Le Prolétaire – The Tragedy of the German Proletariat in the First Post-War Period

We present here in English the International Communist Party’s account and analysis of the struggles of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary forces in Germany in the first post war period, published in eight separate parts in 1972.

In several reports held during previous general meetings, of which it has unfortunately not been possible to publish the full report, we have endeavoured to revisit the dramatic historical cycle in which German social democracy played the role-“assassin of the revolutionary proletariat” in the country which was then the epicentre of class struggle in Europe. It played this role, not as a “German” social democracy, but as a fraction of the international social democracy as direct executor, in its majority wing, as helper of the executioner, in its “independent” wing, even more infamous because more hypocritical and draped in a so-called Marxist “orthodoxy”.

We did this not out of “historiographical” mania, but to draw from the events themselves the decisive confirmation of a constant thesis of the Communist Left. Indeed, at the direction of the CP. Both in Italy and within the International, we have always fought against the fetishism of “workers unity” and, even more, against the illusory tactical manoeuvres by which we believed we could win for the cause of the Communist forces numerically smaller than those that the situation created by the end of the first world massacre allowed to move on the ground, magnificently prepared by the Red October, from preparation for the revolutionary conquest of power and proletarian dictatorship exercised by the party, leading to the socialist society through the long and tormented path of civil war, terror and despotic interventions in the economy. This thesis, as we have often recalled, found its most lucid expression in an article of February 1921 which we entitled “The function of social democracy”, and whose central idea is contained in this lapidary passage:

“Social democracy has a specific function, in the sense that there will probably be, in Western countries, a time when social democratic parties will go to government, alone or with bourgeois parties. But where the proletariat will not have the strength to avoid it, such an interlude will not represent a positive condition, a necessary condition for the advent of revolutionary forms and institutions, a useful preparation for the proletarian assault; On the contrary, it will be a deliberate attempt by the bourgeoisie to deprive it of its strength and divert it and, in the event that the working class remains energetic enough to revolt against the legitimate, the humanist, the good social-democratic government, to crush it mercilessly under the blows of reaction” (article published in our brochure “Communism and Fascism”, p. 35).

The article urged the Italian proletariat to welcome any experience of social-democratic government “as a declaration of war, not as a promise of truce in class struggle and peaceful solution of the problems of revolution”, whether it is a “purely” reformist government, or a coalition between reformists and other parties, openly and constitutionally bourgeois (as was the case several times in Germany during the period 1919-1922). Finally, the article ended with this warning, not only to Italian proletarians, but to proletarians all over the world:

“That is why we say that revolutionary tactics must be based not only on national but also on international experience and that (…) the martyrdom of the proletarians in Hungary, Finland and other countries should be enough to spare the Western proletariat from learning in turn at the cost of its blood what is the true function of social democracy in history. Social-democratism will inevitably try to follow its way to the end, but the communists must offer to bar it as soon as possible, before it has succeeded in planting the dagger of treason in the kidneys of the proletariat”.

It is precisely in this spirit that we wanted to evoke, with supporting documents (and these are documents that are dripping with blood), the role of social democracy in Germany during this crucial period, by addressing ourselves especially to the young activists that long years separate from these decisive “experiences”. It was social democracy that dragged the heroic proletariat of central Europe to the world massacre.

After the war, once the “republic of councils” was established with a majority of independent socialists in the government, it was social democracy that decapitated the vanguard of the proletariat, depriving it of its most combative militants, sowing confusion and panic in its ranks – during those nightmare months when Scheidemann and Noske released the “free bodies ” of the reaction against the “Spartakist criminals”. Finally, it was social democracy that established on the “scorched earth” of Berlin and Munich, Hamburg and Dresden, Essen and Bremen, the reign of bourgeois democracy in its version of operetta: the Weimar republic. And yet, it must be said to the glory of the German proletariat, never in these long months and years of fiery battles did social democracy succeed in preventing the hated spectre of communist revolution from raising its head each time, seemingly drawing ever new forces from its own wounds.

The history of this ” function of social democracy ” is engraved in the events of those tragic years as a letter of fire, and no revolutionary militant can afford to ignore it and evade its terrible teachings. It is precisely in the Central Europe of the first post-war period that the “lessons of October” found their greatest confirmation, even if unfortunately this confirmation remained purely objective, instead of becoming an integral part of the Party’s consciousness, and guiding it along this “Golgotha road” (to use Rosa Luxemburg’s expression) where history had condemned it to walk towards a victory that seemed near and which was on the contrary terribly distant.

However, to recall this historical balance sheet, a definitive balance sheet for all the proletarians of all the countries, is still only half of the task which falls to us and which we consider necessary so that the single world party of the proletariat is reborn and, much more, possesses from the beginning the theoretical and practical weapons indispensable for the fight which it will have to wage, and which will perhaps again have for its epicentre Central Europe, and in particular Germany. We must also look at the other side of the coin, the one that no longer bears the Noske – Scheidemann pig muzzle, but the heroic effigy of the Liebknecht -Luxemburg, to understand what was the other aspect of the post-war proletarian tragedy in Germany – we want to talk about the appalling delay of the proletariat and its political leadership, in the face of the maturing of the material and objective conditions of a German revolution whose Bolsheviks awaited the salvation of the October revolution and which ended on the contrary by a terrible bloodletting, without even leaving behind the thread of a solid tradition to which the following generations could have clung. We must therefore – an infinitely painful and difficult task – record, not to put it in the archives, but to make it the flesh and blood of present and future revolutionary generations, the results of the indecisions, the confusions, the proofs of immaturity, which unfortunately characterized all the political forces that converged in the Communist Party of Germany (Spartacus League) at the end of December 1918 and the beginning of January 1919. It was this immaturity that allowed the counterrevolution led by the social democrats to unleash long before the communists could say not to “make” the revolution, but to “prepare” and “lead” it, to prevent this revolution in time, to nip in the bud the generous efforts of a working class capable of fighting in the streets for three long months, and to put an end to the “madness” of these “Karl and Rosa boys” – as the “scholar” Kautsky said by nodding his head professorally – and to the millions of anonymous proletarians who instinctively recognized themselves in them.

There was no “German revolution” – as historians too often say and repeat unable to see beyond the surface of things – but a bloody preventive counter-revolution.

Fully justified in the eyes of the ruling class by the tumultuous agitations of these workers in blue uniforms, this preventive counter-revolution was unleashed at a speed that was all the more stunning because the enemy of the proletariat had the confused but terribly exact feeling that this armed workers army had no political leadership – or at least that it offered itself defencelessly to the enemy’s blows. Certainly, it would be anti-Marxist to claim to explain a tragedy of such scope by purely “subjective” causes; moreover, it would be unworthy in the face of a collective martyrdom which, by its scale and gravity, perhaps has no equal in the history of the workers movement. But we are not trying here to provide an “explanation” – we are making a painful observation. While the former may be of interest to historians, the latter should be useful to activists. Even a magnificently armed revolutionary leadership can fail in its task, if it lacks the combination of circumstances that no social force has, by itself, the power to create. What history does not forgive the parties and their leaders is not that they fell in the course of an unequal struggle, but that they fought on the wrong line, or at least did not belong to them completely, and that they did not pass on the seed, or rather, because the term feels its Gospel, the point of support necessary for a vigorous recovery. Marx addressed a vibrant homage to the defeated communards, but this did not prevent him from recognizing and denouncing their errors, to draw a fruitful lesson for the proletarians called to raise in the future the flag of the Commune and to finally lead it to victory.

On the other hand, many young people in search of a light in the darkness of the Stalinist counterrevolution will seek in the “failed revolution” of 1919-20 in Berlin precisely its negative teachings, carried to their paroxysm by the Gorter and the Pannekoek by their KAPD and by their Unionen. This is why our struggle for the integral restoration of revolutionary Marxism must necessarily include the most merciless but objective criticism of this immediateism, this spontaneity, this workerism, this corporate socialism, this councilism, which were, if not the first cause of the tragedy of the German proletariat, at least its external manifestation, its “epiphenomenon” and, to this extent, one of its causes.

Retardation of the Political Vanguard on the Dynamics of Class Struggle

The terrible delay with which, in spite of the ordeal of August 1914 and the experience of the months and years that followed, the group of magnificent revolutionary militants gathered around Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg separated from the putrid body of social democracy was often underlined: it only managed to form itself into a party at a time when the battle, at least in the immediate future, was already lost, – and lost to the point that, only twenty days later, Karl and Rosa were murdered, the most horrible collective crime whose degenerate “socialism” had become dirty during its too long history.

In his polemic of 1916 with “Junius” (pseudonym of Rosa Luxemburg), Lenin had criticized this repugnance of the Spartakists to break the “unitary” tradition of the party, designating it precisely as the weak point of Junius, in spite of his tenacious opposition to the dominant social-patriotism and his vibrant claim of proletarian internationalism; and he had expressed the wish that the “Die Internationale” group would free itself from the weight of this “historical inertia” and recognize as enemies not only the declared perpetrators of the “Sacred Union”, but also and above all the devious supporters of “centrist” opportunism (Kautsky, Hilferding). The break was not made however in 1916 since it was necessary to wait until the end of 1918 so that it took place and still with much hesitation on behalf of its protagonists. This is neither a coincidence, nor an error of appreciation, nor a combination of unavoidable external circumstances, but rather a delay due to the theoretical vision that the Spartakists and, above all, Rosa Luxemburg, had of the revolutionary process.

At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, Rosa Luxemburg had been at the forefront in the struggle against Bernsteinism, Millerandism and revisionism. She had been one of the first (as Lenin would acknowledge) to discover in Kautsky, during the polemics after 1905, the germ (which later became a solid trunk) of opportunistic deviations. In a perfectly consistent way, she was the first in Germany to denounce the August 1914 betrayal, and to pay him from prison. What in 1906 had been a gust within the party, caused by the aftermath of the 1905 revolution in Russia, had become in 1914 a general class catastrophe; the path which in 1906 seemed to have been temporarily lost, had literally been abandoned for the opposite path, that of the ruling class in 1914. But in the vision of Rosa Luxemburg this debacle was inscribed, with a thousand others, in the turning pages of the secular book of proletarian emancipation, in its “way of the cross”. Nothing could ever prevent the proletariat from rediscovering the path of Marxism, but this was to happen only at the end of a long process during which the entire working class would rediscover itself, in and through struggle, that is, would reach full and complete awareness of the aims of its instinctive movement, global and definitive possession of socialist doctrine. The agents of this rediscovery could be neither individual militants nor the party, but the masses themselves; and these would not achieve this goal – identified with socialism – either by divine enlightenment, or by a gradual accumulation of partial “conquests” as in the aberrant vision of the reformists, but through the struggle pushed to its supreme expression, the general strike, which in German is called Massenstreik, mass strike.

It was precisely in the heat of the struggle and even of class war that the party had purified itself in 1905 and 1906; it was the general strike in Petrograd and Warsaw which had brought a breath of oxygen to the ankylosed organisms of the Western parties; the same thing was going to happen, had to happen now, despite the war and its exceptional laws. Taken up in the whirlwind of class struggle, the proletariat as a whole would regain its program, and therefore its party would burn its slag, it would eliminate the illusory protagonists, in short it would rebuild this unity that the corrupt leaders believed they had broken forever or had forever put in the service of the enemy. The realisation of this purifying turn was not the responsibility of individuals, groups, conscious avant-gardes; at most they could accelerate it:

“Men do not make history according to their own free will. But they make history nonetheless. Proletarian action is dependent upon the degree of maturity in social development. However, social development is not independent of the proletariat but is equally its driving force and cause, its effect and consequence. [Proletarian] action participates in history. And while we can as little skip a stage of historical development as escape our shadow, we can certainly accelerate or retard history (…). This “leap” is also an iron law of history bound to the thousands of seeds of a prior torment-filled and all-too-slow development. But this can never be realized until the development of complex material conditions strikes the incendiary spark of conscious will in the great masses.” (Rosa Luxemburg “The crisis of social democracy”).

Faithful to this conception, Rosa Luxemburg, like all the Spartakists, did not accept being excluded from the party: it was the leadership of the party which had excluded itself by its treason of August 1914 and by its subsequent faults, and the historical Némésis would sanction its irrevocable condemnation by throwing it irrevocably in the dustbin of the dominant bourgeoisie and its war saturnalia:

“The liquidation of the organized pile of decomposition that is now called social democracy is not a private matter that depends on the personal decision of one or more groups. It will inevitably occur as a consequence of the world war.”

After having long tolerated an “opposition” which allowed it to provide a safety valve for the indignation and rancour of the militants without prejudicing the “supreme good” of unity, the majority social democracy finally decided to expel the Spartakist group at the same time as the “rebel” wing of the Independents. These having officially constituted themselves in the party in 1917 – with the deliberate aim of channelling the proletarians who, if they had been left to themselves, would have risked radicalizing themselves by finally throwing themselves into the arms of the Spartakists -, the Spartakists, who had immediately denounced the cynical contortions of the “independents” and unmasked their ignoble tartufferies, accepted, however, the hospitality offered to them hypocritically in the ranks of the party, against the simple promise of an “autonomy” of propaganda. Why this mistake? Surely not because they lacked the necessary and sufficient courage to “separate” (how could they reproach the future martyrs of January 1919 for lacking courage?), but because they were driven by the very logic of their vision of the historical process of emancipation of the class and redemption of the party as a simple result of this process.

* * *

This is the only explanation for the delay – apparently even more inexplicable – with which the communists formed themselves into a party, after the independents had shared for three months with the majority the scandalous responsibility of the government which was trying to ensure the painless transition, in this bourgeois Germany, but overflowing with revolutionary fermentations, from the Kaiser regime to the republican regime, and to reabsorb the gigantic push of which the workers’ and soldiers’ councils had been and continued to be the tangible expression. The councils were doomed to fall back under the dominant influence of the independents and even the majority, precisely to the extent that there was no revolutionary party, with well-defined characteristics and programme, which could be the catalyst at least for the most combative workers’ vanguard, and which clearly distinguished itself from all the other parties, not only in its political proclamations, but in its practical action.

This also explains the many uncertainties and hesitations that persisted in the Spartakusbund, just as it was leaving the U.S.P.D. to constitute itself as K.P.D. (S), and this, although the independents excluded Luxemburg and Liebknecht from the general congress of the councils which was held in mid-December, because they would obviously have been inconvenient and dangerous guests in an assembly which was to sanction the total subordination of the councils and their central governing bodies to the “Council of the People’s Delegates” (i.e., in less pompous terms, to the Council of Ministers of the young German Republic) and the forthcoming announcement of the elections for the Constituent Assembly. Thus, it is finally explained why the name and the militants of the Spartakus group appeared alongside those of the U.S.P.D. in strike committees and even in “revolutionary committees”, so that the young communist party is blackmailed by these so-called “cousins” and ends up being the victim of their vile manoeuvres.

Of course, our critical judgment on Spartakism must be carried in the spirit that Lenin had when he commented, in October 1916, on the theses of Junius – Luxemburg contained in the brochure “The Crisis of Social-Democracy”: from revolutionaries to revolutionaries. In the fatal hesitation of the Spartakists to break with the center, to recognize the link between the “social-chauvinism” of the majority and the “opportunism” of the independents, to give “a compact illegal organisation that would systematically pursue its line and educate the masses in the spirit of the new tasks” (Lenin), we must know how to recognize a fact that was not subjective and individual, but objective and general: the “weakness” of a left “locked on all sides in the ignoble net of Kautskyist hypocrisy” and subjected to the pressure (or even the sole force of inertia) of a hostile environment.

Unlike the Bolsheviks, none of the Spartakists could recognize in time that the policy of June 4 was not only “the fruit of the leaders’ illusions, which would dissipate under the aggravated pressure of class antagonisms. Experience has shown that we were wrong. First, this policy was not only that of the leaders: there was a whole category of workers behind it who did not want anything other than the leaders. And it would be a fatal illusion to want to explain that today, behind these leaders, there are no masses, or that, if they are behind them, it is only because they are not sufficiently enlightened. The division passes through the working masses themselves” (Radek in 1917).

It was because it was unable to recognize this harsh reality that the communist political vanguard found itself “behind” in the movement of recovery (that is, in the first manifestations of the breaking of the bonds of dependence between the masses and opportunism) of mass movements that reached the limit of the civil war at the end of 1918.

The Birth of the Communist Party of Germany

Lenin could, in 1916, wonder whether this retardation in relation to the impetuous march of real facts was an “accident”, and wish that it had been an accident. In retrospect, unfortunately, we have to say that it was not. In another extraordinarily lucid passage, also written during the war, Lenin recalled the memorable battle, led by Rosa Luxemburg in 1905-1906, which had led German social democracy to recognize the general strike as one of the fundamental weapons of class struggle. But he added that in times of war (and this must also apply to him in the ardent post-war period) the general strike necessarily turns into a civil war and that, although the civil war necessarily implies strike action, it cannot however stop there, but must lead to armed insurrection. But the Spartakist vision is quite different. Nothing shows this better than Rosa Luxemburg’s speech at the founding congress of the KPD on January 1, 1919, a speech which is nevertheless a vigorous reminder of the revolutionary essence of Marxism, and the vibrant demand for a “return to the Manifesto of the Communist Party” against the repugnant parliamentarist and gradualist practice of the Second International. This speech is, in fact, the striking demonstration that, in the Spartakist perspective, the general strike is not one of the manifestations and one of the means of the proletarian revolution; it is its only manifestation and its only means, to the point of hiding from the eyes of the proletarians (that is, for the communists, to exclude) the armed insurrection and the central and centralizing function of the party, the only revolutionary Marxist party, in the insurrection.

This point is of vital importance. For Rosa Luxemburg, the transfer of power from Wilhelm II’s staff to that of Ebert-Scheidemann and the proclamation of the republic were already a revolution, and not a simple change of guard accomplished against the revolution quivering in the bowels of Germany they were a revolution, with all the “embryonic, insufficient, incomplete character”, with the “lack of conscience” of any purely political revolution. The “struggle for socialism” begins only now, that is, when the revolution “becomes an economic revolution, tending towards the disruption of economic relations, and thus, and only then, a socialist revolution”. Socialism was not established by decrees, even if they were promulgated by “the most beautiful socialist government” (the government and the spring of 1919. Ebert is therefore, despite everything, a socialist government, and his measures are “socialist measures”): “Socialism must be made by the masses, by each proletarian; where the chains of capital are forged, that is where they must be broken. That alone is socialism, that is the only way socialism can be made. And what is the external form of the struggle for socialism? The strike. That is why we have seen that now, in the second phase of the revolution, it is the economic phase of the movement that has come to the fore.”

The revolutionary process was thus as follows: a return to the methods of the open and intransigent class struggle; the extension of strikes to an ever-wider scale, from the cities to the countryside; under the impetus of these strikes, the workers’ and soldiers’ councils acquired

“such power that when the Ebert-Scheidemann government or any similar government collapses, it will truly be the last act”. Logical deduction “The conquest of power must not be made all at once, but in a progressive way, opening a breach in the bourgeois state until occupying all its positions and defending them foot to foot… It is a question of fighting step by step, in close combat, in every region, in every town, in every commune, to tear off from the bourgeoisie, piece by piece, all the instruments of State power, and transmit them to the workers’ and soldiers’ councils”.

The struggle must, no doubt, be conducted with implacable intransigence and hardness; but its aim is not the destruction of bourgeois state power, but its destitution, and the means that leads to it is to “undermine the ground, in order to make it ripe for the upheaval that will crown our work”. The revolution is therefore “from below”:

“From below, where each boss stands up to his wage slaves; from below, where all the executive organs of class political domination stand up to the objects of this domination, the masses. It is there, below, that we must tear step by step from those who dominate their instruments of power and take them into our hands”. A much more difficult task than that of the bourgeois revolutions, “where it was enough to beat the official power in its center”.

This is, on the whole, an inverted representation of the revolutionary process: instead of the seizure of political power at the central level (which is also, and inseparably, the destruction of the bourgeoisie’s state apparatus), as a premise for economic transformation, one has the conquest of political power at the local level, through the means of class struggle pushed to its climax (the general strike), as an act that is inseparable from the “upheaval of economic relations”. At the end of this process, the catastrophe of the bourgeois regime occurs like the smashing fall of a tree, under which the land has been “mined”. It consists, according to the “Program” voted at the congress, in the workers “taking control of production and finally of its effective management”. What comes back as an obsessive leitmotiv in this conception of Spartakists is the vision of the “proletarian masses who, from lifeless machines applied by the capitalist to the production process, learn to become the thinking, free, autonomous managers (Lenker) of this process”; who acquire “the sense of responsibility that is characteristic of active members of the community in which all social wealth resides; and who, in and through struggle, acquire the “socialist virtues” of assiduity without the knout of the boss, of maximum output without the watchmen of the capitalist, of discipline without the yoke, of order without submission”, moreover assimilating the knowledge and skills indispensable for leading socialist enterprises, for “without [these virtues] the emancipation of the working class would not be the work of the workers themselves”.

It is therefore understandable why the Program of the Spartacus League, which became the Communist Party of Germany, mentions neither civil war (before and after the revolution) nor armed insurrection. It is understandable why an entire chapter (of the three chapters of the Program) is devoted to demonstrating that

“The proletarian revolution requires no terror… because it does not combat individuals but institutions, because it does not enter the arena with naïve illusions whose disappointment it would seek to revenge” because it is not “the desperate attempt of a minority to mold the world forcibly according to its ideal, but the action of the great massive millions of the people, destined to fulfill a historic mission and to transform historical necessity into reality”. It is understandable why the dictatorship of the proletariat appears in the Program only as a means of “breaking with merciless energy and an iron fist” the relentless and fierce resistance of the bourgeoisie entrenched in its innumerable Vendées and helped by its foreign colleagues, i.e. with a purely defensive role, and why it is reduced, in its most general form, to the “arming of the proletariat” and to the “disarmament of the bourgeoisie”, considered as two aspects of the clear vision of the goals, of the vigilance and of the always alert activity of the proletarian masses. One can understand why the party, as not only an active force, and even more so an enlightening one, but a leader, is absent and why the dictatorship of the proletariat is identified with “true democracy”. Finally, one can understand why, in her all too famous criticism of the Bolshevik revolution, Rosa Luxemburg claims the sharing of power by all the “workers” parties, or at least the freedom for them to live and to agitate. It is understandable why the Programme ends with these famous words

“The Spartacus League is not a party that wants to rise to power over the mass of workers or through them. The Spartacus League is only the most conscious, purposeful part of the proletariat, which points the entire broad mass of the working class toward its historical tasks at every step, which represents in each particular stage of the Revolution the ultimate socialist goal, and in all national questions the interests of the proletarian world revolution… The Spartacus League will also refuse to enter the government just because Scheidemann-Ebert are going bankrupt and the independents, by collaborating with them, are in a deadend street. The Spartacus League will never take over governmental power except in response to the clear, unambiguous will of the great majority of the proletarian mass of all of Germany, never except by the proletariat’s conscious affirmation of the views, aims, and methods of struggle of the Spartacus League. The victory of the Spartacus League comes not at the beginning, but at the end of the Revolution: it is identical with the victory of the great million-strong masses of the socialist proletariat”.

We’re back where we started. The conquest of central political power is not the necessary and indispensable premise of economic transformation (which is at the same time a “transformation of men”, a revolution of “consciences”); it is the point of arrival of a process of conquest of political but especially economic control levers, “from bottom to top”, by the brute force of the protest action pushed to its highest level, the general strike. It does not precede the necessarily long and complex realization of socialism, but it coincides with that realization itself. It expresses the complete adherence of the working class as a whole to the aims of socialism; and the party is the reflection of this global “awareness”, and not the organ of the previous revolutionary conquest of political power and the dictatorial exercise of power, in conjunction with the impetus of the working masses, instinctive impetus but influenced by the party’s propaganda, agitation and leadership work; otherwise, the revolution would not be socialist, since it would not be “the work of the proletarians themselves”.

The conclusion that we can draw from this is, above all, that this conception radically departs from Marxism restored by the Bolshevik revolution and, already, by the theoretical struggle of Lenin’s party. On the contrary, it is a convergence (almost a magma) of currents foreign to Marxism, ranging from spontaneity to corporate socialism, from councilism to revolutionary syndicalism, from workerism to idealistic and humanist educationism. This is why there is practically no line of demarcation, at the origin, between the K.P.D. and the current that would later form the K.A.P.D., on the one hand, between the K.P.D. and the many variants of unionism or better of De Leon’s “unionism” (including the non-party version of the IWW or the “shop stewards”) on the other hand. Secondly, the subsequent parable of the communist movement in Germany is incomprehensible (for those who do not want to stop at the surface of things, at the judgment of individuals, at the gossip of… “power struggles”), if one does not go back to the theoretical and political roots of the movement.

We said that there was “practically no line of demarcation”, because the founding congress revealed that if Spartakism was vulnerable to immediatist influences (a more appropriate term than that of “trade unionists” used at the time, including by our fraction), other currents which had converged in the KPD. were the spokespersons without having the theoretical “antibodies” that prevented Rosa Luxemburg, Léo Jogisches and others from letting themselves be carried away – in particular, the “internationalist communists” (I.K.D.) of Hamburg and Bremen.

These two groups, especially the second, had a long tradition of radical criticism not only of majority social-chauvinism, but even of Kautskyian opportunism. From 1916, but especially since 1917, they had opposed the Spartakist formula “neither division nor unity, but reconquest of the party from below”, the watchword of the open and immediate division, strongly deploring the adhesion, even conditional, of the group die Internationale (it was then the nickname of the Spartakists) to the U.S.P.D. While acknowledging that the Spartakists were the only revolutionary force to have survived the August 1914 shipwreck, and the only one with an at least embryonic national network, they felt a strong distrust, aroused by the Spartakists’ reluctance to split from them: this is why the I.K.D. decided to merge into Spartakusbund, when the fundamental obstacle to their membership of the Independent Party had fallen, only at the conference of 15-17 December 1918 in Berlin (so much so that 29 delegates of the I.K.D. were present at the founding congress of the K.D.P. alongside the 83 spartakists). In the new party, they brought the prestige of an uncompromising position that had been more long-standing than that of the other left-wing currents of social democracy, but also the weight of an ideological formation much closer to the American De Leon or to Latin revolutionary syndicalism than to Marxism: the cult of “spontaneity without centralisation and thus without effectiveness” (as Engels would have said), mass-leader opposition, organizational federalism[1], exaltation of “workers democracy” embodied in the Councils, emphasis on economic struggle at the expense of political struggle; reduction of the party’s function to a role of educating consciences (and even, in some groups, party negation), etc.

But in spite of the resistances, of Rosa Luxemburg in particular, in front of formulations obviously foreign to Marxism, the Spartakist ground was ready to a certain extent to collect and cultivate the germ in the burning climate of the end of the year 1918. This is what we can see from the discussions within the K.P.D. on the following three points: attitude towards traditional economic organisations (trade unions), revolutionary parliamentarism, organisation of the new party. With regard to the first point, after Fröhlich had supported the thesis of the immediate abandonment of trade unions for unitary economic-political organisations “the basis of which is the groups of our militants in the factories”, and that Rosa Luxemburg had opposed the thesis – for other similar reasons – “The functions of the trade unions are now assured by the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils and by the Factory Councils”, the question was referred to a special commission, the congress having considered that the question required a more thorough examination (it was moreover accessible to the easy demagogy of the slogan “Outside the trade unions”). On the second point (being understood, moreover, the unanimous aversion towards parliamentarism and the unanimous will to work for its destruction), the thesis which clearly prevailed was that of an abstentionism based not on the purely Marxist arguments developed at the same time by our Fraction, but on the horror for the leaders, who trample on the “self-determination of the masses”. On the third point, the Congress unanimously adopted the Eberlin motion, which based the new organisational structure of the Party: 1) on the model of the factory councils, based on the communist groups formed within them; 2) on the “total autonomy of the[local] organisations”, which “must not wait for the watchwords from above, but work on their own initiative”, so that the Central Office has more than a simple role of “unification of what happens outside, and of political and spiritual direction”.

The Calvary of Spartakism

It is only too clear that the German Communist Party, constituted late on insecure bases, dragged behind it a heavy legacy of uncertainty and even confusion its “base” was combative, but had barricade tendencies; as for its “summit”, against which all the forces of counter-revolution were savagely unleashed, led by the government of the majority Socialists (which the participation of the Independents concealed from the outside), it remained subject to the fascination of “workers unity”.

For many months, from the end of 1918 to the spring of 1919, the young party and the proletarian masses, who led a confused but fierce struggle, paid with their blood an even heavier price than in Finland and Hungary, despite the fierce cynicism of the reaction after the failure of the revolutionary attempts in these countries; and they paid it not for a revolution completed, but for a revolution that the ruling class and its henchmen were determined to prevent, and during those months of nightmare, the macabre game that will be repeated in Budapest was repeated continuously.

January, Berlin. The movements exploded under the aegis of the “Independents”. Not only does the KPD agree to subscribe to joint proclamations with the U.S.P.D. and the Revolutionäre Obleute (the workers’ “trusted men”), but it enters a hybrid “Revolutionary Committee”, oscillating between reckless putschism (guidelines for “street fighting”) and a dubious practice of behind-the-scenes negotiations with the government. On his own initiative, Liebknecht even accepted to be part of the triumvirate of leadership with an independent, Ledebour, and an R.O., Scholze, in the illusion of thus being able to overthrow the government and take power (Rosa Luxembourg will deeply deplore this Initiative, but only because the situation is not mature, not for reasons of principle). On 10 January, the Spartakist representatives left this pompous and impotent Committee denouncing its complicity with the enemy. But on that date, the mercenaries recruited by Noske from the worst wrecks of the Prussian army, and joined by social-democratic volunteers, succeeded in dislodging the demonstrators from the newspaper headquarters (they had only occupied newspapers!), taking advantage of the defection of the “Independents” and the weariness of the workers disoriented by the contradictory slogans. But it is only against the “armed bandits”, against the “madmen and criminals of the Spartacus League” that the fierce pig dog cops at the orders of the government is unleashed without restraint or scruples. Faithful until the end to a “spontaneity” of the masses, certainly heroic, but “devoid of centralization” because deprived of a political line, K. Liebknecht and R. Luxembourg fall victims of a double crime perpetrated in cold blood (the most horrible of these cruel months and years) after terrible tortures.

February, Ruhr. After the revolutionary attempts of Hamburg, Bremen, Halle, Düsseldorf, the campaign for the “socialisation” (!!!) of the mines in the Ruhr opened up after the social-democratic bullets had burst and repressed them. It is jointly led by communists, independents, and representatives of the “base” of the majority socialists. They withdrew just in time to leave the field free for the fierce repression of the Reichswehr, which Noske had reconstituted to entrust him with exceptional police duties. Shortly afterwards, in the region of Halle, Spartakists, independents and majorities proclaimed once again the general strike for a “socialisation from below” (!!!) and for the “democratisation of companies” new desertion of social democrats, new hesitations of independents, final massacre of Spartakists.

March, Berlin. The immense wave of strikes ebbed back from central Germany to the capital, where an umpteenth three-way strike committee was born, from which the majority quickly withdrew. The agitation is powerful, but confused. It was led by the Spartakists and, at first, by the “revolutionary delegates” who eventually abandoned them. The committee tries as hard as it can to prevent the movement from falling into an adventurist putschism, but the strikers are mixed with all sorts of wrecks, demobilized soldiers, uprooted from the small or big bourgeoisie. Noske exclaims “The brutality and ferocity of the Spartakists who fight against us force me to give the following order: whoever will be caught with arms in his hand and fighting the government will be shot”, and he drops his killers on the capital. There will be between 1,500 and 3,000 dead, including Leo Jogisches.

April, Munich. While a “simple and bloody repression” continues in the Ruhr and then in Saxony (with after-effects that will continue until mid-May), a group of independents and majorities is mounting the atrocious farce of proclaiming a Republic of Councils in Bavaria. The Communists denounced this despicable demagogic manoeuvre, but then gave in to pressure from the Independents, mixed with anarchists and adventurers of various origins: they then began to defend the “power of the councils”, which their allies were preparing in secret to hand over to the majority minister Hoffmann, then chief general of the forces of repression. On May 1st, left alone at the head of a Republic of the Councils improvised by others (we know the anxious telegram of Lenin indicating the elementary and essential measures which must be taken, but which will never be it because they will not have time of it), Spartakists will be ferociously eliminated. With a superb contempt for death, Eugen Leviné confronts the firing squad amid the howls of a petty bourgeoisie thirsty for revenge. The few executions of hostages carried out by the “power of the councils” and which hit the cowardly members of the “Thule Society” (representatives of this racist dregs that would later make the fortune of Nazism) provide the pretext for an umpteenth carnage. Three months later, the Hungarian Soviet republic of Bela Kun also fell victim to the “unity”, a simple screen of the betrayal policy of the left-wing social democrats, the only one of which they were congenitally capable.

The haunting of “proletarian unity” at any price is expensive – wrote Il Soviet, organ of our current – about the events in Munich and Budapest. The young German party paid for it with the sacrifice of its best militants, the disorganization of the survivors and the isolation of the party from the masses who were still on the war footing, but cruelly decimated and disoriented.

And this fear was all the stronger because after the replacement of Karl and Rosa by leaders who did not have their revolutionary temper like Levi and Zetkin, the horror which the party leadership had always witnessed with regard to “putschism” (and which was justified as a reaction against the tendency “to play with the insurrection”, as Engels would have said) grew to the point of transforming itself during the year 1920 into a renunciation of the very prospect of insurrection and into a timorous and degrading legalitarianism, which, by tragic irony, could only revive unitary nostalgia.

Levi was expelled in 1921 for publicly repudiating the split of Livorno as “too leftist” and denouncing the March action in Germany as a reckless putschist; Zetkin remained, but it was to guarantee some time later, the possibility of building “Socialism in a single country”, according to the wishes of the father of peoples, Joseph Stalin.

The “putschism” was officially liquidated (in correct terms) at the National Conference in Berlin on 14 and 15 June. In polemic with the revolutionary trade unionists who were in the KPD, the same Conference affirmed the need “for the demands of the struggle at this moment[only at this moment?],1. that the proletariat organize itself into a political party; 2. that in the present stage[still] of the revolutionary struggle, the organization of this party be rigorously centralist.” The KPD was obviously recovering under the energetic leadership of the Bolsheviks. In one of the magnificent articles written shortly before her death, Rosa Luxembourg stated in full, “The current state of the Berlin proletariat, lacking a direction and a centre of organisation, can no longer last” (the resignation of the leaders, in “Die rote Fahne”, 11 January). But the recognition of this necessity had never gone beyond the affirmation that “if the victory of the proletariat, if socialism is no longer to remain a dream, revolutionary workers must create governing organs capable of guiding and using the combative energy of the masses” it had therefore never gone so far as to recognize the central role of the Party, and even less of a centralized party. In her famous article The order reigns in Berlin, she said, “It has missed a direction, but the direction can and must be created ex novo by the masses alone, and in the masses: the masses are the decisive element, they are the rock on which one builds the victory of the revolution!”?

There is no doubt that Rosa Luxembourg was acutely aware of the dangers of the putschism and yet it is not to her, but to Radek that, not as an individual, but as spokesman for the Bolshevik party and the International, deserves credit for having denounced them. As early as 9 January, he warned the German Communist Party against the merry-go-round of the converging forces of the counterrevolution, urging it not to allow itself to be led to take responsibility for premature movements in a situation where “it is not the Communists, but the social patriots or independents who dominate the councils of workers and soldiers”, and inviting him, since the action was now decided and he could not avoid fighting, to give it “the character of an action of protest” (and not of an insurrectional attack).

Only Radek dared to recall (in statements which could have been ours and which the Bolsheviks will forget too quickly) that in the pre-revolutionary phase from February to October 1917, the Bolsheviks had not had “to support fights as hard as those of January… where so many lives were absurdly sacrificed”; indeed the Bolsheviks had mass organizations, they did not come up against workers’ organizations that had become “the basis of counterrevolution” and they did not have in front of them a still terribly powerful bourgeoisie like the German bourgeoisie. No representative of the German left could have made Radek’s lucid prediction “The civil war in Germany [we would have said, with Lenin: throughout the West] will be much more fierce and destructive than at home in Russia”.

The Congress of Heidelberg

It is this awareness of the mortal danger of putschism, as well as a superior theoretical vision, which inspired the theses of the Heidelberg Congress of October 1919 of which “Il Soviet” immediately after having taken cognizance, underlined the perfect Marxist orthodoxy (cf. The German Communist Party, in “Il Soviet” of April 1920), but which are extremely far from those of the authentically Luxemburgian current.

From the beginning, the “theses on communist principles and tactics” put the seizure of power and proletarian dictatorship in the foreground, as conditions for “the substitution of the socialist organization of production for capitalist relations of exploitation”. They affirm that at all stages preceding the revolutionary conquest of power by the proletariat “revolution is a political struggle of the proletarian masses for political power”. They entrust “the leadership of the revolutionary mass struggle” to the party. They define as “counter-revolutionary the fact of giving up party organization or confining the party to a purely propaganda task”; they demand “the most rigorous centralization”, a condition for the party to accomplish its historical tasks in revolutionary times (restrictive precision which is perhaps an echo of federalist nostalgia?), and also demand it for economic organizations.

