The letters from Bordiga and Trotsky: presentation
In International Review n°s 98 and 99 we dealt with the defeat of the German revolution as a sign of the defeat of the world revolution; we now return to this question through the debates and srough the debates and struggles that took place within the Communist International at the time. The German question and the defeat suffered by the workers’ movement in Germany in 1923 were key questions of the day for the international working class. The eclecticism and tactical oscillations of the CI produced a disaster in Germany. This put an end to the revolutionary wave of the 20s and prepared the ground for the defeats that followed: in China (a situation we have already examined in this Review) and in Britain (the Anglo-Russian Committee and the General Strike). In the end it led to the irrecoverable loss of the International when it adopted the thesis of ‘socialism in one country’ and to the crisis of the Communist Parties which were sucked into the counter-revolution and the second imperialist war.
Our aim here isn’t to deal exhaustively with these important debates in the CI, but simply to contribute to the dossier on the German revolution with this correspondence, which gives us an idea about the political positions and clarity of judgement of these two great revolutionaries at the time of the events themselves.
1923 marked a definite break in the period that followed the first imperialist war. imperialist war. It was the end of the revolutionary wave, which had been inaugurated by the October revolution in Russia. It also marked a break in the Communist International, which no longer had any clear analysis of the political situation.
It was in 1923, at the third plenum of the CI’s Executive, that Radek fell into "national Bolshevism". He saw Germany as "a great industrial nation which has been reduced to the level of a colony". He made an amalgam between a country which, although occupied militarily, remained one of the main imperialist states in the world, and a colonised country. He thus led the KPD and the CI onto the terrain of nationalism; and the CI was already widely infected by opportunism and centrism.
Thus, according to the declaration of the CI’s Executive, "the fact of insisting strongly on the national element in Germany is just as revolutionary as insisting on the national element in the colonies". Radek went even further: "what is called German nationalism is not just nationalism: it is a broad national movement with a huge revolutionary significance". And Zinoviev was only too happy to point out in his conclusion to this conclusion to the work of the plenum that a bourgeois paper had recognised the "national Bolshevik" character assumed by the KPD.
Then, suddenly, in mid-1923, the CI made an about-turn, from a wait-and-see, possibilist attitude – "the revolution was not on the agenda"(as Radek put it in his report on the capitalist offensive to the IVth Congress of the CI) – to frenetic optimism less than one year later: "The revolution is knocking at the door of Germany. It’s a matter of a few months". Consequently, in the presence of the general staff of the KPD, it was decided in Moscow to rush ahead with preparations for the seizure of power, and even to fix the date. On October 1 Zinoviev declared to Brandler, the secretary of the German party, that he saw "the decisive moment coming in four, five or six weeks". In Germany however, the slogans raised were contradictory: the call for insurrection was coupled with the call for a "workers’ government" alongside social democracy. The same social democracy which had done the most to crush the revolution of 1919 and murder the best working class militants and revolutionaries, including Luxemburg, Liebknecht and Jogisches.
It was the first major crisis of the CI. In parallel with these dramatic events, where the movement in Germany entered a descending curve, a crisis erupted in the leadership of the Bolshevik party. The Troika of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev were now in open conflict with Trotsky and the Opposition.
It was in 1923 that the CI adopted a sudden "leftist" turn, which stole the thunder of those who were criticising the CI from the left. From 1924, Zinoviev sought to use the defeat of the German revolution against the Opposition.
Later on Trotsky returned to the question of the German revolution and in his letter from Alma Atma to the VIth Congress of the CI, dated 12 July 1928, he wrote: "the second half of 1923 was a period of tense expectation for the revolution in Germany. The situation was approached too late and too hesitantly…. the Vth Congress (of the CI, in 1924) began moving towards insurrection at a moment of reflux".
Only the Italian communist left was able to draw the first clear lessons from this crisis in the CI, even if they were still quite incey were still quite incomplete. At the IVth Congress of the CI in 1922 it had already sounded the alarm, notably against the tactic of the United Front and the growth of opportunism in the International. In 1923 Bordiga was in prison but, as the divergences became more and more significant, he wrote a manifesto "To all comrades of the Communist Party of Italy" which would have resulted in a break with the CI if it had been supported by the other members of the party’s executive committee. Then in 1924 Bordiga developed his own critique of the Vth Congress.
The letters published below are from the "Perrone Archives" (1). They were written during the VIth Plenum of the CI’s Executive, when Bordiga confronted Stalin on a whole number of issues, including the Russian question (2). Bordiga asks Trotsky for some clarifications on the German question. Trotsky, contrary to the assertions of Stalin, replies that the favourable moment for insurrection had already passed in October 1923 and that he had never supported Brandler’s policies during this period.
On 28 October 1926, Bordiga wrote to Karl Korsch that he was "satisfied with Trotsky’s positions on the German revolution&quoan revolution". However, while Trotsky’s criticisms were in accord with Bordiga’s on this event, as on the necessity to discuss the Russian question and the situation of the CI, Trotsky’s political positions were not as trenchant and well-argued as those of Bordiga when it came to essentials. Bordiga had a much clearer critique of the opportunist tendencies in the CI, marked in particular at the IVth Congress with the adoption of the United Front tactic, which was a concession to social democracy and a way of opening the CPs to the centrists (notably the "Terzini", who were allowed to enter the CP of Italy against Bordiga’s objections).
Bordiga’s letter to Trotsky
Moscow, 2 March 1926
Dear comrade Trotsky,
At the current enlarged Executive, during a meeting of the delegation of the Italian section with comrade Stalin, certain questions were posed about your preface to the book The Lessons of October and about your criticisms of the October 1923 events in Germany. Comrade Stalin argued that there was a contradiction in your attitude to this po attitude to this point.
To avoid the risk of quoting comrade Stalin’s words with the slightest inaccuracy, I will refer to the formulation of this same observation which is contained in a written text, i.e. the article by comrade Kusinen published in the French edition of International Correspondence, no 82, 17 December 1924. This article was published in Italian during the discussion for our IIIrd Congress (Unita, 31 August 1925). Here it is argued that:
before October 1923 you supported the Brandler group and you accepted the line decided on by the leading organs of the CI for the action in Germany;
in January 1924, in the theses drawn up with comrade Radek, you affirmed that the German party should not have launched the struggle in October;
it was only in September 1924 that you formulated your criticism of the errors of the KPD and the CI, which resulted in a failure to seize the most favourable moment for the struggle in Germany.
With regard to these supposed contradictions, I polemicised wittions, I polemicised with comrade Kusinen in an article which appeared in Unita in October, basing myself on the elements that were known to me. But you alone can throw full light on the question, and I ask you to do this through a brief note of information that I will use for personal instruction. It would only be with the authorisation of the party organs that I would in the future use this to examine the problem in the press.
With communist greetings,
Trotsky’s reply to Bordiga
Dear comrade Bordiga
The exposition of the facts that you have provided is no doubt based on some obvious misunderstandings, which, once we have the documents to hand, can be dissipated without difficulty.
During the course of autumn 1923, I openly criticised the Central Committee led by comrade Brandler. On several occasions I had to officially express my concern that the CC would be un that the CC would be unable to lead the German proletariat to the conquest of power. This affirmation was noted in an official document of the party. Several times, I had the occasion – in speaking with or about Brandler – to say that he had not understood the specific character of the revolutionary situation, to say that he was mixing up the revolution with an armed insurrection, that he was waiting fatalistically for the development of events rather than going to meet them, etc etc…
It is true that I opposed being mandated to work together with Brandler and Ruth Fischer because in such a period of struggle within the Central Committee this could have led to a complete defeat, all the more so because, in the essentials, i.e. with regard to the revolution and its stages, Ruth Fischer’s position was full of the same social democratic fatalism. She had not understood that in such a period, a few weeks can be decisive for several years, and even for decades. I considered it necessary to support the existing Central Committee, to exert pressure on it, to insist that the comrades taking part in it act with the firmness demanded by their mandate, etc. No one at that time thought that it was necessary to replace Brandler and I did not make this proposal.
When in June 1924 Brandler came to Moscow and said that he was more optimistic about the development of the situation than during the events of the previous autumn, it became even clearer for me that Brandler had not understood this particular combination of conditions which creates a revolutionary situation. I said to him that he did not know how to distinguish the future of a revolution from its end. "Last autumn, the revolution was staring you in the face; you let the moment pass. Now, the revolution has turned its back on you, but you think that it’s coming towards you". While I was fully convinced that in the autumn of 1923 the German party had let the decisive moment pass – as has been verified in reality – after June 1924, I was not in favour of the left carrying out a policy based on the assumption that the insurrection was still on the agenda. I explained this in a series of articles and speeches in which I tried to demonstrate that the revolutionary situation had already passed, that there would inevitably be a reflux in the revolution, that in the immediate future the Communist Party would inevitably lose influence, that the bourgeoisie would use the reflux to strengthen itself economically, that American capital would exploit this strengthening of the bourgeois regime through a wide-scale intervention in Europe around the slogans of ‘normalisation’, ‘peace’, etc. In such periods, I underlined, the general revolutionary perspective is a strategic and not a tactical one.
I gave my support to comrade Radek’s June theses by telephone. I did not take part in drawing up these theses: I was ill. I gave my signature because they contained the affirmation that the German party had let the revolutionary situation pass it by, and that in Germany we were entering a phase not of immediate offensive but of defence and preparation. For me this was the decisive element.
The affirmation that I claimed that the German party would not lead the proletariat to the insurrection is false from start to finish. My main accusation against Brandler’s CC was that he was unable to keep up with events by placing the party at the head of the popular masses for the armed insurrection in the period August-October.
I said and wrote that since the party had, through its fatalism, lost the rhythm of the events, it was too late to give the signal for the armed insurrection: thd insurrection: the military had used the time lost to the revolution to occupy the important positions, and, above all, it was clear that the mass movement was in retreat. It is here that we see the specific and original character of the revolutionary situation, which can change radically in the space of one or two months. Lenin did not say in vain in September/October 1917 that it was "now or never", i.e. "the same revolutionary situation never repeats itself".
If in January 1924, for reasons of illness, I did not take part in the work of the Comintern, it’s quite true that I did oppose what was put forward by Brandler in the Central Committee. It was my opinion that Brandler had paid dearly for the practical experience so necessary for a revolutionary leader. In this sense, I would certainly have defended the opinion that Brandler should stay in the CC had I not been outside Moscow at the time. Furthermore, I had little confidence in Maslow. On the basis of discussions I had with him, I considered that he shared all the faults of Brandler’s positions with regard to the problems of the revolution, without having Brandler’s good qualities, i.e. his serious and conscientious spirit. Independently of whether or not I was mistaken in th I was mistaken in this evaluation of Maslow, in indirect relation with the evaluation of the revolutionary situation in autumn 1923…..(translator’s note: my version of the French text has a series of question marks here and the sentence ends with the phrase du mouvement advenu en novembre-decembre de la meme annee, but this doesn’t seem to make sense. Is the text incomplete?).
One of the main experiences of the German insurrection was the fact that at the decisive moment, upon which, as I have said, the long-term outcome of the revolution depended, and in all the Communist Parties, a social democratic regression was, to a greater or lesser extent, inevitable. In our revolution, thanks to the whole past of the party and to the exemplary role played by Lenin, this regression was kept to a minimum; and this despite the fact that at certain moments the success of the party in the struggle was put into danger. It seemed to me, and seems all the more so now, that these social democratic regressions are unavoidable at decisive moments in the European Communist Parties, which are younger and less tempered. This point of view should enable us to evaluate the work of the party, its experience, its offensive, its retreats in all stages of the preparation for the seizure ofon for the seizure of power. By basing ourselves on this experience the leading cadres of the party can be selected.
Perrone – Vercesi – was the main animator of the Italian Fraction of the Communist Left in the 1930s
Cf the proceedings of the CI and Programme Communiste’s collection of Bordiga’s speeches and statements. See also the IBRP’s Internationalist Communist Review no. 14, "Bordiga’s last fight in the Communist International, 1926"