German Revolution, xi: The March Action of 1921: the danger of petty-bourgeois impatience

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In the previous article in this series, dealing with the Kapp Putsch in 1920, we underlined that having been through the defeats of 1919, the German working class returned to the offensive. But at the international level, the revolutionary wave was about to go into decline.


The ending of the war had already, in a number of countries, cooled revolutionary ardour, and above all had allowed the bourgeoisie to exploit the division between the workers of the "victorious" countries and those of the "defeated" countries. Furthermore, the forces of capital were succeeding in isolating more and more the revolutionary movement in Russia. The victories of the Red Army over the Whites - who had been strongly supported by the western democracies - did not prevent the ruling class from pursuing its offensive on an international scale.


In Russia itself the isolation of the revolution and the growing integration of the Bolshevik party into the state were making their effects felt. In March 1921 came the revolt of the workers and sailors of Kronstadt.

Against this background, the German proletariat was exhibiting a much stronger combativity than in other countries. Everywhere revolutionaries were facing the question: how to react to the offensive of the bourgeoisie when the world revolutionary wave is entering into reflux?


Within the Communist International (Cl), a political turnaround was taking place. The 21 Conditions for admission adopted by the Second Congress of the CI in the summer of 1920 expressed this clearly. In particular they imposed work within the trade unions and participation in parliamentary elections. The CI was thus returning to the old methods used during the ascendant period of capitalism, with the hope of reaching wider layers of the working class.


This opportunist turn was manifested in Germany particularly through the "Open Letter" addressed to the KPD in January 1921 to the trade unions and the SPD as well as to the anarcho-syndicalist FAUD, the KAPD and the USPD proposing "that all the socialist parties and trade union organisations should wage common actions to impose the most urgent economic demands of the working class". This appeal, which was addressed most particularly to the unions and the SPD, was to give rise to the "united front in the factories": "The VKPD wants to set aside the memory of the bloody responsibility of the majority of Social Democratic leaders. It wants to set aside the memory of the services rendered by the union bureaucracy to the capitalists during the war and in the course of the revolution." (Die Rote Fahne, 8 January 1921). Through this kind of opportunist flattery, e Communist Party was trying to draw the parties of Social Democracy to its side.

Simultaneously it theorised, for the first time, the necessity for a proletarian offensive: "If the parties and the unions to whom we are addressing ourselves refuse to initiate the struggle, the Unified Communist Party of Germany will then be forced to wage it alone, and it is convinced that the masses will follow" (ibid).


The unification between the KPD and the USPD, in December 1920, gave rise to the VKPD and had brought back the conception of the mass party. This was reinforced by the fact that the party now had 500,000 members. The VKPD also allowed itself to be blinded by the percentage of votes it won in the elections to the Prussian Landtag in February 1921 (almost 30%)[1].


Thus the party increasingly thought that it could "heat up" the situation in Germany. Many of its members dreamed that another right-wing putsch, like the one that had happened the year before, would provoke a workers' uprising with the perspective of taking power. Such ideas were to a large extent due to the increased influence of the petty bourgeoisie in the party since the Unification between the KPD and the USPD. The USPD, like any centrist current within the workers' movement, was strongly influenced by the conceptions and behaviour of the petty bourgeoisie. Moreover, the numerical growth of the party tended to accentuate the weight of opportunism as well as petty bourgeois impatience and immediatism.

It was in this context of a retreat in the international revolutionary wave, and of deep confusions in the revolutionary movement in Germany, that the bourgeoisie launched a new offensive against the proletariat in March 1921. The main target of this attack was the workers of central Germany. During the war a huge proletarian concentration had been formed in this area around the Leuna factories in Bitterfeld and in the Mansfeld basin. The majority of the workers there were relatively young and militant but had no great experience of organisation. The VKPD alone had 66,000 members there, the KAPD 3,200. In the Leuna factories 2,000 out of the 20,000 workers were members of the Workers' Unions.


Seeing that, following the confrontations of 1919 and the Kapp Putsch, many workers were still armed, the bourgeoisie badly wanted to pacify the region.

The bourgeoisie tries to provoke the workers

On 19 March 1919 a powerful military police force arrived in Mansfeld with the aim of disarming the workers.


This order did not come from the extreme right wing of the ruling class (the right parties and their forces within the army) but from the democratically elected government. Once again it was democracy which played the role of executioner to the working class, using any means necessary.


For the bourgeoisie, the aim was to disarm and defeat a relatively young and militant fraction of the German proletariat in order to weaken and demoralise the working class as a whole. More particularly, the ruling class wanted to strike a crucial blow at the proletariat's vanguard, its revolutionary organisations. By forcing the workers into a decisive but premature struggle in central Germany, the state would have the opportunity to isolate the communists from the rest of the working class. It wanted to discredit them first in order to then subject them to repression. In particular, it aimed to prevent the newly formed VKPD from consolidating itself and to prevent the growing rapprochement between the VKPD and the KAPD. In doing so, German capital was acting in the name of the world bourgeoisie in order to increase the isolation of the Russian revolution and weaken the CI.

At the same moment the International was impatiently waiting for the movements of struggle that would support the Russian revolution from outside. In a way it was waiting for the bourgeoisie to launch an offensive so that the working class, placed in a difficult situation, would react in strength. A number of violent minority actions -like the KAPD's blowing up of the Victory Column in Berlin on 13 March - had the explicit aim of provoking workers' combativity.


Paul Levi made this report of the intervention of the Moscow envoy, Rakosi, at a meeting of the VKPD Centrale: "The comrade explained that Russia was in an extraordinarily difficult situation. It was absolutely necessary for Russia to be relieved by movements in the west, and on this basis, the German party had to push for immediate action. The VKPD now had 500,000 members and it could count on of allowing of 1,500,000 workers, which was enough to overthrow the government. It was thus necessary to immediately engage in the battle with the slogan of overthrowing the government" (Levi, Letter to Lenin, 27 March 1921 ).

"On 17 March the KPD Central Committee held a meeting in which the directives of the comrade sent by Moscow were adopted as orientation theses. On 18 March Die Rote Fahne took up a new resolution and called for armed struggle without first saying what its objectives were, and it maintained the same tone for several days" (ibid)


The long awaited government offensive took place the next day with the entry of police troops into central Germany.

Can you force the revolution?

The police forces sent to central Germany on March 19 by the Social Democratic minister Horsing had been ordered to search houses in order to ensure that the workers were disarmed. The experience of the Kapp Putsch had dissuaded the government from using Reichswehr troops.


The same night a general strike for the region was decided, to begin on 21 March. On 23 March the first clashes took place between the Reich security police (SiPo) and the workers. The same day the workers of the Leuna factory in Merseburg proclaimed a general strike. On 24 March the KAPD and the VKPD launched a joint appeal for a general strike throughout Germany. In response to this there were sporadic demonstrations and exchanges of fire between strikers and police in several towns. In the whole country, about 300,000 workers came out on strike.

The main focus of confrontation however remained the industrial region of central Germany where nearly 40,000 workers were facing up to 17,000 police and soldiers. In the Leuna factories 17 armed proletarian centuries were set up. The police troops readied for the attack. It was only after a number of days that they managed to take the factory. To help them the government even had to call in aircraft to bomb the factory. Against the working class, all means are good.

On the initiative of the KAPD and the VKPD there were dynamitings in Dresden, Freiberg, Leipzig, Plauen and elsewhere. The newspapers Hallische Zeitung and Saale Zeitung, which were being particularly provocative against the workers, were reduced to silence by explosives.


Although the repression in central Germany had pushed workers into spontaneous armed resistance, they were not able to fight the government forces in a coordinated way. The combat organisations set up by the VKPD and led by H Eberlein were militarily and organisationally ill-prepared. Max Holz, who led a workers' combat troop of 2,500 men, managed to get to within a few kilometers of the Leuna factory besieged by the government troops and tried to reorganise the workers' forces. But his troops were wiped out on 1 April, two days after the taking of the Leuna factories. Although there was little fighting spirit in other cities, the VKPD and the KAPD called for an immediate armed response against the police forces:

"The working class is called upon to enter into active struggle for the following objectives:


1. the overthrow of the government;


2. the disarming of the counter-revolution and the arming of the workers"


(Appeal dated 17 March 1921).


In another appeal on 24 March the VKPD wrote: "Remember that last year you defeated in five days the white guards and the scum of Baltikum's Freikorps thanks to the general strike and the armed uprising. Fight with us, like last year, to beat the counter-revolution! Begin the general strike everywhere! Break the violence of the counter-revolution with your own violence! Disarming of the counter-revolution, formation and arming of local militia on the basis of cells of workers, employees and functionaries!

Immediate formation of local proletarian militia! Take power in the factories! Organise production through factory councils and trade unions! Create work for the unemployed!"


However, locally the combat organisations of the VKPD as well as the workers who had armed themselves spontaneously were not only poorly prepared, but the local organs of the party were not in contact with the Centrale. The different combat groups, the best known of which were those under Max Holz and Karl Plattner, fought in different places in the zone of the uprising, isolated from each other. Nowhere were there any workers' councils to coordinate their actions. On the other hand, the government's troops were in close contact with the headquarters which directed them.

After the fall of the Leuna factories, the VKPD withdrew on 31 March its call for a general strike. On 1 April, the last armed workers' groups in central Germany dissolved themselves.


Bourgeois order reigned once more! Once again repression was unleashed. Once again workers were subjected to police brutality. Hundreds were shot, more than 6,000 arrested.


The hopes of the great majority of the VKPD and the KAPD - that provocative action by the apparatus of state repression would produce a dynamic response from the workers - crashed to the ground. The workers of central Germany had remained isolated.

The VKPD and the KAPD had quite clearly pushed for the battle without taking the whole of the situation into account. They thus found themselves completely isolated from the hesitant workers who were not ready to go into action, and they created divisions within the working class by adopting the slogan "Whoever is not with me is against me" (Die Rote Fahne, editorial of 20 March).


Instead of recognising that the situation was not favourable, Die Rote Fahne wrote:


"It's not only on the head of your leaders but on the head of each of you that bloody responsibility lies, when you tolerate in silence or protest without acting against the terror and the white justice unleashed on the workers by Ebert, Severing, Horsing and Co ... Shame and ignominy to the worker who is still not at his post".

In order to artificially provoke combativity, there were attempts to use the unemployed as a spearhead: "The unemployed were sent forward like assault troops. They occupied the gates of factories. They forced their way into the factories, lit fires here and there and tried to force the workers outside with cudgels ... it was a terrible spectacle to see the unemployed themselves getting chased out of the factories, weeping under the blows they received, and then fleeing from those who had sent them there" (Levi, ibid).


The fact that the VKPD, from before the beginning of the struggle, had had a false appreciation of the balance of forces, that afterwards it was incapable of revising its analyses, all this was tragic enough, but it did even worse by launching the slogan "Life or Death" according to the false principle that communists never retreat:


"In no case can a communist, even if he is in a minority, return to work! The communists have left the factories. In groups of 200, 300 men, sometimes more, sometimes less, they left the factories: the factory continued to operate. They are now unemployed, since the bosses seized the opportunity to purge the factories of communists at a time when a large part of the workers were on their side" (Levi, ibid).

What was the balance sheet of the March Action?

Although this struggle was forced on the working class by the bourgeoisie, and it was impossible to avoid it, the VKPD "committed a series of errors, the main one being that instead of clearly bringing out the defensive character of this struggle, through its call for an offensive it provided the most unscrupulous enemies of the proletariat, the bourgeoisie, the Social Democratic Party, the Independents, a pretext for denouncing the Unified Party as a maker of putsches. This error was further exacerbated by a certain number of party comrades who represented the offensive as the essential method of struggle for the Unified Party in the current situation" (Theses on Tactics, Third Congress of the CI, June 1921).

For communists to intervene to reinforce the workers' combativity is an elementary duty. But they don't do this at any price.