Recognizing the capital importance of the Workers’ Councils in the revolutionary process, the theses affirm however that it is not statutes, electoral regulations, etc. which can give them life, but the impetus of the proletarians in struggle for the conquest of power. They affirm that communists must work in economic organizations to turn them into instruments of political struggle; they describe as petty-bourgeois utopia “the idea that they can be produced by means of a special organizational formula of mass movements, and thus that revolution is a question of organizational form”.

The theses on parliamentarism leave no doubt as to the need to overthrow parliament as a body of bourgeois domination; they deny that parliamentarism is a means for the conquest of the proletariat’s class power, and advocate it as a pure tactical expedient to expand the party’s influence on the masses through elections and the parliamentary gallery.

The inspiration of the theses on the trade union question is also correct and in agreement with ours. They reject the trade unionist theory, which proposes unique organisations, both political and economic, and denies the party’s function. They reaffirm the need to elevate the economic struggle to the level of a political struggle for power. Finally, they condemn both the desertion by communists of opportunist-led trade unions, which would be tantamount to abandoning the large masses to the merciless yoke of counter-revolutionary forces, and the claim of “dissidents” to form restricted economic organisations on the basis of a political affiliation or, more generally, the ideological professions of faith of the adherents.

All these theses thus announce the positions taken later by the 2nd Congress of the International, which fundamentally depart from the platform of the KPD’s constituent congress. One can only regret the imprecision of certain formulas such as “the struggle of the proletarian masses for power is led by all political and economic means” (a formula already condemned by “Il Soviet” in the programme of the Independents). It is also regrettable that they justify “revolutionary parliamentarism” by distinguishing between “small” means (precisely the parliamentary struggle for propaganda against parliament) and “large” means (the boycott of parliament and elections), because this distinction recalls the old and absurd dichotomy between maximum and minimum programmes. The very formula of “revolutionary parliamentarism” was not only insufficient, but dangerous, as the article of the “Soviet” quoted above reminds us, because we must always clearly show the proletariat the radical antithesis between the communist dictatorship and democracy, which is “both the mask and the rampart of the dictatorship of capital”.

But the best of programs cannot be enough to redress a heterogeneous party from birth, and torn from the beginning between contradictory requirements both inside and especially outside. The condemnation of “trade unionism” in its most idealistic form (which we will discuss in connection with the KAPD) at the Heidelberg Congress had been correct and forceful. But the Hamburg and Bremen sections – confused and unorthodox groups, but still ill-defined, and on the other hand with a generous revolutionary instinct – were invited to accept the official theses without discussion or to leave.

In a party still in need of ideological formation, such an ultimatum raised the suspicion that the leadership had wanted to get rid of embarrassing opponents in order to give free rein to an essentially legal practice (a suspicion that our fraction did not fail to express), and in any case constituted a sign of intolerance… caporalesque, which the Bolsheviks were the first to deplore. Similarly, the condemnation of the hypocrisy of the Independents seemed irrevocable, but the months that followed showed that Rosa Luxemburg’s final cry had not really been assimilated: “The settling of scores with the scheidemannians presupposes the liquidation of the USPD, which served as a protective shield for the Ebert and Scheidemann” and that the isolation in which the Spartakists were increasingly trapped by fierce persecution was reviving – at least at the “summit” – the old regret of having broken with the USPD. Centralism is one of the pillars of communist doctrine; but the fact that the Communist Party Centre was going to adopt it after a long semi-federalist tradition and without serious preparation within the party could well lead one to think that it wanted above all to have the elbow room to manoeuvre in the direction of the Independent “cousins”. It is understandable that, persecuted, decimated, reduced to a minimum of contact with the framed masses in the two social democratic parties and their huge trade unions, the KPD suffered from its isolation. However, it is a monstrous thing that he has drawn conclusions such as those that will be expressed in Levi’s report in Moscow:

“From all this, we draw the same lesson that this second Congress of the Communist International has drawn for the proletarians of all countries (!!): in revolutionary periods when the masses are radicalizing, contrary to periods when the process of transformation in a revolutionary sense is slower and more painful, the primacy of radical and communist opposition groups in the major parties is advantageous (!!) as long as they have the possibility to show their face and lead their agitation and propaganda without obstacles. Today, the most important problem for the development of the proletariat in Germany in a revolutionary sense is how to wrest from the USPD leadership the revolutionary masses of the Independent Party, which are deeply communist and have already waged hundreds of battles. This problem would not arise if the Spartakusbund (said with regret Levi) had used the opportunity it had to continue to develop its activity within the USPD.”

To condemn the abandonment of the traditional trade unions, that is to say the large organised masses, and their replacement by “unions” on the narrow basis of even general affiliation to communist ideas, was an excellent thing. But (contrary to the theses of the 2nd Moscow Congress), the Heidelberg Theses did not even allude to the fact that – to use our words of the time – “in some cases the corruption of reformist leaders can reach such a level that it becomes necessary to abandon to itself a body that is already completely rotten”, such as the enormous German trade union confederation. And that was a serious flaw.

The “Bolshevisation” of Spartakism was thus not very solid and the famous Kapp putsch of March 1920 proved it only too well.

The Kapp Putsch

We said that the Kapp-Luttwitz putsch (13-17 March 1920) had provided evidence of the low degree of Bolshevisation of the KPD. We know that this coup de main, the work of the supporters of the Kaiser and the power of the junkers and thus badly seen by the great bourgeoisie itself, failed miserably thanks to the immediate strike of the workers, on the one hand, and to the firm decision of the trade unions to save the young Weimar Republic, on the other hand, in a situation which resembled, especially in the Ruhr, the eve of a civil war. However, the Central of the Communist Party first showed an unfortunate passivity, then an incredible haste in action. It began by declaring that the quarrel between republic and monarchy did not directly interest the workers (but the question was much broader behind Kapp-Luttwitz were the Frankish bodies determined to put an end to the chronic “insubordination” of the German proletariat!); it also began by warning against the dangers of a general strike that the working class would be right to trigger and would surely trigger “in the circumstances and with the means it deemed most opportune” (as if it were always possible for the oppressed class to choose the right moment to act, and as if one had to resort to a general strike only for final political objectives!); then, under the pressure of the formidable lifting in arms of the working class, it performed a 180° turn by mobilizing the workers on the slogan “all power to the councils!” as if the problem was to destroy the bourgeois state, from goal to goal and without any preparation, and not to defend oneself with weapons. The candidate for the dictatorship, Kapp, fled on the advice of the industrialists themselves “The unanimity between the workers is such – Ernst von Borsig had told him – that one cannot distinguish the agitators from the millions of workers who stopped work”. The mandarin syndical no. 1. Legien, sensitive to the state of mind of the workers, then decided to prolong the strike until the government of his social democrat accomplices had given serious guarantees of reform: above all to eliminate Noske, and to take energetic measures to prevent attacks against the republic and against the political and economic associations of the proletariat. To reinforce and concretize these demands, Legien became the promoter with the U.S.P.D. the constitution of a “workers government” in which the three parties from the old trunk of pre-war social democracy and the trade unions would be represented.

It is from this moment that the magnificent German proletariat, which threw itself into the struggle with lost body in all the industrial centres, from the North to the South, from the East to the West, attends disoriented to a painful carousel of orders and counter-orders, manoeuvres and counter-maneuvers, advances and setbacks. The U.S.P.D., not to lose face on the left and not to burn itself on the right, rejects the proposal to participate in the government. The delegates of the KPD, among whom W. Pieck (first… glorious steps of a future Stalinist glory) declare themselves “available”, but they are immediately denied by the Directorate which affirms having “never supported the proposal to form a coalition government with the trade unions and the Independents”. On the evening of March 22, the latter, while repeating that they do not want to assume ministerial office, proclaim that the “pacificating” counter-proposals of the new social-democratic cabinet, the Mueller cabinet, are acceptable, and they vote for the cessation of the strike, which is what will happen (more subtle, the so-called “left” of the Independents suggests that it be “interrupted”!). Ending the tipping game between lethargy and conciliation policy, the KPD calls on workers to denounce social-democratic treason and to continue the strike. The following day, however, it announces that, since “the objective bases for the dictatorship of the proletariat” are lacking, and that it is necessary first of all to work for the conquest of the working masses to communism, it considers as “of the greatest importance (…) a situation where political freedom can be used without limits or prohibitions, and where bourgeois democracy does not have the possibility (!!!) to act as the dictatorship of capital”. Inspired by these strategic considerations, the KPD states that it considers “the formation of a social-democratic government from which the capitalist-bourgeois parties would be excluded, as a condition for the autonomous action of the masses and for them to prepare to exercise proletarian dictatorship. It will therefore loyally oppose this government as long as it provides the necessary guarantees for the entry of the masses into office, as long as it fights [always awaits] bourgeois counterrevolution by all means at its disposal, and does not oppose the social and organizational strengthening of the working class. Finally, the KPD adds that “by loyal opposition it means the renunciation to prepare a Violent action, while keeping of course its freedom of political agitation for its own purposes and for its own watchwords”.

This declaration provoked an outcry in broad layers of the party. With their hands free, the social-democratic government offers the Reichswehr of von Seeckt the opportunity to take its revenge by forcibly extinguishing the insurrectionary homes in the Ruhr and elsewhere, and by shedding the blood of the proletarians again despite the scandalous… peace agreements in Bielefeld and the efforts of the local and central communist leaders to prevent the demonstrators from going too far (but, in such conditions, repression is also unleashed, and perhaps above all, if one stands still!). Attacked by the majoritarians, betrayed by the independents, disoriented by the Spartakists, the workers end up giving up their weapons after a few days. It is now up to the war tribunals to play!

An ancient and tenacious Evil

These sad events give rise to a series of recriminations, accusations and defections in the party. Few activists understand that in reality evil comes from further away. In a violent diatribe, Radek writes – and he is not wrong – that “the antiputschism [of the party leaders] has led them to a kind of quietism: from the impossibility, demonstrated experimentally in 1919, of conquering power in Germany, they deduced, in March 1920, the impossibility of action in general, a conclusion which was already false last year”. Shortly afterwards, at the Fourth Congress of the KPD, he accused them of having acted as “reasoners rather than fighters”, substituting for social-democratic “parliamentary cretinism” a kind of “governmental cretinism”, a communist variant of “possibilism”. A few days later, enjoying undeserved glory for not having participated in the deplorable manoeuvre, the “extremists” already expelled from the Heidelberg congress formed the Communist Workers Party of Germany (KAPD). It was the end of a cycle. Was another happier one about to begin?

“Il Soviet”, organ of our fraction, had only been able to follow the tragic events of March with delay and second hand, as indeed all the socialist press in Italy. But it had immediately denounced the betrayal of the majority and the independents together, and while agreeing with the theses voted by the KPD in Heidelberg the previous year, it had not failed to deplore the uncertainties, the oscillations, the legalistic tendencies of the central Party. On March 28 it had wondered “Will Spartacus succeed in getting up, through the openly militarist reaction, against the reaction of the renegades of socialism? Will the German proletariat avenge its heroic deaths of January 1919?”. But it had immediately added that “once again the independent socialists, with their equivocal attitude of oscillation, betrayed the cause of the revolution”, and it had drawn from it a confirmation of our old thesis which affirmed that “despite their hypocritical program, which many take for a communist program, the centrists are still the perpetrators of the bourgeois regime and deserve even more mistrust than the majority” so there was no reason to regret, as the maximalists always did, “the split between these notorious weather vanes and our heroic communist comrades”.

On 23 April, it had reproduced an article from the Viennese magazine “Der Kommunismus”, which stigmatised the absurd “combination of negotiations, strikes and armaments” of which the USPD had become the spokesman in the last phase of the Kapp-Luttwitz affair, and which had definitively stopped the fate of this great workers’ movement. On May 16, while justifying the caution with which the Spartakists had acted in a situation of great chaotic outbursts and uncontrolled attempts, “Il Soviet” had made Bela Kun’s criticism at the Central its own. Indeed, “although preparing for revolution does not always mean having weapons in one’s hand, it does imply that one is constantly in the field of struggle, which in turn results in the construction of the organization and the readiness to take up arms at all times. “No preparation for violent actions” means renouncing revolutionary preparation.” Finally, writing from Berlin, a stopover on the road to Moscow, our delegate to the 2nd Congress of the CI, while reiterating the fundamental criticisms made by our fraction to the young KAPD, would not remain silent about his harsh judgment on the passivity of the Communist Party and its dangerous parliamentary tendencies.

This episode would have long-term repercussions. The whole history of the KPD in the months and even in the following years will bear the stigmata of fragility and incoherence inherited from its late birth, with sudden shifts from passivity to ultra-activism, from parliamentary and legalistic praxis to the discovery of an “offensive theory” based on an abstract economic appreciation of the crisis of German capitalism and world capitalism in general, from the launch of proposals for joint action by the USPD to the rejection of joint action even in the struggles for demands and within the trade unions. The worst tactical innovations of the KPD (open letters, unique fronts, support to so-called workers governments) will end up contaminating the International itself, accentuating its crisis and feeding it as it goes along. As for the principle of centralism and discipline, which had been hastily tackled on the old spontaneous and federalist strain and was not linked to solid programmatic positions, sometimes it would serve as a cover for equivocal manoeuvres (including a kind of “national-bolshevism”, which, first condemned in the KAPD, then adopted by its own critics), sometimes it would be violated by countless cliques of a contingent and personal rather than theoretical and political nature, whose sad spectacle the KPD would give until the moment when it would rush into the welcoming arms of Stalinism.

Faced with this real disaster, which was to weigh on the entire world communist movement, it must be noted with bitterness that our “abstentionist” communist faction was only too right and was only too realistic, when it stubbornly repeated that a truly “surgical” selection of the young sections of the International, and especially those of Central Europe, a crucial area for the revolution, was necessary. At the end of 1920, in the name of an illusory “conquest of the broad masses”, the KPD welcomed the “left” (now the majority!) of the USPD into its fragile boat, even if, one year later, it had to throw a large part of it back into the sea as a cumbersome ballast. But the path a party takes has nothing to do with that of a ship. The mergers made and defeated, the tactical zigzags, the programmatic turns can apparently straighten the bow of the ship adrift, but they cannot prevent the crew from being disoriented and disappointed, that the necessary discipline is relaxed, that the partisans move away, and that the bow itself ends up going in the wrong direction. Rigour is a condition of efficiency provided that it is not formal and “administrative” rigour, but continuity in action and coherence in the pursuit of a specific goal. This is a lesson that we learned at that time, and that we must now put in our minds and hearts so that it will not be lost once again!

Let us be clear: to acknowledge and show the shortcomings, the errors, the frightening zigzags of the German party, and to see their root beyond the contingent events of such and such a month or year, does not mean that the cause is attributed solely to internal or, as we say, subjective factors: These are, in fact, inseparable from a set of material factors, they are the product as much as one of the causes. Nor does it mean diminishing the heroic firmness of militants who, even if they got the line wrong, fought without hesitation, and in extremely hard years. Nor does this mean abandoning ourselves to vain hypotheses, wondering what the party would have been if it had been able to dispose until the end of the leadership of Luxemburg, Liebknecht, or Jogisches. The crux of the matter is elsewhere, and it is vital for a general understanding of the problems of communist tactics. When the objective determinations have been separated, it remains to be understood – as Trotsky will say – that “reality does not forgive a single theoretical error”. Once committed and translated into action, these errors become objective facts, hard as rocks, which condition those who have fallen into them and who will perhaps notice them one day or another, but in any case too late. Worse still, they have the power to polarize around them men and groups who by tradition are already inclined not to recognize them for mistakes. Individuals, in themselves, do not count; but it is not by chance, precisely because it is an objective social phenomenon, if tactics, like situations, choose their instruments, their man-machines: it is no coincidence that a Levi deplored the split in Livorno and shamefully denounced the fighters of March 1921 as adventurists during the struggle itself; it is no coincidence that the few militants who in 1920 opposed the “loyal opposition” manoeuvres, those who would later form the dubious left of R. Fischer and Maslow, in the following years accepted the slogan of external (or even internal) support for the “workers” governments of Saxony and Thuringia, deploring only the… technical application. Nobody in the KPD ever understood – if tenacious was the old fetish of “unity” – the lesson that the Italian Left had already learned from the harsh reality of 1918 and 1919 and condensed in 1921 in the article quoted above, “The function of social democracy” (and social democracy, that meant not only the right but also the centre).

Not only did the German party not assimilate this lesson, but the animated debates of its 4th Congress showed, on the one hand, that parliamentary and legalistic quietism under the guise of antiputschism was far from being overcome and that, on the other hand, the dominant problem within the party tended more and more to become, despite the protests of certain delegates in contact with the hard experience of the struggle in Hamburg and the Ruhr, that of the recovery of an independent “left” which was covered with praise, whereas at the 3rd Congress (Karlsruhe, 25-26 February) it had been condemned for its capitulation to the right which had openly betrayed it. The merger of the KPD with the left of the independent party, which took place in the autumn following the Halle congress and which our Communist Left faction deplored as a dangerous precedent for relaxing the conditions of membership of the Communist International, was in the air from April: the obsession with unity has a hard life!

The Immediatism of the Left

The absence of a single or almost single geographical centre, and thus the fragmentation into several powerful and concentrated but relatively closed urban nuclei, constitutes one of the characteristic aspects of the German workers’ movement negative aspect, although it is also symptomatic – if we compare it to the situation in France for example – of the degree to which the great capitalist industry had penetrated all the pores of the “nation”. Berlin was undoubtedly a pole of strong workers’ concentration, but less than had been the case in the 19th century, Paris, and at the beginning of the 20th century.

20th century, Petrograd. This characteristic – well rooted in German history – resulted in 1919 in the formation of perennial revolutionary centres throughout Germany and the birth of embryonic “communes” that were quickly swept away; but already during the war and even before, it had been reflected in the constitution of a myriad of relatively autonomous groups within the SPD, and the worst thing was that this state of affairs tended to be theorized precisely by the forces which, at the decisive moment, could have expressed the élan and combativeness of the proletarian masses that the storm of war and, even more, of the post-war period projected into the arena of social struggles.

In a sense, the proliferation of the so-called left-wing immediateism in 1919-1920 was the reflection of an objective localism powerless to break its own limits in a global vision of the problems of proletarian revolution: the Spartakists themselves felt the effects, albeit to a much lesser degree and thus in a much stronger position. The so-called radicalism of the left, which converged more or less in the KAPD in April 1920, had Hamburg, Bremen, Berlin and Dresden as its centres and, within the framework of a common general vision of a trade unionist type, presented considerable nuances, sources of potential conflicts and divisions or already ready to manifest themselves. The common characteristic that was then obvious was the tendency of all these groups to seek the key to victory over opportunism and to the alignment of the workers movement on the revolutionary front, and thus the key to the victory of the proletariat over capitalism, in immediate forms of economic organization in which the will of the class, considered globally, would express itself directly, without distorting intermediaries. For some, these forms could be factory councils (often confused with the Soviets), for others, industry unions opposed to traditional craft unions, for still others the Unionen, conceived as organizations going beyond the dichotomy between economic struggle and political struggle (something like the “One Big Union” of the American IWW); but they were always built on federalist bases to avoid the odious and dangerous dictatorship of the bosses, to prevent a leadership legislating “from above” from trampling underfoot the will of the masses.

The question of revolution was thus reduced to a “question of forms of organization” – and moreover, of economic forms – considered as revolutionary by themselves precisely because they were immediate organizations, faithfully copying the will of struggle and the class “consciousness” of the proletariat. The latter was therefore not “separate” – so to speak – from itself because of the mediation of the party, whose function some groups denied, while others reduced it to “enlightening” the masses theoretically and to doing intellectual propaganda work, and others, finally, repelled it with horror. Hence the demonstrations which then appeared in the foreground: the watchword to get out of the traditional trade unions, considered as bureaucratic bodies, and thus counter-revolutionary by nature, and out of the parliament considered as the temple not so much of the democratic lie, but of the supremacy of the “leaders” over the “led”, of those who guide (the parliamentary Fuehrer on the one hand, the trade union Bonzeners on the other) over those who are guided, i.e. precisely as the denial of “democracy”, even if it is “worker”; the overestimation of the economic struggle at the expense of the political struggle, the economic struggle being considered as a gradual (though violent in each of its stages) process of conquering the productive mechanism at its “source”, that is, the factory forgetting this fundamental Marxist thesis, and which we have always reaffirmed, that “before being a process of transformation, the proletarian revolution is, in its acute phase, a struggle for power between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, struggle that culminates in the constitution of a new form of State whose conditions are the existence of the proletarian Councils as political organs, and the supremacy of the communist party in these Councils”, and that this decisive historical passage presupposes for its realization a “centralized and collective action led by the Party on the political ground”, by “the Marxist party, strong and centralized, as Lenin says” (quotation from an article of “Il Soviet” of 1920). Reflecting an objective fragmentation of the workers’ movement, immediacy aggravated this fragmentation by theorizing it as a factor of strength whereas it was a factor of weakness.

It would be a mistake to believe that this current expressed only an exasperated revolt in the face of social-democratic treason during the war and, therefore, the post-war period: much more than a deviation, it was a current radically foreign to Marxism, a resurgence of an old disease of the workers movement whose affinities with anarchist anti-authoritarianism or with revolutionary anti-partyism and unionist antipolitism, as well as the fundamentally idealistic origins, and which had certain precedents in Germany (although less clear than in the workers movement of the “Latin” countries) since it dated back to well before the World War.

To get out of the impasse of an organization that is not an… organization, and a class struggle that is not… political, the anti-partyism and anti-authoritarianism of these currents should however lead to diverse and contradictory solutions or rely on one party or another (although always from the outside), or else deny the original function of an economic and mass organization, by claiming that the new Unionen or the factory councils are born on the basis not of the adhesion of the employees as employees, but of the proletarians “who accept the dictatorship of the proletariat and the system of the Soviets”, and thus by making them elite workers’ associations….. The KPD could be weak and legalistic, but the theoretical theses defended by its centre and fought by the dissidents were precisely – for us as for the International – “on the correct Marxist basis”.

The Birth of the KAPD (April 1920)

It was these same groups who, at the founding congress of the KAPD, launched the slogan “get out of the unions”. In the question of elections they had obtained victory, always in the name of the refusal of the dictatorship of the leaders, and they had insisted that the party have an organizational structure that leaves the greatest autonomy to the local sections. Throughout 1919, the Hamburg group had been the most active spokesman for this immediate and still unclearly defined situation. It was they who had launched the appeal of the eighteen delegates excluded from the Heidelberg Congress:

“All the organizations of the KPD which think that the proletarian dictatorship should be the dictatorship of the class and not the dictatorship of the party leadership, and which consider that the revolutionary mass actions should not be ordained from above by a secret line of leaders, but be proposed and prepared by the will of the masses, by means of the regrouping of the revolutionary proletarians in revolutionary mass organizations on the broadest democratic basis, are invited to relate… with the Hamburg section”.

It was also this same group that inspired the status of the “Allgemeine Arbeiter-Union Deutschlands” (AAVD), which we shall return to, and which was formed on 14 February 1920 in Hanover when it separated from the anarcho-syndicalist FAUD. This status stated:

“The AAUD organizes the employees for the final struggle against capitalism and for the establishment by force of the Republic of the Councils. It is to this end that it calls on the employees to unite on the ground of the revolutionary unitary organisation, to form a great Union”.

The AAUD rejected in principle “organizations that: 1) participate in the application of the Law on Factory Councils (law that legally recognized Factory Councils and inserted them into the new structure of the republican state); 2) refuse the dictatorship of the proletariat 3) do not recognize as organizational basis the organization by enterprises”.

While the Hamburg group, from the end of 1919, developed the theory which would later be called “national-bolshevism”, and lost, for this reason among others, the pre-eminent role it had played at the founding of the AAUD and in the months that followed, the organization of Dresden and East Saxony carried to its ultimate consequences its anti-authoritarianism and its anti-partyism of principle. At the KAPD founding congress in April 1920, Otto Rühle, who was not excluded until November 1920, stated that:

“The party as an organizational structure is linked, in the justification of its historical existence, to the postulate of bourgeois parliamentarism, which in the era of revolution we reject in principle. If democracy is the classic form of bourgeois domination, the party is the classic form of affirmation and representation of bourgeois interests”.

The policy of any party therefore necessarily leads “to opportunism and the corresponding tactical methods (negotiations, compromises, reforms), which we reject in principle”. In 1921, he declared “a bourgeois-capitalist class state, parliament and party are one and the same thing; they are born and develop together. They condition each other; they function only in relation to each other”.

