Germany 1923: The bourgeoisie inflicts a decisive defeat on the working class

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In the previous articles of the International Review we saw how the proletariat in Russia remained isolated after the highest point of the revolutionary wave was reached in 1919. While the Comintern tried to react against the reflux of the wave of struggles through an opportunistic turn, thus entering a downward path of degeneration, the Russian state became more and more autonomous from the movement of the class, and tried to bring the Comintern under its wing.

At the same time the bourgeoisie realised that with the end of the civil war in Russia, the workers in Russia no longer represented the same threat, and that the international wave of struggles was beginning to ebb. They became aware that the Comintern was no longer fighting energetically against Social-Democracy but instead was trying to establish alliances within it through the policy of the United Front. The bourgeoisie’s class instinct made it sense that the Russian state was no longer a force in the service of the revolution trying to expand, but had become a force aiming at the establishment of its own position as a State, as the conference of Rapallo had clearly demonstrated. The bourgeoisie felt that it could exploit the opportunistic turn and the degeneration of the Comintern as well as the balance of forces within the Russian state to its own benefit. The international bourgeoisie felt that it could engage an offensive against the working class. Germany was to be the focus of this offensive.

Apart from Russia in 1917, the proletariat’s most radical struggles had developed in Germany and Italy. Even after the defeat of the workers in their fight against the Kapp putsch in spring 1920, and after the defeat in March 1921, the working class in Germany was still very combative, but it was also relatively isolated internationally. With the workers in Austria, Hungary and Italy already defeated and under massive attack, and the proletariat of Germany, Poland and Bulgaria pushed into desperate reactions, the situation in France and in Britain remained comparatively stable. In order to inflict a decisive defeat on the working class in Germany, hoping thus to weaken the international working class altogether, the bourgeoisie could count on the international support of the entire capitalist class, which in the meantime had been able to strengthen its ranks with the integration of Social-Democracy and the Trade Unions into the State apparatus.

In 1923 the bourgeoisie tried to pull the working class in Germany into a nationalist trap, with the hope of derailing its struggles against capitalism.

The disastrous policy of the KPD: Defence of Democracy and United Front

We saw previously how the expulsion of the “Left radicals” (Linksradikalen), who were later to found the KAPD, weakened the KPD and facilitated the blossoming of opportunism in its ranks.

While the KAPD warned of the dangers of opportunism and the degeneration of the Comintern and rising state capitalism in Russia, the KDP reacted opportunistically. In an “Open Letter to the Workers’ Parties” of 1921 it was the first party to call for a United Front.

The struggle for a United Front leads to the conquest of the old proletarian class organisations (Trade Unions, co-operatives etc.). It transforms these organs of the working class, which because of the tactics of the reformists have become tools of the bourgeoisie, into organs of proletarian class struggle once again. At the same time the Trade Unions were proudly declaring: “it remains a fact, that the unions are the only solid dyke which has so far protected Germany from the Bolshevik flood” (Korrespondenzblatt der Gewerkschaften, June 1921).

The founding congress of the KPD was not mistaken, when it declared through the voice of Rosa Luxemburg that “the official unions proved during the war and in the war up until today that they are an organisation of the bourgeois State and of the rule of the capitalist class”. Now the same KPD stood for the retransformation of these organs which had gone over to the class enemy.

At the same time the KPD leadership under Brandler stood for a united front from above with the SPD-leadership. Within the KPD this orientation was opposed by a wing around Fischer and Maslow, who put forward the slogan of “workers’ government”. They declared that “support for the Social-Democratic minority government [does not mean] an increased decomposition of the SPD”; not only would such a position foster “illusions among the masses, as if a Social-Democratic cabinet were a weapon of the working class”, but it would tend to “eliminate the KPD, since it supposes that the SPD could lead a revolutionary struggle”.

But it was above all the currents of the Communist Left, which had just emerged in Italy and Germany, that took position against this idea.

As far as a workers’ government is concerned, we ask: why are we being asked to ally ourselves with the Social-Democrats? To do the only things that they know how, are able, and want to do, or to ask them to do what they do not know how, cannot, and do not want to do? Are we being asked to tell the Social-Democrats that we are ready to collaborate with them, even in Parliament, and even in this government that has been baptised a ‘workers’ government’? In this case, in other words if we are being asked to set out in the name of the Communist Party a proposal for a workers’ government which will include communists and socialists, and to present this government to the masses as ‘the anti-bourgeois government’, then we reply, taking complete responsibility for our response, that such an attitude is opposed to all the fundamental principles of communism” (Il Comunista, no.26, March 1922).

