Gorter’s open letter: The details - Serge Bricianer

Serge Bricianer on German left communist Herman Gorter's Open Letter to Lenin.

The October revolution filled the German extreme left (among others) with enthusiasm, especially those elements which were at that time in the process of breaking with institutional practices. It seemed to them, of course, that the revolution was condemned to defeat if it were to remain isolated (Lenin repeatedly said the same thing), but in their view it confirmed the disastrous effect of the “parliamentary pact with the bourgeoisie” on mass action as well as the necessity of council organization, as Otto Rühle had emphasized in August 1919.1

Two months later, however, Rühle, rebelling against the divisive maneuvers of the leaders of the KPD, proclaimed that the latter were establishing “a party dictatorship, such as prevails in Russia (and not a ‘proletarian class dictatorship’)”. The reason for his abrupt change of opinion was thus a reaction to directly experienced manipulations rather than a distant and still poorly-understood reality. One year later (July 1920), upon his return from Moscow, where he had been sent by the KAPD as a delegate to the Second Congress of the Communist International, Rühle described the new Russian State as having originated in a “pacifist coup”, as a “political socialism without an economic basis” subjected to a “party hypercentralism” and an “omnipotent bureaucracy”, with “leaders holding power” and a “cult of personality”.2 According to him, this primacy of Party men was certainly justified in backwards Russia, but not in Germany, where a much more numerous and highly-advanced proletariat made it necessary to “transform the notion of the party into the notion of federative community in the sense of the council idea”.3 From then on this would be the predominantly anti-State and anti-Party thesis of the AAU-E unitarians.

The KAPist analyses would ultimately be compelled to arrive at similar conclusions, albeit from strikingly different starting points. In effect, the KAPist analyses did not by any means question the principle of the party as a nucleus of tested militants, selected in action, a small elite formation, such as Gorter had advocated in the Open Letter. As Gorter would recall shortly thereafter, this principle had been held in common “since 1903” by Lenin and the Dutch Left, both of whom refused to confound the masses (which term “includes the peasants as well as the petty bourgeoisie”) with the “party of the proletarian class” and also fought tooth and nail to maintain the “purity” of the party. Furthermore, he asserted, an organization which all at once attempts to be the party of the masses opens itself up to all sorts of elements and in order to grow larger contracts fatal alliances and ultimately gives way to a government of bureaucrats.4

A brief sketch of the trajectory followed by these analyses in relation to two essential points is not without interest:

1. The Russian Question:5 the tactic of class alliances, which granted the leading role to the class with the greatest social weight, had the effect, in Russian conditions, of making the “poor peasants”, the smallholders, into a “decisive factor”. Shortly afterwards this judgment would provide, in Gorter’s view, an impetus to the Kronstadt insurrection, which predominantly involved poor peasants, and also led to the disappearance of “war communism” to the advantage of private capitalism, which the Bolsheviks allowed with the NEP. The Russian Revolution, the theoretical representatives of the KAPD said at the time, had assumed a dual character:6 proletarian insofar as it rested upon the workers councils, but also bourgeois since it took “capitalist-democratic measures” which led to the preponderance in social life of extra-proletarian elements: primarily peasants, but also businessmen and bureaucrats. But above all, added the internationalist Gorter, the “best proof” that the Russian Revolution, despite its dual nature, was “fundamentally non-proletarian”, was once again the refusal of its leaders to accept “the loyal assistance of the European proletarians”.7

Over the course of the next few years an analysis was reworked in accordance with the changing circumstances, which in its final form emphasized “the Russian economic form, State capitalism . . . caught in the gears of international imperialism” as a result of the treaties and commitments Russia had contracted with the “other capitalist countries”.8 As for the power of the State, this “parasitic apparatus” had “become independent of the classes which had erected it”, and directed a “form of State production” based on the extortion of surplus value (Helmut Wagner, Thesis 57 et seq.). Henceforth, the Dutch GIC maintained, the ruling class supported itself by alternately fleecing the workers and the peasants; it exercised “the function of manager of the means of production, buyer of labor power and owner of the products of labor”.

This project of gradual elucidation certainly bore the hallmarks of its era, an era when the major traits of the regime which arose from the decline of the workers soviets continued to fluctuate while they were slowly assuming a fixed state. As imperfect as this project was, it nonetheless distinguishes itself from the theories which in our time persist in discovering in the USSR a “socialist country” or a “degenerated workers state”, or even a return to the classical categories of capital. It is distinguished from these theories not only by its conclusions, but also and above all by its method, which is based on the situation of the direct producers and not on postulates which have the effect of disguising or covering up the real state of affairs, like theatrical stage effects.

2. The Question of the Party. At first, the KAPD defined itself as an independent force, but also without expressly contradicting the definition provided by the Communist International for all Communist Parties (“the most advanced and most conscious fraction . . . the organizing and political force which leads the proletariat and the semi-proletariat by the right road”.9) It did, however, distance itself from the Communist International insofar as the KAPD exhorted the workers to take the management of their struggles into their own hands, and thus to break with “leadership politics”, which sought electoral supporters at any price. Hence the cardinal principle of the “proletariat’s autonomous movement towards consciousness”, that is, the development of its own consciousness by way of repeated wildcat struggles which lead to the armed uprising and whose motivating agents are the factory organizations united in non-trade union bodies known as unionen (“unions”).10 In addition, the KAPD assigned itself the task of being the “organizing apparatus”, the “crystallization point where the process of the conversion of historical knowledge into militant will is realized”; it thus sought to “create the subjective premises for the seizure of political power by the proletariat”.11

From this perspective, the unionist organizations were conceived as focal points of agitation subjected to the party apparatus. This led to the conflicts and splits mentioned above and their ultimate fruit, the KAUD. The latter group claimed that it was breaking with “the theory of the final struggle which found its expression in the fact that the Union remained uninvolved in concrete struggle” and pronounced in favor of intervention, both political and economic, in wage struggles.12 The remnant KAPD, for its part, proclaimed: “The Russian Revolution was unleashed by the Bolshevik Party, not by the workers councils.”13 Translated into terms reflecting the needs of the time: “It is not the factories which constitute the focal points of the class struggle, but the unemployment offices, the soup kitchens, the homeless shelters. . . . We have to learn the art of insurrection and militarize the militants.”14 Within the KAUD itself, some members were still in favor of an “organization capable of striking a powerful blow, without which there cannot be a revolutionary situation, as was proven by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and, in a negative sense, the German Revolution of 1918.”15 But in response to those who wanted to “sow confusion among the bourgeoisie and destabilize its means of oppression”,16 others recalled the obvious: “The bourgeoisie can always maintain its security with mercenaries; it can only really be put into danger by mass movements.”17 These debates, in which one can at times discern hints of a marginalist ideology, might remind the reader of the late 1970s.

