The German Revolution: The Failure to Build the Organisation

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In our last article, we saw how the KPD was founded in Germany, at the end of December 1918, in the heat of the struggle. Although the Spartakists had conducted a magnificent work of propaganda against the war, and had intervened determinedly and' with great clarity in the revolutionary movement itself, the KPD was not yet a solid party. The organisation had just begun to be built, its warp and weft was still very loose. At its founding congress, the party was still marked by a great heterogeneity. Different positions confronted each other, not just on the questions of work within the unions and participation in parliament, but also, worse still, on the organisational question. And on this question, the marxist wing around Luxemburg and Jogisches was in a minority.

The experience of this "incomplete" party shows that it is not enough to proclaim the party for it to exist and act as one. A party worthy of the name must possess a solid organisational structure, based on a single conception of organisational unity in both its function and its functioning.

The KPD's immaturity at this level made it unable truly to fulfil its role towards the working class.             

For the German working class - and consequently for the world proletariat - it was a tragedy that during this decisive post-war period, it could not rely in its struggle on the effective support of a party.   

1919: After the repression, the KPD absent from the scene

Early in January 1919, a week after the KPD's founding congress, the German bourgeoisie provoked the January uprising (see International Review no 83). The KPD warned immediately against this premature insurrection. Its Central Committee (Zentrale) insisted that the moment for the assault on the bourgeois state had not yet come.

While the bourgeoisie put into operation its provocation against the workers, as anger and a desire to "have it out" with the enemy spread within the working class, one of the KPD' s most prominent figures, Karl Liebknecht, plunged into the struggle alongside the "revolutionary men of confidence" , against the decisions and warnings of his own party.

Not only did the working class as a whole suffer a tragic defeat, the blows of repression hit the revolutionary militants especially hard. Not only Liebknecht and Luxemburg, but many others with them were murdered, like Leo Jogisches assassinated in March 1919. The KPD was thus decapitated.

It is no accident that it was precisely the marxist wing around Luxemburg and Jogisches which found itself the target for repression. This wing had always watched over the party's cohesion, and could be seen to be most resolute in defence of the organisation.

For months afterwards, with brief interruptions, the KPD was then forced to go underground. From February to March, and then again from May to December, it proved impossible to publish Die Rote Fahne. In the wave of strikes between February and April (see International Review no 83), it was thus unable to play the determining role that it should have done. Its voice was all but stifled by Capital.

If the KPD had been sufficiently strong, disciplined and influential to unmask the bourgeoisie's provocation during the week in January, and to prevent the workers from falling into the trap, the movement would surely have ended very differently.        

The working class thus paid a heavy price for the weaknesses of a party, which then became the target for the most brutal repression. Everywhere, the communists were hunted down. Communications were lost several times between what was left of the Zentrale and the party districts. It was noted, during the national conference of 29th March 1919 that "the local organisations are submerged with agents provocateurs".            


"As far as the union question is concerned, the conference thinks that the slogan "Out of the unions!" is for the moment misplaced (...) Unionist agitation which spreads confusion must be fought not be measures of coercion but by the systematic clarification of differences of conception and tactics" (KPD Zentrale, national conference of 29/03/1919). It was important, on programmatic questions, to start by getting to the bottom of disagreements through discussion.

During a national conference held on 14th/15th June in Berlin, the KPD adopted statutes which asserted the necessity for a strictly centralised party. And although the party took position clearly against unionism, it recommended that no measures be taken against party members who belonged to unions.


During the conference of August 1919, it was decided to appoint a delegate for each of the 22 party districts, without taking account of their size. By contrast, each member of the Zentrale had one vote. No way of nominating delegates had been settled on at the founding congress in January 1918, nor had the question of centralisation been clarified. In August 1919, the Zentrale was over-represented in votes, while the influence and opinion of the local sections was limited. There was thus a danger that the ZentraIe would tend to become autonomous, which increased the suspicions that already existed towards it. However, position of both the Zentrale and of Levi (who had meanwhile been elected to lead it) in favour of work in the unions and parliament, failed to gain the upper hand, since most of the delegates inclined towards the positions of the Left.

