In a previous article, we showed how the international isolation of the revolution in Russia - due to the revolution’s failure to spread to Western Europe - caused the degeneration of the Communist International and the rise of Russian state capitalism, which in turn hastened the workers’ defeats in Germany
After the signing of the secret treaty of Rapallo the international capitalist class realised that the Russian State was more and more making the Comintern its tool. Within Russia itself there was strong opposition to this trend, which led to a series of strikes in the Moscow area during the summer of 1923, and which found expression above all through an increasingly vociferous opposition within the Bolshevik party. In autumn 1923 Trotsky, after many hesitations, finally decided to join a more determined struggle against the state capitalist orientation. Even if the Comintern became more and more opportunistic after the policies of the United Front and the backing of national-bolshevism, and degenerated all the more quickly as a result of its strangulation by the Russian state, there remained within it a minority of internationalist comrades, who still defended the orientation of world revolution. After German capital dropped its promise of a common struggle between the “oppressed nation” and Russia, this internationalist minority felt disoriented because it was convinced that as a result the chances of “saving” the October revolution from outside and relaunching the world revolutionary wave were receding further and further. Out of fear of rising state capitalism in Russia, and in the hope of a revolutionary resurgence they were looking desperately looked for a last spark, the last possibility of a revolutionary onslaught.
Convinced that a revolutionary potential still remained, and that the moment of insurrection had not yet passed, Trotsky urged the Comintern to do everything they could to support a revolutionary development: “You can see comrades, this is finally the big onslaught, that we waited for so many years, and which will change the face of the world. These unfolding events will have a tremendous importance. German revolution means the collapse of the capitalist world”.
At the same time the situation in Poland and Bulgaria was accelerating. On 23rd September, communists in Bulgaria launched an attempted rising, supported by the Comintern, which failed. In October and November, a new wave of strikes erupted in Poland, involving some two thirds of the country’s industrial labour force. The Polish CP was itself surprised by the class’ combativity. These insurrectional risings were also smashed on 23rd November.
Within the framework of the political struggle going on within the Russian party, Stalin stood against supporting the movement in Germany, inasmuch as its success could have been a direct threat to the existing Russian state apparatus, within which he held some of the most important positions: “My point of view is that the German comrades have to be held back and we should not encourage them” (Letter from Stalin to Zinoviev, 5.8.23).
The Comintern launches an adventurist insurrection
Clinging to the last hope of a revival of the revolutionary wave, the Comintern’s Executive Committee (the ECCI) decided on its own, without any prior consultation with the KPD, to force the movement in Germany and to prepare for insurrection.
When the news of the end of Germany’s policy of “passive resistance” against France, and of the opening of Franco-German negotiations reached Moscow on 11th September, the ECCI pushed for an insurrection at the end of September in Bulgaria, to be followed shortly afterwards by one in Germany. The representatives of the KPD were summoned to Moscow, in order to prepare the insurrection together with the ECCI. These discussions, in which representatives of countries bordering Germany also took part, lasted for more than one month from the beginning of September to early October.
The Comintern was to take another disastrous turn. The catastrophic policy of the United Front with the counter-revolutionary Social-Democratic forces, whose destructive consequences could still be felt, and the flirt with national-bolshevism, were now to be followed by the desperate adventure of an attempted rising, without the conditions being ready for any possibility of success.
Although the working class in Germany remained the strongest and most concentrated sector of the international proletariat, the sector which – alongside the Russian proletariat – had been at the forefront of the revolutionary combat, in 1923 the international wave of struggles was already on the retreat, leaving it relatively isolated.
In this situation, the ECCI wrongly assessed the balance of forces and it failed to see how the tactical reorientation of the SPD-led government in August 1923 had managed to swing the tide in favour of the bourgeoisie. To assess a situation correctly, to understand the strategy of the enemy, an internationally organised and centralised party must be able to rely on the correct evaluation of the situation on the spot by its local section. But the KPD itself was blinded by its national-Bolshevik policy and did not understand the real dynamic of the movement.
