Lessons of the German Revolution

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Lessons of the German Revolution

1. The formation of the German Communist Party (Spartakusbund)

When the German Communist Party was founded between 30 December, 19181. and 1 January, 1919, the revolutionary opposition to Social Democracy seemed to have found an autonomous, organized expression. But the German Party (appearing at the very moment when the proletariat was engaging in armed struggle in the streets and, for a short time, actu­ally taking power in some industrial centres), was to immediately reveal both the heterogeneous character of its origins as well as its inability to attain a global and complete understanding of the tasks which it was formed to accomplish.

Which were the forces which came together to form the Party? And what were the problems which immediately presented a stumbling block in the way of these forces?

We will examine the most interesting of these factors here because they will enable us to understand the errors of the Party and because they were to weigh so heavily on future developments.

The trajectory of events after 4 August, 1914 encompassed many diffi­culties and confusions. The history of the Spartakus group is clear proof of this. Its role as a brake on theoretical clarification and dev­elopment is very obvious.

At the time of the Spartakus League (Spartakusbund) all important deci­sions were characteristic of the positions of Rosa Luxemburg. (The group took the name Spartakus League in 1916; throughout 1915 the group had been called Internationale after its review which first appeared in April 1915.)

At Zimmerwald (5-8 September, 1915), the Germans were represented by the Internationale group; by Borchardt from Berlin who represented the small group around the review Lichtsrahlen (Shafts of Light) and by the centrist wing close to Kautsky. Only Borchardt supported the internationalist positions of Lenin, while the other Germans supported a motion couched in the following terms:

"Under no circumstances should the impression be given that this con­ference wants to provoke a split and to found a new International."

At Kienthal (24-30 April, 1916), the German opposition was represented by the Internationale group (Bertha Thalheimer and Ernst Meyer), by the Opposition in the Organization (the centrists around Hoffman), and by the Bremer Linksradikalen (Bremen left radicals) through Paul Frolich.

The hesitations of the Spartakists (Internationale) were not immediately overcome; once again, they were nearer to the positions of the centrists than to those of the left (Lenin-Frolich). E. Meyer stated: "We want to create the ideological base........of the new International, but we don't want to commit ourselves on the organizational level because everything is still in a state of flux."

This was the classical position of Luxemburg for whom the party was more necessary at the end of the revolution than during its initial prepara­tory stages. ("In a word, historically, the moment when we will have to take the lead is not at the beginning but at the end of the revolution.")

The most important factor on the international level was the appearance of the Bremer Linksradikalen.1 As early as 1910 the Social Democratic newspaper of Bremen, the Bremer BurEerzeit, was publishing weekly articles by Pannekoek and Radek, and it was under the influence of the Dutch Left that the Bremen Group formed itself around Knief, Paul Fro­lich, and others. At the end of 1915, the ISD (International Socialists of Germany) was formed, born from the union of the Bremen communists with the Berlin revolutionaries who published the review Lichtsrahlen. The Bremerlinke became independent from Social Democracy, in formal termo, in December 1916, but already in June of the same year it had begun the publication of Arbeiterpolitik2 which was the most impor­tant legal organ of the Left. Apart from the articles of Pannekoek and Radek, there appeared in it contributions from Zinoviev, Bukharin, Kamenev, Trotsky and Lenin. Arbeiterpolitik immediately displayed a more mature consciousness of the break with reformism. In their first issue they wrote that August 4th was "the natural end of a political movement whose decline had been underway for some time".

From Arbeiterpolitik there arose the tendencies who were to take the lead in raising the question of the party. The discussion between the Bremen Group and the Spartakists was difficult, because of the persistence of the latter to remain within Social Democracy.

On 1 January, 1916 at the national conference of the Internationale group, Knief criticized the absence of a clear perspective calling for a total break with the Social Democratic party and the formation of a revolutionary party on a radically new foundation.

While the Spartakist group Internationale adhered to the Socialdemocra­tische Arbeiter-gemeinschaft (Social Democratic Work Collective) in the Reichstag and was producing declarations such as:

"A struggle for the party but not against the party ..... a struggle for democracy in the party, for the rights of the rank and file, for the comrades of the party against the leaders who have forgotten their duties ..... Our watchword is neither split nor unity, new nor old party, but the reconquest of the party at the base by the rebellion of the rank and file ...... The decisive struggle for the party has begun." (Spartakus-Briefe, 30 March, 1916)

At the same time, in Arbeiterpolitik one could read:

"We consider that a split, both on the national and international lev­el, is not only inevitable but an indispensable precondition for the real reconstitution of the International, for the reawakening of the proletarian movement. We consider that it is inadmissible and dangerous to hold back from expressing this profound conviction in front of the labouring masses." (Arbeiterpolitik, no.4)

And Lenin in On The Junius Pamphlet (July 1 91 6 ) wrote:

"The greatest weakness in German revolutionary marxism is the absence of a tightly knit illegal organization ..... such an organization would be forced to define clearly its attitude towards opportunisms such as that of Kautsky. Only the International Socialists of Germany (ISD) have expressed a clear, unambiguous position on this question."

The Spartakists also continued to adhere to the USPD (Independent Democra­tic Party of Germany founded 6-8 April, 1917; a centrist party not sub­stantially different except in size from the Social Democracy itself but linked to the growing radicalization of the masses) the party of Haase, Ledebour, Kautsky, Hilferding and Bernstein. This adherence made the relationship between the Bremen Communists and the Sparta­kists even more difficult. In March 1917 one could still read in Arbeiterpolitik:

"The left radicals are facing a momentous decision. The greatest responsibility lies with the Internationale group, which despite the criticisms we have made of it we recognize as the most active and largest group to be the kernel of the future radical left party. Without them, we must say frankly, we - ourselves and the ISD - would be unable to construct a party capable of acting in the foreseeable future. It depends on the Internationale Group whether the struggle of the left radicals will be led in an orderly fashion under one flag, or whether the oppositions within the workers' movement which have appeared in the past and whose competition is a factor of clarification will waste great deal of time and energy only to end up in canfusion." (Our emphasis)

In the face of the adhesion of the Spartakus group to the USPD, the same paper said:

"The Internationale group is dead ..... a group of comrades have formed thrmselves into an action committee for the construction of a new party."

Indeed, in August 1917, a meeting of delegates from Bremen, Berlin, Frankfurt and other German towns was held in Berlin with the object of establishing the basis for a new party. Otto Ruhle with the Dresden group took part in this meeting.

In the Spartakus group itself there were a number of elements whose positions were very close to those of the Linksradikalen and who did not accept the organizational compromise of the ‘Zentrale' around Rosa Luxemburg. At first this was manifested in the opposition of the Spartakus groups in Duisburg, Frankfurt and Dresden, to the partici­pation in the Arbeiter-gemeinschaft. (The organ of the Duisburg group, Kampf, engaged in an animated debate against this participation.) Subse­quently, other groups, for example the important Chemnitz group around Heckert, voiced their opposition to adhesion to the USPD. These groups in practice shared the position expressed by Radek in Arbeiterpolitik:

"The idea of building a party with the centrists is a dangerous utopia. The left radicals, whether the circumstances have prepared them for it or not, must, if they want to fulfill their historic task, build their own party."

Liebknecht himself, more closely linked to the ferment within the class, expressed his own position in a prison text (1917) in which, seeking to grasp the living pulse of the revolution, he distinguished three social strata within the German Social Democracy. The first was composed of stipendary officials, the social base of the politics of the majority of the Social Democratic Party. The second was composed of:

"The most well-to-do and educated workers. For them the imminence of a serious conflict with the ruling class is not clear. They want to react and to struggle. They are the base of the Socialdemocratische Arbeiter-gemeinschaft."

Finally, the third category was composed of:

"The proletarian masses, the uneducated workers. The proletariat in the strict sense of the word. Only this stratum, because of its real condition, has nothing to lose. We support these masses: the proletariat."

All this shows two things:

1. That an important fraction of the Spartakus group was oriented in the same direction as the left radicals, and was coming into conflict with the minority centre represented by Luxemburg, Jogisches and Paul Levi.

2. The federalist, non-centralized character of the Spartakus group.

The Russian Revolution

The disagreements which arose between the Spartakists and the USPD majo­rity concerning this revolution, led Arbeiterpolitik to take up the dis­cussion with the Spartakists once again.3 The Bremen Communists never separated solidarity with the Russian Revolution from the need to form a communist party in Germany. Why, asked the Bremen Communists, had the revolution triumphed in Russia?

"Uniquely and solely because in Russia there is an autonomous party of left radicals which from the beginning has raised the flag of socialism and fought under the banner of social revolution."

"If at Gotha one could out of good will still find reasons for the attitude of the Internationale group, today all semblance of justi­fication for association with the Independents has vanished."

"Today the international situation makes the foundation of a radical left party an even more urgent necessity."

"For our part we are firmly committed to dedicating all our strength to creating in Germany no conditions for a Linksradikalen Partei. We therefore invite our friends of the Internationale group, in view of the weakness of the Independents over the last nine months and in view of the corrosive repercussions of the Gotha compromise (which can only prejudice the future of the radical movement in Germany)4, to break unambiguously and openly with the pseudo-socialist Independents and to found an autonomous radical left party." (Arbeiter­politik, 15 December, 1917) (Our emphasis)

In spite of everything, another year was to pass before the foundation of the party in Germany, and that a year in which social tensions were steadily growing: from the Berlin strikes of 17 April to the navy mutiny of the summer and the strike wave of January 1918 (Berlin, Ruhr, Kiel, Bremen, Hamburg, Dresden) which lasted for the whole summer and autumn.

Let us know examine some other minor groups characteristics of the German situation. We mentioned above that the ISD also regrouped the Berlin group around the review Lichstrahlen. The most important representative of this group was Borchardt. The ideas which he developed in the review were violently anti-Social Democratic, but already, because of their semi-anarchist orientation, represented a break with the Bremen Commu­nists. As Arbeiterpolitik observed: "In place of the party, be (Borchardt) poses a propagandist sect of an anarchist nature." Later on, the left communists were to consider him as a renegade and baptised him ‘Julien the Apostate'.

In Berlin, Werner Moller (already a participant in Lichstrahlen became the keenest collaborator with Arbeiterpolitik and later its representative. (He was brutally murdered in cold blood by Noske's men in January 1919).

In Berlin, the left current was very strong, with, among others, the Spartakists Karl Shroder and Friedrich Wendel, (later of the KAPD).

The Hamburg group occupies a particular place in the revolutionary oppo­sition to Social Democracy. It only joined the ISD in November 1918 when, at Knief''s proposal, the latter changed its name to the IKD (Internationale Kommunisten Deutschland) on 23 December 1918. The leaders in Hamburg were Heinrich Laufenberg and Fritz Wolffheim. What distinguished them from the Bremen Communists was a sharper polemic of a syndicalist and anarchist tone directed against leaders. Arbeiterpolitik on the other hand maintained a correct position when it wrote on 28 July 1918:

"The cause of the Linksradikalen, the cause of the future communist party of Germany into which will flow sooner or later all those who have remained faithful to the old ideals, does not hinge on great names. On the contrary, what is and must be the truly new factor if we are ever to attain socialism is that the anonymous mass takes its destiny into its own hands; that each comrade taken individually makes his own contribution without concerning himself about the ‘great names' that are alongside him." (Our emphasis)

The overtly syndicalist character of the Hamburg group's political orien­tation was derived in part from the activity undertaken by Wolffheim when he had been involved with the International Workers of the World in America.

But undoubtedly, the best expression of class struggle in Germany at this time was to be found among the Bremen Communists. In saying this one exposes all the question begging and errors of the Spartakus group (including its best theoretician, Rosa Luxemburg) on the problems of organiza­tion, the conception of the revolutionary process, and the role of the party. However, to point out the mistakes of Rosa Luxemburg in no way signifies a rejection of her heroic struggle; it does allow for an under­standing that in conjunction with the far-reaching insights she developed in her theoretical fight against Bernstein and Kautsky, she also defended positions which we cannot accept.

We have no gods to worship; on the contrary we must face up to the neces­sity of understanding the errors of the past in order to be able to avoid them ourselves; to know how to draw the useful but incomplete lessons (in this case, on the function and organizational tasks of revolu­tionaries) from the historical proletarian movement.

In order to be able to carry out our own tasks, we must also be able to understand the indissoluble link which exists between the activity of small groups when the counter-revolution has the upper hand and the example of the work of Bilan and Internationalisme is an eloquent testimony to this) and the action of the political group when the insurmount­able contradictions of capitalism push the class towards the revolutio­nary 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.

But parties, no less than revolutions, do not spring, fully formed, from nowhere. Let us explain. Organizational artificialities do not just serve any old cause; rather, more often, they have served the counter­revolution. To proclaim a ‘party', to build up one's organization as a party in a period of counter-revolution is an absurdity, a very grave error which signifies an inability to understand the essence of the prob­lem when there is no immediate revolutionary perspective. But it is no less grave an error to put this task aside or to put it off until it is too late. In the context of this study, it is this second error which is most interesting.

Those who say that all problems will be solved spontaneously are, in the final analysis, eulogizing unconscious spontaneity and not the passage from spontaneity to consciousness; they fail to understand, or are unwil­ling to understand, that this attainment of consciousness by the class in its struggle must also lead it to recognize the necessity of an ade­quate instrument for carrying out the assault on the state, the fortress of capital.

If the spontaneity of the class is a moment which we advocate, spontaneism - that is, the theorization of spontaneity - actually kills spontaneity, expresses itself in a series of stale formulae: a feverish attempt to ‘be where the workers are', an inability to judge when to be ‘against the cur­rent' in moments of relapse and reflux in order to be ‘with the current' in decisive moments later on. The deviations of Luxemburg on organizational questions also manifested themselves in her conception of the con­quest of power - and we would add that this was inevitable given the inti­mate connection between these two questions:

"For us the conquest of power will not be effected at one blow. It will be a progressive act, for we shall progressively occupy all the positions of the capitalist state, defending tooth and nail each one that we seize." (From ‘The Speech to the Founding Convention of the German Communist Party', in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, Pathfinder Press)

But, unfortunately, this was not the end of it. While Paul Frolich (representing the Bremen group) was issuing the following appeal from Hamburg in November I918: "It is the beginning of the German revolution, of the world revolution: long live the greatest action of the world revo­lution! Long live the German workers republic! Long live world-wide Bolshevism!" Rosa Luxemburg, a little over a month later, instead of ask­ing why such a massive attack by the proletariat had come to be defeated, was saying: "On November 9th, the workers and soldiers destroyed the old regime in Germany .,... On November 9th, the proletariat arose and threw off its shameful yoke. The Hohenzollerns were chased away by the workers and soldiers organized in councils." So she interpreted the passing of power from the gang of William II to that of Ebert-Scheidemann-Haase as a revolution, and not as a changing of the old guard against the revolu­tion.5

This inability to understand the historic role of Social Democracy was to cost Luxemburg her life, as it also did Liebknecht and thousands of prole­tarians. The KAPD (Communists Workers Party of Germany ), as did the Italian Left, saw clearly how to draw the lessons of this experience. (One of the KAPD's most fundamental points of opposition to the C.I. (Communisst International) and the KPD (German Communist Party) was its refusal to have any contact with the USPD. We will return to this later.) Bor­diga wrote on 6 February 1921 in Il Communista an article entitled ‘The Historic Function of Social Democracy' from which we will quote a few passages:

"Social Democracy has an historic function in the sense that there will probably be a period in the western countries in which the Social Democratic parties will be in the government, either on their own or in collaboration with the bourgeois parties. But, while the proletariat may not have the capacity to prevent this, such an intermediary stage does not represent a positive and neces­sary condition for the development of revolutionary forms and insti­tutions; instead of being a useful preparation for the latter, it will constitute a desperate attempt of the bourgeoisie to diminish and divert the offensive of the proletariat, in order to be able to ruthlessly massacre the workers under the banners of the white re­action later on, if the workers still have enough strength to dare to revolt against the legitimate, humanitarian, decent government of Social Demooracy."

"For us there can be no other revolutionary transfer of power than that from the ruling bourgeoisie to the proletariat, just as there can be no other form of proletarian power except the dictatorship of the Workers' Councils."

II. The faltering steps of the German Communist Party (Spartakusbund)

We began this study at the Founding Congress of the German Communist Party (30 December 1918/1 January) and then made a detour to examine its ori­gins. We will now continue from the initial point of departure.

At the Founding Congress two diametrically opposed positions became crys­tallized. On the one hand there were the minority around Luxemburg, Jogisches and Prefi Levi, which regrouped the most important personalities of the new party, and who, despite being in the minority, assumed the leadership of it, (The minority's scoffing attitude and its semi-refusal to allow expression to the preponderant positions of the Left - only Fro­lich was admitted to the Zentrale - were to lead, a few months later, to the farce of the Heidelberg Congress). On the other hand, were the great majority of the party: the passion and revolutionary potential which was expressed by the IKD and a good part of the Spartakists. The positions of the Left, with Liebknecht at their head, triumphed with an overwhelming majority: against participation in elections, for leaving the unions, for the insurrection,

But the majority, faced with the immediate tasks of preparing for an insurrectional offensive lacked a clear perspective and the military pro­blem also called for the centralized and leading role of the Party. A sort of federalism and regionalist independence dominated the scene. In Berlin, hardly anyone knew what was happening in the Ruhr, or in the centre or south of the country ann. vice versa. Rote Fahne, itself, recognized on 8 January 1919, that: "the non-existence of a centre charged with orga­nizing the working class cannot last ...... It is vital that the revolutionary workers set up directing organisms capable of guiding and utili­zing the combative energy of the masses." And note that this report speaks only about the situation in Berlin.