"The communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement" (Marx-Engels, The Communist Manifesto of 1848). This is why communists have to be characterised vis-a-vis the working class by their capacity to analyse correctly the balance of forces between the classes. To push a weak or insufficiently prepared class into decisive struggles, to lead it into the traps laid by the bourgeoisie, is the height of irresponsibility, for revolutionaries. Their first responsibility is to develop their capacity for analysing the level of consciousness and combativity within the class as well as the strategy being used by the ruling class. This is the only way that revolutionary organisations can really take up their leading role in the class.

Immediately after the March Action, violent debates developed within the VKPD and the KAPD.

False organisational conceptions: an obstacle to the party's ability to make a self-critique

In an orientation article on 4-6 April 1921, Die Rote Fahne affirmed that "the VKPD has inaugurated a revolutionary offensive" and that the March Action constituted "the beginning, the first episode of decisive struggles for power".


On 7 and 8 April its Central Committee met and instead of making a critical analysis of the intervention, Heinrich Brandler sought above all to justify the party's policy. For him the main weakness resided in a lack of discipline among the local militants of the VKPD and in the failures of military organisation. He declared that "we have not suffered any defeat. It was an offensive".

In response to this analysis, Paul Levi made the most virulent criticism of the party's attitude during the March Action.


Having resigned from the Central Committee in February 1921 along with Clara Zetkin, for, among others, divergences over the foundation of the Communist Party of Italy, Levi once again showed himself unable to take the organisation forward through criticism. The most tragic thing about this was that "Levi is basically right on many points in criticising the March Action in Germany" (Lenin, Letter to German Communists, 14 August 1921, Collected Works, Vol. 32). But instead of making his critique in the framework of the organisation, on 3 and 4 April he wrote a pamphlet which he published on the outside on 12 April without first submitting it for discussion within the party[2].

In this pamphlet, Levi not only spat at organisational discipline, he exposed all kinds of details about the internal life of the party. He thus broke a proletarian principle and put the organisation in danger by publicly revealing its mode of functioning. He was excluded from the party on 12 April for behaviour threatening the security of the organisation.[3]


As we showed in our previous article on the Heidelberg Congress of October 1919, Levi tended to see any criticism as an attack on the organisation, but also as an attack on his own person. He thus sabotaged any possibility of collective functioning. His point of view clearly expressed this: "Either the March Action was valid, which means that I should be excluded from the party. Or the March Action was an error and my pamphlet was justified" (Levi, letter to the VKPD Centrale). This attitude was harmful to the organisation and was repeatedly criticised by Lenin. After Levi's resignation from the VKPD Centrale in February, he wrote "And the resignation from the Central Committee? That is quite simply the greatest of errors. If we tolerate a state of affairs where members of the Central Committee resign as soon as they find themselves in a minority, the development and purification of the Communist Parties will never follow a normal course. Instead of resigning, it would have been better to have had a number of discussions about the litigious questions with the Executive Committee ... It is indispensable to do everything possible, and even the impossible - but, at all costs, to avoid resignations and not to exaggerate divergences" (Lenin, Letter to Clara Zetkin and Paul Levi, 16 April 1921, CW, Vol. 45).

The partly exaggerated charges which Levi made against the VKPD (which was virtually seen as the only one at fault, thus ignoring the responsibility of the bourgeoisie in provoking the March struggles) were based on a rather distorted view of reality.


After being expelled from the party, Levi edited for a short period the review The Soviet which became the mouthpiece of those who opposed the direction taken by the VKPD.


Levi tried to expound his criticisms of the VKPD's tactics in front of the Central Committee but it refused to let him into its meetings. Clara Zetkin did it in his place. He argued that "communists are not able to undertake actions in place of the proletariat, without the proletariat, and, in the final analysis, even against the proletariat" (Levi, ibid).

Clara Zetkin then proposed a counter-resolution to the position taken up by the party. The session of the Central Committee, in its majority, rejected the criticisms and underlined that "to avoid this action ... was impossible for a revolutionary party and would have meant a pure and simple renunciation of its calling to lead the revolution". The VKPD "must, if it is to fulfil its historic mission, hold firmly to the line of the revolutionary offensive which was at the basis of the March Action and march with determination and confidence in this direction" ('Leitsatze uber die Marzaktion', Die Internationale 4, April 1921).


The Centrale persisted with the tactic of the offensive and rejected all the criticisms, In a proclamation of6 April 1921, the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI) approved the party's attitude and declared: "The Communist International says to you: 'you acted well ' ... Prepare yourselves for new combats" (published in Die Rote Fahne, 14 April 1921).

It was at the Third Congress of the CI that the disagreements about the events in Germany began to be expressed. The group around Zetkin in the VKPD was strongly attacked in the first part of the discussion. But the interventions and the authority of Lenin and Trotsky led to a turnaround in the debates and cooled the hotheads.


Lenin, absorbed by the Kronstadt events and the affairs of state, had not had the time to follow the events in Germany or the debates about the balance sheet to be drawn. He had only just begun studying the situation more closely. On the one hand he very firmly rejected Levi's breach of discipline; on the other, he announced that the March Action, because of "its international importance and significance, must be submitted to the Third Congress of the Communist International". Lenin's concern was that discussion in the party should be as broad and unhindered as possible.

W Koenen, the VKPD's representative in the ECCI, was sent to Germany to ensure that the Central Committee of the German party would not take a definitive decision against the opposition. In the party press, it became possible for criticisms of the March Action to appear. Discussions on tactics opened up.


However, the majority of the Central Committee continued to defend the position adopted in March. Arkady Maslow called for a new approval of the March Action. Guralski, an envoy the ECCI, even declared that "we are not concerned with the past. The coming political struggles of the party are the best response to the attacks of the Levi tendency". At the Central Committee meeting of 3-5 May, Thalheimer intervened to call for unity in action by the workers. F Heckert pleaded for strengthening work in the trade unions.

On 13 May Die Rote Fahne published theses which developed the objective of artificially accelerating the revolutionary process. The March Action was cited as an example. The communists "must, in particularly grave situations where the essential interests of the proletariat are threatened, take a step ahead of the masses and seek by their initiative to draw them into the struggle, even at the risk of not being followed by a part of the working class". W Pieck, who in January 1919 had, against the decisions of the party, thrown himself along with Karl Liebknecht into the Berlin uprising, thought that confrontations within the working class "would take place more and more frequently. Communists must turn against the workers when they don't follow our appeals".

The reaction of the KAPD

While the VKPD and the KAPD had taken a step forward by carrying out joint actions, unfortunately these took place in unfavourable circumstances. The common denominator of the approach of the VKPD and the KAPD in the March Action was the desire to come to the aid of the working class in Russia. At this time the KAPD was still defending the revolution in Russia. The councilists who were to emerge from it took up an opposing position.


However the KAPD's intervention was beset by internal wrangling. On the one hand the leadership launched a joint appeal for a general strike with the VKPD and sent two representatives of the Centrale to central Germany, F Jung and F Rasch, to support the coordination of combat actions; on the other hand the local leaders of the KAPD, Utzelmann and Prenzlow, on the basis of their knowledge of the situation in the industrial region of central Germany, considered that any attempt at an uprising was insane and did not want to go any further than a general strike. They also intervened towards the Leuna workers, calling them to stay in the factory and prepare for a defensive struggle. The KAPD leadership acted without consulting the local party organs.

As soon as the movement was over, the KAPD timidly began a critical analysis of its own intervention. This analysis was also contradictory. In a reply to Levi's pamphlet, it highlighted the fundamentally erroneous approach of the VKPD Centrale. Hermann Gorter wrote:


"The VKPD has, through parliamentary activity - which in the conditions of bankrupt capitalism has no other meaning than the mystification of the masses - diverted the proletariat from revolutionary action. It has gathered up hundreds of thousands of non-communists and become a 'mass party '. The VKPD has supported the trade unions by the tactic of creating cells within them ... When the German revolution, having become more and more powerless, began to retreat, when the best elements of the VKPD became more and more dissatisfied and began calling for action, suddenly the VKPD decided on an grand enterprise for the conquest of political power. This is what it consisted of before the provocation by Horsing and the SiPo, the VKPD decided on an artificial action from above, without the spontaneous impulse of the broad masses; in other words it adopted the tactics of the putsch.

The Executive Committee and its representatives in Germany had for a long time been insisting that the party should strike out and show that it was a true revolutionary party. As if the essential aspect of a revolutionary tactic consisted simply of striking with all one's forces! On the contrary, when instead of affirming the revolutionary strength of the proletariat, a party undermines this same strength and weakens the proletariat by supporting parliament and the trade unions, and then after such preparations suddenly resolves to hit out by launching a great offensive action in favour of the same proletariat it has just been weakening, this can be nothing other than a putsch. That is to say, action decreed from above, having no source in the masses themselves, and thus doomed to failure from the start. And this attempt at a putsch has nothing revolutionary about it: it is opportunist in exactly the same way as parliamentarism or the tactic of union cells. Yes, this tactic is the inevitable other side of the coin of parliamentarism and the tactic of union cells, of collecting up non-communist elements, of the policy of leaders substituting for the policy of the masses, or, more precisely, the policy of the class. This weak and intrinsically corrupt tactic must inevitably lead to putsches" (Gorter, 'Lessons of the March Action', Afterword to the Open Letter to Comrade Lenin, Der Proletarier, May 1921).

This text by the KAPD puts its finger on the contradiction between the tactic of the United Front, which reinforced workers' illusions in the unions and social democracy, and the simultaneous and sudden call for an assault on the state. But at the same time, we find contradictions in the KAPD's own analysis: while on the one hand it talks about a defensive action by the workers, on the other it characterises the March Action as "the first conscious offensive by the revolutionary German proletarians against bourgeois state power" (F Kool, Die Linke gegen die Parteiherrschaft). In this respect, the KAPD even noted that "large masses of workers remained neutral, if not hostile, towards the combative vanguard". At the extraordinary congress of the KAPD in September 1921, the lessons of the March Action were not examined any further.


It was against this background of virulent debates within the VKPD and contradictory analyses by the KAPD, that the Communist International held its Third Congress, at the end of June 1921.

The International's attitude towards the March Action

Within the International, different tendencies had begun to form. The ECCI did not have a unified position on the events in Germany and did not speak with one voice. For a long time the ECCI had been divided on the analysis of the situation in Germany. Radek had developed many criticisms of the positions and behaviour of Levi and other members of the Centrale had seized upon them. However, these criticisms were not publicly and openly expressed within the VKPD at congresses or elsewhere.


Instead of publicly debating the analysis of the situation, Radek did a lot of damage to the functioning of the party. Often criticisms were not expressed openly and fraternally, but in a covert manner. Often debates were not centred round political errors but around the individuals responsible for them. The tendency towards the personalisation of political positions developed. Instead of building unity around a position and a method, instead of struggling as a body that functions collectively, the organisational tissue was destroyed in a completely irresponsible manner.

More generally the communists in Germany were themselves profoundly divided. On the one hand, at this moment, the two parties, the VKPD and the KAPD, which was also part of the CI, began to clash violently on the orientation to be followed.


Vis-a-vis the CI, before the March Action, parts of the VKPD had kept quiet about certain information about the situation; at the same time, divergences of analysis were not brought to the knowledge of the CI in all their breadth.


Within the CI itself, there was no real common reaction or unified approach to this situation. The Kronstadt uprising completely monopolised the attention of the Bolshevik party leadership, preventing it from following the situation in Germany in more detail. The way in which decisions were made in the ECCI was often not very clear and it was the same with the mandates given to the delegations. Certainly the mandates given to Radek and other ECCI delegates to Germany do not seem to have been decided with much clarity[4].

Thus, in this situation of growing divisions, notably within the VKPD, the ECCI members - in particular Radek - officiously entered into contact with tendencies within the two parties, unbeknownst to the central organs of the two organisations, with the aim of preparing for putschist actions. Instead of pushing the organisations towards unity, mobilisation and clarification, divisions were exacerbated and the tendency to take decisions outside the responsible organs was accelerated. This attitude, taken in the name of the ECCI, fuelled within the VKPD and the KAPD behaviour that could only damage the organisation.


Levi criticised this approach: "More and more frequently the envoys of the ECCI are overstepping their powers, and it is being shown later that these envoys have not been given such far-reaching powers" (Levi, Unser Weg, wider den Putschismus, 3 April 1921).


The structures of functioning and decision-making, as defined in the statutes both of the VKPD and the KAPD, were being bypassed. At the time of the March Action, in both parties, the appeal for the general strike was made without the whole organisation being involved in the reflection and decision. In reality it was the comrades of the ECCI who made contact with elements or certain tendencies within each organisation and who pushed for taking action. In this way the party as such was being bypassed.

Thus it was impossible to arrive at a unified approach by each party, still less at real joint action between the two parties.


To a large extent activism and putschism gained the upper hand in both organisations, accompanied by individual behaviour that was very destructive for the party and for the class as a whole. Each tendency began to carry out its own policies and to create its own informal, parallel channels. The concern for party unity, for a functioning in conformity with the statutes, was to a considerable extent lost.


Although the CI was weakened by the growing identification between the Bolshevik: party and the interests of the Russian state, and by the opportunist turn towards the tactic of the United Front, the Third Congress of the International still contained a collective and proletarian critique of the March Action.

For the Congress, the ECCI, with a correct political concern under Lenin's impulsion, ensured that there was a delegation representing the opposition within the VKPD. While the delegation from the VKPD Centrale was still trying to muzzle any criticism of the March Action, the Political Bureau of the Russian Communist Party, on Lenin's proposition, decided that "as a basis to this resolution it is necessary to examine in precise detail, to bring to light the concrete errors committed by the VKPD during the March Action and to even more energetically be on guard against repeating them".

What attitude to adopt?

In the introductory report to the discussion on 'The world economic crisis and the new tasks of the Communist International', Trotsky underlined that "Today, for the first time, we don't see and feel ourselves so immediately close to our goal, the conquest of power. In 1919, we said: 'It's a question of months'. Today we are saying: 'It's perhaps a question of years '". The combat may last a long time, it will not progress so feverishly as we would have liked, it will be excessively difficult and will demand numerous sacrifices".


Lenin: "This is why the Congress must make a clean sweep of leftist illusions that the development of the world revolution will continue at the same mad pace as it did in the beginning, that without any interruption it will be carried along by a second revolutionary wave and that victory depends solely on the will of the party and its action" (Zetkin, Memories of Lenin).


The VKPD Centrale, under the responsibility of Thalheimer and Bela Kun, sent to the Congress draft theses on tactics which called on the CI to embark upon a new phase of action. In a letter to Zinoviev of 10 June 1921, Lenin considered that "the theses of Thalheimer and Bela Kun are radically false on the political level" (Lenin, Letters, Vol. 7).

The Communist Parties had nowhere conquered the majority of the working class, not only at the level of organisation, but also at the level of communist principles. This is why the tactic of the CI was the following:


"We must ceaselessly and systematically struggle to win over the majority of the working class, first of all inside the old unions" (ibid).


In discussion with the delegate Heckert, Lenin thought that "the provocation was as clear as day. And instead of mobilising the working masses behind defensive aims in order to push back the attacks of the bourgeoisie and prove that you had the right to do this, you invented your 'theory of the offensive', an absurd theory which provides all the reactionaries and police authorities with the opportunity of presenting you as aggressors against whom the people had to be defended!" (Heckert, 'My encounter with Lenin', Lenin as he was, Vol. 2).

Although previously Radek had supported the March Action, in his report presented in the name of the ECCI he talked about the contradictory nature of the March Action: he praised the heroism of the workers but also criticised the erroneous policy of the VKPD Centrale. Trotsky characterised the March Action as an extremely unfortunate attempt which "if it is repeated, could really lead this good party to its doom". He stressed that "it is our duty to say clearly to the German workers that we consider this philosophy of the offensive as the supreme danger and that, in its practical application, it constitutes the worst kind of political crime" (Proceedings of the Third Congress).

The VKPD delegation and the specially invited delegation from the opposition within the VKPD clashed at the Congress.


The Congress was aware of the danger to the unity of the party. This is why it pushed for a compromise between the leadership and the opposition. The following arrangement was obtained: "The Congress considers that any splintering of the forces within the Unified Communist Party of Germany, any formation of fractions, without even talking about splits, would constitute the greatest danger for the whole movement". At the same time the resolution adopted warned against any vengeful attitudes: "the Congress expects the leadership of the Unified Communist Party of Germany to have a tolerant attitude towards the old opposition, provided that it loyally applies the decisions taken by the Third Congress" (Resolution on the March Action and the Unified Communist Party of Germany, Third Congress of the CI).

During the debates at the Third Congress, the KAPD delegation hardly expressed any self-criticism about the March Action. It seemed to be concentrating its efforts on the questions of work in the trade unions and parliament.


Although the Third Congress managed to be very self-critical about the putschist dangers that appeared at the time of the March Action, to warn against them and to eradicate this "blind activism", it unfortunately embarked upon the tragic and pernicious path of the United Front. While it rejected putschism, the opportunist turn inaugurated by the adoption of the 21 Conditions was confirmed and accelerated. The grave errors identified by Gorter for the KAPD, i.e. the CI's return to work in the unions and parliament, were not corrected.


Encouraged by the results of the Third Congress, from the autumn of 1921 the VKPD involved itself in the policy of the United Front. At the same time, this Congress posed an ultimatum to the KAPD: either fuse with the VKPD or be excluded from the CI. In September 1921, the KAPD left the CI. Part of the KAPD rushed into the adventure of immediately founding the Communist Workers' International. A few months later it was rent by a split. 

For the KPD (which again changed its name in August 1921), the door towards opportunism was wide open. As for the bourgeoisie, it had obtained its objectives: thanks to the March Action it had managed to continue its offensive and weaken the working class still further.


While the consequences of the putschist attitude were devastating for the working class as a whole, they were even more so for the communists. Once again they were the main victims of the repression. The hunt for communists was stepped up. A wave of resignations hit the KPD. Many militants were deeply demoralised after the failure of the uprising. At the beginning of 1921, the VKPD had between 350-400,000 members. By the end of August it had only 160,000. In November it had no more than 135-150,000.

Once again the working class had fought in Germany without a strong, consistent communist party.




[1] At the elections to the Prussian parliament in February 1921, the VKPO won 1.1 million votes; the USPD 1.1 million; the SPD, 4.2 million. In Berlin, the VKPD and the USPD put together obtained more votes than the SPD.

[2] Clara Zetkin, who agreed with Levi's criticisms, exhorted him in several letters to avoid behaviour that would damage the organisation. Thus on 11 April she wrote to him: "You must withdraw the personal note from the preface. It seems to me politically beneficial for you not to make any personal judgement on the Centrale and its members, whom you declare to be fit for a lunatic asylum and whose revocation you demand, etc. It would be more reasonable to keep solely to the politics of the Centrale and leave aside the people who are only its mouthpieces". Only the personal excesses should be suppressed". Levi would not be convinced. His pride and his penchant for always wanting to be right, as well as his monolithic conception of organisation, were to have grim consequences.  

[3] "Paul Levi did not inform the party leadership of his intention to publish a pamphlet nor did he bring to its knowledge the main elements of its content. He had his pamphlet printed on 3 April, at a time when the struggle was still going on in several parts of the Reich and when thousands of workers were being hauled before special tribunals. so that his writings could only excite them to pronounce the most bloody sentences. The Centrale fully recognises the right to criticise the party before and after the actions that it leads. Criticism on the terrain of the struggle and complete solidarity in the combat is a vital necessity for the party and a revolutionary duty. Paul Levi's attitude does not go towards the strengthening of the party but towards its dislocation and destruction" (VKPD Centrale, 16 April 1921).

[4]  The ECCI delegation was composed of Bela Kun, Pogany and Guralski. Since the foundation of the KPD Radek had played the role of "liaison" between the KPO and the CI. Without always having a clear mandate, he above all practiced the politics of informal and parallel channels.

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