“Affinity Groups”

Due to its different historical situation, but also, and more importantly, to its different orientation, the Dutch group of “international communists” (a name intended more to demarcate the group from “national communism” than to evoke any kind of connection with the IKD of an earlier time), the GIC, ignored this kind of debate. For the GIC, true realism consists not in polemicizing about the means necessary to provoke the revolution, but in asking questions about the conceivable goals of the revolution: that the workers themselves take charge of the management of production and distribution in accordance with general rules, the basis for the association of the free and equal producers.18 Furthermore, the GIC pointed out that the indispensable action committees do not arise on command or by way of a few good tricks but from the initiative of the workers concerned, as a wide range of diverse examples had once again demonstrated (1934). It is true that these movements were “still too closely linked to the old organizations”; hence the imperious need for “discussion and propaganda groups”, “work groups”, ideologically homogenous but open to debate with other groups of the same kind which, without shirking the “study of the movement of social forces”, would escape the tutelage of leaders and intellectuals. Their mission was to serve as “general organs of thought” for the working class. This was indeed a colossal task, a task whose precondition could only be mass actions tending to break with old behaviors and ideas, actions which will tend to have the natural effect of multiplying these “points for the irradiation of the idea of autonomy”.19

The GIC, a group composed predominantly of self-educated workers, would engage in intensive activity between 1926 and 1940 (theoretical journals, propaganda pamphlets, workers information bulletin) and would give pride of place to debate, in public meetings, on the streets, and in the unemployment offices, as well as with its various correspondents among the German groups (and the small American group in the Chicago IWW, Mattick and his comrades). Despite having gained considerable notoriety in its time,20 it remained isolated.

“Fetishism of the Masses?”

What is striking about the account related above is the fact that the council communists were never guilty of that “fetishism of the masses” with which, since the time of Zinoviev,21 Leninists of all stripes, whether official or unofficial, clean-shaven or in rags, using unspeakable procedures, have taken pleasure in accusing the council communists. And also that, despite the traces of sectarianism displayed in the pretension to play the role of vanguard for the insurrection, as well as in their propensity to confuse intransigence with intolerance, they knew how to move forward without abandoning their most important basic principle, derived from the theoretical-practical critique of the old workers movement, primarily oriented towards the clarification of consciousness.

This development—not to speak of the general course of history!—reaches its apogee in Gorter’s Open Letter, in his discussion of the Russian question and the question of the party.22 It must once again be emphasized that, in relation to the latter issue, the problematic of “dual organization” could very well reappear as such in a possible phase of instability for the State and for received opinion, within the framework of exacerbated social tensions: in such a case it is not inconceivable that whole sections of the trade union edifice in one or another country could pass over to a “unionism” of a new kind.

In any event, one essential point remains: “the workers must make the revolution totally by their own efforts”, “nothing can be expected from the other classes”, “the more important class becomes, the less important is the role of leaders”, and other formulas which Gorter never tired of repeating throughout the entire Open Letter.

In this case it is not a question of “workerism”: Gorter does not hesitate to call the working masses “political slaves”. In the midst of war, he showed how the worker, “in order to survive”, “as long as he is not truly socialist”, links his fate to that of “his enemy, national capital, which feeds him, gives him something to eat”, as he had come to believe that “the interest of national capital is his interest”, and that he must fight on its behalf. Because, finally, in a period of prosperity, the need for reforms on behalf of a still weak and ignorant working class, exposed to all of fate’s blows, brought the continuous growth of a bureaucracy responsible for representing and leading the masses, who are reduced to passivity on this plane as well. “The leaders,” said Gorter, “do nothing but reinforce the desire for bigger profits—not for the revolution—as the only way to move the masses. . . . The workers of every country have their heads stuffed full of beautiful plans which the reformists have carefully elaborated for them. Social security, inheritance tax, electoral reform, pensions, which they boasted could be obtained with the cooperation of the liberals. Even if all of this could not be achieved, small steps towards progress will nonetheless have been made!”; and now equality, and democracy, which they were indeed granted, but in the form of death at the front.23

Gorter would later return to this analysis, recalling that the proletarians found themselves armed to the teeth for years without so much as dreaming of rebelling against their masters and that “when in 1918 the proletariat, as never before, faced the possibility of an uprising, they rebelled, but only to hand over power to the bourgeoisie.”24

Without the proletariat, however, there can be no social subversion. Nor can there be a communist society, since the latter presupposes the general regulation of the production and distribution of the whole social product by the workers themselves. Not, as in the East, a system whose official workerism consists, at least in its earliest version, in reserving access to leadership functions to workers or children of workers, thereby generating a new power elite, but in the abolition of these functions. Nor, as was the case in Cambodia not long ago, the abolition of the wage and money which were replaced by the high commanders of the Party-State with a despotic distribution of food rations (a 100% rural “war communism”, condemned to be as temporary as its historical predecessor), but the implementation of modes of distribution which are “no longer arbitrarily set, over which the workers have no power”, but, on the contrary, modes determined by the workers themselves, with the particular assistance of the appropriate accounting instrumentality.24

This is the vision, at once egalitarian yet also exclusively conceived in terms of political power, and thus too impregnated with centralism, which inspired the Gorter of the Open Letter when he fought the notion of party dictatorship. This implies the continuous rise and extension of the acquisition of consciousness of new means to be put to use. For this reason, Gorter, at the end of his Letter, disputes the objectivist thesis according to which the economic crisis alone will be enough to unleash a revolution. The revolution requires much more: the radical transformation of the “spirit, the mentality of the masses”, which is inconceivable without forms of organization which grant the interested parties themselves the possibility of developing their own initiative, whose precondition is still a categorical rupture with the conditions of capital and therefore with the bourgeois, parliamentary and trade union tactics which are rooted in those conditions.

The conflict which then pitted Moscow against a minority of western communists undoubtedly had its origin in the western communists’ will to independence (and therefore their refusal to join the USPD apparatus: deputies, editors and other bonzes). In this sense, it can be compared to the current disagreement between the eurocommunists and the official Communist Parties in power. But in 1920 what was at stake was choosing one basic principle over another, rather than the hairsplitting of fragments of stalinist ideology which have become outdated in the era of the mixed economy, so as to more effectively preserve the basic principle of dialogue between the classes, etc.26

The KAPD’s Relations with the Third International

The history of these relations is situated under the double sign of error and manipulation. Error in the KAPD, which had adopted the strictly extra-institutional line which, so it thought, the Bolshevik Party had embraced in 1917, and insofar as it took the Bolsheviks’ lectures against Parliament, the trade unions and the USPD seriously, along with Russia’s so-called soviet constitution. But also manipulation, to the extent that, despite its increasing disillusionment, the KAPD tried to take advantage of the trademark image of the red October Revolution and, perhaps, of the subsidies of the Third International.27

Error, too, in Moscow, which could not seriously believe in a firm rejection of the “utilization of the legal opportunities”; for this reason the two positions, viewed from afar, and having coexisted within the KPD-S, appeared to be similar enough. Also, and even more significantly, manipulation insofar as the KAPD and its offensives were utilized by the Russians as useful leverage in the Russo-German negotiations (carried out since 1919 through Radek), while they simultaneously reinforced the image of the progress of the world revolution in Russia itself.

