky (1988) into English.

4: I discuss the problem of periodisation in relation to the bourgeois revolution in Discovering the Scottish Revolution, 1692-1746 (London and Sterling, Virginia, 2003), p9.

5: A J P Taylor, The Course of German History: a Survey of the Development of German History since 1815 (London, 1961), p69.

6: P Broué, as above, p899.

7: L D Trotsky, ‘The Lessons of October’, in The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1923-1925), edited with an introduction by N Allen (New York, 1975); P Levi, ‘Introduction to Trotsky’s The Lessons of October’, Revolutionary History, vol 5, no 2, (Spring 1994).

8: There are two main exceptions. One was by Franz Borkenau, an Austrian Comintern functionary turned Social Democrat, in a study of the Third International originally published in 1939. The other was by E H Carr, the senior civil servant turned Times leader-writer turned historian, in his History of Soviet Russia. See F Borkenau, World Communism (Ann Arbour, 1962), chapter 14, ‘Germany in 1923’, and E H Carr, The Interregnum, 1923-1924 (Harmondsworth, 1969), chapter 9, ‘The German Fiasco’. Both books are highly recommended. Despite his reformist politics, Borkenau’s exhilarating account of the revolutionary upheavals in Europe at the end of the First World War is more evocative of the excitement, more alive to the possibilities of those days than many more tediously correct versions. (Broué subjects Borkenau’s Kautskyite views on the supposed inescapable patriotism of the masses in August 1914 to a brief but searching criticism in P Broué, as above, pp47-49.) Carr’s book is, for me at any rate, the outstanding volume in his entire History.

9: P Broué, as above, pp450-451.

10: P Broué, as above, p857.

11: P Broué, as above, p577.

12: P Broué, as above, p840.

13: P Broué, as above, p855. For details of the earlier arguments of Levi and Radek, see pp302-304, 309-313.

14: P Broué, as above, pp308-9.

15: P Broué, as above, pp3-5, 289. This was also the view of at least some of the German revolutionaries during the November Revolution of 1918. See P Broué, as above, p131.

16: L D Trotsky, ‘Introduction to the First (Russian) Edition [of Permanent Revolution] (Published in Berlin)’, The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects (New York, 1969), p7. A similar view was actually taken in 1957-58 by internal KPD critics of the Stalinist interpretation of November 1918. See P Broué, as above, pp844-845. The classic statement of the case for the bourgeois nature of German society before 1914 remains D Blackbourne and G Eley, The Peculiarities of German History: Bourgeois Society and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Germany (Oxford, 1984).

17: P Broué, as above, pp280-281.

18: C Harman, as above, chapter 7, ‘The Bavarian Soviet Republic’.

19: P Anderson, ‘Communist Party History’, in R Samuel (ed), People’s History and Socialist Theory (London, 1981), p148.

20: P Broué, as above, p872.

21: P Broué, as above, pp355, 356.