The movement in Germany itself had laid bare a number of weaknesses:
- Up until August it had mostly been limited to economic demands. The working class had not yet come forward with its own political demands. Although the movement developed more strength coming out of the factories, moving towards the streets, although more and more workers were united in general assemblies, and some workers councils had been founded, it was still not possible to speak of a period of dual power. Several members of the ECCI thought that the formation of workers councils could only be a distraction from what they considered the primary task - military preparation of insurrection - and that the councils would even serve as a pretext for repression by the government. The new government had indeed forbidden the factory councils. A majority of the ECCI therefore proposed that the Soviets only be set up after the seizure of power.
- Instead of drawing the lessons of the disastrous policy essentially based on a “national alliance”, a policy in which the United Front was only the first step, the preparation of the insurrection was entirely based on the formation of a workers’ government composed of the SPD and the KPD.
- Last not least: the vital condition for a successful insurrection was missing: the KPD, undermined and weakened by its opportunist evolution, did not play a really decisive political role within the class.
Preparing the insurrection
Various questions were debated in the ECCI. Trotsky insisted forcefully on the necessity of fixing a date for the insurrection. He proposed 7th November, the day of the successful October rising in Russia 6 years earlier. By fixing a date, he wanted to pre-empt any attitude of “let’s wait and see”. Brandler, president of the KPD, refused to fix a precise date. The decision was taken at the end of September, for an insurrection sometime during the next 4-6 weeks, i.e. during the first days of November.
Since the German party leadership considered itself too inexperienced, Brandler suggested that Trotsky himself, who had played such an outstanding role during the organisation of the October insurrection in 1917, should come to Germany in order to help organise the rising.
This proposal came up against the resistance of the other ECCI members. As chairman of the Comintern, Zinoviev demanded this leading role. This quarrel can only be understood against the background of the growing power struggle within Russia itself. In the end, it was decided that a collective body should be sent, composed of Radek, Guralski, Skoblevski and Tosmki. The ECCI also decided that help should be provided on three levels:
- military support was the most important. Officers of the Red Army, who had gained experience during the civil war in Russia, were sent secretly to Germany to help the Red Centuries and to build up a Red Army. They also offered their help in setting up an intelligence service in Germany whose task was to maintain ties with opposition officers in the Reichswehr. In addition, it was planned that very experienced party members should be waiting at the border in order to reach Germany as quickly as possible.
- material (food) help, in particular one million tons of wheat which were to be transported to Russia’s western border in order to send immediate food supplies to Germany, if the revolution was successful.
- on the level of propaganda, public meetings were organised on the theme “The German October is ahead of us”, and “How can we help the German revolution?”, where reports were given about the development in Germany. Funds were raised and money and other items collected. Women were called to donate their jewellery for the “German cause”.
While discussions were still going on in Moscow, Comintern emissaries in Germany had already pushed ahead with preparations for the insurrection. At the beginning of October many of the KPD’s leaders had already gone underground. But while in Moscow the leadership of the KPD and the ECCI were still debating the plans for insurrection, in Germany itself there does not seem to have been any deeper debate on this question or the immediate perspectives.
Since the beginning of 1923, and especially since the Leipzig party conference, the KPD had started to set up combat units of Red Centuries. Initially these armed troops were to protect demonstrations and workers’ assemblies. Any worker with combat experience could join, irrespective of his political convictions. Now, Red Centuries were busily training in military skills, practising alerts and undergoing special training in the handling of weapons.
In comparison to March 1921 much more attention was paid to preparations in this field and considerable means were invested in military preparation. By now, the KPD had built up a military intelligence service. There was the M-Apparat, the Z-Gruppe for infiltrating the Reichswehr and the T-Terrorgruppe in the police force. Secret arsenals were set up, military maps of all sorts collected.
The Russian military advisers had half a million rifles at their disposal. They hoped to be able to mobilise very quickly 50-60,000 troops. However, the Reichswehr and the right wing’s armed groups which supported it, along with the police, were some 50 times stronger than the military formations headed by the KPD.
Against the background of these preparations the Comintern worked out a plan based on a strategic military strike.
If, in certain regions, the KPD were to apply the tactic of the United Front by the joining the SPD to form a “workers government”, this could not help but light a powder keg. Saxony and Thuringia were chosen because the SPD already held government posts in these Länder, and because the Reichswehr disposed of fewer units there than in Berlin and the rest of the country.
The basic idea was that the formation of a SPD-KPD workers’ government would be seen as a provocation by the “fascist forces” and the Reichswehr. It was supposed the fascists would set off from Bavaria and Southern Germany for Saxony and Central Germany. At the same time a reaction of the Reichswehr was expected with a mobilisation of its troops in Prussia. This offensive of the bourgeoisie could be countered by the mobilisation of gigantic armed workers’ units. It was even planned that the Reichswehr and the fascists would be defeated by drawing them into a trap near Kassel. The Red Centuries were to be the starting point for the formation of a Red Army, whose Saxon units were to march on Berlin, while the Thuringians marched on Munich. Finally, it was planned that the government, set up on a national level, should comprise communists, left Social-Democrats, Trade unionists, and national-Bolshevik officers.
A decisive situation therefore would arise, as soon as the KPD joined the government in Saxony.
Could the insurrection be based on a governmental alliance with the SPD?
In August the SPD joined the national government in order to head off an insurrectional movement by making a lot of promises to calm the situation.
On 26th September the government announced the official end of “passive resistance” against the French forces of occupation, and promised the payment of wage arrears; on 27th September a strike erupted in the Ruhr area. On 28th September the KPD called for a general strike throughout the country and the arming of workers in order to establish a “workers’ and peasants’ government”. On 29th September, a state of emergency was declared, whereupon the KPD called upon the workers to stop their strikes on 1st October. As in the past, its aim was not so much to try progressively to strengthen the working class through the struggle in the factories, but to focus everything on the decisive moment, which was to occur later. Thus instead of increasing the pressure from the factories, as the Comintern pointed out critically later, in order to unmask the real face of the new SPD-led government, it tended on the contrary to block the initiative of the workers in the factories. Thus workers’ combativity, their determination to fight back against the attacks of the new government, were undermined not only by the promises of compromises by the new government, but also by the KPD itself. At its 5th Congress, the Comintern was to conclude: “After the Cuno strike the mistake was made of wanting to delay elementary movements until the decisive struggle. One of the biggest mistakes was that the instinctive rebellion of the masses was not transformed into a conscious revolutionary will to fight by focussing systematically on political goals... The party failed to pursue an energetic, living agitation for the task of setting up political councils. Transitional demands and partial struggles had to be linked as best as possible to the final goal of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The neglect of the factory council movement made it impossible for the factory councils to take over temporarily the role of the workers’ councils, so that during the decisive days there was no authoritative centre, around which the wavering masses of workers might have gathered, and which might have been opposed the influence of the SPD.
Since other unitary organs (action committees, control committees, struggle committees) were not used in a systematic manner, in order to prepare the struggle politically, the struggle was mainly seen as a party question and not as a unitary struggle of the proletariat”.
By preventing the working class from developing its defensive struggle, on the grounds that it should “wait for the day of insurrection”, the KPD in fact prevented it from gaining strength in the confrontation with capital, and from winning over those workers who remained hesitant thanks to the propaganda of the SPD. Thus the Comintern later made the following critique:
“Overestimating the technical preparations during the decisive weeks, focussing on the actions as a party struggle and waiting for the ‘decisive blow’ without a movement of partial struggles and mass movements preparing them, prevented assessment of the real balance of forces and made it impossible to set a real date... In reality it was only possible to notice that the party was in the process of winning the majority, without, however, really holding the leadership in the class.” (The lessons of the German events and the tactics of the United Front).
On 1st October members of a “black Reichswehr division” (a unit sympathising with the fascists) staged a revolt in Küstrin. But their revolt was smashed by Prussian police troops. Clearly, the democratic State did not yet need the fascists.
Thus on 9th October Brandler arrived from Moscow with the new orientation for an insurrection initiated by the KPD joining the government.
On 10th October the formation of a government with the SPD was decided for Saxony and Thuringia. 3 Communists (Brandler, Heckert, Böttcher) joined the Saxon government, while two (K.Korsch and A. Tenner) joined the government of Thuringia.
Whereas in January 1923 the party conference still emphasised: “participation of the KPD in a government of a Land, without posing conditions to the SPD, without a strong mass movement and without sufficient extra-parliamentary support – could only have a negative effect on the idea of a workers’ government and have a destructive effect within the party itself” (p. 255, Dokumente), only a few months later the KPD leadership was ready to follow the instructions of the Comintern and enter an SPD government practically without posing any conditions. The KPD was hoping to find a lever for insurrection, since it hoped to arm the working class once it was in government.
But whereas the KPD had expected a violent reaction from the fascists and the Reichswehr, in fact it was the SPD-Reichspresident, Ebert, who, on 14th October declared the Saxon and Thuringian governments be deposed. On the same day Ebert ordered the Reichswehr to occupy Saxony and Thuringia.
It was the “democratic” Social-Democrat president who sent the armed forces against the SPD governments of Saxony and Thuringia, despite their being “democratically elected‘. Once again it was the SPD, which through a clever political manoeuvre decided and took over the repression of workers on behalf of capital.
At the same time fascist troops left Bavaria for Thuringia.
The KPD counter-attacked by calling the workers to take up arms. In the night of 19/20th October the KPD distributed 150,000 leaflets demanding that party members get hold of all possible weapons. At the same time it called a general strike, which was to trigger the insurrection.
Chronicle of a predictable defeat
To avoid the party taking the decision to launch an insurrection, and to make sure that it was decided by a workers’ general assembly, Brandler tried to convince the workers’ conference in Chemnitz to vote for a strike. Some 450 delegates were present, of whom about 60 were official delegates of the KPD, 7 were from the SPD while 102 were representatives of the Trades Unions.
In order to “test the atmosphere”, Brandler suggested that the meeting vote for a general strike. Hearing this proposal, the Union representatives and the SPD delegates protested vigorously and threatened to leave the meeting. Nobody even mentioned insurrection. The SPD minister present in the meeting spoke up energetically against a general strike. The meeting thus submitted to the SPD and the union representatives. Even the other KPD delegates failed to utter a word. Thus the conference, which the KPD had counted on providing the spark for an insurrectional movement by deciding a general strike, decided to reject the latter.
Brandler and the KPD leadership nonetheless remained convinced that the delegates in the meeting would recover their ardour once they heard of the troops moving on Saxony and that they would surely call for a struggle because of the “predictable” overthrow of the Berlin government. After wrongly assessing the balance of forces in August, the KPD once again misjudged both the balance of forces and the mood of the workers.
In the Chemnitz meeting, which had been chosen by the KPD leadership as the key moment for insurrection, the majority of the delegates were influenced by the bourgeois SPD. Even in the factory committees and in the general assemblies the KPD had not yet won the majority. Unlike the Bolsheviks in 1917, the KPD had neither correctly assessed the situation, nor been able to exercise a decisive influence on the course of events. For the Bolsheviks the question of insurrection could only be put on the agenda once they had won the majority of the delegates in the councils and when the party could therefore play a leading and determining role.
The Chemnitz meeting thus broke up without having decided for a strike, still less an insurrection. Following this disastrous outcome, the KPD leadership voted unanimously - including the “left wing” members of the Zentrale and all the foreign comrades who were present in Germany at the time - to retreat.
When the party’s local sections, whose members were standing ready, “rifle in hand”, throughout the country were informed, their disappointment was enormous.
Although there exist different versions of what exactly happened in Hamburg, it seems that the message to cancel the insurrection failed to arrive in time. Convinced that the insurrection would be implemented as planned, the party members had already set out without waiting for confirmation from the KPD leadership. In the night of 22nd-23rd October the Communists and Red Centuries started to implement the insurrection plan in Hamburg. Several hundred Communists fought the police according to their previously established instructions. The fighting lasted for several days. But most of the workers remained passive, whereas a large number of SPD members reported as volunteers at the police stations in order to fight the insurgents.
When on 24th October instructions arrived to stop the fighting, arrived in Hamburg, an orderly retreat was no longer possible. A defeat was inevitable.
On 23rd October troops of the Reichswehr marched into Saxony. Once again, repression was directed against the KPD. Shortly afterwards, on 13th November, Thuringia was also occupied by the army. In the other parts of the country, there was no significant reaction from the workers. Even in Berlin, where the “left wing” dominated the KPD, only a few hundred workers could be mobilised for solidarity demonstrations. Many of its members left the party in disappointment.
The lessons of the defeat
The Comintern’s attempt to stage an adventurist insurrection, hoping to revive the world-wide revolutionary wave and turn around the situation in Russia, was a failure.
In 1923 the working class in Germany found itself more isolated than at the beginning of the revolutionary wave in 1918 and 1919. Moreover, the bourgeoisie was already more aware of the danger posed by the working class, and had closed ranks against it. It is obvious that the conditions were not ripe for a successful rising in Germany itself. The combativity which did exist within the working class had been countered by the bourgeoisie in August 1923. The pressure from the factories, the efforts to unite in general assemblies, had all ebbed significantly. “From our point of view, the criteria of our revolutionary influence were the Soviets... The Soviets offered the political framework for our conspiratorial activities; they were also organs of government after the actual seizure of power” (L. Trotsky, Can a counter-revolution or a revolution be determined for a fixed date?, 1924). In Germany in 1923 the working class had not succeeded in setting up workers’ councils, which are one of the principal conditions for the seizure of power.
The political conditions within the class as a whole were not yet ripe, but above all the KPD showed itself incapable of playing its political leading role. Its political orientation – the orientation of national-Bolshevism until August, its policy of a United Front and the defence of bourgeois democracy – contributed to the confusion in the class and was a factor in its political disarmament. A successful insurrection is only possible if the working class has a clear vision of its political goals and if it has a party within it, capable of clearly showing the direction to take, and of determining the right moment for action. Without a strong and solid party, no insurrection can be successful, since it is only the party which can have a real overview, correctly assess the balance of forces and draw the appropriate conclusions. Understanding the strategy of the enemy class, measuring the temperature within the class especially in its main battalions, throwing all its weight into the battle in decisive moments: it is these abilities, when they are put into effect, that make the party indispensable.
The Comintern had focussed all its attention on military preparations. The comrade in charge of the military preparations in the KPD, K. Retzlaw, relates in his biography that the Russian military advisers mostly discussed purely military strategy, without ever taking account of the broad masses of the working class.
Although the insurrection needs a precise military plan, it is not a mere military operation. The military preparations can only be tackled once the process of political maturation and mobilisation of the class has already substantially advanced. This process cannot be left to one side.
This means that the working class cannot neglect and reduce its pressure from the factories, as the KPD proposed in 1923.
Whereas the Bolsheviks knew how to apply the “art of insurrection” in October 1917, the insurrection plan of October 1923 was a pure farce, which led to tragedy.
The internationalists within the Comintern, not only made a wrong evaluation of the situation, they clutched at vain hopes. In September, Trotsky himself, clearly ill-informed as to the real situation, was the more convinced that the movement was still on the rise, and was amongst those who urged most strongly for insurrection.
Trotsky’s critique after the events is largely invalid. He reproached the KPD for having in 1921 attempted an adventurist and impatient putsch, and in 1923 of having fallen into the other extreme, of waiting and neglecting its own role: “The maturation of the revolutionary situation in Germany was understood too late... so that the most important measures of combat were tackled too late.
The Communist Party cannot – in relation to a growing revolutionary movement - take up a position of ‘wait and see’. This is the attitude of the Mensheviks: act as a hindrance to the revolution as long as it develops, use its successes, when there is a little victory do everything you can, to oppose it” (Trotsky, op.cit.).
On the one hand he correctly insisted on the subjective factor and that insurrection needs the clear, determined and energetic intervention of the party whatever the hesitations and wavering of the class. Moreover, Trotsky also understood perfectly the destructive role of the Stalinists: “the Stalinist leadership... hampered and put a brake on the workers when the situation demanded a bold revolutionary onslaught, proclaimed revolutionary situations, when their moment had already passed, formed alliances with the phrase mongers and the big talkers of the petty-bourgeoisie, and trod relentlessly behind the Social-Democracy under the facade of the United Front policy” (The tragedy of the German proletariat, May 1933).
But on the other hand Trotsky himself was dominated by vain hopes in the recovery of the revolutionary wave than guided by a correct analysis of the balance of forces.
The defeat of October 1923 was not only a physical defeat of the German workers. Above all, it led to a profound political disorientation throughout the working class.
The wave of revolutionary struggles, which peaked during 1918-1919, in effect came to an end in 1923. In Germany, the bourgeoisie succeeded in inflicting a decisive defeat on the working class.
The defeats of the struggles in Germany, Bulgaria and Poland left the class in Russia even more isolated. Although there were still some important struggles to come, amongst them those of 1927 in China, the working class had begun a retreat, which was to lead to a long and terrible period of counter-revolution, which only ended with the revival of the class struggle in 1968.
The Comintern proved unable to draw the real lessons of events in Germany.
The inability of the Comintern and KPD to draw the real lessons
At its 5th World Congress in 1924, the Comintern (and the KPD within it) concentrated its criticisms mainly on the accusation that the KPD had wrongly applied tactics of the United Front and the workers’ government.
But this policy itself was absolutely not called into question.
The KPD even absolved the SPD for its responsibility in the workers’ defeat, asserting that: “One can say without any exaggeration: the present German Social-Democracy is in reality only a loose knit network of poorly linked organisations with very different political attitudes”. It persisted in its opportunist and damaging policy towards the traitor Social-Democracy: “the permanent communist pressure on the Zeigner-government [in Saxony] and the left-wing fraction which formed within the SPD will lead the SPD to fall apart. The point is that under the KPD’s leadership the pressure of the masses on the Social-Democratic government must be increased, sharpened and that the emerging left Social-Democratic leading group under the pressure of a big movement must be confronted with the alternative, either of entering into the struggle against the bourgeoisie with the communists or of unmasking themselves and thus destroying the last illusions of the Social-Democratic masses of workers” (9th Party Congress, April 1924).
Since the First World War, the SPD had been totally integrated into the bourgeois state. This party, whose hands were stained with the blood of workers slaughtered during the Great War, and from smashing the workers’ struggles in the revolutionary wave, was in no way in a process of falling apart. On the contrary, while still a part of the state apparatus it continued to hold great influence over the workers. Even Zinoviev had to concede on behalf of the Comintern that “a large number of workers still trust the ‘left’ Social-Democrats, ... who in reality only serve as a cover for the dirty, counter-revolutionary politics of the right wing of Social-Democracy”.
History has shown repeatedly that it is not possible for the working class to reconquer a party which had betrayed, and changed its class nature. The attempt to try and radicalise a part of the working class with the help of the SPD, was at the time already an expression of the opportunist degeneration of the Comintern. While Lenin in his famous April Theses of 1917 rejected the support of the Kerensky-government and demanded the biggest possible demarcation from it, the KPD in October 1923 rejected any idea of demarcation from the SPD government and in the end joined it without any conditions whatsoever. Instead of radicalising the combat, the KPD’s participation in the government tended to demobilise the workers. The class frontier between KPD and SPD was glossed over. The working class was increasingly disarmed politically and repression by the army became easier.
An insurrection can only develop if the working class succeeds in getting rid of its illusions in bourgeois democracy. And the revolution can only vanquish by crushing those political forces which defend that democracy, which is the main barrier to the revolution.
In 1923, not only did the KPD fail to combat bourgeois democracy, it even went as far as to call on the workers to mobilise in its defence.
Particularly as regards the SPD, this was in flagrant contradiction with the position defended by the Comintern at its founding Congress, when it denounced this party with the greatest possible clarity as the butcher of the 1919 German revolution.
Thereafter, the KPD was not content to remain in error, it asserted itself as a champion of opportunism. Amongst the parties of the Comintern, the KPD became the most faithful lackey of Stalinism. Not only did it become the driving force for the United Front and “workers’ government” tactic, it was also the first party to apply the policy of factory cells and “Bolshevisation” proposed by Stalin.
The defeat of the working class in Germany also strengthened the position of Stalinism. Both in Russia and internationally the bourgeoisie could henceforth intensify its offensive and so impose on the working class the worst counter-revolution it has ever been subjected to. After 1923, the Russian state was recognised by the other capitalist countries and by the League of Nations.
In 1917, the successful seizure of power in Russia had been the beginning of the first world-wide revolutionary wave. But capital had managed to prevent successful revolutions above all in key countries like Germany.
The lessons of the proletariat’s successful conquest of power in Russia in 1917 as well as those of the failure of the revolution in Germany, notably understanding how the bourgeoisie managed to prevent a victory of the revolution in Germany, and the consequences this had on the international dynamic of the struggles and the degeneration of the revolution in Russia flowing from this, all these elements are part of one and the same international revolutionary wave, one and the same historic experience of the class.
For the next revolutionary wave to be possible, and the next revolution a success, it is vital for the working class to recover this priceless experience. Dv