Viewed in retrospect, the judgments pronounced by both camps have proven, in the final accounting, to be well-founded. The “pure and simple return to social democratic practices” of the bureaucratized and petrified national Communist Parties; in Russia, the development of a new system of oppression and exploitation; the rigorous subordination of the sections of the Third International to the state interests of that system—were predicted by one side. The reduction of the “leftist” formations to the status of political sects (in the sense of groupuscules “without any influence”), most of whose supporters would sooner or later be recovered by the KPD, was announced by the other side. Yes, as a historian explains (a former Independent bonze, then a KPD bonze), the pragmatic Lenin “would rather lose the 50,000 workers of the KPD than be reconciled with them and simultaneously alienate the 5 million supporters of the USPD”.30 But these 5 million—what are they going to do? Alas! Lambs condemned to passively disappear under the steamroller of Nazism.

The Russian Executive Committee of the Communist International—the Moscow Executive—(and Karl Radek, its special envoy in Germany), had undoubtedly supported the schismatic maneuvers of Paul Levi’s clique (the leader of the KPD-S), but without going so far as public approbation. Furthermore, it had allowed a predominantly “leftist” “bureau” or “committee” to be proclaimed, the so-called Amsterdam Bureau, which was more of a virtual than a real center, due as much to its internal divisions as to its lack of financial means.

The abortive coup of March 1920, however, brought everything to a head: after various false starts, the leadership of the KPD-S offered a guarantee, in exchange for a promise to “democratize public life”, to act as a “loyal opposition” to a “workers government”, declaring that it would henceforth renounce “any preparations for violent action”—all this while the insurrection of the Ruhr miners was taking place. As a result of this proclamation, the urban sections and the groups which had been expelled from the party held a congress and formed the KAPD (April 1920).

This time the Moscow Executive reacted much more violently, since the date fixed for the opening of the Second Congress of the Third International was approaching (July 1920). Its “Open Letter to the Members of the KAPD”, while condemning the offers of loyalty made by the Spartacist League (the name by which the KPD-S was then known), demanded that the KAPists “submit unquestioningly, as a matter of course, to the resolutions of the Second Congress.” It reproached the Unions for encouraging the “vanguard workers” to abandon trade unions which were undergoing a process of accelerated radicalization (as was proved, it said, by the election to leadership posts of Independents and Communists!), and for refusing to participate in the elections for the enterprise committees established by law (against which the KPD had, among other things, supported a demonstration that was bloodily repressed). It called upon the Unionists to enter the trade unions! It furthermore reaffirmed the necessity of parliamentarism since “the new era, that of the proletarian revolution, will form parliaments of a new type”! And in regard to electoral campaigns—do they not place the militants in positions to “preach their ideas” and to conquer, in the town halls, “a great deal of influence among the class of small and medium peasants?”31

In April the Moscow Executive declared that “the Mandate of the Dutch Bureau has been revoked” and that “the powers conferred upon the Dutch comrades have been withdrawn”. It was in response to this event, among other things, that Pannekoek published the text32 whose most important passages were reproduced by Gorter in his Open Letter. At the same time, Lenin himself entered the fray with his all-too-famous pamphlet, Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder, destined to become the Bible of the Communist Parties. As Pannekoek observed, Left-Wing Communism contributed “nothing very new”, as its arguments were “perfectly identical to those utilized by others not so long ago”. (He was undoubtedly somewhat confused when he added: “What is new is that it is Lenin who is now using them.”33 Was the issue not definitely a legacy of the ideology of the leftists in the Second International, for which, in its own way, the Dutch had played the role of theoretical representative?)

Gorter’s Open Letter

The greatest fault Lenin found with the “leftists” of 1920 was that they “denied the legitimacy of compromise”. To illustrate the need for compromise, and not being content with elevating the history of the Russian Party to the level of a universal political touchstone, he also marshaled his own personal history as an argument.

One Sunday in January 1919, the automobile in which the new master of Russia was riding was hijacked in the vicinity of Moscow by bandits who fled with the vehicle after having seized the pistols, money and documents of its occupants. “What an outrage!” exclaimed Lenin after the incident. “Incredible, armed men who allow their car to be taken! What a disgrace!” But his chauffeur, in his subsequent account of the incident,34 observed for his part, in order to exculpate himself, that an exchange of gunfire would have been too risky, and it was not long before he was proven correct.

Fifteen months later, the founding father of Bolshevism would transform this very particular compromise, characterized by a relation of forces which was by its nature contingent, into an argument, to proclaim the necessity of compromises in general—“good” compromises negotiated by central offices, obviously, within the framework of the bourgeois political machinery.35

Gorter proceeds in a very different way when he evokes, in response, a personal recollection in order to illustrate his view of workers politics. This time we do not find ourselves in an automobile but at a Congress of the Dutch Socialist Workers Party. Gorter relates how “persuasive and logical” the leader of the Party, Pieter Troelstra, then seemed to him, as he celebrated the merits of compromises and alliances devoted to exploiting the differences within the bourgeois camp, and also how he, Gorter, had been moved by Troelstra until he asked himself if such a policy was appropriate for reaffirming class consciousness in the workers, and he responded in the negative. Simple and direct arguments, but just as revealing as Lenin’s assertions.

After all, didn’t Lenin, in his own way, do what Bernstein had already claimed to have done:36 to put it in clinical terms—“to employ, in time of need, every strategy, to have recourse to ruses, to clandestine actions, to conceal, to hide the truth”37—a line of conduct with an ancient pedigree—“in time of need”, that is, all the time—used by social-patriot leaders but carefully cloaked in demagogic declamations?

Written in an unaffected style, vehement and concrete, although not exempt from displaying a triumphalism which was still conceivable during that era, Gorter’s Open Letter was undoubtedly somewhat backward with respect to certain positions of the KAPD (the KAPN was not officially formed until September 1921). This did not prevent it from being published in installments in the Berlin organ of the young party from August to September of 192038 (and as a pamphlet in November), and thus after the conclusion of the Second Congress of the Communist International. The Second Congress had voted in favor of a motion to subject the parties’ membership in the International to twenty-one conditions which made infiltrating the trade unions, parliamentary action and democratic centralism into matters of principle.39 While these conditions opened the door to groups which had previously been defined as “opportunists”, most notably the German Independents, the Congress claimed to believe that it was “possible and desirable” for organizations like the KAPD, the American IWW and the British rank and file committees (Shop Stewards Committees) to “join the Communist International” but that, as a result of “political inexperience”, these groups had not yet adhered to the principles of the International40; a bureaucratic argument par excellence, and one which would be constantly employed in the future. Such is the immediate context of Gorter’s Open Letter.

After the Open Letter

In November 1920 another directive arrived from the Executive Committee of the Communist International ordering the KAPD to join the KPD. A KAPist delegation—Gorter, Schröder and Rasch (the organization’s treasurer)—left for Moscow to represent its position before the highest body in the Third International.

