Chapter 16 - The German left and the Third International

German-Soviet Relations: 1918-1922
The “cordon sanitaire” was an attempt to isolate Russia and close off Germany with the help of the countries which had recently been granted their independence in the name of the right of national self-determination: Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Baltic nations, and Finland. The Baltic nations, which had been part of Russia until 1914, were occupied by the Germans in 1918. They then fought against the occupiers and against the revolution, driving out the large landowners of German (Estonia and Latvia) and Polish (Lithuania) origin. But these were not real “bourgeois revolutions”. None of these countries could be a viable national state in the classical sense of the term.1 In all of these States, Capital was too weak to assure cohesion: all of them incorporated, for good or for ill, considerable minorities, who were inevitably the victims of discrimination. The native population comprised no more than 73% of the population of Latvia, 80% in Lithuania, 69% in Poland, and 76% in Romania. In two countries it comprised less than half the total population: 46% in Czechoslovakia (Czechs) and in Yugoslavia (Serbs). Ethnic hostilities would bury the class struggle a little deeper under regional, ethnic and national ideas. From their origins these “nation states” were not really nation states at all, but creations of Anglo-American imperialism. In his critique of the Dutch Communist Party, Gorter emphasized this carving up of Europe which would render it impotent and favor America, as well as the counterrevolutionary impact of the movements for national liberation in Austria-Hungary and Russia. Although “Leninist” on the right of self-determination, Bordiga would also define the two world wars as American aggression against Europe.2 The German Left would be one of the first currents to recognize the return of Russia as a reactionary buttress alongside the USA, which together would assume the role played by England in the 19th century.3

Shortly after his release from prison at the end of 1919, Radek defined “the problem of Russia’s foreign policy” as follows: “reaching a modus Vivendi with the capitalist states.”4 The influence of state foreign policy on Bolshevism did not yet have the character it would later assume after 1921; its ambiguity still allowed for revolutionary positions. But its impact was all the greater insofar as the left did not immediately take it into account. Russia, instead of uniting with the revolutionary West, would respond by promoting the worst tactics of the western tradition:

“Western culture has been fused with eastern culture to form a new, infinitely richer cultural content.”5

Broken on November 4, 1918, due to the expulsion of the Russian ambassador from Berlin, economic relations between Russia and Germany were resumed at the end of 1919.6 Throughout this period, Radek and other high-level soviet officials (Krasin, Minister of Foreign Trade; Kopp, Trade Attaché) held frequent meetings in Berlin and made some useful connections there. Radek undertook all of this work from his jail cell, while simultaneously busy Leninizing the Communist Party. Surprisingly, during this same period, the Communist International, far from having learned any lessons from what had happened in Germany, preferred to issue grandiloquent proclamations and to celebrate its martyrs.7 The Spartacist legend was soon born, whose martyrology would be used until about 1930.8

On May 6 a trade agreement was signed: this was two months after at least a fraction of the Communist International and perhaps of the Russian Communist Party had tried to steer events in Germany towards an insurrection. At the same time, Russia officially requested German military advisers.9 In April 1922, the Rapallo Treaty marked the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries, which initiated economic negotiations and agreed to consult one another whenever international economic issues arose for either country. The treaty was the source of fruitful exchanges for Germany, although it did not exploit all the possibilities the treaty offered: it fulfilled precisely the role of “safety valve”, as the KAPD delegates to the Third World Congress described it.10

Even though they knew very little about the contacts between the two countries, the KAPD nonetheless saw the crux of the matter: its declarations at the Third World Congress would prove to be totally justified. Krasin, for example, leader of a Russian trade mission which had arrived in England for negotiations in May-June 1920, declared that Russia was ready to renounce all propaganda and to cease meddling in British domestic affairs, if the English would reciprocate and reestablish economic relations with Russia.11

Collaboration between the German Left and the Bolsheviks
Within the early KPD, prior to the exclusion of the Left, the two tendencies also clashed over the issue of the International: this was a continuation of the disagreement between the Left and the Center (and within the Center, with Spartacus) at Zimmerwald. The former were in favor of the immediate creation of an International based on the existing leftist groups, despite their weakness. The centrists and Spartacists thought that in order to set up an International, they would have to wait until conditions matured, judging that they were not yet mature enough; during the war the Spartacists had not yet abandoned the hope that the radicals might be able to reconquer the old International. This was why Eberlein spoke at the First Congress against the immediate founding of the International (cf. Chapter 11).

The First Congress called for the seizure of power, to which all means of struggle were to be subordinated. “Revolutionary parliamentarism” was only mentioned as one means among others. As mentioned above, precise positions were not established in regard to the trade union question and the party’s organizational structure. This gave the Left the impression that it was worthy of the Communist International’s recommendation. It seemed normal to Gorter in 1919 that he should refer to the authority of the Communist International (and even to that of the KPD) in his text against the majority faction of the Dutch Communist Party. Indeed, since Gorter, Pannekoek, Roland-Holst and the ISD had collaborated with the Bolsheviks during the war (while the Spartacists had adopted a more subdued position), the founding Congress of the KAPD unanimously approved a resolution which stated that “the KAPD is unequivocally in the camp of the Third International” (April 1920). The KAPD would never again make such a sweeping declaration. Finally, the Left’s great theoretical text, World Revolution and Communist Tactics, written by Pannekoek at the end of 1919 (but not its postscript) as well as the texts and even the poems of Gorter, contain apologies for Bolshevik power.

But the Left brought upon itself a certain number of reprimands, which arose when the Russians (and above all, Lenin and Radek) judged that the revolutionary wave had receded. In prison, Radek established the basic framework for the future relations between the German and Russian States while simultaneously intervening on the side of the Levist faction at Heidelberg. Lenin, in his Salute to the Italian, French and German Communists12 (October 1919), spoke of a “sickness of growth” in communism, as evidenced by the rejection of legal opportunities, the refusal to “participate in bourgeois parliament, in the reactionary trade unions or in the Scheidemann-style works councils”. This letter was reprinted in the Hamburg Communist Workers Daily, which did not see, or feigned not to see, that Lenin was supporting Levi. But Lenin defined the “disagreements among communists” as “disagreements which share the common basis of one essential communist foundation, solid as a rock: this foundation is that of the recognition of the proletarian revolution, of the struggle against bourgeois democratic illusions and the bourgeois democratic parliament, the recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat and of the power of the soviets. Upon such a foundation, disagreements are nothing to fear.” Lenin compared such disagreements to the disputes which arose among the Bolsheviks in 1906 and 1910-1912. This sickness “will pass as the movement grows, and it will grow marvelously”.13 On October 28, 1919, Lenin wrote to the KPD central committee: “since you all agree on what is essential. . . . I see unity as possible and necessary, just as the break with the Kautskyists is necessary.” On the same date he wrote to the “comrade workers” of the KPD opposition: “The disagreements concerning secondary questions, as I understand them, can disappear and will inevitably disappear.”14 One year later, he would say that it had been necessary to tolerate the Left for a while in order to absorb its best elements: now, we will not give them any publicity, we shall not speak of them any more.15

At the beginning of 1920, the Amsterdam Bureau was dissolved by means of a simple telephone call from Moscow (cf. Chapter 11).16 Other warnings followed, culminating in the publication of Infantile Disorder, written in April 1920, published in a Russian edition in June and in German translation in July. The constant references in that pamphlet to the Russian experience (set out at the beginning of the work) were deceitful. The European communists were supposed to be inspired by the Russians when the latter found it useful, but they should not imitate the Russians when the latter did not want them to do so. Specific conditions in England were invoked to encourage the English Communist Party’s affiliation with the English Labour Party, which amounted to demanding that a party which was a member of the Third International must affiliate with the Second International. But he later invoked Bolshevik “discipline” to shame his opponents. Lenin attacked the Left’s two weakest points, without ever trying to understand the social movement that its texts were trying to express: the oppositions, Party/Class and Masses/Leaders, for example. Lenin dismantled these constructions in an almost clinical manner, ignoring what these oppositions (badly and partially) expressed. He had undertaken a textual critique, an analysis of phrases meticulously selected from the declarations of the Left. Lenin feared that the break with the Left (in which he included both the Italian as well as the German Left) “would become an international phenomenon. . . . At all events, a split is better than confusion . . . . Let the Lefts put themselves to a practical test. . 17. .” In reality, Reichenbach’s testimony, a KAPD delegate to the Executive Committee of the Communist International, 18 and especially all of Lenin’s works and his practice throughout this era, show that Lenin conceded very little of his time to international questions compared to Russian domestic policy, which absorbed all the Bolsheviks’ energies. The Russians had a superficial knowledge of the western movement. Above all, they wanted to build a large movement in Europe.

Rühle and the Conflict within the KAPD
The KAPD mistrusted the organizational and tactical centralization of the revolutionary movement, fearing that, in the conditions of that time, the inevitable domination of the Russians would cause the requirements of the struggle in the West to be forgotten. The preference for autonomy (referred to as anarchistic), although real in some (Rühle), played a lesser role at that time than the preoccupation with preserving the specificity of the struggles in the highly developed countries. It is in this sense that one must understand the KAPD’s assertion: “The tactic of the Communist International is nothing but the synthesis of the tactics of the different parties, each of which acts in its own country; there is not, nor can there be, a specific tactic of the International.”19

The KAPD Congress sent a delegation composed of Jan Appel and Franz Jung to Moscow in order to get a clear idea of the position of the Executive Committee and to present the theses of the KAPD. It was a hectic journey, given the situation of illegality in which most KAPD members lived, and because of the absence of diplomatic relations between Russia and Germany: Jung and Appel had to board ship in secret and, once at sea, hijacked the ship to Murmansk. When they arrived in Moscow in early May, Lenin was just then proofing the manuscript of Infantile Disorder and he read them a few passages.

When the Second World Congress was announced for July, the KAPD, without any news from the first delegation, sent Rühle to Moscow at the end of May. His journey was also difficult. The Executive Committee of the Communist International issued an “open letter” (June 2) to the members of the KAPD in which all ambiguity was dispelled: the Executive Committee was totally on the side of the KPD. Once again, the communists faced a familiar problem: the KAPD had no knowledge of this letter until the Second Congress had already begun. After a journey of several weeks, Rühle arrived in Moscow and became convinced that the “western” revolutionary movement had nothing in common with the “ultra-centralist” system which reigned in Russia.

After a brief discussion of his arrival in Russia, Rühle’s Report from Moscow20 criticized the position of the Jung-Appel delegation: “They did not have what it takes to confront the diplomacy and superior political savvy of the Moscow Executive. On questions of importance to the Party, they have succumbed to the influence to which they were subjected, and have made concessions for which I can in no way be held responsible—this was obvious to me at first sight. On some points they have frankly abandoned the point of view which the KAPD considered essential to defend. More serious still: they have promised in writing to intervene in favor of the exclusion of comrades Laufenberg, Wolffheim and Rühle. . . .”

Rühle later described his first interview with Radek, which was occasionally “very violent”. “Every one of Radek’s phrases was a phrase from the Rote Fahne. Each argument, an argument of Spartacus. Radek is, properly speaking, the grand master of the KPD. Dr. Levi and Heckert are his tame parrots. They have no opinions of their own and they are paid by Moscow.”

“I tried to get Radek to give me the open letter addressed to the KAPD. He promised he would give it to me, but he did not abide by his word. I reminded him about this again, several times, but he did not give me the letter. When I found out later that our two comrades who had led the negotiations had not known about the open letter until the last moment before their departure, Radek’s behavior became clear to me from a psychological point of view. He, the worst of tricksters, the most unscrupulous, at least felt a twinge of shame at the prospect of revealing the perfidious lies and shameless insults which filled the open letter, although he was afraid to have a face-to-face conversation with one of the injured and calumniated parties.”

“The methods which I have seen employed in Moscow have filled me with the most profound repugnance. Everywhere, back-door maneuvers calculated with the most extreme exaggeration to dissimulate with overblown revolutionary appearances an opportunist background. I would have preferred to get up and leave. But I decided to wait until the arrival of the second delegation, comrade Merges from Braunschweig. . . .”

“To begin, I took a tour of Moscow, usually without official guides, in order to see things which I was not scheduled to visit.” Later, Rühle made a journey to central Russia: “Many impressions, more sad ones than pleasant ones. Russia suffers in every part and from every evil. How could it be otherwise? I could relate many facts, but the examples set by Crispien and Dittmann do not tempt me to imitate them. Who, after all, would benefit? Only the adversaries of communism. But all of these defects and all of these inconveniences do not constitute evidence against communism. Ultimately, they constitute evidence against the methods and tactics employed by Russia to realize communism. On this point, of course, it is necessary to make ourselves distinctly understood by our Russian comrades.”

Rühle attacked the concept of centralism so prevalent among the Russians, which they had raised to the level of a “hypercentralism”. But “it is the revolution which has compelled them to act in this way. These men, the German representatives of the party organization, had their precious audience, when they became indignant and crossed themselves upon being faced by the dictatorial and terrorist aspects of Russia. If they had been in the position of the Soviet government, they would have acted in exactly the same way (. . . .) What appears in Russia as a caricature is the consequence of a faulty, historically-superseded system. Centralism is the principle of organization proper to the capitalist-bourgeois era. Following this principle, one can construct the Bourgeois State and the capitalist economy. These must be dealt with by the council system. In Russia, however, the councils are nothing but shadows. A tentacle of the bureaucracy of the party dictatorship. But by relying on the bureaucracy Russia arrives at a caricature of communism, economically and politically; a communism of a barbarous State, sterile and unendurable.”

“Why have the Russian comrades made this error? Because they are prisoners of the belief in the party. Because they see the party as the means to bring about the revolution and the construction of socialism. The party, however, as a form of organization, is the incarnation of the centralist principle. This is the source of their error. . . .”

“For the KAPD—unlike Moscow—the revolution is not a party matter, the party is not an authoritarian, top-down organization, the leader is not a military commander, the masses are not an army condemned to passive discipline, the dictatorship is not the despotism of a clique of leaders, communism is not used as a springboard for a new soviet bourgeoisie. For the KAPD, the revolution is an affair which concerns the proletarian class in its entirety; within this class is the party, which is only the vanguard, most mature and most determined. The masses must raise themselves to the level of the political maturity of this vanguard, but the KAPD does not expect this result to be obtained under the tutelage of leaders, discipline and regimentation. On the contrary: with an advanced proletariat, like the German proletariat, these methods obtain precisely the opposite result. Such methods stifle initiative, paralyze revolutionary activity, short-circuit the power of persuasion, and diminish the sense of responsibility. For the KAPD, it is a matter of giving free rein to the initiative of the masses, of freeing them from authority, of developing their self-consciousness, of nurturing their autonomy and thus increasing their participation in the revolution. . . .”

“Russia is not Germany, Russian politics is not German politics, and the Russian revolution is not the German revolution. This is why the tactics of the Russian revolution cannot be applied to the German revolution. Lenin could prove a hundred times that the tactics of the Bolsheviks were brilliantly illustrated in the Russian revolution—this would not make them, by any means, tactics suitable for the German revolution. We must rise up with determination against any attempt to impose these tactics upon us.”

“Nonetheless, Moscow has made this terrorist attempt. It wants to make its principle into the principle of the world revolution. The KPD is its agent. It works under Russian orders and according to the Russian plan. It is the phonograph of Moscow. Since it does not want to play this eunuch’s role, but has its own opinion, the KAPD is the object of a deadly hatred. Just read the insults, the calumnies and the poisonous insinuations with which we are fought—without any concern for the revolutionary situation in which we find ourselves, without any consideration for the impact which these evil practices could have among our bourgeois adversaries. Dr. Levi and Heckert owe us for all the filth which Radek and Zinoviev put into their hands. These scoundrels are paid to do this. But, despite everything, the KAPD would not get down on its knees; it was necessary that the Congress of the Third International should decree that it must yield to Moscow’s orders. Everything was magnificently prepared. The guillotine was ready. Radek, with a self-satisfied air, examined the blade’s edge. The supreme tribunal had already been seated. It would be a grand spectacle. This was how the Executive envisioned things would proceed. Too beautiful for reality.”

“. . . . The dictatorship of the Bolsheviks is the dictatorship of 5% of a class over the other classes and over the other 95% of its own class. . . .” The KAPD must not join the Communist International, “an association which accepts people who assume the responsibility for the terror exercised by a party over the Russian people.” And he would go even further in the Communist Workers Daily of Berlin (No. 146, November 1920): “The Russian workers are even more enslaved, oppressed and exploited than the German workers.”

In early July, Rühle was joined by another KAPD delegate, the former president of the socialist republic of Braunschweig—from the end of 1918 to the beginning of 1919—August Merges. During the course of discussions with Lenin and Radek, they were made aware of the 21 Conditions proposed by the Executive Committee and upon which the Congress was to vote. Radek guaranteed that if they accepted the resolutions of the Congress, including the 21 Conditions, the KAPD’s admission into the Communist International would pose no problem (since the result was known in advance). Rühle and Merges returned to Germany even before the Congress began. Levi, who had protested against the KAPD’s “over-representation”, since the KAPD had been granted a deliberative vote while the USPD and SFIO left wings had only consultative votes, was outvoted 25 to 5. But Rühle’s departure put an end to this dispute.

Upon Rühle’s return to Germany, the KAPD was divided: Rühle, Die Aktion and the East Saxony and Hamburg districts, versus Berlin and the party majority who described Rühle’s conduct as a “grave error”. But the Second Congress of the KAPD (August) did not directly address the issue of resuming relations with the Communist International. It reacted violently against the “Open Letter” of the Executive Committee ordering the KAPD to merge with the KPD, and also against the Executive Committee’s plan to “meddle in the internal affairs of other parties”. The KAPD, in this connection, invoked a principle which it had by no means respected itself, since it called for solidarity between the KAPD and the Executive Committee against the KPD.

Instead of admitting with Rühle that there was no common ground at all between the Left and the Communist International, the KAPD majority believed that further discussion was possible. It was from this perspective that Gorter wrote his Open Letter to Comrade Lenin in the summer of 1920, in response to Infantile Disorder. He wanted to convince Lenin that the KAPD’s positions were correct for Western Europe, and to lead him to admit, at the same time, the falsehood of certain arguments in Infantile Disorder, and to rectify his information about the Left. Like the majority of his party, Gorter did not see that the Communist International’s attitude towards the KAPD was based upon the International’s intention of “recovering its best elements”. Lenin wrote in Infantile Disorder that the KAPD had “the advantage of knowing how to carry out propaganda among the masses better than the other parties”. Once again, the Left wasted its time by allowing itself to be deceived by politicians. During a session of the KAPD Central Committee which took place between October 30th and 31st, 1920, Rühle was excluded, and the decision was made to send a third delegation to Moscow.

The Third Congress and the Split
The KAPD delegation to the Third World Congress was composed of Gorter, Schröder and Rasch (Schröder was the political leader of the KAPD, while Gorter was its principle theoretician). Its objective was to allow the KAPD to at least get a foothold within the Communist International in order to create a revolutionary opposition within it.

The delegation attended various sessions of the Executive Committee21. Gorter expounded his theses on November 24. Trotsky answered him in a speech which contained the essential points of the best counter-arguments (although of a partial nature), which would later be reappropriated by the Italian Left in its critique of the German Left.22 He reproached Gorter for attempting to reduce revolutionary problems to “an organizational modification”. He accused Gorter of wanting a small propagandist party rather than a party organization of the whole class. It was possible, Trotsky said, that the experience of the Dutch SDP had influenced more than just the size of the KAPD. It was false, he said, to maintain that the primary goal was to transform the consciousness of the workers. Trotsky, like Bordiga after him, compared this illusion (which is only a partial depiction of the German Left’s position) to the nationalists of the 18th century and their Aufklärung. But the reform of consciousness was a characteristic feature of the era. This amounted to a distorted dialogue, in which it was easy for Trotsky to refer to truths by avoiding the questions which were effectively posed, but poorly-expressed by the actions of the German Left: their insufficient expression was the theoretical reflection of the weakness and contradictions of the practical conduct of the proletariat.

Trotsky was correct, of course, to recall that “the most important source of the revolution is still necessity”, and to situate the “degree of education” of the masses in its proper place. But educationalism did not yet characterize the German Left as it would later.23 Gorter did not consider consciousness to be something which comes before action, as it does in the Kautskyist view, in which the proletariat could not become conscious except after having been inoculated by socialist ideas. In its practice, the Left, despite certain imprecise formulas, which are often produced by any revolutionary tendency, considered that clarification must be attained through action and not pedagogy. The Communist International, Lenin, and later the Italian Left, chose to attack only the weakest points of the German Left by focusing on its idealist formulations. In his Open Letter to Comrade Lenin, Gorter noted how Lenin, instead of attacking positions which had been “officially adopted, often attacks the ‘private’ declarations of the KAPD. The same holds true for his charge of organizational ‘fetishism’”:

“The German Left, throughout its first years, demonstrated that it possessed a sufficiently healthy instinct by not theorizing too much about the form of the unionen, but only about their content, thus leaving the possibilities open to the future revolutionary movement . . . one must add, however, that, with respect to the ‘economic’ analyses of the unionen, there were (particularly in the AAU-E) councilist idealizations concerning the organizational bases of the unionen... ”24

Finally, on December 5, the KAPD was admitted into the Communist International “provisionally, as a sympathizing party with a voice but without a vote”. Its admission was provisional as a result of the fact that all the resolutions of the Executive Committee concerning the KAPD demanded that the KAPD should soon rejoin the KPD. The KAPD thus obtained a permanent seat on the Executive Committee of the Communist International, occupied first by Goldstein and later by Reichenbach. Upon their return to Germany, the members of the delegation were very optimistic and exaggerated their achievements. Nonetheless, the Executive Committee had contributed eight million marks for KAPD activities. The KAPD even moved to reopen contacts with the VKPD, which was then undergoing its first turn towards the left. At no time, however, did the KAPD cease to criticize the Bolsheviks and their German “fraternal party”. The Third Congress of the KAPD (February 1921) ratified the party’s membership in the Communist International. During this period, numerous communists did not deny the revolutionary character of the German Left. In January 1921, Humbert-Droz wrote: “The KAPD constitutes a reaction, somewhat unfortunate in its manner of expression, but necessary for its revolutionary spirit, against the policies of the Spartakusbund and the USPD.”25

But after the news of the rebellions of the Russian proletarians against the government, and the March Action, in which the VKPD demonstrated its inability to lead a revolutionary action, the KAPD rejected any idea of merging with the KPD.

After the Tenth Congress of the Russian Communist Party, Zinoviev announced that the next world congress “would emphasize” the question of the KAPD. For its part, the KAPD prepared a packet of materials to publicize its theses to the delegates. In May, it sent a delegation to see if it was possible to create a leftist fraction within the Communist International. The delegation was composed of Meyer (pseudonym: Bergmann), a metal worker from Leipzig who had directly participated in the struggles at Leuna during March, Jan Appel (pseudonym: Hempel), Sachs and Reichenbach.

The Left’s interventions at the Congress demonstrated that the major difference separating the Left from the Bolsheviks consisted in the fact that the Left based its tactics on the power of capital. Gorter’s Open Letter to Comrade Lenin had reproached Lenin for underestimating the power of capital’s unity in Europe and the USA: “The left . . . bases its tactics on this unified power.” Hempel highlighted the “economic division within the working class” produced by unemployment. In his critique of Trotsky’s report on the world economic situation, Sachs explained how the bourgeoisie used the economy as a social weapon against the proletariat, and how it strove to “maintain the economy as class struggle”. The Leninist position was totally different: on the eve of the Second Congress, Zinoviev was still asking about which road (revolutionary or non-revolutionary) the trade unions “would choose”.26

Contrary to what Lenin had said in his speech on tactics, when he had “demagogically” aroused laughter among his audience, it was not a question of asking oneself whether it was possible to make the revolution by remaining in isolation.27 The regrouping of a sufficient number of revolutionaries is necessary: but the revolutionaries cannot win over the majority of the workers before a revolutionary period. The Communist International was mistaken in its dispute with the Left when it insisted that revolutionaries must not hesitate to work in reactionary institutions (trade unions, parliaments, etc.), as if the Left was above all concerned with preserving its purity. This was, of course, a temptation for some, but was not the Left’s primary concern. The enemy would be strengthened by making people believe that the proletariat could use parliament, or that the trade union structure was acceptable.

The Communist International’s reaction to the March Action offers an excellent illustration of the International’s contradictions. The Third Congress resolved nothing, since it supported the Central Committee and was in favor of the strengthening of the KPD through its penetration of the masses. The final formula, rendering facile homage to the March Action, described as a “step forward”, elevated the unity of the party above all other considerations: rather than unity, however, a crisis ensued (cf. the preceding chapter). Contrary to what Trotsky said, 28 the presence of numerically powerful Communist Parties in Germany (400,000), France (120,000-130,000) and Czechoslovakia (350,000) was not synonymous with revolutionary progress. The flood of members into the Communist Parties was a sign of the crisis of traditional reformism, not of the emergence of a new revolutionary movement. Deceived by the trade unions and socialist parties from the pre-1914 period, numerous workers turned to “communism” and the Red Trade Union International merely in order to conduct consistent reformist struggles, nothing more. Trotsky misinterpreted this shift: “We now have real mass communist parties in Germany, France, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria. . . . An enormous tidal wave!”

“With the nascent theorization of the ‘united front’, the Third International proved that it had the same view of the ‘workers movement’ as the Second International: there was a ‘workers movement’, which was now unfortunately divided, but which had fundamental common interests upon which a political-trade union collaboration could be based.”29

One could add to the KAPD’s report on this Congress that its delegates were treated like intruders in an assembly where “serious politics” were being deliberated. All the other delegates were hostile towards them; even Radek and the other leading personalities of the Congress went out of their way to ridicule them. Lenin began one of his speeches with this phrase: “I, too, will allow myself to go on the offensive. . . .” Radek and Trotsky were constantly comparing the KAPD delegates to the Mensheviks and the “two and a half International” (Martov, Kautsky, etc.). Bukharin’s intervention took the following form: “With your permission, we must tell these comrades: these goals, these ideas, totally unite the KAPD with its detested enemy, with Paul Levi. They rest upon the same theoretical basis as Levi. (Shouts from the KAPD delegates: and in practice?) If theory is one thing for them, and practice another, this is proof of their utterly confused spirit. . . .”

Roland-Holst, in defense of the KAPD, declared that it would be useful for the Communist International to have an opposition, and that the leadership of the Congress did not respect the “idea of justice” in relation to the KAPD, by not granting it the same possibilities for expression as the other parties. She had previously presented a more powerful defense of the KAPD in the journal Kommunismus (cf. the next chapter), 30 “The organ of the International for Central and Eastern Europe”. Roland-Holst would leave the Communist Party in 1927; demanding freedom of expression for the opposition groups, and presciently announcing that: “Demagogic opportunism goes hand in hand with dogmatic rigidity”, which had been clear at least since 1921.31

The Workers Opposition and the KAPD
Quite surprisingly, for the KAPD, the Workers Opposition was the only tendency at the Congress which went beyond a simple, courteous critique of the Bolsheviks. Intervening in the debate on the tactics of the Russian Communist Party, Kollontai devoted most of her speech to a criticism of the New Economic Policy adopted by the Tenth Congress of the Russian Communist Party.32 The principle issue was to discover whether or not this decisive turn in economic policy would in fact serve to consolidate the foundations and accelerate the formation of a new system of communist production in Russia. Kollontai responded in the negative: “These days, the capitalist order exists throughout the world” and communism is the only system which can guarantee the development of the forces of production. Insofar as it is a detour within capitalism, and risks a return to capitalism, the NEP must therefore be rejected, if only from the economic point of view.

Furthermore, from the point of view of class relations in Russia, the NEP was a massive concession to the Russian peasants who wanted capitalism. It leads to the total isolation of the working class from the other two “classes” (the quotation marks are ours): the peasants, and the bureaucracy which is progressively replacing the moribund bourgeoisie. This bureaucracy includes the State apparatus and the party machine, the managerial layers of the economy and the specialists. With the NEP, the working class loses its role as the driving force behind the development of Russian society. If, furthermore, the revolution does not break out soon enough, the concessions of the NEP will lead to the admission “that the communist principles upon which our policies have been based were not suitable for the realization of our aims. This would discourage the workers. These concessions destroy the confidence of the working class in communism and lead the peasantry to believe that all of our economic growth is due to its efforts. These concessions eliminate the confidence in the fact that the workers can achieve something by their own autonomous efforts, that they can realize the communist system in Russia.”

Kollontai advocated an alternative:

“Utilize the creative power of the proletariat which has never really been used. Enemy forces prevent the expression of this power. Lenin says nothing about it in his speech about the means required to get the economy moving; he restricts himself to the technical aspect of the question (machines, electricity, foreign specialists, etc.). Nonetheless, the essential point is rooted in the fact that ‘our current system obstructs the initiative of the proletariat’.”

“If we should continue down the road of these concessions, I greatly fear that we might arrive at a situation in which, when the revolution breaks out in other countries, it will already be too late, that the conscious, just, proletarian nucleus here will have disappeared. . . . It will be necessary, for the proletarians, to make a new revolution in Russia to realize communism.”

Understanding that, despite everything, the NEP was inevitable, she concluded as follows:

“The only thing that can save us would be the existence within our party of a nucleus bound to our old tried and true principles, and that this nucleus should be present at the moment when this revolution breaks out among us. And should this decisive turn affect all soviet policies and create a non-communist, simply soviet republic out of our communist republic, this tried and true nucleus of communists should be there to pick up the flag of the revolution and help achieve the victory of communism throughout the world.”

Kollontai nurtured all the illusions of her epoch. Communism is conceived as the management of the economy by the workers and she does not take the critique of political economy into account. She makes consciousness autonomous in respect to the social process: an idea which consists in believing that a conscious revolutionary nucleus could “maintain its existence” through an indeterminate period of reaction. The initiative of the proletariat consequently also becomes an autonomous factor. The illusion is completed with reference to the aptitude of what was left of the Russian proletariat, which had launched a reformist struggle against the Bolsheviks and demanded (like the peasants) the NEP, even before the Tenth Congress had voted in favor of it. The striking Petrograd workers had asked for free trade between the city and the countryside.33 Finally, she maintained the illusion concerning the ability of living labor (the proletariat), in general, to make up for the insufficient accumulation of dead (fixed) capital. This was, forty years in advance, the ideology of the Chinese “great leap forward”, which would be used by all those who want to increase the rate of exploitation of the proletariat: fascists, third world bureaucrats, etc., Kollontai not excepted. It is a distinct form of the “workers utopia”. Kristman, the theoretician of war communism, wrote in October 1919 in the Autocracy of the Proletariat in the Factory: “colossal forces lie dormant in the proletariat”.34 What is of interest in the Workers Opposition and its contradiction derive from the fact that it was both the workers solution for Russian capitalist development and the expression of a defeated proletarian movement (primarily due to its international isolation, but also because of the destruction of the revolution from within, undermined by the rebirth of capitalist relations which had been reintroduced, against their will, by the Bolsheviks).

The KAPD delegates held interviews after the Congress opened with several leaders of the Workers Opposition. Kollontai gave them the manuscript of The Workers Opposition. According to Reichenbach, Kollontai later submitted to party discipline, and asked the KAPD after the Congress to return her manuscript: but a courier had already brought it to Berlin where the KAPD had immediately published it. In any event, when questioned about the matter the following year at the Fourth World Congress (November-December 1922), Kollontai preferred to remain silent.35

In one of his interventions at the Third Congress, addressing the Russian question, Hempel repeated the gist of Kollontai’s arguments. Trotsky’s response was a masterpiece of bad faith and falsehood, evocative of his future assassins. The leaders of the ex-revolution became the leaders of the counterrevolution.

Some time later, a new letter from the Executive Committee of the Communist International, addressed “To the Members of the Communist Workers Party of Germany”, stated: “In the most important questions, your leaders’ arguments coincide with those of the declared counterrevolution and the Mensheviks.”36 Zinoviev would later admit that he had fought the left when the right was much stronger.37

The KAPD explained the Communist International’s position by reference to the pressure of the Russian party which had only carried out “a proletarian and communist revolution in appearance, or at least only a small part of it. It was, in reality, primarily a democratic and peasant revolution. It is this contradiction, which had remained concealed for some time, which has condemned the international tactics of the soviet republic and the communist party: dictatorship, blind obedience, hypercentralism, etc.”. The KAPD foresaw that the Russian State would carry ever more weight in the Communist International, for which “the revolution will be increasingly reduced to a mere word, with, perhaps, some putsches every now and then”.38 In 1923, Gorter still interpreted Kronstadt as a peasant phenomenon.39

This was a constantly recurring theme among many on the Left: Gorter, in mid-1918, had expounded the same theme in The World Revolution. Pannekoek, however, went much further: World Revolution and Communist Tactics suggests that the Russian revolution should not be viewed only in connection with Germany, but also with Asia: “Asia’s cause is humanity’s cause.” We have already seen how (cf. Chapter 3) he had entertained a global strategy in 1912. In 1920, he had come to connect the European workers movement with the “great revolt of Asia against western European capital”. His vision is broader than Gorter’s, who limited himself to theorizing the isolation of the European proletarians in relation to other geographical areas. For Pannekoek, a proletarian offensive in China or the Indies could lead to a reactivation of the movement in the “advanced” countries.

This comparison of Pannekoek and Gorter—who was closer to the activity of the revolutionary workers and consequently more of a prisoner of their deficiencies in Germany—gives rise to the thought that Gorter also theorized (like Lenin, but in the contrary sense) the limitations of the movement. Its disregard of the agrarian question demonstrated the determination and the strength of the German proletariat but it also showed that it had not begun a communist revolution in the relations of production. Kollontai and Gorter became the defenders of exclusively working class interests in a situation which increasingly appeared to be a revolutionary deadlock. Each saw the solution in a future revolution (even in Russia), one of whose preconditions would be the preservation of a revolutionary “nucleus”.

  • 1. Concerning the “bourgeois revolutions” of the 20th century, cf. the articles in Bilan, a journal of the Italian communist left, on the war in Spain, published in 1976, UGE (10-18). Cf. also various articles by Lukàcs in Kommunismus.
  • 2. Battaglia Comunista, No. 4, 1949.
  • 3. Marx, Engels: Military Writings.
  • 4. Carr: German-Soviet Relations between the Two World Wars, 1919-1939, Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1951, p. 23.
  • 5. Rühle: Brauner und roter Faschismus, (1939), Hamburg, 1971. French translation, Spartakus, 1975.
  • 6. Badia: pp. 117, 182-183.
  • 7. The IC, No. 9, April 1920.
  • 8. Ibid., article by Pieck in No. 19, December 1921.
  • 9. On the German-Russian military links, cf. Carr: pp. 56-94.
  • 10. La Gauche Allemande….
  • 11. Soviet Documents on Foreign Policy, London, 1951, p. 191, quoted in Kool: p. 415.
  • 12. Lenin: Oeuvres, Vol. 30, Ed. Sociales, 1964, pp. 49-50, 52.
  • 13. Ibid., pp. 82-83.
  • 14. Ibid., p. 84.
  • 15. Vol. 32, pp. 545-556.
  • 16. Bock: p. 252.
  • 17. Oeuvres, Vol. 31, Ed. Sociales, 1961, Appendix to La Maladie….
  • 18. Survey, October 1964.
  • 19. KAZ, No. 64, June 26, 1920.
  • 20. Der Kommunist, Dresden, No. 37, September 1920, quoted in Kool, p. 123. The rest of the report is in No. 38, which was missing from the IISH’s files in Amsterdam.
  • 21. The Central Committee included: 1) The delegates of the KAPD districts (one per district); 2) The current affairs committee, elected by the Congress.
  • 22. The IC, No. 17, and La Question Syndicale… p. 48.
  • 23. Cf., for example, Pannekoek’s correspondence with Socialisme ou Barbarie, and his 1946 text published in Pannekoek and the Workers Councils.
  • 24. La Question Syndicale…., p. 38.
  • 25. Le Phare, January 1921.
  • 26. La Question Syndicale…., pp. 50-51.
  • 27. Vol. 32, pp. 498-508.
  • 28. La Nouvelle étape, pp. 85-86, 115.
  • 29. La Question Syndicale…., pp. 32-33.
  • 30. July-August 1921, pp. 207-209. Cf. La Gauche Allemande…., pp. 163-164.
  • 31. Bulletin Communiste, October-November 1927.
  • 32. Minutes, p. 776. Cf. also L’Opposition ouvrière, in Socialisme ou Barbarie, No. 35. Compare with the Manifeste du Groupe Ouvrier du PCR(B) (1923), Invariance, No. 6, pp. 44-64.
  • 33. Schapiro: p. 247.
  • 34. The IC, No. 6.
  • 35. Rosmer: pp. 229-230.
  • 36. Bulletin du CEIC, No. 1, October 8, 1921.
  • 37. The IC, No. 18, October 1921. Compare with the lessons drawn by Bordiga from the Third Congress: PC, No. 51-52, pp. 98-120.
  • 38. Die Moskauer Internationale, Berlin, Verlag der KAPD, 1921, quoted by Rosenberg: Histoire du Bolchevisme, Grasset, 1967, pp. 241-242.
  • 39. The ICO, p. 39. But another text of the KAI, Le principe de l’antagonisme entre le gouvernement des soviets et le prolétariat (Invariance, No. 7, pp. 94-101), considered Kronstadt from the perspective of the conflicts between “Trotsky and the sailors” who were opposed to the “dictatorship from above” and who were demanding “broader powers for their category”.