At the 4th congress “the PCI will not therefore accept to take part in joint organisms with other political organisations... [it] will also avoid taking part in joint declarations with political parties when these declarations contradict its own programme and are presented to the proletariat as the result of negotiations aimed at finding a common line of action.

Talk of a workers’ government... comes down to denying in practice the political programme of communism, in other words the necessity of preparing the masses for the struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat” (PCI Report to the 4th Congress of the Communist International, November 1922).

Ignoring these critiques by the Left Communists, the KPD had already proposed to form a coalition government with the SPD in Saxony in November 1922, a proposal which was rejected by the Comintern.

The same KPD which in its founding Conference at the beginning of 1919 still said, Spartakusbund refuses to work together with the lackeys of the bourgeoisie, to share governmental power with Ebert-Scheidemann, because such a co-operation would be a betrayal of the principles of socialism, a strengthening of counter-revolution and a paralysis of the revolution”, now stood for the opposite.

At the same time the KPD was deceived by the number of votes it received, believing that these votes expressed a real balance of forces or even that they reflected the influence of the party.

While the first fascist groups were being set up by members of the middle classes and the petty bourgeoisie, many armed right wing groups started to organise military training. The state was perfectly informed about these groups. Most of them had emerged directly from the Freikorps, which the SPD-led government had set up against the workers during the revolutionary struggles of 1918-1919. Already in August 1921 Rote Fahne declared: “The working class has the right and the duty to protect the republic against reaction  (31.8.1921). One year later, in November 1922, the KPD signed a deal with the Trade Unions and the SPD (the Berlin agreement), with the aim of “democratising the republic” (protection of the republic, elimination of reactionaries from the administration, the judiciary, and the army). The KPD thus increased the illusions amongst the workers about bourgeois democracy and found itself in direct contradiction with the position of the Italian Left around Bordiga, which at the 4th World Congress of the Comintern emphasised in its analysis of fascism that bourgeois democracy was only one facet of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

In an earlier article we have already shown that the Comintern, in particular through its representative Radek, criticised the politics of the KPD outside of the organisational framework and that it started to weaken the leadership by building up a parallel functioning. At the same time petty bourgeois influences began to penetrate the party. Instead of expressing critique whenever necessary in a fraternal manner, an atmosphere of suspicion and incriminations was spreading, all of which led to a weakening of the organisation[1].

The ruling class realised that the KPD was beginning to spread confusion within the class instead of taking on a real vanguard role based on its clarity and determination. The bourgeoisie felt it could turn this opportunistic attitude of the KPD against the working class.

Following the reflux of the revolutionary wave — intensification of imperialist conflicts

The changing balance of forces between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat following the reflux of the revolutionary wave after 1920 also became tangible in the imperialist relations between states. As soon as the immediate threat from the working class receded, and when the revolutionary flame was extinguished in the Russian working class, imperialist tensions were on the rise again.

Germany tried everything to reverse the weakening of its position by its defeat in World War I and the Versailles Treaty. In the West, its strategy was to try to set France and Britain against each other, since no open military confrontation was possible with either. At the same time Germany tried to renew its traditionally close relations with its neighbour to the East.  We have already described in previous articles how the German bourgeoisie, in the context of the imperialist tensions in the West, proceeded determinedly to supply arms to the new Russian state, and signed secret agreements for the delivery of weapons and military co-operation. One of Germany’s principle military leaders recognised that: “The relationship between Germany and Russia is the first and hitherto almost the only accession of strength we have achieved since the conclusion of peace. That the beginning of this link lies in the economic field, is in the nature of the situation as a whole; but its strength lies in the fact that this economic rapprochement prepares the possibility of a political and therefore also a military link” (Carr, p. 434, The Bolshevik Revolution, Vol.3).

At the same time the Russian state, with the support of the Comintern declared through Bukharin : “I assert that we are already great enough to conclude an alliance with a foreign bourgeoisie in order, by means of this bourgeois state, to be able to overthrow another bourgeoisie... Supposing that a military alliance has been concluded with a bourgeois state, the duty of the comrades in each country consists in contributing to the victory of the two allies” (Carr, p. 442). “We tell the gentlemen of the German bourgeoisie... if you really want to struggle against the occupation, if you want to struggle against the insults of the Entente, nothing is left for you but to seek a rapprochement with the first proletarian country, which cannot help supporting those countries which are now in servile dependence on international imperialism” (Zinoviev, 12th party congress, April 1923).

Nationalist propaganda spoke of Germany’s humiliation and subjection by foreign capital, especially by France. German military leaders as well as prominent representatives of the German bourgeoisie repeatedly made public declarations to the effect that the only possible salvation for the German nation from the subjugation of Versailles was a military alliance with Soviet Russia and a “revolutionary people’s war” against French imperialism 

This policy was received with great interest by the new strata of state-capitalist bureaucrats within the Russian state.

The remaining proletarian internationalists within the Comintern and the Russian Communist Party, who remained faithful to the aim of spreading world revolution, were themselves blinded by these seductive speeches. Whereas it was unthinkable for German capital to establish a real alliance with Russia against its imperialist rivals from the West, the Russian state leaders and the Comintern leadership let themselves be fooled and fell into the trap. They thus actively helped to push the working class into the same trap.

With the help of the entire capitalist class, the German bourgeoisie worked out a plot against the working class in Germany. On the one hand Germany wanted to escape from the pressure of the Versailles treaty, by delaying the payments of reparations to France, and threatening to stop them altogether, on the other it pushed the working class in Germany into the nationalist trap. However, the co-operation of the Russian state and the Comintern was vital to this plot.

The German bourgeoisie took the conscious decision to provoke French capitalism by refusing to pay war reparations. The latter reacted by occupying the Ruhr on 11th January, 1923.

At the same time German capital complemented its tactics by the decision to give a free rein to the inflationary tendencies which had sprung from the crisis. It used inflation as a means of lowering the cost of reparation and alleviating the weight of war credits. At the same time it set about modernising its factories.

The bourgeoisie was also very well aware that rising inflation would push the working class into struggle. It hoped to divert the expected workers defensive struggles onto the nationalist terrain. The bait held out to the working class was the occupation of the Ruhr by the French army, a price the Germany bourgeoisie was ready to pay. The key question was going to be the capacity of the working class and revolutionaries to spring the trap of the defence of national capital. Otherwise, the German bourgeoisie would be able to inflict a decisive defeat on the working class. The ruling class was ready to challenge the proletariat once again, because it felt that the international balance of forces was favourable, and that parts of the Russian state apparatus would be attracted by this orientation and that even the Comintern could be pulled into the trap.

The provocation of the Ruhr: what tasks for the working class?

By occupying the Ruhr, the French bourgeoisie hoped to become Europe’s biggest steel and coal producer, since the Ruhr provided 72 % of Germany’s coal supply, 50% of its iron and steel, and 25% of total industrial production. It was obvious that as soon as Germany were deprived of these resources, the abrupt drop in production would lead to a shortage of goods and to profound economic convulsions. The German bourgeoisie was ready to make such a sacrifice because the stakes were so high. German Capital took the risk of pushing the workers to strike, in order to draw them onto a nationalist terrain. The employers and the government decided to lock-out the workers. Any worker who was willing to work under the rule of the French occupying forces was threatened with the sack. SPD President Ebert announced heavy penalties on March 4th for any worker who continued to work in the mines or on the railways. On January 24th the employers’ association and the ADGB (German Trades Union Federation) launched an appeal for funds for the fight against France. The consequence was that more and more companies threw their workers on the street. All this against the background of exploding inflation: whereas the US dollar was still worth 1,000 Marks in April 1922, by November it had already fallen to 6,000 Marks, and it fell again to 20,000 Marks in February 1923 after the occupation of the Ruhr. By June 1923 it had fallen to 100,000 to the dollar, at the end of July it reached 1 million, at the end of August it had dropped again to 10 million, by mid-September 100 million. In November 1923, the Mark reached its nadir of 4.2 billion to the dollar.

This did not hit the Ruhr coal bosses too hard, since they had introduced a system of payment in gold or barter. However, for the working class it meant starvation. Very often the unemployed and those still in work demonstrated together to put forward their demands. Time and time again there were violent confrontations with French occupying forces.

The Comintern pushes the workers into the trap of nationalism

Falling into the trap of the German capitalists, who called for a common struggle by “the oppressed German nation” and Russia, the Comintern started to spread the idea that Germany needed a strong government, which would be able to confront the French occupying forces without the class struggle stabbing the government in its back. The Comintern was willing to sacrifice proletarian internationalism in the interests of the Russian state[2].

This policy was inaugurated under the banner of “national-Bolshevism”. Whereas in autumn 1920 the Comintern had acted with great determination and energy against the “national-Bolshevik tendencies” and insisted in its discussions with the delegates of the KAPD on the expulsion of the “national-Bolsheviks” Laufenberg and Wolffheim from the KAPD, the Comintern itself now began to propagate this line.

This turn-about of the Comintern cannot just be explained by the confusions and the opportunism of the ECCI; we have to look at the “invisible hand” of those forces who were not interested in revolution but in the strengthening of the Russian state. National-Bolshevism could only take hold when the Comintern had already started to degenerate and was already in the grip of the Russian state and being absorbed by it. Radek argued thus: “The Soviet Union is in danger. All tasks must be subordinated to the defence of the Soviet Union, because with this analysis a revolutionary movement in Germany would be dangerous and would undermine the interests of the Soviet Union...

The German communist movement is not capable of overthrowing German capitalism, it must serve as a pillar of Russian foreign policy. The countries of Europe, organised under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, using the military capacities of the German army against the West, this is the perspective, this is the only way out...”.

In January 1923 Rote Fahne wrote: “The German nation will be pushed into the abyss, if it is not saved by the German proletariat. The nation will be sold and destroyed by the German capitalists, unless the working class prevents them. Either the German nation will starve to death and fall apart because of the dictatorship of the French bayonet or it will be saved through the dictatorship of the proletariat”. “However, today national-Bolshevism means that everything is being permeated by the feeling that we can only be saved by the communists. Today, we are the only way out. The strong emphasis on the nation in Germany is a revolutionary act, in the same way as the emphasis on the nation in the colonies (Rote Fahne, 21.06.23). Rakosi, a delegate of the Comintern, praised this orientation of the KPD: “a communist party has to tackle the national question. The German party has taken up this question in a very skilful, adequate manner. It is in the process of tearing this nationalistic weapon out of the hands of the fascists” (Schüddelkopf, p. 177).

In a manifesto to Soviet Russia, the KPD wrote: “The party conference expresses its gratitude to Soviet Russia for the great lesson, which has been written down in history with streams of blood and incredible sacrifices, that the concern of the nation still remains the concern of the proletariat”.

On April 18th, Thalheimer even declared: “it remains the privileged task of the proletarian revolution not only to liberate Germany, but to complete Bismarck’s work of integrating Austria into the Reich. The proletariat has to accomplish this task in an alliance with the petty-bourgeoisie” (Die Internationale, V 8, 18.4.23, p. 242-247).

What a perversion of the basic communist position on the nation! What a rejection of the internationalist position of revolutionaries during World War I, with at their head Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg who fought for the destruction of all nations!

In the Rhineland and in Bavaria the separatist movement had been on the rise after the war. These forces felt their chances increasing and hoped, with French support, to split off the Rhineland from the Ruhr. With pride the KPD press reported how it helped the Cuno government in its fight against the separatists. “Small armed detachments were mobilised from the Ruhr to move to Düsseldorf. They had the task of preventing the proclamation of a ‘Republic of the Rhineland’. When at 14:00 the separatists gathered on the banks of the river Rhine and were about to start their meeting, some combat groups, armed with hand-grenades, attacked the separatists. It needed only a few hand-grenades and the whole bunch of separatists, gripped by panic, ran away and abandoned the banks of the river Rhine. We had prevented them from gathering and from proclaiming a ‘Republic of the Rhineland’ (W. Ulbricht, Memoirs, p. 132, Volume I).

We are not revealing any secrets if we say openly that the communist combat detachments, which dispersed the separatists in the Palatinate, in the Eifel and at Düsseldorf with guns and grenades, were under the military command of nationalistic minded Prussian officers” (Vorwärts).

This nationalist orientation, however, was not the work of the KPD alone; it was also the product of the policy of the Russian state and of certain parts of the Comintern.

After co-ordination with the ECCI the KPD leadership pushed for the struggle to be directed in the first instance against France and only afterwards against the German bourgeoisie. This is why the KPD leadership claimed: “The defeat of French imperialism in the world war was not a communist goal, the defeat of French imperialism in the Ruhr, however, is a communist goal”.