Trotsky, who was delegated the task of responding to Gorter’s (unpublished) intervention, did so with his usual showmanship,42 mixing jokes with sophistry. Affecting only to take Gorter’s personality into account rather than the concepts of the party of which he was merely a representative, albeit the most prestigious representative, Trotsky accused him of practicing the “revolutionary aristocratism” of a “poet” with which “pessimism is inevitably associated” which led Gorter to judge that the working masses of the West were “bourgeoisified”. He also accused him of adopting a “geographical” point of view which distinguishes between colonized and colonizers, without taking into account the universal character of the great revolution taking place, and of forgetting the “bond uniting the proletarian revolution in the West with the national-agrarian revolution in the East”. As we have seen, however, the KAPists by no means rejected this “bond”; for them, the “national-agrarian revolution” was even necessarily destined to pass through the stage of party dictatorship. What they refused to allow was the spread of this latter model to the industrialized West, the implementation of a bourgeois-democratic tactic destined to one day end up as such a dictatorship. In their eyes, what mattered most of all was the factor of consciousness, of the “emancipation of the mind” (Gorter) both by means of direct action as well as by means of the frontal critique of the old workers movement. And since class struggles cannot be conceived without forms of organization and representation adapted to their stage of historical development, the KAPists advocated forms which were in a state of categorical rupture with the old forms, and therefore with parliamentarism, “the instrument of the primacy of leaders”, an inevitable tactic, said Pannekoek, as long as “the masses prove to be incapable of making their own decisions”, but one which “buried them in passivity, the old habits of thought and the old weaknesses”, a colossal factor of integration into the bourgeois universe.

Trotsky also presented himself as a violent critic of parliamentarism, but for very different reasons. The workers, he conceded to Gorter, overestimate Parliament, “that means of deceiving the masses and putting them to sleep, of propagating prejudices, of reinforcing the illusions of political democracy, etc., etc. But is it only Parliament which is in such a condition? Don’t the newspapers, especially those published by the social democrats, exude petit-bourgeois poison? Should we not, perhaps, renounce the press as an instrument for communist action among the masses?” This sort of reasoning, it will be agreed, is indeed curious when coming from the mouth of someone who, in all other matters, never ceased to make jokes about the insistence of Gorter and his friends concerning the necessity of propaganda activities, and his preference for a small party of select agitators who, proclaimed Trotsky, “far from entangling themselves in such vulgar tasks as elections or participation in trade union affairs, will ‘educate’ the masses with a massive contribution of impeccable speeches and articles”. While looking forward to the proletarian revolution in western Europe, the parliamentary tribune must be used to overcome “the workers’ superstitious attitude towards parliamentarism and bourgeois democracy”. But Gorter refused to avail himself of this tribune because of a “fear of the masses” comparable to the “timidity of a virtuous person who will not set foot outside his door for fear of exposing his virtue to temptation”. It was with the help of such an awkward analogy that he blamed his adversary for “not seeing the nucleus of the proletariat concealed beneath the crust of its privileged bureaucratic summit”.

Trotsky was full of metaphors which by no means applied to the question of knowing whether or not the reproduction of traditional forms and behaviors, even with vanguard phraseology, would itself lead to a certain kind of “education”, where the “impeccable speeches and articles” would have a place, but so too would parliamentarism and everything else that engenders apathy and submission, as well as the conversion of the organizations into pawns of the institutional political game. Trotsky’s most convincing argument, however, was that Gorter “speaks in the name of a very small group without any influence”.43 The chatter of a political upstart. . . .

The KAPD delegation did, however, to the great consternation of the leaders of the KPD-S, manage to be granted “provisional admission” for the KAPD in the Third International, “as a sympathizing party with a consultative voice”—as well as another invitation to return to the KPD-S. The idea was to isolate the KAPist rank and file from the leaders they had provided themselves.

. . . In the account he wrote later about their journey, Schröder recalled the emotions of the “Dutchman” upon finally setting foot in the land of communism: “He cried and did not try to hide it.” But when he left Russia, the “old man” who “was not even sixty years old, now looked eighty”.44 Which is testimony to the depth of the shock suffered by this man, emotionally as well as intellectually. Upon returning to Berlin, Gorter wrote to one of his party comrades: “I was shocked to discover that Lenin only thought about Russia and considered everything else from the Russian point of view. This is not how I saw him a short time ago, as seemed evident at the time: the leader of the world revolution. He is the Washington of Russia.”45 Gorter had already emphasized this fact in his Open Letter, but theoretical confirmation, by its definition, cannot have the human depth of direct contact.

The “March Action”

Big business, along with the social democratic authorities, took measures to complete the “return to normal” after the events of March 1920. Networks of informers were reinforced, anti-subversion laws drafted, and a corps of semi-legal militiamen (the Orgesch) was unleashed against entire regions. The police did not spare any effort; the KAPist “combat organizations” and their arms caches were dismantled in Berlin (Fall 1920) and in the Ruhr (early March 1921). The KAPD, still reeling from a series of mass arrests, plunged into an intense labor of agitation, often within the framework of wildcat strikes, while elements close to the KAPD formed “armed bands”,46 or even carried out dynamite attacks against monuments and public buildings. Throughout Germany, a test of force was expected.

The conflict broke out in central Germany, in the red districts of Mansfeld and Halle-Merseberg (electoral bastions of the VKPD, the party formed by the fusion of the USPD into the KPD), where harsh living conditions and the exactions of private security forces reached unprecedented levels, naturally leading to acts of sabotage, theft and repeated wildcat strikes. With the entry into the region of special police brigades (under social democratic authority), authorized to “re-establish order”, tensions rose until they approached the explosion point.

The epicenter of the movement was located in the Leuna factory complex (22,000 workers, 40% of whom were organized in unionen). On March 21, a predominantly unionist general assembly elected a strike committee (unauthorized) composed of equal numbers of members of the VKPD and the KAPD. On the next day sixteen companies of very young armed workers occupied the factories and disarmed and ejected the factory owner’s private militia (200 men); the local police units took no action, in expectation of reinforcements which were soon to arrive (23 companies of police and one artillery unit). Aware of an impending massacre, most of the workers evacuated the factories under cover of darkness. They were unaware of the approach of a major detachment of workers sent from Leipzig to their aid. Only a few hours after their departure, the latter contingent was able to force its way through the police lines and to take up positions within the industrial complex. On the 29th, after an artillery barrage, the police forces mounted an assault and took possession of Leuna. The support operations carried out in the region (local “seizures of power”, interventions of armed gangs) also suffered from a lack of reliable means of communication. (According to a “well-informed” source, in the entire region there were 145 civilians and 35 police killed; 3,470 people were imprisoned and 1,346 rifles captured.)47

On the 24th, when the Leuna movement was at its height, the VKPD, following a plan which was supposed to be executed at a later date, called for a general strike in agreement with the KAPD, which was not widely-heeded due to the trade unions’ opposition (except in the Hamburg shipyards and in the Ruhr, where bloody conflicts took place). On the 31st, the VKPD withdrew its calls for a strike and street actions.

The Aftermath of the March Action

The judicial repression which followed put the finishing touches to the rapid decline of the various KAPist, unionist and anarchosyndicalist organizations, a decline which had begun during the previous summer. (Although more than one anarchosyndicalist leader condemned the uprising, which they said was inspired by the soviet government). In order to explain this decline, it is by no means necessary to invoke an “army of agents in the pay of the Bolsheviks”48. In reality, the spring 1920 ‘return to normal’ was itself enough to account for the rapid disappearance of formations which, by rejecting parliamentary and trade union practice as a matter of principle, were unable to conceive of an insurrection of real social forces without a reversal of the situation, which was not in the offing, despite the best efforts of the KAPists and similar elements.

On the other hand, as is clear in retrospect, the VKPD’s traditional form of organization, graced with the aura of its investiture by Moscow but closely linked with legal institutions, discovered in everyday affairs and in the electoral arena material with which it could nourish activity which turned the most petty effort in the struggle into the norm and acted as yet another factor mentally integrating the workers into the prevailing system. Nor did this take place without also increasing the party’s adaptation to that same system which, however, kept the party at arm’s length and for which the party served as a useful foil. More than any other event of its kind, the March Action effectively injected the myth of the “international communist conspiracy” with the dose of reality which it needed to function.

On March 16, the Minister of the Interior, while proclaiming a “non-militarized” state of emergency in central Germany, also declared that he could detect in the disorders not the hand of the Communist Party as such, but the handiwork of “international criminals, perhaps even spies and provocateurs who pass themselves off as communists”.49 (A hypothesis which has been rehabilitated in our time, mutatis mutandis, in the German Democratic Republic, whose criminal investigators blame the “sectarian insurrectionists of the KAP”, “workers who were momentarily deceived” or “paid provocateurs”.50) On the ground, among its rank and file, the VKPD generally remained passive. But not for long. The Executive Committee of the Communist International, although divided on this issue, nonetheless did not fail to provide significant assistance with respect to the insurrection’s “planned preparations”. Did it not dispatch to Germany three high-ranking “technicians”? And were there not a multitude of directives, appeals, shipments of money? And did it not approve of the VKPD’s press campaign which reached its peak in early February? Its responsibility for the disaster, its willingness to reignite the movement in Germany in order to create a diversion from the disorders then convulsing the Russian regime, even during the course of ongoing Russo-German negotiations, are matters of record.

The March Action had support in the leading circles of the VKPD, among the adepts of the “theory of the offensive”. A fraction of the upper layers supported it, but not the bulk of the rank and file and the intermediate cadres. Gorter explained it this way: “When a party which opts for parliament and the trade unions instead of establishing the proletariat as a revolutionary force, thus undermining and weakening the proletariat, suddenly decides to attack (and after such beautiful preparations!) and to launch a big offensive action with this proletariat which the party has itself so debilitated, then this is undoubtedly a coup.”

“In other words, an action decreed from above, which has not issued from the masses themselves, condemned in advance to failure.”51

The KAPD’s tactics were very different, its spokesmen emphasized. For them, the struggle in the factory was for the purpose of “creating the climate necessary for triggering mass actions”. The latter, in turn, must occupy the workplaces and then proceed to the armed insurrection. “That the course of the struggle should conform exactly to this schema is doubtful. But it is certain that without direct struggle for the factories, the revolution will not be victorious in Germany.” The leadership of the VKPD (except for Levi and his circle) had seen the workers uprising as “the chance to mount an action without regard to the price to be paid”, an “artificial attempt” to conquer political power. The influence of the SPD and the trade unions kept the “broad masses” neutral, and even instilled them with hostility towards “the militant vanguard”. But it was “vain to want to shatter this influence on its home field, that of parliamentary and trade union con jobs; an effective struggle is only possible by going to the root of the evil, on the terrain of the factories”.52 Such were the tactics which Gorter (and the KAPists)53 understood by the words “propaganda” and “education”;54 not those exercises of the solitary theoretician in his study to which Trotsky (and so many others) had striven to reduce those words.

Of course, once defeat was apparent the highest bureaucratic echelons of the International accused the leader of the VKPD (Paul Levi) and his circle of being responsible for the demise of the March Action; these people were, however, frenetic opponents of the March Action. In accordance with the Party line which had been laid down by an “open letter” from the Executive Committee of the International (January 1921), which the ECCI never bothered to rescind, the Unified Party turned to the tactic of preparing for a united front with those elements of the SPD which would be susceptible to such an appeal. Proposals of this kind were then tendered at the regional level, but in vain. (These efforts would only bear fruit in 1923 in the form of the ephemeral united front cabinets of Saxony and Thuringia).

As Pannekoek wrote in relation to this affair, “this is how the German parliamentary communists got ready to cooperate with the socialist parties. Just as the fusion of the Spartacus League with the Independents required a program adapted to the latter, so would the slated cooperation with the consummate social democrats require an adaptation and a shift towards the right.”55 As we know, that is just what happened. Even though the SPD, integrated at every level into the State apparatus, consistently and scornfully refused every invitation to an alliance proffered by its communist rivals; and even when the concessions made by the latter led to waves of resignations and expulsions, until the KPD found itself without a soul or energy, integrally Stalinized. A sinister history, one which would be repeated to some extent, mutatis mutandis, everywhere in the western European sections of the Third International.

The Third Congress of the Communist International

The Third Congress would put an end to the dialogue of the deaf which had been underway since 1919. For in one stroke Zinoviev, supreme chief of the Communist International, let it be known that the International would not tolerate the existence of two communist parties in the same country. In one stroke, as well, he equated the KAPists with the Independents who had not joined the VKPD. The other Bolshevik tenors joined in the same refrain, but in different keys: “semi-anarchists”, Lenin said (he had been accused of the same thing not so long before by the Mensheviks), “Mensheviks”, Trotsky said, raising the stakes (he had been called the same thing not so long before by the Bolsheviks), etc., etc. All in the midst of an obligatory hilarity among the delegates and with the grand accompaniment of manipulations of the agenda or of the time allotted for speakers and other well-known tricks. In these conditions the impassioned yet sober interventions of the KAPist delegates56 assumed above all the aura of a last-ditch struggle.

Nor did the KAPD delegates have any more success in regard to the other purpose for their presence at the congress: regrouping the oppositionist tendencies within the International. The delegates from the Spanish CNT and the American IWW found the KAPD delegates too party-oriented and insufficiently union-oriented. And the diverse groups of the Russian Workers Opposition could hardly be expected to make common cause with lepers, lepers who are in addition numerically weak. As for the KAPD, most of its militants recalled that contacts with the members of the Opposition had to take place in secret, under the cover of night: “This gives you an idea”, it was said, “of the Opposition’s real power” as well as of “the prison discipline that reigns in Russia”.57 The KAPD was also persuaded that the Workers Opposition could not have done any better than the “Bolshevik bureaucracy”, given “the relation of forces between an enormous peasantry and a very small proletariat”, even with the Opposition’s “demand to activate the masses”.58 And how would they be able to pretend to uphold the principle of non-interference which they asked the Russian Party to respect in relation to western Europe?

Their discretion was in vain, as we have seen. In October 1921, for the last time, the Enlarged Executive Committee of the Communist International called upon the KAPists to renounce their “sectarianism, the cause of the dispersion of forces”, and told the unionists to return to the trade unions in order to “snatch them away from the influence of the social democrats”. The Executive Committee concluded its exhortations by proclaiming that it was false to view the International as “an instrument of Soviet policy”, as had the theoreticians of the KAPD, “politically childish minds”. And the Executive Committee hammered its verdict home: “Russia is the most powerful of the advance detachments of the Communist International.”59 The famous ideology of “proletarian internationalism”, indeed.

For its part, the Central Committee of the KAPD, which was in the hands of the party’s “intellectuals”, decided at the end of July to break with the Communist International (this decision was ratified by the KAPD Congress held during the following September) and issued calls for constructing a “Communist Workers International” (KAI). This International was supposed to “grow gradually and organically, like the KAPD”; it would be a “creation of the rank and file”, not of the commanding heights.60 This was disputed by the KAPist majority, the future KAP-Berlin. In a situation that was not really revolutionary, they asserted that the small groupuscules—Bulgarians, Dutch, English—which would be able to join such an International would form an “International of Illusions, not of action”; it would be an “International of leaders”, of “predatory politicians” concerned about their image.61 This was an exaggerated insult, very much in the style of the era, which too often displayed more ferocity towards fraternal groups than towards declared enemies. But as a result the new “International” ultimately only existed on paper and ended up being nothing but an address of a bookseller in Amsterdam. . . .

For their part, the unionists, unlike the anarchosyndicalists, never entered into direct contact with the International Council of the Associations of Trades and Industries, whose foundation (Moscow, summer 1920) was the prelude to the founding of the Red Trade Union International (Moscow, July 1921). While they were opposed in principle to the Zellentaktik, the formation of “trade union cells” entirely subordinated to the Party, the situation was characterized by extreme fluctuations, so numerous unions or industrial associations diversely affiliated with one or another central labor organization (the most powerful such groups, however, ended up joining Moscow).

By Way of Conclusion

Why—one may ask—recapitulate the events briefly discussed above? The first—and, until today, still the only—revolutionary proletarian upheaval in a highly-developed country: was it not immediately almost emptied of its substance by the joint efforts of armed Capital and organized Labor, while the broad masses, in the best of cases, remained passive, and in the worst cases, were actively hostile? And as for its aftershocks, characterized more by theories than by practice, have they not disappeared in the mists of history?

This history, however—contemporary history—has it not also proven that parliamentary and/or trade union action, as inseparable as they are from market capitalism, were by their nature incapable of realizing their official project in the highly-developed countries, their specific version of socialism: the abolition of private property in large-scale production and exchange? And has it not proven just as clearly that, in the less developed countries, this very same abolition was accompanied by the establishment of a new system of oppression and exploitation from the moment when the activity of the masses themselves is throttled, whether by the good guys or the bad guys?

Knowing this, and granted that one cannot accommodate oneself to the world as it is and its institutions, would it not be better to devote oneself to more partial causes, certainly, than the project of the workers councils, but also causes which are more realistic than the latter? More realistic—let us talk about what is more realistic! To mention just one case, the extra-parliamentary anti-imperialist struggle in the metropoles, to the slight extent that it hastened the end of the colonial wars, did it not end up finally being recuperated by the powers of the States involved?

The same thing happened, in different ways, with the other causes which are acceptable in themselves, but too linked to their immediate respective situations: women, democratic rights, defense of the environment, etc. And it also takes place, as we have seen, with the cause of Labor, insofar as it took similar channels, the paths of dialogue between the classes. Not, of course, without obvious quantitative and qualitative differences, not the least of which is the fact that the workers struggle embraces very different realities. Is its natural habitat not the place of production, the very basis of social life and thus the basis of its eventual reconstruction?

Although still small-scale, workers struggles which open up new perspectives only arise at moments when the workers, overcoming old reflexes of passivity and fear, take their first clumsy steps in their rebellion against themselves, that is, against the organizations and the leaders they have given themselves, so as to take into their own hands, in a certainly provisional and fragmentary way, the management of the common effort. In the same way, at a much higher level, the stages of the partial collapse of the ruling powers, as massive and spontaneous outbreaks of violence have revealed over the course of this century, lead to forms of organization and representation of such a kind as to generally allow workers self-determination, a necessary precondition for the construction of a world finally ruled by egalitarian norms of production and distribution.

Wherever they take place, these so-called autonomous struggles do not recede, at least before the return to normal, before having disconnecting the masses from the values of submission and resignation which the motion of capital and the pressures exerted by its agents, whether consciously or not, effectively inculcate in them. Then there is an outbreak of initiatives, of confrontations of ideas, of organizational inventiveness. This is a stage which has already been attained more than once, on both small and large scales, but has never been superseded and which no one can seriously expect to ever see superseded.

No power on earth can create, no matter what means happen to be at its disposal, “the generalizing spirit and revolutionary passion” that Marx had already determined to be indispensable components of the “social revolution” in a highly-developed country.62 The only force that can engender these qualities is a bloody struggle which is single-minded and resolute, extended throughout an entire historical period, as is demonstrated by the development of all the major revolutions of the past.

In this respect, passive expectation, even if it only takes the positivistic form of vivid testimonies or formal descriptions, can only end in submission to the prevailing reality. Also, in certain conditions the practical intervention of the masses becomes a possibility for development, even if the particular case in which this intervention takes shape yields unpredictable results. And theoretical intervention which cannot be dissociated from practical intervention attempts to be conscious while at the same time fatally situating itself, in a provisional yet enduring way, against the current of practice. Gorter expressed this problem in the following manner: “We cannot rely on material conditions; we need to stimulate the proletariat’s movement towards self-consciousness. We can hardly have any effect on material causes, not even by means of sabotage. But in regard to psychological causes, there is much we can change.”63 An overly-optimistic judgment, as the future would show, but one which is nonetheless still unrefuted in its general validity.

“Man, in general, is above all a practical being and as long as he can survive by means of practical solutions, he does not need subversive theories concerning the future. When the struggle is hard and, despite all efforts, remains fruitless, one is led to investigate the causes of the defeats, the character of the obstacles. Theories are elaborated.”64 So said Canne-Meijer, who has sometimes been called the “soul” of the GIC. The long period of continuous development of the forces of production and of capitalist progress, which has since come to an end, was by definition unsuitable for the necessary renewal of workers theory, which analyzes and generalizes practice, although not always promptly, prior to being capable in turn of stimulating and orienting minds. Given this vacuum, and without forgetting the natural primacy of the present, it is fitting to call to mind the major workers actions of the past.

It would of course be aberrant to want to restore the tradition of council communism, which died along with the period that engendered it. But some of the notions elaborated by that movement still retain, despite everything, a power of clarification which is all the more precious insofar as one cannot exclude the possibility that we will see a massive confrontation between the new and the old in the historical period opening up in our times. In this sense, and even if the means of diffusing these notions are still relatively insignificant, Gorter’s Open Letter, its details, allow a distinctly different view of the conceivable modalities and ends of workers struggles which, finally, will abandon the terrain of the defensive, inherent in the conditions of Capital, in order to occupy the terrain of the offensive.

Note on the “Rank and File” Movement in Great Britain

The reason why Lenin, in his Infantile Disorder, and Gorter, in his Open Letter, showed so much interest in the English movement was not a result of the practical importance of this movement, but was due to the key role which was then granted to the British Empire and its industrial power. During the war, especially in the Scottish munitions factories and the Welsh mines, a Rank and File Movement emerged whose forms of organization—Shop Stewards Committees, Shop Committees, Workers Committees, and other organizations—were of a kind similar to the factory organizations so dear to the German unionists. Another similarity: the English “rank and file” committees, formed in response to labor policies, sought “to think for themselves, to escape the rules of passive obedience, to reactivate the workers movement”. The spirit of the committees, however, required that they had to be “above all organs of struggle and for the control of the everyday conditions of labor”65 and thus forced them to pursue co-management goals along general lines, centered on the questions of wages, norms, jobs, etc. . . . for the purpose of making up for the shortcomings of the trade unions (and of the Civil Truce). When the war ended the movement disappeared rapidly along with the circumstances which had given birth to it. Having fallen under the rule of the Communist Party, which supported a policy of infiltration of the trade unions, the movement disappeared in 1922.

As for the English Communist Party, at first there were two parties of that name. One, baptized by Moscow, was for the most part derived from a left socialist sect (the BSP), close to the German Independents in respect to political policy and ideology; along with various other groups, it formed a Communist Party on August 1, 1920 and then, despite the exhortations of the Amsterdam Bureau (March 1920), announced its support for parliamentarism and for requesting affiliation with the Labour Party. The other Communist Party, founded on June 9, 1920 (whose creation was lauded by Gorter in his Open Letter), was fundamentally opposed to this political line; also known as the “Opposition Communist Party”, it was drawn from a small group of suffragists, mostly female workers from the East End of London.66 This party supported neighborhood and workshop struggles and was also in contact with Gorter and the KAPD.

The leading figure of the Opposition Communist Party was Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960), an ardent feminist whose activism during and after the war earned her more than one sentence for “incitement to riot”. After having met with Lenin in Moscow (July 1920), she yielded to his views and joined the official Communist Party.67 But because she refused to submit her journal to the censorship of the central committee, “which claims, it said, to be the dictatorship of the proletariat, while it has no power and while the proletariat remains indifferent”, she was expelled from the party. Not allowing herself to become discouraged, Sylvia Pankhurst was active in committees of the unemployed, while her group, further reduced in size, played the role of a spectral section of the KAI before disappearing completely along with its journal (1924).68


1. Quoted by G. Mergner: Arbeitbewegung und Intelligenz, Stamberg, 1973, pp. 133-134.

2. Ibid., p. 145.

3. Ibid., pp. 154-156.

4. See H. Gorter: “Partei, Klasse und Masse”, Proletarier, Vol. I, No. 4, February-March 1921.

5. H. Gorter, “L’internationale ouvrière communiste” (1922), Invariance, VII, 5, 1974 (in English, see “The Leading Principles of the KAI” (Extracts), in G. Dauvé and D. Authier, The Communist Left in Germany—1918-1921, new revised English translation (2006), at the Collective Action Notes website); H. Wagner, “Theses on Bolshevism”, International Council Correspondence, No. 3, 1934; “Position du G.I.C.”, L’internationale, IV, 27-28, April-May 1937; A. Pannekoek, Lenin as Philosopher (1938), Merlin Press, London, 1975.

6. Otto Rühle, for his part, maintained (Von der bürgerlichen zur proletarischen Revolution, Dresden, 1924, p. 17) that “given its historical conditions, the Russian Revolution could not have been anything but a bourgeois revolution from the beginning.” Hence the tendency of some sections of the AAUD-E to see the workers councils as the instruments of the bourgeois revolution. One had to await . . . the “unleashing of the dormant energies of all the exploited” (Die Revolution (Heidenau), No. 4, 1926).

7. H. Gorter: “Die Internationale und die Weltrevolution”, Die Aktion, Vol. XIV, No. 12, 1924, pp. 324-325.

8. See “Sowjetrussland, die Wirtschaftkrise und die Revolution”, Proletarier (Amsterdam), Vol. I, No. 1, February 1933.

9. See the Resolution of the Second Congress of the Communist International on the role of the Communist Parties, in Theses, Manifestos and Resolutions . . . of the Communist International, Paris, 1934, p. 49.

10. “Program of the KAPD” (1920), in The German Left, p. 6 et seq.

11. Programm und Organisations-Statut der KAPD, Berlin, 1924, pp. 13 and 19 (“Historical Knowledge”, in this context, means the theory of the imminent “death crisis” of the capitalist system).

12. Quoted by H. M. Bock: Geschichte des “linken Radikalismus” in Deutschland, Suhrkamp Verlag, No. 645, p. 145.

13. Quoted in Pannekoek in an article (May 1932) in which, emphasizing once again that the seizure of power by a Communist Party (and the dictatorship of the “big shots” to which it gives rise) was conceivable in a country with weak bourgeois and proletarian classes, but not in the industrialized West, he introduces the notion of “work groups”; see A. Pannekoek: Partij, raden, revolutie (J. Kloostermann, ed., Amsterdam, 1970), p. 56 et seq.

14. See Disarmaments (a truly evocative pseudonym): “Unser Kamp gestern und heute”, Proletarier (Berlin; clandestine mimeograph), No. 1, 1933.

15. See Rätekorrespondenz (ibid.) No. 2, November 1932.

16. “Zur Frage des individuellen Terror”; Ibid., No. 1 (undated).

17. Ibid., No. 2.

18. See H. Canne Meijer: “Fundamentals of Communist Economy”, in the issue of Informations Correspondance Ouvrières cited above.

19. See H. Canne Meijer: “Das Werden einer neuen Arbeiterbewegung” (1935), pp. 139-167, p. 160 et seq. For another, more abstract version of this point of view, see A. Pannekoek: “Party and Working Class” (1936), in the anthology cited above, p. 259 et seq. For the American groups, see P. Mattick: “The Groups of Council Communists” (1939), in P. Mattick, Anti-Bolshevik Communism, M.E. Sharpe, Inc., White Plains, 1978.

20. In bourgeois fantasy, the radencommunisten group is depicted in one account as a gang of quarrelsome utopians along the lines of Marx (see F. Kool: Die Linke gegen die Parteiherrschaft, Freiburg, 1970), and in another as a nest of terrorists (see H. Schulze Wilde, in l’Express, February 27, 1958).

21. Speaking of Pannekoek’s pamphlet (1920), Zinoviev declared: “You will find that he erects the masses into a fetish which he tries to oppose to the party as such” (see The Second Congress of the Communist Third International, Petrograd, 1921, p. 67).

22. We shall leave aside for now the quite superficial theory of “finance capital” as the unifying agent of Capital, a theory which Gorter, following Hilferding, professes in his pamphlet just as much as Lenin (and Kautsky).

23. See the chapter entitled “The Causes of Nationalism within the Proletariat”, in H. Gorter, Der Imperialismus, der Weltkrieg und die Sozialdemokratie, Amsterdam, 1915, pp. 54-72.

24. H. Gorter (speech at the KAPD Congress), in the Kommunistische Arbeiter-Zeitung, No. 232 (September 24, 1921).

24. For this debate, which is by no means new, see especially H. Canne Meijer: “The Movement for the Councils . . . .”, op. cit., p. 21 et seq.

26. See P. Mattick: “Interview with Lotta Continua”, No. 11, October 1978, and “The French Communist Party and Dictatorship”, in my article cited above, ibid., June 6 1977, p. 23.

27. According to a police report concerning the January to March period of 1921, quoted (with the usual reservations) by H. M. Bock: Syndikalismus und Linkskommunismus von 1918-1923 (Thesis), Meisenheim am Glan, 1969, p. 259.

28. Lenin (October 19, 1919), in Oeuvres, Vol. 30, p. 51, adding parenthetically this significant reference to conditions in Czarist Russia: “As the Bolsheviks had maintained in 1910-1913”.

29. See the collectively-authored pamphlet of the KAPD: Der Weg des Dr. Levi, der Weg der KPD, (n.d.) (1921), pp. 26-28.

30. A. Rosenberg: Histoire du bolchevisme, Paris, 1936, p. 190 (translated by the author (Bricianer) from the first German edition, p. 136).

31. See the letter from the Executive Committee (June 2, 1920) in l’Internationale Communiste, No. 11 (June 1920), pp. 1909-1921.

32. See A. Pannekoek: World Revolution and Communist Tactics (March-April 1920), translated in full in Pannekoek and Gorter’s Marxism, Part 3, Chapter II.

33. Ibid., p. 200.

34. See S. K. Guil, in Lenin as He Was, Vol. II, Moscow 1959, pp. 241-242.

35. See Lenin: Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder (1920), Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1970.

36. On this question, see K. Korsch: “Marxist Orthodoxy”, in Marxism and Counterrevolution. . . . (S. Bricianer, ed.), Paris, 1975, pp. 130-132.

37. Lenin, op. cit., p. 45.

38. Kommunistische Arbeiter-Zeitung, No. 121 et seq. At that time (early August), the Red Army, after having driven the Poles out of the Ukraine, reached the banks of the Vistula (before having to withdraw because of insufficient logistical support and reinforcements). The KAPD tried to help the Red Army by preparing a campaign of propaganda and actions (sabotage and commando operations) which, denounced by the USPD and the KPD, was doomed to failure.

39. See the Theses and Manifestos of the Communist International, op. cit., p. 39 et seq.

40. Ibid., p. 47.

41. At the Fifth Congress of the German Trade Unions (1905), for example, the propagandists of the “general strike” were treated as “anarchists and people without the least experience”.

42. See L. Trotsky: “On the Politics of the KAPD”, l’Internationale Communiste, May 17, 1921 (translated from the German edition by the author (S. Bricianer), pp. 4211-4224).

43. In fact, this is how Trotsky described the small Dutch Social Democratic Party (which became the Communist Party at the end of 1918), which had emerged from the split of 1909, the immediate cause of which was the “agrarian question” and which was wholeheartedly applauded by Lenin at the time (see Collected Works, Vol. 16, pp. 140-144) (unlike Rosa Luxemburg, who was so worried about not “losing contact with the masses”).

44. K. Schröder: Die Geschichte Jan Beeks, Berlin, 1929, pp. 163 and 166.

45. Quoted by J. Clinge Doorenbos: Wisseland Getij, Amsterdam, 1964, p. 52.

46. Note referring to unavailable short biographies of “Plättner” and “Prenzlow” omitted.

47. See Drobnig: Der mitteldeutsch Aufstand 1921, Lubeck, 1929.

48. See O. Rühle: Fascisme brun, Fascisme rouge, (1939), Spartacus, 1975, pp. 36-37.

49. Quoted by H. M. Mayer: Die politische Hintergründe des Mitteldeutschen Aufstandes von 1921, Berlin, 1935, p. 64.

50. See, for example: Kämpfendes Leuna (1916-1945), Vol. I, East Berlin, 1961, pp. 242 et seq.

51. H. Gorter: “The Lessons of the ‘March Action’”, in G. Dauvé and D. Authier, Left Wing Communism in Germany—1918-1921, new revised English translation (2006), at Collective Action Notes website.

52. The KAPD Collective: op. cit., pp. 31-32, 18 (note) and 25.

53. “What we are saying,” declared the KAPist Appel in response to Radek’s allegations at the Third Congress of the Communist International, “was not born in Holland, in the brain and the test-tube of comrade Gorter, but of the experiences in struggle that we have undergone since 1919” (see Authier’s compilation, p. 32; and Schwab replied in the same manner to Bukharin, Ibid., p. 52).

54. Assigning itself the task of “a labor of revolutionary education on a vast scale,” the KAPD refused to “make the working masses even more limited than they are now” by scavenging partial reforms on their behalf. To the contrary, it tried to “extend movements of this kind by means of appeals to solidarity and to exacerbate them in such a way that they take revolutionary forms and, if possible, political forms” (see “Theses on the Role of the Party. . . .” (Theses 10 and 11), presented at the Third Congress, in Invariance, No. 8; translation by the author (S. Bricianer)).

55. A. Pannekoek, in De Nieuwe Tijd, 1921, p. 441; see also the anthology cited above, pp. 219 et seq.

56. These interventions can be found in Authier’s compilation, La Gauche Allemande, cited above; see also Invariance, Nos. 7 and 8.

57. See Wolfrath (a unionist), in Ausserordentlicher offentlicher Parteitag des KAPD (September 11-13, 1921) (mimeograph) BDIC-Nanterre, pp. 107-112; the central committee of the KAPD, which had its own reasons for doing so, however, saw the Workers Opposition as a mass movement (see Invariance, No. 7, p. 98, and above all Adolph Dethmann, quoted extensively without attribution in Soep: “A Fourth International or a Replica of the Third International?”, Bilan, June 1934).

58. The KAPD Collective: “Vier Führer”, Proletarier, Vol. I, No. 8, August 1921. This text, reflecting upon the Congress, characteristically focuses on the following point: “The speeches of the Russian leaders only dealt with material and economic forces, but passed over in silence the living forces,” “the spirit and the heart of the workers paralyzed by their organizations, parties and trade unions.”

59. See An die Mitglieder der KAPD. Offener Brief der EKKI, Hamburg, 1921.

60. See the extracts from a KAI manifesto in Invariance, No. 7, pp. 95-101.

61. See Die KAI, Räte-Internationale oder Führer-Internationale?, Berlin, 1922.

62. K. Marx: Circular of the General Council of the I.W.A. (January 1870).

63. H. Gorter: speech quoted above, Note 24.

64. H. Canne Meijer: “The Problem of Socialism,” Internationalisme (Paris), No. 40, December 1948, p. 41.

65. See J. T. Murphy: The Workers’ Committee, Sheffield, 1918.

66. See J. Klugmann: History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, London, 1964, Vol. 1.

67. This explains the tone of disappointment expressed by Gorter in the section of his Open Letter which addresses this topic.

68. See the moving biography of Pankhurst written by David Mitchell: Les Pankhurst. L’ascension du féminisme, Geneva, 1971.

From Collective Action Notes