The communist left in Germany 1918-1921 - Gilles Dauvé and Denis Authier

A analysis of the revolutionary movements in Europe at the end of World War I, their contradictions and limitations.

Submitted by David in Atlanta on July 31, 2009

First published in France in 1976, as 'La Gauche Communiste en Allemagne (1918-1921)'. English translation by M. DeSocio published in 2006. Taken from the Collective Action Notes website.


R. Spourgitis

11 years 9 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by R. Spourgitis on July 7, 2012

Hey, I went to the trouble of converting this to a bunch of pdfs, one for each chapter, for reading on my ereader. Wondering if this would be of use to anyone or if an admin would like these shared or used as attachments to this article?

klas batalo

11 years 9 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by klas batalo on July 8, 2012

it would certainly be of a use to me! :D that's awesome.


11 years 9 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Spassmaschine on July 8, 2012

Yeah, attach them for sure! Just edit the article and someone will approve it soon enough.


10 years 7 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by KHM on September 5, 2013

Attached an epub with working footnotes. It also includes the other texts.

Translator's note

Submitted by Spassmaschine on October 23, 2009

This revised edition of The Communist Left in Germany: 1918-1921 retains the first, historical part of the original volume unaltered, with the exception of a few added editorial notes which were suggested by Gilles Dauvé. The second part of the book, which contains texts of the German Left, has been substantially changed in order to provide selections which have not yet, to the best of my knowledge, become available in English translation. Pannekoek’s The Theory of the Collapse of Capitalism, has been replaced by several programmatic texts of the German Left and Pfempfert’s response to Lenin’s Left Wing Communism. . . In addition, Gilles Dauvé authorized the inclusion of an “Epilogue” which he wrote in 2004 and which gives the reader an idea of how his conceptions regarding the subject matter of this book have evolved since it was originally published in 1976.

M. DeSocio

September 5, 2006



Submitted by Spassmaschine on October 23, 2009

“It is not those who fell wrapped in the unfortunate flag of the defeated Revolution whom we consider to be fraudulent squanderers of the Revolution, but those who afterwards, from their desks of wisdom or from their podiums as mentors of the masses, were unable to derive from that sacrifice anything more than a few phrases of demagogic admiration, accompanied by a defeatist commentary.”

Bordiga: From the Commune to the IIIrd International, 1924

The fact that the Russian Revolution of 1917 was only one aspect and one of the effects of a much broader movement, whose center was Germany, is presently more readily admitted. This recognition places the Russian experience in context. It is no longer possible to conceive of the events in Europe during that era in Russian “Leninist” terms. One cannot deplore either the insufficient or the excessive impact of “Leninism” on the western proletariat, whose practice must be understood on its own terms. The Russian influence was real, but it was limited to the accentuation of a complex evolution which it had not created. Conversely, it must be shown to what degree this evolution affected domestic events in Russia. Writing an international history of the revolutionary movement which followed the war of 1914-18 means evaluating the contributions of the various countries and regions, which implies shifting the focus of attention towards the moment when polarization over the miraculous experiences of Russia was at its height. Such a procedure also implies the refusal to anchor a “period” with well-defined characteristics and to explain everything by reference to that “period” itself.

There is no “particular situation” with a unique meaning in the history of society. Given the “period”, or, more precisely, given all the elements which directed the revolutionary drama, the revolution failed and had to fail. It can be lamented, and we lament it, but it is of no use to evoke the Bolshevik-style party or any other deus ex machine for explaining the development of an unreal past. It would, however, be just as false, and would also misrepresent the period, to replace the consequences of the abstract absence of the “party” or any other factor with the false plenitude of “it could not have been otherwise”; this would have been tantamount to negating the possibility of revolution. It would be yet more false, obviously, to present everything as a function of a necessary failure. We are determinists, of course, but determinism is not a historical factor which can intervene “a posteriori” in the explanation of events.

Such a procedure would foist a meaning upon even the most radical actions which these actions did not in fact possess, and would interpret the various revolutionary attempts as simple convulsive motions of capital’s adaptation, as outcomes of economic crises.

The “lessons” of the German Revolution? A historical analysis of the revolutionary movement would be interested in, among other things, discovering the reasons for the failure of the previous attempts, but not in such a way as to derive from the latter a guarantee for future victory. We do not consider revolutions as simple “experiences”. We discover in them, beyond their time, men who live in community with today’s subversive tendency. And this discovery is consolidated by discovering that this tendency has always existed and has always occupied the front ranks of the historical stage on various occasions. It is not, then, a matter of learning simple “lessons” or of considering history as a school, but something quite different.

“We know only one science: history”, means that the other sciences, based upon “experience”, are not sciences at all. The transformation of Marxism carried out by its followers, starting at the end of the 19th century, which made Marxism into a “science”, reduced it to one of those pseudo-sciences which are not at all subversive of society, in order to accommodate to the latter and to seek nothing more than the reproduction of particular “reactions”; it was a question, for the orthodox Marxists, of socializing capital or, expressed differently, of subjecting it to real organization and regulation, to prevent some of its annoying effects, thanks to their Marxist “science” of economic reactions; but they did not speak of socialist production, or of socialist economics; they preserved the categories of political economy, such as value and all the rest, but forgot the only true science: human emancipation. The stance of the proletarian revolutionaries was identical with the confrontation with real history as it was unfolding. Some, like Gorter, felt quite profoundly that, with the unleashing of the world war, the bourgeoisie had dealt an almost irreparable blow to the proletariat; that the war meant, in the final analysis, the accession of capitalism to world domination (see Imperialism, the World War and Social Democracy, 1914); and from that moment (Autumn of 1914) he foresaw that a revolution, breaking out after the war as a result of misery, would face nothing but difficulties. Just like Marx who, viewing the general situation, had “counseled against” the insurrection of the Commune, saying that it was condemned to failure. Certain individuals in our camp thus possessed the elements necessary to predict failure. But this did not prevent Marx, Gorter and Pannekoek (who may very well have shared Gorter’s views) from participating in the movement from its very first moments; unlike Luxemburg, they did not apply the brakes (see below, for the increasingly negative role played by Luxemburg from the beginning of the war); they were present wherever the human community was being created, contributing their powers of classification and, while not holding back, not feeling the need to offer themselves as sacrificial victims to the holocaust, either.

If events are conceived in the light of their outcomes, all proletarian movements could be interpreted as phases of the social system’s self-adaptation. From this perspective, the proletariat has failed up to this point, because capital was not sufficiently developed and dominated neither the entire world nor life as a whole; today, however, the total rule exercised by capital will lead to a rebellion which will be just as total. This vision of a finally pure communist revolution to be unleashed against a capitalism which is the absolute lord and master of everything skips over the present and past contradictions of the movement of capital and the communist movement. Furthermore, in order to provide this total rebellion of pure negation with a certain coherence, an effort is made to discover some faraway movements (obviously despised and falsified by the official “communist” movement which only knew how to speak of the insufficiency of the productive forces) towards the end of discovering within them the “ne plus ultra” of the total revolution, in comparison with which the Commune, the Russian Revolution, the German Revolution, etc., would be mere child’s play. Peasant uprisings are sublimated, while the KAPD is reduced to a transitional step towards the real domination of capital.1 This dual movement, which on the one hand looks towards the past for truly radical movements, further back into the night of time, and on the other hand seeks to “demystify” more recent movements (this second aspect being a result of the first) only shows that it has “demystified” the most recent of all revolutionary movements: the future revolution, which is to say that it has renounced it.

It is not from the perspective of an unrealized ideal perfection, but, to the contrary, from that of the contradictions within which the revolutionary movement of 1917-21 developed, that this history is intended to be written. The German Revolution interests us precisely because it is the disturbance which, due to its extent and its social-economic background, most closely resembles the situations which we may be called upon to confront. The problems faced by the German revolutionaries remain, without having been solved in practice. Capital has today managed to perfect its new and specific forms of domination, forms which it had begun to experiment with in the First World War.

It is symptomatic that the “German Revolution” has long remained in oblivion. The revolutionary movement, both within and outside of Germany, has been incapable of assimilating its past, particularly the great disturbance and rupture which broke out in 1917. Until fifteen years ago, the only serious study in French was that of A. and D. Prudhommeaux, Spartacus et la Commune de Berlin 1918-19, published in 1949 in the journal Spartacus: this study remained relatively unknown for a dozen years until The Old Mole Bookstore began to carry the Spartacus journal. C. Meijer’s text, “Le mouvement des conseils en Allemagne”, reproduced by Internationalisme in 1945 and later distributed by Informations et Correspondances Ouvrières (who republished it as a supplement to No. 101 of ICO), had a rather limited distribution. These two collections were the work of old left communists. Taken as a whole, however, the groups which descended from left communism hardly bothered with the clarification of the period spanning 1917 to 1921, preferring instead to elaborate later conceptual developments: reflection upon their origins would have been equivalent to self-examination concerning the “ideologization” of their movement. Instead of studying the communist left they preferred to recite the opposition between “council communism” and “party communism”.

It is quite surprising that Socialisme ou Barbarie, over the course of its 40 issues (1949-65), did not publish even one study, however brief, on this theme.2 A whole series of obstacles prevented the comprehension of the phenomenon of the communist left. It is known how Stalinism (and Stalin himself) rejected “Luxemburgism” as an infantile disorder, worthy of sympathy but not very strong compared to its “Bolshevik” brother. Luxemburg, for her part, became for many people the symbol of the German Revolution and the best fruit of the movement in the West. The Luxemburg cult has survived not only because of the social democrats who remember nothing about her except her democratic side (Spartacus, Masses) but also because of the revolutionaries who were misinformed concerning the gap which existed between Luxemburg and the communist left. The use of the term “Spartacist” to designate the movement’s most radical current was based on the simplified version of events provided by the bourgeois counterrevolution. The use of this term has mystified the history of its time, much as the use of the words “Marxist” and “anarchist”, employed anachronistically, were used to describe positions which were incompatible with their original meanings. Retrospection falsifies perspective.3 Finally, the Italian communist left, linked to Leninism, by interpreting the German Left as a variety of anarchosyndicalism,4 has sowed much confusion, abetted by the remnants of the German Left who were no more capable of understanding their own past.

German historians offer little information about the revolutionary movement after 1918. The works of Badia (Histoire de l’Allemagne contemporaine (Ed. Sociales, Vol. 1, on Weimar)) and especially Le Spartakisme 1914-1919 (L’Arche, 1967), complemented by documents collected in Les Spartakistes (Juillard, 1966), are certainly useful. But the timeframe covered by Badia’s works on Spartacism begins in approximately August 1914 and ends immediately after the massacre of January 1919; neither the movement’s genesis before the war, nor its later evolution, is mentioned or explained. Considered only during the period of 1914-1918 and presented as the only radical current, Spartacism is completely falsified in Badia’s books. Badia always minimizes Luxemburg’s international dimension, while putting her on the highest plane in respect to Germany. Rather than a theoretician, he makes her a polemicist. His game has two facets: freezing the German Left under the heroic figure of “Rosa” and not taking her disagreements with Lenin seriously. Frölich’s5 and Nettl’s6 biographies of Luxemburg, in which one finds numerous important facts, unfortunately corroborate this tendency to privilege Spartacism. The greatest defect in Frölich’s book is his desire to reconcile Luxemburg and Lenin at any cost, and Nettl, despite solid documentation, conceals the second stage of her evolution.

These two works are nonetheless proof of the growing interest in the German events. Flechtheim’s volume on the German Communist Party7 , despite Weber’s final contribution which comprises a comparative study of the social bases of the SPD and the KPD, is, rather than a history of a social movement, the history of an organization. But even this book gives short shrift to the communist left. Flechtheim falls into one of the two traps which lie in wait for the academic faced with the temptation to write either a political history or history plain and simple. The former is centered on the institutional expressions of social movements, and results, in the worst cases, in considering everything in the light of the evolution of one or another political group. The latter, with its preoccupation to avoid dogmatism, accumulates facts without any organizing principle. In the case of the proletarian workers movements, on the pretext of avoiding a “totalitarian” conception of history, it privileges a putative spontaneity (preferably not too violent or else only violent in the past) over centralized action and organization. The first procedure frequently proclaims itself to be Marxist and in fact constitutes an institutional theory of class struggle. The second is careful to take no position in regard to theoretical communism, it has a pretense to being independent and joyfully proclaims itself—outrageously enough—to be in favor of the formula whereby Marx declared that he was not a Marxist. It ignores the movement’s center of gravity: the passage to communism, which is, however, essential; the proletariat can only be victorious by making that passage and organizing itself in accordance with that goal.

The Anglo-Saxon historians,8 who have often written about Germany, denounce “communist” totalitarianism, but reason like Stalinists, adopting the sub-leninist and bourgeois conception according to which the workers were only stirred up by the actions of “instigators”, that is, by the “party”. They attribute to the Communist International (CI) and its sections the leadership role which the latter believed in and aspired to perform. The social movement, according to these historians, only exists in the form of political structures. Its action is only real when it is contained within these structures: it cannot be known except by means of the dissemination of information from more or less recognized organizations (press, official declarations, congresses, meetings, emissaries, etc.). W. Angress, author of a documentary study of the period between 1921 and 19239 , focuses not on spontaneous movements, but “on the movement which is organized from without.” His book assiduously follows the KPD and the CI, and briefly Max Hölz, as they confront the actions of the government. The Ruhr insurrection of 1920 hardly attracts his attention, while he devotes 50 pages to the 1921 “March Action” and its repercussions. For these historians, insisting on the specificity of the CI and Bolshevism was not only an ideological necessity, but a way to frame events in accordance with their material interests as specialists, which consists in presenting the authorities and the corporations which finance their research with a mystery so impenetrable that only the experts (that is, themselves) can unravel it. Modern researchers approach the social question in the most sophisticated manner: they must make everything very complicated to justify the continuation of their labors. One group explores what is alien and strange about a different, totalitarian world; the others explore the infinite subtleties inherent in the richness of life and spontaneity “concealed” by a series of “alienations” which they have done nothing to demystify.

Broué’s monumental work, La révolution en Allemagne 1917-23 (Minuit, 1972) is an excellent example of a political history. It is true, of course, that the author, in a recent article10 , denied “having composed a history restricted to the level of the ‘leadership-elite’.” His objective is to study the “German communists in the light of their form of organization, within the framework of their party and their International, a framework which they, within that same movement, tried to construct in order to be victorious.” Note his declaration: “their party” is, of course, the KPD; “their International” is the CI. He has thus written a history of the KPD and the CI, the latter in the context of its relations with Germany. This leads him to a consideration of history based not on the actual events, but on the basis of what did not take place at all. His problem can be summarized as measuring the impact of the absence of the “party”. He bases himself on what did not exist in order to understand what did exist. The idealism of his investigation ultimately contaminates it to such a degree that he dedicates a disproportionate amount of space to facts of quite secondary importance (Radek’s influence, for example). Other historians even went so far as to consider the (French) “ultra-left” through the lens of police history11 .

Studying the revolutionary events in Germany from the perspective of the absence of a truly Bolshevik party is somewhat like studying the human digestive tract from the perspective of the mouth and discovering that the cause of gastrointestinal illness is the absence of four stomachs in the patient. There was a radical difference between the nature of Russian society and that of German society in 1917 (see Chapter 1), which can be summarized as follows: 90% peasants in Russia, 35% in Germany. In this connection we have elsewhere illustrated (see our preface to the translation of Trotsky’s Rapport de la Délegation Siberienne, Spartacus, 1970; see also Nos Tâches Politiques, also by Trotsky) how the Bolshevik party was a necessary product of the Russian social form and of the ambiguous (proletarian and bourgeois) movement which tried to completely change that form. Indigenous attempts to supersede the Bolshevik organizational concept in a revolutionary direction were as embryonic in Russia as were the indigenous German attempts to install an organizational practice which would have been of the same nature as Bolshevism. Germany possessed the seeds of a distinct revolutionary party in the KPD until the Heidelberg Congress (October 1919), and later in the KAPD and the other leftist organizations until the summer of 1921: one can demonstrate in this case what did not take place (the KAPD did not become the party of the German proletariat constituted as a class), but this explains nothing.

Broué’s Trotskyist inclinations lead him to ignore “leftist” and “infantile” organizations and to instead treat the diverse vicissitudes of the social democratic left as a communist movement. For our part, it is not a matter of opposing our version to a Trotskyist version, or of correcting one theoretical con game with another. We declare right from the start that we are studying one aspect—for us, the most important aspect—of the events in question. The reader will understand on his own that he has not read merely the chronicle of the “communist left”, but that of the epoch’s most profound social movement. Broué has undertaken a partial study with general pretensions: we shall undertake a partial study of general interest. One will, of course, find an infinite quantity of useful information in Broué’s book. But its erudition takes the form of mystification. Fixated on the theoretical expressions and established organizations but not on the contradictory social agitation and its more or less articulated manifestations, he devotes himself to the examination of parties and trade unions (especially the KPD), scorning to bother with a multitude of significant developments. So, how can it be doubted, after having perused his impressive bibliography, that he has told the whole truth? The method chosen, however, comes with a lie, by omission. His work on Germany reminds us of his previous book about the Bolshevik Party (published by Minuit), written during the epoch when Stalinist legends were still widely believed. The latter volume apparently provides a vast quantity of data. Yet it fails to attain the stature of less ambitious but more serious texts from a dual perspective: historical and revolutionary. The “results” of Broué’s work are situated at the intersection point of the university and contemporary leftism. Broué’s book could be of some use. In the end, however, one will learn less from it than one would from the History of the German Army by the “reactionary” Benoist-Méchin. Despite his anti-Semitic prejudices and his hatred of the “cruel Bolsheviks”, he views his subject from the point of view of class (albeit not our class).12

From a revolutionary perspective, the volume of selected texts of Pannekoek, ably presented by S. Bricianer, has cleared the way and disseminated knowledge of the German Left beyond a small circle of initiates.13 A serious historical work, it is nonetheless primarily a biography of Pannekoek presented through his texts, and devotes few pages to the period 1917-1921, focusing above all on the lessons derived from those years by Pannekoek, especially in World Revolution and Communist Tactics (1920). This focus, which is perfectly legitimate in a work of this kind, ultimately fails to portray the reality of that epoch’s communist movement in Germany, and is dedicated instead to its later evolution and Pannekoek’s retrospective reflections on that period. In this respect, Bricianer’s work, while valuable for the reasons summarized above, is not satisfactory. While it is normal for a biography to follow the chronological evolution of its subject’s life and works, theoretical analysis demands that one not respect the evolution of his positions, which ends in councilism. To conclude with the council (as opposed to the “party”) may indeed be faithful to Pannekoek’s thought, but it does not respond to revolutionary problems.

This persistent focus on form (council, party) facilitates the current efforts on behalf of capital’s adaptation, which requires both the authoritarianism and regimentation transmitted by the degraded notion of the party so dear to the CP and numerous leftists, as well as the workers’ pseudo-self-management and the illusory freedom which the idea of the “council” denotes for other leftists. The concept of self-management is even more dangerous when it is stripped of its workerism: “if (this conception) is to be true to its postulates, it must assert that with the evolution of capitalism—which is constantly socializing all human activities—those organizations which are responsible for realizing the principle of councilism will have to be located outside of the factories.”14 The demand for workers’ management refers to the management of everyday life.15 The real content of the communist movement lies elsewhere and is replaced by questions of form.

Previously denounced, the German Left enjoys a relative celebrity today thanks to its most flaccid and well-known aspects. This was only made possible by disconnecting its texts from their historical context. As an illustration of this tendency, we can be grateful for the work of R. Gombin16 , who undertakes the task of fusing a series of different and contradictory contributions into a whole which is presented as the very trademark of what is most radical: but this is only possible after having separated these contributions from their respective sources. The essence of modernism consists in mixing the most radical aspects of revolutionary thought into an original synthesis while these aspects are, however, stripped of what makes, or made them, subversive, and taking delight in mere novelty. His secret lies in having associated Pannekoek with H. Lefebvre: this monstrous cocktail could only have been mixed by carefully erasing the roots of Pannekoek’s ideas. Evoking the mass media in support of this connection would be superficial. Society has always fed on revolutionary thought, which, in turn, has also caused the latter to become insipid. It was not at all strange when the magazine Minuit published an extract from Pannekoek’s Workers Councils in its seventh issue, having selected a section from that work which deals with democracy. But the councilist illusions of certain revolutionaries also facilitate this absorption, as is demonstrated by the Preface to Workers Councils written by former members of the ICO.17 An introduction to the texts of P. Mattick situates Sorel among the “ultra-left”, alongside the “socialism of the producers”, “self-management” and “popular self-government”.18 The German Left defined itself precisely in contradistinction to syndicalism, including the “revolutionary” variety and, having suffered the effects of reactionary violence, did not accept the overabundant and misunderstood myths of the various experiences with soviets, councils or workers’ pseudo-autonomy. In 1919 and 1920, left communists knew quite well that the “party-form” had contributed no more than the “council-form” to the defeat of the revolutionary movement. In any event, the publication of Workers Councils signaled the recognition of the German Left, in its councilist form, by the intellectual world. The “official daily newspaper of the powerful” even devoted almost an entire page to a good exposition of Pannekoek’s work.19 Following in the footsteps of Djilas, Lukàcs and Garaudy, the German Left, in turn, joined the family of Marxist heretics considered to be worthy of notice. An obsession with “recuperation” (a superficial myth) would be absurd. The fashionable interest in the German Left is accompanied by a revolutionary curiosity and a positive concern with information and clarification. The phenomenon of vulgarized distortion is inevitable. It is precisely this real and new interest which obliges us to set the record straight.

The councilists have done little to shed light on the period of 1917-1921. But the German Left was one of Bordiga’s obsessions. It is surprising to consider that it was the journal Invariance, descended from the Italian Left, which in 1969 first republished a few essential texts, in particular almost all of Pannekoek’s text, Révolution mondiale et tactique communiste.20 A subsequent issue of the same journal is almost entirely devoted to the German Left: it comprises a study, both historical and theoretical, which heralds the further evolution of the journal, which we shall examine in another work currently in progress.21 During the same period, a Danish group, also descended from the Italian Left, wrote an original study with a particular focus on the unions. A mere fifty pages long, it is one of the richest texts on this subject.22 Significantly, it is unfortunately little-known. It has been photocopied and distributed on a small scale, and we have made ample use of it despite its Leninist vestiges.

A long article in Number 58 of Programme Communiste, organ of the International Communist Party (the “orthodox” descendant of Bordigism), published in April 197323 , dedicated to reassuring the faithful who remained in the ICP after the schism brought about by the sanctions imposed upon the Danes and Invariance, who had demanded and practiced “free inquiry” (particularly in regard to its principle opponent, the German Left), highlights the principle points of the German Left’s defeat. However, whereas the Danes consider the German Left as a product of the proletariat, the ICP’s article is primarily a study of the theoretical positions of the various actors, totally separated from their contexts (which confirms an absolute bad faith when it is compared to the pains Bordiga took to exculpate-explain, by means of endless expository forays, the most insignificant—and the not-so-insignificant—theoretical deviations of Lenin).24 Proletarian action (quite well-perceived elsewhere) is nothing but a backdrop in this article. The Left is judged on the basis of its “principles” and its adversaries are preferred for the rigor of their profession of the Marxist faith.

A collection edited by one of the authors of the present text, La Gauche allemande, Textes, reveals a German Left which is much more strict, dictatorial and “party-centered” than today’s councilists, as well as the image the latter entertain of their progenitor. This collection’s postscript focuses on the involution of council communism to councilism.25 We should also mention a good collection of biographies, recently published in French and brought together in one volume by the councilists.26 But this list is already out of date.

Everything we have said up to this point sheds light on our method. This work on the German Left is obviously an intellectual work—and its authors are in this case intellectuals—but, just like other studies of this subject, even the most academic, this study is not the fruit of pure intellect, of the closed logic of “research”; the German Left’s anti-intellectualist critiques were perfectly justified when they attacked the domination of the intelligentsia, when they targeted the pretension of a certain kind of intellectual of being superior to the rest of mortal mankind, and especially the working class “rank and file”, when such intellectuals fought for their alleged right to lead the movement. Our work has no pretension to autonomy27 , which for us is not a goal in and of itself; it has no meaning except as part of a movement which goes far beyond it. The renascent radical movement must appropriate its own history. Nor do we frame what we see in the forms in which spoiled intellectuals take pleasure:

“Our purpose is not literary or aesthetic production. Comrades and readers do not have to waste their time evaluating a passage, a page or a text which we publish, but they should always take into account the relation between the different parts of the labors undertaken by our small movement. . .”
(Bordiga, Il Programa Comunista, 1953)

In the following text, the reader will not read the history of the German Revolution, or even a reference work on the German Left. Our procedure consists in an attempt to extract the leading thread and the essential mechanisms from our field of study. We have not hesitated to go over facts already studied by others, often in detail, or to rapidly pass over some realities which have since become more accessible in more recent works. These works are “points of reference” for following the history of the left. Another kind of approach, which is also useful, would consist in giving more depth to the immediate reality of these movements by conducting a study of their everyday activities, based, for example, on their press and available archival documentation.

It is not enough to rehabilitate a hidden past. A subversive movement has existed, and still exists, whose action and expression have been “hidden” by official “discourse” (state, trade union, bureaucracy, politicians, academics, judiciary, schools, etc.). But the simple unveiling of its expression is not in itself revolutionary. Its mere expression, that is, the only thing that remains of it, is not revolutionary unless it is put to a new use: not necessarily in the form of “action” in the strict sense of the word, but simply as a theory which once again embraces events within its framework. It is of little account that a “liberation” movement existed long ago: capital placidly accepts the reestablishment of the truth concerning Luddism or the German Left as long as this changes nothing. The world begins to tremble when the revolutionary facts of the past resurface in the practice of a renascent subversive movement. Only the dead bury the dead. Fashion and pedagogy (often united), on the other hand, take advantage of ideas when they are dead, or in the form in which they are no longer alive (councilism, for the German Left). Ideas die, too. A theory is dead when the movement which gave it life has disappeared, but it can be reborn when a movement arises which is its authentic continuation; then, however, it appears in the unpleasant form of a movement of “left fascists”, “hooligans”, “a society of thieves”, and other barbarians, like those who were called “Spartacists” in the epoch which concerns us in this text. Socialism or Barbarism, ignored when it was subversive, is becoming fashionable, now that its old theoreticians (Chaulieu, Lefort and Lyotard) have submitted to the rules of the game of modernism.

Any expression which is not an action, in the sense that it does not contribute to the clarification of current revolutionary problems, situates itself within capital. It shows that its author has no real need to change his situation. The record of the past plays the same ideological role for him, one of substitution and illusory excess, which politics plays for others. This past could be a future: one could take pleasure in the description of what is to come. What contributes to the revolution is neither the evocation of the past, nor of the world of the future, but the present effort to connect reality to both. It is not our intention to give lessons to historians. They can only be what they are. But one can and one must say what they are, and distinguish between thought which is merely critical and thought which is revolutionary. It is subversive to show how slavery constituted a form of progress for both the slaves and for humanity as a whole; it is conservative to restrict oneself to denouncing it. The same thing is also true within a mode of production, especially when one takes into account the shrewdness and adaptive capabilities of capital. Who defends Thiers against the Commune these days? Who reduces the War of 1914 to the activities of the Pan-Germanists? In relation, however, to anything that still has a direct role to play in the preservation of the social order, the issues remain obscure; the war of 1939-45, for example, which proves that it is the most important and the most anti-revolutionary war, whose consequences are still with us today and which must by all means be preserved. This is particularly true of anything which refers to “fascism”, where clarification is still a threat to the established order, and where mystification rules.28 There is an abundance of intellectual methods to avoid such subjects: quantitative and statistical history fit perfectly with a “liberated” history operating at the level of everyday life, or with a history of opinions. One need only consult the catalogue of history journals to see that everything is studied, but almost never what is essential.

To its own misfortune, revolutionary theory plays a double role: revolutionary and . . . non-revolutionary. By seriously presenting the real problems faced by society, it helps society adapt to these problems. The mass media accumulate information with the intention of incessantly reproducing capitalist relations. How could one not take a position in relation to all the critiques, including the most virulent ones, which form part of capitalist society’s auto-critique, despite the occasional honesty of their authors? Each major capitalist country has its own way of absorbing revolutionary theory. In England and the United States, and in Germany in a slightly different way, monographs and the fondness for exact empirical research are dominant: in Germany, there are numerous monographs on the period of 1918-1920, categorized according to region or city. In France, the “theoretical” current frequently predominates, privileging interpretation, in the name of a particular school of thought, over the examination of the facts. Theoretical communism met its global downfall, in every country, each with its own traditions of thought, not because of useless polemics, but due to the very nature of its task. It is obvious that only a rebirth of the movement—which is far from being obvious or automatic—will limit the inevitable absorption of its theory. Meanwhile, the discovery of new theories, bowdlerized versions of revolutionary themes which had been developed by the German communist left, among others, will not cease. The academic and the political worlds (the worlds of dogmatism: Stalinism, for example) will merge and multiply. The goal of academic reflection is to pose problems in order to discover other problems, just as cars are manufactured so as to be hauled to the junkyard after ten years and to be replaced by others. Its labors are endless, although the State and Capital take from it whatever they find useful. Theoretical communism does not attempt to know or to say everything, but to know enough to show the leading thread of its times and to point out, at any given moment, the outlook for the future. It knows what questions to pose, because it feels a real need to discover them (which is not to say that it always does so or does so immediately). Others have just as pressing a need to constantly beat around the bush. The researcher makes his living by researching; he negates himself as a researcher when he makes a discovery. In this manner one problem must engender another. These people and their companions in their wearisome labors seem to distinguish themselves simply by the different forms given to the same ideas: but a different form of expression in fact contains a different content. They retain only the critical aspect of the revolutionary attitude, forgetting its prospective aspects. Instead of indicating the practice which corresponds with the theory, they conclude with the need of always inventing something new. The revolution demolishes idols, but never in the manner of these false iconoclasts.

  • 1 See C. Juhl’s preface to L’Internationale Communiste Ouvrière by Gorter, in Invariance, No. 5, New Series.
  • 2 For a critical study of Socialisme ou Barbarie, particularly in regard to Russia, see P. Guillaume’s postscript to P. Chalieu’s Rapports de production en Russie, reprinted by La Veille Taupe, 1972.
  • 3 See Stafford’s bibliography of the works of P. Brousse in From Anarchism to Reformism, Weidenfeld-Nicolson, London, 1971, pp. 14-16.
  • 4Bordiga, Les fondements du communisme révolutionaire, Programme Communiste.
  • 5 Frölich, Rosa Luxemburg, Maspero, 1965.
  • 6 Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, London, 1966, 2 Vols.; French translation published in 2 Vols. by Maspero.
  • 7 Flechtheim: Le PC allemande sous la République de Weimar, Maspero.
  • 8 See, for example, the various volumes of Communism in Europe, edited by W. Griffith, MIT Press; F. Borkenau, World Communism, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1962; B. Lazitch, Lénine et la IIIe Internationale, La Baconnière, Neuchâtel, 1951; as well as the journals Problèmes du Communisme, Est et Ouest, and Le Contrat Social edited by B. Souvarine. The common basis for the thought of all these authors resides in a cultivated pessimism, which is quite well-expressed by the following formula of Montesquieu, quoted by Plamenatz in German Marxism and Russian Communism, Longmans, London, 1945: “One can, moreover, establish, as a general maxim, that every revolution which was predicted in advance never arrived.” For another perspective, see D. Mitchell, 1919: Red Mirage, J. Cape, London, 1970. See also R. Coper, Failure of a Revolution, Cambridge University Press, 1955.
  • 9 Stillborn Revolution: The Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-23, Princeton Univ. Press, 1963. See pages 105-66, concerning the March Action.
  • 10 Le mouvement social, July-September 1973, pp. 89 and 95. For a critique of Broué’s book, see Cahiers de l’ISEA, December 1972, pp. 2454-56, and D. Authier, La gauche allemande (cf. infra No. 23).
  • 11 A. Kriegel, Aux origenes du communisme français, Flammarion, 1969, p. 329.
  • 12 Volumes I and II, Albin Michel, 1964.
  • 13 Pannekoek et les conseils ouvriers, EDI, 1969. English translation: Pannekoek and the Workers’ Councils, Telos Press, St. Louis, 1978.
  • 14 Programme Communiste (abridged), No. 56, p. 32.
  • 15“Pourquoi nous quittons ICO”, January-February 1973.
  • 16Les origins du gauchisme, Seuil, 1972. English translation: The Origins of Modern Leftism, Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1975.
  • 17 Bélibaste, 1974.
  • 18 R. París, Introduction to P. Mattick, Intégration capitaliste et rupture ouvrière, EDI, 1972.
  • 19 Le Monde, December 6, 1974.
  • 20 Invariance, old series, No. 7, which also contains: Manifestes des CP et CLP des EU (1919), La victoire du marxisme (Gorter, 1920), Pensée et action communistes dans la IIIe Internationale (S. Pankhurst, 1919) with an editorial note by Il Soviet, Le mouvement communiste internationale and La situation en Allemagne et le mouvement communiste, published in 1920 in Il Soviet, Le KAPD au IIIe Congrès mondiale and the report of the KAPD’s Central Committee of July 31, 1921, Le principe de l’antagonisme entre le gouvernement des Soviets et le proletariat (KAI), Pour la question du parlementarisme by Lukàcs (1920), the Thèses sur le parlementarisme by the Amsterdam Bureau and the Thèses of the Congress of the Belgian communists (May 1920).
  • 21 Ibid., new series, No. 1, “Le KAPD et le mouvement prolétarian”.
  • 22 Kommunistik Program, La question syndicale et la gauche allemande dans la IIIe Internationale, Bagsvaerd, 1972. See also Note No. 1.
  • 23 Journal of the International Communist Party (“Bordigist”), No. 58, “La gauche marxiste d’Italie et le mouvement communiste internationale”. The same issue also reproduces a series of articles published in 1920 in Il Soviet concerning Germany and the CI. Some chapters of the History of the Italian Left (2 Vols., in Italian) have been edited and translated in Nos. 28, 29, 31, 33, 59 and 60 of PC.
  • 24 Structure économique et sociale de la Russie d’aujord’hui, L’Oubli, 1975.
  • 25 Invariance, supplement to No. 2 (n.d.), with a postscript by D. Authier, where one can read: the 1920 Program and the Appeal to the German Proletariat of the KAPD; the KAPD’s interventions in the 3rd Congress of the CI; the Program of the AAUD and extracts from its Guidelines; the AAUD-E’s Guidelines; Rühle’s The Revolution is Not a Party Matter; and an extract from the Guidelines of the KAI. See Part Two of this book, below, for English translations of these AAUD, AAUD-E and KAI texts. English translations of the interventions of the KAPD delegation in the 3rd Congress of the CI may be viewed at Wage Slave X’s Revolutionary Anti-Capitalist Homepage website. An English translation of the Program of the KAPD is available at the website of the International Communist Current ( Rühle’s famous text has been posted in English translation on several websites and is readily available.
  • 26 Conseils ouvriers en Allemagne 1917-21, Vroutsch, Serie La Marge, No. 9-11, 1973, which contains: Le mouvement des conseils en Allemagne, (ICO, No. 101); Anton Pannekoek, by Mattick (Lénine philosophe, Spartacus, 1970); Karl Korsch, by Mattick (Cahiers de l’ISEA, No. 140); Otto Rühle, by Mattick (Cahiers du communisme des conseils, No. 2); as well as Landauer et Mühsam, essais de biographies, Notes sur la République des conseils de Bavière, Les conseils ouvriers en Alsace. In English, see: “Anton Pannekoek (1873-1960)”, by Paul Mattick (in Pannekoek’s Lenin as Philosopher, Merlin Press, London, 1975); “Karl Korsch: His Contribution to Revolutionary Marxism” and “Otto Rühle and the German Labour Movement”, by Paul Mattick (in Mattick’s Anti-Bolshevik Communism, M. E. Sharpe, Inc., White Plains, 1978).
  • 27 Marx: Oeuvres, Gallimard, Vol. II, 1968, p. 81.
  • 28 For the period as a whole, we recommend the bibliographies of The German Left… and those of the excellent book by H. Gruber, International Communism in the Era of Lenin, Fawcett, Connecticut, 1967, which brings together a well-organized collection of documents. A general exposition can be found in G. Landauer’s history of world socialism (in English) and Droz’s history (PUF, Vol. II). See also the issue of Cahiers de l’ISEA devoted to the councils, in press; O. Ihlau, Die Roten Kämpfer, A. Hain, Meisenheim am Glan, 1969; F. Jung (former member of the KAPD), Der Weg nach Unten, Neuwied, 1961; C. Klein, Weimar, Flammarion, 1968; K. Meyer, Karl Liebknecht, A Man without a Country, Public Affairs Press, Washington, D.C., 1957; for a critical bibliography, with particular emphasis on German history after 1918, see G. Castellan, Revue historique, April-June 1970. For a brief study from a revolutionary point of view, see the Revue théorique du Courant Communiste Internationale, No. 2.


Chapter 1 - Germany in 1914

Submitted by Spassmaschine on October 23, 2009

Capitalism and the Proletariat
In 1914, Germany was well on the way to becoming the world’s leading economic power. It was particularly characterized by its new capitalist development, equipped with the most modern plant and infrastructure. Its labor productivity, achieved by means of the application of the most modern technologies to the production process, was higher than that of the other capitalist countries: the intensity and skill of its labor required less labor time to manufacture the same product.

The ratio of constant to variable capital was higher in Germany than in the other capitalist countries. The commercial prices of German products were lower than the average prices on the world market: Germany extracted and appropriated part of the surplus value produced by other fractions of world capital, or, expressed more precisely, of the world proletariat. This appropriation of surplus value not produced in Germany gave German capitalism a greater capacity for accumulation, modernization and new productivity gains. It also allowed a significant rise in wages benefiting not just a minority, but all the workers in Germany. One can only speak of a “labor aristocracy” in the case of professionals and highly-skilled workers (see below for discussion of this notion). This situation enjoyed by German capitalism formed the basis for the reformist politics of the German proletariat up to 1914, as well as that of the reformist socialist party, and of the German trade unions which were among the largest in the world; the following table provides comparative rates of unionization in the respective labor forces of three large capitalist countries: 1
[td] [/td]
[td]United States[/td]
Only the survival of these organizations, which had become autonomous in relation to the proletariat, gave any real force to the persistence of what has been called the “reformist spirit” which still held sway over the majority of the German proletariat after 1918. Between 1871 and 1913, real per capita income doubled in Germany and Great Britain, and tripled in the United States. There seemed to be no net progress, however, during the decade leading up to 1914 in Germany, England or France: instead, economic progress for the German workers was measured by the reduction of working time.2 Wage differentials between skilled and unskilled workers rose between 1871 and 1913, falling only after 1914. These differentials fell from 31% to 18% in the railroads, and from 25% to 10% in construction (in Berlin, Hamburg and Stettin) between 1914 and 1918. At the same time, real wages decreased by 35% between 1914 and 1918: in 1921, they were still 10% below their 1914 level.3 It is likely that the pre-1914 division4 between skilled workers (organized in trade unions) and unskilled workers (usually unorganized) gave way after the war to a division between employed and unemployed workers, even though the possession of a job did not necessarily correspond with reformism, nor did unemployment necessarily correspond with revolutionary inclinations. The “unions” (AAU), born after 1919, consisted of employed workers, as was clearly demonstrated by the fact that they were composed of revolutionary factory organizations.

It was the relatively most modern characteristics of German capitalism which provided the conditions most conducive to the success of the proletarian revolution, and which made Germany the bastion of the world revolution. Not only was its organic composition of capital (proportion of constant to variable capital) higher than that of any other country, but the same was true of the relation between fixed and circulating capital.5 ,6 The enormous importance, both in relative and absolute terms, of “dead” labor accumulated by past generations, which confers upon the current generation a greater net labor productivity, is a precondition which enormously facilitates the transition to communism, in which all needs must be satisfied and in which the labor time necessary for the preservation of life must, consequently, be considerably reduced. Communism is not, however, generalized automation, but an equilibrium between the “naturalization of man” and the “humanization of nature”, and it is foreseeable that the inauguration of a human life will not only reduce the need for objects, but will also set human activity free, and leave behind the memory of the parsimony of “so many hours” spent under the wage regime7 . The coexistence of the reformist practice of the German working class along with certain material preconditions for communism would be manifested in such demands as the six or even the five hour day.

Another consequence of Germany’s high level of productivity was the fact that large factories clearly comprised the most representative sector of German capitalism. Automated machinery does not require professional workers who understand their jobs; the OS (unskilled workers) predominated in this sector: the 20,000 workers of the Leuna chemical works were typical representatives of this phenomenon (see Chapter 15). These OS were located on the fringes of the traditional trade union domain, which exclusively preserved its trade-defined structure from the 19th century. Organization by trade was a principle which ruled both reformist as well as revolutionary trade unionism. The OS were not part of the old trade-oriented world of the skilled workers. The concrete aspect of their labor, which is the concrete realization of the abstract and indifferent character of commodity-producing labor as such (see Capital, Vol. I, Chapter I), stimulates no interest in them at all. Wage labor, in which man exchanges his labor power as if it were something distinct from himself, preserves the individual as a man crushed and dissolved by the means of production in the form of capital. One of the new concrete qualities of labor in the large factories was its collective character: the product was not the result of the efforts of anyone in particular, but of the common efforts of all who work in the factories. Any one person’s labor cannot become pleasant nor can it be considered as a useful personal contribution unless it is experienced as a moment of a whole to which one feels connected. Wage labor, however, wherein man, in order to live, sells his labor power, preserves the individual as such and prevents the formation of a community which can only be the result of a system of communist production. Wage labor does, of course, have a collective dimension, but it pertains to capital: the only really existing community is that of the reproduction of capital.

Prior to the war, this mass of unskilled workers did not form part of the German trade unions, which had between two and three million members. There were two parallel trade union organizations. The socialist Zentrale, by far the larger of the two, brought together various “free trade unions” in a federation known in 1918-1919 as the ADGB (General Federation of German Trade Unions). The other federation, the anarchosyndicalist or revolutionary syndicalist Zentrale, the FVDG (Federation of Free German Trade Unions), became the FAUD at the end of 1919 with the entry of numerous recently-created factory organizations (see Chapter 9). Before 1914, the sector which provided the basis for both Zentrales was composed of workers in the skilled trades: the FVDG was largely based among the construction workers.

The OS, on the other hand, together with the “revolutionary shop stewards” who were still members of the trade unions (see Chapter 4), created the “factory organizations” during the war, and later formed the autonomous “left” radical organizations of the proletariat: the AAUs (General Workers Unions). The trade unions could no longer ignore this majority of the proletariat, even though only the most radical minority of the OS joined the AAU. The skilled workers, previously reticent about admitting unskilled workers into the trade unions, welcomed them after 1919. The trade unions, which in fact adopted an organizational structure based on factory and industry, soon had nine million members. This development was also encouraged by pressure from capitalists who refused to enter into contracts with workers who were not members of the trade unions (see the KAPD Program).

The enormous growth of the trade unions proves that, despite the strength of its radical currents, the German proletariat was still, taken as a whole, reformist. One cannot speak of a labor aristocracy except in the case of a few sectors (generally the skilled, and some others as a result of their particular situations) which defended certain privileges against the other more numerous sectors (today such a division exists on an international scale). But even the most privileged sectors of the proletariat can become seeds of revolution if capital is compelled to submit their privileges to examination; just as, conversely, the other non-privileged sectors are not permanently compelled to be revolutionary, and it cannot be said that when they act in a reformist manner they do so because they are manipulated by corrupt or bribed elements. One cannot be manipulated for decades unless one is effectively manipulable. In his pamphlet on imperialism, Gorter treated all proletarians, without distinction, as “lackeys”. These sectors benefited from the super-profits obtained by capital thanks to its favorable or dominant position in the world market. One cannot speak of a “minority” within the German proletariat except to designate the minority of revolutionaries confronting the workers as a whole.

Understood as a minority which lives at the expense of the workers movement (“bureaucrats” of the party, the trade unions, the cooperatives, etc.), the labor aristocracy is a definite sociological reality. But its activities do not explain everything.8 Although materially favored, certain sectors can behave in the most radical fashion, since economic determination is not only a question of wages. During the war, a large number of metal workers were supporters of peace. One cannot refer to the “economy”, or the “spirit”, but only to the totality of real relations. As long as the war seemed inevitable, the mobilized worker supported it and actively participated in it, since the solidarity of the trenches was the only tangible reality remaining to him. The worker who was still at his workbench, often due to his skilled status, and, consequently, because he belonged to a privileged category, was subjected to more difficult working conditions and rebelled against the war, which for him was not so much an experienced reality as a threat: he might be mobilized.

The organization of workers into unions (unionen, in German; not to be confused with the “unions” of the English-speaking world, whose counterparts in this text shall be referred to on all occasions as “trade unions”—tr. note) or councils, formed especially during the extensive mass strike movement, corresponds to the transition from the “tool-machine phase” to the “specialized machinery phase”9 : an epoch during which the trade unions passed from reformism (although not yet integrated into the State), to systematic collaboration, and capital passed from surrounding life, to totally penetrating life. At this juncture the proletariat made the workplace the site of its attempt to achieve unity because the workplace was not yet totally conquered by capital.10 Many workers still worked on tool-machines. They were trained within the old trade union framework, and demonstrated the results of this training in the factories where they worked, where they preserved a relative autonomy and carried out many tasks. This stage of large-scale mechanized industry progressively yielded—later, with the war and then during the twenties, at an accelerated pace—to the stage of the OS and of the scientific organization of labor. There is no rupture between these two mutually interconnected periods; the struggles which developed immediately after the war, however, comprised the meeting point of the two phases.11 In the United States and Canada, within a more modern capitalism, the most intense proletarian movement arose among the OS (who were often recent immigrants)12 who tried to unite in the IWW (see Chapter 9). The councils constituted an attempt on the part of the proletarians to form autonomous groups: they were forced to do so; there was no other way to carry out any kind of struggle, even a simple reformist struggle. In their collaboration with the bourgeoisie, the trade unions went so far as to give their approval to the prohibition of strikes, and even prohibited them themselves; the councils were therefore above all compelled to undertake the tasks which the trade unions no longer fulfilled. Their form (organization by factory, uniting organized and unorganized workers) was better-adapted for an effective reformist struggle against modern capitalism. But the control of the entire productive apparatus by workers councils is in no way revolutionary if the workers limit themselves to administering what has fallen into their hands in the same way as before, or even better, with greater efficiency than before. Capitalist society, although managed by the workers themselves, would still be capitalist.

The German State
Germany underwent an abortive bourgeois and national revolution at the beginning of the sixteenth century. The Peasant War, which was also a semi-communist movement, was at the same time the military organization of the aspirations of a stratum of middle peasants who (like the bourgeoisie) wanted to eliminate feudal obstacles to agricultural production and its commercialization. This bourgeois revolution was aborted, in part due to fear of the intervention of the popular classes, and its failure strengthened the power of the nobility. The patchwork parcelization of Germany would last for another two centuries.13 The same phenomenon was repeated in 1848. The bourgeoisie, fearing—among other things—the workers uprisings, did not dare to make their revolution. Rather than a result of foreign pressure (particularly that of Russia, which was exaggerated by Marx), this was more due to the weakness of those domestic factors favoring German unification, which condemned Germany to await its national revolution.14

The German State was an expanded version of the Prussian bureaucracy which was renovated during the Bismarck era, that is, after the wake-up call delivered to all of Germany in 1848. It was “imperial absolutism”: the state’s ministries, whose officials were nominated by and answerable to the emperor, were staffed by cooptation from above. There was, of course, a parliament, but it was deprived of the essential “executive” power and was consequently impotent. German unification was quite recent. Each Land15 had its parliament, the Landtag (diet). In the Prussian Land, which alone represented one-half of Germany, elections were held according to “estates” analogous to those of the Middle Ages. The population was divided into, and voted as, members of orders or estates (Stand) (nobles, landowners, peasants, city-dwellers, etc.). Each estate received an equal number of representatives. In the 1908 Prussian elections, the SPD obtained six seats with 600,000 votes, while the Conservatives obtained 212 seats with 4,000,000 votes. In Hamburg, Germany’s second-largest city and Europe’s busiest port, whose population doubled between 1890 and 1910, a similar electoral system prevailed: after 1890, one-third of its Reichstag deputies were socialists, but only twenty out of 160 delegates to Hamburg’s local diet belonged to the SPD.16 Germany would not know real parliamentarism until the latter had become fully counterrevolutionary: having lost all social significance with bourgeois unification, its sole function then became the counterrevolution.

The recent character of Germany’s national unification would also be demonstrated by the fact that, as a whole, the German labor movement would think and act at the level of the Land, even after 1918. The revolution would take power in various Länder, but never in the whole Reich. “One of the characteristic aspects of the German workers movement has been its fragmentation into various powerful centers, potent and concentrated, but relatively isolated from each other. This situation, so unlike that of France, for example, is the result of the absence of a single political capital. . . .”17 At its formation the German State was conceded a major role in intervening in favor of the workers (the Bismarckian social laws), but it was kept at a distance from industry, over which it exercised a weaker control than the State did in the other developed countries. In 1914, it badly organized the transition to the war economy, and barely integrated the occupied regions of Belgium and France. German “State capitalism” was economically inefficient during the war years of 1914 to 1918.18 Trade-union/army collaboration would begin during the war, since these were the two institutions capable of joint action on a national scale to direct available labor power to those sectors where it was most needed. The government of Hamburg therefore passed, during the conflict, from civilian to military hands due to the incompetence of the bourgeoisie: it was in order to mitigate the latter’s failings that the army assumed such an important centralizing role.19 The Inconclusive Bourgeois Revolution
The German bourgeoisie had a seminal weak point whose causes were summarized by Marx.20 The bourgeoisie received the framework for its later development (the Reich) from the hands of the Prussian military-bureaucratic apparatus, upon which it was utterly dependent for its survival. Hence the contradictory coexistence of a capitalism which was highly-developed for its epoch and a bourgeoisie which was economically powerful but acted within the confines of a political form inherited from the end of the Middle Ages: an absolute bureaucratic monarchy, alongside a powerless parliament.

Similarly, the German bourgeoisie would receive democracy not from the hands of its own class but from those of another. It was the proletariat which would carry the democratic revolution of 1918 to victory. Until June 1920, the first governments of the new democratic and parliamentary Germany were dominated by the SPD, the largest workers party in the world, and as such the best-prepared to repress the proletarian revolution. As in Russia, these governments would call themselves the “Council of Peoples Commissars”. The socialist leader Ebert would be the first president of the republic. Until 1933, many provincial governments and diets (in the Länder), particularly in Prussia, would be dominated by the social democrats. The next form of the political rule of German capitalism would, furthermore, be denominated as national-socialist.

The struggle for democracy was one of the principle components of the SPD. The need for a democratic transformation of the German State, and the participation of the proletarians in this struggle (which implies violence) placed the German revolutionary movement after 1918, despite its novel aspects (which comprise the subject matter at the heart of this text) in line with the revolutionary movements of the 20th century. The social revolution was pursued by way of the democratic political revolution.21

  • 1Bry: Wages in Germany 1871-1945, Princeton University Press, 1960, p. 268.
  • 2Ibid., Chapter 6, pp. 266-322.
  • 3Ibid., pp. 74-75.
  • 4Marks: Journal of Modern History, September 1939, “The Sources of Reformism in the Social-Democratic Party of Germany, 1890-1914”.
  • 5Reference is made to Capital, which we cannot summarize here.
  • 6Fixed capital: capital which does not circulate in the sense of the “circulation” of capital. A fleet is fixed capital. See Vol. II.
  • 7Marx: Fondements de la critique de l’économie politique, Anthropos, 1968, Vol. II, p. 215. Dauvé: Communisme et “question russe”, SET-Tête de Feuilles, 1972, pp. 162-71; and Le mouvement communiste, Champ Libre, 1972.
  • 8For a critique of the thesis of the “labor aristocracy”, see T. Cliff: Les racines économiques du réformisme, photocopy, Paris, 1969.
  • 9Lefranc: Histoire du travail et des travailleurs, Flammarion, 1957, pp. 474-76.
  • 10Invariance, No. 6.
  • 11Lutte de classes, September-October 1974, “Les rapports sociaux communistes”.
  • 12In his Imperialism… Lenin referred to the considerable number of immigrants employed in all the industrial countries of the epoch.
  • 13Engels: La guerre des paysans; N. Cohn: Les fanatiques de l’apocalypse, July 1962 (in English: The Pursuit of the Millenium, revised and expanded edition, Oxford University Press, New York, 1970); see, also, Debord’s critique of the latter in La société du spectacle, Champ Libre, 1971, pp. 93-94 (Thesis 38). In English, The Society of the Spectacle, Zone Books, New York, 1995.
  • 14For a critique of Marx’s positions in 1848, see Korsch: Marxisme et contre-révolution, Seuil, 1975.
  • 15The Länder are the various states which comprise Germany (Prussia, Bavaria, etc.); the Reich is the German nation organized as one State.
  • 16R. Comfort: Revolutionary Hamburg, Stanford University Press, 1966, Chapter II.
  • 17PC, No. 58, p. 120.
  • 18Sternberg: Le conflit du siècle, Seuil, 1958, p. 186.
  • 19Comfort, Chapter III.
  • 20Textes 1842-47, Spartacus, 1970.
  • 21See Le Roi de Prusse et la réforme sociale, in Textes 1842-47, and Invariance, No. 10. In English, see “Critical Notes on the Article ‘The King of Prussia and Social Reform. By a Prussian’”, in Karl Marx: Early Writings, tr. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton, Penguin Books, New York, 1992.


Chapter 2 - Origins of the German workers' movement

Submitted by Spassmaschine on October 23, 2009

The Impact of Social Democracy
Germany possessed the world’s most important socialist party; no other could compare with it. The SPD (Sozial-demokratische Partei Deutschlands) counted a million members and four million voters in 1914. It was also the largest political party in Germany. This was primarily the result of the numerical importance of the German working class; Germany’s workers comprised a large proportion of its population, although less than that comprised by Great Britain’s workers. Germany was more working class than France (which was still largely rural) and the United States, where the tertiary sector underwent rapid development.1 The SPD’s influence can also be explained by the fact that the proletariat was an interested party in the struggle for democracy, and conceived of the socialist party as a suitable instrument for conducting this struggle. Finally, due to the bourgeoisie’s weakness, Germany did not have a strong liberal party such as existed in England, or a radical party as in France. The SPD appeared to non-proletarian democrats as the only party which effectively fought for democracy: one of the best “proofs” of this was Bismarck’s prohibition of the party between 1878 and 1890.2 The SPD represented this extensive constituency quite well, since its activity to improve the condition of the workers in the dominant society was limited to reformist and parliamentary action. Even before 1914, basically since its birth at the Gotha Congress of 18753 , the SPD, considered in all of its aspects, was not a revolutionary organization. The talk of “treason” in 1914 shows that it was judged exclusively by what it said. Pannekoek’s analyses, the only radical contributions on this terrain, prove that there was no discontinuity between the periods before and after August 4, 1914.4

Pannekoek was Dutch, and his native country’s small size helped him to view things from an international perspective. In Germany, on the other hand, the SPD totally dominated the entire political horizon of the various tendencies which claimed to be Marxist, including, among others, the most radical elements around Rosa Luxemburg.5 Overawed by the power of the “party”, the left—which represented approximately 15% of the SPD—having originated in a critique of the reformist practice of the leadership of the party in all fields, and never abandoning the labor of Sisyphus of trying to unseat that leadership, did not take the decisive step toward schism. The left in its entirety would wait until it would be excluded from the party, after 1914, to forge its own organizations. In addition, there were also, prior to 1914, “revisionist” (Bernstein) and “orthodox” (Kautsky) tendencies: the latter was apparently the majority faction. But it soon became clear, after August 4, 1914, that the majority was more right-wing than the “revisionists”. Bernstein, moreover, would be excluded as a “leftist” opponent of the leadership.

It is necessary to closely examine the positions and activities of Rosa Luxemburg during the revolutionary period as well as the previous years. Because she was heavily criticized by the Leninists, and because she criticized Lenin and the Bolsheviks both long before as well as during the 1917 revolution, proletarian revolutionaries often tend to make her the spokesperson and to consider her as the theoretician (and as a model of practice while she was alive) of the authentically revolutionary current. This opinion was nourished by the left factions themselves, which soon overlooked the fact that they had opposed her at the KPD’s founding congress. The clarification of the history of the communist left in Germany leads to the destruction of the legend to which her death gave birth.

Luxemburg’s critique of Lenin’s organizational fetishism (see Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy) was one aspect of her critique of workers organizations. The basis of her critique was still more clearly expounded in The Mass Strike, Party and Trade Unions: the organizations, and particularly their leaderships, necessarily followed in the wake of the spontaneous movements of the proletariat, and usually even tried to restrain these movements. This was in absolute conformity with what can normally be verified with respect to the relation between the established organizations of the working class and the movements of the working class (whether or not they lead to revolutions). Luxemburg correctly saw this as inevitable, but did not for that reason cease to view the parties, trade unions, etc., which were formed in the non-revolutionary period and which embraced large sectors of the proletariat, as organizations which are perhaps bad, but ultimately are still class organizations, which the proletariat must rejuvenate during the revolution. This is why she opposed the Dutch Left, which split from the reformist Dutch party (see Chapter 3), as well as the German “left radicals”, instead calling upon the masses to “reconquer” their organization (the SPD). According to her, one must not separate oneself from the masses even when they follow the “worst” workers party.

Her position was based on two theses which had proven to be increasingly false: first, that the “workers” organizations only possess a relative autonomy in respect to the workers movement; and second, “the masses” are, at bottom, revolutionary (or at least never counterrevolutionary).

The German Revolution has clearly proven what various “lefts” had intuited: the workers parties had acquired so much autonomy (in respect to the revolutionary movement, but not to capital) that they were the most skilled architects of the counterrevolution; in this manner, the revolutionary proletariat was defeated by the counterrevolutionary proletariat.

Luxemburg wanted to establish a compromise between these two elements. The Bolsheviks branded her position as centrist at the Zimmerwald Conference on the war and social democracy (see Chapter 4); and her position was in fact basically centrist. It corresponded perfectly with that sector of the workers movement in Germany, organized by the “shop stewards” during the war, which attempted to achieve positive results in the reformist struggle, with “real” material benefits and policies (in opposition to the manifest sabotage of all actions by the trade unions and the social democrats). They wanted to return to social democracy’s origins without advancing towards communism. They did not want revolution.

The Luxemburgian critique of organizational fetishism was carried out in the name of the fetishism of the masses; her critique of “isolation” (in the case of the Dutch Left prior to 1914) was carried out in the name of the fetishism of action. This explains why she remained, until her death, on the side of the masses in the insurrection of January 1919, whose failure she had nonetheless predicted. Her attitude recalls the fetishism of the people among the great bourgeois revolutionaries, but in the era of the proletariat.

August 1914 was the consequence of a long evolution. The anarchist movement has never ceased to refer to it, and has all too hastily viewed it as the failure of “Marxism”, since there were many “government anarchists” (following Malatesta’s formulation) who defended the sacred union on this or that side. We shall cite only the cases of Kropotkin and J. Guillaume. Anarchism has in particular placed much more emphasis on the organizational roots of the failure of the Second International than on its real causes. Contrary to what Marx and Engels said, the revolutionary movement underwent a “real” split after the Commune.6 “Anarchism” and “Marxism” cannot explain either of the two, since the Marxist movement preserved and developed certain aspects which proved useful in 1914 (revolutionary defeatism). This did not prevent both of them, however, from retaining remnants of the communist perspective, but only in the form of parts removed from a totality, which they could not grasp intellectually because the proletariat no longer grasped it practically. The notion of community had become weakened and the “socialists” began to place all their hopes in the State: socialization was thus identified with nationalization or municipal ownership. Certain “anarchists” still persisted in upholding an old tradition involving the search for community, but did not clarify the problem of class, oscillating between reformism and savage revolts. In their activity they, too, made the revolution a question of organization, of the proper formula which would allow emancipation. Some Marxists also preserved the perspective of community, although in a contradictory way. In his description of the future society, Bebel7 heralded the disappearance of value, but not of the social regulation of the production of goods through necessary labor time, which is the very origin of value.8 Kautsky clearly foresaw the end of the law of value . . . but preserved wages and prices. The transformation was presented as a series of governmental measures instituted by the “Socialist State”: it is organized capitalism.9 In 1916, Bukharin would assert that it was not a question of developing the forces of production, which were already quite sufficient for the passage to socialism, but of destroying capital, which places obstacles in the way of that transformation. Such ideas were rare during that era, even after 1914. Pannekoek was one of the few who were aware of the partial character of both the socialist and anarchist movements. In 1909 he wrote: “the one-sided revolutionary wing of the workers movement thus acquires an anti-political character. In France and Italy ministerialism and the formation of electoral blocs have expanded the audience of revolutionary syndicalism and have led the trade unions to declare themselves enemies of the party.”10

It would be useless to denounce a “collapse”, as Lenin did, who confused the issue with his talk of “opportunism”. As Engels defined it, the notion of opportunism (rehabilitated by Lenin) turned reality on its head. Engels equated opportunism with an emphasis on day-to-day activity and bread-and-butter issues, and not with the real social fact of social democracy organizing labor in opposition to and in partnership with capital. This fits in with his superficial analysis of the workers movement of his era, which would later be employed by Lenin and the CI in their analyses of the socialist movement.

In reality, if one wants to speak of opportunism, one would have to accuse the whole proletariat (and it is evidently a matter for accusation, since opportunism is a moral notion) of being opportunist throughout the entire epoch. The workers fought for immediate advantages because the flourishing condition of capitalism allowed them to do so. This reformist foundation was transformed, in certain situations, into its opposite: revolutionary action, whether because the proletariat’s situation became unendurable, or because society’s rulers themselves descended into crisis, or, as in the 19th century, due to the impetus of bourgeois revolutions; there is no hard and fast line between revolution and reformism; there is an irremediable opposition between the petrified forms of reformism (which are often even unsuitable for an “honest reformism”) and revolutionary forms of organization; there is a bloody struggle between the proletariat which remains reformist and the proletariat which becomes revolutionary, but to oppose the proletariat (which “is revolutionary or does not exist”) on one side, to the working class, “mere variable capital”, on the other, pertains to the realm of metaphysics.

In their early days, social democracy and the German trade unions comprised the organization of this spontaneous reformist struggle of the German proletariat, which demonstrated its lack of subversive spirit by the very fact of separating its political and economic struggles in distinct organizations. Soon, however, a line was drawn between the workers organizations and the workers movement per se: this became clear when the workers movement developed various forms of action which opposed the traditional organizations during the wildcat strikes of the first years of the 20th century; this development would become yet more pronounced with the creation of the “shop stewards” networks during the war. Henceforth, the traditional workers organizations, the SPD and the trade unions, had their own logic and their own function in the existing society: this is what must be understood (as the Dutch did so well, splitting from the SDAP before 1910); the grave reproach of “opportunism” is nothing but an empty phrase: its employment reveals the bad conscience of the organization that feeds on the energy of the proletariat, which is what social democracy had become.

It is, then, impossible for revolutionaries to be in workers organizations (like Engels) or to try to deal with them (like Lenin), so as to guide their transformation (Engels) or to unmask them (Lenin). These organizations cannot be transformed because they have their own nature, nor can they be unmasked, because, while they may be susceptible to the reproach of being somewhat lax in the reformist struggle, they cannot be held accountable for their lack of revolutionary spirit, since the workers are reformist anyway. In which case, the only way to conquer what one may call the workers movement—organizations which have become autonomous of the workers—is, wherever possible, to decisively attack it, even if this attack is carried out by a minority.

All talk of “opportunism” assumed that the social democratic party was really founded upon principles which it betrayed in its political activities. In reality, these principles had never been more than a smokescreen. Twenty years of denunciations of the always-renewed opportunism of a party which was not actually what it had initially proposed itself to be at its first congresses and which had revealed a nature which had nothing to do with the organization of revolutionary proletarians, were of no significance at all. The party had become an established body within the society which it had theoretically claimed had to be completely transformed. It preferred the status quo, its preservation, against the revolution (or even against the simple autonomous actions of the workers in their attempts to obtain reforms) which could, in case it failed, threaten the integrity of the organization and the extremely privileged social situation of its functionaries. It is in relation to this real function and these real principles behind its activity that the acts of social democracy must be judged in advance.

Finally, one cannot accuse a party of being opportunist unless one assumes that it is actually a revolutionary party which has ceased to be revolutionary as a result of its resort to certain easy measures to attain its goal, measures which in fact will by no means allow the goal to be reached. Such a reproach can only be valid for a short time. The party either rapidly moves towards a form of activity which is in conformity with its goal and its principles (thus showing that it had only undergone a momentary and non-essential deviation, connected, for example, to its temporary domination by leaders who are effectively strangers to the revolutionary movement)—this case is very rare; it has probably never happened and only presents the obverse of a false symmetry—or else its first deviations are confirmed by others, which verifies that the party was in no way revolutionary, that its nature and its goal are power for itself, for its leaders, and that in any event, what is most important for it is its own preservation and consequently that of the existing order. In this case the reproach of opportunism must be abandoned, since it still implies a certain community with those against whom it is directed. This is why Gorter’s resort to this term in applying it to the Dutch Communist Party in 1919 is fully justified. The party had been undergoing a critical period of development for several years, and Gorter thought that it still had a healthy nucleus; as he said: “We hope that these leaders might adopt a better tactic.” In regard to social democracy this judgment of a politics which was even more rightist was disseminated for decades. Social democracy had assumed the role of the long-term defense of the interests of capital. One of the merits of the German Left would be that of showing that the Second International had fulfilled its role, that it had not “failed”, and in this respect the German Left was more advanced than the Italian Left. Without going so far, numerous Anglo-Saxon historians emphasize the continuity of social democracy, whereas leftist historians highlight the “rupture” of 1914. In West Germany, the “democratic” tradition of the German workers movement is the favorite theme, while in East Germany, historians focus on the “revolutionary” tradition of the SPD prior to 1914.

The Era of 1848
The Brockhaus Encyclopedia of 1846 notes that the term proletariat “has recently been applied to the lowest social layers with the least property.”11 Hegel had already used it in 1821 to designate those who were not capable of supporting themselves and who had fallen into dependence upon others. The most active categories of the working class during this period were the master craftsmen, skilled workers and apprentices (who together comprised 10% of the population), although the decline in craft-based trades brought with it a reduction in the number of master craftsmen. Skilled workers still comprised a minority in the factories. The formation of the working class is a process of social disintegration. Torn from an ancient mode of existence, the worker clung to that existence and found there part of the energy needed to rebel against his new conditions.12 The image of the golden, pre-“bureaucratic” age of the workers movement, where the worker launched wildcat strikes free from any noxious constraints, is as unreal as that of a brutalized and inert proletariat. Modern proletarian movements were born during this transitional period, and modern theoretical communism is their most inclusive and universal expression. Social democracy, and particularly the German Social Democracy, would be born of the failure and demise of this early movement, from which it would derive its theory as an ideology without making it the theory of its effective practice.13 The proletariat is not and never was pure negativity. Otherwise, one could never understand how, even in that epoch, conservative forces could prevent its rebellion and integrate it, nor could one form a comprehensive vision of the whole era which could explain why there was no revolution in 1918-1921.

German workers, at that time a small minority of the population, found it very difficult to link their actions to those of the agricultural population, who were divided into two large distinct sectors in the middle of the 19th century: the farmers of the north and the southwest, where land ownership was relatively dispersed, and the farm laborers of the east (1.5 million, of whom one-third were Poles), where serfdom was abolished, but who were still dependents of the landowners. At the end of the 18th century, Silesia was shaken by peasant agitation against the landowners’ efforts to increase their statutory corvée. 14

The prohibition of workers associations between 1731 and 1840 only partially destroyed the old solidarity of the medieval guilds. For the workers, German backwardness was not just a negative factor; it also allowed for the survival of collective forms of action. Mutual aid funds for the unemployed and invalids among the skilled workers were becoming more tolerated: among, for example, the printers concentrated in Leipzig who were threatened by technological progress. Strikes and boycotts were generally used in reaction to deteriorating conditions, and more rarely to obtain improvements. Despite the arrests of many strikers as a result of the prompt joint action of the factory owners and the authorities, the last years of the 18th century witnessed a large number of strikes between 1791 and 1795 which were linked to the French Revolution. Twenty thousand workers carried out a one-week general strike in Hamburg in 1791, which ended only with the intervention of the army. In Breslau, in 1793, the firing of a Hungarian worker led to a strike and more than 200 arrests. The city, which at that time counted 50,000 inhabitants, was the scene of daily demonstrations in which thousands of workers participated. The disturbances spread to the countryside; troops killed 37 people. The strike was brought to a conclusion on the basis of a compromise: the worker was re-hired.15 These movements never attained the extent of the Luddite agitation in England, however.

At the beginning of the 19th century, a Rhinelander, L. Gall, attributed the source of wealth to labor: “everything which ennobles and perpetuates life exists as a result of labor, but it is nonetheless precisely the class of laborers which suffers from the scarcity of what it has itself created.”16 The Silesian riots of June 1844, which were discussed by the whole revolutionary movement of the epoch, occasioned the celebrated debate between A. Ruge and Marx.17 Silesian industry had benefited from the Continental blockade, but the weavers were being decimated by the development of productivity. After the mistreatment of a weaver, some of the houses of the merchants were destroyed and the riot was brought to an end by means of a compromise imposed upon the weavers by military intervention, which caused several fatalities. The region’s workers suffered from a rise in the price of necessities between 1846 and 1847, which led to the deaths of up to 20% of the population in certain localities. This riot was the high point of a number of still-unknown actions. Clubs and mutual aid and educational associations were created, often following the model of groups which already existed in other countries as a result of the efforts of emigrant artisans, who participated in the social and political life of their new homes. The most well-known such group was the German Peoples Society of Paris (1832), which became the League of the Exiles, then the League of the Just, from which the Communist League later split.18

Marx and Engels frequently insisted on the fact that theory (the “German ideology”, but also revolutionary theory) had developed so easily in Germany because that country offered few avenues for action (liberal or proletarian). It could be suggested that the hunger for workers education, which characterized England and other European countries, was all the greater in Germany due to the limited possibilities for immediate action.19 The Communist League was as much an organization for education and recreation as it was an organization for politics and theory, and created public workers associations for elementary education, publishing, holding debates and cultural gatherings. If “militantism” is currently criticized for being an activity remote from life20 , the movement of the mid-19th century had a tendency to manifest an all-embracing social activity.21 Finally, the German revolutionary movement (like those of Russia and the Netherlands prior to 1914) had an open and international character due to its internal weakness and its need for inspiration from foreign experiences, both to imitate and to criticize. From its inception in 1840-1847, the communist current in Germany had a European dimension.

The liberal bourgeoisie often supported the workers associations, about which the Jewish typographer S. Born said: “We want a club so we can be men.” It was not rare for the municipality to pay the clubs’ lecturers. When these associations too plainly declared themselves against the established order, the bourgeoisie withdrew their assistance; sometimes they were prohibited. This development coincided, around 1844-1845, with growing interest in the “social question”, as is verified by numerous texts from that time. Engels recalled that interest in communism was as common among the bourgeoisie as it was among the proletarians, and related that numerous members of the liberal professions and even of the bourgeoisie attended lectures on communism. Understanding that the creation of wealth through labor engendered the creation of misery among the workers, the bourgeoisie tried to prevent the resolution of this contradiction from assuming an explosive form, and studied the subversive movement and its theoretical expressions in order to take action in regard to social conditions. The Essence of Money by M. Hess criticized the existence of labor power as a commodity, which had been accepted by Kant and Hegel: “If men could not be sold, they would not be worth even one penny, since they have no value unless they sell themselves or put themselves out to hire.”22 The critique of the world of commodities would be pursued by Marx. It is possible that no more than five or ten thousand people effectively participated in these “debates” and this “organization”, but their role would be important in the following years. In 1848-1849, The New Rhineland Gazette had a print run of 6,000, a considerable number for that era.

However, even though the barricades of March 1848 forced the Prussian army to evacuate Berlin, the April events demonstrated the impotence of the workers movement in taking the initiative in a revolution which would continue to be bourgeois, and timidly bourgeois. To different degrees, the European bourgeoisie preferred during the 19th century not to immediately secure total political power, which it did not assume until 1918 in Germany. In April 1848, the two active organizations were Born’s Central Workers Committee and the Committee for Popular Elections, a much broader grouping. In the light of later events the failure of 1848 would be interpreted as follows:

“This is how the only occasion offered by the history of the working class of the 19th century for an action in common between skilled artisans and a much greater number of more radical and more dispossessed men, with the goal of jointly confronting the authority of the state, was not taken advantage of.”23

This historian even went so far as to compare the arrest of Schlöffel (a radical student associated with unskilled workers) to the assassination of Luxemburg and Liebknecht in January 1919. Born’s group, representing the “highest layer of the working class”, was the precursor of the SPD: the defeat of the more proletarianized elements, in the sense in which Marx employed the term24 , coincided with the beginnings of the organization of the more privileged and consequently more moderate elements, who appealed especially to the State, thus presaging Lassalle (see below). It is clear that the journals published later, in 1849, which were associated with Born, publicized the theme of production associations supported by public funds.

After the defeat of April 1848, this movement was incapable of promoting the “dual” revolution (bourgeois and proletarian) advocated by the communists.25 The armed confrontations in which the workers formed a large part of the democratic camp had little chance of victory after the bourgeoisie of western Germany yielded to the reaction. This same reaction, however, would reassume the reins of the economic program of the bourgeois revolution and would carry out capitalist development to the great benefit of the bourgeoisie of the Rhineland and Saxony.

In Dresden, in May 1849, the democrats raised barricades and tried to blow up the buildings on either side of them so as not to be caught in a pincers movement—Cavaignac’s tactic in Paris in June of 1848. But the demolition teams failed. Lacking food and water, and not receiving the reinforcements which they had expected, the rebels also squandered their chance to seize the city’s artillery and armory. As had been shown to be the case in Breslau in 1793, and was further confirmed in Paris in June of 1848, urban insurrections were condemned to impotence if they left the use of artillery in the hands of the enemy. The Prussian cannons reduced the barricades and the rebels, after three or four days of resistance, abandoned the city. Despite the aid they received from the peasants during their retreat, they were unable to resume the struggle.26 The army of Baden, formed by 25,000 men (both regulars and guerrillas) from all over Germany, but primarily from the south and southwest, was organized in June under the command of a Polish officer. In its ranks were soldiers from Baden, workers from Württemburg and guerrillas. Against the Prussians, who had four or five times more soldiers, it was not unified enough, and was surrounded in the fortress of Rastatt and capitulated in July. The scope of this civil war has probably been exaggerated: throughout all the skirmishes of 1848-1849, the Prussian army suffered fewer than 500 casualties.27 28

The effects of this defeat on the German and European communist movements have been underestimated. The “lessons” of the counterrevolution were taken into account by the moderates as well as by the revolutionaries. While the years 1840-1850 coincided with a critique of private property, the defeat of 1848-1849 accentuated the tendency to seek improvements within capitalism. The old traditions inherited from the guilds had transmitted the experience of collective struggle to modern proletarians: the succeeding phase would see the initiation of efforts to achieve a community of wage labor within existing society with its own defense mechanisms and values recognized by the State.

In 1848-1850, the Brotherhood (Verbrüderung) led by Born counted almost 40,000 members and dedicated its efforts to promoting a collectivist system. As Born stated in a letter to Marx in 1848, it was necessary to avoid “futile insurrections”; the majority of workers must be won over and the class must be unified within capital.29 This reformism was obviously condemned to failure. It was unrealistic to want to organize a reformism parallel to capitalism in rival units of production (cooperatives). This perspective was the craftsman’s dream of adapting to technological progress without destroying capital, thereby preventing artisans from becoming either proletarians or small capitalist businessmen. The SPD, with the assistance of the trade unions, would on the other hand construct a modern reformism, consonant with industrial development, not outside of but within large industry. Lassalle appeared to be the point of intersection between the two phases, combining labor organization and cooperation.

In effect, the reaction which followed 1848-1849 was political: on the economic plane, it could only survive by adopting the program of its adversary (the bourgeoisie). In order to consolidate its hegemony, the supposedly feudal Prussian State had to prepare the ground for a capitalist development which was the only way to firmly establish German power and to reinforce its own political preeminence. But the ambiguity of German unification would endure even after 1871, disappearing only in 1918. Economic expansion did not, properly speaking, make the artisans dissolve into the ranks of the proletariat: artisans were often absorbed into factories where they preserved their status as foremen of the labor process which, in its organization and specialization, had not yet been totally transformed. The role of skilled workers, as well as that of their training (political and professional) was progressively marginalized due to migration within Germany or immigration overseas. The wages of workers in the rural areas rose. Certain kinds of poverty tended to disappear with the absorption of the unemployed and poor artisans by industry. The economic crisis of 1857, the first disturbance to simultaneously shake England, the United States, France and Germany, did not profoundly affect the workers’ standard of living. The Bismarckian approach, a synthesis of authority and conciliation to subordinate the workers to capitalism, was already in effect. Strikes—of short duration compared to those in England—were often broken by the old artisan class.

“Marxism” and Lassallism
For anyone who invokes “Marxism”, especially in Germany, Lassalle has been a model of detestable “reformism” for more than a century. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that the history of the Marxist tradition has always presented the Lassallian movement as the evil opposed to the good incarnated by Marx’s supporters in Germany. Undoubtedly imperfect, but ultimately revolutionaries, it was men like Liebknecht and A. Bebel who would constitute the real socialist movement, as opposed to the traitor Lassalle who secretly negotiated with Bismarck. There is, in fact, a great deal of continuity between Lassallism and the SPD, although the most foreign aspects of the Lassallian movement would be abandoned. Lassalle himself is a complex personality. When he died in 1864 as a result of a duel, Heine wrote that he was a mixture of great personal qualities and the genius of self-destruction.30 Transcending the archaic reformism of the artisanal sector, Lassalle simultaneously rejected class struggle and Manchester liberalism. His System of Acquired Rights develops the theme of the passage from private property to public property. He announces the advent of the workers as a (non-subversive) social-professional grouping within capitalism, who pressure capitalism (with the help of the State) to obtain a stable and recognized status. In an 1862 speech—the year Bismarck was appointed Chancellor—Lassalle posed the question: who should run society? Constitutions, he explains, are not so much immutable documents as the provisional crystallizations of power relations between rival social groups. Aware of the political reality of the capitalist world, where the atomization of individuals leads to their regrouping into blocs which demand shares of power, he seeks to directly organize this claimed share of power in collaboration with Bismarck.31 Although his secret correspondence was not revealed until after his death, the other socialists never ceased to denounce Lassalle’s collusion with the State. Lassalle describes his organization to Bismarck as “my empire”: “The working classes are instinctively predisposed in favor of dictatorship, if one knows how to fully convince them that this dictatorship is to be exercised in their interest.”32 Lassalle’s adversaries in the workers movement fought in the name of workers autonomy against submission to the State. But can one speak of workers autonomy under capitalism, which, more than any other social system tends to produce the conditions of life in their entirety? Paradoxically, the demand for workers independence in opposition to the factory owners drove the ADAV (General Association of German Workers) towards the State. The demand for independence in opposition to capital would push the SPD towards what appeared to be the means to limit capital’s field of action, that is, to exercise influence over it: once again, the State is at hand. Everything which intends to live on the margins of capital is finally condemned to seek the protection of that which appears to be above capital, but which is nothing but its concentrated power.33

Lassalle made an incomplete attempt, sealed by an explicit pact (see his letters), to accomplish what social democracy would later realize by concluding an implicit agreement with capital. Lassalle was a precursor; for the workers, against the bourgeoisie, and with the assistance of the State. In this sense, he was also a prefiguration of 1918-1919 and national socialism. Lassallism could not succeed because it remained tied to the utopia of the cooperatives which were to have constituted a counterweight—but always with the help of the State—to the industrial power of capital, which was impossible. The SPD would strip Lassallism of these absurdities in order to preserve its essential nucleus: Lassalle had helped German society to frame the question of what place the workers should assume within it.

Although it was reformist, the ADAV, founded in 1863, faced the hostility of the factory owners and the police in (local) social conflicts, despite the pact sealed by the Lassalle-Bismarck summit. Since he believed in the possibility of establishing production cooperatives, Lassalle could all the more easily “discover” the theory of the iron law of wages, which holds that wages must always decline to a minimum due to the play of economic mechanisms, no matter what the organized workers do. This theory allowed him to justify his indifference, not to say hostility, to the trade unions. That such a doctrine suited his politics is the least that one could say. His successor as leader of the ADAV, Schweitzer, followed the same path, but was compelled to recant after 1868 under pressure from ADAV members and the reform movements. He then organized a conference said to represent 140,000 workers, but this number rapidly declined and was reduced to 10,000 in 1870.34

Alongside the party linked to Marx and Engels, the Social Democratic Workers Party (SDAP), which was founded in 1869, there was the offshoot of an organization created in 1863, the League of German Workers Clubs (VDA), which from its inception had opposed Lassallism in regard to the question of German unification.35 The ADAV supported unification under Prussian leadership, and could be said to have sold its support to the most powerful German state in exchange for a special law concerning labor and some advantages within the unified Germany of the future. The SDAP, however, proclaimed its support for a democratic unification without Prussian hegemony. The social composition of the ADAV was, at least initially, more working class than that of the SDAP, which happily directed its message towards the anti-Prussian democrats as well as militant workers. The declarations of Bebel and Liebknecht seem to grant a place of honor to the resistance against Prussian dominance, even more than to the problems of socialism. It cannot be said that the SDAP represented the class struggle and Marxism against the class collaboration of the ADAV. The SDAP was quite ambiguous, so much so that, until about 1880, support for the socialist and workers movement was provided above all by artisans threatened by industrialization. The VDA was “a rather weak federation of local clubs”, while the ADAV was, from its very inception, highly centralized. Two political organizations were linked to the VDA: the German Party (1865), a very weak democratic group, and the Saxon Peoples Party (1866), primarily composed of workers. This dualism would persist in the SPD. Marx was much more aware of the Lassallian danger than of the distance separating the SDAP from communism. He was convinced that the SDAP would evolve in a revolutionary direction; as for the ADAV, its large membership led him to provisionally take it into consideration before attacking it in earnest. On December 22, 1864, he wrote that the ADAV’s membership in the IWA “was only necessary as a beginning, in order to fight against our enemies here. Later, it will be necessary to completely destroy this organization, since the foundations upon which it is based are false”.36 After the failure of the new newspaper, the Sozial-Demokrat, in 1864-1865, the rupture between the IWA and the ADAV was consummated: the IWA would thenceforth accept individual memberships only. Marx’s influence in Germany declined to one of its lowest points ever. Liebknecht, who lived for twelve years in London, and had been a member of the ADAV since 1863, would later break with the Lassallians. In 1900, he would justify his activity within the ADAV in the following manner: “there was a movement and an organization within it, albeit embryonic ones.”37 After 1866 and Prussia’s victory over Austria, it was clear that unification would be achieved under Prussian leadership; especially since Germany’s southern states feared France. Bismarck and the liberals reached an understanding and he granted fewer concessions to the ADAV, which then moved towards the left. The SDAP was slowly gaining prestige and benefiting from its association with Marx and the IWA. Published in 1867, Volume I of Capital was much less influential than is generally believed. Its rare readers (Bebel waited two years to read it and Liebknecht had read fewer than 15 pages after having received it) accepted it as an exaltation of the working class against capital, reading into it the “certainty of victory”, according to Liebknecht’s 1868 formula. The socialist newspapers which took note of its publication generally only quoted its Introduction, without understanding its analyses38 . What were discovered in Capital were not capital’s laws of motion, its flexibility, or the characteristics of communism, but the “scientific” proofs of capital’s exploitation of the workers. Only half of its message was absorbed, as if the project of theoretical communism was limited to denunciation, and was not the unveiling of the communist program. The visionary aspect of revolutionary theory was beginning to be forgotten, and was relegated to the supposedly inferior and infantile level of “utopian socialism”.

Similarly, when the SDAP convened its 1869 Congress in Eisenach, claiming to embrace 14,000 workers, its program, when subjected to careful examination, was by no means “Marxist”.39 The Lassallian vestiges with which it was still impregnated (“Free Peoples State”, “the entire product of labor”, “public credit for production cooperatives”) were the same ones which Marx would criticize six years later when the Party would fuse with the Lassallians at Gotha. It is impossible to oppose “Lassallism” to “Marxism”, even while recognizing that the latter had provisionally capitulated to the former in 1875. Its alleged affiliation later betrayed by the SPD never existed. The Eisenach Program is, furthermore, fully within the democratic tradition: demands for “political freedom” and a “democratic state”. The influence of the Peoples Party was such that one of its leaders, Sonnemann, a left liberal, persuaded Bebel to adopt the name “Socialist Democratic Party”, thus leaving the word “worker” out of the party’s title. When Bebel proposed that the word “worker” be included in the name of the party he was defeated by the former followers of Lassalle.40 In this sense, the Lassallians were the purest representatives of a specifically, yet limited (see below) working class reformism, in contrast to the “Marxists” who obtained all their inspiration and their power from the democratic movement and from the fear of the liberal bourgeoisie in the non-Prussian states of being dominated by Prussia. The SPD would later combine Statism and democracy, but this dualism would again be manifested in the conflict between an extreme right in favor of State power and a liberal right (Bernstein).

Parliamentary activity soon occupied a preponderant place within the new party. Liebknecht, of course, vehemently declared in 1870: “The Reichstag does not make history and is content with performing a comedy; its members say and do what the director tells them. Should we, therefore, make the Reichstag the center of our activities. . . ? If revolutionaries were not so inept and if the government did not control the elections, it would be possible.”41 But he did not reject the principle of parliamentarism and only regretted that it played its democratic role so poorly.

The SDAP was a section of the IWA, but, as Engels wrote to Cuno on May 7-8, 1872, “the attitude of the German workers movement in relation to the International has never been very clear. Their relationship has always been purely Platonic. . . .” Between July of 1870 and May of 1871, a minority within the Party (Bebel, Liebknecht) maintained relatively internationalist positions. But one must take the role played by the national question into consideration as a factor of confusion, even in the reflections of Marx and Engels. It is possible that the national question often served as a surrogate for deeper reflection (and sometimes for action). Exaggerating the role played by Russia in the failure of the movements of 1848-1849 allowed them to avoid posing serious questions concerning the effective capabilities of the proletarians and revolutionaries of their time. Similarly, they counted on German unification to help develop the socialist movement42 . Conversely, they expected French action to undermine political structures: this was true of Liebknecht in regard to the Saxon monarchy.43

On July 21, 1870, Liebknecht and Bebel refused to vote for the war budget, which had been accepted by the Lassallians and Fritzche, an ex-Lassallian who became a member and then a parliamentary deputy of the SDAP. But their internationalism was unstable. Liebknecht, at the head of the “Brunswick Committee”, which was composed primarily of ex-Lassallians, declared on July 26: “I must not blame you too much for your patriotic fervor. But you, too, for your part, should make some concessions. Even if you do not agree with the position Bebel and I took in the Reichstag, our disagreement must be overcome at all costs or, in any event, we must prevent it from coming to the attention of the public.”44 Their internationalist position obviously implied that they should be clear and stand firm against those who upheld the opposing position. The Party’s unity would not be restored again until after the defeat of the French: a French victory could then no longer be feared, and the entire “Marxist” workers movement could once again join in a demand for a peace without annexations (which would also be one of the centrist positions of 1914-1918, garnering the support of the majority at Zimmerwald in 1915, and would be attacked by the Zimmerwald Left: see Chapter 4).

Bebel and Liebknecht did not have an international point of view, and in this respect they were like everyone else. Their attitude, even when it coincided with Marx’s viewpoint, derived not from international but from national considerations. For them, it was a matter of making alliances with certain parties and social groups in Germany, but different ones from which the Lassallians expected concessions since the latter relied above all on the State. Their dissident attitude towards the war was an extension of their policy of supporting the liberal bourgeoisie and their hostility towards Prussia. Evoking the Commune before the Reichstag in April of 1871, Bebel invited the supporters of the Commune to “act with the greatest moderation”.45

The SPD would speak of a victory over Lassallism: but which elements of Marxism emerged victorious? Above all, the idea of the ultimate victory of socialism, and of the need for an independent political workers organization. But Lassalle was not opposed to these things. Believing in a final victory is not in itself revolutionary: if the tasks of the communist revolution are not clarified, the “transition” to socialism could appear to be a gradual evolution. Lassallism was integrated into the workers movement. In their pure form, the specific contributions of Bebel, Liebknecht and Lassalle each represented a stereotyped tendency from the beginnings of the movement, and fuse when capital distracts the working class. Many signs testify to the persistence of Lassallism until the beginning of the 20th century. One can even speak of an official Lassalle cult. Liebknecht, in publishing an article by Engels in 1868, deleted the passages critical of Lassalle. In his famous pamphlet Our Goals (1870), Bebel makes few allusions to the IWA, but often quotes Lassalle and employs his arguments. Marx often complained that the Lassallians simultaneously plagiarized and distorted his theories. Marx’s thought was never understood for what it really was. It was always disseminated through a filter, that of Lassalle, in an epoch when Marx’s writings were not widely circulated, and later through the official Social Democratic screen. Militants’ correspondence testifies, at least until the end of the century, to a lack of awareness of the Communist Manifesto. In 1872, the cover of a Party publication reproduced two photographs, of Marx and Lassalle, flanking that of Liebknecht. The History of Social Democracy, a semi-official work written by Mehring, a theoretician of the left, is nonetheless as favorable to Lassalle as to Marx.46 The attack against Lassalle during the 1870s derived primarily from the (self-avowed) anti-Marxist Dühring. Lassalle’s real popularity would persist (even outside the Party) until the War: other idols would then replace him. It is pure illusion to believe that the polemics of the epoch revolved around Marx and were settled in his favor. The progressive penetration of theoretical communism is a legend. Upon Liebknecht’s death (1900), it was Bebel who would lead the Party until 1913. His polemics were of little importance: above all, he wanted to preserve the organization, that is, the one which would prepare the future (ultimately a capitalist future) of Social Democracy.47 Theory became simply an allusive reference, useful or annoying, depending on the circumstances. The Marx-Engels correspondence, published in 1913, was carefully abridged by V. Adler, Bernstein and Bebel, with particular attention to those passages dealing with Lassalle and Liebknecht, whom Marx abused on several occasions.48 The movement needed heroes. Mehring denounced this maneuver, and published some of the expurgated passages before the book’s release, although he claimed in 1915 that the book had presented the essentials of Marx and Engels’ correspondence. Riazanov would later guarantee this falsification, but would then regret having done so.

The SDAP combined with the ADAV in 1875 at the Gotha Congress to form the Socialist Workers Party, making many concessions to Lassallism, which were severely criticized by Marx. The legend would have it that this deviation was to be corrected by the creation, in 1890, of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), whose Marxist Erfurt Program, written by Kautsky, would be the proof of revolutionary victory. Of course, Marx expressed vigorous reservations concerning the name itself: “What a name: Sozialdemokrat. Why not frankly call it the Proletarian?”, Engels wrote to Marx on November 16, 1864. Marx responded on November 18: “Sozialdemokrat. A bad name. But it is important not to quickly use up all the best names in possible failures.”49 It would be more correct to translate this term by social democrat. It effectively designated a movement which accepted and reinforced the democratic scenario (that is, a political form,50 one State form opposed to others, such as, for example, dictatorship), in order to imbue it with a social content by introducing improvements in working class living conditions. As for the terminology expressing essential questions, the choice of the term Sozialdemokrat made no difference at all, for either the SPD or the most advanced fraction of the bourgeoisie, who also proposed solving “the social question” within the “democratic framework”. Following the SPD’s trajectory from 1890 to 1933, one notes that the SPD always reproached the liberal bourgeoisie for not respecting its own principles, for not going far enough in support of democracy, in a word, for not involving the workers in existing society. Words are not autonomous, and bear the meaning given them by whoever uses them. Those who formed the Communist League wanted to use this term to insist upon the nature of the movement of which they were a part: a movement for the collective use and enjoyment of wealth. Babeuf spoke of “the common happiness”. Social democracy designates no more than a reorganization, a realignment of private property within society, a socialization of the wealth hitherto distributed between the State and Business by means of an equitable distribution of power in favor of all social groups: adding equality to freedom, real rights to formal liberties, a social content to political democracy, a step forward in the destiny of the workers towards universal suffrage: this is the real program of the SPD. The general political goals defined at Erfurt differed little from those at Gotha. The evolution of the German workers movement up to 1918 consists of the difficult rupture of an unnatural (from the revolutionary point of view) but historically inevitable alliance between reformism and the communist movement. But the road taken in common is more than just a simple journey. It profoundly affected the revolutionaries and created an anti-revolutionary organization anchored in reality and supported by the majority of the workers. The opposition movements which arose were ambiguous and did not question, unlike what took place in other countries and even in Germany before the war, the function of Social Democracy itself. The German Left was relatively late in forming, considering the importance of this country (see Chapter 1): once constituted, it would not, as elsewhere, go very far.

After Erfurt, the “Jungen” (Youth) group hit the nail on the head with their critiques of the Party’s reformist character and its acceptance of official institutions (parliament). Their critiques were too much like those of the anarchists for Engels to refrain from being one of their most vehement opponents. He nonetheless took little notice of the kernel of truth which they contained. In reality, “anarchism”, just like “Marxism”, did not exist as an organized and unified current. A prisoner of its time, it embraced a series of reactions to the capitalist stagnation of the Second International. Anarchism is one of the great architects of the construction of the modern trade union movement after the end of the 1800s: the trade unionism which anarchism inspired would prove to be as non-revolutionary as that of the “Marxists” (see Chapter 9). Only a minority with a Marxist background (including the German Left) would prove to be capable of trying to derive a perspective for the future after 1914.

Engels harbored vast illusions when he wrote to Lafargue on June 11, 1869: “Now that we have won, we have proved to the world that almost all European socialists are Marxists.”51 The following year, the English, Belgian and German socialists were tempted to attend the congress of the Possibilists (with P. Brousse, supporters of achieving what is possible within capitalism). Engels went so far as to recommend unity at any price, convinced that such a development would by itself eliminate opportunism (see his letter of August 9, 1890).52 This is why he scorned the “Jungen”.53 For Marx and Engels, parties like the SPD, despite their deficiencies, represented the “real” workers movement, as opposed to the anarchist groups whom they compared to religious sects. This is why they both accepted parliamentary action without exposing its effects.

Engels mistakenly assimilated universal suffrage with the “index which allows one to measure the maturity of the working class. It can only be that, and will never be anything but that in today’s State”.54 The representative system is much more than that and as capital blocks any other kind of community not derived from the capital relation it becomes correspondingly more important. Elections and political life become one of the privileged sites in which one rediscovers a sense of community. Parliamentarism is not merely a “barometer of class struggle”: it does not limit itself to measuring, it deforms what it measures, and itself intervenes with all of its weight in the “class struggle” in order to bring the latter to an end. It is not enough to say that parliamentarism was not revolutionary after 191455 : one must also see its nefarious role even before 1914, and admit that Marx, Engels and after them almost the entire left wing of the Second International did not take this into account.

Engels’ tactic also rests upon the idea that universal suffrage would not be easily granted in Prussia, where the workers movement was barely tolerated.56 Thus, one could do revolutionary work even on the parliamentary terrain, since Prussia was opposed to democracy. This view underestimated the ability of capitalist society to become democratic, and to keep the workers on this terrain to the detriment of the proletarian social movement. The policy of the Prussian State in regards to the workers movement was not distinguished by a confused rejection of toleration, but by integration, which had begun with Lassalle.

Reformism and the Radical Response prior to 1914
It would be an excessive distortion of the facts to consider the SPD’s evolution until the end of the 19th century from the perspective of the “revisionist” dispute which began around 1890 involving Bernstein, the only honest reformist, or Vollmar, the Bavarian socialist. The latter, a militant in a largely agricultural, only slightly industrialized region, advocated doctrinal softening and flexibility in electoral tactics in order not to alienate the peasants and middle classes. This was not the more important sort of revisionism from the capitalist point of view. In reality, the most dangerous reformism (for the revolution) came from the workers (trade union) leaders in the large industrial regions. These leaders applied the second (reformist) part of the Erfurt Program, abandoning the measures enumerated in the first part which can be summarized as follows: capitalist socialization of wealth and production. This Program did not say that the privileged agent of this evolution would be the State, but neither was anything clearly stated on this topic, so the road was still open. Lassallian Statism again comes to the fore, not to develop cooperatives, but to assure society’s democratization. Since the years when Bismarck prohibited the socialist party, from 1880-1890, a system of social services was established which would link the workers to the State. Weimar would later systematically develop a mixed economy (associating State and private capital) advocated by the ADGB and the SPD, the logical outcome of the socialization defined—or, which is the same thing, badly defined—at Erfurt.

At first, from about 1869 to 1890, the trade unions were a means of recruitment for the Party, which was illegal from 1872 to 1890. After 1890, the political and trade union organizations enjoyed a situation of independent coexistence. In 1906, the trade unions imposed their right to veto any important decision of the SPD.57 But their mutual evolution did not proceed without problems. Radical elements often dominated local trade union coordinating bodies and local sections. The latter, comparable to the departmental unions of the French CGT, frequently opposed the emergence of a layer of permanent salaried officials, which took place wherever trade unions existed. The radicals denounced tendencies towards conciliation, and opposed collective bargaining. In 1896, a local section of the Leipzig printers union was excluded from its chapter for having signed a collective labor contract. The dispute was brought before the trade union congress, which pronounced in favor of collective bargaining agreements, and excluded the Leipzig central from the national trade union. At the same time, centralization—an indispensable means of struggle in negotiations over labor power—deprived the local centrals of their means of action and pressure, especially financial ones. Trade union structure lagged behind industrial development. In Hamburg, while industrial trade unions embraced more than 40% of the ADGB’s members, only 9 out of 52 local union leaders came from these unions, which had almost no managerial positions.58 The ADGB hesitated to form industrial federations, preferring instead to group trade unions together locally or regionally by trade.

The growth of the trade unions, which combined, in 1892, in the General Trade Union Commission, and later in the ADGB in 1900, was accompanied by a growing rivalry with the SPD. Like the Bavarians, the trade unions found the revolutionary ideology of the Party to be an obstacle to their growth. The Party, on the other hand, needed this ideology to win over those elements which more or less aspired to social change, as well as to preserve its left wing. The trade unions supported the “revisionists” (who loudly proclaimed what the Party was actually doing), and the “orthodox” leaders forged a revolutionary image at little expense, appearing to be defenders of the revolutionary tradition. There was a struggle between these two organizations, whose interests were not convergent: this disagreement would reappear in the Weimar republic and last until just after the Nazi seizure of power.59 The interest of the trade unions was to accept any political regime which would guarantee their role as mediators. The Party’s interest was to modify the political system by promoting a type of State in which it could have a place. These two perspectives and the respective interests of the two bureaucratic layers which defended them frequently converged, but not always. The theory of the “two pillars” (trade union and Party) which constituted the workers movement only served to conceal a struggle for influence.

The bureaucratization of the Party was also accompanied by a certain amount of resistance and only really got underway after 1900.60 The most numerous permanent officials were not in the Party, but in its satellite organizations: in 1914, there were 4,100 permanent officials in the SPD and the ADGB, but in 1912 there were 7,100 in workers cooperatives. The organization had to be organized: to sustain workers activities, certain commercial enterprises were necessary. Auer had said, in 1890: “the Party cannot live on dues; we need to make profits from our Press.”61 A Saxon delegate to the 1894 Congress denounced the capitalist nature of the Party: “There are enterprises which employ between 50 and 100 workers. When these workers wanted to take the First of May off from work, the social democratic management, among whom were various orators who spoke at the rallies on the First of May, docked their pay.”62 The Party had to be profitable.

One of the reasons adduced by the German Left in favor of a purely working class organization was the enormous weight acquired within the SPD by certain rural groups or small cities which played a role in the Party which was totally disproportionate to their real importance.63 The middle classes of medium-sized and even some small cities were over-represented within the Party’s organizational apparatus and its leadership. In 1912, at the Party’s Congress in the State of Württemberg, 17,000 socialist residents of the city were represented by 90 delegates; 5,000 socialists who lived outside the city sent 224 delegates. The German Left would also incorporate a reaction—a healthy one but one which often missed the point—against the sociological weight of non-proletarian social layers. The fear of the peasants, expressed theoretically by Gorter in numerous works, also expressed the desire of the revolutionary movement in the large urban centers to not be drowned out by concessions made by the socialists to those who lived in an environment which was less polarized around opposed interests. Nonetheless, numbers do not constitute a criterion for radical expression and autonomy: in the large organizations, in which the many degrees of officialdom between the rank and file and the leadership are most varied, the influence of the militants on the leaders was more limited.64

“National Socialism” was progressively confirmed as the dominant characteristic of the SPD. Concerning Russia, Marx’s legacy was distorted, having been reduced to a mixture of pacifist internationalism and Russophobia, together with the concept of popular militias. This characteristic would come to be found in the weakness of Karl Liebknecht’s (W. Liebknecht’s son) anti-militarist activity before and during the war. Father and son were both victims of militarism, the former sometimes yielding to it, the latter believing that one could be victorious by concentrating on it. It was incorrect to maintain that militarism was “the principle support of capitalism”.65 Radical anti-militarism is revolutionary but it does not positively frame the question. It understood that the army was among the principle enemies of the revolution, without seeing the social tasks of the revolution which are also indispensable means of struggle against the army. These overlooked connections would be put to the test in January 1919 (see Chapter 7).

The socialist leaders severely condemned the anti-militarism of some SPD members, thereby revealing their patriotism. W. Liebknecht, in a debate with D. Nieuwenhuis in Zurich in 1893 (see Chapter 3), denied that one could “fight against the Moloch of militarism by convincing isolated individuals, provoking puerile uprisings in the barracks . . . which is false, but tirelessly advocated. We must establish our doctrine in the army. When the masses become socialists, then the time of militarism will have come to an end (prolonged applause)”.66 To the false “anarchist” radicalism then advocated by G. Hervé, he opposed a gradualism which retained nothing of “Marxism” but what he found useful, along with, among other things, a partial critique of anarchism. An in-depth critique would have presupposed the self-critique of “Marxism” and the recognition of its crisis. At the 1906 Mannheim Congress, Bebel addressed the issue of Belgian anti-militarism: “An insignificant country, whose army cannot compare with Prussian military organization. The same thing is happening in France. Anti-militarism is spreading there, after only two years (Karl Liebknecht interrupts him: they have done quite well!) . . . No! That is overly-biased and exaggerated! (Vigorous applause).” Bebel went on to describe the anticipated “fever which would seize control of the masses” in case of war, excluding any possibility of revolutionary action in such circumstances. In 1907, he defended the popular militia as the best means to defend the country, citing, in defense of his position, the opinions of certain generals. Militias are excellent for the youth; they evoke the Japanese schools for martial arts, in which “young people contend with so much ardor and courage . . . that all of Europe should adopt this athletic training regime for the defenders of empire”.67 The SPD thus proposed total mobilization and enlistment of youth: “fascism” would realize these goals. Noske declared that the social democrats would defend Germany “with as much determination as any of the gentlemen occupying benches on the right of the Assembly,” as long as reforms are conceded to them.68 The pact is clear.

The socialist youth movement was one of the focal points of opposition. It was not a creation of the Party. Groups of young people formed around 1904-1906, sometimes with the assistance of Party members. Berlin apprentices organized against their masters and thus constituted the nucleus, and the movement later spread to other northern cities. Persecuted by the police, they had 4,000 members in 1907. The social democratic youth in Northern Germany, organized in the Union of Free Youth Organizations, were undoubtedly the first groups to experience clandestinity in the 20th century, at a time when the whole socialist movement was tolerated and even admired by capital. The social democratic youth experienced something of the spirit of the socialist movement which had been persecuted until approximately 1890, and this experience would prove useful. In the south the opposition groups were more working class, more democratic, and less radical, but still anti-militarist, having been influenced by, among other groups, the Young Belgian Guards, which arose after 1905. C. Zetkin, a teacher, elaborated a concept of education which was a synthesis of Marxism and the new educational methods. Responding to pressure from the trade unions, the SPD began to take control of the youth groups between 1906 and 1908.

From their inception, it was perceived that the great mass movements of 1905 in Poland and Russia presented a new means of action, a new method of agitation, and a new form for an old content. It was still a question, even for the left, of exerting pressure on the State but not of destroying it (see Chapter 3). The majority supported the parliamentary weapon; the minority preferred the extra-parliamentary weapon. “Mass action” and “mass strike” do not correspond to the revolutionary syndicalist thesis of the expropriatory “general strike” which was conceived in the first place as a rehearsal for the revolution and later as the form of the revolution itself, with the trade unions taking over production. Mass action is not essentially revolutionary. It could be a means of reformist pressure in a country where parliamentary pressure is not possible because parliamentary democracy does not yet exist. The “general strike” is a kind of economically organized mass action without a political party. For Luxemburg, the “mass strike” is mass action outside of traditional (economic and political) organizations, which compels the latter to take action. For the center (Kautsky), mass action is a self-generated adaptation of the movement at the peak of its struggles, and not a means of radical action. The mass strike had already been utilized in Belgium and Austria to obtain universal suffrage, just as mass demonstrations would later be used, in Germany in 1918, to obtain parliamentary democracy. The Luxemburgist left would privilege the dynamic relation of masses-party (the one influencing the other) and the working class-State relation (in which the working class is the sum of the relation, mass + party), above the destruction of the State, without providing a clear definition of the Party.

After the Hamburg Congress (1908), the Left supported the youth movement and in turn received important assistance from the youth movement. The position of the youth in the Party became a touchstone of the conflict between revisionists and radicals. In almost every place where a youth group existed, the Party section took its side against the central Party apparatus. As in the question of war, everything ended in compromise. The authority over the youth groups conceded to the local sections allowed the youth groups to pursue their radicalism wherever the sections favored them, even when the Party machine led by Ebert undertook to control them. After 1911 the movement ebbed due to the actions of the State, only to be reborn later during the war.

Behind the surface appearance of adhering to principles, the right—rather than the leadership of the Party—controlled the Party. The SPD added some pseudo-radical declarations of principle to the programs of action proposed or imposed by the trade unions. The “Party” structure was not the sole cause of the SPD’s degeneration, which was promoted by the trade unions. The center backed the right and made use of the left for doctrinal support (without any impact on the policies it pursued), even referring to the left in its anti-revisionist struggle. The existence of revolutionary tendencies within an utterly reformist organization is not in itself a positive sign. These tendencies served to provide the organization with a dynamic and credibility for radical working class groups and in those situations where revolutionary ideology was necessary. As long as they did not break with the organization, and as long as they did not understand that they did not have to conquer or submit to the organization, but to destroy it, these revolutionary tendencies strengthened the organization. Korsch would later write that Luxemburg (and, elsewhere in the Second International, Lenin) only attacked the theory but not the practice of social democracy, thus strengthening it contrary to her own intentions.69

In 1908 the Party’s school, created in 1905 to train functionaries for the SPD and the ADGB, became the target of revisionist attacks (by Eisner, among others), but continued to be dominated by the Left (Luxemburg, Mehring). Its function was ambiguous. On the one hand, it preserved a tradition of revolutionary theory and thus prepared for the future. On the other hand, it preserved the idea of a party which was still concerned with revolutionary theory. As for the trade unions, they settled the matter by sending no more students to the Party’s school.

In a letter to Kautsky dated November 8, 1884, Engels linked the radical German workers movement to the youth and to the backwardness of German capitalism: “It is curious, that what is of most help to our cause is Germany’s industrial backwardness. In England and France, the transition to industrialization is almost over. The living conditions of the proletariat have already been stabilized.”

This situation was reversed by the rise of German capitalism: “the golden chain to which the capitalist has bound wage labor and which it never ceases to forge, has now grown long enough to allow for a relaxation of some of its tension.”70

The theme of the integration of the workers movement into established society was debated for the first time during this epoch: after 1918, people would speak of “bourgeoisification” and “ossification”. Max Weber attributed this trend to “the growing number of people who have an interest in this kind of social promotion and its material advantages.” “One could ask who has more to lose by it: bourgeois society or social democracy? In my opinion, I believe that social democracy has more to lose, and more particularly those among its adherents who are the bearers of revolutionary ideology.” He viewed social democracy as “a State within a State”.71 In 1918, M. Weber would render homage to the qualities of order and discipline which the German people, drilled by social democracy, could exhibit, as his own experience with a local workers and soldiers council demonstrated. R. Michels, who abandoned social democracy for revolutionary syndicalism, denounced the SPD’s bureaucratization: 72 for some workers the labor bureaucracy constituted the social promotion which the church at one time offered certain peasants. Weber lamented that the bourgeoisie preserved the revolutionary forces within the workers movement due to its refusal to concede full freedom of activity (particularly by way of universal suffrage) to social democracy: one would then see, he said, how it is not social democracy which will conquer the State, but that it will be the State which will conquer social democracy.

The bureaucratic centralization of the SPD gave rise at times to a vigorous reaction, above all in the urban centers where tendencies developed in opposition to the leadership. In opposition to reformism it was anti-Statist; in opposition to the suffocation of internal democracy it wanted a completely democratic party structure. Kautsky condemned “the rebel’s impatience” which, according to him, inspired the excessive radicalism of 1907.73 The left gradually exposed the center, attacking its opportunism, for example, at the Chemnitz Congress of 1912. But the Party’s evolution was quite coherent. It was the Left which could be accused of opportunism for struggling each day against reformism without attacking it in its continuity and its profound logic. One of the reasons why the Left failed to clarify this point was an insufficient understanding of the crisis-revolution relation. Convinced that a war was imminent, it expected the war would bring about a mass uprising. At the end of the war, the Left would expect, this time as a result of the political and social crisis engendered by the war, a revolution which it would still improvidently conceive of as an automatic development. Luxemburg had often set out her concept of organization as an irresistible flood: in a letter dated February 17, 1904 to H. Roland-Holst she stated that opportunism thrives in “stagnant waters” and dies “all by itself” in a current.74 The idea of the crisis of capitalism facilitated the avoidance of a serious investigation of questions concerning the critical situation of the working class in modern capitalism, particularly in relation to the function of the organized workers movement. Instead of relying on the shock of a serious disturbance (war, crisis), it was necessary to begin by breaking with their own organization. Levi was right, in 1930, when he said that after 1903 there was no radical presence, outside of “a tiny sect”, which could maintain theoretical coherence and assist in the reconstruction of a communist organization.75 Judging that the imperialist phase ruled out the satisfaction of reforms which had previously been possible, the Left also tended to ignore the considerable role played by reforms conceded to one part of the working class.

In 1913, a strike of shipyard workers in Hamburg, which was not supported by the trade unions, was met by a lockout and ended in defeat; more than 1,000 workers were dismissed. The rank and file was very much opposed to its leaders. The metal workers trade union petitioned for decision-making autonomy and control of the union funds by the regional offices.76 Once again, the same demand for democratic organizations crops up, which would facilitate the rapid growth of revolutionary syndicalism as well as the USPD after 1918 (see Chapters IV and IX). The theoretical and organizational weakness of the Left favored the focusing of discontent on partial goals capable of being integrated by the renovated classical workers movement. On the eve of 1914, Party and trade union leaders were aware of the malaise which threatened their organizations. They knew that there was a rejection of the traditional structures and a tendency towards spontaneous and local actions. The rank and file distrusted both the central apparatus as well as large movements coordinated from above, whose meaning they did not understand. Their retreat to localism was a half-answer to the problem, and this tendency, which was further stimulated by the war and the post-1918 struggles, was to have the gravest consequences.

The trade unions occasionally had to yield in order to maintain their rule over their organizations. This was an era of trade union splits and a kind of nostalgic longing for the epoch when the movement had not yet been centralized. In the textile, metal working and painting trades, local trade unions arose which deliberately emphasized workers autonomy.77 The “shop stewards” who made their appearance during the war, were a new form of this workers autonomy (see Chapter 4). The SPD excluded those of its members who participated in these trade unions. The “Jungen”, whom the Party had striven to keep apolitical by means of recreational activities, also clashed with their Party guardians. A kind of nostalgia was born among the leading circles of the Party. The Party found itself between two phases, after the construction and before the management of the State. The Jena Congress (1913) prefigured the “Community of Labor” created in 1916 by the centrist opposition in the Party’s leadership (see Chapter 4).

The image of the workers movement on the eve of the war was a study in contrasts. In Hamburg, Bebel’s home city, the model of socialist organization in Germany, the trade unions of skilled workers were predominant, although the local organizations exercised considerable influence, and a minority launched “unofficial” strikes. The trade union opposition was especially active among longshoremen and in the transport industry. Everyone who could not find work elsewhere came to the port for jobs.78 Even before 1914 a minority knew quite well that they could expect nothing from the trade union offices. Their reaction would prove to be one of the hallmarks of the post-1918 movement, prolonging the already long-standing antagonism between the socialist left and the trade unions. In Saxony (an industrial region as important as the Ruhr or Upper Silesia), the army intervened in a 1910 strike in the Mansfield mining region. The Halle district was dominated by the SPD left since 1913: it was to be excluded in 1916.79 If the SPD and the ADGB represented powerful conservative forces, it is nonetheless possible that they underestimated the fissures which appeared in their organizations prior to 1914 and which issued, unfortunately, not in a revolutionary movement fully capable of overthrowing the classical organs of the workers movement, but in some very small and disorganized intermediate groups.

  • 1 Traité de sociologie du travail, Colin, Vol. I, 1961, pp. 220-21.
  • 2 Marx and Engels: Textes sur l’organisation, Spartacus, 1970, pp. 120 et seq.
  • 3 See the famous (and much misunderstood: see below) Critique du programme de Gotha by Marx, as well as the other documents collected in the Ed. Sociales edition of 1971. In English, see “Critique of the Gotha Program”, in Karl Marx: The First International and After. Political Writings: Volume 3, ed. David Fernbach, Penguin Books, New York, 1992.
  • 4 Théorie marxiste et tactique révolutionnaire (1913), quoted in Pannekoek et les conseils ouvriers, as well as his 1915 text, summarized in Chapter 4 below. For an English translation of the entire text of Pannekoek’s Marxist Theory and Revolutionary Tactics, see Pannekoek and Gorter’s Marxism, ed. D.A. Smart, Pluto Press, London, 1978, pp. 50-73.
  • 5 Luxemburg, Mehring, Vandervelde: Grèves sauvages et spontanéité des masses, Spartacus, 1970, with an introduction by P. Guillaume.
  • 6 Les prétendues scissons dans l’Internationale, in Textes sur l’organisation. In English, see “The Alleged Splits in the International”, in Karl Marx: The First International and After. Political Writings: Volume 3, ed. David Fernbach, Penguin Books, New York, 1992.
  • 7 Woman under Socialism: this text inspired some passages in Bordiga’s works of the 1950s (see Construction et révolution). English translation: Woman Under Socialism, tr. Daniel De Leon, Schocken Books, New York, 1971.
  • 8 P. Louis: 150 ans de pensée socialiste, new series, Rivière, 1953, p. 72.
  • 9 La révolution sociale, Rivière, 1912, pp. 157 and 160. In English: The Social Revolution, tr. A.M. and May Wood Simons, Charles H. Kerr & Co., Chicago, 1902.
  • 10 Pannekoek et les conseils ouvriers, p. 77. In English: Pannekoek and the Workers Councils, Telos Press, St. Louis, 1978.
  • 11 R. Reichard: Crippled from Birth: German Social Democracy 1844-70, Iowa State University Press, 1969, p. 12.
  • 12 Thompson: The Formation of the English Working Class.
  • 13 Korsch: La crise du marxisme (1931), in Anti-Kautsky, Champ Libre, 1973. In English, see: Karl Korsch: Revolutionary Theory, ed. Douglas Kellner, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1977, pp. 171-176.
  • 14 Engels: La question paysanne en France et en Allemagne, PC, No. 65.
  • 15 Reichard, pp. 220-221.
  • 16 Ibid., p. 22.
  • 17 Grandjonc: Marx et les communistes allemands à Paris, 1844, Maspero, 1974, pp. 40 et seq., concerning the Silesian weavers.
  • 18 La Ligue des Communistes, Aubier, 1972.
  • 19 Marx: Herr Vogt, Costes, Vol. I, 1927, pp. 103 et seq.
  • 20 Le militantisme, stade suprême de l’aliénation, OJTR, Paris, 1972.
  • 21 Cf. the Correspondence de Marx et Engels, (Ed. Sociales), and their biographies written by A. Cornu (PUF, 4 Vols.); and Oeuvres, II, pp. 98-99.
  • 22 Quoted by E. de Fontenay: Les figures juives de Marx, Galilée, 1973.
  • 23 Reichard: p. 65.
  • 24 Cf. Blanqui’s response to his judges in 1832, in which he claims the name of “proletarian” (Bruhat, Histoire du movement ouvrier français, Ed. Sociales, Vol. I, 1952, p. 240).
  • 25 For the lack of another term we use this formulation, but without granting it all the implications which it possesses in Bordiga (Cf., for example, Les révolutions multiples).
  • 26 Reichard: p. 94.
  • 27 Ibid., pp. 95-97.
  • 28 Ibid., p. 98.
  • 29 Ibid., p. 100.
  • 30 Ibid., pp. 171-172.
  • 31 Ibid., p. 143.
  • 32 Hunt: German Social Democracy 1918-33, Yale University Press, 1964, p. 4.
  • 33 For the SPD as a “counter-society”, cf. Hunt, p. 53, and Reichard, p. 285, note 7 of Chapter II. See also: Vernon L. Lidtke, The Alternative Culture: Socialist Labor in Imperial Germany, Oxford University Press, New York, 1985.
  • 34 Reichard, pp. 218-19.
  • 35 R. Morgan: The German Social Democrats and the First International 1864-72, Cambridge University Press, 1965, pp. 2 et seq.
  • 36 Ibid., p. 49.
  • 37 Ibid., p. 103.
  • 38 Ibid., p. 132-33.
  • 39 Ibid., pp. 172-173.
  • 40 Ibid., p. 173.
  • 41 A. Berlau: The German Social Democratic Party 1914-21, New York, 1949, p. 32.
  • 42 Cahiers de l’ISEA, Vol. III, No. 7, July 1969.
  • 43 Morgan: p. 208.
  • 44 Ibid., p. 211.
  • 45 Ibid., p. 216.
  • 46 Ibid., pp. 234, et seq.
  • 47 Cole: The Second International 1889-1914, Vol. I, MacMillan, London, 1963, pp. 297-322.
  • 48 Especially the portions concerning Hegel: E. Weil, Hegel et l’Etat, Vrin, 1950. The Costes edition of the Marx-Engels correspondence is based on the German edition.
  • 49 Correspondance Marx-Engels, Costes, Vol. VIII, 1934, pp. 106 and 107-108.
  • 50 Engels: Progès de la réforme sociale sur le continent (1843), in Écrits militaires, l’Herne, 1970.
  • 51 Correspondance Engels-P. et L. Lafargue, Ed. Sociales, Vol. II (1887-1890), 1957. On this issue, cf. the collection of texts of Marx and Engels, UGE (10/18).
  • 52 Correspondance Engels-Marx et divers, edited by Sorge, Costes, Vol. II, 1950, pp. 210-211.
  • 53 Ibid., p. 260.
  • 54 L’origine de la famille…, Ed. Sociales, 1954, pp. 158-59. In English: The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1978.
  • 55 As the Italian Left does, for example, in its 1945 Theses, published in Invariance, No. 9.
  • 56 Écrits militaires, p. 483.
  • 57 Hunt: p. 150.
  • 58 Comfort: Chapter V.
  • 59 Hunt: pp. 187-190.
  • 60 Marks.
  • 61 Ibid., p. 349.
  • 62 Ibid., pp. 351-352.
  • 63 C. Schorske: German Social Democracy, 1905-17, Harvard University Press, 1955, pp. 130-131. Compare with France: Dommanget, L’introduction du Marxisme en France, Recontre, Lausanne, 1969.
  • 64 Schorske: p. 144.
  • 65 Dauvé: Pour une critique de l’ideologie anti-militariste, Ed. de l’Oubli, Paris, 1975.
  • 66 W. Walling: The Socialists and the War, New York, Holt, 1915, p. 46. Engels committed the same error in regard to the “fragmentation of militarism from within” by virtue of the presence of a large number of socialists in the army.
  • 67 Ibid., p. 76.
  • 68 Ibid., p. 77.
  • 69 International Council Correspondence, in La contre-révolution bureaucratique, UGE, 1973, pp. 243-45.
  • 70 Marx: Oeuvres, Gallimard, Vol. I, 1963, pp. 127-128.
  • 71 E. Waldmann: The Spartacist Uprising of 1919, Marquette University Press, 1958, p. 108, note no. 81.
  • 72 In his book, Political Parties. See his earlier article quoted by Schorske, Chapter V.
  • 73 Schorske: p. 185.
  • 74 Ibid., pp. 32-33.
  • 75 Quoted in the R. Luxemburg issue of Partisans, December-January 1968-1969, p. 8.
  • 76 Schorske: pp. 260-261.
  • 77 Ibid., p. 261.
  • 78 Comfort: Chapter V.
  • 79 Angress: pp. 105, et seq.


Chapter 3 - The German Left before 1914

Submitted by Spassmaschine on October 23, 2009

The Dutch Left
Not surprisingly, the theoretical (and, to some degree, the organizational) sources of the German Left originated not outside of the classical workers movement, or in its heartland, but in its periphery. They are of German-Dutch origin. Northern Germany and the southern part of the Netherlands have comprised an economically integrated region since the 16th century. During the millenarian movements of the 16th century, subversive ideas and individuals spread from the south of Holland to the cities and states of Northwest Germany (Münster). Lenin was able to conceive a revolutionary strategy because his external position allowed him to take what was best from the European socialist movement without being completely swept away by it. But his Russian limitations led him into the same cul de sac as social democracy, all the more insofar as his revolutionary positions were contradictory: although a revolutionary, he shared the Kautskyist theory of class consciousness. The German-Dutch Left extracted the best from the German workers movement, and remained at that level. Unlike Lenin, it was at the center of the European communist movement. Unlike Luxemburg, however, it was not so immersed within social democracy as to be paralyzed by it.

In the Netherlands, the Social Democratic League (SDB), led by D. Nieuwenhuis, among others, gave way, in 1894, to the SDAP, after a struggle between Marxists and anarchists. Refusing to take either side, Nieuwenhuis, at the turn of the century, would warn of degeneration in his work, Socialism in Danger.1 The SDAP followed the same trajectory as the large parties in the Second International. At the end of the century, it was divided between revisionists and the orthodox (the latter being represented by the parliamentarian Troelstra, known as the “Dutch Kautsky”). Gorter and Henriette Roland-Holst, both poets, entered the party in 1897 and became the spokespersons for a new left wing tendency which attacked Troelstra’s supposedly radical center. They were joined by Pannekoek, who entered the Party in 1903, as well as by other future members of the Dutch CP including Van Ravensteyn and Wijnkoop.

Their organ was the journal De Nieuwe Tijd, to which De Tribune was added later (see below). This current attempted to go beyond traditional debates. In relation to the colonial question, for example, it did not restrict itself to endorsing the contemporary theory which held that capitalism was an “inevitable stage for the colonies in their march towards socialism . . . if socialism were to triumph in the old world, it would be possible to avoid the miseries of capitalism on the other continents by sharing capitalism’s technological advantages with them. Gorter and Pijnappel agreed with Mendels, and said that his analysis agreed with Marx’s writings.”2 Their analysis, in effect, returned to the view entertained by Marx, especially in regard to Russia.3 Gorter broached the theme of the proletariat’s isolation, which he would again address in his Open Letter to Comrade Lenin: “Attacking the Party’s illusions concerning the petite bourgeoisie and the peasants, Gorter stated in passing that a large part of this petite bourgeoisie had an interest in the products of the colonies . . . annually making hundreds of millions from the Indies . . . .” The International’s Stuttgart Congress (1907), interpreted by Lenin as a healthy reaction against the Right, “opened the eyes of the Dutch Left.”4 This development was not uniform, however: Roland-Holst, despite understanding the connection between German imperialism and the positions supported by the German socialists, concluded that the Congress had ended to the revolutionaries’ advantage.

In its essentials, the German-Dutch Left (including Radek) held a position close to that of its Polish and Russian adversaries on the question of the right of nations or of “peoples” to self-determination. For Wiedijk: “the colonial question is essentially situated, not in the colonies themselves, but in the colonizing countries, where the most important interests are at stake. . . . Colonial reform cannot come before class struggle.”5 Lenin was quite isolated on this issue. The other Bolsheviks did not accept the defense of the absolute right to self-determination before the revolution. Always on the lookout for anything which could undermine the power of the leading capitalist countries and lend support to the proletarian struggle, Lenin tried to find substitutes for proletarian action. He saw the centrifugal role which nationalist forces could play to weaken the Russian State, for instance. But this kind of realism overlooked capital’s ability to contain the proletariat within national borders. His theses on the national question derived from his position on democracy. In the internal Bolshevik polemic on this theme in 1915-1916, he denounced “the scornful attitude of imperialist economism in respect to democracy”, which will be indispensable in “educating” the proletarians.

“The Marxist solution to the democracy question consists in the utilization, on the part of the proletariat conducting its class struggle, of all democratic institutions and aspirations against the bourgeoisie. . . . As for the Marxists, they know that democracy does not eliminate class oppression, but only makes the class struggle clearer, more extensive, more open; it is what we need. . . . The more democratic the regime, the more obvious, for the workers, is the origin of the evil which is capitalism. . . .”6

The creation of a democratic national state thus constitutes progress, since such a state would then become a framework within which the proletariat could organize and educate itself. The proletariat needs democratic States because it needs democracy. For Pannekoek, however, the national solution is utopian under the regime of capital, because every nation is at war with the others and oppresses its own minorities. In 1912, his critique of the projects for cultural autonomy in the Austro-Hungarian Empire was also an indirect critique of Lenin: “It is not our advocacy of national autonomy, whose realization does not depend on us, but only the strengthening of class consciousness which will really smash the terrible power of nationalism to pieces. It would be false to want to concentrate all our efforts on a ‘positive national policy’ and to stake everything on . . . the realization of our program for national self-determination as a precondition for class struggle.”7

In the same year J. Strasser, an Austrian left-socialist,8 published a similar text, in which he simultaneously attacked the federalism of Austrian social democracy (which sought the means to preserve the unity of the empire in concessions to the other nationalities), the nationalism of Czech social democracy and the supporters of pan-German unification. The socialist party, Strasser wrote, must be centralized, and all national solutions are illusory: “it is not true that nations can in any circumstance live side by side without becoming rivals. In bourgeois society, each nation accuses the others of expansionist tendencies, and even aggression, whenever they get in each others’ way. Every national struggle makes a mockery of revisionist internationalism. What, then, will the proletariat do when the struggle between nationalities breaks out?”9

During the war, Pannekoek did not participate in the debate on the national question. Lenin stated with satisfaction that while Gorter was against the principle of self-determination, he nonetheless allowed for it in the case of colonialism; for the Dutch East Indies, for example.10 Like the German Left he was not directly confronted by the reality of the national question, unlike the Russians, the Poles and the Austrians, nor was it a crucial theme in his experience or activity. Each time he systematically investigated the question, however, he did so in the sense of this observation of Bukharin’s: if the “right of nations” is not an empty, meaningless term, it must include the compulsory defense of the national State, and end in the demand for patriotism or, which is the same thing, in the absurd position of the revolutionaries’ denial of internationalism.11 The only meaning which the slogan of self-determination can have is opposed to the revolution. Bukharin was more aware than Lenin of the integral connection which existed between organized capitalism and any State, large or small.12

Within the SDAP, the conflicts between the left and the center became increasingly acute. In 1901 they revolved around the agrarian question: the left refused to oppose the expropriation of small farmers for the purpose of the development of modern capitalist agriculture. It was not the Party’s job to incite the small-scale peasants to unite in defense of the small family farm, but to fight for socialism. This debate would be taken up again in the Open Letter to Comrade Lenin. On the education question (1902), the Left rejected any concessions to religious schools, which were desired by the Party’s leadership for reasons having to do with electoral deals. In 1903 the Left turned against the trade unions which sabotaged a railroad strike. Finally, in 1905, in the debate over the parliamentary question, it violently denounced the alliance with the radical bourgeois parties in the run-off elections, which granted a majority to the radicals against the Right. As these trade union and parliamentary trends were to continue to unfold (the same kind of alliance was made in the German elections of 1912), the Left would become abstentionist and critical of the trade unions.

In 1907 the Left established its own newspaper: De Tribune (whence the name “Tribunists”), which was particularly vehement in its attacks on the Party’s leadership. An extraordinary Congress of the Party in 1909 demanded that it cease publication. With the exception of a small circle around Roland-Holst, which would not join the others until some time later, the whole left wing left the Party and founded the Social Democratic Party (SDP). It was a “groupuscule”: it had no more than 700 members in contrast to the 25,000 members of the SDAP in 1913. It was not accepted as a member by the International, despite the support of the Bolsheviks, another schismatic party. Its application having been presented to the Bureau of the Socialist International in 1909, the latter was confronted by two motions. The motion of the SDP and the German SPD, which was supported by Lenin, was in favor of the new party’s petition for affiliation: but the opposition motion, presented by the Austrian V. Adler, obtained a majority. Luxemburg condemned the split in the name of Party unity.13 The SDP did, however, engage in parliamentary activity. In 1918 it would become the Communist Party of the Netherlands (KPN), with two seats in Parliament. In 1919 Gorter denounced the opportunism of the Dutch communist party. His attack included, among other themes, the notion of a “pure” and “clear” “nucleus” which would be further developed in 1920-1921.

For her part, Roland-Holst occupied an intermediate position, somewhat like that of Trotsky in Russia, and, like the latter, would join the Left in 1917. She was, however, on the side of the Bolsheviks with the Zimmerwald Left (see the next chapter). Later, she would take the middle road between the communist left and the Communist International.

The significance of the Dutch Left is above all theoretical and international. The Dutch would provide a meeting place for the socialist opposition during the war; the Netherlands did not take part in the conflict. It was in Amsterdam that the Western European Bureau of the Third International would be founded (see Chapter 11), and it would be dominated by the Left. The SDP provided the Left’s two leading theoreticians in Northern Europe: Gorter and Pannekoek. Gorter was the theoretician of the SDP, while Wijnkoop and Van Ravensteyn were its political leaders. Gorter was the author of The Fundamentals of Social Democracy (1905; reprinted in 1920 under the title, The Fundamentals of Communism), Historical Materialism for Workers (1909), and Social Democracy and Revisionism (1909). As a leader of the KAPD he would direct the latter’s negotiations with the CI. Later, he would found the Communist Workers International (the KAI, in German).14 Bremen
There are now some important historical works dealing with Pannekoek: we shall only focus on what distinguished him, even before the war, from the Luxemburgist Left. Almost from the start of his political activity, in 1904, he worked for the most part in Germany as a teacher of Marxism in the SPD’s Party Schools. With Luxemburg, he criticized the Kautskyist leadership of the Party, and was the spokesperson for a small group centered mainly in Bremen, whose organ was the Bremer Bürger-Zeitung.

Pannekoek and Radek attacked Kautsky in the Bremer Bürger-Zeitung, particularly in regard to international issues and imperialism, and posed the problem of the possible relation between war and revolution: “The struggle against imperialism does not have the purpose of hindering its development, but of mobilizing the masses against it. . . .”15 This position, expressed by Pannekoek in 1910, would be taken up by Lenin in 1914. Of Polish origin, Radek was excluded from Polish Social Democracy in 1912 for embezzlement. He had previously been a supporter of the Warsaw Group which was at that time close to the Bolsheviks and opposed to the (Luxemburgist) Party leadership. He was excluded from the Party the following year, despite Pannekoek’s protests. A Russo-Polish court of honor ruled in his favor in 1915.16 He went to Switzerland during the war. In 1914-15, he was against the principle of self-determination, for Poland as well as in general. His interpretation of the Easter Rebellion in Ireland in 1916 was in opposition to Lenin’s.17

In 1912, Pannekoek was among the first to connect the class struggle in Europe to the independence movement in the colonies: only by joining with the proletariat in the highly-developed countries could the struggles in the backward countries acquire a socialist character.18 This position was quite unlike both Lenin’s view as well as that of the other members of the Dutch left wing, which is outlined below, and which could at times border on indifference concerning underdeveloped regions.

The left-wing current which would coalesce in the KPD was born long before 1918-19, and by virtue of its actions had already demarcated itself from the first (Luxemburgist) leadership of the Party.19 The communist left which appeared after 1917 was not, therefore, without roots in the previous epoch. What is called the “communist left” became the communist left prior to 1914 through contact with other left currents (particularly those of Lenin and Luxemburg), and these currents mutually influenced one another. The revolutionary currents which would confront one another after 1917 had to a great extent already known and opposed one another before 1917, in relation to the national question, among other issues. Pannekoek made extensive contributions to the polemics on this question. By criticizing “infantile leftism”, Lenin was continuing a debate which started a dozen years earlier.

Pannekoek distinguished himself from the Luxemburgist Left on two important points. He thought that radical elements should abandon social democracy and regroup outside it. Luxemburg, however, condemned the SDP’s schism: one must persevere wherever the masses are found: “one cannot remain outside the organization, one must not lose contact with the masses. . . . The worst workers party is better than no party at all.”20 This presaged the rupture between the Spartacus League and the ISD, and later that between the KPD and the KAPD.

An important polemic also set Pannekoek against Luxemburg, concerning the theory of the “final crisis” of capital, as expounded in The Accumulation of Capital.21 Pannekoek criticized it on two levels. On the “mathematical” level, Luxemburg took as her starting point one of Marx’s “errors” in his accumulation schemas in Sections 2 and 3 of Volume II of Capital. Defending Marx, Pannekoek showed that it was impossible to prove that capital’s movement must of necessity come to a halt should it be deprived of possibilities for expansion outside of the “capitalist zone”. Without, however, making the proletarian movement the motive force of history, he criticized the idea that one could speak of the crisis of capital in purely economic terms, as well as the content which Luxemburg conferred upon necessity. According to Luxemburg, the necessity which drives capitalism towards collapse is mechanistic: the proletariat is not included as one of its factors. Her catastrophic vision overlooks this factor although it is an element even at the “purely economic” level. Pannekoek would return to this theme much later, explaining this concept of mechanistic necessity as a resurgence, on the theoretical plane, of a typically social democratic trait which Luxemburg criticized on the political plane: Kautskyist fatalism, the negation of the revolutionary character of the proletariat.22 Nonetheless, after the war, and unlike the case of the first divergence summarized above, the German Left (although opposed to Luxemburg’s tactics), would again take up the Luxemburgist thesis, simplifying it instead of developing it, under the rubric of the “death crisis” of capitalism.23

Paradoxically, a historian (Schurer) has viewed Pannekoek as one of the precursors and founders of “Leninism”.24 Bricianer was right to reject this hasty assimilation, but did not go far enough in his examination of the genesis of the Left prior to 1914.25 Schurer relies upon real analogies, which do not, however, justify his comparison of Lenin and Pannekoek, even before 1914. It is true that each was opposed to the Luxemburgist theory of imperialism; and that Pannekoek was undoubtedly the first to grant importance to the notion of a “labor aristocracy”, and in particular was the first as well to once again resuscitate Marx’s thesis on the need to destroy the State. But he approached these questions in a way dissimilar to that of Lenin.

Tactical Differences in the Workers Movement (1909) effectively examined the root of the reformist tendency, which Pannekoek attributed to the weight of the middle classes, and of the employees and officials of the workers movement; on the other side, the workers in large industry constituted the revolutionary nucleus. Lenin, however, in Marxism and Revisionism (1908), insisted upon the role of the petite bourgeoisie. Even more than “small-scale production”, which Lenin would never cease to discuss (even in Infantile Disorder), Pannekoek showed that it is the very mode of existence of the workers in a non-revolutionary period which defines the nature of the “labor aristocracy”. Merely by virtue of their numbers, the workers must join together into a bloc (in fact, into numerous rival blocs) which requires representatives to deal with capitalists and the State, from whom concessions must be wrested. The workers bureaucracy was more than a kind of activity or a leader-masses relationship; it was above all sociologically a relation in which a privileged, entrenched minority was formed. In the higher ranks, the leaders even hoped to enter the bourgeoisie, even if this hope was based on nothing but the inevitable financial and commercial activities of the workers movement, through the funds which it absorbed: social welfare, sick benefits, cultural centers, publishing, etc. In the lower ranks, the cadres possessed socio-cultural means for the advancement of their offspring. It is in this sense that one can speak of a social layer which reproduces itself as privileged, and not simply of categories which enjoy more advantages than others.

The notion of a “labor aristocracy” was frequently employed in England during the 1880s to designate a quite numerous minority of “artisans (skilled workers and craftsmen) and above all those who were members of the trade unions and other labor organizations”.26 The privileged social layer(s) varied from country to country depending on the background of the working class and its organizations, and in 1890 Engels invoked the “aristocratic minority” of unionized workers.27 In the United States, this issue was inseparable from that of racial and ethnic minorities: in England Marx also emphasized the antagonism between the English and the Irish.28 What was new about Engels’ 1892 Preface to The Condition of the Working Class in England was his connecting this phenomenon to British industrial monopoly: a thesis appropriated by Lenin. In that same year, Wilhelm Liebknecht declared at the Socialist Congress: “The majority of you are certainly, for the most part, aristocrats of labor, insofar as income is concerned.”29 The German Left went beyond a sociological view in understanding that a certain kind of workers struggle, in a calm period, gives rise to structures which immediately turn against the revolution. Lenin, on the other hand, saw in this phenomenon nothing but the corruption of one part of the workers who held the leadership of the movement: he might have asked himself how this minority could have led the movement against the wishes of the majority. In regard to which Lenin logically deduced that one must re-conquer these organizations, while the Left perceived them as the products of a non-revolutionary phase and, consequently, as structures which must be destroyed. Luxemburg, although she emphasized the trade unions’ regressive role, did not address this problem (see Reform and Revolution). But her opposition to the trade unions had its origin in her distrust of purely economic action, since she saw this as jeopardizing socialist education. The respect (in her case one cannot speak of fetishism30 ) which Luxemburg had for the existing workers organizations, and which was well-evidenced by her refusal to create new schismatic organizations, was an aspect of her fetishism of education which she shared with the immense majority of the revolutionaries of her time.

Between 1910 and 1912, Pannekoek made a theoretical “breakthrough” by evoking the proletariat’s need to create new organs of power, which meant that the proletariat could not use parliament as a political form. Pannekoek defined the proletariat’s need to exercise Machtmittel, instruments of force or of power, which Bricianer translated as “elements of force”.31 Such an idea illustrates the complexity of Pannekoek’s thought and the twists and turns of subversive theory. Much later, Bordiga would define the communist movement as a question of “force” rather than one of “form”.32 Lenin rendered homage to Pannekoek in 1917, in State and Revolution, but also accused him of not having drawn all the conclusions which follow from this idea. The critique was probably justified, but Lenin continued to nourish illusions about the pre-1914 socialist movement. Pannekoek, furthermore, implicitly criticized Kautsky’s (and also Lenin’s) view of class consciousness. His great merit was having discerned communism in the nature of the class, and not just as a program. But rather than in its deepest being he discerned it in its organization. His preoccupation with “spontaneity” was not focused on the self-destruction of the proletariat as such: that is, as commodified human activity reappropriating the means of life and with these its humanity. He discerned the rise of the proletariat in its forms rather than its content, because its content was hardly discernable in that era.

In September, 1918, Radek recognized Pannekoek’s contribution, saying that the existing political forms, even the most democratic, must not be used, although he did not say what new institutions would replace them. But these two questions—the State and the labor aristocracy—highlighted the differences between Lenin and Pannekoek. Lenin was animated by the will to seize power, which involved advocating the destruction of the old State (and not its conquest as he had long thought, thus imitating almost all the world’s social democrats). But he did not understand the “how”, he did not see what was potentially contradictory in the proletariat’s being which would rise to the fore in a revolutionary period: this explains his exaggeration of the “Party”.33 Quite unlike his usual views on the matter, the short shrift given to the idea of the Party in State and Revolution is neither a trick to flatter the workers nor something positive about which one should be pleased. State and Revolution simply testifies to one facet of Lenin’s contradiction, sometimes inclining towards an exaggeration of the role of the Party (What is to be Done?), and at other times allowing for democratic self-management (State and Revolution, which does not prevent this book from being an excellent revolutionary text). The way he dealt with the example of the Commune is significant; he once again took up Marx’s position, which is, however, susceptible to criticism, in The Civil War in France.34 Pannekoek, however, did not explicitly refer to 1871, concerning which he had a more lucid and quite well-justified judgment.35 It is also true that his ideas about the labor aristocracy had influenced Lenin and Zinoviev,36 but Pannekoek viewed the issue from a different angle. Later experience would show that Lenin and Pannekoek would deduce the opposite conclusions from their analyses of the labor aristocracy. What is essential is not denouncing a privileged minority, but understanding the (inevitable) expansion of reformist activity among all the workers organized in trade unions, parties, etc., and seeing that the revolution must be made outside of these institutions. Between 1910 and 1912, Pannekoek began to be aware of this, denying that the trade unions and parties could be used as structures of proletarian power: the proletariat must therefore create new organs for this purpose. He would later understand that the revolution must be made not outside of the classical organizations, but against them. Lenin, on the other hand, fought and would continue to fight for the impossible conquest of these organizations, upon certain class bases, and through the creation of “new” trade-union-type organizations, which involved the same kind of activity conducted by the old reformist trade unions, which is to say reformist activity.

Lenin did not understand the proletarian experience of his time in its most profound aspects. He was only able to theorize a few of its most essential orientations: his best efforts (his defeatist position in 1914) were negative. From the moment that the proletariat of the advanced capitalist countries engaged in revolutionary action, Lenin was superseded. Then, at that precise moment, although he was not situated at the most advanced stage attained by the movement, he imposed his will. Lenin’s success at the head of the Russian Party and the CI is the theoretical and organizational expression of the historical compromise: the proletariat attacked society without destroying it. This is why Lenin became the highest expression of a combative but not a communist movement. The experiences acquired during this assault would survive, but they would be deformed and truncated by capital: this is Leninism, a tendency which was nonetheless revolutionary in its origins, despite its weak points. The communist left, however, the expression of the most radical but also one of the least popular aspects of the movement, would be crushed.

  • 1 Le socialisme en danger, published by Payot in 1975, with an introduction and notes by J. Y. Bériou.
  • 2 La IIe Internationale et l’Orient, a collection edited by G. Haupt and M. Rébérioux, Cujas, 1967, p. 236.
  • 3 Invariance, No. 4.
  • 4 La IIe Internationale et l’Orient, p. 239.
  • 5 A summary of his position by F. Tichelman, Ibid., pp. 243-46.
  • 6 Oeuvres, Vol. 23, Ed. Sociales, 1959, pages 20, 23, 24, 57, 67-68, and 79-80.
  • 7 Lutte de classes et nation, reproduced in the collection Les marxistes et la question nationale (1848-1914), Maspero, 1974, p. 305.
  • 8 Cf. his biography in the Dictionnaire biographique du mouvement ouvrier international. L’Autriche, Ed. Ouvrières, 1971, pp. 301-302. Strasser was a member of the Austrian CP and adopted an “anti-putschist” position close to that of Levi; he would later be excluded for “Trotskyism”.
  • 9 Les marxistes et la question nationale, p.288.
  • 10 Oeuvres, Vol. 22, Ed. Sociales, 1960, pages 164, 181 and 375.
  • 11 Ibid., p. 261.
  • 12 L’économie mondiale et l’impérialisme, Anthropos, 1967, Chapter XIII.
  • 13 Pannekoek and the Workers Councils.
  • 14 He was the author of Révolution mondiale (1918), L’organisation de la lutte de classe du prolétariat (1921), La nécessité de la réunification du KAPD (1923), a large number of articles in the KAPD and AAUD press, as well as pamphlets from which we provide some extracts below. See Herman Gorter, The Organisation of the Proletariat’s Class Struggle, in Pannekoek and Gorter’s Marxism, ed. D.A. Smart, Pluto Press, London, 1978, pp. 149-173.
  • 15 Pannekoek and the Workers Councils.
  • 16 Concerning the relations between German and Polish socialists, see, as well as the work of Nettl, H. Schurer: “Radek and German Revolution”, Survey, October 1964; and especially the upcoming book by C. Weil, to be published by Champ Libre.
  • 17 On Ireland, cf. “La contre-révolution irlandaise”, Les Temps Modernes, June 1972.
  • 18 Cf. his article “Révolution mondiale” in Le Socialiste of January 21, 1912, quoted in La IIe Internationale et l’Orient, pp. 36-37.
  • 19 Pannekoek and the Workers Councils.
  • 20 Cf. his letter to Roland-Holst, dated August 1908, quoted by Nettl (English edition, Vol. II, p. 657).
  • 21 An essay on this theme can be found in L. Laurat: L’accumulation du capital, Rivière, 1930, and in various articles in Révolution Internationale (1968-1972). For a critical judgment, cf. Lutte de classes, February 1975, “Profit et marché”; and Mattick: Marx et Keynes, Gallimard, 1972 (in English, Marx and Keynes: The Limits of the Mixed Economy, Porter Sargent Publisher, Boston, 1969). R. Luxemburg responded to her critics in her Anti-critique included in later editions of her book.
  • 22 In this context we can only provide a basic outline of the positions taken in relation to this problem: for more extensive elaborations which treat the issue in depth, cf. Pannekoek’s essay “The Theory of the Collapse of Capitalism”, translated by Adam Buick, published in Capital and Class, Spring 1977, and currently available online at the website.
  • 23 On the problem of a mechanistic interpretation of the crisis, cf. C. Brendel, Pannekoek, Theoretikus van het Socialisme, Nimegen, 1970, Chapter XII.
  • 24“A. Pannekoek and the Origins of Leninism”, The Slavonic and East European Review, June, 1963.
  • 25 Pannekoek and the Workers Councils.
  • 26 E. Hobsbawm, Revolutionaries. Contemporary Essays, Weidenfeld-Nicolson, 1973, p. 121.
  • 27 Marx and Engels: Le Syndicalisme, Maspero, Vol. I, 1972, p. 195.
  • 28 Cf. the texts collected in J.-P. Carasso: La rumeur irlandaise, Champ Libre, 1969.
  • 29 Marks: p. 354.
  • 30 Cf. Questions d’organisation de la sociale-démocratie russe, Spartacus, 1946. English translation: “Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy”, in Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg, ed. Dick Howard, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1971, pp. 283-308.
  • 31 Pannekoek and the Workers Councils.
  • 32 Eléments d’orientation (1946), reproduced in Invariance, No. 7 and as a pamphlet, Ed. Programme Communiste, 1972.
  • 33 Authier: Les débuts du mouvement ouvrier russe, in Trotsky: Rapport de la délégation sibérienne, Spartacus, 1970, and the postscripts by P. Guillaume and G. Dauvé in Kautsky’s Les trois sources du marxisme, Spartacus, 1969.
  • 34 It is true that this view can be contrasted with other texts of a private and confidential character: cf. La Commune de 1871, UGE, 1971. In 1905, Lenin warned against imitating the Commune: “it was a movement which our movement must not copy” (quoted by Haupt in Le mouvement social, April-June 1972, p. 213).
  • 35 Pannekoek and the Workers Councils.
  • 36 Zinoviev: The War and the Crisis of Socialism, written in 1915-16, published in 1917 (influenced by Michels).


Chapter 4 - War and radicalisation

Submitted by Spassmaschine on October 23, 2009

1914 and Democracy
On August 4, 1914, the socialist parliamentary delegation, including the left, voted in favor of the war budget. Only one socialist deputy, F. Kunert, abstained, but did not give his gesture any political significance. The parliamentary delegation obeyed the decision of the SPD Central Committee. The socialist trade unions did the same, and announced their opposition to all strikes and their support for participation in the war effort. All strikes were declared illegal. The anarchosyndicalist trade unions rejected the sacred union (Burgfrieden, or “civic truce”) and were immediately outlawed and subjected to mass arrests.

The 1907 Stuttgart Congress of the Socialist International had ended in a compromise which raised the hopes of the Left. The Lenin-Martov-Luxemburg amendment, which proclaimed that, in case of war, the “economic and political crisis created by the war should be used . . . to precipitate the destruction of capitalist rule,” had no practical force since the International was quite careful not to authorize the means to implement such a policy.1 It was a respectable institution, recognized by the international bourgeoisie, which even as late as 1913 had expectations of being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize: had the war not taken place, it would quite likely have been awarded the prize in 1914.

Some groups and individuals then proclaimed the “collapse” of the Second International: the Bolsheviks, Bordiga and the left wing of the Italian Socialist Party, Pannekoek and Gorter, the Serbian Socialist Party, etc. The French, German and English parties accepted the war. The other two important parties (their importance was not merely numerical), the Russian and the Italian parties, had quite distinct positions. The two factions of the Russian Party, which in reality constituted two distinct parties, did not abandon the struggle against their own government. Italy did not enter the war at first: while an important minority took a revolutionary position on the war which was similar to that of the Zimmerwald Left, the majority of the PSI adopted a completely pacifist position, and was quite content not to have to take up a position between the two lines of fire. When Italy did enter the war, the PSI decided to “neither support nor sabotage” the sacred union. The Zimmerwald Left spoke of a “social pacifism” equivalent to “social patriotism” in other circumstances.

The different positions adopted by the Socialist Parties cannot be understood if one inters oneself in the logic of the parties themselves. The parties represented the general tendency of the proletariat in each country: almost total support on the part of the French and English proletariat for the war, a more subdued adherence on the part of the German proletariat, which would be transformed into rebellion against the war, and Russian proletarian defeatism. France was a democracy and its proletariat had not yet recovered from the defeat of the Commune: it was reformist (sometimes violently so) and was not oriented towards the State (whether democratic or not). In Germany, not only was the workers movement more powerful before 1914, but it still had the goal of realizing democracy in its country, something which, in those circumstances, was a goal which had to be approached on the level of the State. In Russia, not only was it a question, as in Germany, of changing the form of the State, but also of replacing it with a new one and changing society itself, of carrying out the bourgeois revolution in its entirety, since the Russian bourgeoisie was incapable of doing so.

In France, the SFIO and the trade unions marshaled the proletariat under the banner of defense of their democratic conquests against Prussian absolutism, overlooking the fact that in doing so it had to ally itself with a distinctly more reactionary absolutism: czarism. In Germany, the SPD’s rallying call was the defense of European civilization against Asian barbarism. In Russia, no slogan of this kind was possible. The proletariat once again took up the defeatist attitude it had displayed in the Russo-Japanese War: the military collapse of czarism in a foreign conflict would once again be the signal for a revolution at home, as in 1905. The Russian proletariat underwent a process of radicalization. After 1915, mutinies spread throughout the army. Lenin and the Bolsheviks became the leaders of the Zimmerwald Left.

The positions of the various proletariats and workers parties revolved around the defense or conquest of democracy. On a world scale there was just one proletariat. Generally, it sought improvements within the framework of the existing mode of production. The reformism of the West and the democratic revolutionism of the East were two aspects of the same reality. One could say that the proletariat participated in these two aspects. Even in Russia, the proletariat had to assure the conditions for the extension of the capitalist mode of production by destroying all the vestiges of previous modes of production. It carried out the tasks of the bourgeois revolution. In Russia as in all the western countries, the proletariat stood alone, because the communist revolution never took place: the proletariat itself was universally enlisted in the effort to reform capital’s economic and political rule. In Germany, where the proletariat was potentially powerful on a social scale (and not on the political level, as in Russia), the most radical tendencies of the era arose, oriented towards communism. In Russia, the isolated proletariat would exhaust itself and be submerged in capitalist tasks. In Germany, however, after the democratic “revolution” of November 1918, all that was left to achieve was the proletarian revolution.

Developments within the SPD
As of August 2, 1914, the trade unions banned all strikes. When General Ludendorff grumbled about all this trade union support, an Undersecretary of State responded in the following manner: “There is no doubt that we cannot win the war without the good will of the industrial workers. No one, of course, has so much influence over these workers as the trade union leaders. Without these leaders, and a fortiori against them, we can do nothing. Their influence rests upon the actions which they have successfully led for decades with the intention of improving the workers’ situation . . . it is inconceivable how we could resist if this had not been the case. . . .”2 The CI would never go so far in its analyses.

On August 4, the left wing of the SPD parliamentary delegation, K. Liebknecht and Otto Rühle, yielded to Party discipline (Luxemburg was not a deputy). Taken as a whole, however, the social democratic edifice, including the trade unions, was already beginning to crumble. The rate and methods by which the various tendencies would regroup in different organizations can be examined on three levels: parliament, party and the workers movement, with each influencing the others, especially from the bottom up, as the development of the workers movement was the foundation of the development of the left radical and centrist groups.

It was on the parliamentary level that the splits appeared and crystallized most quickly. The parliamentary apparatus, and, consequently, the reactionary tendency, possessed a monopoly of information due to the very nature of such an organization. Liebknecht had to go to Holland and to the various German States in order to be rapidly convinced that the opposition was not restricted to Berlin, where a small group had formed around Luxemburg, Mehring, etc., and where important working class sectors of the Party supported the opposition. On December 2, he was the first deputy to vote against the new war credits. Haase, leader of the centrist opposition to the war and future leader of the USPD, justified the vote for war credits in the name of the Party due to the need for national defense. On February 7, 1915, Liebknecht was mobilized, along with other known opponents of the war.

The tide of events would push Rühle, and then some twenty other deputies, towards the opposition. In February of 1915, Luxemburg was imprisoned for the first time during the war, and would not be released until February 1916. While in prison she wrote The Crisis of Social Democracy, also known as the Junius Pamphlet after her pseudonym (see below). An international women’s peace conference convened in Berne in March 1915. The Germans were represented by Zetkin. The Russians would, for the first time, hear the voice of the international left, but the majority of the latter was still pacifist. This conference was preceded by a demonstration of a thousand women in front of the Reichstag: it was the first demonstration of the political opposition since the beginning of the war. During this same period, the oppositionist Stuttgart Party section stopped paying its dues to the Party leadership, which amounted to a split. On March 20, Rühle followed Liebknecht and refused to vote for the national budget, which the SPD approved for the first time in its history. Thirty deputies did not attend the parliamentary session so as not to participate in the vote. A series of women’s demonstrations led to the arrest of Zetkin. An international conference of socialist youth adopted a position against the war. The news from Zimmerwald, the passage of numerous Party sections to the opposition, the founding of the ISD and the first hunger riots led 18 centrist deputies into open opposition in December.

In early 1916, all these oppositionists were excluded from the parliamentary delegation. The centrists formed the social democratic Community of Labor (Arbeitsgemeinschaft), the nucleus of the future USPD. It was opposed to the SPD leadership’s war policy but refused to break with the Party until it was excluded in early 1917.

After the February Revolution in Russia, the German parliament voted for a resolution in favor of peace, in July 1917, in order to undercut the impact of the mass movement against the war. The State, under pressure from its parliament and especially the SPD (who thought they could save the economy from a revolution) also attempted to reform itself in the direction of a parliamentary democracy: the last government before November 1918 would be declared to be responsible before the chamber and would include SPD ministers.

The de-aggregation of the Party’s left was paralleled by a reaction on the part of the leadership. For the first time, the old radical current of social democracy was dispersed into numerous groups (prior to 1914, Luxemburg and Kautsky were both known as “radicals”). Later, a process of regroupment culminated in the founding of the USPD, the Spartacus League and the ISD.

The first opposition groups formed primarily in Hamburg, around Wolffheim and Laufenberg, and in Bremen, where the group included the majority of the socialist organization and could express its views in the Bremer Bürger-Zeitung, which from the very start of the war took a firm stand: “everything which we have said until now would amount to nothing but empty words unless we uphold our positions during and after the war.”3 Groups also formed in Dresden, Gotha, Brunswick, Weimar, Nüremberg, Leipzig, Halle and various neighborhoods in Berlin. The Berlin Vorwärts was in the hands of the opposition and Rühle issued calls for a split.

The loyal branches of the Party diminished in number: after Stuttgart, Duisberg (summer 1916) and Bremen (December 1916) ceased to pay the Party leadership their statutory 20% dues quota. Numerous groups and individuals chose to leave the Party: of its 1,000,000 members in 1914, only 200,000 remained in the SPD at the time of its September 1917 Congress.

The leadership’s policy was to fire the editors of its papers who did not support its directives, and to replace them with more docile editorial teams. In Berlin the affair took on the appearance of a police operation, and was known by the name of the “Vorwärts Robbery”: hence the occupation of the premises of the newspaper during the revolution, the rank and file wanting to recover “its” organ of expression.

The ISD was formed in September 1915. It was the smallest of the radical currents, but it was the precursor of the postwar German Left. Its theoretical spokesperson before the war was Pannekoek. After August 4, 1914, only a few oppositionist groups decided to definitively break with the SPD and with everything the latter represented and entailed. The two most important groups were the Berlin group around the journal Lichstrahlen (Rays of Light), and the Bremen and Brunswick groups around Radek, which then comprised the German ultra-left.

Upon definitively breaking with the SPD, these groups explained the supposed betrayal of 1914 as being due to the social democratic form of organization itself. They wanted a new form of organization in which complete democracy would prevail: the delegates must be revocable at any moment, under the constant vigilance of the rank and file, etc. In this manner the formation of a layer of bureaucrats living on the members’ dues, the “bonzes” who become conservatives (in politics as well) in order to preserve their positions, would be prevented. One of the principle refrains of the German Revolution began to be heard: denunciation of the leaders, praise for the masses.

Lichstrahlen was founded in 1913 by Julian Borchardt. The very title of the magazine clearly indicated its enlightenment goal: to clarify the consciousness of the masses so they could take measures to free themselves from the influence of leaders.4 (Knowledge of the currents involved in the origins of the German Left is important in order to form an accurate idea of the latter.) Pannekoek, who was in close contact with the Bremen group, carried out a much more profound analysis of the causes of the apparent betrayal of 1914: the socialist parties corresponded to the pre-imperialist period of capitalism, a period characterized by the growth of the capitalist social form, in which the workers struggles could achieve real reforms. The socialist parties were structured on the basis of this situation. The body of the Party is the high authority, at the political level, for conducting the negotiations which lead to obtaining improvements in the material conditions of the proletariat. The Party had become well-adapted to this function, wherein revolutionary action (in which the masses directly intervene without any need for someone to act in their place, that is, in which they are no longer masses but a class, and potentially humanity) appears to the social democratic organization as a dangerous perspective, in general but above all in regard to its own preservation.5

Besides the fact that it did not join the ISD, the Hamburg group was most notable for its connection to the revolutionary movement in the USA: the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World). Wolffheim had been a militant in the IWW in California for several years. The views expressed by Wolffheim and Laufenberg in Democracy and Organization were similar to the ideology of the IWW (see Chapter 9).6 Their ideas also presaged German unionism (the AAU and AAU-E). Workers should not, they said, organize and struggle while grouped by trades and skills (as in the trade unions) because the structure of capitalism had changed since the formation of the first trade unions. Trades had long since ceased to be the basic economic units and consequently were no longer the locus of the class struggle of the proletariat. This unit was now the factory and, at a higher level, the industry. Against the monopolization and trustification of capitalism in its many forms, the workers could not prosecute an effective struggle unless they monopolized and trustified themselves at their workplaces, factory by factory, and then by industry: “To the monopolized form of industry corresponds, on the workers’ side, the pure industrial union on the basis of the factory organization.”7 This would, in addition, permit the still “unorganized” workers to join the struggle.

In September of 1915, various groups and individuals (among others, the Russian Bolsheviks and Mensheviks) held a conference in Zimmerwald attended by all the currents of international social democracy which were opposed to the Second International’s policy since the onset of the war, in order to build a new worldwide revolutionary organization. The internationalists, few in number, could be counted on the fingers of two hands.

From Germany, the following were represented at Zimmerwald: the International group (the future Spartacus League: see below); the Bremen and Brunswick groups (represented by Radek); the Berlin group (Borchardt); as well as the centrists Ledebour and Hoffmann who took as their basis the proclamation of Kautsky, Haase and Bernstein demanding a peace treaty, without attacking the leadership of the SPD.

On the fundamental question of what attitude to adopt concerning social democracy, a split developed between the left and the center. The Mensheviks (Martov) and the future Spartacists joined the centrists. They rejected an immediate split and spoke of re-conquering social democracy. The left (the Bolsheviks, Roland-Holst8 representing the Dutch SDP Left, and the delegates from Bremen, Brunswick and Berlin) voted for a resolution which stated, among other things: 9

“Social-patriotism and social-imperialism, defended in Germany by both the majority—which is openly patriotic—of the old social democrats, as well as by the so-called centrists grouped around Kautsky . . . is an even more dangerous enemy of the proletariat than the bourgeois advocacy of imperialism, because social-imperialism, outrageously claiming to be the standard-bearer of socialism, can lead unenlightened workers into error” (un-aufgeklärte, always Aufklärung, the clarification of consciousness).

The resolution saw only a spiritual problem of consciousness where it was above all a matter of the relation of forces. But even at the level of the relation of forces its analyses seemed to be correct because, after the war, social democracy was the only effective counterrevolutionary force. Gorter’s Imperialism, the World War and Social Democracy (1915) developed the major theses of the Zimmerwald Left: transforming the war into a civil war and creating a new international. It also contains an implicit critique of the thesis concerning the labor bureaucracy: it was the whole proletariat (and not just its highest layers) which had been “corrupted”, that is, it had seen its material situation improve through its struggles, thanks to the rise in the rate of profit in the preceding period.

Gorter and Pannekoek, who could not attend the Zimmerwald Conference, supported the left. Pannekoek and Roland-Holst sent money (the SDP did not want to become involved in this kind of activity). They were entrusted with editing and publishing a German-language international organ, Vorbote (the Precursor), whose other collaborators were Lenin, Radek, Zinoviev and Gorter. Only two issues appeared as a result of disputes within the small group, due in part to the Bolsheviks’ sensitivities. One such dispute, for example, involved Roland-Holst and Trotsky.10

This collaboration within the framework of the Zimmerwald Left is one of the elements which help to explain the German Left’s misunderstandings concerning the Bolshevik seizure of power and the Third International at the time of its founding. When Lenin and the leadership of the Third International began to attack the “leftists”, the latter would long believe that this was a result of a lack of information.

The Bolsheviks, and the German, Dutch, Bulgarian and Italian Lefts, were unique in their espousal during the war of the revolutionary position against social democracy and their advocacy of the realistic and revolutionary watchword: no to peace, transform the war between nations into a civil war to seize power.

It was upon this set of positions that the Bremen, Brunswick and Berlin Lefts founded the Internazionale Sozialisten Deutschlands (ISD): the International Socialists of Germany. Their organ was Lichstrahlen and later, after that journal was shut down in April 1916, the Bremen Arbeiterpolitik (Workers Politics), published after the SPD took over the Bremer Bürger-Zeitung in June 1916.11 In December of 1916 they ceased to pay their dues to the SPD leadership and were joined by the radicals of Brunswick and Hamburg, although the latter did not immediately enter the ISD. Numerous individual members and entire sections of the Spartacus League were in agreement with the ISD’s views concerning the need to create a left radical organization totally independent of social democracy: the Dresden sections (Rühle), for example, and those of Frankfurt and Duisburg. One can thus understand why, while it was less important during the war than Spartacus, the ISD—or at least its theses—enjoyed the support of the majority at the founding Congress of the German CP (see Chapter 6).

The two touchstones of the left at the founding Congress of the German CP would, in effect, be electoral abstentionism and sabotage of the trade unions. These two positions were arrived at by the ISD in the course of its theoretical development, greatly influenced by the workers movement during the war. It was in Arbeiterpolitik that, for the first time, the watchword of the German Revolution appeared: Heraus den Gewerkschaften! (Out of the Trade Unions!), at first to be subjected to criticism, and later to be adopted. Much the same thing took place regarding the concept of the unitary organization which was expressed for the first time in 1917 in the same journal. This idea would be re-appropriated and further elaborated by Wolffheim and Laufenberg, providing the first theoretical foundations of the AAU. But the German Left went beyond the IWW: instead of basing itself on economic organizations which rejected politics, it wanted to positively overcome the rupture between political and economic organizations. Finally, the critique of social democracy and its methods led the ISD to the rejection of parliamentarism as a tactic which fatally led to the domination of the parliamentary delegation over the rest of the Party which would thus become the instrument for purely electoral ends. The later theoretical elaborations of this current are clearly of great interest today: World Revolution and Communist Tactics, by Pannekoek, as well as three texts by Rühle: The Revolution is Not a Party Matter!, Fundamental Questions of Organization, and From the Bourgeois to the Proletarian Revolution.

As the Left maintained, the USPD was a “party of leaders”, created by “leaders” to lead the “masses”. At the beginning of 1917, after a national conference of oppositionists, which was attended by the social democratic Community of Labor, the Spartacus League and Lichstrahlen (these groups contributing 111, 34 and 7 delegates, respectively) and which voted to remain in the SPD, the Community of Labor and the Spartacists were excluded from the SPD. In April, the centrists created the USPD, the Independent Social Democratic Party, which the Spartacus League joined as an autonomous group. It was an important party which would receive 2.5 million votes in the 1919 elections. Drawn from the SPD Left, which comprised many of its sections, it had its own trade union organization in the “revolutionary shop stewards” (see below), an oppositionist trade union organization born during the war.

The Independents denounced the existing German State as “the State of the Middle Classes” and wanted a State of the working class.12 This position differs from both Bernstein’s stance at the turn of the century which was in favor of an SPD-Liberal alliance, as well as from that of the defenders of imperialism, who were supporters of a working class-big capital alliance against the liberal bourgeoisie and the middle classes, a program which would be more or less realized by the Nazis. The USPD extended traditional liberalism by mixing it with a laborism of workers ideology. The numerous workers who supported it were against the revolution as well as the authoritarianism and bureaucratism of the SPD and the ADGB. Historically, this Party expressed the ambiguous character of a (numerous) fraction of workers whose confusion would be augmented by defeat.

In conformity with its dualism, it was the Party where all compromises found a place. Whenever its left wing launched or reactivated an action, it began negotiating from the very moment that the action appeared to become dangerous to the established order. It had a left wing which took to the streets (the Spartacists, at the beginning, and leaders like Ledebour who had connections with the shop stewards), and a right wing which undertook parliamentary maneuvers. After the sailors had established contact with the USPD during the summer of 1917 (see the next Chapter), it abandoned them the moment they were repressed and denied any responsibility for their actions. A leader of the USPD declared: “We have tried to channel the justified indignation of the masses into legal political action.”13 These “pure” social democrats wanted social democracy without its natural consequence: social democracy’s counterrevolutionary future. Their critique, like Luxemburg’s, was directed at the “official authorities”, the “current leaders” of the SPD, but never at the SPD as such.

The USPD was the German expression of the international phenomenon Lenin designated as “centrism”: the center of the Italian SP under Serrati, the Independent Labour Party in England, the majority of the SFIO in France. Yet this center would be the object of the CI’s efforts to swell the ranks of the CPs. For the revolutionaries, centrism was defined and fought on the basis of its dynamic: blocking the evolution of reformist positions towards radical action. The USPD would play this role to perfection.

The Spartacist League
The Spartacist League included both the future rightist leaders of the KPD (Luxemburg, Leo Jogisches, Levi, Pieck--the future president of the GDR--Zetkin), as well as future KAPists (Rühle, Bergmann, Meyer). Others, like Liebknecht, occupied an intermediate position in the revolution.

The Spartacist League suffered from a problem which would be reproduced on a larger scale during the KPD’s first few months: a left majority and a right-wing leadership, with the left not daring to make a clean break to join the ISD. In 1915, the Spartacist League was known as the International group, which was the name of the single issue of a journal which it published. In 1916 it became the Spartacist Group or League: starting in January 1916, Luxemburg published a series of political letters under the signature of “Spartacus”, and the “Spartacus” journal appeared in September. Its two theoreticians were Liebknecht and Luxemburg. For his valiant and spectacular opposition to the war, Liebknecht was the most popular of the “social democratic leaders” in Germany. He was the first to refuse to vote for war credits. For having shouted “Down with the war! Down with the government!” at the May Day demonstration in 1916, he was arrested and condemned to a sentence of four years in prison, etc. It was in prison where he elaborated his positions, which are summarized below.

If Luxemburg was the author of the formula, “After August 4, 1914, social democracy is nothing but a nauseating corpse,” she proved to be quite a necrophiliac. She played a perfectly reactionary role, utilizing all the resources of her dialectic and all her authority to prevent the revolutionaries from cutting the ties which bound them to that “corpse” under the pretext that the masses were found there and that they must not separate themselves from them. Her trenchant formulas and intricate dialectics often concealed a lack of deep analysis:

“However laudable and understandable the impatience and bitterness which today lead the best elements to leave the Party (we should recall that 4/5 of the Party has thus abandoned it), flight is still flight. For us, this means a betrayal of the masses who are struggling and suffocating, caught in the snares of the Scheidemanns and the Legiens (socialist leader and the leader of the ADGB, respectively), who enjoy the favor of the bourgeoisie. One can ‘leave’ small sects and little cults when they no longer please, in order to found new sects and new cults. To attempt, by means of a simple “departure”, to free the proletarian masses from the horribly heavy and disastrous yoke of the bourgeoisie and to thus set a good example for them, is purely imaginary. To entertain the illusion of freeing the masses by tearing up the militants’ membership cards is nothing but the inverted expression of the fetishism of the Party membership card as an illusory power. Both these attitudes are merely different poles of institutional cretinism, an illness inherent to the old social democracy.”14

The Spartacus Letter of March 30, 1916, concerning the founding of the Community of Labor, concluded in this fashion: “The watchword is neither schism, nor unity, nor new party, nor old party, but the re-conquest of the Party from the bottom up by means of the rebellion of the masses who must take their organizations and instruments into their own hands, not with a rebellion of words, but of deeds.”

This tactic was similar to the centrist position of the Spartacists at Zimmerwald: refusing to publicly denounce the Kautskyist center and to accept Lenin’s and Gorter’s, et al., slogans against the war, Luxemburg and Liebknecht underwent the following evolution. At first, they propagandized in favor of a “just” peace without annexations, defined as a “socialist peace”. At the meeting of the SPD shop stewards held in Charlottenburg on December 30, 1914, Liebknecht proposed a vote on a “Resolution on the nature of the war and the tasks of the working class” in which he said: “The goal of the socialists is to obtain through struggle a peace without annexations, without humiliating any country, and to do everything possible to reinforce the movement for such a socialist peace in all countries concerned.” Later, the conclusion of the Junius Pamphlet (“Theses on the Tasks of International Social Democracy”) launched the slogan “War against War”, which was susceptible of many different interpretations. Luxemburg would long remain bound to the socialist conception of the war. Jaurés’s phrase is well-known: “Capitalism brings war the way clouds bring a storm.” The Zimmerwald Left went so far as to add a third term: war leads to revolution. The slogan, “War against War” remains in the social democratic camp.

Liebknecht developed an original position on organization. He had seen that, except for those made by Pannekoek, the “leftist” critiques of the social democratic form of organization were quite superficial and effectively revealed a degree of organizational fetishism. He attempted to oppose to an organizational form which favored the leaders and the counterrevolution, another form which would favor the “self-activity of the masses”. This leftist point of view was expounded by Liebknecht in his prison writings and was shared by the majority of the Spartacist League:

“To eliminate the paid bureaucracy, or to exclude it from all decision-making processes; to limit it to technical labor; to prohibit the re-election of all officials, after a maximum time served . . . , to reduce the power of high-level positions; decentralization; vote by the rank and file on all important questions (veto power). . . . To teach the masses and individuals intellectual and moral independence, to question authority, to take the initiative and personal responsibility, so that each person would be prepared for and capable of free action: all these things comprise the only sure foundation for the development of a workers movement which would be equal to its historic tasks, in general, and this is also the precondition and essential basis for the extirpation of the bureaucratic danger.”15

Luxemburg did not want to become involved in this kind of critique. She broke with social democracy, but only reluctantly, and helped retard the construction of a new, entirely autonomous radical organization. Her 1904 polemic with Lenin, however, showed that she was by no means a devotee of organizational fetishism.16 It is impossible to agree with Laufenberg when, in 1920, he wrote in Communism versus Spartacism: “Luxemburg never freed herself from the social democratic form of organization.” Laufenberg’s critique issued from the mystified point of view expressed by Liebknecht above. All the debates within the German Left are generally very confused.

There was, then, an important Left, which was even in the majority within the Spartacist League; but it did not distinguish itself in relation to its centrist leadership, represented by Luxemburg. The Spartacist League itself remained an autonomous group within the USPD, which, for its part, never lost hope of reunification with the SPD.

Labor Agitation and the “Shop Stewards”
All strikes were prohibited by the trade unions as a “betrayal of our brothers at the front”. As a result, everything was very clear from the beginning on the labor front, as far as organizations were concerned: in every strike, a new organization was born in each factory, led by the “revolutionary shop stewards”. These men were generally regularly-elected trade union delegates who did not follow the official line of the ADGB’s Central Committee. The new structures were based on the factory, and these factory organizations (BO, Betriebsorganisation) were organized by industrial regions (for example, the workers council of Greater Berlin), in accordance with the technical structure of capital during that era. This form of organization would be adopted and theorized by the German Left (KAPD, AAU), and was also the embryo of the future workers councils. The shop stewards held effective leadership over all strikes, and called them off without any negotiations when they felt that the strike movement was in no position to make the State back down. Starting and stopping strikes almost at will, the shop stewards were the most authentic expression of the labor rank and file at that time: they comprised its executive organ. Constantly spreading, the strikes were supposed to have terminated in the insurrectionary general strike. The shop stewards would elaborate a plan for November 1918 along such lines which, as it turned out, could not be executed: once again, it became obvious that the revolution would begin spontaneously before the D-Day foreseen by all the leaders. Later, when this revolution directly posed problems at the level of the State, once the struggle became directly political, the shop stewards in fact proved incapable of leading it: they generally rallied to the USPD as their political party. Incapable of transcending the limitations of the factory, they left it only in order to fall prey to the limitations of political democracy. Opposed to mass action, which they considered to be “revolutionary gymnastics”, the Revolutionäre Obleute (RO) proved that the mere fact of their working class and factory background did not confer upon them any more immunity against opportunism and immediatism than was the case with social groups “outside” the factories. The most radical sectors of the proletariat (the “left”) would not clearly emerge until the revolution.

The first disturbances were hunger riots accompanied by looting of stores, in October 1915 in Chemnitz, and later, during May-June 1916, demonstrations were held in numerous cities in solidarity with Liebknecht, who was on trial at the time for his seditious outbursts. In March-April 1917, a new wave of strikes took place. On April 16, what has come to be known as the first workers council in Germany was born in Leipzig; it was called a “committee” and was composed for the most part of members of the USPD, with a democratic pacifist and reformist program. The goals of the workers movement did not surpass this level until November 1918: but its direct methods allowed a glimpse beyond its initial goals.

The movements in the provinces were followed by a large strike in Berlin (250,000 workers) which spread like wildfire to central Germany from April 16 to 23 of 1917. On the 19th, the Knorr-Bremse factory elected a workers council with Spartacist tendencies. This strike was so significant that the ADGB permanent committee took the decision to compel new elections: the old rightists were replaced by new rightists. It was the first manifestation of the democratic offensive, a procedure which was to be extensively employed during the revolution.

The strikes of January 1918 were an extension of the strikes in Austria. Their international purpose was to exert pressure on the German and Austrian negotiators at Brest-Litovsk. Except for the latter, the movement’s goals were identical, but the strike was observed by more than one million workers. At the end of 1918, at the time of the “revolution”, the proletariat would again take up the attitude of the strikers of January, and it would be defeated. The expansion of the strike simultaneously made it clear how the various political groups were excluded from the practical initiatives which originated among the rank and file, only later managing to take control of the movement: at the time of the announcement of the events in Austria, the atmosphere in Berlin was dominated by strikes. The USPD was sympathetic and the Spartacists supported the strike, which was ultimately decided upon by the shop stewards. 400,000 workers did not go to work and elected a “Russian-style” council composed of delegates from all the city’s factories (analogous to the St. Petersburg Soviet), which had 400 delegates. The delegates in turn elected an Action Committee composed of eleven shop stewards who, despite protests, then co-opted three members of the USPD and three members of the SPD. The USPD representatives were Ledebour, Haase (who had justified the SPD’s vote for war credits while Liebknecht argued against it) and Dittmann (who became famous in Kiel when his party abandoned the sailors: see the next Chapter). The SPD representatives were Scheidemann, Braun and Ebert; the latter would later declare, in order to justify his action to his party’s extreme right, that he had only joined this Action Committee in order to sabotage the movement.17

The strike spread in Berlin and in all the large cities (with more than one million workers on strike). The government’s reaction was violent: the Berlin factories and the shipyards of Hamburg and Kiel were placed under martial law. The SPD pushed for negotiations, the Spartacists wanted the disturbances to lead to insurrection, but the shop stewards called an end to the movement on February 3.

  • 1 Haupt: Le congrès manqué, Maspero, 1965, pp. 25-27.
  • 2 Badia: Histoire de l’Allemagne comtemporaine, Ed. Sociales, Vol. I, p. 62.
  • 3 Walling, p. 268. Cf. Humbert Droz, L’origine de la IC, La Baconnière, 1968; and Gankin and Fisher, The Bolscheviks and the World War, Stanford University Press and Oxford University Press, 1940.
  • 4 H. M. Bock: Syndikalismus und Linkskommunismus, Marburger Abhandlungen für Politischen Wissenschaft, Vol. 13, 1969, p. 72.
  • 5“L’imperialisme et les tâches du proletariat”, Vorbote, No. 1, 1916.
  • 6 Guerin: Le mouvement ouvrier aux USA, Maspero, 1968.
  • 7 Bock: p. 79.
  • 8 Roland-Holst: she left the small “Internationalist Group” to join the SDP in 1916.
  • 9 Bock: p. 69.
  • 10 F. Kool: Die Linke gegen die Parteiherrschaft, Walter-Verlag, Olten et Freiburg im Breisgau, Switzerland, 1970, pp. 90-91. Lenin considered Roland-Holst and Trotsky to be Zimmerwald “centrists”: cf. Oeuvres, Vol. 21, Ed. Sociales, 1969, pp. 323 and 465.
  • 11 According to Waldman, most members of the Lichstrahlen would later join the Linksradikalen of northern Germany: pp. 45-46.
  • 12 L. O’Boyle: American Historical Review, July, 1951, “The German Independent Socialists during the First World War.”
  • 13 Badia: p. 81.
  • 14 Quoted by Bock, p. 69.
  • 15 Ibid., p. 65.
  • 16“Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy”, op. cit.
  • 17 Badia: pp. 87-88.


Chapter 5 - The 1918 'November Revolution'

Submitted by Spassmaschine on October 23, 2009

Prior to November 9
The revolution began among the sailors of the German fleet at Kiel, the major Baltic port. They had mutinied during the summer of 1917 and were crushed: some were imprisoned, others executed. Like the workers, they organized their revolt through revolutionary shop stewards. They had established contact with the USPD Local (Dittmann), which then disavowed them during the repression of their summer 1917 revolt. They had also been in contact with the workers at the Kiel shipyard and the arsenal. At the end of October 1918, the High Command of the German Navy decided upon one last battle. The sailors refused to set sail and seized the ships, and later took over the city. A workers and sailors council was formed which took control of the city on November 4.

Their attitude and program were quite pacifist: peace, democracy and recognition of the workers. This was the program of all the councils which were born in that first phase. They took the form of the Russian workers and soldiers soviets. They were based on cities, neighborhoods or the various military units. Their form was unlike that of the enterprise or factory councils.

The Kiel council, with an SPD majority, elected Noske as its president, the same person who would later be called the “bloodhound” of the revolution; dispatched to the scene by the SPD leadership, he also took control of the local city government. This fact alone summarizes the whole period: the rebellion chose as its representative the man who had come to squelch it, and he would promptly organize its armed repression.

This tactic of the SPD proved to be more suitable under the circumstances than the one advocated by the government minister from the Catholic Zentrum Party, Erzberger, who proposed that Kiel should be militarily assaulted, but could find no one to carry out such a plan. This same Erzberger, who had presented the motion in favor of peace adopted by the Reichstag in July of 1917, would later be assassinated by the extreme right in 1920, at a time when the revolutionaries had other things to attend to than killing ministers: the good democratic souls of the “workers parties” would, of course, utilize the occasion to criticize the sectarianism of the “leftists” who refused to participate in the insipid campaigns in defense of legality, which is an internal affair of the bourgeoisie.

The revolution rapidly spread throughout the whole country, taking Hamburg and Lübeck on November 5. A general strike broke out in Hamburg after the Kiel revolt.1 Huge crowds seized warships, the port, the trade union headquarters, the central rail station, and the barracks of the city’s regiment (after a gunfight that led to some casualties), and then armed themselves, without taking any further steps. The senate (the local city administration) and the council mutually recognized one another and functioned (or, more accurately, failed to function) alongside each other: it was by no means a situation of dual power. Instead of dealing with real problems (food, production in the interests of the population and the revolution, armaments, links with the outside), the council organized elections . . . for the workers and soldiers councils, which would cost them three days to prepare. After having seized power, the council immediately relinquished it, seeking legitimacy instead. The president of the council was H. Laufenberg. The council proclaimed “the indissoluble unity of the Russia of the Soviets and the government of the Hamburg councils.” According to Laufenberg, it was the movement in Hamburg which transformed the Kiel revolt into a pan-German phenomenon, which spread to Bremen (where the ISD exercised a great deal of influence), Stuttgart (the first party section to split from the SPD), and later, on the seventh, to Munich.2 The demonstrators in Munich proclaimed the Bavarian council republic and freed all political prisoners. At that time, when the councils were just being formed, this council republic appeared to be copied from the “council-republic” of Russia. Its president was Kurt Eisner (USPD).

Unlike the precedence of Paris in French revolutionary history, Berlin fell, under pressure from all the rest of Germany, on the ninth: a “division” of revolutionary sailors (the Volksmarinedivision) arrived from Kiel and demonstrators occupied all public buildings. Under the direct democratic pressure of the crowds, the republic was proclaimed by the SPD minister, Scheidemann. Ebert reproached him for such an undemocratic act, since a republic can only be proclaimed by a constituent assembly elected by the people. Scheidemann responded that, had he not done so, the demonstrators would have immediately rallied to Liebknecht. An entirely Social Democratic government was created, called the “Council of Peoples Commissars”, composed of three members of the SPD (Ebert, Scheidemann, Landsberg) and three from the USPD (Haase, Dittmann, Barth). Due to his popularity, Liebknecht had been approached, but had refused to participate: at the head of another demonstration, Liebknecht proclaimed the socialist republic.

Approximately 10,000 councils were established, electing leaders who were in their great majority members of the SPD. Both the leaders of the SPD as well as the Army encouraged this process and helped to form councils: “All power to the Councils”. The council was the form chosen to liquidate the subversive movement, from the very moment of its appearance. The “council-form” is no less a failure than the “party-form”. Yet, even today, in imitation of the Leninists, councilists speak of the council as if it must always be a revolutionary council, while the latter constituted an exception within the German Revolution. The Leninists speak the same way about the “revolutionary party”, as if it were a magical talisman, despite the fact that it has never existed. These disputes concerning party or council are of no account because they have always lacked and will continue to lack any real historical substance.

The November Revolution took place in a totally unexpected manner for all the parties and groups which attempted to assume its leadership, including, among others, those who were closest to the rank and file, the RO, whose plan for an insurrection was rendered superfluous by the wave which spread from Kiel. But the social democracy knew perfectly well how to use this current in its favor, and was all the more pleased when it conformed to its desires. When social democracy took the power which the proletariat had granted it, and which the bourgeoisie was prudent enough to surrender to it, the democratic revolution was already over. The emperor had abdicated after nobody spoke of him anymore. The struggle against the social revolution was initiated and led by the “most powerful workers party in the world” and its peoples commissars, in the name of democracy, the councils and socialism. One of the dangers of democracy is that it preys upon the need to transform our surroundings and of acting in common; a need which is frustrated by capital, which organizes everything according to its own logic, and reduces us to an infantile state in which the isolated individual receives the means to live without producing them. Democracy is an attempt to simultaneously overcome this isolation and this passivity. The contemporaries of the German Revolution had perceived this quite well. In 1921, W. Roemer explained the advantages of the council system in the following terms: 3 in other times the worker had no other opportunities for political activity than that which took place through a political party and through voting in elections, while from now on he participates directly thanks to the council.

The strategies and functions of the various organizations
As far as the bourgeoisie was concerned, the State was momentarily neutralized. Nowhere did the bureaucracy offer any resistance to the formation of councils which, although concentrating all power in their hands wherever they were established, left the old State intact, and demanded that the latter “recognize” them. The Army dissolved, although its officers managed its return to Germany in a more or less orderly and disciplined fashion. There was little fraternization with enemy soldiers. The soldiers who were not immediately reincorporated into civilian life formed councils throughout the country at all levels, from the barracks up to the army corps. They were mostly social democrats, but were utterly useless as a force for direct repression: their purpose was more to immobilize the movement, so as to make it expire from inactivity. Some officers attempted to reestablish the status quo in the Army but could only create the Freikorps, paramilitary formations led by officers and government employees. The bourgeoisie and its parties did not take any overt action and ceded political power. Under pressure, their parties changed their names; all of them introduced the word “peoples’” or “popular” into their titles.4 Liberalism was weak in Germany: the bourgeoisie was not very unified. In 1918, it was not economically destroyed, but surrendered political power to the workers parties. Once again, under the Nazi regime, the bourgeoisie would not itself exercise political power, and Hitler was able to say: “I do the politics, you do the economy”.5 Immediately after the First World War, the bourgeoisie was divided between republicans and monarchists, those who benefited from inflation and those harmed by it, etc. . . . .6

The SPD which had taken power had undergone a large reduction in its membership, which was in its eyes a sign of proletarian radicalization, although the masses allowed it to remain in power. Once it occupied the highest offices of the State, its membership as well as its audience rapidly expanded: it obtained 35% of the vote in the January 1919 elections. It was the “backbone of the new bourgeois State” (Wolffheim).

Although it had been formed by those who had been excluded from the SPD, the USPD never lost the hope of reunification. Since its leaders were primarily concerned with the exercise of power, they did not consider the possibility of assembling a council as the Spartacist left had desired. Having taken account of the obvious current of radicalization, Spartacus had to show that it had at least become a significant minority within the USPD. We must point out that “public opinion”, the press, etc., had at that time seized upon the term “Spartacist” as being more suitable than “left radicals”, “international socialists”, etc., for causing a sensation, and that the term was applied to the whole revolutionary movement, within which Spartacus was just one group among others, and which would constitute neither the majority nor the most radical current within the KPD. The term “left radical” was also used in an imprecise manner, designating not only the USPD left (without distinction) but also everything to the left of the USPD.7

On October 7, 1918, the Spartacists, as an autonomous group, convoked a national conference, to which they invited the groups of the ISD as observers. This conference launched the slogan, which had already been heard in certain places during 1917-1918, calling for the formation of councils everywhere following the Russian model. It adopted a democratic transitional revolutionary program which was presented as follows: ending the state of emergency, liberation of all political prisoners, expropriation of the banks, heavy industry and the mines, as well as of large and medium-size agricultural properties, and the completion of German unification. This last point was in conflict with Wilson’s “right of self-determination”, which was devised to weaken Europe and strengthen the United States, and to give rise to buffer States against the revolution. The conference refused to deal with the trade union question as a “secondary” issue, despite the appearance of numerous autonomous organizations in the factories.

Freed by the government at the end of October, Liebknecht met with the Berlin shop stewards, who elected him to their leadership along with Müller (ISD). Luxemburg, who was also imprisoned during the war, was freed by the revolution on December 9. On that same day, Spartacus published the first issue of its daily newspaper, Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), the future organ of the KPD, the right wing KPD and the VKPD. On the 18th, it became the “Spartacist League”, thereby demonstrating its movement towards autonomy in respect to the USPD.

Like Spartacus, the ISD also grew and multiplied the number of its publications: some of them would become the organs of the left wing which would be excluded from the KPD. On November 23, meeting in Bremen, the ISD would assume the name IKD: Internationale Kommunisten Deutschlands. This would be one of the names proposed at the founding congress of the KPD. Laufenberg and Wolffheim’s organization joined the IKD, which also led the Bremen council. In Berlin, a member of the IKD (Müller) was elected leader of the shop stewards. On December 1, the IKD of Saxony, with Rühle, held its founding congress: after a week of experiences it had withdrawn from all the councils dominated by SPD and USPD members. These groups would attend the national conference of the IKD on December 24 (see the next Chapter). After November, the IKD declared its full solidarity with the struggles and the slogans of the Spartacists and, together with the latter, proclaimed the watchword: “All power to the councils”. However, as could be deduced from the press and attitude of the Saxon IKD, the IKD, from its inception, unlike the Spartacists, judged that the workers and soldiers councils, so recently created, the products of a still confused movement, could not be the vehicles for the proletarian revolution. On this point the IKD was not the victim of a fetishism of the organization and the masses. It put forth as a specific task the clarification of the relation of forces throughout the country and, taken as a whole, played a much less well-known but more important role than Spartacus.

On a national scale, the revolutionary shop stewards seemed to constitute the trade union left. As such, they corresponded exactly to the USPD (following the old economic-political dichotomy which the revolution would try to overcome). The RO was ultimately the trade union organization of the USPD. It fully confirmed this tendency by providing itself with a trade unionist leadership: Ledebour, Däumig (both from the USPD) and Müller (of the Berlin shop stewards). Even after the revolution, the RO would still allow a place for the USPD. In Berlin, however, where the Spartacist tendency of the USPD was strongest, the RO elaborated the insurrectionary plan which would be short-circuited by the revolution itself.

On January 1, 1919, the RO refused to become the KPD’s economic organization, and requested, among other things, that the party abandon the provocative name of “Spartacus”.8 As an expression of its radical-reformist base, the RO would be replaced during the struggles of early 1919 by the factory organizations and action committees, the precursors of the future AAU. After the end of 1918, left wing action committees existed in all of Hamburg’s factories.

Meanwhile, the anarchosyndicalists, although outlawed and reduced to inactivity during the war, had preserved their cadres. The Free Federation of German Trade Unions (FVDG) rapidly rebuilt its organization. During December 26-27 it held a conference and, most importantly, decided to invite its members to collaborate with the communist organizations (IKD) and the Spartacists, in support of the councils and the dictatorship of the proletariat.9

The “November Revolution” was not even a bourgeois revolution: ultimately, it was the political conclusion, carried out by the proletariat, of a bourgeois revolution which started in the 19th century. This “revolution” was not a revolution: it did not fight the essence of the State, which was only modified in a secondary manner. Eichhorn, a USPD member, who was appointed “chief of police” of Berlin, was by no means the real chief of police. And what kind of police was he supposed to lead? The police of the bourgeois state had not changed. The mere fact that the workers and the revolutionaries had mobilized in its defense was more than symbolic: it reflected the incompetence of the movement. To speak of the “German Revolution”, granting this term its most profound meaning, as Luxemburg did in her last article (January 14, 1919), is a dangerous illusion.

  • 1 Comfort: Chapter III.
  • 2 See The Revolution in Hamburg ,in Part Two, below.
  • 3 Summarized by Waldman: p. 107, note 78.
  • 4 Compare with the Italian bourgeoisie of the same era: R. Paris, Histoire du fascisme, Maspero, Vol. I, 1962; and Communisme et fascisme, Ed. Programme Communiste.
  • 5 Quoted in A. Grosser, Hitler, la presse et la naissance d’une dictature, Colin, 1972, p. 19.
  • 6 Reichenbach: “Zur Geschichte der KAPD”, Archiv für die Geschichte des Sozialismus und der Arbeiterbewegung, 1928, Vol. XIII.
  • 7 Comfort, p. 43.
  • 8 On the relations between the RO and the Spartacus League, cf. Prudhommeaux.
  • 9 Bock: p. 105, and Document III.


Chapter 6 - Before the confrontation: the relation of forces

Submitted by Spassmaschine on October 23, 2009

The Bourgeoisie and the “Workers Party”
The economic crisis at the end of 1918 and the beginning of 1919 was primarily due to economic disorganization caused by the war and the need for peacetime reconversion: at this level alone, it was not a crisis in the sense of a cyclical crisis. Its features (a considerable decrease in production, a large trade deficit, a million unemployed at the beginning of 1919—with 250,000 unemployed in Berlin alone—a 2/3 decline in the exchange value of the mark) were conjunctural effects of the war and reconversion. Germany would later regain its competitive position. But the prohibition of strikes and the scarcity of the necessities for survival placed the workers in a very difficult position which, in addition to all kinds of sacrifices during the war, generated a permanent readiness for violent action and insurrection in an important fraction of the proletariat which would last until March of 1921, even when reformism had become generally dominant. For this revolutionary movement, the democratic revolution of November was just one moment within the process of social revolution.

The way capitalism managed to survive and to crush subversion was basically new. All the institutions which one would have thought would have served the counterrevolution had collapsed. First of all, the State and the Army; the bourgeoisie remained in the background, its parties having relinquished political power (see the previous Chapter). The bourgeoisie yielded to the socialists, whose leader, Ebert, reassured them: “We are the only ones who can maintain order.” Among the pre-revolutionary hierarchies, the SPD and the ADGB were the only institutions which were still effective on a national scale in Germany. They had a great deal of influence over the reformist majority of the workers. In most cases, workers’ initiatives designated SPD members as their representatives in negotiations, even in particularly radical regions like the Ruhr and Berlin.

Nowhere did the proletariat undertake decisive measures of the kind advocated by Lenin in his Message to the Soviet Republic of Bavaria of April 27, 1919. It is against this backdrop that one must evaluate the extent of the movement and the vicissitudes of the left. Except for Bremen and Dresden (bastions of the left radicals within the future KAPD), the SPD would continue to control the majorities in the councils of almost all the large cities.1 The proletarians did not create their own military organization and only part of the proletariat—with the exception of Hamburg, Kiel and Dresden—took up arms. In the Alsace the movement was suffocated under the weight of nationalism, due to the struggle for influence between Francophiles and Germanophiles.2 In Bremen the council dismissed nationalist professors and reactionary functionaries, and organized a red guard. In Brunswick a red guard was formed and the judiciary was purged. In most cases, this amounted to the destruction of only “half” of the State: but one does not get rid of the State with halfway measures. In Hamburg the Soldiers Council was in the hands of the popular militia (Volkswehr) formed in November 1918 from the Reichswehr Ninth Army Corps, without anyone knowing just who was in command. Laufenberg proposed, on November 12, that the traditional political institutions be dissolved.3 But the Council came up against economic and social problems which it could not solve in the bourgeois manner (due to a lack of money), and which it did not try to solve in a communist way. Attempting to discover a third way, it prepared its own downfall. On the 16th, a delegation of capitalists offered financial assistance on the condition that it would have the right to control the use of the funds. The Council then provisionally reinstated the traditional institutions so as not to frighten the American bourgeoisie who were about to grant a loan to Germany. A “Consultative Economic Council” composed of industrialists took charge of financial affairs. On the 18th, with municipal elections having been announced for April 1, 1919, and the political form not having received a revolutionary content, it was logical that it would immediately be jeopardized as such. The councils “committed suicide” after December 1918, upon accepting the convocation of a constituent assembly, and the classic local institutions elected by universal suffrage. The workers ruled entire cities, but accomplished nothing.

In Bavaria, the transformations in the army were purely formal: certain rights were conceded to the soldiers in exchange for their general obedience to their officers.4 Even worse, the only effect of this reform was to exacerbate the officers’ hatred for all social change, without having granted, in exchange, the means for the soldiers to organize themselves against the officer corps. J. Knief considered “the practice of many of the soldiers councils to be counterrevolutionary”.5 It was within the proletariat itself that the issue would be decided. The majority of the workers, organized in trade unions and led by the SPD, would be the agent for capital’s survival. Capital only exists because the proletariat creates it, and the proletariat reproduces capital until the general breakdown of the relations integral to capital, together with the experience of numerous failed revolutions, compels the proletariat to struggle and gives it the ability to fight for its survival by rejecting its own condition as proletariat, rather than in order to survive, by way of political reforms and activities, as workers who sell their labor power.

After taking power, the SPD declared the revolution was over, at least in its phase of violence and mass action. The party of the working class being in power, and the working class thus having taken political power in its hands, the revolutionary transformation of social relations (what was called socialization) was only a question of time: it was a matter of a progressive and peaceful process. The development of capital still had to continue, since only a capital which had arrived at the ultimate stage of its development could be “socialized”. For this reason, order must reign, and the “Spartacists” must be crushed, “Spartacists” being another way of saying “reactionary lumpenproletariat”.

The workers movement came to consider the revolutionary proletarians as marginal in respect to the “working class”. This was also the source of the rise of racism: anti-Semitism wreaked havoc in the workers movement,6 especially the variety directed against the eastern Jews who had come from Russia and Poland to find work or to escape from pogroms.

“The Jews of the east are, for the most part, a proletarian group mired in filth, poverty, and the lowest moral level of commerce. Unable to adapt to industry, their physical constitution, furthermore, generally renders them ill-suited for industrial or agricultural labor.”

Considering fact that these lines were extracted from the SPD’s leading journal, Neue Zeit, one can imagine what forms anti-Semitism assumed in everyday agitation and propaganda. Becker, an SPD deputy in the national assembly, declared in that forum, in 1919: “The Warschovskys, the Auerbachs and the Sickmanns of Lodz, the Stachovskys and the Alexandrovitchs of Warsaw are doing business everywhere in Breslau and Berlin. They cross the frontiers with false or expired passports. They lounge about, with their characteristic arrogance, in the first class compartments of our express trains. . . . This gang, it truly does not deserve to continue to live on this earth, we must . . . eliminate these parasites from our world.”

Having a better appreciation than anyone else for the revolutionary potential of the radical sector, the driving force of the movement which had just been unleashed, the SPD took measures to confront it, while it diverted the “masses” with grand speeches about the advent of socialization. One can see the ideology of socialization in P. Lensch, who moved from the left to the socialist right wing and who announced on the eve of the peace that capital would emerge from the conflict as “a captive of socialism”.7 Economic socialization was inevitable: “capitalism must be organized”. Prefiguring the Nazis, which is to say the language of National Socialism so dear to the SPD, he presented the alternative between “social” organization” and “plutocratic” organization. The State “has undergone a process of socialization” and social democracy has experienced a process of “nationalization”: “For the first time in history, we are establishing harmony between the State and the people.” Nazism would receive its “totalitarian language” from social democracy.

In an article on Socialization,8 Pannekoek criticized the term itself, which alone designates nothing but organized capitalism or “State socialism”. But he did not discuss the notion of a community without exchange. Nor would Gorter:9

“The proletariat must take State and legislative power into its hands. It must guarantee a minimum of the means of subsistence to all the workers and to all those who must become workers. It must take over the management of all production, of trade and transportation, and of the distribution of production. It must decree compulsory labor for all. It must repudiate the State’s debts; confiscate war profits; it must only tax capital and income and thereby arrive at a confiscation of capital. It must expropriate the Banks and large industry. It must socialize the land.”

The SPD also availed itself of violent measures. After November 10, Ebert was in contact with the Army’s leaders and assured them of his assistance: the distrust, and even more than distrust, on the part of the General Staff with respect to social democracy was a habit which would not disappear simply because the latter held government power. It was at this moment that Ebert uttered his famous phrase: “we are the only party which can maintain order.”10 On the 11th, Ebert’s government made haste to sign the armistice so as to be able to dedicate itself to a more essential war. Since the Army had to be dismantled according to the terms of the armistice, its leaders undertook the construction of Freikorps: even so, the military means at the disposal of the counterrevolution were still scarce, which was a powerful reason for choosing which tactic to follow. The SPD faced a unique situation, unlike, for example, that faced by its Austrian counterparts.11 Founded in 1889 by an accord between radical and moderate socialists, Austrian social democracy did not have to vote for war credits, since the government had suspended parliament in March of 1914. It did, however, support the State (above all K. Renner and V. Adler, against the opposition of F. Adler). Austrian social democracy did not have as much blood on its hands as its German neighbor, and preserved, for the most part, a leftist ideology and semblance. “Socialization” and democracy had relatively greater importance in Austria than in Germany from the point of view of direct repression.12 The Function of Democracy
Democracy served all purposes. Trade union leaders and employers, who had long served on the same commissions, quickly signed the accord known under the name of the Arbeitsgemeinschaft: literally, the “community of labor”. The businessman, who was aware that the period rendered a great number of measures impractical, surrendered “everything” to preserve what was essential.

For the trade unions and the SPD this reaction was excellent propaganda for guaranteeing a good beginning for socialization and for preventing strikes. Significant reforms, for that era, were adopted, such as the principle of the eight hour day. In particular, the trade unions were recognized as valid interlocutors and components within the enterprise. Joint committees were made obligatory, composed of trade union and employer representatives in enterprises with more than 20 employees: this measure would be implemented in January 1920 under the rubric of the “law on enterprise councils”. Instead of going on strike and conducting propaganda campaigns, it was better to discuss matters with the joint committee: this is what the anti-trade union left would call “economic democracy”.

Council democracy revived parliamentary democracy, the trade unions being unable to overcome the simulacrum of parliamentary democracy within their own ranks. In December, the elections for the provincial assemblies were organized: the SPD won a majority, except in Saxony where the USPD emerged victorious. Part of the revolutionary movement’s energy was distracted, and the consciousness which it had built with its own efforts faded. The SPD declared its support for the election of a constituent assembly to determine the form which the future republican and democratic Germany would assume. But the SPD’s power was the product of a movement which had taken the form of councils and not of a parliament. In conformity with the ceaselessly repeated statement that the councils exercised all power and that the peoples commissars were only their delegates, it must have been expected that the pan-German Council Congress would itself decide to convoke, by means of elections in which all classes would participate, a constituent assembly into whose hands it would deliver its power. This is what the Congress which took place in Berlin between December 16 and 20 decided: from then on, the essential outlines of the decisive confrontation were fixed. Immediately afterwards, the attack on the Volksmarinedivision took place.

In order to prevent the revolutionary wave from sweeping everything away, the counterrevolution consolidated the only really existing means to stop it: the reformist majority of the working class, which in addition had its own concrete goals--negotiations with the employers, councils, elections. Everything was connected together by democratic ideology, and defended by the [i]Freikorps. It was on this last level that the shoe pinched: the military apparatus of the counterrevolution was short on soldiers, while the workers were armed. The first direct attack on the radicals (the Volksmarinedivision) would fail (see the next Chapter). This would give way to the tactic of progressively crushing the partial uprisings in the various regions of Germany, since the counterrevolutionary assault could not be simultaneously concentrated in more than one region at a time. There were two successive counterrevolutionary waves, in January-February and March-April 1919, each of which began in Berlin. This relative weakness of the State also explains why Bavaria could enjoy “self-determination” until May.

This tactic could not have succeeded unless the revolution, despite its scale, was unable to act simultaneously and with one will. Each council power had specific problems of all kinds which it hoped to solve locally. There is no example of a movement which was victorious in one State and devoted itself to agitation in a neighboring State. Among the leftists, it seems that Wolffheim and Laufenberg were the only ones to concern themselves with establishing communication between the rebellious zones in northern and central Germany, and to have assumed the perspective of action on a national scale. Laufenberg’s Revolution in Hamburg is quite revealing in its depiction of the important and contradictory features of the German revolution; the democratic revolution was not merely an empty phrase. It was, above all, the reaction which was conscious of Germany as a unified State.

Once it had consolidated the counterweight to halt the revolution, social democracy had to take immediate action in order to prevent the constitution of the proletarians into a class, a process begun at the end of the war, whose first confused manifestation was the generalization of councils-soviets, but which would acquire an increasingly more precise expression in the factory councils and the increasing strength of the Spartacists and the IKD, particularly with the fusion of these two groups into the KPD.

To speak of “strategy”, of “tactics”, of “provocation”, etc., by no means implies that the motive force of this whole revolutionary movement was established by “consciousness”. Under the pressure of the social and political crisis which followed the war, social and political groups were obliged to take action in order to survive; the survival of one could only be achieved to the detriment of the other, and each group adopted, more or less consciously, the tactic which the pre-existing conditions imposed. The SPD was forced to take action against the Volksmarinedivision, and after its defeat it was compelled to sacrifice a pawn against the revolution (the expulsion of Eichhorn). In both cases, these moves provoked a reaction in the reactionary camp for whom it became obvious that the proletarians, having reached the limit of their potential, could not bring about the fall of the social democratic State. The reaction could then make its move without fearing any response.13

Except for the Ruhr insurrection (1920) and the “March Action” (1921), all the ensuing proletarian assaults would follow a relatively unchanging pattern. Born as defense against an attack by the power of capital, they went on the offensive and took power in a region or a city in Germany. The offensive was exhausted at that level and negotiations then took place, led by the USPD, the right wing tendency in the KPD and, in the beginning, even by the local leaders of the SPD, with the remnants of the local authorities or with the central power. The latter conceded everything, since they were not themselves put into question. Afterwards, the revolutionary wave receded and an implacable repression could begin.

The Founding of the KPD
The prelude to the founding of the KPD was the national conference of the IKD held on December 24 in Berlin, attended by delegates from northern Germany, Saxony, Bavaria and the Rhineland.14 A debate was held to determine whether they should form their own party or unite with Spartacus. The IKD warned the Spartacus League that in any event the Communist Party would be formed in Germany “with or without it”.15 Radek had just returned to Germany after having played a prominent role in the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs in Moscow, and convinced them to unite with Spartacus: they demanded, however, that the Spartacus League leave the USPD. On the question of parliamentary action, they were divided into two positions, one in favor of it, one against it. It was decided not to make a declaration concerning the issue until each delegate had consulted his constituents: when the meeting resumed on the 30th, only one delegate still defended participation in parliament.

After having desired to remain in the USPD, the Spartacus League placed itself “outside the organization” by taking the initiative to hold a national conference in October (see the preceding Chapter). Excluded de facto, it accepted the IKD’s position and left the USPD. A small minority (Luxemburg, Levi, and L. Jogisches) was very hesitant, since it judged that the situation was not “mature” enough for the creation of the revolutionary party. But they followed the majority. The Congress set the date when Spartacus would convoke its second national conference: December 30.

Except for certain specialized histories,16 whenever the matter of the radical movement of 1918-19 is discussed, it is the Spartacists who get the most attention. The left groups of Bremen, Dresden, etc., are generally treated as marginal organizations. History (among others, the official histories of the communist parties) uncritically appropriates the point of view of the public opinion of the era, which considered the entire radical movement to be an effect of a Spartacist conspiracy. The same phenomenon is reproduced with respect to every revolutionary movement: if there is something which public opinion (= bourgeois ideology for the general public), and along with it the various ideologies derived from Leninism, cannot admit, it is that the revolutionary masses are the authors of their own movement, that they are their own leaders, and that only in those conditions are they authentically revolutionary. In its obstinate search for culprits and “ringleaders”, the bourgeois campaign after the Commune had already fabricated the image of the IWA as the executive committee of gifted leaders who were active everywhere. This idea later penetrated the revolutionary ranks and contaminated the Marx-Bakunin debate. At a moment of revolutionary retrocession, the bourgeoisie imposed its own representation of the subversive movement itself. So it would proceed in relation to the events after 1917, particularly with Lenin and the Communist International (cf. the Introduction above).

At the founding Congress of the KPD it became evident that the overwhelming majority of the delegates, although not all of them members of the IKD, adhered to the theses of the IKD. The party would have 90,000 members in March 1919. According to F. Kool, it was formed of mostly young workers “without political experience”. According to Bock, the sociological profile of its recruits was much more varied and included workers from all layers of the proletariat. Subsequently, a consensus concerning the “lack of maturity” of the delegates to the founding Congress would become established.17 Historians and political organizations cannot admit that proletarians could “spontaneously” adopt such radical positions.

After having unanimously adopted the program which had been written by Luxemburg and had already been published on December 14 as the “Program of the Spartacus League” under the title of What Does Spartacus Want?, along with the slogans of the “Communist Party of Germany (Spartacus League)” or KPD(S), the leftist tendency crystallized around two questions, that of participation in the elections (for the constituent assembly) and that of working in the trade unions.

The Congress held a debate on the question of organization, but for the most part opposed centralism. Workers autonomy, if not workerism, occupied a preferential place in the Congress. Eberlein declared:18 “The organizations of the old SPD, except for periodic elections, were inert and empty. . . . We must construct our organization on totally different foundations. We demand that the workers and soldiers councils exercise all political power. The factory councils are the basis of power. Our organization must be adapted to this situation. It would then be best, probably, to create communist groups in the factories. It cannot be tolerated that orders should be imposed from above. The industrial organizations must enjoy complete autonomy. The task of the central organ is above all that of synthesizing the movements which develop outside of it and assuring political and ideological leadership.” Each organization must have full autonomy of action; the central office has a minimal political role: information clearing house, preparation of congresses and managing day-to-day business. Above all it was not to be a revolutionary general staff for all of Germany. The representatives of the party’s minority faction were elected to leadership positions: Luxemburg, Liebknecht, Jogisches, Levi. The only “leftist” among the party’s leaders, Frölich, was dispatched to Bavaria. The KPD would not adopt Bolshevik centralism as a “principle” of organization until its third Congress (October 1920), after having excluded the left, which would denounce the centralism-federalism alternative as false and argue that it had been superseded by the “union” (cf. the texts of the KAPD and the AAU):19 this was the beginning of the critique of organizational fetishism.

Participation in the elections was rejected by 62 votes against 23; among the latter, Liebknecht declared that he had only reluctantly voted “in favor”.20 Knief, on the other hand, of the Bremen IKD, was a supporter of revolutionary parliamentarism. The 62 votes represented the IKD and the party’s “rank and file”.

Luxemburg reproached the abstentionists for “transforming radicalism (which in German is synonymous with ‘leftism’) into something quite comfortable”. A more “useful” tactic was needed, Levi explained in his report, which would consist in participating in the elections in order to destroy parliamentarism. Rühle presented the opposition’s report. The majority of those “lacking in political experience” did not want to hear any nonsense about classical politics, and their hostile shouts often interrupted the speeches of Luxemburg and Levi.

It was crucial for its current and future activities that the KPD Congress should affirm that the party should work for the destruction of the trade unions and call upon all of its members to leave them: such was the opinion of the abstentionist majority. On behalf of the left, Frölich (Bremen) expounded the obligation to end the old separation between political organization (party) and economic organization (trade union): the theme of unitary organization already broached in 1917 in Arbeiterpolitik and which would be championed by Rühle and the AAU-E. Luxemburg and the rest of the party minority did not directly address this issue: it was only after the revolution that the trade unions, they said, could be replaced in their economic role by the councils. Luxemburg managed to have this question tabled and referred to a committee and consequently it was not the subject of a party resolution. Opposition to the trade unions was by no means assured, since it was largely based on a preference for the councils, and it was already known that the latter were, in their great majority, reformist.21

The radicalism displayed by the Congress was one reason why the RO refused to join the KPD. Under Däumig’s leadership, they formed a “Community of Labor” and in 1922 returned to the rump USPD (that is, what was left of it after the departure, in 1920, of its left wing for the KPD; cf. Chapter 13), which soon rejoined the SPD. A minority chose to remain outside of the SPD and the KPD and preserved the name USPD, which later split in its turn into two groups in 1923, which would join the SAP (another centrist party) in 1931. The ex-USPD members who returned to the SPD in 1922 preserved certain characteristically “leftist” positions: hostile to national coalitions of the socialist party with the bourgeois parties, in 1923 they initiated the abortive experience of the “workers government” in Saxony.22

Luxemburg’s maneuver regarding the trade union question and the fact that the party minority was elected to the party’s leadership positions demonstrated a certain inexperience or incompetence in political affairs on the part of the KPD majority: this would be further confirmed when, in October 1919, the minority managed to exclude the majority. The German Left would be constituted and would distinguish itself in opposition to Spartacism, in the course of which it would experience more difficulties than in other aspects of its break with its social democratic past.23 But if there is a clear difference between “Spartacism” and the “German Left”, neither the one nor the other had become petrified in 1919. Had proletarian action followed an ascending course, which did not happen, profound analyses would have been possible. It is just as impossible to draw a hard and fast line between the two currents, as the golden legend of Spartacism is false. The KPD Congress was divided over “the question of the ‘unitary’ organization defended by ISD elements . . . and the ‘leader-masses’ problem, which in addition to garnering the support of the above mentioned ‘radicals’ also had sympathizers among the Spartacists, who had defended these positions—although in a somewhat vague manner—when they had constituted the ‘International’ fraction of the USPD”.24 It would be the left, however, which would be consolidated during the course of the struggles of 1919, and its divergences with the KPD’s right wing would become so profound that they would lead to a split.

The Spartacist leaders proved to be incapable of breaking with social democracy and its methods. One of the errors of the left was that of not criticizing the party program itself. According to What Does Spartacus Want?, a revolution had taken place: its first phase (up to December 24) had been “exclusively political”; from that point forward, it had to be oriented towards what was essential: towards the field of the economy.25

“The conquest of power cannot be accomplished at one blow, but must be incremental: we shall introduce ourselves into the bourgeois State until we occupy all of its posts and defend them against all external attacks. . . . It is a step-by-step, hand-to-hand struggle, in each State, in each city, in each village, in order to put all the instruments of power into the hands of the workers and soldiers councils, instruments which must slowly be torn from the grasp of the bourgeoisie. While achieving this goal we must, first of all, educate our comrades. . . .”

It serves no purpose to insist on those aspects which separate Marx (concerning which Pannekoek and, later, Lenin, would write at length) from this “incremental” conquest of the capitalist State by a proletariat which “introduces itself” into that State. It is the same kind of absence of a rupture as is found in the Kautskyism of The Road to Power. Luxemburg’s contradiction, like that of so many others, was that of effectively being a revolutionary, and not only in words, but without acquiring the means to really be a revolutionary. Her originality resides in the method chosen for her purpose: it is always a question of teaching and educating, but by means of action and not classical pedagogy. The fear of a failed putsch caused Luxemburg to renounce proposing a centralized struggle: “It is among the rank and file, where each factory owner confronts his wage slaves, where we must uproot the instruments of power, little by little, from the rulers.”

Luxemburg did not understand that even though the class struggle is especially fluid and mobile, it also crystallizes into organizations, both revolutionary and reactionary.26 Hence her refusal to create an independent organization. Her reasoning in relation to the State born in November 1918 was like her reasoning concerning the SPD and the USPD. Conceiving of social life primarily as movement, she neglected the moments of rupture. She rejected a frontal assault on the November State (as she had previously rejected an attack on the SPD) because the workers occupied a considerable position within it and could influence its further development. Of course, if there is no rupture, a destruction of the institutional forms which originated in the old phase of stability, the movement would still be a movement internal to capitalism, and would even help capitalism to adapt to the new conditions. Capitalism only assumes the appearances of the revolution in order to modernize itself: as Marx said about the democrats, they recruit the revolution to their side. A few weeks later, the same kind of reasoning would lead Luxemburg to suicide due to her desire to “stand with” the masses, to be present within the proletarian movement. The same attitude of wanting to stay close to the masses caused her to remain in the SPD, and later, to remain in the USPD, and then even later to opt for the insurrectionary adventure.

  • 1 La question syndicale et la gauche allemande…., p. 6.
  • 2 Conseils ouvriers en Allemagne 1917-21, pp. 158-166.
  • 3 Comfort, Chapter III; cf. also P. von Oertzen, Die Betriebsräte in der November Revolution, Düsseldorf, 1963.
  • 4 A. Mitchell: Revolution in Bavaria 1918-19, Princeton University Press, 1965, p. 149.
  • 5 La question syndicale…., p. 58, note no. 6.
  • 6 Berlau: pp. 345-346.
  • 7 Three Years of World Revolution, Constable, London, 1918, pp. 202-217.
  • 8 Le Phare, March 1920.
  • 9 Bulletin communiste, June 3 1920, “La révolution universelle”, cf. also Rühle, From the Bourgeois to the Communist Revolution, Socialist Reproduction, London, 1974, with a good introduction; and L. Valiani, Histoire du socialisme au XXe siècle, Nagel, 1948, pp. 115-116.
  • 10 Statement attributed to Scheidemann, quoted in Badia.
  • 11 K. Shell: The Transformation of Austrian Socialism, State University of New York, 1962.
  • 12 PC, No. 61, p. 37 et seq., and No. 64, p. 77 et seq.
  • 13 Concerning “historical coercion”—which is not synonymous with automatism—cf. La Sainte Famille, Ed. Sociales, 1969, pp.47-48. In English, The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1980.
  • 14 Waldman: p. 150, No. 92.
  • 15 R. Lowenthal, The Bolshevisation of the Spartakus League, in St. Anthony’s Papers, No. 9, Chatto-Windus, London, 1960, p. 26.
  • 16 Bock and Kool, in particular.
  • 17 Among others, Badia, in Le spartakisme, conclusion; Waldman, p. 152, note no. 96; and Lowenthal, p. 27.
  • 18 Waldman: pp. 155-156.
  • 19 Cf. La gauche allemande. Textes.
  • 20 Bock: p. 95.
  • 21 Cf. Lange’s report: Waldman, pp. 153-154.
  • 22 Hunt: pp. 206-207 and 210, et seq.
  • 23 PC, No. 58, pp. 91-115, concerning Spartacism and pp. 100-101 for the IKD.
  • 24 La question syndicale…., p. 5.
  • 25 Luxemburg: Oeuvres, Maspero, Vol. II, 1969, pp. 126-128.
  • 26 R. Paris: Introduction to La révolution russe, Maspero, 1964.


Chapter 7 - The confrontations: November 1918 to May 1919

Submitted by Spassmaschine on October 23, 2009

The Councils Commit Suicide
On November 10, the delegates of the councils in the Berlin region met and proclaimed the “Socialist Republic”, and elected a provisional executive committee (Vollzugsrat), composed of six SPD members, six USPD members, and twelve soldiers, all of the latter being SPD supporters. Although it considered itself to be the repository of all power, it delegated all of its power to the council of peoples’ commissars, in whom it declared that it placed all its confidence. This explains why, on the 13th, it opposed the creation of a proletarian red guard.

In some regions the councils would go further. In Bavaria they proclaimed the “Council Republic” (cf. above). In Saxony, Brunswick, Braunschweig, etc., the councils deposed the local authorities and took power. The left radical Metzger was elected president of the socialist republic of Braunschweig. Power was also exercised by soviets/councils in the industrial regions of central (Mansfeld, Halle) and northern Germany. On a national scale, however, the German Congress of Workers and Soldiers Councils (December 16-20, 1918) ceded its power to the council of peoples commissars: of the Congress’s 485 delegates, 375 were “governmental” (SPD and right wing USPD). Since Liebknecht and Luxemburg were not accepted as delegates because they were Spartacists, and since numerous members of the IKD had decided not to attend the Congress, the only opposition was led by revolutionary shop stewards like Müller, Ledebour and Däumig, that is, by political representatives of the non-Spartacist USPD left. Their opposition consisted in demanding that the councils should be conceded major importance in the pending constitution. The principle decision of the Congress was, effectively, to accept the SPD’s proposal to quickly convoke a constituent assembly, in which all power would be vested. But the councils wanted to continue to exist as institutions and demanded that they be conceded a role in the constitution.

It is clear that, throughout this entire period, the example of the soviet-Russian revolution led to a fetishism of the soviet form. For the German movement, not having reached the point of its most extreme radicalization, “making” soviets became a substitute for revolutionary action. During the Congress, the Spartacists, who had been excluded from its deliberations, led a demonstration calling for another round of elections for the councils.

The Conflict in Berlin: December 1918 to January 1919
With this SPD victory and the SPD’s success in the local elections for the Brunswick assembly, Ebert thought that the moment had arrived to make his first move by attacking the Volksmarinedivision which, composed of 3,000 sailors from Kiel, had installed itself in Berlin “to defend the conquests of the revolution” against the attacks of the reaction. For the government, it was the principle military manifestation of the revolution: it was best neutralized as soon as possible.

Immediately after the Council Congress, an attempt was made to provoke the sailors by withholding their pay. On December 24, the sailors responded by occupying the Chancellery. Ebert, who could not yet act openly, contacted General Lequis, who assembled the security forces and surrounded the sailors. The latter took refuge in the royal palace, which they used as a base camp. The battle began with a volley of artillery fire, killing and wounding 60 sailors, who resisted until the moment when a radical demonstration began. Lequis’ troops, having themselves been surrounded, were forced to withdraw: their officers only escaped being lynched thanks to a speech by Ebert. At that time, demonstrators also occupied the Vorwärts offices for the first time: the Berlin workers judged that they had repossessed their newspaper and published a “Red Vorwärts” for a few days. The sailors stated in this “Red Vorwärts” that, contrary to what was being said in the press, they were not Spartacists. The Rote Fahne admitted this but added that “the spirit of this detachment is our own spirit, the spirit of the world socialist revolution”.

After the failure of this State offensive, the USPD peoples’ commissars resigned from the government, just as the RO had been urging them to do since the 21st. It was against this background that the founding Congress of the KPD was held. In assessing the strength of the revolutionary camp, one must keep in mind the fact that the radicals convened a congress instead of immediately taking advantage of the revolutionary victory, which had just struck an important blow against the government. On the 25th, this episode having come to an end, Ebert could do no more and would go to bed saying that he did not know who would be in power when he awoke.

“When Ebert awoke”, with the resignation of the USPD members, three members of the SPD were co-opted onto the council of peoples commissars. Among them, Noske was put in charge of military affairs and reasserted his authority over the vacillating remnants of the Army in Berlin. He demonstrated great efficiency in this task. On January 4 he dismissed Eichhorn, chief of police and a member of the USPD.

On the 5th, a huge demonstration (700,000 people) took place demanding Eichhorn’s reinstatement. This was the initial purpose of the demonstration, but the ensuing series of events proved that there were other, more radical currents within it. Great strikes and revolutions often begin with such absurd slogans. For the second time, demonstrators occupied the Vorwärts offices: members of the Berlin IKD group took control of the building.

Directly implicated, since Eichhorn was one of its members, the USPD, after having abandoned what they thought was a sinking ship on the 29th of December, saw that, an insurrection having taken place, it should control it through the RO, a good instrument for taking power: it practiced “leftism”. On the 5th of January, it formed an “insurrection committee” which was joined by the Spartacists Liebknecht and Pieck, who were opposed by a minority (Luxemburg) of KPD leaders. It is false to speak of a “Spartacist insurrection” as if it was inspired by the KPD, when the insurrection was the result of the conjunction of two forces: the USPD, which aspired to power, and the KPD left, which only sought the social revolution. In general terms, the insurrection was in reality above all directed against the State. The KPD, the RO and the USPD published a leaflet calling for a demonstration and the abolition of the despotism exercised by the government. Of course, only the dictatorship of the proletariat can overthrow the government: but the leaflet did not mention this. It invited the workers to mobilize and to struggle but did not provide a clear objective. Although a member of the USPD, Eichhorn was part of the State apparatus: most of the Sicherheitswehr, created on his initiative with socialist workers and soldiers, would furthermore take the government’s side. The extreme left mobilized not to destroy the State in leftist guise (which was as dangerous as its rightist guise), but to purge this Statist left of its reactionary elements (the SPD); it intended, therefore, to purify the State. The technically premature aspect of the insurrection has often been emphasized without, however, emphasizing its meaning. The adversaries of this undertaking (Luxemburg, Jogisches, the central committee, along with Radek) were only worried about squandering the small revolutionary forces. It was not understood that this insurrection was the logical outcome of an attitude informed by opposition to the State but which did not seek its destruction. The leaders of the KPD followed the RO. For its part, the communist left, which had not even wanted to take the party’s leadership into its hands, was even less capable of putting itself at the head of the street actions. What was tragic about this was not the fact that some revolutionaries tried to carry out an action which would be judged a posteriori to be hopeless, but that once they went into action they would only go halfway.

On the night of the 5th, the insurrection committee elaborated a plan for the next day’s insurrection. Noske, meanwhile, marshaled the city’s security forces, positioned them on the outskirts of Berlin, and elaborated his plan of reconquest. On the 6th, the insurrection occupied strategic points in the capital. A revolutionary committee (Liebknecht, Ledebour and Scholze, RO) declared that the government had been dismissed. However, now that it was master of the city, this committee, while not breaking apart, was divided over the following point: Should it negotiate? The sea was calm, and was not overflowing the reformist dikes. In its own good centralist fashion, the USPD had never stopped trying to negotiate with Noske. It even began unilateral negotiations while its members who supported the insurrection and had gone so far as to overthrow the government still trusted the democracy of their committee, without breaking with it in order to install it in power on their own initiative. Noske thus gained precious time and used it to put the finishing touches on his plan. Each detachment of his troops would be assigned a Berlin neighborhood to pacify. The reconquest began on the 7th and showed no mercy. The besieged occupiers of Vorwärts were murdered when they left the building under the terms of a cease-fire. The bourgeoisie denied the reality of the class struggle in theory, but recognized it better than the workers in practice. Luxemburg insisted on remaining with the rebels until the end: the idea of “merging” with the masses is as false as that of “leading them”. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were arrested, and then murdered on the 15th.

Central and Northern Germany
On the 19th, the elections for the Constituent Assembly, from which the KPD abstained, delivered an overwhelming victory to the SPD: 37.5% of the votes against the USPD’s 7.8%. The new socialist government presided over by Scheidemann, with Noske as its Minister of War, included ministers from the Zentrum. Established in its trademark image, radicalized since the month of November, the USPD, upon being consulted, refused to participate in the government.

In Bremen, however, on the 10th, the KPD (its left wing and the USPD) proclaimed the council republic. In Hamburg, the left was still strong, but the SPD focused its propaganda there on the radicals’ failure to guarantee normal living conditions (lack of food and fuel).1 In effect, the left’s continuous agitation brought few effective changes, which increasingly isolated the minority of radical workers. In the midst of the confusion even Laufenberg himself was arrested and then freed after a few hours. Forced to resign on the 19th in favor of a member of the SPD, he explained that the police were still under the control of the SPD. This fact proves that there were not two parallel power structures, but just one, the capitalist State which a few revolutionaries thought they could conquer from within with the help of a few street actions: once again we discover, in a sense, Luxemburg’s attitude (see the preceding chapter). It was always the same practice, only with radical “extra-parliamentary” methods. The elections to the Constituent Assembly delivered a resounding victory to those who had proven themselves most coherent: in Hamburg, the SPD obtained 51% of the vote, the USPD 7%. Among the delegates to the “Workers Council of Greater Hamburg”, 239 were from the SPD, 14 represented the ADGB, 37 were members of the USPD, and 25 were left radicals. The collapse of the Hamburg revolutionary movement was a result of local developments and was not due to intervention from Berlin: it would be defeated from without, after having collapsed from within.

The Ruhr was the scene of insurrectionary strikes, but the Essen miners council, upon proclaiming the socialization of the mines, merely decreed what would today be understood as “nationalization”. The most important revolutionary undertaking in this region was carried out by the anarchists of the FVDG (cf. Chapter 9): joint action between the FVDG and the KPD lasted until May 1919. After having momentarily crushed Berlin, the counterrevolutionary troops hurried to the Ruhr. The SPD had already prepared the terrain: present in the councils and committees alongside the USPD, the KPD and the FVDG, it helped disorganize the strike. The troops then intervened and pacified the region. The workers of the Ruhr, who had a certain degree of faith in the SPD in the past, abandoned the party and the trade unions in droves in order to create unionen (the “unions” of the future AAU).

At the end of January, Berlin decided to dispatch troops to Bremen, where the SPD had been excluded from the local government. In Hamburg, Laufenberg issued a call on February 1 for a general mobilization to “assist Bremen by all possible military means”. In order to dissociate itself from this announcement, the Hamburg SPD called attention to “the danger of Prussian militarism”. After fierce fighting, Bremen was occupied, and Hamburg had not so much as lifted a finger to help it. The left decided to arm itself and formed some Volkswehr units: the Council executive decided to take up arms.2 The radicals had in any event exerted pressure upon the structures of capitalist power (whether old or new, representative or executive), but they did not create new institutions which corresponded to the necessity of carrying out an effective struggle against capital. The disturbances of the second half of 1919 would be vain reactions against the capitalist “normalization” which eliminated the radicals from the power structures they had infiltrated. The police were purged and reorganized: at times, the former Freikorps (which had officially been dissolved) formed their core personnel.

With the occupation of Bremen and the surrounding region, the government had again opened up the road to the sea, shattering the strategies of the Hamburg leftists who intended to form an uninterrupted chain of rebel regions from the Baltic and the Dutch frontier to central Germany and eastern and western Saxony (Leipzig and Dresden). At the end of January, armed gangs devoted themselves to the destruction of the council powers around Mansfeld (central Germany). On March 3, martial law was declared in that region. The victory of the Freikorps was everywhere followed by the most ferocious repression. After January 1919, the number of people killed in the German revolution exceeded the number of those killed in both the February and October Russian revolutions combined.

The second blow struck by the reaction extended from Berlin (March) to the second defeat of the Ruhr and the fall of Bavaria (March-May). Faced with the rampages of the Freikorps, the Rote Fahne published a call for a general strike in protest, but advised against street-fighting. The Berlin workers councils elected a new, more leftist strike committee, which demanded the recognition of the councils, the liberation of all political prisoners, the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Russia, and the creation of a workers guard. This program and its practical aspects were an obvious return to the ideas of the KPD’s rightist central committee. Noske responded in conformance with the actual situation: any individual captured with arms in hand would be shot on the spot. 1,200 workers were killed and thousands wounded. Jogisches, the last of the three historic leaders of Spartacism, was executed. At the same time, the Constituent Assembly granted the means for inflicting the final defeat, voting for the reconstitution of the Reichswehr.

The Freikorps departed in order to destroy the new proletarian powers reconstructed during the street fighting and those which had survived their first assaults: Magdeburg (April 10), Brunswick (April 14), and then Saxony: Leipzig (May 11), and then the other cities or regions where local power “was not proportionate” to the distribution of seats in the National Assembly.3 In Saxony, for example, the USPD was still in power: it was deposed. A new and important factor was the new resurgence of the petite bourgeoisie, which formed Einwohnerwehren (local self-defense groups) under the protection of the Freikorps. At this time, as well, “voluntary strikes” by shopkeepers and white collar employees took place. This phenomenon helps us to appreciate Gorter’s thesis concerning the “isolation” of the proletariat which had to fight alone in Western Europe (cf. his Open Letter to Comrade Lenin).

Between the crushing of Magdeburg-Brunswick and the reduction of Leipzig, the defeat of the Ruhr took place. At the end of March, the movement there provided the first instance of an autonomous organization on the scale of an entire industrial region. On the 30th, delegations of revolutionary workers from throughout the Ruhr, breaking with all trade union ideologies, formed the Allgemeine-Bergarbeiter-Union (General Miners Union) in Essen; unable to prevent its creation, the other groups were forced to strangle this “union” in its cradle. Its existence would be brief, but it was the first union and prefigured the AAU. The KPD’s leftist faction saluted it as the ne plus ultra of revolutionary proletarian organization, since it was oriented towards the suppression of the party-trade union dichotomy, and was the creation of the masses themselves. Its birth was the subject of commentary in the Kommunistische Arbeiter-Zeitung (Communist Workers Newspaper) of Hamburg and was mentioned in Wolffheim’s pamphlet, Factory Organizations or Trade Unions?

The union launched a strike whose defeat allowed the government to dismantle the new organization in a massive police raid. The Ruhr region would not go into action again until the Kapp Putsch of March 1920 (cf. Chapter XII). Once the union was destroyed, the revolutionary trade unions decided to create their own organization in the region, the FAU of Rhineland-Westphalia, and to break with the policy of joint action with the KPD. The KPD Zentrale followed suit. The movement had provisionally come to an end, each group recuperating its resources: it was the beginning of the period of the constitution of numerous faction-based organizations.

The Reich of 1918 was too large for one State to control all of its territory at the same time during a revolutionary crisis. This was an important reason for Bavaria’s unique trajectory until the movement was crushed throughout the rest of the country.

1. November 1918-February 1919

On the 7th of November, 1918, the democratic revolution immediately handed over power to the USPD, with Eisner as the government’s president, with considerable anarchist influence (Mühsam and Landauer). Despite its declarations in favor of the councils, the government organized democratic elections in which all classes participated, without granting members of the working class, for example, more votes than the other classes (as was the case in Russia). On January 12, the USPD only obtained 2.5% of the vote in these elections. On the 10th, Eisner had no doubts that he would be able to prevent the supporters of an electoral boycott, members of the KPD and the Revolutionary Workers Council under the influence of Mühsam, from abstaining.

The Bavarian USPD (and this was also true, to a lesser degree, of the USPD in general) was a party of enlightened democrats. Either there is a proletarian dictatorship, in which case, instead of organizing a referendum, the proletariat proceeds to the destruction of capital (abolition of the commodity: that is, immediate free access to all abundant products, a vast reduction in the compulsory working day due to the suppression of all jobs dedicated to the metamorphoses of the commodity, to buying and selling, and the dedication of these employees to other more useful functions, etc.) if the country is a highly-developed one. (This was not the case with Russia: the problem of the Russian proletariat, so small in number, was that of resisting, of holding on to political power and military supremacy by means of a policy of alliances with the petty-bourgeois and peasant layers, until the world revolution: hence the organization of non-democratic elections with a plurality of votes for the workers). Or, a party having just arrived in power, in the wake of an insurrectionary, but hardly radical movement, as happened in Bavaria, does not want to go beyond the limits of the bourgeois exercise of power and wants to hold elections, in which it only gets 2.5% of the vote after two months in power. This enlightened and criminal attitude on the part of the Bavarian USPD would culminate in the proclamation “by decree” of the council republic.

2. February-March
The USPD having received 2.5% of the vote, a conflict necessarily erupted between the recently-elected general assembly and the USPD central power which, paying close attention to the appearances of the electoral game, appeared to be an ultra-minority. This conflict seemed to be easy to resolve since Eisner, at the end of February, decided to faithfully submit his letter of resignation to the “peoples’ representatives”. As he was entering the assembly, however, he was assassinated.

The central committee of the Bavarian councils proclaimed a general strike. The assembly spontaneously dispersed. The real balance of forces, which could be summarized as at least a toss-up between the council power and the parliamentary democracy, was not reflected in the electoral results. Eisner’s funeral was the occasion for a massive demonstration. The councils implemented more dictatorial measures: they arrested 50 reactionary hostages, shut down the bourgeois press, and tried to arm the proletariat. Except for these measures, it did not take advantage of the situation and thereby deprived itself of the full value of the measures it did take: these measures appeared to be a substitute for revolutionary action, whose model was the Commune or Russia. The councils handed over power to the assembly, which elected an SPD-USPD government, presided over by Hoffmann (SPD). (As an illustration of Bavaria’s exceptionalism: during the same period, the central government at Weimar, under SPD leadership, had bourgeois ministers.)

In other regions, the Freikorps intervened to restore the powers seized by the councils from the local assemblies, but in Bavaria the councils themselves surrendered their power. Despite the proclamations of “council” (Bremen) or “socialist” (Braunschweig) republics, nowhere were irreversible measures taken for the destruction of capital: it was hoped that others would initiate these measures. The provinces hoped that Berlin would take the step; the local revolutionary powers (including those of the great industrial regions), in expectation of such an event, limited their activities to carrying out numerous reforms. In Berlin, the SPD government was firmly established in power with its tactic of successive attacks. This mutual passing the buck of initiative back and forth remains a democratic attitude.

3. First and Second Council Republics: April-May
It was G. Landauer who proposed, on April 6-7, the creation of a “Council Republic”. One part of the Bavarian government, composed of the enlightened members of the USPD, the anarchists, and even some SPD members, pompously decreed this Republic under the influence of Russia, Hungary—which was so near—and above all of the power of the Bavarian councils. The communists, led by Levine, who was trained in Russia, and Frölich, the only member of the Central Committee, exiled in Bavaria, 4 did not form part of the government of the new republic. Some (Frölich and the left) worked to drive matters further than the USPD desired. But they were criticized by the rightist faction (undoubtedly Levine) which, with the just argument that one does not create a council republic by decree, foresaw the fall of the new regime. But as in January in Berlin, they participated in its defense when it was under attack.

Hoffmann, president of the old government, formed a new one in Bamberg, the most tranquil Bavarian city, and began planning his next steps. He rallied various cities to his cause, and the peasants refused to supply the city of Munich. The initial reactionary assault was annihilated in Munich. On April 13, factory delegates created a committee led by the KPD. They proclaimed a ten day general strike, paid for by the factory owners (who, consequently, were not suppressed as such), in order to allow the workers to prepare for combat. The Red Army held massive parades. The revolutionaries took complete possession of the central rail station, but did not transform social and economic conditions. The problems of supply would continue to be felt: demobilization had led to unemployment and relative overpopulation which obliged 50,000 people (out of a total population of 650,000) to be housed in a hundred apartment buildings and common dormitories.5 The revolution failed to organize these refugees. With each rifle, the insurrectionary army gave up ten days of its future pay. An army was formed, based on the proletariat (an indispensable condition for victory), but without a fight against the prevailing social relations: it was a purely military force, which accentuated its isolation (compare to M. Hölz: cf. Chapter 15).

With the beginning of the civil war, the communists joined the government. The anarchists resigned, since Mühsam and Landauer were theoreticians of non-violence. As in many movements in which the masses had pushed ahead, they had remained, despite their opinions, for a while. At the hour of repression, however, Landauer would be assassinated, Mühsam would be taken prisoner, and another anarchist, Toller, would become one of the leaders of the Red Army. Their tragic fates were not in contradiction to their suicidal positions, for themselves as for the others. By conceiving of the revolution as a gigantic act of bringing pressure to bear on behalf of the oppressed, without securing the necessary organizational and military means, they participated in the movement only to separate themselves from it at the moment of confrontation and, despite everything, perished in it.

This second government gave itself the title of the “Second Council Republic”. Despite its initial successes, it was militarily crushed during the first days of May. Future Nazis played their parts in the White Army: Himmler, R. Hess, and Von Epp.6 The Positions and Evolution of the Various Organizations
“It is now impossible to accurately depict the activity of the various organized forces and their relations with unorganized forces within the strike movements and insurrections from November 1918 to May 1919.”7 The relative radicalization of the USPD was due above all to the real radicalization of the movement itself and of the communist organizations: the social current which corresponded to the positions of the ex-IKD, with the practical aim of completely transforming the State, became a political factor. In order not to lose its autonomous existence in relation to the SPD, the USPD had to force itself to play the role of a parliamentary extreme left and had to play the game on two boards. Although numerous leaders of the SPD had joined the USPD, many were in favor of reunification, since the principle cause of the schism—the war—had disappeared after 1918. The only reproach they had for their old party was that it went too far in its support for the bourgeoisie. Thus, the USPD, after the start of the social democratic repression in Berlin, abandoned the central government, but the party’s national leadership did not cease to continue advocating alliances with the SPD on the local level—in Hamburg, for example—even though the USPD’s local leadership rejected this policy. The USPD grew from 100,000 members in November 1918 to 300,000 in March 1919. The electoralist right of the KPD, which was barely distinguishable from the USPD, then wanted to rejoin it.

The united front of the anarchosyndicalists and the communists (November 1918 to May 1919) corresponded, within the FVDG, to the ideological hegemony of Roche: non-rejection of violence, dictatorship of the proletariat, defense of the council-form. These were positions close to the form assumed by the revolutionary movement, not advice about what had to be done to prevent a “return to capitalism”. This observation could be applied to the left as a whole. Its merit was its boycott of elections of all kinds, de facto destruction of the trade unions, and theorizing these attitudes as affirmations of an authentically proletarian movement. But if it is true that antiparliamentarism and anti-trade unionism constitute the movement’s best points, they are not enough. These points would be assumed by the only capitalist party which would rise to the occasion of the German revolution and would also be capable of repressing it, Nazism. Roche provided a definition of the councils which indicated their limitations: “the councils are the parliaments of the working class.” After all the struggles of the month of May, the syndicalist camp returned to a more classical anarchosyndicalism: remaining in the minority, Roche would become a theoretician of the AAU.

Along with the trade union and parliamentary questions, another important disagreement divided the KPD and to some extent was the foundation of the first two, since it determined the assessment of the historical situation. Those who based their perspective on What Does Spartacus Want? felt that Spartacus, and subsequently the KPD, must not “take power unless it is the clear, unequivocal will of the great majority of the proletarian masses of the entire country”. Luxemburg would again declare at the KPD’s founding congress that the revolution would be a long, drawn-out affair and that the situation was not mature: the masses “do not consciously accept the views, the goals and the methods of the Spartacus League”.8 The Luxemburgist minority, and after her death the Central Committee, considered any attempt to take power in the advanced centers as “putschist” or at least “adventurous”. However, once the struggle had begun, Luxemburg participated in it until she was killed: one cannot say as much about her Levist epigones.

The majority fraction of the KPD, supported by many Spartacists (cf. Liebknecht, at the time of the Berlin insurrection), thought that the situation was fully mature. It found itself between the bourgeois and the proletarian revolutions. Its task was neither to discourage action nor to make excuses, but to push the whole proletarian movement forward: however revolutionary the party was, it would never have the power to start such movements. Rühle spoke to this effect at the founding congress of the party, and it was within this framework that the members of the party’s left would act in 1919. The left tendency of the party was all the more dominant due to the fact that the Central Committee’s influence barely extended beyond Berlin.

At this point we must mention the Wolffheim/Laufenberg tendency (later known as “National Bolshevism”), 9 as it played such an important role in Hamburg. According to Bock, it is the German left tendency most frequently studied in Germany.10 Wolffheim and Laufenberg, who, in the name of a theory they had yet to fully elaborate in early 1919, had fought for the autonomous organization of the working class, later strove to prevent actions which would lead to the outbreak of civil war in Germany, in other words, they sought to convince the German people to restart the war in alliance with Russia. The victory of revolutionary Russia and Germany would be the victory of the world revolution. In November of 1918, Germany was far from being militarily defeated. The representatives of German capital had sold themselves to western European capital so as to fight the proletariat, their common enemy, which had just re-arisen. The situation of Germany and that of the German revolution was comparable to that of France after the surrender of Sedan to Prussia in September of 1870: the war of national liberation became a revolutionary war supported by the IWA. The German bourgeoisie was denounced for its betrayal of the German people. This was the thesis propounded by Wolffheim and Laufenberg in November 1919 in their Counterrevolutionary Civil War or Peoples’ Revolutionary War? First Communist Memorial to the German Proletariat. They therefore condemned the January insurrection for different reasons than Luxemburg. They also embarked upon an original critique of the KPD leadership, accusing Levi in 1920 of being “an agent of international Jewish finance capital”. The NSDAP would not prove to be an innovator in this regard. The national bolshevik current would remain a small minority throughout its history and would be excluded from the KAPD shortly after the party’s foundation. In 1923, however, it would re-emerge within the KPD (the “Schlageter tendency”: cf. Chapter 15).

It is still one of the favorite arguments against the left, despite all evidence to the contrary, that it had incubated a current of this kind. The question, of course, was far from being so obvious at first. Lenin called Laufenberg’s text, Between the First and Second Revolutions, an “excellent pamphlet”.11 This pamphlet did, however, invoke a “national group identity”. The author concluded his text as follows: “According to this communist conception, all intellectual and manual workers belong to this active nation. . . . Lassalle’s national tactics are enjoying a resurgence and comprise a whole in conjunction with international tactics. . . .”12 One of the manifestations of the crisis of the movement was the fact that, for some, in the process of transcending the point of view of the individual enterprise (which had been amply theorized), they had fallen into a national and non-class-based viewpoint. The German revolutionary proletariat did not know how to provide itself with a “national form” without falling back into the bad habit of nationalism; it did not know how to be “national” (how to constitute itself as a class at the level of the nation, of its capital) without becoming “nationalist”. As Pannekoek said: “the revolutionary proletariat of all countries constitutes just one mass, one army, and if, while taking an active part in the struggle, it does not remember this, it can be annihilated ‘again and again’”.13

Unity is not a question of organization, but of communistic measures as well as efforts to unify the movement. It will not be unified if it is not a movement which acts to change the relations of production: the latter can only be changed if the movement is unified. Prudhommeaux would later write14 that the military struggle and social transformation are not possible unless they are carried out simultaneously.15

  • 1 Comfort: Chapter II.
  • 2 Ibid., Chapter 4.
  • 3 Badia: Histoire de l’Allemagne contemporaine, Vol. I, p. 143.
  • 4 According to Bock.
  • 5 Mitchell: p. 320.
  • 6 Badia: p. 149.
  • 7 Bock: p. 110.
  • 8 Ibid., pp. 112-113.
  • 9 In this city, the USPD split at the beginning of 1919. Comfort doubts that the (Levist) KPD had any real existence in Hamburg prior to 1930 (p. 106, footnote), which amounts to saying that the left was overwhelmingly dominant among Hamburg communists in 1919.
  • 10 Bock: p. 274. Cf. the thesis of L. Dupeux, Stratégie communiste et dynamique conservatrice. Essai sur les différents sens de l’expression “national-bolchevisme”, University of Strasbourg, 1974.
  • 11 Oeuvres, Vol. 30, Moscow, 1964, p.48.
  • 12 Zwischen der ersten und der zweiten Revolution, Hoym, n.d. For a bibliography of national bolshevism, cf. Angress, p. 327, note 34.
  • 13 Bulletin communiste, November 18, 1920, “Un monde nouveau”.
  • 14 La tragédie de Spartacus, in Spartacus et la Commune de Berlin.
  • 15 See the testimonies of G. Regler, La glaive et le fourreau, Plon, 1960, Chapter III (Berlin) and Chapter IV (Bavaria), and E. von Salomon, Les réprouvés, Plon, 1962, Chapter I, which describes the dead end of the revolution, which both men fought against in their time.


Chapter 8 - The international and domestic situations, May 1919 to March 1920

Submitted by Spassmaschine on October 23, 2009

If Trotsky was correct when he wrote, in 1922, that “in 1919, the European bourgeoisie was completely disconcerted”, 1 before recovering its strength in 1920 and 1921, it is equally true that 1919 was the decisive year when a combination of violence and democracy allowed it to resist a proletariat which was restive yet, despite appearances, had not taken the offensive. The period between May 1919 and March 1920 was not characterized by great battles in Germany. The proletarians were still burdened by the crushing weight of the defeat they suffered in the war. In June, hunger riots broke out in Hamburg which could not be contained by the Volkswehr.2 The Freikorps repressed the riots, but its units were immediately disarmed. The Reichswehr intervened and occupied the city from June to December. Order was essentially reestablished by a “Committee of Twelve” which claimed to represent the factory councils, the unemployed and the Volkswehr units under the control of the councils. On the 25th of June, this Committee issued a call to “watch out for agitators and help the police”. The masses took to the streets to oppose the refurbished rule of military force: it was not that they wanted to radically transform their living conditions; their aversion to the Army was an aversion for a particularly concentrated and symbolic form of oppression, but they did not attack it at its roots.

A state of siege reigned everywhere and imposed clandestine conditions upon the revolutionary groups. It was during these few months that important splits took place and that the new “leftist” organizations were formed.

On the international plane, Hungary offered the only example, besides Russia, of a revolutionary seizure of power. But the Hungarian experience provides an additional illustration of the communists being defeated due to their involvement with socialists. Founded in November 1918, the Communist Party only “seized” power thanks to the collapse of the State. After proclaiming the republic, the prime minister resigned to protest the armistice terms imposed on his defeated country. The communist leader, B. Kun, replaced him as head of state, and joined the socialists who were already members of the government.

There were not two socialist parties in Hungary, but only one, which cloaked itself in leftist garb when the possibility of coming to power appeared to be at hand. The resolution of the national question was a bloody affair: conflicts broke out between Hungary and its neighbors concerning the frontiers established by the peace treaties. The new, independent Hungary still possessed regions inhabited by non-Hungarian populations (Germans, Slovaks, etc.); the counterrevolution exploited these differences and Hungary was invaded by Romanian and Czech troops allied with Hungarian counterrevolutionary forces. Isolated in the capital and surrounded by hostile peasants, the council republic was overthrown: the socialists then abandoned the communists during the ensuing repression.

The least that could be said about them was that the Hungarian revolutionaries, inspired by the Communist International, persevered in their illusions. In the first issue of the Communist International (May 1919), L. Rudas wrote that “the entire socialist party” had recognized “the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat. And now, the proletariat stands as one man behind the new socialist party.” The social democracy had previously participated in the government after Hungary’s secession (November 1918), and had reached an agreement with the communist party. When the socialist head of state resigned, the socialists would remain in the government in which Bela Kun had replaced the prime minister. A curious dictatorship of the proletariat. Like other revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks were mistaken when they spoke of a “revolution”. They forgot the essential criterion: the destruction of the State. The State had not been overthrown.

Lenin admitted that he had forgotten about the depth of the Hungarian revolutionary movement: but a telephone conversation reassured him; in this socialist-communist unity, he said, only the left socialists3 participated. On May 27 he wrote that “in the matter of organization, the Hungarian proletariat seems to have outdone us”. He thought that its organization would allow it to avoid the massive use of violence which was necessary in Russia: “you have set a better example than Russia, because you have known how to win over all the socialists, from the start, to a program of true proletarian dictatorship.”4 In other words, it was a centrist phenomenon, already seen in relation to the USPD, with one difference, that in Hungary the USPD and the SPD were the same entity. Lenin was following the disastrous line which he would partially apply to Germany when he advised the KPD to unite with the USPD left. The Bolsheviks were in favor of the reunification of the old workers movement, only purged of its right wing elements. Those communists who would be only momentarily inclined towards the left (cf. Chapter 17) would not make this decisive critique of the Communist International. The future right wing leader of the KPD, Levi, who was more lucid because of his moderation, 5 denounced the putschist and artificial tendency of this “soviet republic”. He had already discussed (in relation to Levine) the problem of communist participation in struggles which were condemned to failure, and Radek had implicitly attacked him, speaking of “political philosophers” who did not want to fight unless they had a “certificate of guaranteed victory”.6 Lenin thought that “the Hungarian revolution might play a greater historical role than the Russian revolution.”7 A highly advanced country in the heart of Europe, Hungary enjoyed a strategic position. But while the Communist International, led by Zinoviev, boasted of victory, Lenin was more circumspect and pressed B. Kun to work with firmness. The situation of the Red Army, attacked on several fronts, did not allow for military aid to Hungary, which the latter had desired.

The Communist International misunderstood the Hungarian experience. It saw, above all, the power of the socialists, first in order to combat them (1919), but then (after 1920) in order to conclude with the need to attract them to communism: hence the schisms which were proposed in the leaderships of the old socialist parties, the united front and the conquest of the trade unions. On this last point, however, after the bourgeois defeat, more praise was bestowed upon the opposition. Roudniansky stated8 that in Hungary one had to act outside of the “professional unions”: “not because the professional unions are generally incapable of bringing the class struggle to a favorable conclusion, but because the Hungarian professional unions are penetrated with the bourgeois spirit and opportunism, because . . . they in fact constitute the vanguard of the counterrevolution.” He rejected the trade unions in the name of Hungarian specificity, and only in this particular case. The structure of the unified socialist party (which took the name “socialist” under trade union pressure) was, on the other hand, modeled on the basis of the factory organizations. A member of the socialist party was also a member of the trade unions. Only 10% of party members had entered the party directly. A note from Zinoviev demanded that the editorial committee of the Communist International must not share Roudniansky’s opinion: the revolution “gives new life to the trade union movement . . . making it one of the points of support for the dictatorship of the proletariat.” And he would return to this theme in June of 19209 : “A great movement has begun among the old trade unions. The trade unions are no longer what they were five years ago. One could say the same about the American Federation of Labor. In Germany, the replacement of the old bureaucrats has begun and is being pursued with vigor.” This development corresponded to a re-adaptation of the trade unions to the same (reactionary) function, and not to a change of function: but the CI needed to invent a movement in the trade unions like that of the “left-leaning” centrists in order to incite the communists to collaboration.

In January of 1921, two Hungarians, Kabatchiev and Rakosi (future leader of Stalinist Hungary prior to 1956), CI delegates to the Livorno Congress, where the Italian Communist Party was founded, explained that the error of the Hungarian communists must not be repeated.10 They explicitly compared the two cases, deducing from the first that one must break with the socialist center as well as with the right (in Italy, with Serrati). “The reasons which impelled them (the Hungarian communists) towards unity are the same ones which are today used on behalf of the reformists and centrists in Livorno. They, too, yielded to the sentimental fraction of the working class which wanted just one party. The Hungarian communists had also postponed the exclusion of the reformists, expecting that they would provide them with the pretext for justifying their expulsion in the eyes of the backward masses. . . . None of their hopes were realized.” They also warned against the trade unionists, recalling the Finnish and Bavarian cases. Levi, who was also present at Livorno, defended the unity thesis and later regretted the outcome of the Congress (cf. Chapter 13). The international communist movement only learned half the lessons of the Hungarian experience.

The Treaty of Versailles
In June of 1919, the Weimar assembly accepted the conditions of the Versailles Treaty: the property of the Saar Basin mines was seized and the entire left bank of the Rhine (facing the Ruhr) was occupied. Germany lost its colonies and had to pay an enormous debt (primarily to France) whose exact amount was not yet established: in the meantime it had to pay 20 billion gold marks in reparations. In May of 1921, the debt would be fixed at 132 billion gold marks: in contrast, France’s debt to Germany after 1871 was 3 billion gold francs.

The treaty signified an enormous transfer of surplus value from Germany to the victors, and consequently aggravated the exploitation of the German proletariat. The treaty was an attempt to divide the world proletariat, by ensuring that the costs of economic reconstruction would be borne by the German workers alone. All the Communist Parties of the time energetically denounced the treaty except the Dutch CP (cf. The Opportunism of the Dutch Communist Party, written by Gorter in 1919). In addition, the territorial settlements which were adopted at the peace conferences, taken as a whole, tended to isolate the Russian and German proletariats. A reconstituted Poland was inserted to drive a wedge between the two revolutionary heartlands and took over the great industrial region of Upper Silesia. The application of the alleged Wilsonian “idealism”, “the right of self-determination”, divided Europe into bits and pieces and laid the groundwork for the world hegemony of the USA.

The communist parties jointly launched a specific struggle against the treaty, whose abrogation they demanded: abrogation was one of the principle slogans of the 1920s. Gorter, and along with him the German Left, analyzed the treaty as a terrible blow dealt to the proletariat, and not just the German proletariat. But it was not a question, for either Gorter or the left, of making the treaty’s abolition into a “partial demand”: since it found itself facing an agreement between capitalist states, the proletariat, in any event, had nothing to say, unless it accepted the terms of debate and sought the lesser evil within the framework of the system of capitalist States (in the same way that antifascism would seek the least unfavorable capitalist formula for the proletariat, within the system of bourgeois political powers). It is a kind of false realism to believe that the proletariat could have some impact on facts whose very existence implies that the proletariat has not played a historical role. The revolutionaries had no more reason to zealously demand the abolition of the treaty than to demand the disarming of the police. The fact that these slogans were launched proved the invisibility of the proletariat as a class power, and its effort to find a substitute for that power by indirect means. The proletarians had not been invited to have an influence on the relations between States: should such a thing occur, they would be integrated into one or another State. This is what would happen on several occasions during the time of the Weimar republic, when the KPD demagogically competed with the Nazis by demanding the annulment of the treaty.

The Establishment of the Weimar Republic
On August 11, 1919, the Weimar Constitution was born. In December of 1919 and January of 1920, agitation for the “enterprise councils law” took place. This law (Betriebsrätegesetz) was a further extension of the Arbeitsgemeinschaft and the policies initiated during the Sacred Union (Burgfrieden) of the war years. In December of 1916, a decree had instituted trade union/employer parity committees in all enterprises with more than 50 employees: the Arbeitsgemeinschaft reduced this number to 20. After November 18, of course, alongside these business-sponsored trade union organs, the ubiquitous soviets appeared. The demand of the supporters of these soviets was, basically, to be recognized by the new constitution. The First Council Congress refused to admit the Spartacists (cf. Chapter 6): the second was just as adamant in its refusal to admit the KPD as a whole. This is certainly a measure of the revolutionary significance of a slogan like “All Power to the Workers Councils”.

An article in the constitution promised the integration of the councils. On October 9, the law was presented before the Assembly. In the view of the USPD and numerous councils—particularly the clandestine executive council (Vollzugsrat) of Berlin—who wanted “authentic participation of the workers in economic decision-making” and not simply in matters pertaining to the company cafeteria and social events, the law was insufficient. The working masses committed themselves to this fight in favor of council participation in decision-making, and in December, demonstrations took place in Hamburg and Essen. On January 13, “in order to exert pressure on the deputies”, 50,000 people attended a demonstration in front of the Reichstag in Berlin. Troops opened fire on the demonstrators and killed forty people: a state of siege was declared. On the 18th, the law was passed. The KPD (at that time, only its right wing remained in the party: cf. Chapter 10) criticized the idea of these legal councils, but nonetheless, by virtue of its two principles—“revolutionary parliamentarism” and “do not become isolated from the masses”—joined the demonstrations.

  • 1 La nouvelle étape, Librairie de l’Humanité, 1922, p. 13.
  • 2 Comfort, Chapter IV.
  • 3 Oeuvres, Vol. 29, 1962, pp. 244-245.
  • 4 Ibid., pp. 392 and 396.
  • 5 Survey, October 1964, “Paul Levi and the Comintern”.
  • 6 Lowenthal, p. 34.
  • 7 D. Cattell, Journal of Central European Affairs, January-April 1951, “The Hungarian Revolution of 1919 and the Reorganization of the Comintern in 1920”.
  • 8 L’Internationale Communiste, No. 5.
  • 9 Ibid., No. 10.
  • 10 Gruber, pp. 297-298.


Chapter 9 - Revolutionary syndicalism and unionism

Submitted by Spassmaschine on October 23, 2009

Marx’s analysis of trade unions in the Manifesto and Wages, Price and Profit, 1 dating from the second half of the 19th century, is no longer applicable. Workers struggles, with their victories or defeats, no longer have the sole objective of consolidating labor unity, but are also intended to strengthen the trade union as a reactionary organization. The German Left would be compelled to understand this, while other revolutionaries (among others, Bordiga, despite his visionary traits) would want to reconstruct the old movement. Others would later be tempted by the idea of forming broad-based, democratic workers organizations, which would be based on rank and file workers organizations.2 At the end of his life, Pannekoek’s achievement would reside in the fact that he understood, despite his councilist and educationalist illusions, that revolutionaries would never be able to recreate the old movement: 3 like Bordiga, Pannekoek is also profoundly contradictory. It is not the reformist organizations which oppose the revolution: it is reformism itself which drives the proletarians away from the revolution.

Revolutionary Syndicalism
The rupture (in the USA and other countries) between the official socialist movement and a more leftist movement with a Marxist orientation, as was the case in the split between the reformist Socialist Party of America and DeLeon’s Socialist Labor Party, was characteristic of a period when the proletariat was incapable of unity. The alternative was between obtaining reforms and “preparing” for the revolution: in the first case, there was integration into capital; in the second, a break with the real practice of the workers. This explains why the syndicalist perspective was the only one which thrived: it established the unity of immediate struggles and revolution. For the syndicalist perspective there is continuity between: 1) the immediate struggle, with trade union organization (by trade or, like the IWW, by industry); 2) the revolution, with the industrial organizations taking power; 3) socialism, with a social organization on this basis. Such an illusion has the merit of being coherent. The groups (DeLeon) which tried to unite with these syndicalists in order to penetrate the working class failed, because, by definition, this form of action rejected any kind of structure which was not formed “by the workers themselves” at the point of production.

The “syndicalists” were divided into two major currents. The first was a survival from the 19th century workers movement and of the “workers separatism”4 which rejected both the communist movement and capitalism for the same reason, preferring instead to deal with the labor question in its own way, in terms of its exclusively worker-based organization. It was connected to the Proudhonist tradition, which was not so much an ideological tendency as it was a theorization of workers aspirations; its contemporary analogue is the politics of self-management.5 This current, which was predominant in the early days of the CGT, entered into crisis after 1906 (when the general strike for the eight-hour day failed) due to the expanding industrialization which liquidated its base in trade- and skill-based organizations. French revolutionary syndicalism never underwent a factional struggle between moderates and radicals: the revolutionary tendency, by virtue of its own development, was transformed in a reformist direction. In 1914, there was no surprise: “For several years, Griffuelhes, Pouget and Merrheim had discouraged antipatriotic action.”6

The second current was much more modern and was inseparable from large industry. The IWW was the organization of the unskilled, Taylorized labor and the unemployed. This organization did not decay like the CGT, but was destroyed as an active movement. The trade unions of the CIO would come to occupy the positions which the IWW could not, because, as a hybrid movement, the IWW simultaneously wanted revolutionary action and an organization of all wage workers on an economic basis. The shop stewards,7 on the other hand, were the organizations of workers delegates, often skilled, whose trade unions had not defended their privileges during the war. They often used original means in organizing to obtain the satisfaction of their demands, but their struggle was not revolutionary. Rather than preventing an autonomous organization of the workers against capital, they filled a vacuum abandoned by the trade unions.8 Germany combined the first and second currents of revolutionary syndicalism in an original synthesis, which would be adapted to events under pressure from the workers, and this development would be accentuated as the positions of the SPD and the ADGB drove the workers towards more leftist organizations.

The drift towards the more radical groups (USPD, KPD, syndicalists) would create a new conception of organization: unionism. At the beginning of 1919, the metal workers union, which, with 1,240,000 members and comprising 1/5 of all organized workers, was the leading German trade union, elected new leaders sympathetic to the USPD. During the war, its minority had already voted for a proposal, which was defeated by 77 votes to 44, to withhold its dues from the ADGB, whose patriotism it denounced.9 The Mannheim Accord of 1906 (cf. Chapter 2) had expired. But the ADGB responded by getting rid of its opponents: it would reintegrate the RO opposition and exclude the communists. In Halle, for example, where almost all the trade unions were led by communists, the local trade union committee fused with the council organization at the beginning of 1921; the ADGB immediately provoked a trade union split.10 In 1919, however, the KPD’s lack of a precise position on the trade union question at its founding congress led to an absence of relations between communists and trade union organs during the first half of the year, although the situation varied from region to region. “In Hamburg and Bremen, the communists attacked Legien’s trade union offices, seized their funds and distributed them to unemployed workers; the workers did not so much as lift a finger in defense of ‘their’ organization. The conference of the northern German sections of the KPD (August 1919) ruled that the members of the KPD must leave the ADGB.”11 It was only at the end of 1919, and thus after a series of defeats, that the purged KPD would adopt the orientation of conquering the trade unions, in which the USPD “had already conquered the leadership position in the legal trade union opposition”.12 Not much was accomplished in this regard, and the (right wing) KPD was not in touch with the spontaneous tendencies of the workers.

As often happened, once the revolution was over, the workers joined the most radical organizations which were, or appeared to be, correct, or created new ones, which slowly became counterrevolutionary if they survived into a prolonged period of “calm”. The rupture took place between a pre-existing tendency from before the revolution and the other, more recently produced tendency, which could not survive after the revolutionary defeat. The same process would take place in the communist party.

The FVDG broke the radical front by opposing the renovation of the General Union of Miners, destroyed in May 1919, and turned to the creation of an organization on the principles of revolutionary syndicalism in the Rhineland-Westphalia region, where it was strongest: the Freie Arbeiter Union (Rhineland-Westphalia) (Free Workers Union) was founded at the Düsseldorf Congress on September 15-16, 1919. The very name, FAU, was a compromise between anarchism (Freie: free) and unionism (Union). Indeed, besides the members of the post-November 1918 reconstituted FVDG, local unionist organizations sympathetic to the KPD also attended the congress (the Essen AAU, the General Union of Miners). The opposition of the two tendencies was clearly defined: the syndicalists appeared as “dogmatists” who wanted their 1906 program to be adopted. At that point, the differences revolved around organization by trade, an article of faith for classical revolutionary syndicalists, or by factory. A compromise was reached: in theory, organization by trades was adopted, but in practice the organization was based on what actually existed (organization of miners by shafts, and the others by factories). All political parties were condemned except the KPD. The FAU (R-W) would remain a coalition of organizations until the creation of the FAUD and the AAU.13

The FAUD was founded at the XIIth Congress of the FVDG in December 1919. This new name reflected the adherence of the various locals of the FAU, born since May, to the FVDG: the FAU of Rhineland-Westphalia, discussed above, was by far the most important. The organization had spread throughout Germany (FAUD, D: Deutschlands) and must have had approximately 200,000 members at the time. The left unionist opposition was weaker at that time and the FAUD returned to classical anarchosyndicalism, under the influence of Kropotkin, filtered through R. Rocker, the ideologist of the movement. It called itself the FAUD(S) to distinguish itself (S: Syndicalist). It broke with all political parties, declared itself against the dictatorship of the proletariat, for not being a dictatorship of “the whole class” “from the bottom up”, and was in favor of non-violence as a matter of principle. Its leadership was to disapprove of many of the revolutionary actions in which its rank and file would participate in 1920-1921. “Revolutionary syndicalism” (=FAUD(S)) was there to decree the general strike of all workers (proletarians), so it said: this strike would paralyze the economy and the bourgeoisie, and the trade unions would take affairs into their own hands and would organize the society of “the free and equal producers”.

The FAUD(S) was led by a central committee of old syndicalists, at whose head were R. Rocker and F. Kater, who defended a pacifist and anti-revolutionary syndicalism. They had been the first to proclaim the slogan of a united front, inviting the Spartacists and independent socialists, already in 1918, to join a “social-political” front. They would even continue to follow this policy in 1921, issuing invitations to the USPD as well as to the KPD/VKPD. In parallel with the Levi tendency, the German syndicalists adopted the same “anti-putschist” positions during the course of the March-April 1920, and March 1921 events. Like the Levists, the central committee of the FAUD(S) would characterize the attacks which the left communists (of the KPD and KAPD) carried out against the trains carrying arms to Poland during the summer of 1920 as “romanticism”.14 As a delegate from the Ruhr declared, requesting that the term “syndicalist” be abandoned: “the syndicalists are not revolutionary enough in the eyes of the Ruhr miners.”15

In the next period, the FAUD split into three principle tendencies. The leadership, now in the minority, upheld anarchosyndicalism in its original purity. It tried to set up a trade union international to rival the Communist International: the “IWA”. The IWW, the shop stewards and the CNT, however, tried to join the Communist International, through its affiliate the Red Trade Union International, founded in July of 1921. But the CI’s policies repelled them, since it wanted the traditional trade unions to join the RTUI, as well as to promote reformist struggles using more aggressive slogans and methods. If the IWA, founded at the end of 1922, would only have an ephemeral impact, by taking advantage of the RTUI’s opportunism, it at least managed to detour numerous revolutionary workers into a dead end. The primary activity of this new IWA would consist of denouncing the “communists” who were trying to shift the workers struggle away from its true terrain: the workers struggle. The behavior of the Communist International, at both the national and international levels, helped to push the revolutionaries—since at least some of these workers organizations showed a tendency towards radical actions and positions—into the arms of the reformists. It reinforced tendencies towards confusion and conciliation, which were strong in some trade unions (CNT), instead of extirpating or eliminating them.16

Equally insignificant, the second tendency was grouped around the Düsseldorf journal Die Schöpfung (The Creation), characterized above all by its activism and its “anti-dogmatism”. Some of its adherents judged that they “had to vote despite their principles”. Others, in September 1921, elaborated a program of action which involved issuing an ultimatum to the government and the trade unions, whose rejection would lead to the general strike. Its members also created “communes” and anarchist schools, etc.

The most important tendency, whose further development is most noteworthy, was the so-called “FAU of Gelsenkirchen” (FAU(G)), whose nucleus was formed by former members of the USPD and the General Union of Miners. It only superficially adopted the syndicalist ideology, and became the economic organization of the VKPD, while retaining a certain degree of autonomy (concerning the VKPD, cf. Chapter 13). It left the FAUD in November 1920, and had 110,000 members at that time, primarily in the FAU of the Rhineland-Westphalia region and the General Union of Miners of Central Germany and Upper Silesia. After its founding in December 1920, the VKPD acknowledged it as a revolutionary factor. The FAU(G) admitted, for its part, that many of its members were members of the VKPD. In September of 1921, the FAU(G) fused with two other trade union organizations which had existed since 1918 to form the General Union of Manual and Intellectual Workers of Germany (Council Organization), with 168,000 members.17 It would be the only German trade union to join the RTUI. However, after years of opposition, the VKPD and the CI would force it to dissolve into various reactionary trade unions in 1925.

The phenomenon of the unionen reflected a situation in which the proletarians were neither capable of nor wanted to attack capital, but refused to carry out purely economistic actions in the usual corporativist manner: this explains their anti-trade union reaction and their efforts to unify themselves in the unionen. Of course, since the assault was not undertaken with a firm resolve, reformism, no matter how strong it may have been, was condemned to failure. These new organizations would be eclipsed or would fall into dependence on another form of syndicalism, with apolitical aspirations but much more concerned with fighting against the Marxists than in driving the workers actions forward, and which would sabotage local and regional attempts at unification with unions inspired by left communists, who were judged to be “authoritarian” and violent. This narrow-minded spirit was a revelation of a competitive attitude typical of politics. Unionism would develop as a reaction against classical “revolutionary” syndicalism as much as against the ADGB.

The Origins of Unionism
(It should be emphasized that the Unionen discussed in this book were not (and in fact fought against) what are called “unions” in the English language (Gewerkschaften in German)) (Author’s note to the American edition).

Unionism, as a concept of proletarian revolutionary organization, was conceived by elements which had arrived during the war, at the time of the revolution in Germany, from the USA. The IWW, an organization of radical economic struggle, born in the USA at the beginning of the 20th century, had historical roots which extended back to Owen’s theory of One Big Union (ca. 1830). The workers in the IWW were organized by factory and by industry. The IWW had various tendencies, one of which—a minority—asserted the need to form an alliance with a revolutionary political party; this tendency was inspired by DeLeon and was actually excluded from the IWW. The DeLeonist SLP and the workers groups under its influence worked in parallel with but separately from the IWW. DeLeon thought a party distinct from the unions was necessary in order to destroy the State: once this purely negative act had been consummated, the party would be eclipsed by the unions’ administration of society. The majority of the IWW’s membership rejected this dual party/unions structure, and wanted to make the IWW the sole revolutionary organization. Dannenberg, having arrived from America, led a small unionist tendency in Braunschweig, and was undoubtedly influenced by DeLeon. The greatest difference between the IWW and anarchosyndicalism was the IWW’s dedication to the principle of the factory organization.

The IWW was considered to be a sympathetic but confused movement, or as one of those rare cases of a workers organization which was “not manipulated” from outside by a “party”. It played a role in the formation of the German Left. When the KAPist worker P. Mattick immigrated to the USA in 1926, he joined the IWW. The IWW’s real nature must be acknowledged, as well as its failure in 1914, just like that of the parties and trade unions against which it carried out such an effective struggle. Its failure was not due only to its repression, which it had neither wanted to prepare for nor was capable of confronting. From its founding in 1905, it tried to remain on the margin of political groups, but it had an overwhelming tendency to ignore the question of power as well as that of the destruction of the State. It was more apolitical than antipolitical.18 The IWW’s 1916 congress called for the organization of a general strike in case of war. Just like the resolutions of the Second International (cf. Chapter 4), this proposal would not be respected. A minority fraction demanded the implementation of the decisions of the 1916 congress when the US entered the war in April 1917. The IWW’s General Executive Board, after long deliberation, refused to do so. Even after April 1917, when the IWW was under attack by the State and armed gangs (assassinations, arrests, destruction of its offices), the GEB took no action. B. Haywood, the IWW leader, stated that everything would return to the way it was before the war and that the organization would rebuild itself. For the next two years, the IWW restricted its defensive activity to the legal system . . . which the State itself did not respect.19 The war revealed its limitations, just as it had exposed those of the trade unions and socialist parties.

Unionism held that the workers should be organized by factories and then by economic regions (and not by industries). This difference is crucial (within the context of the period under consideration, and obviously not as an abstract, ahistorical opposition): the point of view of industrial unionism, in its debates, and its power position, was framed in relation to the cartels and industrial trusts—it was a form of organization designed to return to the roots of true trade unionism. Organization by economic regions, however, united all the workers in the same region, transcending not only the trade or profession (like all unionism) but also the industry and even the factory; this kind of unionism which goes beyond the interests of trade, of factory, and of industry is, in fact, a geographical-strategic grouping with a view to revolutionary action and had a tendency to supersede the proletarian condition itself. Furthermore, the one time when a union, with the assistance of the AAUD, led a reformist struggle (in 1927), it was an industrial union: the Union of North Sea Fishermen.

In 1919, the unions were temporary associations which worked on the formation of councils: it was the councils and not the unions which were called upon to manage production. For all the currents of the period, socialism was a problem of management: the different conceptions of socialism concerned the form of workers management of production (by the party, by the council, the trade unions, the union, etc.). The unions appeared spontaneously during the war and the revolution. When the workers abandoned the trade unions they did so factory by factory and not by the basic units of trade union organization (the trades).

The idea of unitary organization (neither party, nor trade union, but something beyond both) appeared for the first time in an anonymous article in the Bremen Arbeiterpolitik, and was presented as a concept which had originated among rank and file workers. The “soul of the proletarian” cannot be divided into a “political soul” and an “economic soul”. In Mass Strike, Party and Trade Unions, Luxemburg had expressed the idea that the separation of the party and the trade union was by no means absolute. In a sense, what was taking place was a return to the primitive organization of the proletarians, except, this time, as the fruit of a more advanced movement. The trade union-party distinction was proof that the previous era was not revolutionary: the same was true of the distinction between maximum and minimum programs. The mere fact, however, that a proletarian organization would define itself, in the first place, in relation to the workplace shows that the proletarian offensive was deadlocked.

At the KPD’s founding congress, the left defended the concept of unitary organization. During the ensuing period of struggles, the party’s majority implemented the slogan “abandon the trade unions” and also helped to create the elements of the future AAU. The unionist current was seeking its own identity at the moment (May 1919) when the syndicalists broke with the revolutionary front. At that time, revolutionary groups were once again forming in the Ruhr, in Central Germany, and above all in various cities in the North (Bremen and Hamburg) in a series of organizations which were neither classical trade unions nor revolutionary syndicalist trade unions. In Hamburg, a direct line of descent connected the IWW to the unions. Wolffheim had spent several years with the IWW in California. With Laufenberg, he urged the workers to join the AAU when it was created in August of 1919, and they considered it to be the German section of the IWW.20

It was in Hamburg that unionism was theorized in particular detail. The Hamburg Kommunistische Arbeiter-Zeitung published numerous articles from May to August 1919 from various sources (“theoreticians”, “rank and file militants”, “trade unionists”, “communists”, etc.) under the rubric of “a contribution to the debate concerning the trade union question”. It was here that the idea arose that the party should end by dissolving itself into the AAU, after having contributed to the latter’s generalization. Moreover, all the tendencies and future splits were to be found in embryo within the debate concerning the rate at which this dissolution should proceed.

Organizations of the AAU type (by factory and by region) expressed a primordial fact: the workers who formed them carried out a revolutionary struggle by attacking the roots of the economic relations and not their effects. To declare oneself in favor of the dictatorship of the proletariat was also the sole criterion for membership in the AAU. Viewed negatively, only those workers who rejected any idea of reformist or partial struggle could organize in the AAU. When the revolutionary wave receded and was submerged in the sea of reformist action, the trade union-type organization, with its professional divisions, reigned unchallenged. The AAU ceased to be an instrument of struggle, since the struggle which it served no longer existed, and it would be relegated to the status of a subsidiary sect of the KAPD.

The relation between organization based on skills/trades and the reformist struggle would be negatively confirmed in 1923. The spectacular inflation of that year caused a day’s wage to lose one-third of its value after 24 hours.21 The wage struggle once again having become impossible, the trade union organizations were dismantled and replaced by factory organizations: but this time the latter did not undertake any revolutionary action worthy of the name.

The Formation of the “AAUD”
In August 1919, factory organizations, acting upon the basis of the positions of the KPD, met in Essen to found the AAU of Essen. For the last time, the Levist central committee gave its assent to such an act. In itself, this meeting was of little importance, but the AAU was the focal point for the foundation of the AAUD. It participated in the foundation of the FAU(R-W) but quickly broke with the latter, since unionism was in the last stage of acquiring its own identity. The founding congress of the AAUD (General Union of German Workers) met on February 14, 1920. The principle spokespersons for unionism had become isolated: Wolffheim and Laufenberg had devoted themselves exclusively to propaganda for their national-bolshevik theses. Frölich and Becker had remained in the KPD and joined the fight against “leftism” (cf. Chapters X, XIII and XV, for the Bremen left).

The two leading tendencies at the congress were composed of those who called for the immediate abolition of the party organization (Roche, from Hamburg, and Rühle, from Dresden) and those who thought that it was necessary to maintain the party for a certain time (Schröder and the leadership of the future KAPD). The Hamburg national bolsheviks comprised a very small minority of the congress delegates. The first theoreticians of unionism were thrown overboard at the very moment that unionism began its existence.

During this period, Becker thought that the unions should “be intermediate organs between the party and the class”, a position which the other tendencies felt was too rigid. The split which developed among the “centralists” helped to hand over the leadership to the “federalists”, who were particularly strong in Hamburg and Dresden, and who would dominate the organization’s leading positions in 1920. For example, supreme authority was vested solely in the hands of the national congress: “The AAUD’s organization would never completely achieve the same stable character as the FAU. The AAUD was, more than any other union, the expression of the revolutionary movement of the Betriebsräte, and from the moment the revolutionary movement began to stagnate, this would appear as an enormous weakness.”22 But this was only true from an extremely “organizational” point of view: as if the proletarian revolutionary movement should provide itself with (mass) organizations capable of resisting an extremely long counterrevolution. Again: organizations like the AAUD were so exceptionally subversive because they were so completely attuned to the revolutionary movement; they overcame the opposition between the movement and a petrified organization. The fact that they disappeared at the end of the revolutionary period would, instead, be a good sign, if one did not know that they would never admit the full extent of their failure and all of its implications.

Dannenberg’s tendency advocated “industrial unionism”: the unions should federate by industry and not by region, and should link up with a political party (in this case, the USPD). This tendency disappeared along with its leader in 1921, after having been excluded in 1920, “attacked by all other tendencies for its pro-USPD sympathies and its ‘economistic reformism’”.23

The debate at the congress was very confused, and the delegates had just enough time to agree about what the AAUD was not, before the police arrested them. But the organization’s foundation responded to a real movement. The formation of the unions coincided with a de facto break with and a rejection of trade union organization. To conceive of the AAUD in purely organizational terms, as one more link in “the life of groups”, is to have not understood it in its essence. In August 1919, the Union of Port and Shipyard Workers of Hamburg was formed, with a communist leadership. Such splits had a political basis: “It attacked the trade union Zentrale for its support of Ebert and the Kaiser’s generals, it supported arming the proletarians, recognition of the Russian soviet republic, militant solidarity with Russia, and opposition to Ebert-Scheidemann’s support of the Poles and the White Army. Had the revolutionary situation remained more generally aggressive, the events which took place in Bremen and Hamburg would have been repeated.”24

The second conference of the AAUD, which took place on March 10-12, 1920, just before the Kapp Putsch, adopted some very simple statutes.25 The Roche-Rühle tendency emerged victorious: federalism, no party. In November 1920, the third conference convened while the KAPD was in its ascendant phase, after it had excluded Rühle and his supporters. Joint action between the KAPD and the AAUD was especially extensive during the month of August due to the sabotage of arms shipments to Poland. The KAPD tendency (Schröder) gained support. This tendency recognized the temporary necessity of the party as a separate institution, even after the revolution, at the advent of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The conference also adopted a very succinct program and a set of “General Guidelines”.26 These two texts were in absolute conformity with the KAPD program, from which entire passages were borrowed.

Rühle’s current separated from the AAUD (cf. Chapter 14). The destiny of the AAUD after its third conference was indistinguishable from that of the KAPD. What is essential is that, from the organizational point of view, the AAUD was not merely an appendix of the KAPD which the latter had created.

Particularly strong in Hamburg, Berlin (30,000 members in December 1920) and central Germany, the AAUD had 150,000 members in the winter of 1920-1921:27 during this same period the KAPD never had more than 40,000 members. In December 1922, the AAUD would have no more than 120,000 members in its so-called “Berlin” tendency and a few hundred in the “Essen” tendency (cf. Appendix I). It was during 1919-1920, however, that the union was most active, even in terms of its propaganda: the union had at least ten weekly newspapers and its numerous pamphlets sometimes had print runs of 120,000. After 1923 it was left with almost no members. While the FAU(G) was stronger in the mines, the AAUD was especially strong in the metal industry. “The trunk of the class”,28 as Radek had described it at the congress of the Communist International, had thus abandoned its traditional organizations. This phenomenon of workers regroupment also took place, prior to 1914, in the British trade union movement, where the Triple Alliance consolidated the miners, the railroad workers and the transport workers in order to stage turbulent but non-revolutionary actions. The IWW, on the other hand, recruited mostly in the newer industries with a heavy representation of unorganized immigrants. These facts, by the way, refute the legend according to which the German Left was mostly composed of “déclassé” elements. The members of the AAUD were not lumpen, as Rosenberg would have us understand in his History of the Weimar Republic.29 All layers of the working class were to be found in the AAUD, as well as in the FAUD, the KAPD and the KPD.

First, the members of the KAPD and the AAUD came from all layers of the proletariat. Furthermore, after half a century of social democratic domestication, and in opposition to the despotism of the factory, the rejection of the discipline of the various parties was something completely positive, especially in Germany. It has been said that the “leftists” lacked any experience of organization. But this is utterly untrue: they knew the organizations of their time all too well and knew that these organizations considered them to be a simple “mass” which was always led to defeat and massacre. An important fraction of radical proletarians acted in a revolutionary way and knew what they had to do. It is all to their credit that they did not want to hear of any discipline which did not originate among their own ranks. What would be absurd would be to raise anti-discipline, anti-organization and anti-authority to the status of categorical principles, as if the rebels of the various insurrectionary movements had not had their own leaders, organizations and discipline. The principle that “the whole world must give the orders” is only valid where there is nothing that has to be done.

As long as the AAUD was a living organization, its polemic against the anarchosyndicalism which was attempting to return to organization by trade had a real basis. It was the expression of the movement of radical proletarians which, by organizing to achieve goals held in common by the whole proletariat, also entered into conflict with the forms which were keeping them isolated in stagnant compartments. As a distinct ideology, revolutionary syndicalism played a reactionary role during this phase. But when, during the period of reaction, some survivors of unionism devoted themselves to making a fetish of the forms of organization of the radical current of the German Left (councils, factory organizations, AAU, etc.), this propaganda underwent a change of function. Encouraging the workers to create these organizations was in this case a substitute for revolutionary action. And this was all the more dangerous insofar as these forms, which had previously expressed a subversive content, could become the vehicle for tendencies which were simply reformist, as a result of the further development of capital and of the forms of its domination.

  • 1 Oeuvres, Gallimard, Vol. I, 1963, pp. 530 and 532-533.
  • 2 Munis and Peret, Les syndicats contre la révolution, Losfeld, 1968.
  • 3 Pannekoek and the Workers Councils.
  • 4 A. Kriegel, Le pain et les roses, PUF, 1968, p. 37 et seq., and P. Ansart, Naissance de l’anarchisme, PUF, 1970.
  • 5 For example, the case of LIP in France: cf. Négation No. 3, and LIP: Bilan et tentative de dépassement, Paris, 1973. In English, see LIP and the Self-Managed Counter-Revolution, Black & Red, Detroit, 1975
  • 6 Lefranc, Le syndicalisme en France sous la IIIe République, Payot, 1967, p. 190 et seq. Cf. also the article by Tilly and Shorter on the strikes in France, Annales, July-August 1973.
  • 7 Cf. the introduction to MacLean, The War after the War, Socialist Reproduction, London, 1974.
  • 8 Révolution Internationale, n.d., No. 8.
  • 9 La question syndicale…, p. 7.
  • 10 Ibid., pp. 48-49.
  • 11 Ibid., p. 8.
  • 12 Ibid., p. 9.
  • 13 The text adopted by the congress appears in Bock, Document VI.
  • 14 La question syndicale…, p. 16.
  • 15 Bock, p. 57.
  • 16 La question syndicale…, pp. 17-19.
  • 17 Its extensive statutes are reproduced in Bock, p. 367.
  • 18 Our position is anti-political, but not a-political: cf. Le Mouvement Communiste, No. 5, October 1973, “De la politique”.
  • 19 Dubofsky, We Shall Be All, Quadrangle Books, Chicago; Journal of Social History, Summer 1974, for the IWW between 1909 and 1922; and H. Bötcher, Zur revolutionäre Gewerkschaftsbewegung in Amerika, Deutschland und England, Jena, 1922.
  • 20 Bock, Document V.
  • 21 Badia, p. 186.
  • 22 La question syndicale…, p. 19.
  • 23 Ibid., p. 20.
  • 24 Ibid., p. 8.
  • 25 La gauche allemande….
  • 26 Ibid.
  • 27 La question syndicale…, pp. 19-20. Bock estimates a maximum of 100,000 in March 1921.
  • 28 La question syndicale…, p.20.
  • 29 Bock, p. 1.



10 years 4 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Nate on December 12, 2013

A friend showed me this quote. I think several things in here are misleading.

"The IWW, an organization of radical economic struggle, born in the USA at the beginning of the 20th century, had historical roots which extended back to Owen’s theory of One Big Union (ca. 1830). The workers in the IWW were organized by factory and by industry. The IWW had various tendencies, one of which—a minority—asserted the need to form an alliance with a revolutionary political party; this tendency was inspired by DeLeon and was actually excluded from the IWW. The DeLeonist SLP and the workers groups under its influence worked in parallel with but separately from the IWW. DeLeon thought a party distinct from the unions was necessary in order to destroy the State: once this purely negative act had been consummated, the party would be eclipsed by the unions’ administration of society. The majority of the IWW’s membership rejected this dual party/unions structure, and wanted to make the IWW the sole revolutionary organization. Dannenberg, having arrived from America, led a small unionist tendency in Braunschweig, and was undoubtedly influenced by DeLeon. The greatest difference between the IWW and anarchosyndicalism was the IWW’s dedication to the principle of the factory organization.

The IWW was considered to be a sympathetic but confused movement, or as one of those rare cases of a workers organization which was “not manipulated” from outside by a “party”. It played a role in the formation of the German Left. When the KAPist worker P. Mattick immigrated to the USA in 1926, he joined the IWW. The IWW’s real nature must be acknowledged, as well as its failure in 1914, just like that of the parties and trade unions against which it carried out such an effective struggle. Its failure was not due only to its repression, which it had neither wanted to prepare for nor was capable of confronting. From its founding in 1905, it tried to remain on the margin of political groups, but it had an overwhelming tendency to ignore the question of power as well as that of the destruction of the State. It was more apolitical than antipolitical.[18] The IWW’s 1916 congress called for the organization of a general strike in case of war. Just like the resolutions of the Second International (cf. Chapter 4), this proposal would not be respected. A minority fraction demanded the implementation of the decisions of the 1916 congress when the US entered the war in April 1917. The IWW’s General Executive Board, after long deliberation, refused to do so. Even after April 1917, when the IWW was under attack by the State and armed gangs (assassinations, arrests, destruction of its offices), the GEB took no action. B. Haywood, the IWW leader, stated that everything would return to the way it was before the war and that the organization would rebuild itself. For the next two years, the IWW restricted its defensive activity to the legal system . . . which the State itself did not respect.19 The war revealed its limitations, just as it had exposed those of the trade unions and socialist parties."

On some of those points -
I’m skeptical about the supposed connection to Owen. It’s an interesting idea but Dauve offers no evidence of that other than an asserted terminological similarity. (The first footnote after that claim is unrelated.) I don’t remember seeing that claim in anything else on the IWW I’ve read. I did some googling and there are references to Owen in attacks on the idea of the one big union, dating from the 1910s through the 1930s. But those are comparisons, they don’t establish actual connections, and they’re polemical comparisons (comparing the idea of one big union to a scheme by a utopian socialist business owner would have been rhetorically useful back then.) As far as I can tell, Owen never used the term one big union. He called for a ‘grand national consolidated trade union.’ That’s basically one big union, but I don’t seen any evidence there’s any actual connection. There is a 1938 pamphlet the IWW published, written by Justus Ebert, that cites Owen’s Grand National idea as a fore-runner of the IWW. I’ve got the first 3 IWW conventions in PDF. Text search=no mention of Owen. So I think Dauve’s wrong there. There is another 19th century socialist who it’s really established was an influence on the IWW’s official ideas and in the idea of many of its member – Marx. That Dauve claims the IWW has roots in Owen’s ideas but says nothing about Marx despite the Preamble quoting him… that’s sloppy at best.

I’m not sure that the exclusion of DeLeon was primarily ideological as this implies. I don’t know either way, can’t remember from what I’ve read, and Dauve doesn’t cite any sources for that. I also think it’s kind of inaccurate to say that a minority wanted an alliance with a political party. Again I can’t remember too clearly but I think the first convention proceedings are ambiguous on this point – and I think the ambiguity points toward DeLeon-style views being pretty widespread. So I think the organization probably started out more pro-political (in the sense Dauve is using it, I think, and in the electoral sense of the word that was common in the early 20th century.) I think it’s more likely that a lot of people in the early IWW started out more in favor of electoralism and changed their minds over time in the IWW. Among other things Haywood was on the exec board of the SP until 1912 or 1913. That’s not the same as ‘alliance with a political party’ but it’s close, and speaks to how electoral positions had more currency for a while after the SLP people left. The Haywood example also shows how those positions evolved rapidly rather than being totally fixed. Haywood was far from alone, too. Loads of IWW members were in the SP until the expulsions in 1913. Here again Dauve’s sloppy and oversimplifies – it wasn’t just DeLeon who “thought a party distinct from the unions was necessary” and it’s not at all clear what proportion of the IWW’s membership rejected that idea when. It’s definitely clear, because of the large numbers of IWW members in the SP, that lots of members still believed in this idea until 1913.

He doesn’t specify what he means by failures in 1914. If that’s meant to be a claim about the IWW not opposing the war, that’s straight up false. The IWW opposed the war in print and in action.

It’s a bit unclear what Dauve means by apolitical and antipolitical here. I think by 21st century notions of political (in the sense of non-electoral politics) the IWW was really obviously deeply political. Calling the early IWW ‘apolitical’ by today’s uses of the terms political and apolitical is just silly. If political here in the Dauve quote means something about state politics (such that communism is supposed to be antipolitical) then there’s a bit more substance to that claim but only a bit, and once again Dauve fast and loose with the facts. A more accurate statement would be that the IWW’s positions were diverse and evolving. At the founding convention the IWW affirmed the need to act on both the economic and the political field. Political then probably meant electoral politics. The organization’s official stance of electoral politics changed pretty rapidly though and it reject that. But after that change, lots of members remained interested in and supportive of electoral politics, as evidenced by their SP membership. That too evolved though, because many of the IWW members in the SP came to reject electoral politics while remaining members (making them somewhat similar to organizational dualist anarchists today). That was part of what led to the expulsion from the SP in 1913. There were more strongly anti-state currents in the IWW too, that Dauve might call antipolitical. Summarizing a multi-tendency organization that changed its mind officially and had the internal tendencies change rapidly by saying “yeah it was basically apolitical” as Dauve does is goofy. As smart as Dauve is, that’s either hella lazy or intellectually dishonest.

As for the stuff on the general strike against war and whatnot, I’m open to the idea that the IWW made mistakes in how responded to the war. But the implication here is that the IWW made conservative decisions in response to the war. That’s possible. It should be addressed substantively, though, and there’d need to be some evidence that another course of action would have appeared feasible to people at the time. It’s also my understanding that the organization’s members did a variety of things, while Dauve reduces the organization to the (in)actions of the GEB. That’s an especially funny mistake for a left communist who supposedly has an analysis of how formal organizations and their members aren’t identical.

It’s also really misleading for him to say ‘the GEB failed to pass a resolution calling for a general strike against the war in April 1917, and then all they did was legal defense for the next two years.’ If you look here – – the Speculator mine strike is after April 1917 as is everything after that strike, including both massive repression (which Dauve mentions but barely), serious strike activity in industries that were basically militarized because of demand for their products for the war effort (keep in mind WWI doesn’t end until late 1918), and armed self defense by wobblies. So, Dauve’s wrong and hella sloppily so there. It’s been a long time since I read the Dubofsky book that Dauve cites and I don’t think that book is all that good but I would be shocked if Dubofsky doesn’t cover this stuff.

Finally, if the IWW was so ineffectual in opposing the war and US capitalism, why the creation of criminal syndicalism laws, and the deportations, imprisonments, and murders of IWW members? Over all, that excerpt and the lack of evidence in the piece (he cites three sources on the IWW) sounds to me like Dauve set out to confirm some ideas through a really cursory look at minimal evidence.

Chapter 10 - The KPD: January 1919 to March 1920

Submitted by Spassmaschine on October 23, 2009

The Minority Right-wing Leadership goes on the Offensive
The opposition between the KPD’s tendencies would revolve around the basic problem which was not resolved by the first congress: the position to be taken on the trade union question—but the battle lines would not be firmly drawn until the struggles were over. In effect, in early May of 1919 the Rote Fahne (organ of the Berlin central committee) was still directing the members of the KPD to participate in the reconstruction of the General Union of Miners. The central committee also helped form an Agricultural Workers Union and a Railroad Workers Union. Both would collapse after the failure of the strike called by the central committee. Despite its unfortunate experiences, the central committee, into whose leadership Levi was reluctantly co-opted in April, supported working with “what already exists”: the trade unions dominated by the SPD. The failure of the proletarian movement irremediably blocked any possibility that the former Spartacists would move towards the left, although some of them were open to the ideas of the left.

The left’s attitude did not change. The focal point of the tendency at that time was in northern Germany: Wolffheim and Laufenberg were the radicals’ spokesmen, and the central committee concentrated its attacks on them. But the theoretical expression of the movement was provided by Pannekoek who tirelessly wrote for the left press under the pseudonym of K. Horner. Hamburg paved the way by violently destroying the trade unions. The AAU was strongest in the north.

Levi, a lawyer by profession, had met Lenin in Switzerland during the war and had collaborated with the Zimmerwald left, moving closer to bolshevism, particularly in regard to the need for another party besides social democracy. He contributed to bringing about closer relations between Spartacus and the IKD. He situated himself at the point where bolshevism and Spartacism intersected. Once he was co-opted into the KPD leadership, he announced a new “centralist” line which was soon destined to lead to the exclusion of the leftist currents. From his contacts with the Bolsheviks he would retain only the idea of a strong party: what basically attracted him to Leninism was what the latter preserved of social democracy, and not those aspects which went beyond social democracy. He considered the left to be responsible for the defeats and denounced “verbal radicalism”: “to be a communist does not mean using the most radical phrases, but having the clearest vision of social reality at every moment”—precisely the kind of false opposition in whose name the Bolsheviks extirpated the leftist tendencies in Russia. The left responded immediately: the Hamburg Kommunistische Arbeiter-Zeitung published an article on The Roots of Dictatorship.1 The new centralizing measures were due to the fact that many KPD members came from the USPD (the Spartacists). The party must be “the means provided to the masses for their own intervention”. Levi had applied, to the KPD, principles imported from the USPD, “an organization where the leaders rule the masses”.

The central committee did not carry out its attack directly on the basis of crucial strategic issues (trade unions, elections), but with the help of the false centralism/federalism opposition, and did so obliquely. At the Frankfurt conference in mid-August 1919, Levi still did not call for working in the trade unions. He carried on a polemic around the concept of unitary organization, calling its supporters syndicalists; on the issue of participation in parliament, since almost all the party’s local organizations were controlled by the left, Levi and the central committee, avoiding a frontal assault, executed a carefully-planned maneuver by inviting all kinds of editors, secretaries and traveling orators to attend the conference. Meanwhile, the 22 districts of the party were represented by only one delegate for each district. The Hamburg communists immediately attacked this ploy as “the first beginnings of a new Bonzentum which they were trying to introduce into the party”. Despite this kind of manipulation, the central committee did not win a majority, because the extraneous elements which it had invited to the conference went over to the left. The conference also voted in favor of a resolution which deprived the central committee of the right to vote in future party congresses. Even though Levi did not explicitly say so at this conference, Hamburg and Bremen foresaw that the central committee would return to the issue of working in the trade unions.

The Heidelberg Congress
The Heidelberg Congress met secretly between October 20 and 24. The party’s representational arrangements were distorted by the central committee. Each district had only one vote, no matter how large or how small it was. Levi caused the resolution approved at the Frankfurt conference to be brought up for another vote and the majority of the delegates, 23 versus 18, voted to restore the central committee’s right to vote. This gave eight votes to the central committee, which then had 31 votes against 18: the outcome of the Congress was decided.

Availing itself of the method employed by the SPD right wing and center against the left prior to the war, the central committee lumped the members of the opposition together with the syndicalists: it would prove, however, that it knew perfectly well how to distinguish between them.2 The central committee wanted to transform the debate into a struggle between Marxism and anarchosyndicalism. With this purpose in mind it quoted articles which had appeared in the leftist press. Since the left allowed all the currents of the real movement to express themselves in its press, it was hardly difficult to find articles which confused syndicalism with unionism in its columns: in the series entitled “A Contribution to the Debate on the Trade Union Question”, for example, which appeared in the Hamburg Kommunistische Arbeiter-Zeitung. Attending just to its texts and even to the minutiae of its texts, the central committee’s position might seem more rigorous and more Marxist than that of its opponents: this, at least, was how the Italian Left chose to assess the German Left. Reducing the German Left tendencies to a variety of revolutionary syndicalism post festum (cf. Chapter 17) contributes nothing new. The Italian Left’s study of the debates within the KPD provides endless proofs of textual fetishism, and shows a preference for Levi’s “principles” instead of the sometimes confused revolutionary positions of the opposition.3

During the summer the left factions of northern Germany had reached a clear conception of the new organizational form and had explained it with sufficient clarity to cause unionism to be attacked by The Syndicalist, the organ of the revolutionary syndicalists. The left was able to direct its counterattack at the root of the question. But Levi precipitated a split by unexpectedly distributing a text at the congress entitled “Principle Theses on the Fundamentals of Communist Tactics”.4 The central committee claimed that the conditions of clandestinity justified the fact that this document had not previously been published and distributed for discussion within the party. But the text ended as follows: “Those members of the KPD who do not share these views concerning the nature, the organization and the activity of the party, or those who have opposed them orally or in writing, must be excluded from the party.” This text was, in addition, quite clever in that its first consequence was a split within the left, between the majority (Hamburg) and a minority (Bremen, with Frölich and Becker). The weight of the decentralizing tendencies within the left led Bremen to remain within the KPD,5 all the more so as it seemed to find leftist aspects in the KPD. Within the KPD, it would be “the only communist current within the German section of the Third International. With its 8,000 members in Bremen and its daily newspaper, Der Kommunist, the Bremerlinke . . . would only have a limited influence”.6

Indeed, that portion of Levi’s theses dedicated to electoral and trade union tactics was ambiguous in the highest degree and could be used to justify rightist and leftist methods at the same time, depending upon the situation. This will contribute to a better understanding of Bremen’s break with the left.

“The KPD cannot reject, in principle, any political means which contribute to the preparation for these great struggles. But these elections, considered merely as a preparatory means, must be subordinated to the revolutionary struggle, and the application of such means can be abandoned in utterly extraordinary political situations; when revolutionary actions have begun and move towards the decisive phase, then the application of parliamentary methods becomes obsolete or provisionally superfluous.”

Ultimately, the KPD program would not go beyond this expression of the problem. Among German communist theoreticians, only Rühle would analyze the issue by maintaining that the phase of the proletariat’s participation in parliamentary activity had utterly come to an end, and justified abstentionism in both the revolutionary period as well as the period of reaction.

The central committee’s “Theses” defined the trade union question in the following manner: “The task of the political party consists in assuring to the proletariat the free utilization of economic means, even, should it be necessary, at the cost of the destruction of the trade union form and the creation of new forms of organization.” The text’s tone was decidedly revolutionary and anti-unionist, and articulated an ideology of the “vanguard”.

“The idea that the party should abandon its leadership role in revolutionary actions, in favor of factory organizations [a meaningless sort of discussion, since the German party, while it was revolutionary, never “led” anything—N.B.] and that the party should limit itself to propaganda, is counterrevolutionary because it seeks to replace the clear vision of the workers vanguard with the chaotic power of the masses in a state of flux.”

The KAPD would also have a vanguardist perspective. But in its case the vanguard was not the group of people who were thought to have the most advanced consciousness, of those who possessed the clearest “perspective” on the issues, but all of those people who dedicated themselves to initiating, before anyone else did, the fight against society: they would thus set an example for the rest of the working class.

The “Theses” contained an idea which was seldom expressed during this era: “The conception according to which one can create mass movements by means of a particular form of organization, and consequently that the revolution is a matter of the form of organization, is rejected as a relapse into bourgeois utopia.”7

Only those who understood the true social and political nature of the authors could reject this text: they would consequently also know what the Levist leadership had done (and would yet do) (return to parliamentarism, work in the trade unions, fusion with the USPD) independently of what it first stated in accordance with the circumstances. It was this fraction of the left which rejected the “Theses” with 18 votes against 31 votes. On the fourth day of the congress, 25 delegates (the 18 plus 7 others with consultative votes) were excluded. These delegates represented the regions of Berlin (including, at that time, the Rote Fahne, the party’s mouthpiece), Hamburg (which would not join the Frölich-Becker tendency), Hanover, Essen, Dresden and Magdeburg.

After this first purge, there was still an internal opposition, since the abstentionist tendencies had remained in the party, believing that their position was justified by the theses they had just adopted. In regard to the trade union question, the central committee was forced to reach an accommodation with the representatives from Rhineland-Westphalia who did not want to hear anything about a return to the trade unions. In November 1919, the Ruhr sections of the KPD were still in favor of collaboration with the AAU, which might have prevented the infiltration of syndicalists into the region’s unions. But the KPD leadership opposed this proposal.8

Many have argued that the preparations for the First Congress of the KPD were rushed in order to deny its “representative” character. In any case, Heidelberg could barely achieve a slim majority in favor of parliamentary and trade union action: the last thesis on exclusion was adopted with 29 votes against 20. The opposition was still strong at that time. At the Third Congress (February 1920), “the majority of the districts of Northern Germany, including Berlin, had joined the opposition; the total number of party members was officially registered as 106,000 at Heidelberg, even though it could not have been so many, having been reduced by almost one-half”.9 The theses approved at Heidelberg, according to Eberlein, generated strong opposition when they were publicized in the various party locals. In the summer of 1919, the KPD dissolved its organization in the army, the League of Red Soldiers, which had become a focal point of the opposition. But many combat organizations (KO) continued their activities after they were officially dissolved. Eberlein states that the majority of the operatives of the armed groups were later incorporated into the KAPD. Other exclusions would be necessary and the Third Congress would implement them.

The KPD and KPD (Opposition)
Between October 1919 and March 1920, the proletariat was still reeling from the effects of its defeat. The left honed its perspective, as did the right, represented by Levi, and above all by Radek. Radek had played an important role in Russia in the struggle against the left Socialist Revolutionaries and anarchists, which had caused him to lose his radical ideas and metamorphose into a convinced “anti-spontaneist”. Commissioned by the Bolshevik government, he returned to Germany at the end of 1918, and intervened in favor of the Spartacus-IKD fusion. After February 12, 1919, he spent one year in prison: however, while in prison he carried out a considerable amount of activity on two levels. On the one hand, he was the first to re-establish diplomatic relations between Russia and Germany, receiving numerous visits while in prison from various political and military figures.10 He then became convinced that the German revolution was provisionally terminated and that the Soviet Union had to be consolidated through traditional diplomatic means. In addition, and this aspect of his activities was obviously connected to his diplomatic efforts, he supported Levi’s positions and pressed for the exclusion of the leftists. His work A Contribution to Communist Tactics, published by the central committee, was the ideological expression of the KPD’s tactics. The role of the party was analyzed in this pamphlet in totally Bolshevik terms: dictatorship of the so-called “conscious” elements over the rest of the class, which was conceived as a mass of labor power incapable of raising itself to a level of consciousness sufficient to carry out the revolution. To assume this role, the party must purge itself of all impure elements, and first of all, of all those who deny the revolutionary validity of the Leninist concept. Without explicitly saying so, Levi and Radek were equally guided by the idea of fusion with the USPD, which had several hundred thousand members, while the KPD had approximately 50,000 after its split: this was one more reason to exclude the left. The party had to return to “revolutionary parliamentarism” and to “entrism” in the trade unions, particularly since the membership of the latter had grown by 600% from November 1918 to December 1920: trade union membership had almost become compulsory with the institutionalization of the Arbeitsgemeinschaft (cf. the KAPD program).

Criticism came from many different leftist publications: Die Aktion, the Hamburg Kommunistische Arbeiter-Zeitung, the Bremen and Dresden Der Kommunist, etc. . . . It was a very diverse movement. Some subversive artists (generally expressionists) contributed to Die Aktion: this was the source for the accusations of dilletantism and estheticism directed by the CI’s polemicists against the German Left. Some of these artists had a long history of opposition to the conservatism of the official workers movement. C. Einstein (a close associate of Pfempfert, the editor of Die Aktion), an enemy of rationalism and, in art, “classicism”, wrote in 1914: “A union of rationalists will never change anything; it would do nothing but bring about a little more order. The social democracy, the military academies and the public schools are perfectly identical.”11 The revolutionary reflux would cause them to return to art, in one form or another.

In the meantime, they became acquainted with the texts of Pannekoek, especially World Revolution and Communist Tactics, published in Der Kommunist of Bremen in December 1919.12 Another one of Pannekoek’s articles, published in the same journal, was entitled The New Blanquism.13 This is how Pannekoek characterized the ultra-centralizing conceptions established as principles by the KPD central committee, for whom a political minority “gathering together the conscious proletarians” seizes and holds political power, identifying this process with the conquest of power by the proletariat. This is what happened in Russia: the party was justified there by the enormous mass of the peasantry, a significant part of which aspired to private property, to capitalism rather than to socialism. The preservation of a proletarian dictatorship therefore requires, in Russia, an enormous effort, and hence the appearance of a dictatorship of one part of the class over the class itself. In the conditions prevailing in the highly-developed capitalism of Western Europe, however, the revolution can only be the spontaneous uprising of the working masses. This is why the proletariat must overcome its bourgeois “culture”: this task cannot be accomplished by a leadership clique, however conscious it may be, but only through the maturation of social contradictions (for which theoretical works comprise a precondition and a basic element).

“Such a doctrine (that of Radek and Levi) implies that it is not the entire party but its central committee which exercises its dictatorship, first within the party itself, from which it excludes, on its own initiative, the militants, and rids itself of any opposition by underhanded means.”14

“The arrogant proclamations about the centralization of revolutionary forces into the hands of a proven vanguard would be more impressive if it was not known that they are being used to justify, on the one hand, an underhanded opportunist policy, and on the other, a nostalgia for the parliamentary tribune.”15

Pannekoek soon reached the conclusion that the German revolution had come to an end: unlike Gorter, he remained on the margins of the various organizations of the left, even though he was most sympathetic to the perspectives of the AAU-E and Rühle.16 Prior to the war, he had already made an essential distinction, in Marxist Theory and Revolutionary Tactics, 17 between the existing organizations (he was speaking of the SPD) and what he called “the spirit of organization” in the proletariat. After 1919 Pannekoek undoubtedly soon adopted the idea that no organization, however “leftist” it may be, unless it was the organization which the proletariat created for itself during the revolution, could justify calling itself the party of the proletariat.

The German Left is undoubtedly more than just an oscillation between organizational fetishism and an exaggeration of the importance of the party “nucleus” (cf. Chapter 14). More precisely, these two “deviations” reflect the two extremes of the desperate struggle of proletarians seeking, in an organizational form, the solution which would allow them to overcome their continually repeated defeats. Its critique of the rest of the left (cf. the texts of the KAPD) is much less radical than that of Pannekoek; although it was quite violent in the terms it employed. This would all remain on a formal level (on this aspect of the German Left and on Pannekoek’s later development, cf. Appendix I).

  • 11919, No. 83.
  • 2 Bock, p. 142.
  • 3 Cf., among other issues, PC, No. 58.
  • 4 Bock, Document VIII.
  • 5 Frölich, La maladie syndicaliste dans le KPD, quoted in PC, No. 58, pp. 176-177.
  • 6 La question syndicale…, p. 19.
  • 7 Expressed by the PCI, in 1921, in its famous formula: “The revolution is not a question of the form of organization” (Parti et classes, Ed. Programme Communiste, 1971, p. 25), cf. also Le principe démocratique (1922).
  • 8 La question syndicale…., p. 19.
  • 9 Lowenthal, p. 31, et seq.
  • 10 Cf. his “Diary”, published in Germany in 1962: cf. Kool, p. 108.
  • 11 Revue d’Allemagne, April-June 1974, “Carl Einstein: de l’arte pur à l’action politique”. On the “revolutionary artists” of that era, cf. Action poétique, No. 51-52, devoted especially to the artists associated with the KPD.
  • 12 Reproduced almost in its entirety in Invariance, n.d., No. 7. Extensive extracts can be found in Pannekoek and the Workers Councils. Published in full in English translation in Pannekoek and Gorter’s Marxism, ed. D.A. Smart, Pluto Press, London, 1978, pp. 93-148.
  • 13 Bock offers numerous extracts.
  • 14 This formulation strikingly recalls Trotsky’s 1904 theses on Bolshevism: cf. Nos Tâches politiques, Belfond, 1970, and Rapport de la délégation sibérienne.
  • 15 Bock, pp. 149-150.
  • 16 Kool, p. 128.
  • 17 Extensive extracts can be found in Pannekoek and the Workers Councils. Published in full in English translation in Pannekoek and Gorter’s Marxism, pp. 50-73.


Chapter 11 - Between the first and the second congresses of the Communist International

Submitted by Spassmaschine on October 23, 2009

The First Congress1
The First Congress of the Communist International (March 1919) was originally intended to be merely a preparatory conference for the foundation of the new International.2 The Congress was not representative of the world movement: almost all the delegates came from Russia or the adjoining countries controlled by the Russians, and the westerners present came from small groups residing in Russia. The European delegates who attended the Congress only did so because they happened to be in Russia at the time. Only the presence of Eberlein, the KPD delegate (an adherent of the party’s right wing), testifies to the existence of a revolutionary movement beyond the zone of Russian control. As for the project of creating an International, which would not really be in a position to direct the necessary struggles, Eberlein was very reticent, and feared that the International would only exist on paper, or would be something like a “spiritual center”. What he wanted, however, was an “organizing center” and, unlike its predecessor, a powerful and highly-structured International. But he was swept up with the general enthusiasm and ultimately voted in favor of the immediate foundation of the Communist International.

Between 1918 and 1919, a large number of communist parties and groups evolved towards leftist positions, especially in respect to the parliamentary question, and thus underwent organizational and political crises, which were exacerbated by the actions of the Communist International (cf. Chapter 17). As in France or in Great Britain, the leftist tendencies were sometimes small minorities, but considered as a whole they comprised a significant proportion of the first adherents of the Communist International.

The positions held by the Russians were little known at that time, and sometimes were not even known at all. The subsequent disillusionment derived from the fact that people generally trusted the reports they received, focusing above all on the “soviet” aspect of the revolution. Since they had carried out a violent revolution against the elected parliament, the Bolsheviks were considered to be hostile to parliament, and it was thought that they would declare themselves against the employment of traditional methods. Didn’t the texts of the First Congress attack bourgeois democracy? While they said that democracy is counterrevolutionary, and that the parliamentary form is not suitable for the revolution, they did not explicitly state that one should refuse to engage in parliamentary activity. The Bolsheviks knew that parliamentary democracy is not the adequate form for the revolution and for post-revolutionary society: only the European communist left understood that parliamentary democracy constituted a danger to the proletariat, a treacherous terrain where it would become lost. The Russians had fought in a society where democracy was opposed to the established regime. There, democracy had at least represented a small part of the real social movement, its internal conflicts and those which existed between the movement and the State found an echo and real interest outside of parliament because democracy allowed the revolutionaries to transform it into a tribunal precisely because democracy was suppressed. Only in this situation was it possible to speak of “revolutionary parliamentarism”. In Western Europe, on the other hand, democracy, within certain limits (women’s suffrage, etc.), was accepted by the State.

At the First Congress Lenin defended a confused position in respect to the institutions which had arisen in the west during and after the war, comparing them to the Russian soviets.3 In reality, the German councils were reactionary, and the shop stewards’ committees and factory councils did not sufficiently transcend the framework of the enterprise to be considered potential organs of proletarian power:4 the Second Congress would later adopt a clearer position, despite a certain formalism, by defining the “preconditions for the creation of workers councils”5 . In 1919, Eberlein wanted the Congress to admit the complexity of the trade union issue. It was too simple, he said, to issue calls for “revolutionizing” the trade unions whose structure was adapted to the old State system: the “leadership of the economic movement” had passed to the councils, the trade unions having become, in Germany, “simple mutual aid organizations”. It was impossible to predict developments in this sector and consequently to provide clear directives for action which would be valid for all countries. He continued: “Wherever possible, we must make use of the revolutionary trade union in the struggle.” This tactical flexibility was all the more surprising since he also demanded a centralized International. His point of view was reminiscent of Luxemburg’s assessments of the trade unions at the end of 1918. The problem was not the trade union itself, but the functions, 1) of economic struggles, and 2) of the structures which these struggles provided themselves. If there is an ascendant movement (and the left therefore always reasons from this perspective) the organs born from the purely reformist struggle during the period of stability are not neutral instruments which one could possibly make use of and acquire influence over, and win a majority: their function is opposed to the revolution. This analysis applies to the councils as well as to the trade unions. If they become stable institutions defending limited interests of the workers, both the trade unions and the councils must be destroyed. The Spartacists, however, went from the trade union to the council with the shift of workers activity from one to the other: they were looking for an institution where they could exercise their influence.

The relations between western and Russian communists in 1919-1921 (and thus the Communist International as well) were characterized by a certain mutual incomprehension which would not be dispelled until after 1921 (although some, such as Rühle, displayed more lucidity in this regard). The non-Russian communists made an effort to organize centers for propaganda, reflection and tactical elaboration: even though they were not at first aware of the fact, these efforts clashed with the intentions of the Russians to centralize the international activities of the movement under their leadership. But the Bolsheviks could not be victorious without the help of two convergent factors. First, the difficulties and setbacks of the revolution, which forced the communists in the most active countries into clandestinity, did not facilitate the installation of permanent centers. But this “technical” reality, which the Russians so heavily emphasized, did not explain everything. The failure or the stagnation of the movement in Europe caused a large number of western communists to accept Russian tutelage on the theoretical and organizational planes. At the Second Congress, out of 167 delegates, 40% were Russians or “assimilables”. Germany, Great Britain and the United States had five votes each, that is, as many as Finland or Georgia. The Italian Socialist Party had 4 votes (as did the Austrian Communist Party): its three factions were represented, but only the center possessed a deliberative voice. The organization of the Congress was in the hands of the Bolsheviks: the Executive Committee named in 1919 was still Russian, since, out of all the other parties, only the Hungarian Communist Party had been able to send a delegate.

One could devote an entire volume to the study of the perfectly sincere and revolutionary communists who accepted the Bolshevik positions without ever seeing the matter from the point of view of the left; in France, The Communist Bulletin and Rosmer provided a good example of what is said above concerning the left’s misunderstandings. For them, Bolshevism was the entire strategy and program; all that was needed was to know how to apply it to other countries. They did not understand that bolshevism was, according to the most generous hypothesis, the best product of the socialist movement as it had existed prior to 1914, without ever going beyond those limits. Its perspective transcended the Russian framework, since the socialist movement there could not, from the beginning, triumph without the world revolution. But in order to be capable of taking all the tactics of the world revolution into consideration, a step was necessary which the Russians never took. The lack of information (which was, however, often exaggerated) 6 was only a secondary reason: the Russians made use of the European documents by only reading into them what they had previously wanted to find. Lenin, who was often more perspicacious than the westerners in his assessments, nonetheless demonstrated a high degree of incomprehension regarding the specific problems of the communist revolution in the more advanced countries.7 The situation as it developed between 1920 and 1921, along with Russian isolation due to the European defeat, led to an ambiguous policy on the part of the Bolsheviks, who were as concerned with protecting their state as with promoting the world revolution. This contradiction was unsustainable and would only really be resolved by Stalin. From this point of view, Trotskyism represents neither the best revolutionary expression of, nor a layer which broke loose from the Russian “bureaucracy”, nor an aberration, but a vain effort to preserve a revolutionary perspective by taking the heroic period as a basis, and ignoring the contradictions of that period.8 In the dead end of Trotskyism, its confused opportunism mixed with the memory of a few doctrinal points reproduced the caricatural and congenital ambiguity of the “first four congresses of the Communist International”. Militants like Rosmer did not see that, if it had spread, the revolution not only would not have respected the line established by the Russian leadership of the Communist International, but would have profoundly transformed the status and the nature of the Russian party itself, which might have, perhaps, found other leaders. The ebb of the movement in the West, however, caused its revolutionaries to regress to the Russian level.

The Failure of the Amsterdam Bureau
The Amsterdam Conference (January 1920) was held to define the basis upon which the Auxiliary Bureau (or sub-Bureau) for Western Europe should conduct its activities. Another office, the Berlin Secretariat, was to coordinate the movement in Eastern Europe, including Germany. But should communist organizations unify around centers which would define their own tactics, or should they merely support the Communist International’s activities? The question was hardly posed in 1919, and would soon receive an answer from events themselves. The KPN (the Communist Party of the Netherlands) played a preponderant role in the Bureau. It had distinguished itself during the war by its collaboration with anarchists and anarchosyndicalists. Rutgers, in his report to the First Congress of the Communist International, declared: “We have always got along better with the syndicalist elements of the workers movement [than with the reformist socialist party] and when the civil war broke out, our party, together with the syndicalists and an anarchist group, formed a revolutionary committee.”9 Although the KPN sent two deputies to the Dutch parliament, Pannekoek, Gorter and Roland-Holst were opposed to parliamentary action. It was one of the first parties to break with the Communist International, which it had joined in April 1919 when it named Wijnkoop as a delegate to the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI). Rutgers (cf. Chapter 17), who had arrived in Amsterdam in November, intervened in the debate on the parliamentary question and took the side of the left.10

The Amsterdam Conference was attended by the leaders of the KPN, S. Pankhurst, Willis and Hodgson (British Socialist Party, a centrist party which would contribute the bulk of the membership of that country’s Communist Party), Murphy (delegate of the Shop Stewards Movement), L. Fraina (American communist) and Borodin.11 What particularly distinguished the debate was the high proportion of Anglo-Saxons present. With some 20 participants, this conference was more representative of the international revolutionary movement and specifically of the weight of the left in that movement than was the First Congress of the Communist International. Zetkin, who arrived just before the end of the conference, denied its representative character. The discussion would end prematurely due to the intervention of the police. One part of the delegation dispersed, while others, in a private capacity, carried on the discussion elsewhere.

Pankhurst proposed the organization of an international strike against intervention in Russia, with at least one month of preparation. Gorter expressed his approval and wanted the same thing to be done in the event of a revolution in Germany. Wijnkoop thought it would be difficult to organize an international action, and contested Gorter’s key argument, which the latter had often made during that period and which he would mention in his Open Letter to Comrade Lenin: that the unification of capital also obliges the proletarians to unite. Wijnkoop denied that capital was as unified as Gorter had claimed, and did not believe that a revolution was imminent in Germany. The resolution passed, advocating the preparation of the proletariat for a general strike if the revolution were to break out in any country.

Fraina’s resolution on the trade unions combined “industrial unions” (not organized by trade) with political action. It implicitly rejected the theses defended by, for example, the Italian “ordinovistas” associated with Gramsci: “The conception according to which the workers, under capitalist rule, must acquire in their industrial unions the experience and the technical skills to run the new society, and that they have to gradually acquire, through their industrial unions, power over industry, is confused with the proposals of parliamentary socialism which hold that the workers must gradually conquer experience in the affairs of State by means of control over the bourgeois State. Each of these conceptions rejects, in its own way, the fundamental problem of the revolutionary conquest of State power. The conquest of State power: that is the goal of the revolutionary proletariat.”12 The institution for this conquest was the soviet. This resolution, however, was still confused: it fought against “laborism” and the traditional trade unions, but called for the conquest of the “industrial unions”. The trade unions were weapons of capital, but the industrial unions were potentially weapons of the proletariat. These industrial unions would become the classical unions of the post-war era, particularly in the United States (the CIO) but also in Europe: the evolution of the trade unions at Renault illustrates this development quite well.13 This position was all the more contradictory since the resolution admitted that “the development of imperialism determines the definitive absorption of the trade unions by capitalism”.

Concerning parliamentarism, the conference limited itself to outlining the divergent positions, without pronouncing in favor of one or the other. Almost all of the delegates were in favor of breaking with the socialist parties. The resolution on communist unity, drafted by Fraina, advocated breaking with the member organizations of the Second International, and rejected the idea (which was supported by the Communist International and accepted by the English centrists) of communists affiliating with the Labor Party. It was also decided that “shop committees and other workers organizations” should be admitted into the Communist International, without making this a question of principle.

These measures, which were approved but never implemented, due to a lack of means and time, testify that the Bureau considered itself to be one of the centers of the movement in Europe. The Bureau published documents and issued a Manifesto to the English, French and Belgian Workers calling upon them to take action in case of allied intervention in Germany. The KAPD was accepted into the Bureau in April, even though Germany was the responsibility of the Berlin Secretariat, which was hostile to the KAPD and instead advocated working with the USPD.14 In May, the Bureau announced its opposition to communist affiliation with the Labor Party. Speaking at the SFIO’s Congress in Strasbourg (February 1920), Roland-Holst recommended the expulsion of its right wing. The Bureau, composed of Wijnkoop, Rutgers and Roland-Holst, was torn apart by the factional struggles within the KPN. On May 15, Radio Moscow announced the closing of what it simply referred to as the “Amsterdam Bureau” rather than the “Western European Bureau”, a title reserved for the Berlin Secretariat, which had played no effective role. The first and last attempt to coordinate the communist movement in the West had developed under the influence of the Left, and had resulted in failure. A second attempt would also fail. Created in Sofia in May of 1920, the Balkan Communist Federation, composed of the Bulgarian (cf. Chapter 17), Yugoslav, and Greek parties, as well as the communist fraction of the Romanian Socialist Party, which would found a Communist Party in May of 1921, would not accept the directives of the Communist International. The Yugoslav Communist Party (founded in April 1919) did not adopt either the slogan of national self-determination or that of the distribution of land to the peasants (cf. Luxemburg’s critiques of the Bolsheviks’ positions on these two issues in her notes on The Russian Revolution). One of its leaders characterized national struggles as “fights between rival bourgeoisies”. But this Communist Party accepted centrists as members and practiced parliamentarism on a grand scale. The Balkan Federation would disappear after 1923.15 The Second Congress of the Communist International
Some of the rather optimistic positions of the Second Congress (July 1920) must again be set in context. After having been invaded by Poland, Russia counterattacked and penetrated Polish territory. Between sessions, the delegates received reports on the war, viewing the advance of the Red Army on a large wall map. The advance upon Warsaw was quickly stymied and the Russians had to beat a hasty retreat. The appeals directed by the Russians to the Polish workers clashed with the Poles’ sense of national solidarity against their ancient foe: “the right of national self-determination”. . . . This conflict also demonstrated that the Red Army, composed primarily of peasants, was more suited to the defense of Russian territory than for the world revolutionary war, as Gorter had already pointed out.16

Confusion persisted concerning the Russians’ position advising the revolutionaries in other countries not to “imitate” them. Many revolutionaries (Welti in Switzerland, Loriot in France, Pankhurst, Roland-Holst) interpreted this statement as the Russians’ acceptance of wide-ranging autonomy.

In reality, however, by saying “do not imitate us”, the Russians actually intended to say: “Don’t think anymore about revolution”, “don’t remain a small minority”, “form large mass parties”; and “imitate us” basically meant “make compromises” and “be disciplined”; what was essential for the Russians was, at that time, to stay in power, rather than worrying about the regression which their power was undergoing.

In September 1919, Roland-Holst asserted that profound differences existed between the Russian and Western masses.17 Others wanted the most rigorous centralism in order to prevent deviations: this was the position of the Italian Left, which was hardly more consistent than the other left tendencies, since it would be the (Russian) leadership of the Communist International which would be the great centralizing force for right wing deviations. The Russians wanted tactics adapted to the circumstances, but only as they understood them. A clear change of course on the part of the Russians took place in relation to the tactics to be followed in the West, and consequently, in relation to the Left as well. In 1919, the criteria for the membership in the communist parties, established after long deliberation, were agreement with the dictatorship of the proletariat, breaking with the socialists, and internationalism. Even among those who would join the Communist Party, some refused, in 1919-1920, to make parliamentary activity (which, however, they supported) a criterion for membership: “the differences of opinion on this issue will not interfere with the unification of the forces of the extreme left in Great Britain.”18 On August 28, 1919, in reply to Pankhurst, Lenin announced his support for a realignment which would by no means exclude the antiparliamentarians:

“If we consider the problem in its general and theoretical form, it is . . . the same program, that is, the struggle for soviet power . . . which can and, today, must unify all honest and sincere working class revolutionaries. . . . The question of parliamentarism is now a partial and secondary question. . . . I would consider the immediate foundation of Communist Parties, that is, of parties fighting for the transition from bourgeois parliamentarism to soviet power, to be an authentic step towards complete unity.”19

During the same period, Lenin advised Levi not to make parliamentarism grounds for a split. Similarly, on the topic of the trade unions, the Communist International evolved from a somewhat flexible position, not transforming the conquest of the traditional trade unions into a principle, to a tactic based on that very principle. During its first period, until the winter of 1919-1920, the Communist International rejected the destruction of the traditional trade union organizations wherever the revolutionary movement was growing (Germany). On the other hand, however, it allowed that American proletarians should leave the AFL and create another union based, among other organizations, on the membership of the IWW, not because an important movement existed at that time in the United States, but because the IWW had already organized a significant part of the working class.20 Later, in 1920-1921, under the influence of an increasingly difficult situation for the workers movement, the Communist International evolved towards the ambiguous position mentioned above. It is true that Lenin had never hesitated, for example, to seek “personalities” like Zetkin, Serrati, or the Romanian Rakovsky, for some legitimacy. He needed a successor, and chose an heir from the “true” Second International. Altogether contradictory, Bolshevism developed its weakest (social democratic) aspects under the pressure of the decline of the movement: these aspects, never having been criticized, despite the revolutionary practice of the Bolsheviks in 1914, 1917, etc., returned to appear in force after 1919, when they would play a despicable role within a different context.

A little later, the tendency which sought parties capable of exercising pressure on their respective parliaments incited the Communist International to support the entrance of centrists into the Communist Parties (VKPD) and to encourage splits which would preserve the center (PCF). The year 1919 witnessed the consolidation of the revolutionary regime in Russia and the defeat of the proletariat everywhere else. The movement was crushed everywhere: France, Great Britain, Italy, the USA, and Central Europe. The paradox resided in the fact that these defeats allowed the communist movement to become conscious of itself and its enemies, without thereby acquiring the means to assert itself and seize the initiative. Nothing had yet been definitively decided, but its weakness remained and would significantly diminish its possibilities in the following years. It increasingly abandoned the offensive into the hands of the Communist International, and consequently to its Russian leadership. It was not Lenin’s maneuvers which allowed him to control the Communist International, but the real situation of the divisions within the Communist International which demanded his leadership. Lenin was very careful not to do anything which would promote the unification of the international trend towards the left. He endeavored not to attack Loriot, even though Loriot was sympathetic to antiparliamentarism, because the French communists were not associated with the “international” left. Lenin treated Wijnkoop with caution, who maintained an intermediate position, against the affiliation of the socialist parties, but in favor of parliamentary activity whenever possible.

There was no contradiction between the first two congresses. Bolshevism had originally conceived of itself as the Russian method to create in Russia what already existed in the other large industrial countries, not to impose its own methods on others. What is to be done? Lenin copied Germany; he tried to be a better student of Kautsky than all the other Russian socialists. In 1907, while reflecting on the history of the Russian movement, he offered a modest reevaluation of his work What is to be Done?, defining it as “a summary of Iskra and its policy on organization between 1901 and 1902. Just a summary, nothing more. . . .”21 If the European revolution had been successful, the Communist International probably would have been led by others, not by Russians. It was the defeat of the German and Hungarian revolutions which led the Communist International to advocate something other than strictly communist party groups. It was because the workers, everywhere, really accepted the elections, that the Communist International recommended parliamentary action, and why Lenin dared to say at the Second Congress that “Parliament is always the arena of the class struggle”. Arguing that the function of the Labour Party was to be an “organization of the bourgeoisie . . . which only exists to systematically deceive the workers”, he nonetheless held that one had to “join it”.22 This contradiction cannot be understood unless one sees that for Lenin the revolutionary task consists in regrouping, in organizing the masses. He therefore sought an “institution”, a framework where agitation could take root: “can one conceive of any other institution so capable of interesting all classes, as parliament?” he asked in the speech quoted above. We should go wherever the masses are, from parliament to the cooperatives, from the trade unions to the town halls, etc. . . . His point of view was imposed on a movement in decline, because he advocated organizing large masses of workers, even the majority, by means of all kinds of activities (trade unions, parliaments, etc.) whose “communist” character, however, would be guaranteed solely by the fact that communists would be their leaders: an appeal to principle of the kind Kautsky used to justify anything as long as “the doctrine” is guaranteed. The 21 Conditions would then serve as a filter.

Approved by the Second Congress, the 21 Conditions manifested an anti-reformist organizational illusion, and were a means to make the Russians’ positions accepted. Far from being the proof of the communist character of the sections of the Communist International, they testified to the presence and the overwhelming weight of the centrist mass parties which would soon take over the organizational tasks of the degenerating communist parties: the Bolsheviks would never forgive the Italian Communist Party for having prevented what was “achieved” by the PCF and the VKPD (cf. Chapter 17). It is too often forgotten that the 21 Conditions were directed against the Left as much as against the centrists (who would enter en masse and accept the 21 Conditions: the latter having served the purpose of isolating the Left). Among the Conditions, working in the trade unions and parliament were explicitly included (Conditions 9 and 11), as well as support for “all colonial movements of emancipation”. Henceforth, being a communist would mean, among other things, being a trade unionist and a voter. But the defense of the Russian State did not yet, in fact, dominate the Russians’ attitude: this decisive change would not take place until after 1921.

At first, the Russians expected to open the Executive Committee of the Communist International to KAPD delegates, but Levi’s opposition obliged them to grant the KAPD only a consultative vote (cf. Chapter 16). A few days later, the Russians again proposed granting votes to the KAPD, the IWW and the Shop Stewards Movement, but only the latter two groups were conceded the right to vote. Zinoviev’s speech on parliament and the trade unions criticized the French antiparliamentarians, the IWW and the SSM, although he considered them to be “friends and brothers”. This speech was followed by an arduous debate on the question of whether the British communists should join the Labour Party, which ended in victory for the proponents of affiliation, but only after a long and acrimonious debate which ended with the Left accepting this position without admitting its rationale, hoping (Pankhurst) that the Congress would return to the question for discussion at a later time. The Congress voted in favor of the resolution, 48 votes to 24: “It was not such an impressive victory for the Russians when one considers the vast arsenal which had been brought to bear against the ‘British Left’.”23 We should not allow the violent ruptures which took place later to mislead us. At the time of the Second Congress, not only Bordiga (who, from a sense of discipline, accepted “revolutionary parliamentarism”), but also Pankhurst and Gorter (cf. the latter’s Open Letter to Comrade Lenin) thought that there were infinitely more shared views than divergences between their position and the Communist International--the Russians, they thought, made mistakes because they were extrapolating their situation to the other countries of the Communist International--and that experience would lead them to change their positions, especially since they expected that the movement would grow. Organizational fetishism appeared in all the currents of the Left, and not only in Germany. The PCI renounced its abstentionism, placing more value on the existence of a world center than on this tactical disagreement. Of course, submission to discipline makes no sense unless this center would act in a revolutionary way. Such was not to be the case. The PCI fought for a form, deceiving itself concerning its content: organizational fetishism. Excessive faith in the revolution, “automatism”, and sometimes the weakness of their theoretical tradition made the European communists yield to the Russians. The authority of the Russians, and among the Russians Lenin’s opinions, were frequently imposed without too much pressure: “whoever wanted to persist in holding an opinion which was different from that defended by the Russians, was sure to be isolated”, the KAPD’s representative on the Executive Committee of the Communist International, a delegate who spent several months in Russia in 1921, would declare long afterwards.24 The Left tended to grant little importance to arrangements which it considered to be provisional. Soon, faced with the confirmation of the proletarian defeat, which seemed to vindicate the Communist International’s condemnation of the Left, the official policy appeared to be the only realistic one, and in retrospect the only one which might have prevented that defeat. The prudent counsel of the Communist International (“prepare yourselves”) would offer the prospect of permanent employment to a new generation, or to the older one which could not recycle itself back into the traditional workers movement.

A strong current in opposition to the centrists took shape at the Second Congress. The French delegate of the Socialist Youth, Goldenberg, decried the fact that the French communists had been attacked “precisely by those whom we intend to accept into the Third International for the sole reason . . . that they display a verbal solidarity with its principles”. He also lamented “this artificial means of bringing undesirable elements into the International”.25 Soon after the start of the debate concerning the USPD, after Wijnkoop’s speech, the Estonian Münzenberg warned the Congress against the danger “of diluting and weakening revolutionary propaganda and activity”. Lenin interrupted him: “And who is talking about admitting the USPD?” Münzenberg replied: “The debate in the Executive Committee has clearly proven it. The fact that comrades who only a few weeks or days ago were still fighting with every means at their disposal against the Third International, now declare themselves prepared to sign, without any reservations, the proposed conditions—this proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that these conditions have not been formulated with sufficient precision.” Wijnkoop emphasized that if the KPD could criticize the USPD, the KAPD could do the same in respect to the KPD. “Is it totally correct”—he asked ironically—“to say that the KPD is always in the vanguard of the masses? This question must be posed here and it must have an answer. But this would undoubtedly be very difficult in the presence of the USPD. We are not alone, among ourselves, we find ourselves with these gentlemen, the government socialists. We must meet among ourselves alone and speak the truth to one another. But this has been rendered impossible by the Executive Committee” (by admitting the USPD into the Congress). Ultimately, despite the 21 Conditions, the KAPD was admitted as a sympathizing party into the Communist International.

The trade union debate, to some extent, concerned the United States. The Communist Labor Party (J. Reed) was close to the Left and was opposed by the Communist Party (Fraina), which defended working in the trade unions (concerning these two American parties, cf. Chapter 17). Reed was against working in the AFL, but ultimately accepted it in order to destroy that trade union federation and not to conquer it. The Shop Stewards Movement wanted to remain outside the reformist trade unions. Reed and Gallacher, of the Shop Stewards, “thought that there was no more reason to try to change the nature of the old trade unions than there was to try to change the nature of the capitalist State”.26 The CLP’s argument was unlike the position defended by the KAPD, as Bergmann would explain at the Third World Congress.27 It was based on the fact that only 20% of the workers in the USA were organized in trade unions: we should therefore organize the unorganized. This viewpoint was closer to that of the IWW than to that of the Communist Left, strictly understood. An Italian delegate, Bombacci, who was a trade union leader for many years, opposed Lenin, and denied that the trade unions had “any revolutionary function whatsoever”28 . . . . The ensuing debate in the committee on the trade union question resulted in reciprocal concessions.

The Bolshevik position was also based on the conviction, shared by the Italian Left, that the trade unions (led by the Party) would be needed after the revolution to organize production and to represent the immediate interests of the workers. This was Lenin’s position in the debate at the 10th Congress of the Russian Communist Party in 1921.29 Such a position was justified, at best, in a country like Russia, which is not socialist, but cannot be applied to a revolution in Western Europe. The problem in the latter case is not one of representing the workers but of organizing production and society. Such administrative tasks cannot be undertaken by a trade union: its whole anti-proletarian past (both by virtue of its organizational structure and its anti-communist activities) makes this impossible. Quite the contrary, after and by means of the indispensable destruction of the trade unions, new organizations will be born which will take control of production and the regulation of working conditions. By trying to supersede the trade union-party rupture, the radical German proletarians had at least vaguely perceived that the communist revolution was not a question of managing society, but of overthrowing all of its relations. Lenin, as well as Bordiga, at that time, never advanced beyond a leadership conception, which is but one aspect of the managerial conception.30

However, unlike what is taking place today, it must be said in favor of Bordiga and Lenin that they were at least conscious of the goal: an economy without market exchange. The centralization of their forces, by means of the constitution of a leadership cadre, seemed to them to be the most economical road, and even the only possible one, to achieve this goal. Lenin criticized the “non-centralists” from a tactical point of view: their inability to resist the reaction. This view was very political and military and did not apply to a generalized revolutionary movement in which, as in Germany, the military dimension was only one aspect of an economic subversion. For Russia, as long as the revolution did not become a world revolution, Lenin’s position was correct: it was a question of administering political power in a society which could not be profoundly transformed, but had to be ruled as it existed, nonetheless. Of course, this position had to become false, when the hopes for a world revolution had evaporated. Bordiga implicitly went further in defending the need for the “party”: he was a critic of Proudhonism, and not just regarding the strategic problem of striking at the heart of the matter: the State.

In its essence, the German Left cannot be reduced to revolutionary syndicalism: it went beyond the economic-political rift. It is in this sense that one should understand the rule established by certain unionen that their members must acknowledge the principle of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

At the Second Congress of the Communist International, the “Left” (taken in its widest sense) was split over the trade union question into two positions which sometimes overlapped. Must the old trade unions be destroyed or should new organizations be constructed which are both “trade unions” (acting in defense of the workers’ immediate interests) and “revolutionary” (fighting for the communist revolution) at the same time? As in the case of the question of joining the Labour Party, the Left yielded. Reed declared: “The American and English delegates tried to introduce a new spirit into the old trade unions . . . the communists must transform the trade unions or remain isolated.”31 In the plenary session, the Russians acted as if the committee had reached an agreement, which gave rise to vehement protests, which became more aggressive as the Bolsheviks sandbagged the debate (by increasing the number of Russian speakers). Gallacher, although he was inclined to favor affiliation, and would become one of the leaders of the British Communist Party for several decades, stated: “The English comrades have the impression that it was simply a matter of preventing debate.”32 The final resolution recommended that communists should be present in the trade unions and should join the Red Trade Union International. But the creation of this organization would only make the problem worse. Was it a new mass workers movement, radical yet still based on trade union activities, or was it situated beyond trade unionism? Was it an attempt to build a trade union international whose ultimate purpose was to replace the “yellow” International, created in July 1919, or was its goal only to regroup the minorities within the trade unions and to keep alive the hopes of conquering the old trade unions? The presence of observers and sympathizers from traditional revolutionary syndicalism (Spanish, Italian and French) did not make clarifying this issue any easier, and it would only be resolved under the pressure of events: the “communist” trade unions would become trade unions like all the others, confirming the fact that there is no such thing as an anti-trade union trade union.

“The real founding Congress” of the Communist International33 did not resolve any crucial problems. It ended without clarifying the trade union question due to a desire not to confront the trade unions,34 which were reluctant to yield to the Communist International’s will to control the trade union movement (some, because of a revolutionary conviction in favor of trade union autonomy—IWW, Rosmer—others because of their anti-revolutionary position—Italian CGL—others oscillating between these two views—the Spanish CNT). The Communist International and the Red Trade Union International would assume a defensive posture by allowing the reformist centrals to exclude the revolutionary trade unions or those which had joined the Red Trade Union International. In the name of the “unity” of the movement, they left all initiative in the hands of their adversaries, while their adversaries knew how to utilize the weapon of unity when they found it useful, and later forced splits when their interests required them.35 Pushed to the sidelines, the red trade unions could not exist unless they acted like trade unions: those organizations with revolutionary tendencies, even if they were, at times, contradictory, like the IWW, would disappear.

The weakness of the non-Russian revolutionary movement was manifested in the Communist International’s organizational structure, and was symbolized by the enormous weight of the Russians in the Executive Committee. Wijnkoop tried in vain to warn the delegates: “In reality, we are not building an international Executive Committee, but an enlarged Russian Executive Committee. I have suggested that the Communist International should have its headquarters outside of Russia, in Italy or Norway. Levi has proposed Germany. . . . It is a very important question because we have given enormous power to this committee, even that of excommunicating individuals, groups or entire parties. This cannot be done without a precise knowledge of the domestic situation in each country.”36 The Executive Committee which was finally named was composed of 15 members, 5 of whom were Russians.

The Communist Parties were not “branches” of the Communist International. They had been formed from within, as outgrowths of the social movements in various countries, often with novel aspects. Despite appearances, it was the Communist International which had been formed by its sections, even though its construction was characterized by clashes. The idea of a “mold” conceals the movement which individuals and groups followed in joining the Communist International. One could ask why they accepted this mold. For example, their emphasis on education was well adapted to what was proposed or imposed by the Communist International, and corresponded to the practice of the classical socialist movement before and after 1914-1918. To guide, to convince, and then to lead the class: where the accent had been placed on education, the communist parties displaced it to organization. It was the same tendency, but extended. Lenin’s fundamental counterrevolutionary traits (the Kautskyist theory of consciousness being brought to the class from without) came from Europe, and all he did was systematize them. Except for a minority (the communist left), the post-1917 European revolutionaries did not criticize him: it was, then, inevitable that these conceptions would come to life again from the moment when the movement ebbed. The conception of an “elite” which leads the workers, however, was not limited to just the socialist movement. Before 1914 it was shared by revolutionary syndicalism. We quote Pouget:

“Most people are sheep-like and unconscious. If by some chance they have . . . moments of lucidity, it is under the influence of revolutionary minorities.”

“The revolutionary problem consists entirely in this: to build a minority which is strong enough to overthrow the minority of leaders.”37

The obsession with the rupture represented by the “Leninization” of a large part of the European, and even of the world’s workers movement, has led to an underestimation of its continuity with certain practices and conceptions which had roots, prior to 1914, among both socialists and trade unionists. . . . Anarchosyndicalist elitism was one of the channels through which the Leninist conception of the party was transmitted and which would facilitate its imposition. If the CGTU rapidly came under the control of the PCF, and if the Shop Stewards Movement submitted to the leadership of the British Communist Party, it is not because these parties had practiced such clever manipulation: the educational orientation and the organization of conscious minorities had been almost naturally transferred from the trade union to the party.

  • 1 This chapter deals with the situation of the international movement in general between 1919 and 1920. The relations between the Communist International and Germany are examined in Chapter 16, and the international communist left in Chapter 17. Cf. also the section on Hungary in Chapter 8.
  • 2 The complete proceedings of the Congresses of the Communist International will be published by EDI. Le Premier congrès de l’IC appeared in 1974.
  • 3 La question syndicale…., p. 12.
  • 4 Ibid., p. 50.
  • 5 Cf. his biography written by C. Gras (Maspero), and his works on the history of the workers movement during the war (Vol. I, Librairie du Travail, and Vol. II, Mouton), and Moscou sous Lénine, P. Horay, 1953 (republished by Maspero, 2 Vols.).
  • 6 Rosmer, Moscou sous Lénine, P. Horay, 1953, p. 150 and passim, and Reichenbach. It was not, however, until the beginning of 1920 that some copies of Il Soviet (organ of the abstentionist fraction of the PSI) arrived in Moscow, according to D. Urquidi, The Origins of the Italian Communist Party, 1918-21, Ann Arbor, Columbia Univ., whose conclusion is reproduced in Gruber, pp. 308-391. This thesis can be consulted in the International Institute for Social History.
  • 7 Dauvé, Le mouvement communiste, p. 205, et seq.
  • 8 Lefort, Les Temps Modernes, December 1948-January 1949, “La contradiction de Trotsky ou le problème révolutionnaire”.
  • 9 IC, No. 4.
  • 10 J. Hulse, The Forming of the Communist International, Stanford Univ. Press, 1964, p. 154, et seq.
  • 11 On Pankhurst and Fraina, cf. Chapter 17.
  • 12 Bulletin du Bureau Auxiliaire d’Amsterdam de l’IC, No. 2, March 1920.
  • 13 Le mouvement social, October-December 1972 (on the automobile industry in France, and particularly the Renault factories).
  • 14 PC, No. 58, pp. 154-157.
  • 15 F. Tych, in La révolution d’Octobre et le mouvement ouvrier européen, EDI, 1967, pp. 195-228.
  • 16 Gorter, L’Internationale Communiste Ouvrière, in Invariance, n.d., No. 5, p. 36. Cf. also the analysis of the Second World Congress made by the Italian Left in PC, Nos. 59 and 60.
  • 17 IC, No. 5.
  • 18 E. and C. Paul, Creative Revolution, Allen Unwin, 1920, pp. 121-122.
  • 19 Lenin on Britain, Moscow, Lawrence and Wishart, 1930, pp. 422-428.
  • 20 La question syndicale…., pp. 30-32.
  • 21 Quoted in Cahiers du communisme de conseils, No. 9, September 1971, “De la nécessité de la théorie”.
  • 22 Oeuvres, Vol. 31, Ed. Sociales, 1961, p. 261, et seq.
  • 23 Hulse, p. 200.
  • 24 Survey, October 1964.
  • 25 S. Page, Lenin and the World Revolution, New York University Press, 1959, pp. 162-163.
  • 26 Hulse, p. 214.
  • 27 La gauche allemande….
  • 28 Page, Note 75, Chapter 12.
  • 29 Dauvé: Communisme et “question russe”, pp. 81-82. An English translation of these same two chapters is available in Eclipse and Re-Emergence of the Communist Movement
  • 30 It was only after 1945 that Bordiga rediscovered the communist position of Marx: cf. Bordiga et le passion du communisme, Spartacus, 1974.
  • 31 Page: p. 180.
  • 32 Ibid., p. 181.
  • 33 PC, No. 56, p. 39.
  • 34 PC, No. 60, pp. 9-14.
  • 35 La question syndicale…., pp. 22-23.
  • 36 Page: pp. 182-183.
  • 37 C. de Goustine: Pouget, Les matins noirs du syndicalisme, La Tête de Feuilles, 1972, pp. 80 and 84.


Chapter 12 - The Kapp Putsch and the Ruhr insurrection

Submitted by Spassmaschine on October 23, 2009

The Coup d’État and the First Instances of “Workers Government” and “Anti-Fascism”
The Kapp Putsch (May 13-17, 1920) was an attempt on the part of reactionary elements in the Army to take the first steps towards building a strong right-wing government. The German Army (Reichswehr) was reestablished by the constituent assembly: by June 1919 it had 100,000 men, the maximum allowed by the postwar treaties. Including the Freikorps, however, by the beginning of 1920 the Army had 400,000 men, which provoked the protests of the victorious powers.

The Freikorps arose during the period of military demobilization and State disintegration, and their only purpose was to serve as an instrument of the counterrevolution in Germany and Russia. They were paid by the State. As the situation appeared to have stabilized, the government solved part of its problem in September 1919 by prohibiting the creation of local militias, while directly transforming numerous Freikorps units into Reichswehr detachments. But it could not integrate all of them, as it wanted to provide the army with a republican “varnish”. The majority of the troops who would participate in the Kapp Putsch were from Freikorps units which had returned from Russia after having participated in the foreign intervention. They feared they would be discharged due to the terms of the Versailles Treaty. A right-wing faction, encouraged by Kapp, a senior Prussian official, established contacts with their commanders in order to carry out a political operation.

Discovering that 6,000 men under the command of Lüttwitz (one of Noske’s direct subordinates in January 1919) were going to occupy Berlin on March 13, the socialist government fled to Dresden and then to Stuttgart. Ludendorff, who supported the Freikorps, installed himself in the Chancellery in order to establish a “dignified government”. Despite the socialist government’s flight, the Kapp regime fell after four days due to a general strike called by all the parties, except for the rightist KPD. Reacting against “leftism”, it had moved in the opposite direction, becoming hostile to any and all action: the KPD delegates would admit this at the Third World Congress, along with other “errors”. Levi had not expected the “crisis” to break out until 1926. The (excluded) left, however, issued a proclamation calling for the formation of a red army and for an insurrection. The Communist International would reproach the KAPD for having demonstrated its thoughtlessness by prematurely opening “recruiting offices” for a red army.1 In its discussion of the battles in the Ruhr (cf. below), the Communist International declared that “the party must know how to call off the struggle at the precise moment when its continuation would be likely to lead to military or political defeat”. The accusations of “leftism” and adventurism were based on this kind of criticism: they would stand in stark contrast to the facts.

Despite Kapp’s declaration that “all those who do not report to work will be shot”, there is no doubt that there has never been such an absolutely effective general strike in all of history. The bourgeois parties, which had been very prudent since the end of the war, did not support the conspirators. The Bank of Germany refused to grant Kapp the 10 billion marks needed for government operations. Unable to even find a press which would publish his proclamations, Kapp fled to Switzerland. The episode of the Kapp Putsch did, however, leave 3,000 victims in its wake. Prior to the coup d’état, the Freikorps carried out various outrages, such as burning down the Leipzig Peoples’ Hall, killing three hundred people. There were also pitched battles throughout the rest of Saxony, in Thuringia, and especially in the Ruhr.

The coup was totally successful only in Bavaria. The Hoffmann ministry—the Bavarian Ebert (cf. Chapter 7)—was overthrown: the diet was replaced by a right wing ministry led by von Kahr. The central government returned to Berlin, where it hastened to call an end to the strike and disarm the workers. The strike committee, however, under the leadership of Legien, who was undoubtedly using the rank and file’s militancy to bolster his position in his personal rivalry with the leaders of the SPD, attempted to form a “workers government”. The communists of the KPD, “prisoners of their leftism”, 2 distrusted this government almost as much as Noske’s government. This “workers government” was to be composed of the SPD, the USPD and the KPD, along with the trade unions.3 The USPD rejected the proposal in order to preserve its leftist reputation: its own left wing had grown since December 1919 under Däumig’s leadership. The representatives of the KPD (among others, Pieck) 4 accepted the proposal and later had their authority to negotiate revoked by the KPD leadership.

The KPD, however, later declared its support for a policy of “loyal opposition”, defined as “the renunciation of preparations for any violent action” against a socialist government. Since the proletarian dictatorship was impossible, it was necessary to create “a situation in which bourgeois democracy cannot act as the dictatorship of capital”.5 A perfect definition of anti-fascism: preventing capitalist democracy from becoming a capitalist dictatorship, without revolutionary action, of course. The entire party (including Levi, who had just been released from prison) was outraged by this proposal. A short time later, however, Levi resuscitated the same theme with his suggestion of a possible gradual transformation of the bourgeois republic into a soviet republic. It was thus in Germany that the slogan of a “purely working class” government, that is, one composed of parties which “represent” the working class, first arose. Everything which the Communist International would impose upon the young Communist Parties came from Europe: the united front, for example, and the Spartacist tactic of “conquering the majority”, and the idea of the majority of the workers acquiring socialist consciousness before the revolution; or the cult of the worker, combined with bolshevization after 1924-1925 (factory cell organization). At the KAPD’s Congress, one delegate’s assertion that “here, there are no intellectuals, there are only workers”, was greeted with a burst of “lively applause” according to the official minutes. The same is true of anti-fascism. Germany, the most modern country, not from the point of view of technology but from that of the development of the class struggle (on both sides) and of the forms of capitalist rule, was the cradle of all the essential weapons of the counterrevolution which still plague the proletariat so many decades later.

Lenin criticized the right-wing leadership of the KPD in his Infantile Disorder: the formula of “loyal opposition to a government composed solely of socialists” is not correct because a government composed of “social traitors” cannot be called “socialist”. Otherwise, this was a good example of a “Bolshevik-style compromise”.6 The left, faced with this policy of the central committee, drew the opposite conclusion, and realized that it had no interest whatsoever in availing itself of its rights within the party. Understanding that an abyss separated it from the KPD and that any discussion was superfluous, it founded the KAPD in early April (cf. Chapter 14).

The Red Army of the Ruhr
During this period, the Ruhr was the stronghold of the revolution in Germany. It was there that the influence of the Left and of the revolutionary trade unions was strongest. But no one group was strong enough to unleash a movement on its own, and the insurrection was a spontaneous offensive of the proletariat (it was the first and next-to-last proletarian offensive during the German revolution until March 1921). At the time of the Kapp Putsch, “numerous regions such as the Ruhr and central Germany had not yet undergone the great defeats suffered by the workers during the previous years. . . .”7 Instead, the organization of the revolutionary movement in the Ruhr had suffered from the split in the KPD, so the unionen were not well-established there and their weakness worked to the advantage of the anarchosyndicalists, who were opposed to political action, which, by definition, they identified with anything which transcended the framework of the workplace. The General Union of Miners had, however, organized one-third of the Ruhr miners, whose principle region, Rhineland-Westphalia, was a union bastion. The USPD’s split and its lack of interest in the unionen facilitated the growth of anarchosyndicalist influence.8

The military and Freikorps troops stationed in the Ruhr did not oppose Kapp and some even supported him. It was the general uncertainty concerning the real position of the Army which caused the most concern, and it was an officer’s pro-Kapp declarations which would provide the immediate pretext for the insurrection. Starting on March 14, the workers attacked the Army and formed a “red army”, putting into practice, in a way which went far beyond its wildest hopes, the watchword of the Left.9

The workers armed themselves on two separate occasions, before and after the commencement of hostilities. The workers still possessed arms which they had concealed at the end of the war and during the “revolution”, but these would comprise but a small part of their arsenal. During the first few days after the putsch, the workers seized weapons from the Einwohnerwehren, legal organizations created after 1918 to keep order and protect property. Its members served as volunteers on a part-time basis: they came from a wide range of professional backgrounds. The radical workers went in groups to the homes of the members of this auxiliary police force and by fair means or foul, and sometimes by fraud and deceit, they made them hand over their weapons. Thus, for example, in one locality, where the Einwohnerwehren were composed of peasants who had little sympathy for the workers, the proletarians went to the peasants and proposed that they have a meeting to discuss the issue of the weapons. The workers’ speakers made long speeches to keep the peasants away from their homes as long as possible and adjourned the meeting as soon as they knew that all the arms had been collected. In addition, despite the obligation of these volunteers to take an oath swearing loyalty to the Weimar constitution, there were many USPD members among them.

Then, after the first battles, the workers seized the armories, munitions and equipment of the regular Army units which had surrendered or fled, and thus equipped themselves with all the gear necessary to field an authentic army. The insurrection snowballed, “liberating” all of the Ruhr, from east (Hagen-Dortmund) to west (Essen, Duisberg, and Düsseldorf), and then the front lines stabilized: the western limit was the Rhine, defended by the French.

The insurrection began on Monday, the 15th, as a result of the convergence of two separate events: a large demonstration of armed workers in Hagen (convoked by the parties, especially by the USPD, it had no military purpose at all, and was only supposed to be a peaceful show of workers’ power) on the one hand, and on the other, a relatively serious skirmish in Wetter, a small city not far from Hagen.

In Wetter, after the first days of the Putsch, an action committee had been formed by representatives of various workers parties. During a popular assembly, unambiguous threats having been issued against individuals who were “particularly hated by the working class” (Colm), the committee ordered that these individuals were to be arrested to protect them as well as to satisfy the wishes of the crowd: this was the origin of the rumor that “the council republic” had been proclaimed in Wetter.

The military commanders of the Ruhr then issued the order to intervene and disarm the workers at various locations in the Ruhr and especially those in Wetter where, on the 15th, a company of soldiers arrived by train. During a discussion at the train station with the action committee and the mayor, the unit’s captain declared that the Army in the Ruhr supported Kapp. The committee then broke off all discussion; in the meantime, the workers had convinced 20 or 30 soldiers to desert with their arms and equipment.

The battle began: the soldiers were barricaded in the train station, while the workers took up positions in the neighboring streets. The armed workers from the other cities in the region, who were supposed to meet in Hagen, upon being informed that hostilities had broken out in Wetter, headed there en masse (despite the opposition of the workers parties) and, streaming into Wetter in ever greater numbers, assured the workers’ victory over the soldiers, who were annihilated.

A company of regular soldiers also went to a neighboring city. The Freikorps had sought refuge in Dortmund on the 16th, but on the following day this city was taken by the rebels, who seized a significant quantity of war materiel. All of the cities of the Ruhr were taken during the next few days. The Reichswehr abandoned the Ruhr; the workers sometimes cut off its retreat, taking numerous prisoners and hastening its departure.

The rebels came from all social layers, but there were only a few intellectuals among them, and most of these were teachers. On this occasion, the regrouping was carried out upon a totally geographical basis: neighborhood, town, city, and region. The factories did not constitute, except on rare occasions, the site for concentration and action. The “red army” had between 80,000 and 100,000 men, as well as artillery and a small air force. It was organized around three centers: Hagen (in the hands of the USPD), Essen (KPD and USPD Left) and Mülheim (revolutionary syndicalists and the KPD’s excluded left: the KAPD would be founded shortly afterwards). Hagen was recognized as the central leadership of the army: after the government’s ultimatum imposing a ceasefire and threatening recalcitrants with military repression, Hagen would announce “the quite ambiguous directive of resuming the general strike (when the workers were armed and engaged in battle)”.10 The Forms Assumed by Workers Power in the Ruhr
The three “workers” parties (SPD-USPD-KPD) considered the workers’ actions to be “adventurist” and did not accept the violent intervention of the proletarians except as a force in support of the jeopardized democracy. In Chemnitz (Saxony) where the KPD, led by the rightist Brandler, was dominant, the party restricted itself to arming the workers, awaiting Ebert’s return to power, and opposed the efforts of various groups, such as that under the command of Max Hölz, to arm themselves and act independently.11 Germany invented anti-fascism, a policy which consists of defending capitalist democracy (with arms if necessary) against capitalist dictatorship, and in repressing any subversive tendencies which go beyond democracy, as if one led to the other; as if there was a “choice” between the two which would depend upon the workers.12

Throughout the Ruhr, “executive committees” formed by the three workers parties took power. They restricted their activities to controlling, and sometimes purging, the existing government bodies. In most cases, they maintained contacts with local administrative offices.

In Duisberg, the KPD left deposed the tripartite executive (SPD, USPD, KPD) and replaced it with an “executive commission” (left KPD and FAU) which took power by “demagogically” (Colm) relying upon the armed workers, and arrested various “bonzes” from the workers parties and trade unions. These parties would also retaliate against the members of the Duisberg “executive commission” after the end of the movement, accusing them of having used the movement as a means of personal enrichment and characterizing them as “armed gangs”, “armed hordes” and “irresponsible elements”. In fact, the workers of Duisberg had indeed conceived of the insurrection as the beginning of the “second revolution”, and had requisitioned money from the banks and provisions from the stores and warehouses, and organized free distribution of many goods. But the bulk of the movement remained legalist and respected the democracy. On the 17th, in Dortmund, the rebels allowed the installation of a right wing, SPD-USPD-KPD local government. This error would spell their downfall.

On the 20th the trade unions declared the end of the strike, but the entire German side of the Ruhr was still outside the control of the authorities. The government and the workers parties (including the KPD) met in Bielefeld and on the 25th signed an agreement calling for the following: the Reichswehr was to stay out of the Ruhr (as the terms of the Versailles Treaty had stipulated, the region was to remain neutral: but the practical outcome was that the region was to be occupied by two armies instead of by one); punishment and purging of the putschists; nationalization of large industry. But the surrender of the workers’ arms was the precondition for all of these concessions.

A large part of the red army, evidently, did not recognize the terms of this agreement. The members of the AAUs, the future KAPists and the anarchosyndicalist rank and file acted in opposition to the views of the Berlin central committee of the FAUD. According to Angress, the KPD’s militant groups formed only “an insignificant contingent compared to the anarchosyndicalist rebels, the unaffiliated, or the members of the KAPD, the USPD and even the SPD”.13 On the 30th, the radical workers also rejected an ultimatum. The KPD leadership was in favor of abiding by the Bielefeld agreement: it was necessary to follow the SPD-USPD directives, since these two parties represented the majority of the workers. This stance was an indication of the KPD’s extreme weakness after Heidelberg.14 The workers were unmoved. The Reichswehr would no longer “keep out of the Ruhr” and, from the 3rd to the 6th of April, easily defeated a red army weakened by negotiations.

The Ruhr insurrection and its repression had immediate international ramifications. The mining basin of the Ruhr provided, during that period, 70% of German coal production, and was of vital importance for all European industry, since the French mining regions were still in ruins as a result of the war. The interruption of coal production in the Ruhr very rapidly shut down economic activity in Germany, and would soon have an impact on other countries as well. The military occupation of the Ruhr by the Reichswehr, in order to repress the rebellion, would, of course, constitute a violation of the terms of the Versailles Treaty. In response, the French occupied Frankfurt, cutting off economic traffic between northern and southern Germany, and posing yet more difficulties for the German economy at the very moment when it was threatened by the revolutionary movement. Immediately afterwards, the English, aware of what was at stake (saving German capitalism and English capitalism at the same time) lodged a protest against the French, and, putting inter-capitalist solidarity above disputes over restitution, revealed the universal revolutionary importance of the Ruhr insurrection.15 The ensuing massacre would keep the Ruhr subdued until 1923.

The proletarians were victorious as long as they relied upon their social functions, utilizing the productive apparatus for supplies, arms and transport, without, however, remaining within the boundaries of production. The rebel cities united and sent help to the workers in other cities. But even in this respect the movement displayed its weak points, which characterized the whole epoch. After having emerged victorious from its clash with the Army, using the Army’s own methods and fighting on its own terrain, the proletarians, in their immense majority, thought that their job was done and handed over their power to the parties and the democracy. The red army expelled the military and then transformed itself into the classical workers movement. The workers had mobilized for democracy, and those who wanted to go further were mowed down by the same military force which had supported the anti-democratic putsch and to which the State rapidly turned. As the Communist International16 recognized, there existed both a “republican guard” and a “red army” at the same time: formed by a coalition of organizations (SPD-USPD-KPD), the first undertook to preserve order and guard the stores and warehouses. As in Bavaria and Hungary, the workers, rather than going on the offensive, had occupied a vacuum. They had occupied the social space without transforming it in a communist sense.

The June 1920 elections legitimized the power which had been supported at the crucial moment by the workers. The right having reappeared on the political scene with the putsch, the political center of gravity moved rightward. The SPD relinquished power. Its electoral count fell from 12 to 6 million. The new government was composed of a centrist majority, with the participation of “populists” (pre-war “national-liberals”), the traditional representatives of big capital. The USPD vote grew from 2.5 to 5 million. The KPD, free to practice revolutionary parliamentarism, obtained a few hundred thousand votes. The Communist International would do everything in its power to precipitate the fusion of the USPD and the KPD.

In order to understand the reality of the anti-parliamentary current among the communists, it must be seen as the expression of a real and numerically important movement within the proletarian masses. Even the adversaries of the left admitted the scale of working class abstentionism in the German elections. Bela Kun made the following observation concerning the 1920 legislative elections:

“It is hard to precisely calculate the number of workers who have abstained, following the party of revolutionary confusion (the KAPD) or the national bolsheviks. The data from the various large cities and industrial regions, however, allow the assertion that abstention has by no means been insignificant and that many workers have expressed their revolutionary point of view through the boycott of the elections.”17

The same thing happened in the elections for the Prussian legislative assembly (at least half of Germany) in 1921:

“It can be stated that in all likelihood the majority of the votes lost by the USPD in the last elections did not go to any other party. The proletariat’s “electoral weariness” was a characteristic feature of the political situation. In Berlin, according to Freiheit (the USPD newspaper), the rate of voter participation among the bourgeoisie was between 80 and 85%, while it was only 60 to 65% among the workers. Scheidemann and Hilferding interpreted this abstentionism in the same way: as a consequence of party disputes, of the splits caused by the communists, etc.

“The abstention of such a large proportion of the proletariat, however, such as took place in these elections, could not be schematized by virtue of such simplistic formulas; the crude reality expressed by such terms as “electoral weariness” and “abstention” masks two phenomena. If one part of the abstentionist phenomenon must be understood as a symptom of the proletariat’s lack of ideological maturity, the other part, on the contrary, indicates that a whole sector of the conscious proletariat had rejected the parliamentary electoral struggle, perceiving it as a phase of the revolutionary class struggle which had been superseded. We do not believe we are mistaken in asserting that the extreme exacerbation of the situation in Germany led many convinced communists (and not just the members of the KAPD) to accept the idea that participation in parliamentary activity could only be prejudicial to the development and maturation of revolutionary consciousness.”18

At the beginning of August, the parliament passed a “disarmament” law which triggered isolated reactions from the extreme left (cf. Chapter 14). On this front the State would have to act slowly and with caution, despite the absence of any reaction on the part of the SPD and the KPD. The decision to seize arms stockpiles in central Germany would be the detonator of the “March Action” of 1921. The extreme right was assassinating leftist and even centrist figures. The “workers organizations” demanded that the government respect legality. The government would pass a law for the “protection of the Reich”: between 1920 and 1933 the law would be invoked 5 times against the right and 822 times against the left.19

  • 1 IC, No. 10.
  • 2 Badia: p. 170.
  • 3 PC, No. 58, p. 110 et seq.
  • 4 On Pieck’s career, cf. Socialisme ou Barbarie, No. 14, pp. 62-65.
  • 5 Rote Fahne, March 26, 1920.
  • 6 La maladie infantile, 10/18, p. 169.
  • 7 La question syndicale…., pp. 23-24.
  • 8 Ibid., pp. 9 and 14.
  • 9 G. Colm: Beitrag zur Geschichte und Soziologie des Ruhraufstandes von März-April 1920, Essen, 1921. Cf. also an article by Angress in the Journal of Modern History, March 1957.
  • 10 La question syndicale…., p. 25.
  • 11 Ibid., p. 26.
  • 12 Engels had opposed one of the first examples of anti-fascism, in relation to the issue of boulangisme: cf. PC, No. 56, p. 12.
  • 13 Angress: Stillborn Revolution…., p. 46.
  • 14 La question syndicale…., p. 24.
  • 15“Bassin de la Ruhr et Francfort”, in Kommunismus, April 17, 1920.
  • 16 No. 5.
  • 17 Kommunismus, June 19, 1920.
  • 18“BF”, ibid., March 1921.
  • 19 Badia: p. 184.


Chapter 13 - The VKPD

Submitted by Spassmaschine on October 23, 2009

The Founding of the VKPD
After the leftists were excluded, in a process which started at the Second Congress (October 1919) and was completed by the Third Congress (February 1920), the KPD, strictly speaking, no longer existed. The reports of the delegates to the Third Congress provided evidence of the party’s utter prostration. In Berlin, out of 8,000 members, only 500 supported the central committee; in Essen, 43 out of 2,000, etc. “After his experience in Rhineland-Westphalia, Brandler resigned himself to saying, ‘We no longer have a party at all’.”1 Its weakness led the KPD to regularly support the directives of the USPD during this period, and was also the reason for the extremely “prudent” position it assumed in March of 1920.

The USPD, on the other hand, was flourishing. It took full advantage of the SPD’s deception of its voters and militants. It had 750,000 members in 1920. This was the raw material for the construction of a fraternal “mass party” for the Communist International. Lenin wrote in his Infantile Disorder, in relation to the “proletarian groundswell” of the USPD, that the USPD “was conducting a relentless struggle against opportunism”.2 The 21 Conditions for admission were intended, among other things, to allow this leftist groundswell to join the Communist International. In October 1920, the Halle Congress of the USPD voted in favor of joining the Communist International by a vote of 234 to 158.

On December 5, 1920, the USPD-KPD Unification Congress was held: the new party was called the Unified Communist Party of Germany (VKPD), and had at least 400,000 members. As Heckert, a VKPD delegate to the Third World Congress would say: “The Communist Party, at the moment of its unification, became a mass party. . . .”3 The German section of the Communist International had been formed by means of deals between parties, between the parties’ leaders, and would never belie this origin.

Even when, during the crisis of 1929, the KPD accepted a large number of unemployed workers into its ranks, it had already replaced the SPD in various sectors of the working class, above all in the recently-industrialized regions which had no socialist cadres.4 Without totally supplanting the SPD, it had become the second great German workers party. Instead of criticizing the Communist Party’s positions during the Weimar Republic, one should recall that this “Communist Party” was the heir of the anti-communist centrism of the years between 1917 and 1920. The essential character of the revolutionary party created at the end of 1918 was to be upheld by the leftist groups and would disappear with the victory of the reaction.

Based on his study of Hamburg, Comfort concluded that the members of the SPD did not comprise a labor aristocracy in the sense of a distinct privileged stratum, but that it was a sociologically more homogeneous group than the USPD, which was in turn more homogeneous than the KPD, which included in its membership workers from very diverse social layers.5 The communist militants were also younger and less experienced than those of the SPD. This led Comfort to deduce that the KPD was more independent of an apparatus and, above all, of one (or several) specific social layer(s) than the other parties. The SPD and the ADGB had not been able to adapt to modern industrialization and the growth, in both numbers and importance, of the workers in large industry, especially since the majority of the Hamburg SPD’s leaders, after the war, were former trade unionists.

On January 8, 1921, utilizing its new forces, the VKPD initiated a large-scale campaign in the purest style of the “workers united front”. The central committee sent an “open letter” to all “workers organizations”, from the most reactionary trade unions to the KAPD and the AAUD, proposing a joint struggle against capitalism. Written by Radek and Levi, the letter called for a campaign to increase wages, dissolve the “bourgeois defense organizations”, create workers self-defense organizations, and to compel Germany to re-establish diplomatic relations with Russia. It was hoped that, should the recipients reject this joint action, they would stand revealed as traitors before the masses, and would lose all their influence; should they accept, it was thought that they would be obliged to collaborate with the KPD so as to continue to appear to be revolutionaries, and the KPD would thereby become the driving force of the movement. This action was to have an “educational” value for the “masses”. According to the formula of Infantile Disorder, the KPD would have caught the organizations which called themselves revolutionary just as the “rope catches the hanged man”. The KAPD and the AAUD, “prisoners of their ultra-leftism”, rejected the proposal.

At the Third World Congress, Lenin sang the praises of this tactic: “The ‘Open Letter’ is exemplary. It must be unconditionally defended.” Terracini, a PCI delegate, requested that such methods be renounced, and quoted (KAPD delegate) Hempel’s statement: “The Open Letter is opportunist, it cannot be remedied.” Lenin responded: “The Open Letter is exemplary as the opening act of the practical method to effectively win over the majority of the working class.”6

This tactic responded to a precise objective, as was revealed by the debate within the KPD central committee which took place on January 28, 1921, and was advocated with particular vehemence by Radek and Levi. To come into contact with the masses, it was necessary to remain in contact with their representatives, whether “right” or “left”.7 It was therefore necessary to undertake international negotiations with the “syndicalists”, and in Germany to maintain contacts with the KAPD, so as to attract their best elements. Radek based his argument on the fact that the German working class had a high rate of trade union membership, and concluded that it was necessary to take the other parties and organizations into consideration. Levi refused to attack the KAPD but also refused to identify the KPD with the KAPD. “We have to keep up appearances for the German workers.” Brandler adopted a different tone: “I have insisted that we must not cease to hit out at the KAPD.” Violence or “Open Letter”, the goal is the same, to make the KPD appear to be revolutionary in the eyes of the masses, so that the masses would support it. A theatrical stage upon which their organization could represent itself as “credible”, so that the masses would support it. It was a matter of winning the “trust” of the masses.

Elimination of the Former Spartacists from the KPD Leadership
If a “leftist” tendency immediately took power in the VKPD, this was in part the result of unification: the whole party felt the strength of its numbers and thought it could seize power by non-parliamentary means. In addition, there was a tendency in the Communist International which, aware of the crisis of Bolshevik power after the civil war, wanted to bring about a civil war in Germany at any cost, and dispatched a delegation from the Communist International to Germany, led by B. Kun; Levi, Zetkin and the other rightists in the leadership would clash with this delegation.

It was at this moment that the “Italian question” had a direct impact on the affairs of the KPD. In Livorno (January 1921), Levi had naturally sympathized with the party of Italian centrism (cf. Chapter 8).8 The pro-KPD position of the Italian Left was therefore all the more contradictory in that it had directly suffered from the effects of the KPD’s rightist orientation. Levi, displaying his opposition to the PCI as it had been constituted in 1921, proved that the “principles” he had defended against the German Left were nothing but the cover for his opportunism. At Livorno, Levi confronted the Communist International’s emissaries, supporters of the same strictness upheld by the Italian Left, and just as desirous as the latter of breaking with the center as well as with the right. Upon Levi’s return to Germany, the Italian polemic was added to the debate on the correct orientation of the KPD. Levi, referring to Livorno before the central committee (February 1921), diagnosed the “beginning of a crisis in the KPD and the Communist International”: for the first time, a split took place within a party which was already a member of the Communist International.9 Rakosi, however, deduced from the Italian experience a lesson which could be generalized to other countries.10 He alluded to the French and Czech Communist Parties and, among other things, to the case of Cachin, “who is a freemason”. “Besides the fact that we want to set a precedent, this question is not a purely Italian question.” He denounced Levi’s position in Livorno before the central committee. Losing the vote by 28 votes to 25, Levi resigned, together with other members of the central committee, including Zetkin.

The new leftist leadership of the central committee, led by Frölich, appointed a series of leaders from the “proletarian base” of the USPD. At the Third World Congress, the KAPD would speak of a “new, improved and revised version” of the KPD. This new version was based upon a new leftist tendency which had appeared in Berlin after the creation of the KAPD, under E. Reuter. The Bremen Left had criticized the KPD’s “loyalty” during the Kapp Putsch, but had also repeated Levi’s critiques of the KAPD, in which it had detected harmful decentralizing tendencies; nor was it entirely mistaken. But its union with the KPD—which, despite its opportunism, did appear to be the only Marxist organization of any importance in Germany—was a remedy worse than the disease it was meant to cure. Bremen had separated from that of which it was naturally a part: the German Left, depriving the latter of its precious contribution, which would have perhaps allowed an original and active synthesis. By reinforcing the KPD, it was entangled as the opposition within a party whose rightward course could not be rectified. The KPD’s leftist detour, which predated March 1921, was deceptive: the USPD contributed to the KPD its own vacillation between reform and adventurism, between parliament and the streets. “Opportunism” and putschism are the two sides of the same coin, as Lukàcs had perspicaciously analyzed the problem:

“The decisive theoretical aspect can be reduced, expressed negatively: in the inability of the two groups (opportunists and putschists) to conceive of the revolution as a process; positively expressed: in their erroneous overestimation of the organization in the revolutionary movement.”

For both, the struggle can only be the product of the organization; they do not see that there is “a permanent interaction between the preconditions and their consequences during the course of the action”. “One could even say, if one has to choose between one of these points of view, that the organization must be conceived more as the consequence than as the precondition.”

“There is no need to cite examples to illustrate this mode of thought and action among the opportunists; the way they make ballots compatible with membership cards, their expectation that the ‘moment’ will arrive when a sufficiently large number of proletarians will be sufficiently well-organized, is perfectly well-known. But it is surprising to confirm the analogous way the putschists operate. They do not count ballots, but revolvers, machine guns, etc.; a “good organization” needs less men; its effectiveness is not that of an electoral machine or a trade union, but that of an illegal military organization: all of this, in fact, changes very little in terms of their theoretical foundations. The putschists also conceive of organization and action as two distinct stages separated from one another. . . .”

“The overestimation and the mechanistic concept of organization necessarily have the consequence of neglecting and demoting to second place the totality of the revolutionary process to the benefit of an immediate visible result.”11

The former Bremerlinke had the illusion that it could drive the party towards the left, when all it did was help the party make one of its voluntaristic U-turns.12 Mattick defined Bremen as the most advanced tendency, but with this proviso: “the ambiguity which characterized the politics of the Spartakusbund was to a great extent the result of the conservatism of the masses.”13 According to Frölich, after the “line had been set straight” at Heidelberg, the party went too far to the right, allowing the opportunity presented by the Kapp Putsch to slip through its hands.14 The new leadership defined communist tactics in the following manner:

“Should the action encounter any obstacles, they must know how to scale back their directives, and should it be necessary, they must quickly withdraw from the struggle and take refuge among the masses; but during certain times of tension, the communists must also go to the masses and assume the initiative in the struggle, even at the risk of being followed by only a part of the workers.”15 The first clause alludes to situations of the sort encountered in Berlin in January 1919; the second would be applied in March 1921. The VKPD was headed towards insurrectionary action.

  • 1 Bock: p. 227.
  • 2 Ibid., p. 108.
  • 3 Minutes, in German, p. 528.
  • 4 J. Droz: Les forces politiques dans la République de Weimar 1919-33, SEDES, 1967, pp. 75-76.
  • 5 Chapter 7.
  • 6 Minutes, p. 511.
  • 7 P. Levi and Moscow, in The Comintern: Historical Highlights, Hoover Institute—Pall Mall Press, London, 1969, pp. 271-310.
  • 8 The critique of centrism made by Bordiga at this congress (PC, No. 50, pp. 51-72) is also a critique of Levi.
  • 9 Gruber: pp. 304-309.
  • 10 Rote Fahne, February 26 and March 1, 1921.
  • 11 Kommunismus, August 17, 1920.
  • 12 La question syndicale…., pp. 27-28.
  • 13“Otto Rühle and the German Labour Movement”, in Paul Mattick, Anti-Bolshevik Communism, M.E. Sharpe, Inc., White Plains, 1978, p. 93.
  • 14 Bock: pp. 297-298.
  • 15 La question syndicale…., p. 47.


Chapter 14 - The KAPD and the AAUD-E

Submitted by Spassmaschine on October 23, 2009

The KPD(O)
Not all the members of the left tendencies immediately accepted the definitive split in the KPD. Before forming the KAPD, the opposition successively crystallized around three centers: Hamburg, Bremen and Berlin.

Hamburg, the rallying point for the opposition after Heidelberg, advocated the immediate creation of a second Communist Party. But it was during this period that Wolffheim and Laufenberg began to elaborate their “national bolshevism”. The adversaries of the Left reproached it for having incubated such a current (cf. L’Internationale Communiste, No. 11). The Hamburg communists, as Gorter recalled in his Open Letter to Comrade Lenin, were rapidly sidelined. Bremen then assumed Hamburg’s role as the information clearing house of the opposition. The Bremen office then represented the majority of the Left: it was opposed to the split and devoted itself to various attempts to engage the central committee in negotiations, in order to assert the rights of the opposition, which the central committee routinely rebuffed. The Bremen office did not understand that Levi and the central committee had conducted their intrigues for the sole purpose of excluding the Left and that they were scarcely worried about the fact that the excluded members comprised the majority of the Party. The Left also deluded itself by believing that the Communist International would support its position (cf. Chapter 16). It was in this spirit that the Bremen office sent representatives to the Third Congress of the KPD, and even proposed amending the Heidelberg Theses. The Congress reiterated that all party districts which did not accept the Theses as they stood must be excluded: that is, the North, Northwest, Lower Saxony, Greater Berlin, and East Saxony districts. One month later, having in the meantime had the opportunity to assess the central committee’s stance during the Kapp Putsch, the KPD (Opposition) abandoned any hope of rejoining the party. The Berlin district, led by Gorter, Schröder, etc., who would constitute the whole future leadership of the KAPD, took the initiative to call a conference of the opposition.

The Founding of the KAPD
The delegates to the KAPD’s founding Congress (April 4-5) represented 38,000 militants; other regions would join the party after the Congress. At that time the KAPD embraced almost the entire membership of the former KPD, and its social background was similar to that of its predecessor (derived from every layer of the working class, with a heavy representation of youth and the unemployed). Despite the presence of three tendencies (Berlin, Hamburg and Dresden), the atmosphere was particularly “warm” and the participants had the impression of being part of something radically new.1 The break with Spartacism was the definitive break with social democracy. The tendencies, however, were recognized and the Congress presidium included a representative from each one.

In effect, this was not a split from an already-existing organization (despite the fact that the parties’ acronyms would give the opposite impression, as if the KAPD were a split from the KPD), but the self-organization, at the apex of a revolutionary period, of the new current which rejected the weight of the past as it was represented by the Spartacist leadership, which had been reduced to a mere skeleton financed by Moscow until it could be grafted onto the left wing of the USPD. The enthusiasm of the KAPD’s militants resembled that of the first founders of the workers brotherhoods, unions and leagues of the 19th century. This newness and this lifestyle which led Rühle to say that “the KAPD is not a party in the traditional sense” would be eloquently expressed in the organization’s internal life.

The KAPD asserted that it was the “party of the masses”, as opposed to the KPD, which was the “party of leaders” and used the masses for its own political ends. During this period, the KAPD represented the bulk of the communist party and the revolutionary masses. Less than one year later, the polemic would seem to have been reversed, when the KPD became the VKPD and was transformed into a “mass party” (Massenpartei, while the KAPD saw itself as the Partei der Massen), and the KAPD would attack it for this reason at the Third Congress of the Communist International. But one cannot really speak of a reversal in this case unless the KAPD were to abandon the position of the “masses” in the masses-leaders opposition, and pass over to the “leader” position. A “party of the masses” is the opposite of a “party of leaders”.

The favorite terrain of the German Left from its birth to its demise, the masses-leaders debate, born from the trauma of the “leaders’ betrayal” of 1914, was particularly pointless. A crucial aspect of such oppositions is the fact that the positive term contains its truth in the negative term and vice-versa. This is also the case for a neighboring controversy, the centralism-federalism opposition. The betrayals of the leaders are contrasted with the free activity of the masses. But as long as the masses are still “masses”, that is, as long as the proletariat does not constitute itself as a “class”, the masses will produce leaders, and to speak of masses is to speak in the language of leaders.

Gorter was more precise when he elaborated his position on the party as a grouping of the “pure”, who would not succumb to opportunism. The conceptions shared by Gorter and the KAPD also involved the same confusions, since the party of the revolutionary “masses” must necessarily become a small group when these masses are no longer revolutionary. It is also true that the Left succumbed to “educationalism”: this was an enduring trait of the Third International, propagated by Lenin, who tried to replace the “bourgeois ideology” of the workers with “socialist ideology”, a trait which the German Left would never lose.2

The majority (Berlin) rejected national bolshevism, but arrived at a provisional compromise with Rühle’s tendency, which supported the immediate abolition of the party form. This is why the Program states: “The KAPD is not a party in the traditional sense.” This thesis was the basis for Rühle’s The Revolution is Not a Party Matter, written while he was still a member of the KAPD.

The debate on the KAPD statutes revolved around “finding the form which would allow the expression of the will of the masses”. On a different level, this can be compared to Lenin’s efforts in 1903 to seek statutes which could thwart the spread of opportunism in the party. These formal debates were characteristic of this world revolutionary period, along with those concerning the theme of democracy and the idea of the intellectuals bringing consciousness to the workers. The currents, or rather the individuals, whose writings escape this mold are very rare. The trend was so dominant that even individuals who had criticized organizational fetishism, for example, later succumbed to it: Trotsky, for one, adopting Leninism after 1917. Democracy, organizational fetishism and educationalism are typical aspects of bourgeois ideology.3

These political ideas and practices are reflections of the development of the relation between the classes of bourgeois society which sank into the revolutionary crisis at the end of the war. The petty bourgeoisie, often as threatened by the modernization of capital as the workers, enter the battle in their own way, considering themselves the salt of the earth, lacking a communist perspective. In Russia, the most radical fraction of this class, combined with the proletariat, seized power. The West also had its own problems concerning the development and organization of social groups. The most radical movements themselves bear the stigmata of their epoch.

The very short history of the KAPD shows particularly well how precisely the same statutes were capable of serving two completely opposed orientations: first, the practical life of a revolutionary organization, and second, the subsequent decay of that same organization. It could be said that these statutes were extremely democratic; but it would be more important to point out that, during the entire period from the party’s foundation in March 1920 until the summer of 1921, the statutes were the faithful expression of an organization in which a “base” in the traditional sense did not exist: each member knew what had to be done, and he did not join the KAPD to follow orders and to be told what to do. Congresses and various kinds of general assemblies were quite frequent. There was no central committee invested with full powers for an indeterminate period of time: there was, on the one hand, a current affairs committee (Geschäftsführung) and also a “Central Committee” (Hauptausschuss) which met whenever important decisions had to be made, and, unlike the same structure in other organizations, was on each occasion subject for the most part to re-election by the party districts, and consisted of the standing administrative committee and the district delegates. One could say that the party line was constantly decided by the whole party, which manifested an enormous force in the KAPD; it was only in order to recuperate this force that the Communist International tolerated the presence of this party, which never ceased to openly and violently attack the Communist International’s opportunism. In the KAPD, throughout its best period, that which Bordiga denominated as “organic centralism” was actually realized.

When the period of the KAPD’s decomposition began, the same, quite elaborate, statutes, from the moment when they were no longer the simple formalization of a real practice, were used in the service of all kinds of maneuvers in the struggle among the party’s factions (cf. Appendix I).

Everyone attempted, in their own way, to escape from organizational fetishism. For Gorter: “The organization, the union, because it is tied to the workplace, must consequently always be the object of vigilance lest it sabotage the revolution, by aiming for small improvements or conquering a position of apparent power.”4 But everyone denounced everyone else’s fetishism. Mattick wrote that the KAPD “seemed to be more Bolshevik than the Bolsheviks”,5 due to its preoccupation with purity. The KAPD and the PCI (formed by radical elements who managed to subsist within the capitalist world thanks to the power of their principles) both combined an all-too-sanguinary evaluation of the role of the party with an overestimation of the workers organizations (unitary organizations for the former, trade unions for the latter). Their manner of thinking and their practice were basically very similar, but they differed in the way they applied identical principles, due to differences between the German and Italian contexts. What distinguished them was the way each represented their own and the other’s activity: at this level the complex interaction of traditions and ideas prevented each one from understanding the other and the other’s activities. In any event, both shared the same conception of the party as “nucleus”6 : “A cadre which can merge with the proletariat when, thanks to the general development, the latter will be led into combat.” The Italian Left shared with the German Left the rejection of the idea of conquering the majority before the revolutionary period, as well as the idea of the program-party: “Each communist must be capable of being a leader on his own terrain . . . he must be able to resist and, whatever keeps him going, whatever captivates him, is his program.”7 It would be idle to try to exonerate the German Left, at any cost, of the charge of “anarchism” by quoting the texts where it proclaims its desire for a pure, diamantine party, a “super-elaborated party-nucleus”.8 Far from providing evidence of the Marxist character of the KAPD, we understand this, on the contrary, as the contradiction of a party situated in the midst of a combative proletariat, but few in number, and obliged to discover a means to reinforce its cohesion as an organization, deluding itself concerning its role as a factor driving the struggles forward (cf. the next Chapter). One cannot locate the most profound aspect of the Left in the most exaggerated assertion of what distinguishes it from the rest of the proletarians.9

During the first days of August, a Second Congress was held and adopted the KAPD’s Program. The whole party was at that time convinced that all the conditions for the revolution were ripe (one can compare this view with that of the Second Congress of the Communist International, which was taking place at the same time: cf. Chapter 11). Hunger riots had broken out in May and June. A bill was pending in the German parliament, prepared several months before, which would mandate the disarming of all civilians who had weapons. It was thought that this would unleash defensive reactions which would have to be “pushed forward”. The Congress decided that the party should focus on this issue: but it would fail because it would stand utterly alone in its battle.

An important point remained unresolved, however: the clarification of the KAPD’s relations with the East Saxony tendency (Rühle). This led to a clash with the Communist International (cf. Chapter 16). Rühle was not excluded, but his position was condemned in Moscow. The Congress vociferously rejected an ultimatum from the Executive Committee of the Communist International which demanded that the KAPD rejoin the KPD. Rühle and his supporters were excluded only at the end of October during a session of the central committee.

In mid-August 1920, the Red Army was at the gates of Warsaw, and the Alliance sent important aid shipments to the Poles, which passed through Germany. The KAPD, AAUD and FAUD carried out sabotage operations against these shipments which as a whole were quite successful, and tried to use these actions as a springboard for an insurrection, which was a total failure. The KAPD blamed the public denunciations of these actions by the KPD and the USPD.10 Where logistical reasons prevented their cadres from receiving the orders to refrain from participating in this action, seizures of power at a local level took place: such was the case of the Köthen “council republic” in Central Germany, ridiculed by those who contributed to its defeat. Many radicals were taken prisoner. “The KAPD was the only party which took a chance on fulfilling its antidemocratic content in everyday work.”11

Even one year later (at the Third Congress of the Communist International), the KAPD would insistently invoke the “action” of August 1920, accusing the KPD and the USPD of having abandoned them. According to Jung, 12 August 1920 was by no means just another incident. At that time, there was a totally unexpected change in the Russians’ program. When Jung was in Moscow (prior to the Second Congress of the Communist International) he expected, as had been agreed by the KAPD, the KPD and the USPD, that the Red Army’s counteroffensive against the Poles would not have the primary objective of taking Warsaw, but Upper Silesia (a German-speaking industrial region with a strong revolutionary movement, which had just been incorporated into Poland). A red army of German workers was then supposed to be formed there, and only then was the attack on Warsaw and the main force of the Polish army supposed to begin. The Russians did not feel that their army was in any condition to confront Warsaw and the whole Polish army, which was much better equipped than the Red Army and was also regularly re-supplied by the Alliance, and therefore counted upon the essential support of a revolutionary movement in Germany.

The German communist parties and the USPD were supposed to be prepared to assist this maneuver and to undertake an armed offensive. The decision to proceed directly to Warsaw, made in August, was suddenly taken by the high command of the Russian army; the KAPD, whose members had meanwhile organized militarily, did not understand the reason for this change of course. In fact, the Russians had been deluded by their initial military successes. Yet this proved that they paid no heed to any revolutionary movement outside their own (as is well-known, Pilsudski’s counteroffensive was successful).

Jung, placing the event within its proper context and considering its importance, did not fail to emphasize the general apathy of the German workers, which the communists’ military groups had struggled to dispel.

In a general strike of electrical workers, in October 1920, the KAPD, faithful to its role as “trigger” of the movement, denounced the betrayal of the KPD, SPD, etc. The government itself had to repress the strike. After March 1921, the KAPD worked to set up action committees in the factories and promoted “Italian-style” occupations. The Fourth Congress (September 1921) would assign itself the task of “keeping the revolutionary will of the German proletariat alive”. The KAPD had turned towards activism, becoming a “party in the traditional sense”. With the definitive ebb of the revolution, new internal divisions arose and the KAPD began to turn into a sect. The last revolutionary enclaves were reduced by external intervention (many were killed in various actions) and internal causes (activism and the clashes between tendencies). The creation of the AAUD-E was a vain attempt to react to these developments.

The Debate Concerning the “Unitary” Organization
Due to their mutual opposition to the Bolsheviks and the social democrats, all the factions of the German Left agreed on one point: it was not the “Party” which would secure power during and after the revolution, but the councils, institutions which would allow the proletarians to simultaneously exercise both political and economic power. But the KAPD Program distinguished between “political” and “economic” councils: a sign of disagreement over the timing of the party’s dissolution. The AAUD-E represented the current which supported the party’s immediate dissolution.

The idea of unitary organization, as we have mentioned above, first appeared in Bremen13 : this point was the only novel feature of the text in which it appeared, however, which otherwise still advocated a trade-based structure as well as parliamentarism. The notion remained confused for a long time, and further evolved only with the wildcat strikes during and after the war. The revolutionary workers then organized themselves by factories and by regions, and sabotaged the trade unions and elections.

The confusion, and the source of later disagreements and splits, derived from the fact that the idea of unitary organization was also shared by individuals and groups belonging to a party: the KPD. The Left defended the idea at the KPD’s founding Congress against Luxemburg and the right, for whom the tasks of the trade unions were to be carried out after the revolution by the councils.14 Since they had agitated in favor of an organization which rejected the party, while they belonged to a party, they arrived at the idea that this party (the KPD(O) and later the KAPD) must dissolve itself into the unitary organization. Schematically, two positions took shape: immediate dissolution or dissolution at the end of a “certain period of time”. This “certain period of time”, of course, generated new tendencies, from the moment when more refined distinctions began to be made. In the meantime, as Schröder said in his On the Future of the New Society, 15 the party would be preserved as a “necessary evil”. The supporters of unitary organization, not being numerous enough among the proletariat, had no choice but to join the party.

While the whole radical left (uniting all tendencies) was organized in the KAPD, the split first began, as so often happens, over another issue: the position to adopt regarding Russia and the Communist International. Rühle, who was a convinced anti-bolshevik and opposed the KAPD’s joining the Communist International, was excluded from the KAPD, which wanted to collaborate with the Communist International. Rühle had often been reproached for his “semi-anarchism”. Yet the KAPD had attempted to overcome the thesis opposing Marxism to anarchism, as black to white. One of its delegates to the Third World Congress thought that the anarchists underestimated “the organized class struggle . . . that they lived history too quickly, that their tactic is premature by several decades”. This is insufficient, of course, but the renascent revolutionary movement synthesized what was good in Marxism and anarchism, implicitly criticizing16 the opinions of Marx and Engels.17

Rühle’s position on Russia was quickly supported by the tendency which was in favor of immediate unitary organization, and the effective break within the KAPD and the AAUD rapidly unfolded. In December, the Saxony district of the KAPD dissolved itself into the AAUD. Later, the Hamburg AAUD excluded from its ranks all those who wanted to remain in the KAPD. Throughout Germany, a fraction of the leftists immediately entered the unitary organization. The latter would criticize the KAPD during the March Action.

In October 1921 this movement held its first autonomous conference and gave itself the name AAUD-E, the “E” standing for “Unitary Organization”. This conference adopted “The Guiding Principles of the AAUD-E”. The AAUD-E then had 13 economic districts which counted several tens of thousands of members, but would decompose even faster than the other left organizations.

The AAUD-E’s theory was essentially expressed in Die Aktion after 1920 and in Rühle’s pamphlets, each being a development of the previous one.18 Pannekoek, although not a member of any group after 1920, showed, in a letter dated July 15, 1920, that he was closer to the AAUD-E than to the other left tendencies: “The idea that two organizations of ‘enlightened’ workers should exist is false.”19 It was upon the principle of the unitary organization that the KAUD (Communist Workers Union of Germany) was founded in 1931, regrouping the remnants of the various groups of the German Left.

  • 1 Bock.
  • 2 PC, No. 56, passim. The same criticism could be applied to M. Rubel, who considered Marx to be primarily an “educator”: cf. his introduction to Pages Choisies de K. Marx, Payot, 1970, and Marx critique du Marxisme, Payot, 1974.
  • 3 The Veritable Split….
  • 4 Quoted by B. Kun in La IC, No. 18, October 1921. “Du sectarisme à la contre-révolution.”
  • 5 Conseils ouvriers en Allemagne, p. 102.
  • 6 Hempel, debate on the report on tactics at the Third World Congress, La gauche allemande…. In English, see the website, Wage Slave X’s Revolutionary Anti-Capitalist Homepage, “Discussion of Radek’s Report on the Tactics of the International”.
  • 7 Ibid.
  • 8 Révolution Internationale, n.d., No. 6, summarizing the work cited above.
  • 9 Letter from Marx to Schweitzer, October 13, 1868: “The sect does not seek its reason for existence and its sense of pride in what it has in common with the class movement, but in a particular aspect which distinguishes it from that movement.”
  • 10 La gauche allemande….
  • 11 La question syndicale…., p. 38.
  • 12 Der Weg nach unten, p. 186, et seq.
  • 13 Bock: p. 84.
  • 14 Ibid., p. 98.
  • 15 Kool: p. 353.
  • 16 Cf. Hempel.
  • 17 Letter from Engels to Lafargue, June 11, 1889.
  • 18 Extracts provided in Bock, Document XIV.
  • 19 Kool: p. 128.


Chapter 15 - The March Action (1921)

Submitted by Spassmaschine on October 23, 2009

The March Action was the last proletarian insurrection of the German revolution. Neither the Hamburg insurrection, a military operation of the KPD, nor the resistance to the French Army in the Ruhr in 1923, which united all classes, could be considered as proletarian insurrections. The failure of the “March Action” marked the beginning of the decomposition of the communist left.

The Crisis of 1921
Between the defeat of the Red Army of the Ruhr and the March Action of 1921, proletarians launched a series of dispersed local actions, which were simultaneously defensive and offensive, comparable to those which had previously broken out in central Germany and Saxony, although on a different scale, but were unable to unite their forces.1 The March Action first developed in the region of Halle and Mansfeld, which had remained as the last revolutionary stronghold after the crushing of the Ruhr. The copper mines of Mansfeld and the ultramodern chemical works at Leuna formed the backbone of the Action. The workers there had kept the arms they had seized in 1918. Saxony, which had attracted new workers to its lignite and chemical industries, was still the stronghold of the USPD, despite the inroads made by the VKPD, which had its most solid district there: in reality, it merely carried on the tradition of the USPD. The VKPD had 60,000 members in Saxony; in the February 1921 elections it won 200,000 votes, more than the SPD (80,000) and the rump USPD (75,000) combined. The 25,000 workers at Leuna were organized into military formations, and 2,000 of them belonged to the AAUD. It was undoubtedly one of the strongest districts of the KAPD-AAUD. The region had been subjected to the martial law of the Kapp Putsch in March 1920. Many weapons had remained hidden. A wave of theft spread in the factories. The workers demanded, above all, a reduction in working hours (in the Leuna works, for example) and the suppression of the private security forces in the factories, which were violently attacked.2 Sooner or later the government would have to intervene to pacify the region. If the pre-existing autonomous defensive movement of the proletariat was the starting point for the March offensive, one must not ignore, on the other hand, an essential factor in the context within which the Action took place: the VKPD’s change of orientation at the beginning of 1921, and the emergence of a leftist tendency in the Communist International.

The winter of 1920-1921 coincided with a social and political crisis in Russia as a result of the civil war. Important movements against Bolshevik power took place among the peasants (such as the Tambor revolt and the Makhnovist insurrection) and the remnants of the Russian proletariat (the civil war had almost annihilated industry and the workers who carried out the 1917 revolution). The most well-known strike occurred in Petrograd, and was urgently repressed by the State at the same time that the Kronstadt rebellion broke out. At a political level, that is, within the party, this crisis was reflected in the appearance of the Workers Opposition.3 The crisis was overcome by the victory of the Leninists at the Tenth Congress and the defeat of the various rebel movements in March of 1921. Previously, throughout the whole period when the outcome of the crisis appeared uncertain, a tendency appeared within the International which was determined to “force” the course of events. It was this tendency which was represented by the Communist International’s delegation composed of B. Kun, Guralsky and Pogany, who were called Turkestanis by the KPD right wing. According to some (R. Fischer4 ), they were acting under the orders of Zinoviev, General Secretary of the Communist International. According to others (Flechtheim), they were controlled primarily by Radek, leading agent of the Communist International responsible for tactics to be followed in Germany, who was in close contact with the KPD’s new leadership. It appears that Lenin had little knowledge of the mission confided to B. Kun.5

The order for the “palace revolution” which was transmitted by the VKPD leadership to the leftists was inspired by the Communist International’s delegation, which had arrived in Berlin at the end of February. Levi, after having violently criticized the conceptions and methods of the Turkestanis, was excluded from the central committee. The virulent KAPD constituted a pole of repulsion or attraction (depending on the circumstances) for the VKPD. It was the latter pole which prevailed in March. The environment in the party was quite animated; an action had to be launched for the immediate seizure of power. When the first disturbances began, the VKPD immediately distributed a document inviting the proletarians to violently overthrow the government: the disturbances in central Germany were to be the point of departure for an insurrection throughout the Reich. This tactic was implemented before the government’s decision to occupy the Mansfeld region with police forces became known. Once the battles had begun, the central committee more or less openly issued a call for armed insurrection in the Rote Fahne.

The KAPD demonstrated its jubilation: “It is the proletariat itself which has spoken. The masses of the VKPD have taken action by following our watchword. They have compelled their leaders to do the same.” (Communist Workers Daily, organ of the Berlin district of the KAPD). A proclamation of the VKPD from March 18 declared: “All workers, ignore the law, and take up arms wherever they can be found.” With such slogans, the two parties worked together provisionally. The only current on the left which was reluctant to join in this opportunity to encourage an insurrectionary action was that of the AAUD sections which had broken with the KAPD (the Rühle tendency).

Max Hölz
The police units arriving from Berlin intervened in the Mansfeld region on the 19th. During that night the workers decided upon a general strike, scheduled for the 21st. On the 20th, meanwhile, an attack was carried out against the “Column of Victory” in Berlin by VKPD combat groups, with the indirect participation of Max Hölz.

Hölz, from a working class background and himself a worker, “had nothing to do with politics” before the revolution. Upon his return from the front after the war, where he had served as a volunteer, he found himself unemployed and, in his home town in Saxony, joined the movement. He first joined the USPD, and then, in 1919, he entered the KPD and became famous by organizing armed gangs which were very effective against the police, the Army and the Freikorps. The following is a description of one of Hölz’s units from an account written by a member of the KAPD:6 a motorized squad had between 60 and 200 men. A reconnaissance unit proceeded in advance, armed with machine guns or small arms; and then came the trucks with the heavy weaponry. Then came the commander in his own car “with the strongbox”, along with his “secretary of the treasury”. As a rearguard, another truck loaded with heavy guns followed behind. All of these vehicles were covered with red flags. Upon arriving in a town, supplies were requisitioned and post offices and banks looted. The general strike was proclaimed and largely paid for by the business owners. Butchers and bakers were compelled to sell their goods for 30% or 60% less than the normal prices. Any resistance was immediately and violently crushed. Such units were very active throughout Saxony after the Kapp Putsch; their activities led to a conflict between Hölz and the regional KPD leader, Brandler, who expelled Hölz from the party’s Chemnitz section. Hölz then joined the KAPD, and began to send a portion of the money from his expropriations to the KAPD leadership. Without conceding too much importance to the KAPD’s theories, he found it to be a flexible construct. While jealously guarding the independence of the armed groups under his leadership, he did not hesitate to collaborate with the KPD or with any other groups whenever he thought it would be useful.

He was very popular as a result of his tactic of retribution which consisted of “taking from the rich to give to the poor”. Quite often, workers who were in a weak position in their factory would attend one of his meetings. Hölz would then compel the business owners to pay a certain sum or face reprisals. Besides extortion and blackmail, his repertoire included freeing prisoners, the destruction of legal documents and archives, burning the mansions of the rich, etc. He was equally popular for constantly evading the police. In April 1919, a reward of 30,000 marks was offered for his capture. He would not be apprehended until after the March Action.7

The Communist Workers Daily of the KAPD expressed its unequivocal approval of the attack on the Column of Victory. On the 22nd and 23rd, identical attacks were carried out, supervised and organized by, and under the direct control of Hölz and the combat groups of the KPD and the KAPD, in Falkenstein, Dresden, Freiburg, Leipzig, Plauen, etc., against courthouses and police stations. These organizations then resumed their usual activities. But in all of these cities, the workers did not stir. The only regions where “solidarity” was demonstrated were the Ruhr, Berlin and Hamburg. Leaving Berlin, where he had lived in hiding since the spring of 1920, Hölz arrived in Saxony. Together with the radicalization of the strikes, the intervention of armed groups like those led by Hölz constituted the originality of this March Action which owed little to the initiative or the control of the two communist parties. The emissaries of both parties proved incapable of influencing the course of events.

Chronology of Events. Opposition Develops between the Local Organizations and the Leaderships of the KPD and the KAPD
When the strike was called in the Mansfeld region, the public service employees of Halle spontaneously went on strike in solidarity. In the Leuna works, on the 21st, the workers deposed the old workers council and named an action committee composed of two members of the KPD and two members of the KAPD, presided over by the KAPD’s Utzelmann. They demanded the withdrawal of the police and declared they would go on strike if the Schupos (Reich security police) came anywhere near their factory, which they did on the 23rd. The vast majority of the workers of Leuna, despite its reputation as a stronghold of the left, did not want to go beyond the strike, assessing that the situation in that region was not favorable for an insurrection. This point of view was shared by the KAPD members in the Leuna factory who, isolated from their Berlin central committee, were unaware that the latter had supported the KPD’s insurrectionary directives. Utzelmann would later declare that he could not understand why the KAPD Zentrale had not taken into account the fact that the VKPD had acted in conformity with Russian interests.8 The Leuna workers condemned Hölz’s shenanigans and turned their backs on him when the battle came to an end. Nonetheless, it seems that during the strike they had devoted their time to the construction of an armored train.9 The Leuna works “had declared its opposition to the armed struggle, correctly considering it to be premature, but had participated anyway, just like the Berlin Spartacists in January 1919”.10 The police occupied the factory on the 29th, killing 34 workers and taking 1,500 prisoners. Politically, the strike in the factory was dominated by disputes between the two communist parties.

The reaction of the workers was initially timid, and the strikes would only develop later, after March 22nd. The workers fighting against those who did not heed the strike call armed themselves and attacked the police.11 Hölz summoned the workers to arm themselves in various cities. The first skirmishes took place in Eisleben on the 23rd: the police intervened and proceeded to make some arrests. Hölz established his command post in this region, known for its copper mines. His assault detachments were composed of 2,500 workers. Nor was he the only one to act in this fashion. The region had a great number of battle units with notorious or anonymous leaders. Plättner, for example, played at least as important a role as Hölz in the March battles, without trying to garner any publicity for his own account.12 These people were the only real participants in the insurrection. The KPD and the KAPD only issued the directives, without having any real influence on the course of events once the fighting had started.

Eberlein, in charge of the KPD combat groups, also arrived in Halle on the 22nd. He tried to convince the commando groups of the region to carry out dynamite attacks, fake kidnappings of well-known communist leaders and other measures of the same kind to “increase the level of combativity among the masses”.13 Garnering no support at all, he experienced complete failure: the same thing happened to B. Kun, who accompanied him, as well as to Rasch and Jung, who were sent by the KAPD central committee to the scene of the events.

“The leadership was in the hands of proletarian rebels who had lived for a long time under conditions of illegality and who, although not obeying the directives of the party’s Berlin central committee, are either members of the KPD or sympathize with it.”14

Hölz’s army dominated the region for ten days, but only fought particular aspects of capital without changing anything essential. It was primarily an armed gang15 which executed certain operations. The proletarians constituted themselves as a military force but would not change anything. Their violence remained without an objective, and destroyed the visible enemy, but not the enemy’s roots. It was a negative movement. Occupied by close to 2,000 workers, the industrial complex of Leuna was not directly utilized for revolutionary ends. One part of the proletarians remained outside of the workplace and fought without the social weapon which, for the proletariat, is production. The other part shut itself up within the factory. There was neither any coordination between these two groups, nor was there any concentrated employment of military force against the State. The movement ran out of steam due to both its purely military generalized offensive, and because it had ensconced itself at the point of production. Hölz robbed money, but he did not abolish it.

The rest of Germany remained calm. In Hamburg, on the 23rd, a large rally of unemployed workers and a demonstration headed for the port ended in a confrontation between strikers and non-strikers. Organized by the AAU, the workers faced off with the police in the city: several were killed. It was the only city where proletarians attempted an uprising. After the 24th, martial law was imposed in Saxony. On the same date, the KPD central committee (together with the KAPD) called for an unlimited general strike throughout Germany (only two days before Easter Sunday). According to the KPD there were one million workers on strike (Hamburg, the Ruhr, Berlin and central Germany). The number of strikers was actually somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000, with insurrectionary tendencies in Berlin and the Ruhr. Approximately 120,000 workers heeded the strike call in central Germany. In general, the strikers were primarily workers who were organized in unionen affiliated with the FAUD and the AAUD.16

“The little coordination which existed during the March Action was the work of the Unionen (Hamburg and the Ruhr) and of the AAUD and KAPD in the Leuna works, their stronghold, as well as of M. Hölz’s group.”17

Hölz wanted to link up with the Leuna works, but this proved to be impossible. On the 27th, he distributed 50 marks to each member of his armed commandos. They went towards Halle, but his troops were surrounded and forced to disperse. He took part in his last battle on April 1. Leuna had already fallen. On the 31st, the KPD central committee cancelled its general directives. The last battles took place on the 1st of April.

The “Lessons of the March Action”

1. The VKPD
Over the course of the next two months, the VKPD, always under the influence of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, executed another about-face and slowly abandoned the “offensive” in favor of legal activity. The Third Congress of the Communist International (July 1921) took place during the period of this about-face, at a moment when its main self-criticism was largely directed against the lack of technical “preparation”, and not against the insurrectionary directive itself. Shortly afterwards, the Action was characterized as a putsch, that is, Levi’s critique was resurrected, after Levi, of course, had been excluded. The reason for his expulsion was that he had made his opposition public and had insulted B. Kun’s delegation. But Lenin declared that Levi was basically correct.18

The KPD’s membership fell to 180,000 and later rose again to over 200,000 in 1922. Radek was ordered to be more attentive to the affairs of the KPD. The KPD elected a new leadership and confined itself to the legal terrain, to agreements between parties and the formation of coalition governments. As 1923 approached, the Eighth Congress declared its support for “workers governments”, that is, coalitions of the KPD and the SPD at the regional level. But a new leftist tendency was born at this Congress, led by A. Maslow and R. Fischer, representing the Frankfurt, Hamburg, Berlin and Ruhr districts. It wanted to create new red trade unions and to boycott the official trade unions and was opposed to the creation of “workers governments”. During this period, the Left, as typified by the KAPD, AAUD and AAUD-E, had almost ceased to exist (cf. Appendix I).

The leftist and rightist tendencies went to plead their cases to Moscow, where the rightist theses from the beginning of 1923 were condemned and an intensification of the struggle for power was advocated. The KPD, together with the SPD, formed “revolutionary hundreds” and established a central military committee in June of 1923. In October, workers governments were formed in Saxony and Thuringia: this implied that the SPD and KPD together had the parliamentary majority in these two states. By the end of the month, these “governments” would be overthrown by the Reich and its Army. That same year, the occupation of the Ruhr by the French army would allow Radek and the KPD to turn to national bolshevism, which had been so mercilessly denounced when it was supported by left communists. The KPD would even hold meetings with the Nazis. During one of these meetings, a Nazi orator rendered homage to the communists, but ironically advised them to rid themselves of the Jews who surrounded them, and especially of . . . Radek.19 The KPD soon renounced these joint meetings. But, years later, it would broadcast the slogan of the “peoples’ revolution” (Volksrevolution) and would once again collaborate with the NSDAP. In 1923, the “Group of German Communist Army Officers”, linked to the KPD, claimed to support O. Spengler, author of The Decline of the West, who advocated a sort of nationalistic socialism. This group even defined the council system as “a Prussian notion based on concepts of an elite, solidarity and mutual responsibility”.20 In the following year, R. Fischer would briefly assume the leadership of the KPD, with the support of the Communist International, largely as a result of her support for Zinoviev-Stalin against Trotsky: during this same period, Gramsci was supported by the Communist International against Bordiga, because he, too, took Stalin’s side.21 The factional struggles within the KPD during the period preceding the crisis of 1929 were more than just the expression of micro-bureaucratic confrontations. They were the translation onto the political plane (that is, the plane of power) of the vain attempt of the German proletarians to react after their defeat. All their efforts during this phase of regression only strengthened one bureaucratic group to the detriment of the others.

The history of the German Communist Party would be a continuous oscillation between the ultra-right and the ultra-left, characterized by successive waves of exclusions, and influenced by the vicissitudes of the policies of the Russian government. The debates and decrees of the Communist International, after the 1921 March Action, certainly offer the most overwhelming illustration of its incoherence, which even approached absurdity. Levi was excluded for violating party discipline, although the Communist International would subsequently basically agree with his position. Zetkin, who agreed with Levi, was not excluded, but, to the contrary, was granted (provisionally, until the arrival of R. Fischer) leadership of the party. The defeat of the March Action helped to condemn the KAPD, judged to be a dangerous proponent of the offensive at any cost, while the KPD had acted with at least as much adventurism (fake kidnappings and other “tricks” to prod the masses to rebellion). These flagrant contradictions are explained, in equal proportions, by the will of the Communist International, which was focused on “filling up” its organization in Germany (the VKPD), and by the party’s own incompetence. This mess aptly marks the irreparable end of an epoch.

The continuation of “Levism” without Levi also led to the fall of the VKPD’s first left-wing faction: the former Bremerlinke lost all of its influence in the leadership. It would not reappear until the end of the 1920s as an opposition, which would then be called “rightist”: it would support Bukharin and Brandler-Thalheimer, advocates of the “Leninist united front” against the supposedly fashionable leftism of the Stalinist “class against class” tactic. Frölich would be excluded in 1928 as a “rightist”. “The Bremerlinke appeared as the first and disappeared as the last expression of Leninism in Germany.”22 The Bremen radicals “never stopped fleeing” from their connections with the German Left, thereby depriving themselves of the possibility of enriching their “Leninism” with the proletarian experience with which the other radical groups formed between 1914 and 1919 were more familiar. They bravely fought to create a Leninism for German use, but ended up isolating themselves from the proletariat.

To make 1923 the pivotal date for both Russia and the Communist International is equivalent to privileging the history of “political events” to the detriment of the social movement and the ruptures which separate historical phases.23

The same holds true for starting with the evolution of the tendencies in the Russian Communist Party in order to write the history of Russia (cf. the Trotsky-Stalin conflict). In regard to Germany this would correspond to writing the history of the communist movement based on the evolution of the KPD: 1923 marking the great putschist shock; the rupture would be situated in 1923.

2. The KAPD and Rühle’s AAUD-E
Gorter and other leaders of the KAPD published The Path of Dr. Levi, the Path of the VKPD, whose putschism they denounced: 24 they blamed the failure of March on the tactics followed by the rightist KPD leadership since 1919. Reversing its policy in such a brutal fashion, going suddenly from the legal struggle to the revolutionary struggle, the VKPD had assumed a putschist attitude. But the March Action, as a real movement of the proletariat in central Germany, was not merely a putsch: it was even “the first conscious offensive action of the German proletarians”.25 The KAPD would unconditionally defend the March Action at the Third World Congress.

The pamphlet briefly mentioned “the pressure exercised by certain authoritarian influences” on the VKPD prior to March, but it was Rühle’s tendency which more fully developed this theme. As Rühle wrote: “The workers must know that the Action in central Germany was an act of madness and a crime, for which the VKPD is entirely responsible.” The VKPD had acted without taking account of the situation, which was by no means favorable for an uprising. But this was not just a case of the VKPD behaving in an absurd manner: it was a case of “the totally subordinate execution of a misunderstood order which ‘came from above’”. “The Bolshevik power has used the German revolution until its internal situation was totally stabilized.”26 At that moment, that is, after the 18th, when Kronstadt had been recaptured, it was too late to call off the Action.

As for Hölz, captured a few days after the end of the fighting, he was condemned to life in prison. At first, his defense was organized by the communist left and then, once the latter had disappeared, it passed into the hands of “leftist personalities” on a committee created by the KPD, which made Hölz into a legendary figure. Hölz himself contributed to his own cult. The post offices in the city where he was imprisoned were inundated with packages and letters addressed to him from all over Germany. He was ultimately released. The KPD displayed him for a while as a leading personality, but later, when he became too troublesome, the party sent him to Moscow, where he died during the 1930s, undoubtedly eliminated by the GPU. The Workers Communist Newspaper of the KAPD celebrated his achievements in the following passage: “Max Hölz has shown us how to annihilate the bourgeoisie. Max Hölz was our example! Our symbol! Our leader!” Thus has Max Hölz, and above all his cult, become a rather typical product of the immaturity of the proletariat.

  • 1 La question syndicale…., p. 27.
  • 2 Cf. the map reproduced in Angress, p. 136; cf. also Die Märzkämpfe, 1921, East Berlin, 1956.
  • 3 Among other sources, cf. P. Avrich, La tragédie de Kronstadt, 1921, Seuil, 1975 (in English: Kronstadt, 1921, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1970); and L. Schapiro: Les bolcheviks et l’opposition, Les Iles d’Or, 1957, pp. 186-187 and 246, et seq.
  • 4 R. Fischer: Stalin and German Communism, Harvard University Press, 1948.
  • 5 Kool: pp. 131 and 604.
  • 6 Ibid., p. 312. Cf. also his biography in Angress, pp. 146-147.
  • 7 Hölz published an autobiography in 1930: From White Cross to Red Flag, London and Toronto. Angress establishes a parallel between Hölz’s ideas and the peasant revolts of the Middle Ages.
  • 8 Bock: p. 303.
  • 9 According to Badia: p. 178.
  • 10 La question syndicale…., p. 29.
  • 11 Angress: p. 144.
  • 12 Bock: p. 302.
  • 13 Ibid., p. 300.
  • 14 Ibid., p. 301.
  • 15 Compare with Makhno: cf. Communisme et “question russe”, pp. 88-95.
  • 16 Comfort: Chapter VI.
  • 17 La question syndicale…., pp. 28 and 30.
  • 18 Kool: p. 132; and Invariance, n.d., No. 7, p. 82.
  • 1