As we have shown (see International Review no 83), the numerous waves of struggle which shook the whole of Germany during the first half of 1919, and where the KPD's voice was barely heard, caused large numbers of workers to abandon the unions. The workers felt that the unions, as the classic organs for defence of economic demands, could no longer fulfil their function of defending workers' interests, since they had imposed national unity with the bourgeoisie during the war, and now in this revolutionary situation, once again stood alongside the latter. At the same time, there was no longer the same effervescence as there had been in November and December 1918, when the workers had united in the workers' councils and put in question the bourgeois state. In this situation, many workers created "factory organisations", which were supposed to regroup all the combative workers in "Unionen" (we use the German expression here, to distinguish these new organisations from the traditional trades unions). Like political parties, the "Unionen" adopted platforms aimed at the overthrow of the capitalist system. Many workers came to the conclusion that the "Unionen" should be the sole place of regroupment for proletarian forces, and that the party should dissolve itself within them. During this period, anarcho-syndicalist and council communist ideas gained a wide audience. More than 100,000 workers joined the "Unionen". In August 1919, the General Workers' Union (Allgemeine Arbeiters Union, or AAU) was founded in Essen.

At the same time, the end of the war brought with it a rapid deterioration in working class living conditions. During the war, the workers had been subjected to famine and slaughter; the winter of 1918-19 had completely exhausted them; now they had to pay the price of German imperialism's defeat in the war. The signature of the Versailles Treaty in the summer of 1919 imposed on German capital - but above all on the country's workers - the payment of war reparations.

In this situation, the German bourgeoisie, who had every interest in reducing the weight of their "punishment" as much as possible, tried to make the proletariat its ally in confronting the demands of the victorious imperialist powers. It thus supported every expression in this sense, and in particular those of certain Hamburg party leaders. Fractions within the army made contact with Wolffheim and Laufenberg, who from the winter of1919-20 were to defend the "national people's war" in which the working class was supposed to make common cause with the German ruling class, in a "struggle against national oppression".

October 1919 and the 2nd Congress of the KPD: from political confusion to organisational dispersal

The KPD's 2nd Congress took place in Heidelberg, within this context of a reflux in the workers' struggles after the defeats of the first half of 1919. The first points on the agenda were the political situation and the report on administration. The analysis of the political situation dealt mainly with the economic and imperialist questions, and especially with the position of Germany. Almost nothing was said about the balance of class forces at the international level. The weakening of the party, to the point of crisis, seemed to have supplanted the analysis of the state of the class struggle internationally. Moreover, when the priority should have been given to the regroupment of all revolutionary forces, the Zentrale began by putting forward its "Theses on communist principles and tactics" - some of which were to have serious consequences for the party and open the way to numerous splits - and trying to impose them on the Congress.

The Theses stressed that "the revolution is a political struggle by the proletarian masses for political power. This struggle is conducted using every available political and economic means (...) The KPD cannot renounce by principle any political method, in the service of the preparation of these great struggles. Participation in elections must be taken into account as one of these means". Later on, they deal with the question of communists' work in the unions, so as "not to isolate ourselves from the masses".

This work in the unions and in parliament was posed as a question, not of principle but of tactics.


On the organisational level, the Theses rightly rejected federalism, and emphasised the necessity for the most rigorous centralisation.


But the last point closed the door on any discussion, by declaring that "the members of the party who do not share these conceptions of the party's nature, organisation and action, must leave the party".

From the outset, there had existed profound differences within the KPD on the fundamental questions of work in the unions, and participation in parliamentary elections. At the party's founding Congress, the first Zentrale to be elected defended a minority position on these questions, but did not try to impose it.
This reflected a correct understanding of the organisation question, especially among the leadership, whose members did not leave the party on the basis of this disagreement, but saw it as a point whose full implications would have to be clarified during further discussion[1].
We have to take account of the fact that, especially since the beginning of World War I, the working class had acquired a good deal of experience and had begun to formulate a clear viewpoint against the unions and against bourgeois parliamentary elections. Despite this clarification, positions on these questions were still not class frontiers, nor a reason to split. No part of the revolutionary movement had yet managed to draw out, in a global and coherent manner, all the implications of the change in historical period that was taking place, in other words capitalism's entry into its decadent phase. Amongst communists, a great heterogeneity still reigned; disagreement existed on these questions in most countries. The German communists deserve the credit for having opened the way to clarification, and for being the first to formulate the class position on these questions. Internationally, they still remained in a minority. By insisting on the workers' councils as the sole weapon of the revolutionary struggle, the Communist International's founding Congress in March 1919 showed that its whole orientation was towards a rejection of the unions and parliament. But it did not yet have a sufficiently clear-cut or theoretically rooted position to be able to define its attitude clearly. The KPD's founding Congress adopted a position that was correct, but still lacked an adequately developed theoretical foundation. All this reflected the heterogeneity, and above all the immaturity of the whole revolutionary movement at the time. Confronted with a fundamentally changed objective situation, it was still behind in its consciousness, and in working out its positions theoretically. At all events, it was clear that debate on these questions was vital, that it had to be pushed forward, and that it could not be avoided. For all these reasons, programmatic disagreement on the union question, or on the participation in elections, could not then be a motive for exclusion from the party, or for a split by the defenders of either position. To adopt any other attitude would have meant the exclusion of Liebknecht and Luxemburg, who at the founding Congress were elected unopposed to the Zentrale, despite belonging to the minority on these questions.