This disorganization was to increase and reached the level of paroxysm after the death of Luxemburg and Liebknecht. The Party, at the moment when it was forced into clandestinity and subjected to counter-revolutio­nary terror, found itself beheaded. The Soviet Republics which arose al­most everywhere in Germany: Bremen, Munich, Bavaria etc were defeated one by one, the proletarian fighters annihilated. The proletarian wave, the immense potentiality within the class, suffered a reflux. We can hardly refrain from citing the whole of the letter Lenin wrote in April 1919 to the Bavarian Soviet Republic. Needless to say the vast majority of the ‘concrete measures' recommended by Lenin were never taken.

Greetings to the Bavarian Soviet Republic

"We thank you for your message of greeting and in turn we heartily salute the Soviet Republic of Bavaria. We would immediately like you to inform us more often and more concretely about the measures you have taken in your struggle against the bourgeois executioners, Scheidemann and Co; if you have created soviets of workers and house­hold servants in the districts of the town; if you have armed the workers and disarmed the bourgeoisie; if you have made use of the warehouses of clothes and ether articles as widely and as immediately as possible, to help the workers and above all the day-labourers and small peasants; if you have expropriated the factories and goods of the Munich capitalists as well as the capitalist agricultural enter­prises in the surrounding area; if you have abolished the mortgages and rent of small peasants; if you have tripled the wages of day-labourers and workmen; if you have confiscated all the paper and printworks in order to publish leaflets and newspapers for the masses; if you have instituted the six-hour day with two or three hours dedicated to the study of the art of state administration; if you have crowded the bourgeoisie together in order to immediately install workers in the rich apartments; if you have taken over all the banks; if you have chosen hostages from among the bourgeoisie; if you have established a food ration which gives more to workers than to members of the bourgeoisie; if you have mobilized all the workers at once for defence and for ideological propaganda in the surrounding villages. The most rapid and widespread application of these measures as well as other similar measures, carried out on the initiative of the soviets of workers and day-labourers and, sepa­rately, of small peasants, must reinforce your position. It is vital to hit the bourgeoisie with an extortionary tax and to amelio­rate practically, immediately, and at all costs the situation of the workers, day-labourers and small peasants. Best wishes and hopes for your success," Lenin.

This lack of theoretical preparedness, this inability to rise to the situation, was to provoke a split in the German movement at the first sign of a reflux. On the other hand, there were those who began to look more towards Bolshevism, towards victorious Russia, in order to take up its propaganda, its strategic and tactical methods in an absurd attempt to apply them to Germany. The case of Radek is a typical example of this: formerly the spokesman for the Bremen Communists, the most intransigent wing of the movement, he was to become after the reflux of the struggle in the summer of 1919, one of the architects, along with Paul Levi of the Heidelberg Congress (October, 1919) where the gains of the Founding Congress of the Party were repudiated and replaced with the ‘tactical' use of elections, of work in the ultra-reformist unions and, in the end, of ‘open letters' and the united front.

Thus, the call for centralization made by this tendency is of doubtful value since they were taking an opposite course to that of the develop­ment of the spontaneous movement. On the other hand, the revolutionary wing which refused to make this artificial choice and whose methods and prognostications were far more fruitful were, once they constituted them­selves into an organized tendency, to confront a solid wall of growing difficulties.

Did the World Revolution Fail because of the Inadequacies of the Russian Revolution Or did the Russian Revolution Fail because of the Inadequacies of the World Revolution?

The answer to this problem is not a simple task and requires an under­standing of the social dynamic of these years. The Russian Revolution was a magnificent example for the western proletariat. The Third International founded in March 19196 is an example of the revolutionary will of the Bolsheviks and represented a real effort on their part to gain the support of the European communists. But the internal diffi­culties of the Russian Revolution, which skyrocketed at the end of the civil war, and which could have no solution within the Russian frame­work; the defeat of the first phase of the German revolution (January-March, 1919) and of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, convinced the Russian communists that the revolution in Europe was a long term perspective. According to them, it was now primarily a question of regaining the majority of workers for the coming period, of convincing the Social Democratic masses of the correctness of communist positions, etc. There was a tendency to recuperate the USPD, to regard them as the right wing of the workers' movement and not as a faction of the bourgeoisie - and a steady abandonment of the struggle against Social Democracy, of the attempt to relate to the most advanced layers of the class by insis­ting on the necessity of attacking and exposing Social Democracy on the basis of the combativity of these workers.

We could thus say that if the hesitations of the western communists were deadly throughout the first phase (1918-19), it was the Communist Inter­national itself which was to become an obstacle to the flowering - how­ever late - of an authentic proletarian vanguard in Europe when the sit­uation there was still revolutionary (and we are only speaking of the years 1920-21, after which one could speak for two more years of a prole­tarian reaction against the assaults of the bourgeoisie (cf Hamburg ‘23) and only then of the final defeat and massacre of the working class). If the passage from one situation to another took place gradually, we can still point to decisive moments of the decline: to the dissolution of the Amsterdam bureau by the Communist International and Lenin's text, Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder.

Let us return to the vicissitudes of the German Communist Party. On 17 August, 1919, a National Conference was held at Frankfurt. Levi's attack on the Left was a failure; but in October of the same year, it had more success. In a clandestine Congress which had only a sparse repre­sentation from the district sections, and against the wishes of many, a split was decided in practice by the change of the programmatic positions arrived at in January. Point 5 of the new programme of the Party read:

"The revolution, which wall not happen all at once but will be a long and persevering struggle of a class oppressed for centuries and thus not fully conscious of its mission and its strength, is subject to flux and reflux." (our emphasis)

And Levi, shortly afterwards, supported the view that the new revolutio­nary wave would come in .......1926! But the decision to expel the ‘leftists', the ‘adventurists', was not taken officially and was not re­solved until the Third Congress of the KPD in 1920. After Heidelberg, the Left attempted to form itself into a KPD(O) (the ‘O' stood for Oppo­sition), effectively ensuring that after the first few months of 1920 there were almost two KPD organizations: the KPD(S) (KPD-Spartakusbund) and the KPD(O). All this took place in a completely chaotic situation. The news which managed to get through to Moscow was infrequent and fragmentary. In Greetings to the Italian, French and German Communists dated 10 October, 1919, Lenin wrote:

"Of the German Communists we know fully that there is a communist press in many towns. It is inevitable that, in a movement which is' rapidly extending itself, which is subjected to vigorous perse­cution, dissension will arise. That is a growing pain. The diver­gences within the German Communists, as far as I can judge, can be reduced to the problem of ‘using legal channels', of using bour­geois parliaments, reactionary unions, the legal councils which have been perverted by the Scheidemannites and Kautskyists - to the prob­lem of participating in these institutions or boycotting them."

Lenin came down on the side of participation and gave his seal of appro­val to Levi's policies.

But the central problem, which was to manifest itself a few months later, was either to adopt illegal revolutionary struggle and military prepara­tion or legal activity in the unions and parliament. This was the basis of the confrontation between the two ‘lines' of the KPD. The centre of the Opposition was based for a while in Hamburg. But Laufenberg and Wolffheim quickly began to be discredited. It was they who began to ela­borate the theory of National Bolshevism, according to which the defence of Germany against the Entente was a revolutionary duty, even at the price of an alliance with the German bourgeoisie.7 From then on Bremen, which was already functioning as an ‘information centre', was to become the point of reference for Left Communism. The Bremen ‘informa­tion centre' struggled on two fronts up to the beginning of 1920: against the Party Zentrale and against Hamburg. Bremen did not try to split but tried to hold the results of the Heidelberg Congress up for discussion; but the Zentrale backed by Levi was opposed to all discus­sion and was aided in this by the struggle against the ‘National Bolshevism' of Hamburg. The attempted Kapp Putsch, by giving these divergences a ‘practical' content, put an end to all discussion.

Let us examine the proletarian response to this attempted putsch and the behaviour of the various organizations.

In the Ruhr the Reichswehr did not immediately clarify its posi­tion towards Kapp and given that all, from the ADGB (the German union, Allgemeiner Deutscher Gewerschafs Bund)8 and Social Demo­crats to the centrists and the KPD(S) called for a general strike, (although the KPD centre was somewhat hesitant in the first days), the situation would have had revolutionary possibilities, if the leadership of the unions and the parliamentary parties could have been broken; indeed, a number of zones like the Ruhr and central Germany had not undergone the massive proletarian defeats of the pre­ceding years, as had Berlin, Munich, Bremen, Hamburg etc.

In the Ruhr there was considerable tension between the Reichswehr and the workers, and such was the situation provoked by the Kapp Putsch, that it immediately led to the arming of the workers on strike. (The fact that many combative workers had managed to escape the domi­nation of the ADGB by joining the FAUD(S)9 was also important.) Because of the democratic, constitutionalist character of the general strike, the Independents and the innumerable Social Democrats were able only, in the first few days, to attempt to moderate the aggressiveness of the workers, although without success in the first high points of the struggle. The situation developed as follows: locally, in each town, independently of the unions, there were formed proletarian units who, took up arms against the soldiers of the Reichswehr. The insurgent towns united their forces and marched against the towns still in the hands of the army, in order to give support to the local workers.

While one part of the ‘Red Amy' of the Ruhr, (as it was called), pushed the Reichswehr out of the Ruhr by forming a front parallel to Lippe, other workers' units took over, one by one, the towns of Remscheid, Essen, Dusseldorf, Mulheim, Duisburg, Hamborn and Dinkslaken, and pushed the Reichswehr back along the Rhine as far as Wesell in a short period between 18 and 21 March.

On the 20 March, the ADGB, after the failure of the putsch, declared the general strike to be over and on 22 March the SDP and the USPD did the same.

On 24 March, representatives of the Social Democratic government, the SDP, the USPD, and part of the KPD came to an agreement at Biele­feld; proclaimed a cease-fire, the disarming of the workers and free­dom for workers who had committed ‘illegal' acts. A large part of the ‘Red Army' did not accept the agreement and carried on with the struggle.

On 30 March, the Social Democratic government and the Reichswehr issued an ultimatum to the workers: to either accept the agree­ment immediately, or else the Reichswehr (whose strength had at least quadrupled thanks to the arrival of the Freikorps from Bavaria, Berlin, Northern Germany and the Baltic) would begin a new offensive. Co-ordination between the various workers' units was from now on at a minimum because of the treachery of the Independents, the centrism of the KPD(S) and the syndicalists, and the rivalry between the three military centres of the ‘Red Army'. The Reichswehr and the numerous White troops opened a huge offen­sive on all fronts: on 4 April, Duisburg and Mulheim fell, followed by Dortmund on the 5th and Gelsenkirchen on the 6th.

A brutal White Terror then began; it took its victims not only from among the armed workers, but also from among their families who were massacred, and among the young workers who had helped the wounded fighters get away from the front.

The ‘Red Army' of the Ruhr was composed of between 80,000 and 120,000 workers; it managed to organize artillery and a small air-force. The development of the struggles had caused the formation of its three military centres:

Hagen: led by the USPD accepted the Bielefeld agreement without hesita­tion.

Essen: led by the KPD and the Left Independents was recognized as the Supreme Centre of the army of March 25th. When the Social Democratic government issued its ultimatum to the workers on 30 March, this centre took up the very ambiguous call for a return to the general strike (when the workers were already armed and fighting!).

Mulheim: led by the Left Communists and the revolutionary syndicalists followed completely the military ‘Centre' at Essen, but when the latter reacted in a centrist fashion to the Bielefeld agreement, the Mulheim Centre took up the slogan "struggle on till the end". The three leaderships of the USPD, KPD(S) and the FAUD(S) all took up the same ignoble position, and let it be known that they considered these strug­gles to be ‘adventurist'.

No national Zentrale took over the leadership of the struggles: the local proletarian movement displayed all its will towards centraliza­tion within the limits of its strength at the local level. Even in Central Germany the workers armed themselves and, under the leader­ship of the communist, M. Hoelz, a number of towns around Halle staged uprisings, but the movement was unable to go further, because the KPD(S), very strong at Chemnitz where it was the largest party, contented itself with arming the workers in agreement with the Social Democrats and the Independents, and with waiting for......... the return of Ebert to the Government.

Brandler, who led the workers' council of Chemnitz, saw his role as a local communist leader as consisting of preventing the outbreak of struggles between the Communists under Hoelz, who wanted to arm them­selves with the numerous weapons abandoned by the Reichswehr in Chemnitz and in the surrounding area, and the Social Democrats who were always at the ready for an attack against the revolutionaries - making several attempts to launch the Heimwehr (armed White groups of the local bourgeoisie) against them.

The centrism of the KPD(S) was fully revealed by the fact that, while the workers were in struggle, the Levi Zentrale issued on 26 March the slogan of ‘loyal opposition' in case of a ‘workers' government' composed of the Social Democrats and the Independents. Die Rote Fahne, the central organ of the KPD(S) (number 32, 1920) wrote:

"We understand loyal opposition in the following way: no preparation for the armed seizure of power, full freedom for the Party's agitation for its goal and its solutions."

The KPD thus officially abdicated its revolutionary goals, making the need for a revolutionary communist party in the German proletariat more urgent than ever.

It was thus as a natural historic result that the Left Communists, faced with the treason of the official section of the IIIrd Interna­tional, formed in the following month (April 1920) the KAPD, the Communist workers Party of Germany.

This long extract from The German Left and the Union Question in the Third International (a work through which an important part of the Bordiguist PCI (Parti Communiste Internationale) split in 1972) needs no comment.

In the course of these months, another important event occurred: the abandonment of the KPD(O) by the Bremerlinke and its return to the KPD(S) where it was to play an internal opposition role under Frolich and Karl Becker (we will see later the development of his position in the course of the following years and in particular in the Spring of 1921). We do not possess all the material to understand and to pass judgment on what was a very serious blow to Left Communism and a great success for the Levi leadership. What undoubtedly influenced the decision of the Bremen group was its feeling of loyalty to the CI (which gave its support to the KPD(S) while expressing strong reservations) and its clear opposition to the Hamburg group of Laufenberg and Wolffheim.

Up to now we have not spoken about the trade unions, councils, and ‘Workers' Associations' (Arbeiterunionen) which were central points of debate and of the divergences within the German movement. The comple­xity of the question forced us to deal with other problems before being able to approach the ‘union question' in the clearest possible way.This is what we shall attempt to do in our next text.



1 Historians and historigraphy have used the term ‘linksradikalen' to describe groups like the Bremen and Hamburg groups, then subsequently the KAPD and the Unions (Workers' Associations). The term ‘ultralinke' was on the other hand used to describe the left opposition (Friesland-­Fischer-Maslow) within the KPD in the years that followed.

2 There was even a subscription for this publication among the naval shipyard workers in Bremen.

3 All sorts of divergences existed on the interpretation of the Russian events between the Bremen Communists and the Spartakists. We will mention only the question of the use of ‘revolutionary terror'. For the Bremen group, Knief criticized Luxemburg's position of refusing to utilize class terror in the revolutionary struggle.


4 The Spartakists joined the USPD at Gotha.


5 At the Fourth Congress of the Communist International (November 1920), Radek took up this position again, saying that it was necessary to thank Social Democracy for having "done us the favour of overthrowing the Kaiser".


6 It should be remembered that at the First Congress of the Communist International the representative of the KPD was mandated to vote against the foundation of the International. It was only the insistence of and pressure exerted by delegates which led Eberlein to abstain instead.


7 The position of ‘National-Bolshevism' was taken up again without raising any scandal by the KPD in 1923. Brandler and Thalheimer made declarations such as:

"In so far as it is engaging in a defensive struggle against imperia­lism, the German bourgeoisie plays, in the situation which is created by this, an objectively revolutionary role - but as a reactionary class, it cannot have recourse to the only methods which would allow it to resolve the problem.

In these circumstances, the precondition for the victory of the prole­tariat is the struggle against the French bourgeoisie and its capa­city to support the German bourgeoisie in this struggle, by taking over the organization and leadership of the defensive struggle sabo­taged by the bourgeoisie."

And in Imprekor, June 1923, the reader would find the following statement:

"National-Bolshevism in 1920 could only have been an alliance to save the generals who immediately after their victory would have crushed the Communist Party. Today, it signifies the fact that everyone is convinced that the only solution lies with the communists. Today we are the only possible solution. The rigorous insistence on the natio­nal element in Germany is a revolutionary act just as it is in the colonies." (our emphasis)

8 Prior to 19 June it was called Freien Gewerkshaften.

9 Freie Arbeiter Union Deutschlands Syndicalist - an anarcho­-syndicalist union organization founded on December 1919.

History of the workers' movement: