The German Revolution, Part VII: The Foundation of the KAPD

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In the previous article, we saw how the KPD, its best elements assassinated and the whole party subject to repression, was unable to play the role it should have done, and how incorrect organisational conceptions were to lead to disaster, including the exclusion of the majority of the Party! So it was in an atmosphere of political confusion, and a seething general situation that the KAPD was born.

On the 4th and 5th April 1920, three weeks after the beginning of the Kapp putsch, and the wave of struggles that it provoked in response throughout Germany, opposition delegates met to bring a new party into the world: the Workers' Communist Party of Germany (the Kommunistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands, or KAPD).

Their intention was to found, at last, a "party of revolutionary action", with enough strength to oppose the opportunist direction taken by the KPD.

The KPD's mistakes during the Kapp putsch had serious consequences. Nonetheless, they did not, at the time, justify the formation of a new party. The KAPD's founders were far from having exhausted all the possibilities of fraction work open to them, and so a new party was created in haste, partly out of "frustration", partly almost from a fit of anger.

Most of the delegates came from Berlin, and a few other towns. They represented about 20,000 members.

Just like the KPD at its foundation, the new KAPD's membership was very mixed. It was more like a gathering of opposition and excluded members from the KPD[1].

The party was made up of:

 

- the Berlin tendency, led by intellectuals like Schroder, Schwab, and Reichenbach, all from the milieu of the Socialist Students, and by workers like Emil Sachs, Adam Scharrer, and Jan Appel, all excellent organisers. They considered the Unionen as no more than a dependent branch of the Party; they rejected all forms of revolutionary syndicalism or anarchistic federalism. This tendency represented the marxist wing within the KAPD;

 
- the "anti-party" tendency, whose main spokesman was Otto Ruhle, and which was inevitably a rather heterogeneous grouping. Its only unifying orientation was its complete concentration on the Unionen. It was essentialIy a revolutionary syndicalist grouping;

- the national-Bolshevik tendency around Wolffheim and Laufenberg, mainly centred on Hamburg. Although Wolffheim and Laufenberg did not take part in the KAPD's formation, they joined in order to infiltrate it.

 
The KAPD was quickly joined by an influx of radicalised young workers, who had enormous enthusiasm but very little organisational experience. Many of the new members in the Berlin section had only slight ties to the pre-war workers' movement. Moreover, World War I had radicalised many artists and intellectuals (F. Jung, poet; H. Vogeler, member of a commune, F. Pfemfert, O. Kanehl, artists, etc), who were attracted en masse by the KPD, then by the KAPD. Most of them were to have a disastrous effect. Like the bourgeois intellectuals who influenced the post-1968 movement, they defended an individualist viewpoint, and spread hostility for organisation, distrust for centralisation, federalism, etc. This milieu was easily contaminated by, and became the carrier for, petty bourgeois ideology and behaviour. Unlike those who describe it as "petty bourgeois" from the start, we do not want here to give a negative image of the KAPD. Nonetheless, the influence of this milieu made its mark, and weighed heavily on the party. These intellectual circles helped in the appearance of an ideology as yet unheard of in the workers' movement: the "Proletkult" ("cult of the proletarian"). At the same time, they proved hostile to all theoretical deepening. From the outset, the marxist wing distinguished itself from these anti-organisational elements.

Weaknesses on the organisational question lead to the disappearance of the organisation

This article does not intend to examine closely the KAPD's political positions (see our book on the Dutch Left for a detailed examination of this subject). Despite its theoretical weaknesses, the KAPD provided a historically precious contribution on the parliamentary and union questions. It was a pioneer in understanding the reasons which make it impossible to work in any way within the trades unions in the period of capitalist decadence; which have transformed the unions themselves into organs of the bourgeois state. It did the same in explaining the impossibility of using parliament in the workers' interests, since it had become nothing more than a weapon against the working class.

On the role of the party, the KAPD was the first to develop a clear viewpoint on the question of substitutionism. Unlike the majority of the Communist International, it recognised that in this new period, mass parties are no longer possible:

"7. The historic form for regrouping those proletarians who are the most conscious, the clearest, and the most ready for action, is the Party. (...) The Communist Party must be a programmatic, organised and disciplined whole with a unified will. It must be the head and the arm of the revolution. (...)

 

9. (...) In particular, it should never allow its membership to grow faster than it can be integrated by the solid communist core" (the KAPD's "Theses on the Role of the Party in the Proletarian Revolution", published in Proletarier no. 7, July 1921).

 

If we highlight first these programmatic contributions from the KAPD, it is because despite its fatal weaknesses, which we will consider here, it belongs to the heritage of the Communist Left. But the history of the KAPD was to show that programmatic clarity on key questions is not enough. Without a sufficiently clear understanding of the organisational question, programmatic clarity alone is no guarantee of an organisation's survival. The determining factor is not just the ability to adopt a solid programmatic basis, but above all the ability to build the organisation, to defend it, and to give it the strength to fulfil its historic role. Otherwise, it runs the risk of being torn apart by the action of false organisational conceptions, and of failing to stand up to the vicissitudes of the class struggle.

At the KAPD's founding congress, one of the first points on the agenda was the party's declaration of its immediate adherence to the Communist International, without having first asked for admission. Although its aim, right from the start, was to join the international movement, the central concern expressed in the discussion was to conduct "the struggle against the Spartakusbund within the Illrd International". In a discussion with representatives of the KPD, it declared: "We consider the Spartakusbund's reformist tactic to be in contradiction with the principles of the lllrd International, and we will work for the Spartakusbund's exclusion from the International" (from the Proceedings of the founding congress, quoted by Bock, p207). During this discussion, the same idea appeared again and again, like a leitmotiv: "We refuse to merge with the Spartakusbund, and we will fight against it to the bitter end (...) Our position towards the Spartakusbund is clear and simple: we think that those leaders who have been compromised should be excluded from the front of the proletarian struggle, to leave the way open for the masses to march together following the maxima list programme. It is decided that a delegation of two comrades will be formed to present an oral report to the Executive Committee of the IIIrd International" (ibid).

The political struggle against the Spartakusbund's opportunist positions was certainly vital, but this hostile attitude towards the KPD was a complete distortion of priorities. Instead of pushing towards a clarification within the KPD, with the aim of creating the conditions for unification, the predominant attitude was sectarian, irresponsible, and destructive for both organisations. This attitude was pushed especially by the national-Bolshevik tendency from Hamburg.

The KAPD's acceptance of the national-Bolshevik tendency within its ranks, right from the outset, was a disaster. This current was anti-proletarian. Its presence within the KAPD alone, was enough to reduce the latter's credibility severely in the eyes of the CI[2].

Jan Appel and Franz Jung were named as delegates to the CI's Second Congress, which met in July 1920[3].

 

In the discussions with the CI's Executive Committee (ECCI), where they put forward the KAPD viewpoint, they assured the Committee that both the national- Bolshevik current around Wolftheim and Laufenberg, and Ruhle's "anti-party" tendency would be excluded from the KAPD. There was a violent confrontation between viewpoints of the ECCI and the KAPD on the parliamentary and union questions. Lenin had just completed his pamphlet on Leftism, an Infantile Disorder of Communism. In Germany, the party had received no news of its delegates because of the blockade, and decided to send a second delegation made up of Otto Ruhle and Merges. They could not have done worse.

Ruhle, in fact, represented a federalist minority which wanted to dissolve the communist party into the system of Unionen. This minority refused any kind of centralisation; implicitly, it also rejected the very existence of the International. After their journey through Russia, where they were shocked by the consequences of the civil war (Russia had been attacked by 21 armies) and could see nothing but "a regime in a state of siege", they decided, without referring to the party, to return, convinced that "the dictatorship of the Bolshevik party is the springboard for the appearance of a new soviet bourgeoisie". Despite the pressing requests of Lenin, Zinoviev, Radek, and Bukharin, who gave them a consultative voice and urged them to take part in the Congress, they refused. The ECCI went so far as to offer them voting seats in the Congress: "When we were already in Petrograd on the way back, the Executive sent us another invitation to the Congress, with the declaration that the KAPD would be accorded voting seats, even though it fulfilled none of the draconian conditions in the Open Letter to the KAPD, and had not promised to do so".

As a result, the CI's second Congress took place without hearing the critical voice of the KAPD delegates. The damaging influence of opportunism within the CI could thus make itself felt all the more easily. Work within the unions was made one of the 21 conditions for admission to the CI, as an imperative, without the KAPD's resistance to this opportunist turn being felt at the Congress.

Moreover, those critical of this evolution by the CI were unable to unite during the Congress. Because of this damaging behaviour by the KAPD delegates, there was no international unity or common action. The opportunity for fruitful international fraction work was lost.

 

On the delegates' return, the current grouped around Ruhle was expelled for its conceptions and behaviour hostile to the organisation. Not only did the councilists reject the proletariat s political organisation, denying the particular role that the party must play in the process of the development of the proletariat's class consciousness (see the KAPD's "Theses on the Party"), they also joined the bourgeois chorus slandering the Russian revolution. Instead of drawing the lessons of the Russian revolution's difficulties, they rejected it, describing it as a double revolution (both proletarian and bourgeois, or even petty-bourgeois). In doing so, they signed their own political death warrant. The councilists not only did damage by denying the party's role in the development of class consciousness, they also hastened the dissolution of the revolutionary camp, and strengthened the general hostility to organisation. After their disintegration and dispersal, they were unable to make any political contribution. This current exists to this day, surviving mainly in Holland (although its ideology has spread widely beyond the Netherlands) .

During the KAPD's first ordinary Congress in August 1920, its Central Committee decided that the party should aim, not to combat the IIIrd International, but to fight for the triumph of the KAPD's views within it. This attitude was almost identical to that of the Italian Left, but was to change later. But the vision of an "opposition" within the CI, rather than an international fraction made it impossible to develop an international platform of the Communist Left.

 

In November 1920, after the KAPD's 2nd Congress, a third delegation (including Gorter, Schroder, and Rasch) left for Moscow. The CI reproached the KAPD with being responsible for the existence of two communist organisations (the KAPD and the KPD) within the same country, and demanded that it put an end to this anomaly. For the CI, the exclusion of Ruhle and the national-Bolsheviks around Wolffheim and Laufenberg opened the way for the reunification of the two currents and allowed a regroupment with the left wing of the USPD. While the KPD and the KAPD both vehemently rejected the merger of their two parties, the KAPD rejected on principle any regroupment with the left wing of the USPD. Despite this refusal to adopt the CI's position, the KAPD was given the status of a party sympathising with the IIIrd International, with a consultative vote (1).

Nonetheless, at the CI's 3rd Congress (26th July to 13th August 1921), the KAPD delegation once again criticised the CI's positions. In numerous interventions, it confronted the CI's opportunist turn with courage and determination. But the attempt to build a left fraction during the Congress failed, because none of those - from Mexico, Britain, Belgium, Italy and the USA - who criticised the CI were ready to carry out the tasks of an international fraction. Only the Dutch KAP and the militants from Bulgaria supported the KAPD's position. In the end, the CI confronted the KAPD with an ultimatum: either merge with the VKPD within three months, or face exclusion from the International.

 

Like the KPD, which a year before had silenced the critical voices within its own ranks, the CI's error was to have serious consequences. Opportunism within the CI had one less obstacle in its path.

The KAPD delegation refused to take an immediate decision, without referring back to the Party.

 

The KAPD found itself confronted with a difficult and painful decision (which it shared with the whole left communist current):

 

- it could merge with the VKPD, and so aided the development of opportunism;

 

- or it could form an external fraction of the International, with a view to reconquering the CI and even the German VKPD, hoping that other important fractions would form simultaneously;

- or it could work in the perspective that the conditions would ripen for the formation of a new International;

 

- or finally, it could proclaim, completely artificially, the formation of a IVth International.

 

From 21st July onwards, the KAPD leadership allowed itself to be drawn into a series of hasty decisions. Despite the opposition of delegates from Eastern Saxony and Hanover, and despite the abstention of the largest district (Greater Berlin), the party leadership pushed through the adoption of a resolution breaking with the IIIrd International. This decision was taken outside the framework of a Party Congress: even more serious was the decision to work towards "the construction of a workers' communist International".

The KAPD's extraordinary congress (11th -14th September 1921) unanimously proclaimed the immediate departure from the CI as a sympathising party.

 

At the same time, it considered all the CI's sections as being definitively lost: the emergence of revolutionary fractions from within the International was no longer considered a possibility. It deformed reality by considering the CI's different parties as nothing but "political auxiliaries" in the service of "Russian capital". In its haste, not only did the KAPD underestimate the potential international opposition to the development of opportunism within the CI, it also undermined the principles governing relations between revolutionary parties. This sectarian attitude was a foretaste of that adopted later by other proletarian organisations. The enemy seemed to be, not Capital, but the other groups, whose revolutionary nature was denied.

The drama of self-mutilation

Once excluded from the CI, another weakness was to weigh heavily on the KAPD. During its conferences, not only had it failed to evaluate the balance of class forces internationally, it had more or less restricted itself to the analysis of the situation in Germany, and to underlining the particular responsibility of the German working class. Nobody was ready to acknowledge that the international revolutionary tide was ebbing. Instead of drawing the lessons of the reflux, and redefining new tasks for the period, it declared that the "the situation is more than ripe for revolution". This did not stop a majority of its members, especially the young militants who had joined the movement after the war, from drifting away from the party. As we will show in another article, the party reacted by confronting the situation artificially by developing a tendency towards putschism, and individual actions.

Instead of recognising the ebb of the class struggle and working patiently as a fraction outside the International, the KAPD aspired to found a Communist Workers' International (KAI). The Berlin and Bremerhaven sections opposed the project, but remained in the minority.

 

At the same time, during the winter of 1921-22, the wing grouped around Schroder began to reject the necessity of economic struggle. In the period of "capitalism's mortal crisis", these were seen as opportunist; only political struggles posing the question of power should be supported. In other words, the party could only fulfil its function in revolutionary periods. This was a new variant on the councilist conception!

 

In March 1922, by manipulating the voting procedures, Schroder succeeded in winning a majority for his tendency which did not in fact reflect the real balance of forces within the party. The Greater Berlin district - numerically the largest - responded by excluding Sachs, Schroder, and Goldstein from the party for their "damaging behaviour towards the party and their unbridled personal ambition". Schroder, who belonged to the "official" majority, replied by excluding the Berlin district, and moved to Essen, where he formed the "Essen tendency". Henceforth, there were two KAPDs and two newspapers with the same name. A period of personal accusations and slanders began. Instead of trying to draw the lessons of the break with the KPD during the 1919 Heidelberg Congress, and of the exclusion from the CI, it was as if a continuity in the fiascos was being sought after! The concept of the party became no more than a label adopted by each of the splits, none of which could boast more than a few hundred militants at best.

The height of organisational suicide was reached by the Essen tendency's formation between 2nd and 6th April 1922, of the Communist Workers' International (KAI).

 

The birth of the KAPD itself in April 1920 had been over-hasty, without the possibilities of fraction work outside the KPD being exhausted. Now it was decided, just after leaving the CI and after an irresponsible split had caused the appearance of two tendencies, one in Essen and one in Berlin, to found, in haste and from nothing, a new International! This was a purely artificial creation, as if founding an organisation were merely a matter of will. It was a completely irresponsible attitude, which led to a new fiasco.

The Essen tendency split in its turn, to produce the Kommunistischer Ratebund (Council Communist League). In 1925, part of this tendency (Schroder, Reichenbach) returned to the SPD, while the rest left politics altogether.

 

As for the Berlin tendency, it survived a little longer. In 1926, it turned towards the left wing of the KPD. At this point, it had between 1500 and 2000 members, and most of the local groups (especially in the Ruhr) had disappeared. However, it grew again (to about 6000 members) by regrouping with the Entschiedene Linke (the "Determined Left", excluded from the KPD).

 

Following another split in 1928, the KAPD became less and less important.

 

What this whole trajectory shows us, is that the German Left Communists had incorrect organisational conceptions which were to prove fatal to them. Their organisational approach was a disaster for the working class.

After their exclusion from the CI and the farce of the creation of the KAI, they were incapable of carrying out any worthwhile fraction work. This fundamental task was taken in hand by the Italian Left. It was to prove impossible to draw the lessons of the revolutionary wave, and to defend them, unless the organisation could be kept alive. And it was precisely the German Left's deeply mistaken ideas on the organisational question which led them to failure and eventually to disappearance: True, bourgeois repression did everything it could (first with the social-democracy, then the stalinists and fascists) to exterminate the Left Communists. But it was their inability to defend and build the organisation, which contributed fundamentally to their destruction and political death. The counter-revolution triumphed utterly. This is why it is vital for revolutionaries today to draw the lessons of the German Left's organisational experience, and to assimilate them, to prevent the same fiasco from every being repeated.

The KPD's wrong organisational notions accelerate its decline into opportunism

After 1919, the KPD had excluded all its opposition, and found itself caught in the devastating downward spiral of opportunism.

 

In particular, it began to work within the trades unions and within parliament. Presented as purely "tactical" during the second Congress in October 1919, this task rapidly became "strategic".

 

Finding that the revolutionary wave was no longer spreading, and was even on the retreat, the KPD tried to "go to" those "backward" workers, "full of illusions" , who were still in the unions, by building "united fronts" in the factories. In December 1920, the party merged with the centrist USPD, in the hope of gaining greater influence by creating a mass party. Thanks to a few successes in the parliamentary elections, the KPD came to believe more and more in its own illusions, imagining that "the more votes we win in the elections, the greater our influence in the working class". It ended up by requiring Party militants to become union members.

This opportunist decline accelerated still further when the Party opened the door to nationalism. While it rightly booted the national-Bolsheviks out the door in 1919, from 1920-21 onwards, it let nationalist elements back in through the window.

 

Its attitude to the KAPD was adamant. When the International admitted the latter with a consultative vote in November 1920, the KPD on the contrary urged its exclusion.

 

After the struggles of 1923, with the rise of Stalinism in Russia, the process which was to make the KPD a spokesman for the Russian state accelerated. During the 1920s, the KPD became one of Moscow's most faithful disciples. While on the one hand, the majority of the KAPD rejected the entire Russian experience, on the other the KPD completely lost any critical sense! Its false notions of organisation had definitively weakened its internal forces of opposition to the development of opportunism.

"The German Revolution": a history of the party's weakness

It is clear that the German working class lacked a sufficiently strong party at its side. It is understandable that during the first phase of struggle (November/December 1918), the influence of the Spartakists was relatively weak, and the newly founded KPD's inability to prevent the provocation by the bourgeoisie was a serious setback. Throughout 1919, the working class paid the price of the party's weaknesses. In the wave of struggles that unfolded in different parts of the country after 1919, the KPD still did not have a determining influence. Its influence was further reduced by the splits in the party after October 1919. In March 1920, when the working class reacted massively against the Kapp putsch, once again the KPD failed to live up to the occasion.

Once we have emphasised the tragedy for the working class of the party's weakness, we might be tempted to say that we had finally found the cause of the revolution's defeat in Germany.

 

It is certainly true that we must not repeat the mistakes made by revolutionaries at the time, especially on the organisational level. However, these are not enough in themselves to explain the failure of the revolution in Germany.

 

It has often been said that the Bolshevik Party around Lenin provides the example of how a revolution can be led to victory, whereas Germany provides the counter-example of revolutionaries' weakness. But this does not explain everything, as Lenin was indeed the first to insist: "While it was easy to overcome the degenerate clique of Rasputins and Romanovs, it is infinitely more difficult to struggle against the powerful and organised gang of German imperialists, whether crowned or not" (Lenin, Speech to the First Russian Navy Congress, 22 November 1917).

"For us, it was easier to begin the revolution, but it is extremely difficult to continue and complete it. And the revolution confronts enormous difficulties in a country as industrialised as Germany, in a country with such a well organised bourgeoisie" (Lenin, Speech at the Conference of Moscow Factory Committees, 23rd July 1918).

 

In particular, by bringing the war to an end, under the pressure of the working class, the bourgeoisie removed an important factor in the radicalisation of the struggle. Once the war was over, despite their magnificent combativity, their growing pressure in the factories, their initiative and organisation within the workers' councils, the workers came up against highly elaborate sabotage on the part of the counter-revolutionary forces, with at their centre the SPD and the unions.

 

The lesson for today is obvious: faced with a bourgeoisie as skilful as the German one - and we can be sure that in the next revolution, the entire ruling class will demonstrate at least the same capacities, and will unite to combat the working class threat by every means possible - revolutionary organisations will be unable to fulfil their duty unless they are themselves solid and organised internationally.

The precondition for the construction of the party is a long-term programmatic clarification, and above all the elaboration of solid organisational principles. The German experience is clear: lack of clarity on the marxist way of functioning inevitably condemns the organisation to disappear.

 

The failure of German revolutionaries to build a real party during World War I had disastrous consequences. Not only did the party itself disintegrate and collapse, but during the counter-revolution, and even by the end of the 1920s, there were hardly any organised revolutionaries left to make their voices heard. The silence of the graveyard reigned over Germany for more than 40 years. When the proletariat raised its head again in 1968, it was lacking this revolutionary voice. One of the most important tasks in preparing the future proletarian revolution is to build up the organisation. If this is not done, the defeat of the revolution is already certain.

This is why the struggle for the construction of the organisation lies at the heart of the preparation for the revolution of tomorrow.

Dv

 


[1] The whole question of the KAPD and its evolution is dealt with in detail in our book on the Dutch Left.

 

[2] They were not excluded from the KAPD until after the return of their delegation at the end of the summer of 1920. Their membership of the KAPD shows just how disparate it really was at the moment of its formation, and that it was more a gathering than a party built on a solid organisational and programmatic basis.

 

[3] At the time, it was impossible to reach Moscow by land, because of the blockade imposed by the armies of the "democratic" powers, and the civil war. Only by taking a ship, and persuading the sailors to mutiny against their captain, did Franz Jung and Jan Appel succeed, after many adventures, in making their way through the blockade imposed by the counter-revolutionary armies, and reaching the port of Murmansk at the end of April, whence they made their way to Moscow.

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