But it was on the organisational question that the KPD was most deeply divided. At its founding Congress, it was no more than a gathering to the left of the USPD, divided into several wings, especially on the organisation question. The marxist wing around Luxemburg and Jogisches, which defended the organisation's unity and centralisation most determinedly, had to confront all those who either underestimated the organisation's necessity, or else viewed it with suspicion, even outright hostility.


This is why the first challenge for the party's 2nd Congress was to get to grips with the defence and construction of the organisation.


However, conditions were already not very favourable:

- The life of the organisation was under severe attack from the activity of the bourgeoisie. Repression and the conditions of illegality made it impossible to conduct a widespread discussion throughout the local sections on programmatic and organisational questions. The discussion at the Congress was thus not as well-prepared as it should have been.


- The Zentrale elected at the founding Congress had been decimated: three of its original nine members (Luxemburg, Liebknecht, Jogisches) had been assassinated; Mehring was dead, and three others were on the run and so unable to take part. Only Levi, Pieck, Thalheimer and Lange were left.


At the same time, councilist and anarcho-syndicalist ideas were gaining strength. Supporters of the Unionen called for the party to dissolve itself into the Unionen, others wanted it to stand back from struggles for economic demands. Ideas like "the party of leaders" or "the dictatorship of the leaders" began to spread, showing that anti-organisational tendencies were gaining ground.

During this Congress, the erroneous organisational conceptions present within it were to be the cause of a veritable disaster. During the election of delegates, Levi had already arranged things so that voting went in favour of the Zentrale. He thus threw overboard the political principles established at the founding Congress (even though it had been unable to define its statutes, or to decide precisely how to share out the delegations). Instead of ensuring that the local delegations represented the political positions within the sections, however heterogeneous these might be, he tried to see that the position of the Zentrale should always be in the majority, as he had done in August 1919 at Frankfurt.

From the outset, the attitude of the Zentrale sharpened divisions and prepared the exclusion of the real majority.


Moreover, the Zentrale should have followed the example of the debates going on in almost all the communist parties on the parliamentary and union questions, and presented its Theses as a contribution to the discussion, as a means to continued clarification, not as a way of stifling and expelling from the party all those who held a different position. The final point in the Theses, requiring the exclusion of all those with disagreements, reflects and incorrect, monolithic, organisational conception, in contradiction with that of the marxist wing which had regrouped around Luxemburg and Jogisches, and which had always called for the widest possible discussion throughout the organisation.

Whereas the Zentrale elected at the founding Congress adopted a correct political viewpoint, where existing disagreements, even on such fundamental questions as the unions and participation in the elections, were not seen as reasons for splits or exclusions, the one elected at the 2nd Congress contributed, on the basis of a false conception of the organisation, to a fatal disintegration of the party.


The delegates who represented the majority position from the founding Congress were aware of this danger, and asked to be able to consult their respective sections, and "not to take the decision to split in haste".


But the Zentrale demanded an immediate decision. Thirty-one delegates voted in favour of the Theses, eighteen against. The latter, who mostly represented the party's biggest districts numerically, and who were almost all members of the old ISD/IKD, were henceforth considered as excluded.

A split can only take place on the clearest possible basis

To deal responsibly with a discussion on divergent positions, it is necessary that each position should be presented and debated widely and without restrictions. Moreover, in his attack against the marxist wing, Levi amalgamated all the differences, and used the weapon of deformation pure and simple.


In fact, the most diverse positions were present in the Congress. Otto Ruhle, for example, took position the most openly against work in parliament and the unions, but on the basis of a councilist argument. He violently opposed the so-called "politics of the leaders".


The Bremen delegates were also resolutely opposed to any work in the unions or parliament, but did not reject the party, quite the reverse. At the Congress however, they failed to defend their positions either clearly or energetically, thus leaving the terrain free for the destructive manoeuvring of adventurers like Wolftheim and Laufenberg, as well as to the federalists and supporters of the Unionen.

General confusion reigned. The different viewpoints did not appear clearly. Especially on the organisational question, where there should have been a clear break between partisans and opponents of the party, everything was mixed up.


The rejection of the unions and parliamentary activity cannot be put on the same level as the position that rejects the party as a matter of principle. Sadly, Levi did the opposite, when he described all those opposed to work in the unions or parliament as enemies of the party. He managed to deform completely their positions, and to falsify what was really at stake in the situation.


There were differing reactions to this way of proceeding by the Zentrale. Only Laufenberg, Wolffheim, and two other delegates, considered a split inevitable, and accepted it that very evening by declaring the foundation of a new party. Earlier, Laufenberg and Wolffheim had sown suspicion towards the Zentrale on the pretext of gaps in the financial report. This dubious manoeuvre was aimed at avoiding any open debate on the organisation question.

The attitude of the Bremen delegates, by contrast, was a responsible one. They did not want to let themselves be excluded. They returned the following morning to continue their work as delegates. But the Zentrale had moved the meeting to a secret location, in order to keep out the minority. It thus got rid of a large part of the organisation, not only by fiddling the election of delegates, but by forcibly excluding them from the Congress.


The Congress was shot through with false views on organisation. Levi's Zentrale had a monolithic conception, which left no room for minority positions in the party. With the exception of the Bremen delegates, who despite their disagreements fought to remain in the organisation the opposition shared this monolithic conception, inasmuch as it would have excluded the Zentrale had it been able to. Both sides rushed into the split on the most confused basis possible. That wing of the party which represented marxism on organisational issues did not succeed in imposing its viewpoint.

There was thus created amongst German communists a tradition which was to be constantly repeated: each divergence led to a split.

False programmatic positions open the door to opportunism

As we have already shown above, the Theses, which still only considered work within parliament or the unions from an essentially tactical standpoint, expressed a difficulty that was widespread throughout the communist movement: how to draw the lessons of capitalism's decadence, and to recognise that it had created new conditions, which made the old means of struggle inadequate.

Parliament and the unions had become cogs in the state apparatus. The Left had perceived this process, rather than understanding it theoretically.


By contrast, the tactical orientation adopted by the KPD leadership, based on a confused view of these questions, became a part of the opportunist slope down which the party slid, and on the pretext of "not cutting itself off from the masses" pushed it into more and more concessions towards those who had betrayed the proletariat. This slippery slope also led to the attempt to reach an understanding with the centrist USPD in order to become a "mass party". Unfortunately, by excluding en masse all those who disagreed with the leadership's orientation, the KPD drove from its ranks many faithful party militants, and so deprived itself of the antiseptic of criticism which alone could have stopped the opportunist gangrene.

At the bottom of this tragedy lay a failure to understand the organisational question and its importance. One essential lesson that we must draw from this today is that any split or exclusion is something whose consequences are too heavy for it to be undertaken lightly. Such a decision can only be reached after a profound and conclusive clarification. That is why this fundamental political understanding must figure clearly in the statutes of any organisation.


The Communist International itself, although it supported Levi on the union and parliamentary questions, insisted that the debate should be continued, and refused to accept any splits caused by these disagreements. During the Heidelberg Congress, the KPD leadership had acted on its own authority, without taking account of the International's opinion.

The Bremen militants reacted to their exclusion by creating an "Information Bureau" for the whole opposition, in order to maintain contacts between left communist militants in Germany. They correctly understood the work of a fraction. To avoid the break-up of the party, they tried to reach a compromise on the most important litigious points of the organisation's policy (the union and parliamentary questions), and struggled to maintain the unity of the KPD. With this aim in mind, the Information Bureau issued the following appeal, on 23rd December 1919:


"1) Convocation of a new national conference at the end of January.


2) Admission of all districts that belonged to the KPD before the 3rd National Conference, whether or not they recognise the Theses.

3) The Theses, and other proposals, to be submitted for discussion immediately with the National Conference in view.


4) Until the convocation of the new Conference, the Zentrale is required to refrain from any splitting activity" (Kommunistische Arbeiter Zeitung no 197).


By proposing amendments to the Theses for the 3rd Congress, and by demanding their reintegration into the party, the Bremen militants worked as a true fraction. On the organisational level, their proposed amendments aimed at strengthening the position of the party's local groups vis-a-vis the Zentrale, while on the union and parliamentary questions they made concessions to the Zentrale's Theses. The Zentrale, by contrast, continued to work for a split by setting up new local groups in those districts whose delegates had been excluded (Hamburg, Bremen, Hanover, Berlin and Dresden).

During the 3rd Congress (25th/26th February 1920), the bloodletting that had taken place was clearly apparent. In October 1919, the KPD still had more than 100,000 members; now it only had about 40,000. Moreover, the decision of the October 1919 Congress had created such confusion that it was still unclear whether or not the Bremen militants still belonged to the KPD. The exclusion was made definitive only at the 3rd Congress, although it had already taken effect in October 1919.

The bourgeoisie encouraged the breakup of the party

After the Kapp putsch, which had just broken out, during a national conference of the opposition held on 14th March 1920, the Bremen Information Bureau declared that it could not take the responsibility of forming a new communist party, and dissolved itself. At the end of March, after the 3rd Congress, the Bremen militants returned to the KPD.


By contrast, immediately after their exclusion, the Hamburg delegates Wolftheim and Laufenberg announced the formation of a new party. This approach had nothing in common with marxism on the organisational question. Their whole attitude, after their exclusion, revealed their deliberately destructive behaviour towards revolutionary organisations. From that moment on, they developed openly and frenetically their "national-Bolshevik" position. During the war, they had already carried out propaganda for a "revolutionary people's war". Unlike the Spartakists, they did not adopt an internationalist position, but called for the working class' subordination to the army "in order to put an end to the domination of Anglo-American capital". They even accused the Spartakists of having encouraged the army's disintegration, and thus of "stabbing it in the back". These attacks were in perfect unison with those of the extreme right after the Treaty of Versailles. Whereas during 1919, Wolffheim and Laufenberg had adopted a radical cover by agitating against the unions, after their exclusion from the KPD they brought their "national-Bolshevik" attitude to the fore. Their politics encountered no great echo among the Hamburg workers. But these two individuals manoeuvred adroitly, and published their views as a supplement to the Kommunistische Arbeiter Zeitung, without the party's agreement. The more isolated they became from the KPD, the more openly they launched anti-Semitic attacks on Levi, as a "Jew" and "a British agent". It emerged later that Wolffheim was the secretary of the officer Lettow-Vorbeck, and he was denounced as a police agent-provocateur. He was thus not acting on his own initiative, and his activity was consciously and systematically aimed at the destruction of the party, with the support of "circles" working in the shadows.

For the opposition, the tragedy was its failure to differentiate itself from these individuals either in time, or with enough determination. As a result, more and more militants no longer attended party meetings, and withdrew from militant life, disgusted by the activity of Laufenberg and Wolffheim (see the proceedings of the KPD 3rd Congress, p.23).


Moreover, the bourgeoisie sought to make the most of the defeats it had inflicted on the proletariat during 1919, by developing an offensive in the spring of 1920. On 13th March, troops led by Kapp and Luttwitz launched a military attack to "restore order". Although the SPD government was the apparent target, the putsch was clearly aimed against the working class. Faced with the choice of counter-attacking, or being subjected to a bloody repression, workers in almost every town rose up in resistance. They had no other alternative but to defend themselves. The movement was strongest in the Ruhr, where a "Red Army" was created.

The army's action completely disorientated the Zentrale. Although at first it supported the workers' counter-attack, when the forces of Capital proposed an SPDIUSPD coalition government to "save democracy", it viewed this as a "lesser evil", even to the point of offering its "loyal opposition".


The effervescence in the working class, and this attitude of the KPD, provided those who had been excluded the pretext for founding a new party.




[1] "Above all, as far as the question of non-participation in elections is concerned, you enormously overestimate the implications of this decision. Our defeat [ie the future Zentrale's defeat on this question in the voting at the Congress] was nothing but the victory of a rather puerile extremism, in fermentation, and without nuances (...) Do not forget that a good number of Spartakists belong to a new generation, on which the stultifying traditions of the "old" party do not weigh, and we have to accept this with its light and its shade. We all unanimously decided not to make a big fuss about this and not to rake it as a tragedy" (Rosa Luxemburg, Letter to Clara Zetkin, 11th January 1919).