The KPD and the hope of a “nationalist alliance”


The KPD leadership stood against strikes. Already at the Leipzig party conference at the end of January, shortly after the occupation of the Ruhr, the leadership - with the support of the Comintern - prevented a discussion on this national-Bolshevik orientation, out of fear it would be rejected by the majority of the party.

When the sections of the KPD in the Ruhr held a regional party conference in March 1923, the party leadership spoke against the orientations of the KPD’s local groups in the Ruhr. The Zentrale claimed: only a strong government can save Germany, a government, which is carried by the living forces of the nation” (Rote Fahne, 1.4.23).

In the Ruhr area itself the majority of the KPD conference put forward the following orientation:

- downing tools in all zones occupied by the military forces,

- workers taking over factories by making use of the German-French conflict and if possible local seizure of power.

Within the KPD two different orientations clashed: a proletarian, internationalist orientation, which stood for a confrontation with the Cuno government and a radicalisation of the movement in the Ruhr[3].

This was contrary to the position of the KPD Zentrale, which with the help of the Comintern energetically opposed the strikes and tried to push the working class onto a nationalist terrain.

The ruling class could even be so sure of this policy of sabotaging the workers’ struggles, that the Secretary of State, Malzahn, after a discussion with Radek on May 26th reported to Ebert and the most important ministers in a top secret memorandum: “He [Radek] could assure me, that Russian sympathies were already out of their own interests siding with the German government (...) He energetically spoke to and urged the communist party leaders during the past week to show the stupidity and the mistaken approach of their previous attitude vis-à-vis the German government. We can be sure that in a few days the communist coup attempts in the Ruhr will recede (Foreign Office Archives, Bonn, Deutschland 637.442ff, in Dupeux, p. 181).

After the offer of a united front with the counter-revolutionary SPD and the parties of the 2nd International, now the policy of keeping quiet vis-à-vis the capitalist German government.

The extent to which the KPD leadership were clear about the fact that they could not “stab the government in the back”, can be seen through a statement in Rote Fahne on 27.5.1923: “The government knows that the KPD has remained silent about many questions because of  the danger from French capitalism, since otherwise this would have made the government lose face in any international negotiation. As long as the social-democratic workers do not fight together with us for a workers’ government the Communist Party has no interest in the replacement of this headless government by another bourgeois government... Either the government drops the assassination campaign against the CP or we will break our silence” (27.5.1923, Rote Fahne, Dupeux p. 1818).

Appeals to nationalism aim to seduce the patriotic petty bourgeoisie

Since inflation also expropriated the petty bourgeoisie and the middle classes, the KPD believed it could offer these strata an alliance. Instead of insisting on the autonomous struggle of the working class, which alone is able to pull other non-exploiting strata into its orbit inasmuch as its struggles increase in strength and impact, they sent a message of flattery and seduction to these strata, saying that they could enter into an alliance with the working class: “we have to address ourselves to the suffering, confused, outraged masses of the proletarian petty bourgeoisie and tell them, that they can only defend themselves and the future of Germany if they unite with the proletariat in their fight against the bourgeoisie (Carr, The Interregnum, p. 176).

It is the task of the KPD, to open the eyes of the broader petty bourgeois and intellectual nationalist masses to the fact that only the working class — once it has achieved a victory — will be able to defend German soil, the treasures of German culture and the future of the German nation” (Rote Fahne, 13.5.1923).

This policy of unity on a nationalist basis was not the work of the KPD alone;  it was also supported by the Comintern. Radek’s speech to the ECCI on June 20th 1923 is a testimony of this. In this speech he praised the member of right wing separatist circles, Schlageter, who had been arrested and shot by the French Army on May 26th during the sabotage of railway bridges near Düsseldorf. This was the same Radek, who, within the ranks of the Comintern in 1919 and 1920, had urged the KPD and the KAPD to expel the Hamburg national-Bolsheviks. “But we believe that the great majority of the masses who are swayed by nationalist feeling, are not part of the camp of capital but of the camp of labour. We want to and we shall look for and find a way to reach these masses. We shall do all we can so that men like Schlageter who are ready to sacrifice their life for a general cause, are not people fighting for a void, but that they become fighters for a better future of all humanity” (Radek, 20.6.23, quoted in Broué, p. 693). “It is obvious that the German working class will never conquer power if it is not able to inspire trust in the broad masses of the German people, that its best forces are engaged in the fight to get rid of the yoke of foreign capital (Dupeux, p. 190).