It was no longer just a question of “destroying the trade unions” which, like the party, would have been the product of the bourgeois regime, and counter-revolutionary by nature, because they were founded on centralism. It was indeed a question of “destroying the political parties, these fundamental obstacles to the unification of the proletarian class and to the development of the social revolution, which cannot be the task either of the parties or of the trade unions”, to replace them by “the regrouping of the revolutionary proletariat in the enterprises, which are the original cells of production, and the foundation of the future society”. To this end the AAU (E), Allgemeine Arbeiter-Union (Einheitsorganisation), the splinter trade union founded by the Dresden group after its exit from the KAPD, was to work.

The anti-Marxism of Pannekoek and Gorter

We have just recalled the extreme positions, the most aberrant, in the sense of revolutionary syndicalism and even anarchism. But the intermediate position of the Bremen and Berlin-Brandenburg groups, and their theorists Anton Pannekoek and Herman Gorter, the idols of the so-called “left” groups of today, is no better, even if it is more subtle and is draped in a very formal “Marxist” obedience. It is necessary to stop there, because it is precisely and especially in relation to it that our Fraction, like the International, had to stand out – which obviously does not prevent fashionable historians from assimilating us to it, or, in the best of cases, to make it derive from the same strain as us…

Unlike the Hamburg group and especially the Saxony group, the “left-wing communists” in Bremen and Berlin had not recognised their exclusion from the party as irrevocable; they had even proposed amendments to its theses which would have allowed them to remain within the organisation.

However, the 3rd KPD congress, by fully confirming the programme voted in Heidelberg at the 2nd congress, had sanctioned the exclusion of the dissidents, and for them too, the conduct of the Spartakists during the “epic” of Kapp had then prohibited any rapprochement. The “Communists of the Left”, as they say, did not, however, conclude categorically that any party, precisely as a party, embodies the principle of evil, nor that this principle had taken up residence in Moscow, as O. Rühle and D. Pfemfert will soon decree in Dresden. It was the Berlin section, immediately after the March events, which convened representatives of all the “communist opposition” currents in the capital on 4 and 5 April. It was then that a new party was born, the Kommunistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands (KAPD). Its strongest bastions, numerically, were in Berlin and in Rhineland-Westphalia, the AAU, more or less reformed, served as its trade union appendix, and it possessed the first nuclei of a “combat organization” (to the ephemeral truth) which constituted its military network in factories. It is probable – an impression also confirmed by an article in the “Soviet” – that in the first half of its existence and perhaps still at the beginning of 1921, the KAPD attracted a considerable number of proletarians among the most combative and undoubtedly the most sensitive to the mood of the great masses. They were perhaps attracted less by the specific characteristics of the KAPD programme than by disgust for the tendency towards legalism and the eternal hesitations of the official party. Similarly, it is equally likely that the AAU dependent on the KAPD gathered the workers who revolted against the archconformist directives of the great reformist central. These two factors explain both the efforts of the Communist International, until the Third Congress (to be held the following year), to reach out to the KAPD, and the determined and unconditional opposition of the KPD to any prospect, even remote, of reunification.

Beyond the tactical differences over the parliamentary question and the trade union question, it was clear both to the Bolsheviks and to us – especially when the positions of the former dissidents were theorized by Pannekoek and Gorter – that what separated us from all the opposition currents that had converged in the KAPD were fundamental questions of principle. These differences of principle had not prevented the “internationalist (later communist) socialists” of Hamburg and Bremen from joining the Left of Zimmerwald and Kienthal during the war and from waging a parallel struggle against Kautskyism with Lenin, but in the face of the realities of proletarian dictatorship, they could not avoid being rejected on the other side of the barricade. Knowing little but their tactical conceptions, our Abstentionist Fraction noticed that the dissidents of the KPD sinned by “trade unionist heterodoxy”, on the one hand in that they devalued the role of the party and affirmed the supremacy of economic struggle over political struggle, on the other hand in that they shared the “anarchist – petty-bourgeois conception according to which the new economy would be the result of the appearance of enterprises directly administered by the workers who work there”. But in reality the divergence concerned the whole theoretical background of the KAPD. Its members belonged to an ideological family radically idealistic, and that only the adoption of some rules of interpretation of the capitalist mode of production and the structure of the bourgeois society could make appear Marxist: the same family that produced anarchism, syndicalism-revolutionary, corporate socialism, councilism, Ordinovism, all the ingredients of which can be found, although at different doses, in their ideology. It is this idealism which, in spite of their initial disagreements, would in the long run lead all these smiling people to settle on the same front, that of the negation of Marxism (later, they would prefer to say “Bolshevism”, as if they were different and even opposed currents!). It was on the same front, against them, that we sided with the Bolsheviks, although both of us recognized that instinctively communist proletarians were militating in their ranks, more through the “fault” of the KPD than through the “merits” of the KAPD, and although we had a different opinion than Moscow on how to win them back for our cause.

For Marxism, the revolutionary process appears essentially as the material and physical clash of two classes; the oppressed class is pushed into the territory of the assault on power of the enemy class by material determinations; it acts without knowing (and before knowing) the final goal towards which it is going, and it meets on this path the party – that is, the program, or the “consciousness”, of the final goal and the obligatory steps to reach it, and the necessarily minority organization of the communist vanguard crystallized around this program. On the contrary, for Pannekoek as for Gorter (maybe even more obviously), the revolutionary process appears as the collective consciousness of the exploited of the revolutionary way and purpose, the awareness that is the “precondition” of their revolutionary action. What still appeared as a deviation from correct Marxist doctrine in the Spartakists in January 1919 becomes here the pure and simple overthrow of Marxism. As Gorter wrote in 1909, the new society can only be the product of a new, self-conscious and self-acting man: “We must revolutionize the mind!”. As Pannekoek on 1920 would say, for revolution to take place, “it is necessary that the proletariat, the immense masses, clearly discern the way and the goal”.

If opportunism has seized the majority of the working class, it is not for reasons whose material roots Marxists must seek, but because this process of spiritual (or intellectual) emancipation could not reach its end. And it is precisely “because the masses are still entirely subjected to a bourgeois way of thinking that after the collapse of bourgeois domination (one will notice that, exaggerating up to the absurdity of Rosa Luxemburg’s formula quoted above, the October 1918 movements in Germany are made a real political revolution having brought about the overthrow of the bourgeoisie!) they restored it with their own hands”[2]. Not only must the conquest by the masses of self-awareness or self-activation (or self-motivation, or self-affirmation in practical life – various translations from German, Selbstbetätigung) precede the revolution or at least, at its peak, coincide with it; It must also be a self-conquest, an acquisition that the class makes by its own forces, a “leap of quality” accomplished by the subject-class as a whole. Otherwise, one would fall back into the dichotomy of the chief masses, the great scandalous subject of the Dutch tribunists and thus of the German kaapedists, the “true” reason (according to them) for which the proletariat capitulated to the outbreak of the war, renouncing its historical initiative of acting and conscious subject to entrust it to the “leaders”, to the Führer, thus promoted from instruments of history to the rank of craftsmen of history. If, therefore, the existence of the party still has a meaning for Pannekoek, it is only that of “propagating clear knowledge in advance, so that among the masses appear elements capable, in the great moments of world politics, of knowing what to do and of judging the situation for themselves”[3]. The party’s only task is to advise, educate, enlighten the masses, or rather to help them become aware of themselves, to rediscover this science that is Marxism.

It is no longer this fighting organ that guides the masses, it is no longer this weapon of unification of the proletarian instinctive revolt that leads a real movement of which the party, as a collectivity, has the notion, and never, it exercises the power in the name of the masses. These purported “Marxists” had not understood and will never understand that the class can only reach the consciousness of the real movement after having acted, destroying the apparatus of its economic and social exploitation, that is to say after having emancipated itself also from an intellectual slavery which, in any case, will be the last of its chains to be broken.

One can then understand why the authentic expression of the revolutionary assault and, even more, of the realization of socialism, is represented for the Kaapedists by the councils, the Räte or, at a higher level, the Soviets, as forms of revolutionary organization in itself, even when one admits – extreme concession – that they are flanked by the Party as “expert” and “advisor”: is that the welding between the masses and their self-consciousness-activation is complete and “transparent”. These forms are revolutionary in themselves because they “allow workers to decide for themselves on everything that concerns them”.

For the same reason, Pannekoek considers the dictatorship of the proletariat as conceived by the Bolsheviks as the arbitrary dictatorship of a “narrow revolutionary minority”, or rather its “center”: “a dictatorship exercised within the party itself, from which it expels who it sees fit and excludes any opposition by petty means”; in short, as a new form of blanquism, as a resurrection of the spectre of the Führerschaft (authority of the leaders) which tramples underfoot its defenceless subjects. He contrasts this with the idea of a party, or rather a sect of enlightened people who “is a hundred miles from having the goal of any political party…: to take direct control of the state machine”[4].

Thus, it is the antithesis between masses and leaders that replaces the antagonism between the classes. If Pannekoek and Gorter reject parliament, it is not because it is the specific organ of class domination of the bourgeoisie, but because it is “the typical form of struggle through leaders in which the masses have only a subordinate role”[5]. Thus “communism, instead of understanding the whole class, becomes a new party, with its own leaders, which adds to the existing parties, thus perpetuating the political division of the proletariat”; its destruction is therefore “an essential step on the road to autonomy and self-determination”. Similarly, as far as the trade unions are concerned, “it is their form of organization itself which prohibits making it an instrument for proletarian revolution”, it is this form which “reduces the masses to impotence” and which “prohibits them from making it an instrument of their will”[6]; In the factory organizations, on the contrary, Gorter explains that “the workers have in their power the leaders and thus the political line […] every worker has a power […] insofar as the thing is possible on capitalist regime, he is even the artisan and the master of his destiny; and, since this is valid for all, it is the mass which triggers and directs the struggle”.

We will notice that neither Pannekoek nor Gorter deny that the “Bolshevik” idea (in other words the Marxist idea, our idea) of the party has a justification. But, for them, it corresponds to the historical situation of Russia, engaged in a double revolution, half proletarian, half bourgeois: either that the inert mass of the peasantry needs to be directed (hence the need for a “new blanquism”), or that the joint existence of two different revolutionary pushes makes necessary the art of maneuvering, the privilege of the “leaders”. This idea of the party would not be applicable on the other hand in the West, where “the proletariat is alone and must make revolution alone against all the other classes”, where “it must possess the best weapons for revolution”, and where, “having to make revolution alone and without any help, it must rise spiritually and intellectually to a great height, getting rid of the leaders, political parties in the current sense of the term, trade unions and, for the same reason, parliamentary institutions. Spread among the ranks of the proletariat, the communists “strive above all to raise the masses, as a unity and as a sum of individuals, to a much higher degree of maturity; to educate the proletarians, one by one, to make them revolutionary fighters, showing them clearly (not only by theory but especially by practice) that everything depends on their own forces, that they must expect nothing from the external help of the other classes, and very little from the leaders”. We will notice that, while courting the masses, Pannekoek reduces them to being only a herd of unconscious that we must educate to… no longer need any educator! Hence the famous opposition, which Lenin makes fun of in the Infantile Disorder:

“Two communist parties are now present: one is the party of leaders, which intends to organize the revolutionary struggle and lead it from above […]; the other is the party of the masses, which awaits the rise of the revolutionary struggle from below […]. This is the dictatorship of the leaders; this is the dictatorship of the masses! This is our watchword”.

It is from this ideology, whose homogeneity is not diminished by insignificant personal nuances, that the “call” and the “program” approved at the KAPD constitutive congress are inspired. The appeal takes note of the “political and moral bankruptcy” of the KPD which has become the prey of a “clique of leaders acting by all means of corruption” and determined to “sabotage the revolution in the interest of their selfish goals”. It states that the new party is not a party in the traditional sense (“To express in all circumstances the autonomy of all the members, such is the fundamental principle of a party which is not a party in the traditional sense”. It must be said that we return here on the one hand to Bakunin, on the other hand to Proudhon, in short to the old polemic against “authority”, the “General Council”, the “dictatorship of Marx”, etc.).

“It is not a party of leaders; its main [nota bene!] work will consist in supporting with all its forces the German proletariat in its struggle to free itself from any dependence on the leaders”, – the most effective means for this unification of the proletariat in the spirit of councilism, which is the “true goal of revolution”. As for the program, it redraws the history of class struggles in the world since the end of the war and, denouncing the deadly crisis in which capitalism is struggling, it sees the cause of the delay of the subjective factors of the revolutionary crisis on the objective factors in the fact that “the psychology of the German proletariat is still under the influence of bourgeois or petty-bourgeois ideological factors”. That is why “the problem of the revolution is the problem of the development of the self-consciousness of the German proletariat”. Declaring war on opportunist methods of struggle, on parliament and on the trade unions (“only the destruction of the trade unions will give free rein to the march forward of the revolution”), the programme puts at the centre of revolutionary action “the factory organization”, where “the mass is the driving force of production”, where “the intellectual struggle, the revolution of consciences is accomplished, in an incessant confrontation from man to man, from mass to mass”, and which has as its essential task, among others, “the preparation for the construction of the communist society”, of which it is “the beginning”. To this organization, “backbone of the factory councils”, can belong “all the workers who declare themselves for the dictatorship of the proletariat”; the KAPD will make its propaganda there by “deciding with it the watchwords” and by organizing itself so that “the party too takes more and more a proletarian character… and obeys the criteria of the dictatorship from below”. One would thus allow – “and the factory organization is the guarantee of it – that with victory, that is with the conquest of power by the proletariat, the dictatorship of the class begins, and not the dictatorship of some party leaders and their clique”. Needless to add that “the form of political organization of the communist community will be the system of councils”; the kaapedists here fall into the error where had fallen, in good or bad faith, no matter, the Independents; that is, they assume that the “communist society” will have a particular form of political organization, moreover modelled on a “type of organization” born of the class struggle in the middle of the bourgeois regime.

From this rapid analysis of the “Kaapedist” ideology, it follows – and we have been saying so since then – that it is, on the level of theory and principles as well as on the level of tactics, at odds with the position constantly defended by the Italian abstentionist communists and condensed in the Theses of the Fraction of June 1920, as well as in the series on the constitution of the Soviets in Italy in controversy with the “Ordine Nuovo” and in other articles of the same period. There is no point of contact between these two positions, not even on the issue of abstentionism. For Gorter and Pannekoek, this has the value of a principle, as for the anarchists, and in the same way as the negation of “authority” for the latter. For us, on the contrary, abstentionism is a tactical solution in relation to a given phase of capitalism and proletarian struggle, and not a solution valid always and everywhere in the absolute. Even today, when, after a bitter historical assessment, we have the right to consider this question not as a “secondary” question, but as a primordial question of communist tactics in the areas of advanced capitalism, we would not have the absurd idea of asserting the same thing for the countries that are barely accomplishing their “bourgeois revolution” and where parliament, because of the world evolution in a totalitarian sense, is probably an even more secondary arena than the Bolsheviks considered it at the time, but still remains one of the battlefields where the different classes clash. And then the KAPD and its theorists put the “parliamentary question” and the “trade union question” in the same bag: that is to say that they put on the same level on the one hand an institution like the parliament, which constitutionally is a State institution and which is at the same time the expression of the domination of the exploiting class and – as its ideology wants it – the representation, dummy, whatever, of several classes, and on the other hand a form of association, the workers’ union, which can well be absorbed by the bourgeois State apparatus (and which is moreover more and more absorbed), but which gathers only workers, which necessarily reflects the push of economic determinations, root of the political struggle, and which when it is conquered (or reconquered) by the party, constitutes for it a necessary field of action, of propaganda and especially of agitation in the ranks of the working class which, in one way or another, is organized by the trade union (even by a Tzarist spy, Lenin would have said).

The KAPD and Us

The error of the kaapedists and tribunists is thus twofold, as noted by “Il Soviet” of 11 January and 23 May 1920: 1) claim to build revolutionary forms of economic organization in itself, while each of these forms “acts in a revolutionary way under the bourgeois regime insofar as it is impregnated with the communist spirit and acts according to communist directives, under the push and control of the communists”; 2) forget that the trade unions – whether they are existing trade unions but reconquered to their class function, or whether they are new organs made necessary because the proletarians have “abandoned” a “rotten organ” to itself – will in any case be “useful and effective organs in the communist regime, and not only by their constitutional form”; in other words, that the trade unions are organs which should not be destroyed like the bourgeois parliaments, but put at the service of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The International’s severe criticism of the party born of the Spartakusbund is not enough to amalgamate us with the KAPD. In its “open letter” of June 2, 1920, the Executive of the CI addressed the “comrades of the Communist Workers Party of Germany” and tried to convince them of their mistakes in the central question of the Party and its role in the proletarian revolution, in the vital question of belonging to reactionary trade unions including the vast majority of workers, and in their “theoretical” motivation of abstentionism. It also invited them to repudiate “national-bolshevism” as anarchism and envisaged a reunification of the two parties under the aegis of the Komintern if the decisions of the 2nd Congress were accepted. This letter, parallel in everything and for everything to our own critical analyses of always, is no less severe in its condemnation of the hesitations and deviations of the KAPD than we ourselves had been.

The parallelism established by some “historians” between us and the tribunist-advisers on the basis of the “common” distinction between dual revolution and “pure” proletarian revolution does not make sense either. Above all, this distinction can also be found with us and with Lenin. It is Lenin himself who affirms (the sentence is taken from the 1918 “Report on War and Peace”, but it returns, in a significant way, in “infantile disorder”) that it is “infinitely more difficult to begin the revolution in Europe and infinitely easier to begin it in Russia”, even if, in Russia, it is “more difficult to continue it and to bring it to an end”. Secondly, from this common distinction, we drew the conclusion that in Europe the sword wielded by the Bolsheviks had to be made even sharper in a dual revolution, and we demanded the direction of the struggle for power and the exercise of the dictatorship of the proletariat by the Communist party alone, and not an ” amorphous parliament of labour “, (i.e. by the Soviets without the party’s leadership, not “spiritual”, but material).

The crushing weight of democratic traditions, the deep roots of opportunism materially rooted in a broad fringe of labour aristocracy and in a set of social advantages, even precarious, the existence of “bourgeois workers parties” or even “workers imperialism” (as Lenin and Trotsky put it), demanded that the Bolshevik experience of the liquidation of any political alliance of the communist party with other parties or groups, and of the abandonment of tactics such as revolutionary parliamentarism even in a non-revolutionary period, be pushed to its ultimate consequences. Gorter and Pannekoek, on the contrary, drew the opposite conclusion: the need to liquidate the party in favour of a wave of “workers democracy”. Finally, Lenin was a thousand times right to reproach the “Linkskommunisten” for their absurd conception of the “pure” proletarian revolution instead of taking “a precise and rigorously objective account of all the class forces of the state in question”, the tribune-councilists allowed themselves of the “purity” of this revolution to “ignore” in a simplistic (and infantile) way both the contribution and the layers, even restricted, nonproletarian half classes can provide the revolution, as the need to neutralize other layers (especially in the countryside) and they put them in the same bag as the henchmen of counterrevolution, which we never did. In the years 1921 and following, Gorter, and with him a good part of the KAPD (the “current of Essen”, will go so far as to deny the struggle and the use of strikes… except for the assault on power: the revolution or nothing! which means: the revolution never! at the same time, on the contrary, the Left at the head of the Communist Party of Italy born of the Congress of Livorno, led an impetuous and brilliant trade-union action in the cities and in the countryside.

There is no “Western Marxism” as opposed to ” Leninist Marxism ” or “Eastern Marxism”. There is a Marxism which united the Bolsheviks and us on the same line of doctrine and principles, and a paramarxism, or rather an extra-Marxism which united the KAPD and for example the Ordine Nuovo, and which today inspires all spontaneous, working class, anti-party groups. Perhaps in 1920 we and the Bolsheviks did not see quite clearly that this was the matrix of these currents or parties, and that the principled opposition of Marxism with them was much clearer and deeper than any more conspicuous tactical divergence; but today those who have the courage to swallow each other’s indigestible doctrinal production can see it very clearly; Lenin’s violent reaction in The Infantile Disorder is nevertheless explained – and it is sacred – by the instinctive theoretical repugnance of the Marxist race before this idealistic infection, which was less an “infantile disorder” than a real gangrene. Let us go further: It is to be regretted that Lenin (who apologizes for knowing us too little) put us in the same bag as these individuals, whereas precisely we had fought and we fought fiercely against their family of origin, just as before 1914 we had fought that of the anarcho-syndicalists or the culturalists and in 1919-20, that of the ordinovists; but we can understand historically why the great Marxist, sniffing under certain “tactical” theorizations the eternal ideological enemy, had castigated extremism even at the risk – as he would say a year later – of passing to the ” far right “; why he could suspect in us, because of our apparent affinities with it, the true or potential ” anarchist “. Among the bad services rendered to the movement by the immediate KAPD style, one of the black beasts attacked by Lenin in his pamphlet, one of the worst is that of having obscured the terms of a polemic that should have taken place only between Marxists and on the sole ground where Marxists can agree to stand, and which should have led the international communist movement on the one hand to condemn, as it should have, this abstentionism (or, better, this tactical nihilism), and its theoretical matrix; on the other hand to affirm not only a body of imperative doctrine (as we would have liked the 2nd Congress to have done) but a set of tactical norms more rigorous than those suggested by the Bolsheviks, but by no means unrealistic, to be imposed on the national sections as obligatory.

The Trade Union Organisations

In the previous chapters, we tried to follow the political evolution of the KPD until the middle of 1920 on the one hand, and on the other, the so-called left-wing currents that converged more or less persistently in the KPD. We reserve the right to deal with the later history of these two organisations in another study, but we now wish to complete this study by drawing a picture of the trade union organisations which flourished alongside the large reformist centre reconstituted in July 1919 under the name of A.D.G.B. (AIlgemeiner Deutscher Gewerkchafts-Bund) and in opposition to it.

This picture is not easy, because the splinter organizations have been countless and their development has been uneven. Their birth is only partially attributable to the influence of defined political currents and during their existence they have been influenced by various successive groups before stabilising in a given form.

The influx of proletarians into their ranks does not express so much a conscious adherence to given programmatic platforms, since these have been continually modified, but rather the disgust than the at the very least conciliatory politics of the powerful A.D.G.B. This was inspiring the combative workers and their confused tendency to trust the trade union organisation rather than the political party for the struggle, or to prefer the factory councils to the union, considered closer to them and their interests and less susceptible to “bureaucratisation”.

Moreover, we must not forget the weight of the localist and decentralized tradition of the German workers movement, which the various political dissidents partly reflected, partly aggravated by theorizing it, that is, by presenting it as the perfect model of any authentically revolutionary action and organization. Finally, it must be taken into account that the dispersion and fragmentation of the movement was further aggravated by the fierce blows of the counterrevolution led by the Social Democrats, since in almost all German Länder, after each major strike, the most active organizers were arrested, and dissolved the newly born trade unions of this category, but which had already distinguished themselves particularly in mass struggles and street fighting.

The characteristics common to all trade or factory organizations born in opposition to reformist trade unions are the federalist structure, the open or veiled refusal of any hierarchical organization, the horror of the “leaders” considered as the embodiment of Evil and the tendency either to refuse political action (identified with parliamentary action), or to assimilate it to industrial action.

Idealising the general strike, they all considered it as the decisive weapon of class struggle, independently or rather excluding the armed insurrection. Finally, it was the trade unions (or factory councils) that they assigned the task of managing the economy, whereas for Marxism, this was the specific task of the party after taking power. Moreover, unlike the American IWW, these new economic associations did not even supervise the great mass of labourers, occasional or immigrant workers, usually excluded from the official confederations reserved for the ” labour aristocracy “, i.e. the most qualified and best paid workers. They therefore did not fulfil a legitimate demand, but a capital requirement of the class struggle, since they tended on the contrary to constitute closed organizations, elite organizations regrouping the proletarians not as employees, but as militants willing to fight for goals more or less clearly indicated in their programs. By the same token, they implicitly renounced their original claims to “apolitism” and placed themselves on the political front of “workers democracy” or “direct”, and other fariboles common to varying degrees to revolutionary syndicalism, anarchism and “councilism”. They thus ended up becoming trade union appendices of these various political movements, appendices obviously quite in the minority compared to the gigantic reformist trade union.

We will study these organizations, grouping them under two headings corresponding roughly to their more or less declared ideology.

Anarcho-syndicalist organization

Although it did not have as long and important a tradition in Germany as in Latin countries, “revolutionary trade unionism” had succeeded in maintaining a certain continuity and a certain clandestine organisation there, even during the war, and it was there, towards the end of December 1918, that it constituted the first foreign trade union confederation to the new A.D.G.B. the Freie Vereinigung deutscher Gewerkschaften. (Free Union of German Trade Unions).

The trade unionist inspiration of this new organisation, which remained ephemeral, clearly appears in the “appeal” launched on 14 December. Its aim is “the abolition of wage labour, the expropriation of land, factories and the means of production of the great capitalists, and the establishment of socialist-communist production”, it pushes back not only reforms, but demands for wage increases within the framework of the bourgeois regime, it opposes direct action to parliamentary and minimalist action; it indicates, as specific means of the struggle for the “establishment of socialism”, the general and solidarity strike, the boycott and sabotage of capitalist production; it proposes to overcome the old separation between economic and political organisations, bringing them together in a single political-economic association; it entrusts the management of the “socialist production” of the future to trade unionists-revolutionaries. In the current phase, it suggests to its members to “work in concert” with “the most leftist groups of the workers movement, i.e. the Independents and the Spartakists”, and it does not reject the notion of dictatorship of the proletariat, provided that this is exercised not by a party, but by those “parliaments of the working class that are the workers councils”. It is therefore not surprising that the Communist Party of Germany, born in the burning atmosphere of the last months of 1918, among the cries of “Out of the traditional trade unions! and “All power to the Councils!”, collaborated closely with this first splinterist organisation until mid-1919, before the Heidelberg Congress, while trying to politically influence its best elements and highlight the serious theoretical flaws of revolutionary trade unionism.

Things changed with the victory of the anarchists over the pure trade unionists. Hard hit during the great struggles of 1919, the first splinterist trade union association reorganized in December of the same year under the name of F.A.U.D. (Freie Arbeiter – Union Deutschlands, Free Trade Union of Germany). It retained its designation “trade unionist”, but its “declaration of principles” reflected a mixture of trade unionism and anarchism: refusal of the political party in general and of the dictatorship of the proletariat led by the party in particular; no link, therefore, with the existing workers’ parties, even “left-wing” assignment of the tasks of economic construction of socialism to the trade unions which are thus “not ephemeral products of capitalist society, but the seeds of future socialist economic organizations”, and must now prefigure in the federalist structure of the free local workers’ associations the characteristics of the future social community (“organization of the factories by the factory councils; In short, “reorganization of all social life on the basis of free communism, that is, without a state”); assertion that “socialism is, in the final analysis, a question of culture, which can therefore only be resolved from the bottom up, by the creative activity of the people”; rejection of organized violence which denies precisely this free creative activity. All the rest was at the same time, constituting a mixture of individualism and culturalism pushed to the extreme on the one hand, and on the other hand of trade unionism and attenuated unionism, with all the contradictions proper to these currents that Marxism denounced a hundred times as petty-bourgeois, idealistic and congenitally democratic.

Organisations linked to so-called “Left-Wing Communism”

As noted above, the boundary between German syndicalism (or even anarchism) and so-called “left-wing communism” (Linkskommunismus) has always been very blurred. As far as the adherence of many “grassroots” militants is concerned, we can speak of a pure and simple “growth disease of communism”, to use Lenin’s expression; but as far as theorists and their programmatic declarations are concerned, we must speak of amarxism and extra-Marxism.

The horror of power, of the state, of the party, of the leaders, of centralization, is, indeed, a heritage common to both currents, and it is a heritage that has nothing to do with dialectical materialism, that is, with Marxism. On the other hand, just as on the strictly political level the so-called German “left-wing communism” never had coherent principles and a program and broke down into local currents, temporarily united by their common aversion to the fundamental Marxist theses on the role of the party in the proletarian revolution, by their fundamentally anarchistic antipartyism and by their aversion to traditional trade unions, similarly at trade union level, the heterogeneity of theoretical conceptions – which varied from the Bremen group to the Berlin group, or from the Hamburg group to the Dresden group – resulted in a different way of conceiving the economic associations born more or less on the initiative or with the contribution of the “left-wing communists”.

Thus, in the statute of the Allgemeine Arbeiterunion (A.A.U., general union of workers), drafted in August 1919 in Essen and which was to serve as a basis for the reconstitution of the trade unions hard hit by the repression, particularly among minors, one can notice the influence as well of American unionism (the “Big Union”, both political and economic organization) as of German councilism still partly endorsed by the K.P.D. “The victory of socialism and communism – it states – can only be achieved by the union of the workers in a unitary organization of struggle”. Its objective is “to prepare and, at the time of the social revolution, to achieve the transition from the capitalist mode of production to the socialist mode”, the first stage of which will be “the introduction of the system of councils” which will become “the economic organization of the new society”. The basis of the Union is therefore the factory; its delegates are the first link in an elastic organizational structure that leads to the Central Committee. The latter “must remain in permanent contact with all existing revolutionary organizations, aiming to unite them on the basis of the pure system of councils”.

In February 1920 in Hanover, at the first national conference of what is now called A.A.U.D. (Allgemeine Arbeiterunion Deutschlands), the general line of the Hamburg group still wins. The constitutive theses reflect the ideas of American unionism, proclaiming that it is a question of “organizing the workers for the final struggle against capitalism and for the establishment of the Republic of Councils” and inviting them to “constitute one great union”. One can adhere to it on condition that one accepts a program that differs from that of both reformist organizations and trade unionist or anarcho-syndicalist organizations. Indeed, one “may not belong to the A.A.U.D. organizations that 1) participate in the application of the law on factory councils [law that inserted them into the Weimar constitution and made it one of the administrative machinery of the German Republic] 2) reject the dictatorship of the proletariat 3) do not recognize factory organization as an organizational basis”. On the one hand, the organization of industry is being pushed back and replaced by an organization based on the factory at the initial stage; on the other hand, there is no longer any talk of possible agreements with “revolutionary” political parties: The new organization is, indeed, by itself, a mixture of trade union and political party, or rather, it is a substitute for the party whose role in the proletarian revolution and especially in the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is totally ignored. The bridges are therefore cut not only with reformist or trade unionist economic organisations, but also with the KPD and with every party, even “labour”.

Within a few months, however, and in parallel with the formation of the K.A.P.D., the new organization was filled with a new programmatic content, largely reflecting the ideas of Pannekoek and especially Gorter; the head office is transferred to Berlin; and the A.A.U.D. while reaffirming its general anti-party positions, is posed in collateral economic organization of the German Workers Communist Party, their relationship being as contradictory as ill-defined, and therefore big new divisions. The “directives” (Richtlinien) of the new organization reproduce the characteristic positions of the workerist immediatism of Pannekoek – Gorter: “The formation of political parties is linked to parliamentarism: this is why the parties [all parties!] have the character of a capitalist organization; they are constituted on the basis of the principle: leaders and mass; leaders above the masses… The leaders command, the masses obey… The leader is the employer (!!!), the party is his property”; As for the trade unions, they “are a bureaucratic organisation born from the world of the private economy, to which its leaders are attached as permanent civil servants”.

Parties and trade unions are opposed to “the organization of councils, which is born of the revolutionary process and embodies class consciousness, social consciousness, consciousness of solidarity “; As the “mortal enemy of all bureaucratism”, it is the expression on the one hand of the “growing liberation[of the proletariat] from the chains of capitalism and especially from the bourgeois intellectual world”, and on the other hand of the “growing development of the proletariat’s self-awareness; of the will to translate into actions the proletarian class consciousness, to give it a visible expression”. On this basis the new economic organisations must be born which, united in the A.A.U.D. “are neither a political party nor a trade union”, but express the tendency of the proletariat “to consciously organize for the complete overthrow of the old society” and “to unite as a class”.

The A.A.U.D. rejects centralism “which enslaves and disciplines the masses for the benefit of a few” and which is “the devil to be destroyed”. It also rejects its twin brother, federalism. On the other hand, it wants (understands who can!) “the closest union of the workers for the overcoming of capital, a union which is only achieved through the “continuous development of the system of councils” because in this system, “with its control from below, with its unleashing of all proletarian capacities and energies, with its link between the leaders and the masses, all contradictions are resolved…, first on the intellectual level, then, in the social community, also on the economic level”. The antithesis of the leaders and masses is outdated here (on paper, alas!) because “the mass is no longer a shapeless aggregate of selfish confused, but the proletariat in the sense that, endowed with a class consciousness, it becomes indissolubly united in thought and in social will” and that, on the other hand, “the leader becomes a member of the conscious mass, united to it by close links” and constantly animated and controlled by it. Finally, the realization of the dictatorship of the proletariat presupposes “the exclusive self-determination of the will of the proletarians, above all the political and economic institutions of society, through the organization of councils”. But all that doesn’t stop the A.A.U.D. to collaborate with… the K.A.P.D.!

In the programme voted at the Leipzig conference in December 1920, these same ideas are expressed in a more synthetic way:

“1) The A.A.U.D. struggles for the union of the proletariat as a class.

2) Its goal is the classless society, the first step towards it being the dictatorship of the proletariat, that is, the exclusive self-determination of the will of the proletariat, above all the political and economic institutions of society, through the organization of councils.

3) The gradual affirmation of the idea of councils coincides with the growing development of the self-awareness of the working class. The real dictators are the council delegates, who must implement the council’s decisions and are revocable at any time. “Bosses” are admitted only as advisers.

4-8) The A.A.U.D. rejects any participation in parliament, because that would sabotage the idea of councils; any participation in legal factory councils, because they are a dangerous form of community of interest with employers; trade unionism, because it opposes the idea of councils”. But it stands with particular bitterness against the trade unions, considered “the main obstacle to the development of the revolution in Germany and to the unification of the proletariat as a class”.

9) … Without recognizing that the existence of political parties is justified, the A.A.U.D. does not fight against the political organization of the K.A.P.D., which has the same goal and the same method of struggle as it, and it strives to proceed in revolutionary struggle in agreement with it.

10) The task of the A.A.U.D. is the revolution in factories [!!] its specific mission is the political and economic education of the workers.

11) In the phase of the conquest of political power, the factory organization becomes a cog of the proletarian dictatorship, which is exercised in the factories by the factory councils that were constituted on its basis. The factory organisation struggles to ensure that political power is always exercised by the executive of the councils”.

However, as already noted above, the Otto Rühle group (Dresden) did not accept the intermediate position of the A.A.U.D. Not only did it detach itself from the K.A.P.D. in the second half of 1920, but it formed a “trade union” organization of its own, the AAU (E.), Allgemeine Arbeiterunion (Einheitsorganisation) which proposed “the destruction of trade unions and political parties, which are the main obstacles on the way to the unification of the proletarian class and the development of social revolution, which is the task neither of the parties nor of the trade unions”.

As for the other organizations which, although of anarcho-syndicalist origin, adhered for some time to the Red Trade Union International, we will speak about it when we study the following period of the tormented history of the German proletariat. This time we will be content to conclude that the certain combativeness of these splinterist organisations does not remove anything from their original flaw: on the one hand their programmatic, immediatist, workerist, localistic base, on the other hand the fact that while claiming to “unite”, “unify” the class, they are in reality isolating themselves from the great mass of workers. Based on smoky programmes of “direct democracy”, of “proletarian self-awareness”, of party negation (which, of course, means, as always, that they are affiliated to specific political currents, to clearly recognizable petty-bourgeois, idealistic and even individualistic ideologies), these elite organisations are reduced to oscillating between party negation, party replacement by ill-defined political-economic organisations and support to one party or another.

Reflecting the fragmentation of the German proletariat, they only made it worse. All of them eventually aligned themselves with openly democratic positions, or dissolved as the revolutionary thrust caused by the economic crisis lost its strength. A factor of confusion and dispersion, not of clarity and union between the exploited, they cannot even boast – unlike the IWW or shop stewards – to have been mass organizations open to all exploited across category divisions and political affiliation differences. They were therefore both an aspect and a factor of the tragedy of the proletariat in Central Europe, in particular in Germany and, beyond, of the world proletariat.

Source: «Le Prolétaire», Nr. 131, 132, 133, 135, 136, 137, 138, 140, July to December 1972.

[1] Radek recalls that Knieff had expressed his doubts about the possibility of merging with the Spartakists: “They are not Leninists; they are… for centralisation” – which is all the more astounding as the Spartakusbund had and claimed a constitutionally elastic structure and, compared to Bolshevik centralism, quasi-federalist. Radek’s amazement was only equalled by the one he had felt before Rosa Luxemburg’s rejection of terror on principle, who was outraged by the fact that an old comrade of struggle like Dzerzhinsky had accepted to lead… the Cheka!

[2] Pannekoek et les conseils ouvriers, p. 171.

[3] Pannekoek et les conseils ouvriers, p. 169.

[4] Pannekoek et les conseils ouvriers, p. 154.

[5] Pannekoek et les conseils ouvriers, p. 177.

[6] Pannekoek et les conseils ouvriers, p. 180.