Review: The communist left in Germany, 1918-21 (1)

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Firstly, we welcome the recent appearance of this work by D. Authier and J. Barrot, which clearly attempts to make a clear analysis of the Left Communists from the viewpoint of revolutionary marxism, and which moreover will allow revolutionaries to study hitherto inaccessible texts of the Communist Left. The book is one of the very few2 to put forward the communist perspective -- the only possible perspective in the historical period inaugurated by the Russian Revolution -- of the proletarian revolution. The book has many strengths, but also some weaknesses, which we would like to discuss here.

The error of modernism

The book is divided into two parts, the first analyzing the general historical sit­uation and the evolution of the groups which made up the Communist Left, and the second a collection of texts. In general in their analysis, the authors are not clearly aware of the new epoch inaugurated by World War I. They do not see that the war marked the end of that period when the capitalist mode of production could effec­tively develop the productive forces; when it in fact increasingly became a barrier to all further development, a barrier concrete­ly expressed in the periodic necessity for capitalism to destroy a huge part of the productive forces in world wars. The text never clearly states the material cause for the desertion of the whole social democratic movement -- mass parties and unions -- into the camp of the bourgeoisie: the end of the period of capitalist ascendency and the onset of the period of decadence, when the only tasks of the proletariat are the destruction of the bourgeois state and the creation of the international dictatorship of the wor­kers’ councils.

Obscuring the fundamental phenomenon of the change of period behind such epiphenomena as the extraction of relative surplus value (which Marx called the real domination of capital) made possible by the huge increase in the productivity of labour, the authors fall prey to modernist sophism -- claiming to see a so-called dichotomy between the reformism of the “old workers’ movement” (which corresponds to the ascendant period) and the purity of the “new’ one. This leads them to state that “the German proletariat remained wholly reformist”, as did the “majority of the working class” (p.83). And from there they take the small step of integrating the weight of bourgeois ideology (ie reformism) into the essential nature of the working class, which in fact, whether it likes it or not, cannot be ‘reformist’ or ‘for-capital’ -- or any other novel conception.

The working class is strictly determined by its socio-economic position in production. This forces it to constantly struggle against capital; this is class struggle. The change of period only changes the conditions in which this struggle takes place. The struggle was always revolution­ary (cf the Paris Commune), but within the framework of a progressive system the struggle was able to win reforms -- real improvements in its conditions of exploita­tion. The changing conditions in which the class struggle develops are thus directly linked to the change of period which marks the passage of the capitalist system into its era of historic decline. By integrating the bourgeois ‘disorder’ of reformism into the revolutionary nature of the working class, one can no longer understand why the working class is the revolutionary class, the bearer of communism; nor how the ‘reformist’ nature of the proletarian can become revolutionary, unless by the wave of a magic wand ... No, “the proletariat is revolutionary or it is nothing” (letter from Marx to Schweitzer, 1865). This means that its struggle has always been a struggle against capital, a revolutionary struggle, a struggle which is political from the start because it aims, consciously or not, at the destruction of the bourgeois state. Thus it is precisely this change in the conditions of struggle which means that the working class, in the decadent period, can only form organizations whose purpose is the seizure of power, the workers’ councils, and which forces it to give rise to its class party as a minority of the class, a concrete expression of pro­letarian class consciousness. We can see here very clearly why the workers’ councils are not “the discovery of the form of the new workers’ movement” but are a concreti­zation of its invariable content, a content which is the driving force of proletarian struggle and which the historic period imposes as a necessity for humanity: communism, classless society.

The myth of the opposition between the Italian Left and the German Left

This myth, upheld most notably by the ‘orthodox Bordigists’ of the International Communist Party3, opposes the ‘anarchism’ of the German Left to the ‘marxism’ of the Italian Left. But while it is true that the Italian Left developed its positions with a more rigorous analysis, the whole of the international left was a product of the same movement, defending, irrespective of natio­nality, the same fundamentally correct pos­itions: marxist anti-parliamentarianism; opposition to the unions; the rejection of frontism; the need for minority parties, welded together by strict communist princi­ples and rejecting all the opportunist tactics of the past. This book is particu­larly effective in dispelling this myth.

Barrot and Authier show that, even if an international left communist fraction was never constituted, the left fraction existed in all countries (Belgium with Jan Over­straeten and L’Ouvrier Communiste was no exception), and in particular that there were strong programmatic ties between the communist abstentionist fraction of the Italian Socialist Party (I1 Soviet) and the German Communist Left (Pannekoek and Gorter). In fact it was the Italian fraction which, after its conference in Florence in May 1920, instructed its delegates to the Communist International “to constitute an anti-parliamentian fraction within the IIIrd International ...” and insisted “on the incompatibility between communist principles and methods, and participation in elections alongside bourgeois representatives” (pps. 313-4). It was with the same aim, one year later, that delegates of the KAPD (Communist Workers’ Party of Germany) went to the IIIrd Congress of the CI. And Terraccini, dele­gate of the Italian Communist Party at the same Congress, supported the intervention of the KAPD against the frontist ‘tactic’ of the ‘open letter’. One could cite many more examples of common positions to demon­strate the programmatic links existing bet­ween the different left communist groups. But it is enough to say that all the left fractions were the product of the same move­ment, based on the realization that the international communist revolution was the order of the day, the only possible way for­ward for the working class. The weakness of the left equally expressed itself in their inability to create a real internatio­nal left fraction, able to struggle effec­tively against the degeneration of the CI, which was moving inexorably, on account of the defeat of the world revolution, towards the bourgeois camp. One could cite, apart from the German and Dutch Left and the Italian Left, the Hungarian Left around Bela Kun, Vorga and Lukacs, the Bulgarian Left around I. Ganchev, John Reed in America, Pankhurst’s group in England, the French Left with Lepetit and Sigrand, the Workers’ Opposition and Miasnikov’s group in Russia ... but as this extract from the text ‘The German Left and the Union Question in the IIIrd International’4 (see p.189) clearly shows:

Just as the Commune was the ‘Child of the International Workingmen’s Association’ (Engels), the German Revolution was the child of the international left, which was never able to complete the task of forging itself into a unified organiza­tion. But from the stronger sections of the Left: the German Left, which dared in its struggles to follow the program­matic lead given by the revolutionary movement itself; and the Italian Left, whose historic task was to continue the work of the international left, to deve­lop and apply its understanding in its attacks against the victorious counter­revolution; from the work of these groups we can forge the theoretical arms which will form the basis of the future revolu­tionary movement, whose practice will be inspired ... by the example of the Ger­man Left. The future revolution will not be a question of banal repetition; but it will take up the historic thread begun by the international Communist Left.”

The German left and the question of the Party

Another important issue raised by this book, is, among all the weaknesses of the German Communists, that which proved most damaging of all: their incomprehension of the fundamental need of the proletariat for a strong ‘vanguard’, constituted before the decisive battles, which had decisively broken with all the opportunist and bourgeois positions taken up by the social democratic parties. To bring out the mistakes of the past does not mean rejecting the heroic struggle of the communist left. On the contrary, it allows revolutionaries to draw vital less­ons for the proletarian movement concerning the function and role of the communist vanguard. In this respect the German exper­ience is full of hesitations and misunder­standings; but we can also see a clear break with substitutionism and careerism, and a growing understanding that the ‘centrists’ of the CPs were being led, with the reflux of the revolutionary movement, into the camp of the bourgeoisie; this was expressed by their adoption of the position of ‘socialism in one country’, the very nega­tion of the communist programme. On the other hand one should not see the German Left as homogeneous, riddled to the core by ‘wait-and-seeism’ (the heritage of Rosa Luxemburg’s hesitations in breaking from Social Democracy), or by the denial of the need for revolutionary minorities, although the latter tendency did eventually find theoretical expression in the Essen tendency and the AAUD-E (General Workers’ Union of Germany -- Unitary Organization), with Otto Ruhle and Die Aktion. In fact the ‘Theses of the KAPD on the Role of the Party in the Proletarian Revolution’ dwelt at length on the need for the proletariat to create for itself “the historically determined form of organization which groups together the most conscious and prepared proletarian militants ... is the party.” The party must thus above all intransigently rid itself of all reformism and opportunism. This applies equally to its programme, its tactics, its publications, its specific slogans and its actions. In particular it must never inc­rease its membership more quickly than its ability to create a strong communist nucleus permits.5

In the same sense, the interventions of Jan Appel at the Third Congress of the CI, are also significant6:

The proletariat needs an extremely tightly constructed party or nucleus. This is essential. Each individual com­munist must be irreproachable -- this must be our goal -- and able to assume the responsibilities of leadership if need be. In his relations, in the struggles into which he is plunged, he must be able to hold on -- and what he is holding on to, his lifeline, is the programme. He acts according to the decisions taken by communists. Here, the strictest pos­sible discipline reigns. If he fails in this, he must be expelled or disciplined. Thus it is a question of a party which is a nucleus that knows what it wants, that is solidly constructed and has proved itself in combat that has finished with negotiations and struggles ceaselessly. Such a party cannot arise until it is actually thrown into the struggle, when it has broken with the old traditions of the union movement, with the reformist methods of the union movement, with parliamentarism.”

Such a clear text can leave no further doubt as to the profoundly marxist nature of the KAPD, and allows us to understand that it is the dynamic of the class struggle which gives rise to the class party. This means that in periods of counter-revolution, any attempt to form the party can only serve to spread confusion. All that can remain are small groups which preserve the programmatic gains and the class positions. But with the emergence of a new wave of class struggle, “it is no longer a question of simply defen­ding the positions, but (on the basis of a constant elaboration of these positions, on the basis of the programme of the class) of being capable of cementing the spontan­eity of the class, of being an expression of the consciousness of the class, of helping to unify its forces for the decisive offensive, in other words, of building the party, an essential moment in the victory of the proletariat.” (‘Lessons of the German Revolution’ in the International Review of the ICC, no.2.)

To conclude this short review, it should be pointed out that the choice of texts pre­sented is not really representative and does not include many of the best works of the German Left, as the authors themselves admit. But in any case the publication of these texts in French can only contribute to the recognition of this current as one of the most important of the international communist left.

This book will help satisfy the urgent need of the re-emerging revolutionary movement to: “know its own past to be better able to criticize the past.”

Marc M.

1 The Communist Left in Germany 1918-21, by Dennis Authier and Jean Barrot, Edition Payot, Paris.

2 Among which is the other excellent work by D. Authier on this subject which includes more fundamental texts of the German Left: The German Left, (texts from the KAPD, AAUD, etc) – published by Invariance. A review of this book appears in Revolution Internationale no. 6 and Internationalism no. 5. For a more general treatment of this question there is an article in the International Review no. 2: ‘Lessons of the German Revolution’.

3 However, it is understandable that the degenerated vestiges of the International Communist Party try to camouflage their Leninist virtue with calumny and insinuations, since at least two splinter groups from the same PCI. Invariance and the Danish group, Kommunismen have republished some texts of the German Left.

4 This text is in fact by the Kommunismen group, which split from PCI in 1972.

5 Extract from Invariance no. 8. This text is available in English in Revolutionary Perspectives no. 4.

6 Extract from the German Left.