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).
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.
- 19 Carr: The Interregnum 1923-24, Pelican, 1969, Chapter 7.
- 20 Angress: pp. 242-243.
- 21 Les Temps Modernes, February 1975, “Gramsci et Bordiga face au Comintern”; R. Paris’s introduction to Gramsci’s Ecríts politiques, Gallimard, Vol. I, 1974.
- 22 La question syndicale…., p. 29.
- 23 This is the case with Broué, as well as Gruber, p. 409. This error can also be found in Communisme et “question russe”, pp. 123-126.
- 24 Der Weg des Dr. Levi, der Weg der VKPD, published by the KAPD, 1921, pp. 10-12.
- 25 Kool: p. 133.
- 26 Ibid.