This idea, that the “proletariat could act as the vanguard, the nationalist petty bourgeoisie as the rearguard, in short that the whole people could stand up for revolution, that the nationalists might follow the working class, was supported unconditionally by the 5th Congress of the Comintern in 1924.

While the opposition stood up against this policy of “remaining quiet”, which was practised by the KPD leadership until September 1923, this did not protect it from driving the working class into nationalist dead-ends. Thus R. Fischer propagated anti-Semitic slogans “Whoever speaks up against Jewish capital... is already a class fighter, even if he doesn’t know this...  Fight against the Jewish capitalists, hang them from lamp posts, crush them...  French imperialism now is the biggest danger in the world, France is the country of reaction... Only by establishing an alliance with Russia... can the German people chase French capitalism out of the Ruhr” (Flechtheim, p. 178).

The working class defends itself on its class terrain

While the bourgeoisie was aiming at pulling the working class in Germany onto a nationalist terrain, preventing it from defending its class interests, with the ECCI and the KPD leadership pushing the class in the same direction, the majority of workers in the cities of the Ruhr and elsewhere did not let themselves get pulled onto this terrain. Hardly a factory was unaffected by strikes.

Time and time again there were small waves of strikes and protests. Thus on March 9th 40,000 miners downed tools in Upper Silesia; on March 17th in Dortmund, the miners stopped work. In addition, the unemployed joined workers’ demonstrations, for example on April 2nd at Mühlheim/Ruhr.

Whereas parts of the KPD leadership were seduced and deceived by nationalist flattery, as soon as the strikes erupted in the Ruhr it became clear to the German bourgeoisie that they needed the help of other capitalist states against the working class. At Mühlheim/Ruhr workers occupied several factories. Almost the entire town was hit by a strike wave, the Town Hall was occupied. Since regular German troops of the Reichswehr could not intervene because of the Ruhr’s occupation by the French, the police was called in, but their troops proved insufficient to suppress the workers. The mayor of Düsseldorf appealed for support to the commander-in-chief of the French occupying forces: “I have to remind you that the German supreme command helped the French troops at the time of the Paris Commune at any moment, in order to smash the rising together. I request you to offer us the same support, if you want to avoid a similar situation arising” (Dr. Lutherbeck, letter to General de Goutte, in French in Broué p. 674).

On several occasions the Reichswehr was sent to smash workers’ struggles in different cities - as in Gelsenkirchen and Bochum. While the German bourgeoisie displayed an open animosity towards France, it never hesitated to send its army against the workers who resisted nationalism.

The rapid acceleration of the economic crisis, above all of inflation, gave added impetus to the workers’ combativity. Wages lost their value by the hour. Purchasing power fell to a quarter of its pre-war level. More and more workers lost their jobs. In the summer some 60% of the workforce was jobless. Even civil servants only received ridiculous wages. Companies wanted to print their own currency, local authorities introduced “emergency money” to pay their civil servants. Since the sale of their crops no longer yielded any profit, the farmers hoarded their produce. Food supply was on the point of breaking down completely. Workers and the unemployed demonstrated more and more together. Everywhere there were reports of hunger revolts and shops being looted. The police were often only impotent spectators of these revolts.

At the end of May some 400,000 workers went on strike in the Ruhr ; in June 100,000 miners and steelworkers struck in Silesia, along with 150,000 Berlin metal workers . In July another wave of strikes broke out which led to a series of violent clashes.

A common characteristic of these strikes was typical of all workers’ struggles in the period of capitalist decadence: large numbers of workers left the unions. In the factories workers met in general assemblies, there were more and more meetings in the streets. The workers spent more time on the street, in discussions and demonstrations, than they did at work. The unions opposed this movement as best they could. The workers tried spontaneously to unite in mass meetings and factory committees on the shop floor. The trend was towards unification. The movement gained further momentum. Its driving force was not to regroup around nationalist slogans but to look for a class orientation.

Where were the revolutionary forces? The KAPD, weakened by the fiasco of the split between the Essen and Berlin factions and again reduced in number and organisationally weakened by the foundation of the KAI (Communist Workers’ International) was not able to make an organised intervention in this situation, although it expressed loudly enough its rejection of the national-Bolshevik trap.

The KPD, which was attracting more and more members, nonetheless put a rope around its own neck. The KPD was unable to offer a clear orientation for the class. What did the KPD propose?[4] The KPD refused to work towards the overthrow of the government. In fact, the KPD and the Comintern increased confusion and contributed to the weakening of the working class.

On the one hand the KPD competed on a nationalist level with the fascists. On August 10th for example (on the same day that a wave of strikes broke out in Berlin), KPD leaders like Thalheimer in Stuttgart were still holding nationalist rallies together with the national-socialists. At the same time the KPD called for a struggle against the fascist danger. Whereas the Berlin government forbade any demonstration, and the KPD leadership wanted to submit to this prohibition, the left wing of the party wanted at all costs to hold a demonstration on June 29th, whose slogan was to be a united front mobilisation against the fascists!

But the KPD was unable to take a clear decision, so that on the day of the demonstration some 250,000 workers were in the street in front of the party offices, waiting in vain for instructions.

In August 1923, the KPD against an intensification of the struggle

In August a new wave of strikes began. Almost every day workers demonstrated — both employed and unemployed. In the factories there was turmoil, and factory committees were formed. The influence of the KPD was at its height.

On August 10th the printers at the national mint went on strike. In an economy where every hour the state had to print more money, the strike of the bank-note printers had a particularly paralysing effect. Within a few hours the reserves of paper money were used up. Wages could no longer be paid. The printers’ strike, which started in Berlin, spread like a bush-fire to other parts of the class. From Berlin it spread to Northern Germany, the Rhineland, Wurttemberg, Upper Silesia, Thuringia and as far as Eastern Prussia. More and more parts of the class joined the movement. On August 11th and 12th there were violent confrontations in several cities; more than 35 workers were shot by the police. Like all the movements since 1914 they were characterised by the fact that they took place outside of and against the will of the unions. The Trade Unions understood how serious the situation was. Some of them at first pretended to support the strikes, in order to be able to sabotage them better from within. Other unions opposed the strikes openly. The KPD itself took up position, once the strikes had started to spread: “For an intensification of the economic strikes, no to raising political demands”. And as soon as the union leadership announced that it would not support the strike, the KPD leadership called upon the workers to bring it to an end. The KPD leadership was not willing to support any strike outside of the union framework.

Whereas Brandler insisted that the strike should be stopped, since the ADGB was opposed to it, local party sections wanted to spread the numerous local strikes and to weld them into one big movement against the Cuno government. The rest of the working class “was called upon to unite the powerful movement of the Berlin proletariat and to spread the general strike across Germany”.

The party had arrived at an impasse. The party leadership spoke against a continuation and extension of the strikes, since this would also imply the rejection of the nationalist terrain onto which capital wanted to pull the workers. At the same time the much acclaimed united front with the SPD and unions would be put into danger. Even on August 18th Rote Fahne still wrote: “If they want to, we shall even combine our forces with the people who murdered Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. (Rote Fahne, 18.08.23).

The orientation of a United Front, the obligation to work in the unions under the pretext of winning over more workers from within, meant in reality to submit to the union structure, contribute to preventing the workers from taking the struggle into their own hands. All this meant a terrible conflict for the KPD: either it recognised the dynamic of the class struggle, rejected its nationalist orientation and fought against union sabotage, or else it turned against the strikes, to be absorbed by the union apparatus, and in the final analysis to become a protective wall for the state and act as an obstacle to the working class. For the first time in its history the KPD had come into open conflict with the fighting working class because of its union orientation, and because the dynamic of the workers’ struggles was forcing the workers to break down the union framework. Confrontation with the unions is inevitable. Instead of assuming it, the KPD leadership was discussing how it could win over the Trades Union leadership to support for the strike.

Under the pressure of this wave of strikes the Cuno government resigned on August 12th. On August 13th the KPD leadership issued an appeal to end the strike. This appeal by the leadership of the KPD encountered resistance from the radicalised shop stewards in the factories in Berlin. Local party sections were also opposed, since they wanted the movement to continue. The local party sections were waiting for instructions from the Zentrale. They wanted to avoid isolated clashes with the army, until the weapons which the Zentrale claimed to possess could be distributed.

The KPD had become victim of its own national-Bolshevik policy and its United Front tactics; the working class was plunged in confusion and perplexity as to what to do. The bourgeoisie, by contrast, was ready to take the initiative.

As in previous situations of rising combativity the SPD was to play a decisive role of breaking the movement. The Cuno government, close to the Centre Party, was replaced by a “grand coalition”, headed by the Centre’s leader Gustav Stresemann, supported by 4 SPD ministers (Hilferding became Minister of Finance). When the SPD joined the government, this was not an expression of capital’s paralysed helplessness and inability to act, as the KPD believed, it was a conscious tactical step by the bourgeoisie to contain the movement. The SPD was in no way on the point of breaking up, as the KPD leadership later claimed, nor was the bourgeoisie split or unable to nominate a new government.

On August 14th, Stresemann announced the introduction of a new currency and stable wages. The bourgeoisie had managed to keep the situation under control and decided consciously to put an end to the spiral of inflation — in the same way as one year before it had consciously decided to “kick-start” inflation.

At the same time the government called upon the workers in the Ruhr to end their “passive resistance” against France and after flirting with Russia it declared the “war against Bolshevism” to be one of the major goals of German policy.

By promising to curb inflation the bourgeoisie managed to bring about a change in the balance of forces — because even if after the end of the movement in Berlin a series of strikes erupted in the Rhineland and in the Ruhr on August 20th, the movement as a whole had come to an end.

Although it could not be pulled onto the nationalist terrain, the working class was unable to push forward its movement — one of the reasons being that the KPD itself was a victim of its own national-Bolshevik policy. Thus the bourgeoisie had been able to take another step towards its goal of inflicting a decisive defeat on the working class.

The working class for its part came out of these struggles disoriented, with a feeling of helplessness in the face of the crisis.

The left fractions of the Comintern, who felt even more isolated after the cancellation of the proposed alliance between “oppressed Germany” and Russia, and the fiasco of national-Bolshevism, were now led to try to turn the tide again by launching a desperate attempt at insurrection. We will deal with this in the next part of this article.                   




[1] In a private correspondence the Party Chairmain of 1922 E. Meyer insulted the Zentrale and individual party leaders. Meyer for example sent personal notes, giving descriptions of the personality of party leaders to his wife. He asked his wife to report to him about the atmosphere in the party, while he stayed in Moscow. There was a lot of private correspondence by members of the Zentrale with the Comintern. Different tendencies within the Comintern had special links within different tendencies within the KPD. The network of “informal and parallel channels of communication” was widespread. Moreover, the atmosphere in the KPD was poisoned: On the 5th Congress of the Comintern Ruth Fischer, who herself had contributed considerably to this, reported: “At the Leipzig party conference (in January 1923) it sometimes occurred that workers of different districts were sitting at one table. At the end they would ask: Where are you from? And some poor worker would say: I am from Berlin. The others would then get up, leave the table and avoid the delegate from Berlin. So much for the atmosphere in the party” (R.Fischer, 5th Congress of the Comintern, p. 201).

[2] Voices in the Czech CP opposed this orientation. Thus Neurath attacked Thalheimer’s position as an expression of corruption by patriotic sentiments. Sommer, another Czech Communist wrote in Rote Fahne demanding the rejection of this orientation: “there can be no understanding with the enemy within” (Carr, p. 168, Interregnum).

[3] At the same time they wanted to set up autonomous economic units, an orientation which expressed the strong weight of syndicalism. The KPD opposition wanted the workers’ republic, which would have been set up in the Rhine-Ruhr area, to send an army to central Germany in order to help seize power there. This motion, put forward by R. Fischer, was rejected by a majority of 68 to 55 votes.

[4] Many workers, with little theoretical and political training, were attracted to the party. The party opened its doors to a mass membership. Everyone was welcome. In April 1922 the KPD announced: “in the present political situation the KPD has the duty of integrating any worker in our ranks, who wants to join us”. In the summer of 1923 many provincial sections fell into the hands of young, radical elements. Thus more and more impatient, inexperienced elements joined the party. Within 6 months party membership rose from 225,000 to 295,000; between September 1922 and September 1923 the number of local party groups increased from 2,481 to 3,321. At the time, the KPD had its own press service and published 34 daily papers and a number of reviews. The party was also joined by many elements infiltrated into the membership with a view to sabotage from the inside. 

History of the workers' movement: