German Revolution, part 5: From the work of a fraction to the foundation of the KPD

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In the previous article, we showed how the revolutionaries in Germany had been confronted with the question of building the organisation in the face of the betrayal of social democracy: first by waging to the bitter end the struggle within the old party, carrying out the work of a fraction, and then, when this was no longer possible, preparing the foundation of a new party. It was this responsible attitude that the Spartakists adopted towards the SPD, and which later led them to adhere to the newly formed USPD, unlike the Bremen Left who called for the immediate foundation of the party. In this article we will deal with the foundation of the KPD and the organisational difficulties in the construction of this new party.

The Linksradikalen fail to form the new party

On 5th May 1917, the Bremen and Hamburg Left Radicals reproached the Spartakists for having given up their organisational independence by entering the USPD; they considered that "the time has come to organise the radical left in the Internationale Sozialistische Partei Deutschlands ".

During the summer, they organised preparatory meetings with a view to founding a new party. The founding conference was fixed for 25th August, in Berlin. Only thirteen delegates reached their destination, five of them from Berlin itself. The police had no difficulty in dispersing the conference. Determination is not enough by itself: adequate organisational resources are necessary as well. "It is not enough to brandish the 'banner of purity '. Our duty is to carry it to the masses, to win them over", wrote Rosa Luxemburg in the Duisburg Der Kampf

On 2nd September, a new attempt was made. This time, the organisation took the name "Internationaler Sozialistischer Arbeiterbund". Its statutes planned that the sections should be autonomous.

It considered that "the separation into political and economic organisations is historically out dated". Yet another indication of its great confusion in organisational matters. It would be a travesty of the truth to say that the Bremen Left was the clearest group at the political and practical level during the revolutionary movements in Germany. The Dresden group around Otto Ruhle, amongst other currents, was beginning to develop conceptions hostile to political organisation. The future council communism continued to ripen. Although the council communists did not themselves adopt political organisational forms, their voice nonetheless found an important echo in the class.

While the Spartakists' audience was growing, the Bremen Left and the ISD never succeeded in rising above the stage of a small circle. Although eighteen months of work in the USPD did not bring the Spartakus League all the results it had hoped, it never sacrificed its independence (despite the lSD's initial accusation). Without ever letting itself be gagged, Spartakus developed an active intervention within the USPD.

Whether during the polemics around the Brest-Litovsk negotiations from December 1917, or during the vast wave of strikes in January 1918, when a million workers downed tools and the workers' councils first appeared in Germany, the Spartakus League was more and more in the front line.

Just as German capital prepared to send yet more cannon fodder to the slaughter[1] the Spartakus League increased its organisational strength. It had eight publications, with a print run varying between 25,000 and 100,000 copies - and all this with almost its entire leadership in gaol[2].

Even when the Bremen Left decided to form an independent party, the Spartakus League refused to adopt a sectarian attitude, and continued to work for the regroupment of all the revolutionary forces in Germany.

On 7th October 1918, the Spartakus group called a national conference, with delegates from the various local groups of the Linksradikalen. It was decided that Spartakists and Radicals should collaborate, without the latter being obliged to join the USPD. Nonetheless, despite a developing revolutionary combat by the workers in Germany, the conference still failed to put forward, as a priority for its work, the necessity for the foundation of the party. Lenin emphasised the extreme importance of this question: "Europe's greatest misfortune, its greatest danger, is that there exists no revolutionary party ... Certainly, a powerful revolutionary movement by the masses may correct this defect, but the fact remains a great misfortune and a great danger"[3].

The Spartakists' intervention in the revolutionary struggle

When revolutionary struggles broke out in November 1918, the Spartakists accomplished a heroic labour, and the content of their intervention was of very high quality. They insisted first and foremost on the need to build a bridge to the working class in Russia. They unhesitatingly unmasked the manoeuvres and sabotage of the bourgeoisie. They recognised the role of the workers' councils, and emphasised the need once the war was over, for the movement to attain a higher level, where it could gain strength thanks to the pressure from the factories.

For reasons of space, we cannot deal with this intervention in greater detail. Despite their strength at the level of political content, the Spartakists nonetheless did not have a determining influence in the working class. To be a real party, correct political positions alone are not enough. A corresponding influence within the working class is also necessary. A party must have the strength to lead the movement, like a man at the tiller of a boat, for it to move forward in the right direction.

As the conflict broke, the Spartakists carried out a tremendous work of propaganda, but still remained only a loose regroupment. A closely knit organisation was sorely lacking.

A further difficulty should be pointed out: the Spartakists still belonged to the USPD, and for many workers the difference was still not clear between the centrists and the Spartakists. The SPD made the most of this confused situation, to put forward the indispensable "unity" between workers' parties, to its own benefit of course.

Organisational development only speeded up after the struggle broke out. On 11th November 1918, the "Spartakus Group" became the "Spartakus League", and a Central Committee of twelve members was formed.

Whereas the SPD possessed more than a hundred publications, and could base its counter-revolutionary activity on an extensive apparatus of bureaucrats and the unions, during the decisive week of 11th-18th November 1918, the Spartakists had no press at all: they were unable to publish Die Rote Fahne. They were forced to occupy the offices of a bourgeois paper. The SPD then did everything it could to prevent Die Rote F ahne from being printed on the occupied presses. Only after the occupation of another printing works could Die Rote Fahne appear again.

After failing to win their demand for an extraordinary congress of the USPD, the Spartakists decided on the formation of an independent party. On 24th December, the ISD (which in the meantime had changed its name to IKD) held a national conference in Berlin, with delegates from Wasserkante, the Rhineland, Saxony, Bavaria, Wurtemberg and Berlin. During the conference, Karl Radek argued strongly for a merger between the IKD and the Spartakists. On 30th December 1918, and 1st January 1919, the Kommunistischer Partei Deutschland was formed from a regroupment ofthe IKD and the Spartakists.

The formation of the KPD

The first point on the agenda was an evaluation of the work in the USPD. On 29th November 1918, Rosa Luxemburg had already come to the conclusion that in a period of rising class struggle, "there is no place for a party of ambiguity and half measures"[4]. In a revolutionary situation, centrist parties like the USPD can only break up.

"We were in the USPD to take out of it what could be taken out, to push forward the valuable elements of the USPD, radicalise them, to reach our goal by a process of dissociation, and so to win over the strongest possible revolutionary forces, in order to bring them together in a united and unitary revolutionary proletarian Party ... The results achieved were extraordinarily meagre ... [Since then} the USPD has served as a fig-leaf for Ebert and Schiedemann. They have wiped out among the masses any notion of a difference between the policies of the USPD and those of the majority socialists ... Now, the time has come where all the revolutionary proletarian elements must turn their backs on the USPD in order to form a new, autonomous party, with a clear programme, firm goals, a unitary tactic, inspired by the highest possible degree of revolutionary determination, and conceived as a powerful weapon for the fulfilment of the social revolution which is beginning"[5].

The task of the moment was to regroup revolutionary forces in the KPD, and to make the clearest possible demarcation between them and the centrists.

In analysing the state of the revolutionary struggle, Rosa Luxemburg's Report on the programme and the political situation showed great clarity, in warning against any underestimation of the difficulties facing the new party:

"As I have described it to you, this whole process seems much slower than one would have thought at first sight. I think it is good for us to look clearly at all the difficulties, all the complications of this revolution. For I hope that, like me, none of you will be paralysed in your ardour, your energy, by a review of all the great difficulties and labours that await us".

Moreover, she strongly emphasised the importance of the party's role in the developing movement:

"The present revolution, which is now just beginning, and which has such vast horizons before it as well as problems of a historic and universal dimension to be overcome, must have assure compass, which at every stage of the struggle, whether in victory or in defeat, is able to point unfailingly towards the same supreme goal, the goal of world socialist revolution, of the proletariat's merciless struggle for power, and for the liberation of humanity from the yoke of Capital. To be this sure compass pointing out the road to follow, this spearhead thrusting forwards, this socialist proletarian yeast in the revolution, is the specific task of the Spartakus League in the present confrontation between two worlds"[6].

"We must teach the masses that the workers' and soldiers' councils must be the lever for the overthrow of the state machinery, that they must absorb all the forces of action and channel them into the furrow of socialist transformation. Even those working masses already organised into workers' and soldiers' councils are a thousand miles from carrying out these duties - except of course from a few small minorities who are clearly aware of them.[7]

Lenin considered that the Spartakus programme (What does Spartakus want?), which he received at the end of December, formed the corner-stone for the foundation of the Communist International.

"In this perspective we must: a) draw up the points on principles for the platform I think that we can draw on the theory and practice of Bolshevism; and b) more extensively from 'What does Spartakus want? ' with a + b the platform 's fundamental principles appear clearly enough.[8]

The organisational question at the Congress

At the Congress, 83 delegates were present, representing 46 sections, most of them with no real mandate. Their composition reflected the organisation's immaturity. Alongside the older generation of revolutionary workers who before the war had belonged to the Party's radical left opposition around Rosa Luxemburg, appeared young workers who during the war had become the carriers of revolutionary propaganda and action, but who possessed very little political experience, as well as soldiers marked by all the suffering and privations of war. They were joined by pacifists who had fought courageously against the war, had been pushed towards the left by repression, and who now saw the radical workers' movement as a favourable terrain for action, as well as by artists and intellectuals swept along by the revolutionary tide - in short just the sort of elements that any revolution suddenly sets in motion.

The struggle against the war united different forces in a single front. But at the same time, many leaders were in prison; many experienced workers from the Party were dead or missing, and their place taken by young radical elements with almost no organisational experience. All this goes to show that war does not necessarily create the most favourable conditions for building the party.

As far as the organisational question was concerned, the KPD contained a marxist wing represented by Luxemburg and Jogisches, an anti-organisation wing which would later give birth to the council communist current, and finally an activist wing which remained undecided on the organisational level, embodied by Liebknecht.

The Congress revealed the abyss between, on the one hand, the programmatic clarity (despite important disagreements that did exist) expressed by Luxemburg in her speech on the programme, and, on the other hand, weakness on organisational issues.

Weakness on organisational issues

To start with, organisational questions were given little time at the founding Congress; moreover, by the time the discussion started, some of the delegates had already left. The report for the Congress, drawn up by Eberlein, reflected the KPD' s weaknesses on the issue. Eberlein began with a balance-sheet of the revolutionaries' work to date:

"In name, and in all their activities, the old organisations were "electoral associations" [Wahlvereine}. The new organisation must be, not an electoral club, but a fighting political organisation ... The social-democratic organisations were Wahlvereine. Their whole organisation was based on preparation and agitation for elections, and in reality what little life there was in the organisation only appeared during elections or the preparation for them. The rest of the time, the organisation was empty and lifeless"[9].

This description of the pre-war SPD shows how the reformist gangrene had emptied its local organisations of political life, through the exclusive concentration on parliamentary elections. Parliamentary cretinism and the resulting attachment to bourgeois democracy had given rise to the dangerous illusion that the essential focus for the Party's struggle was its activity in parliament. This situation only began to be questioned in many local organisations after the outbreak of war and the betrayal of the parliamentary fraction in the Reichstag.

During the war, however, " ... we had to work illegally, and because of this illegal activity it was impossible to build a solid form of organisation"[10]. For example, Liebknecht spent the years between the summer of 1915 and October 1918, either in the army or in prison, and was thus forbidden any "free expression" or contact with his comrades. Luxemburg was imprisoned for three years and four months; from 1918, Jogisches was in the same situation. The majority of the Central Committee formed in 1916 was behind bars by 1917. Many only emerged on the very eve of the explosion of revolutionary struggle at the end of 1918.

The bourgeoisie was unable to silence Spartakus. Nonetheless, it dealt a heavy blow to the construction of the party by depriving an organisationally incomplete movement of its leadership.

But although the objective conditions of repression and illegality were serious hindrances to the formation of a revolutionary party, they should still not hide the fact that there existed among the revolutionary forces a serious underestimation of the need to build a new organisation. Eberlein revealed this weakness when he declared:

"You know that we are optimistic that the weeks and months to come will make our discussions on all this superfluous. So given the short time available to us today, I don't want to keep you any longer ... We are in the midst of a political struggle, which is why we have no time to waste on nitpicking over paragraphs ... During these days, we must not and we cannot focus on these little organisational questions. As far as possible, we want to leave you to deal with all that in the local sections during the coming weeks and months ... If we count on having more members, with conviction and ready to enter into action in the days to come, who bend their minds to the action of the coming period, then we will easily overcome the little problems of organisation and organisational form"[11].

Naturally everything was urgent, everything was pressing in the heat of the revolution; the time factor was crucial. This is why it would have been desirable, indeed vital, to have clarified the organisational questions in advance. But while all the delegates were preparing for an acceleration of the revolutionary combat in the weeks ahead, a number of them had developed feelings of distrust towards the organisation and began to think that the party would be superfluous.

In the same way, Eberlein's declarations expressed not only impatience but a dramatic underestimation of the organisation question: "For these last four years, we haven't had the time to spend on looking at the way we want to organise ourselves. During this time, we were, day by day, confronted with new facts and had to take the necessary decisions without asking ourselves whether we would be able to elaborate organisational statutes"[12].

It is doubtless true, as Lenin stressed, that the Spartakists had "accomplished a systematic work of revolutionary propaganda in the most difficult conditions ", but it is clear that there was one danger they were unable to avoid. A revolutionary organisation cannot 'sacrifice' itself for its intervention in the class; however necessary that intervention might be, it must not lead to the paralysis of its organisational activities. In a situation as dramatic as a war a revolutionary organisation may intervene intensively and heroically. But if when the workers' struggle revives it does not have a solid organisational tissue, ie if there is no political organisation at the proletariat's side, the work done previously will be lost. The construction of an organisational framework, the clarification of the organisation's function and way of functioning, the elaboration of organisational rules (statutes) are indispensable foundation stones for the existence, functioning and intervention of the organisation. This work of constructing the organisation must not be obstructed by intervention in the class. The latter can really only bear fruit if it is not carried out to the detriment of the construction of the organisation.

The defence and construction of the organisation is a permanent responsibility of revolutionaries, whether the class struggle is in deep reflux or at its highest points.

Furthermore, within the KPD, there was a tendency to react like a scalded cat to the experience of the SPD. The latter had developed a huge bureaucratic apparatus which, in the process of opportunist degeneration, allowed the party leadership to block local initiatives. Thus, out of fear of being stifled by a new Centrale, part of the KPD became the mouthpiece of federalism. Eberlein clearly joined this choir:

"It will be necessary in this form of organisation for the organisation as a whole to allow the greatest possible freedom for the different sections, to make sure that there are no schematic instructions from above ... We also think that the old system of subordinating local organisations to the Centrale must be abandoned, that the different local organisations, the different factory organisations must have a total autonomy. .. They must have the possibility of moving into action without needing instructions from the Centrale "[13].

The appearance of a wing hostile to centralisation, which would later give birth to the council communist current, led to a regression in the organisational history of the revolutionary movement.

The same went for the press: "We also think that the question of the press cannot be regulated at the central level; we think that the local organisations must have the possibility of creating their own papers ... Some comrades have attacked us (the Centrale) and said to us: 'You are bringing out a paper, what should we do? We can't use it, we will bring out our own paper'"[14].

This lack of confidence in the organisation, and above all in centralisation, manifested itself above all with the old Linksradikale of Bremen[15]. Starting from the correct understanding that the KPD could not be a simple continuation of the old SPD, they tended to fall into the opposite extreme of denying all continuity: "We have no need at all to plunge into the old organisational statutes in order to choose what bits we can use"[16].

Eberlein's declarations show the heterogeneity of the newly formed KPD on the organisational question.

The marxist wing in a minority on the organisational question

Only the wing grouped around Luxemburg and Jogisches intervened in a resolutely marxist manner during the Congress. Directly opposed to them was the council communist wing, which fundamentally underestimated the role of political organisations in the class, above all rejecting centralisation out of distrust of organisation, which led them to call for complete autonomy for the local sections. Otto Ruhle was their main representative.[17] Another wing, without a clear organisational alternative, was the one grouped around Karl Liebknecht. This wing was notable for being extremely combative. But to act as a party it's not enough to want to participate in workers' struggles; on the one hand, programmatic clarity and solidity are indispensable. Liebknecht and those who followed him orientated their activities almost exclusively towards intervention in the class.

This appeared clearly on October 23rd 1918 when he was released from prison. Around 20,000 workers came to welcome him at Anhalt station in Berlin. His very first action was to go immediately to the factory gates to agitate among the workers. However, in October 1918, with the temperature rising within the working class, the most pressing duty of revolutionaries was not simply to carry out agitation but to commit all their strength to the construction of the organisation, all the more so because the Spartakists still only formed a loose organisation, without solid structures. Liebknecht's attitude to organisation was very different from Lenin's. When Lenin arrived at the Petrograd station in April 1917 and was given a triumphal reception, he immediately made known the April Theses and did everything he could to pull the Bolshevik party out of the crisis it was in and to equip it with a clear programme through the convening of an extraordinary Congress. Liebknecht's first concern, by contrast, was not really the construction of the organisation. What's more, he seemed to be developing a conception of the organisation in which the revolutionary militant had to be a hero, a pre-eminent individual, rather than seeing that a proletarian political organisation lives above all by its collective strength. The fact that, subsequently, he continued to push for action off his own bat is the proof of his erroneous view of organisation, Luxemburg often complained about his attitude: "Karl is always rushing from one workers' meeting to another; he doesn't often come to editorial meetings of Die Rote Fahne. In general it's difficult to get him along to meetings of the organisation".

Liebknecht's image was that of the lone fighter. He never managed to understand that his main contribution was to participate in the construction of the organisation.

The weight of the past

The SPD had for years been steeped in the parliamentary tradition. The illusions created by the predominance of parliamentary-reformist activity had lent weight to the idea that the struggle in the framework of bourgeois parliament was the main weapon of the working class, rather than a transitory tool for taking advantage of the contradictions between the different factions of the ruling class in order to obtain momentary concessions from capital. Pampered by parliamentarism, there was a tendency to measure the strength of the struggle by the yardstick of votes obtained by the SPD in parliamentary elections.

This was one of the main differences between the conditions of struggle for the Bolsheviks and those of the left in Germany. The Bolsheviks had been through the experience of 1905 and were intervening in conditions of illegality and repression. They did intervene in the Russian parliament but through a much smaller group of deputies; in any case, their centre of gravity was not in the parliamentary and trade union struggle . While the SPD had become a powerful mass party deeply infected by opportunism, the Bolshevik party was relatively small and had more effectively resisted opportunism despite the crises it had been through. And it was no accident that, in the KPD, the marxist wing on questions of organisation, that of Luxemburg and Jogishes, had emerged from the Polish-Lithuanian party - the SDKPiL, that is a fraction of the revolutionary movement which had direct experience of the struggles of 1905 and had not been bogged down in the parliamentary swamp.

The construction of the party can only succeed on an international scale

The founding Congress of the KPD expressed another weakness of the revolutionary movement. While the bourgeoisie in Germany had immediately obtained help from the bourgeoisie of countries with whom it had just been at war, while capital was uniting at an international level in its struggle against the revolutionary working class (the White Armies of 21 countries had joined together to wage civil war against the new proletarian power in Russia), revolutionaries were way behind at this level. To some degree, this was due to conceptions inherited from the Second International. The parties of the Second International were built in a federalist manner. The federalist conception developed tendencies towards 'everyman for himself' in the organisation and prevented the question of organisation being posed in an international and centralised way. Thus the components of the left wing fought separately from each other in the different parties of the Second International.

"Lenin's fractional work was earned out uniquely within the Russian party, without him trying to take this onto the international level. To be convinced of this it's enough to read his interventions at the different Congresses, and we can affirm that this work was completely unknown outside the Russian sphere".[18]

Thus Karl Radek was the only foreign delegate at the founding Congress. And it was only through luck and perseverance that he was able to get through the net of controls set up by the German government run by the SPD. This Congress would surely have had a very different outcome if it had been attended by other important leaders of the revolutionary movement, such as Lenin or Trotsky from Russia, Bordiga from Italy or Gorter and Pannekoek from Holland.

We can today draw the lesson that the party can't be built in one country if revolutionaries don't carry out this task simultaneously at an international level, and in a centralised manner.

The parallel with the task of the working class is clear: communism can't be built in one isolated country. Likewise, the construction of the party demands that it be carried out on an international level.

The KPD was born as a very heterogeneous party, divided on the programmatic level, and with the marxist wing on organisational matters in a minority. Distrust towards organisation and in particular towards centralisation was already widespread among the delegates. The KPD did not yet have sufficient influence to decisively stamp its presence in the movement.

The experience of the KPD shows that the party must be built on solid organisational foundations. The elaboration of organisational principles, functioning on the basis of the party spirit, aren't things that can be created by decree but are the result of years of practice based on these principles. The construction of the organisation demands a lot of time and patience. It's obvious that revolutionaries today must draw the lessons from the weaknesses of the revolutionaries in Germany.


[1] Between March and November 1918, Germany lost some 200,000 killed, 450,000 prisoners or missing in action, and 860,000 wounded on the Western Front.

[2] After Liebknecht's arrest at the beginning of the summer of 1916, a conference of the Left Social-Democracy was held on 4th June 1916. A five member action committee was formed to reconstitute the links between revolutionary groups, broken by repression. The committee included Dunker, Meyer, and Mehring, with Otto Ruhle as chairman. The fact that such a responsibility should be given to a comrade like Ruhle, who rejected centralisation and the construction of the organisation, shows just how difficult repression had made things for the Spartakists.

[3] Lenin, writing in Pravda, 11th October 1918.

[4] Rosa Luxemburg, 'The Congress of the Independent Socialist Party' in Die Rote Fahne, no.14.

[5] Karl Liebknecht, in Proceedings of the KPD founding Congress.

[6] Rosa Luxemburg, "National Conference of the Spartakus League", in Die Rote Fahne no.43, 29th December 1918.

[7] Rosa Luxemburg, Speech on the programme and the political situation", 30th December 1918.

[8] Lenin, Correspondence, December 1918.

[9] Eberlein's report on the organisation question to the KPD's founding Congress.

[10] idem

[11] idem

[12] idem

[13] idem

[14] idem

[15] Paul Froelich, a member of the Bremen Left during the war, elected to the Centrale by the founding Congress, thought that "in all their actions, the local organisations must have a complete right to self-determination. It follows that there must be a similar right of self-determination in all the rest of the party's work, within the framework of the programme and the resolutions adopted by the Congress" (11 January 1919, Der Kommunist). J Knief, a member of the Bremen left, defended the following conception:

"Without denying the necessity for a Centrale, the communists (of the IKD) demand, in conformity with the present revolutionary situation, the greatest autonomy and liberty for the local and regional organisations" (Arbeiterpolitik No 10, 1917).

[16] idem

[17] Already in 1917 J. Borchardt was declaring: "The important thing for us is the abolition of any form of leadership in the workers movement. What we need to reach socialism is pure democracy among comrades, that is to say equal rights and autonomy, free arbitration and the means for the personal activity of each individual. We don't need leaders, but only organs of execution, which instead of imposing their will on comrades, act simply as their mandates." (Arbeiterpolitik number 10, 1917)

[18] G. Mammone, Bilan 24, page 814, "La fraction dans les parties socialistes de la Seconde Internationale"

History of the workers' movement: