Theses on the Role of the Party in the Proletarian Revolution (KAPD, 1921)

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Presentation (1985)

The KAPD's Theses on the Party were written in July 1921 to be discussed not only in the party but within the Communist International, of which it had been a sympathising member since December 1920.

The authors of the Theses were animated by a dual concern:

- on the one hand, to demarcate the KAPD from the official section of the CI, the KPD, which had become a typically centrist party after the ex­pulsion of the left in October 1919. Born in action, in April 1920, in the midst of armed battles between the workers of the Ruhr and the Reichswehr, the KAPD expressed a revolutionary orientation in the face of the KPD which, through the mouth of its leader Levi, proclaimed its "loyal opposition" to the social democratic gov­ernment. The KAPD, like Bordiga's CP in Italy later on, was a prototype of the revolutionary party in the period of decadence: a ‘narrow' party-nucleus in contrast to the mass parties ad­vocated, by the CI whose model was to be the VKPD after the fusion with the Independents in Decem­ber 1920;

- on the other hand, against the anti-party, ‘councilist' tendencies incarnated by Ruhle and the AAUD-E, to affirm the indispensable role of the party in the revolution as a centralised, disciplined, unitary body in programme and in action.

The Theses of the KAPD, whose English transla­tion is reprinted[1] from Revolutionary Perspec­tives 2 (now the journal of the CWO), are partic­ularly relevant to today, despite their weakness. Reading them demolishes the legend of the ‘infan­tile' and ‘anti-party' KAPD which has been kept up by the ‘Bordigist' currents. On the contrary, unlike the Ruhle tendency which was moving to­wards anarchism, the KAPD was an integral part of the international communist left which fought ag­ainst the degeneration of the CI.

It's thus a nonsense, an absolute contradiction, when today's councilist groups or elements claim descent from the KAPD. The Theses of the KAPD are without any ambiguity a condemnation of council­ist ideas.

a) The nature of the proletarian revolution

- against the anarchistic elements of the German left, the KAPD affirmed that the question of the political power of the proletariat was not posed locally, in each factory seen as the ‘bastion of the revolution', but on a world scale. It meant the destruction of the state and thus the concen­trated violence of the proletariat;

- against the factoryism of Ruhle and the AAUD-E, who saw the proletarian revolution simply as an economic question of the management of the fac­tories, the KAPD underlined the unitary aspect of the proletarian revolution, as a process both political (the seizure of power) and economic.

b) The role and function of the party

It is striking to see the same definition of the party as in Bordiga: a programmatic body (consc­iousness) and a will to action. Similarly, the party is not identical to the class: it is its most conscious, most selected part. The party is not in the service of the class because, in def­ending the overall interests of the revolutionary class, it might be "momentarily apparently in opposition to the masses". The party does not tail-end the class - it is the avant-garde of the class.

This insistence on the political role of the party was in opposition to the ‘councilist' tend­encies which developed in the German proletariat after the defeat of 1919, especially in the form of a certain revolutionary-syndicalist a-politic­ism in the movement of the ‘Unions', which at the time regrouped hundreds of thousands of workers. Against this tendency to retreat to the factory or a particular industrial sector, the KAPD aff­irmed the necessity for an intransigent political combat. This view of the party had nothing to do with that of Pannekoek in the 1930s who consid­ered that a ‘party' could only be a work group or study circle. For the KAPD, as for the ICC today, the party is a militant organisation of the work­ing class. It is an active factor - a ‘party of action' - in the class struggle, its function being to develop the class consciousness of the proletariat which goes through phases of hesita­tion and oscillation.

The struggle against oscillations and hesitations is a constant political combat, both within the party and within the class as a whole:

- within the party, against centrist tendencies towards conciliation with the bourgeoisie or with petty-bourgeois anarchism. Thus, the KAPD had to expel the ‘national-Bolshevik' tendency in Ham­burg around Wollfheim and Laufenberg who, along­side pro-Soviet Russia German nationalists, call­ed for a ‘revolutionary war' against the Entente powers. Also expelled was the Ruhle tendency in Saxony, which denied any necessity for a polit­ical party of the proletariat;

- within the class, the party has to put itself at the head of struggles, keeping a firm grip on the compass of its programme, guided by a revolu­tionary will to action. If the party is incapable of clearly judging a revolutionary situation and of orienting it through the clarity of its slog­ans at a time when the class is in a state of ferment, it risks ending up like the Spartakus­bund in January 1919 in Berlin, unable to give the workers a clear perspective. At such decis­ive moments, the party plays a fundamental role, either in pushing for an offensive if the situat­ion is ripe, or in calling for a retreat (as the Bolshevik party did in July 1917) even at the cost of being "apparently in opposition" to the most advanced fractions of the class when they are isolated from the rest of the proletarian mass.

In order to be the "head and weapon of the revol­ution" at the crucial moments of the revolutionary struggle, the KAPD was compelled to grasp the profound changes in the structure of the party brought about by the period of capitalist decadence.

c) Structure and function of the party

In underlining the necessity for a "solid commun­ist nucleus", the KAPD clearly understood the im­possibility of mass revolutionary parties. In the epoch of wars and revolutions, the party can only regroup a small minority of the class, those who are most determined and most conscious of the need for revolution. It was no longer, as in the 19th century, a party of reforms regrouping and organising broad layers of the class but a party forged in the heat of the revolution. The condi­tions of decadence (state totalitarianism, semi-legality and illegality) demanded a rigorous selection of communist militants.

For this reason, but also because the party undergoes a very rapid numerical growth in rev­olutionary periods, when it begins to attract masses of people who were previously not politicised or who were involved with the parties of the capitalist left (Stalinism, leftism, etc.), it is vital that the party "should never allow its membership to expand faster than is made possible by the power of absorption of the solid communist nucleus". This view of the party is very close to that of Bordiga in 1921. Similarly the insistence on the need for party discipline destroys the legend put about by the PCI (Programme Communiste) of the ‘anarchistic', anti-centralist KAPD. Thesis 7 affirms that the communist party "must be organised and disciplined in its entirety from below, as a unified will."

d) Intervention in economic struggles

The question of intervention was clearly posed by the KAPD. The response was the opposite of that given by Invariance - and afterwards by the modernist milieu in general - whose translation of the Theses contains a revealing inversion of meaning. Invariance adds a negative (ne pas) where the KAPD affirms that the party "must also intervene in the movement of the workers caused by economic needs." Certainly, later on (in 1922) Gorter and Schroder (a KAPD leader) were to split advocating non-participation in the economic struggles of the class except "on an individual basis" (sic). It goes without saying that a rev­olutionary party participates politically in the defensive struggle. What distinguishes it from the modernists is the affirmation that the prol­etariat forges itself as a class through partial struggles, this being a precondition for the movement towards the global political struggle for power. At the same time, what distinguishes a real revolutionary party from the ‘councilist' tendencies - who see only the economic struggle and play at being outraged virgins when the str­uggle is politicised and goes in the direction indicated by the slogans of the revolutionary party - is its political activity. Going against the politicisation of the struggle, as the ‘coun­cilists' do, can only "strengthen the spirit of opportunism" (Thesis 11) by separating defensive struggles and revolutionary struggles. In the third place, what distinguishes it from the ‘Bordigist' tendencies is that it doesn't set itself up as the organiser and technical director of the struggle; the party must "attempt to spiritually clarify such movements and develop them, by encouraging appeals for active solidar­ity so that the struggles are extended, and take on revolutionary and, where possible, political forms."

Even if the terms employed here show a certain confusion of language - "spiritual" has an idea­list ring and the revolutionary struggle seems to precede the political struggle - the underlying concern to be an active factor in the struggle appears clearly in the Theses. The party is a factor of will and of consciousness.

This spirit is also that of the ICC. The party that will emerge tomorrow can be neither a circle of timid phrasemongers nor the self-proclaimed leadership of the class. In order to be an active factor, the party first has to be the product of class consciousness, which crystallises itself in the revolutionary will of significant minorities of the class.

In republishing these Theses, we do not intend to pass in silence over the weaknesses and shortcom­ings that appear here and there and which mean that we have to reappropriate the programme of the KAPD in a critical manner. These weaknesses weren't just a result of the hasty editing of the Theses (in preparation for the Third Congress of the CI) which sometimes makes them rather obscure. They derive from more profound confusions in the KAPD which finally explain its disappearance as a current.

Some weaknesses of the Theses of the KAPD

a) Dual organisation

The fact that the Unions (AAUD) emerged before the KAPD was formed, and that they had close pol­itical positions, explains why the KAPD saw itself both as the product of and ‘spiritual leadership' of the AAU. The Theses contain a pyramidal conception in which the party creates and directs the Unions, ‘and the latter create the workers' councils. This substitutionist concep­tion coexisted in a confused way with an ‘educ­ationist' theory ("revolutionary education of the widest numbers"). In the confusion engendered by a series of dec­isive defeats for the German proletariat, it was not so clear that the revolutionary factory organ­isations, the Unions, were in fact the debris of the workers' councils. But factory committees can only become permanent when the revolutionary str­uggle is in the ascendant - they either disappear when it is defeated or become the motor force of the councils in the forward-march of the revol­ution.

By maintaining these committees after the revol­utionary wave in a mass, permanent manner - mem­bership being open to those who recognised the theses of the party (dictatorship of the prolet­ariat, anti-parliamentarism, destruction of the unions) - the KAPD ended up being absorbed by, the AAU, leading to the final disintegration of' the party in 1929.

The error of dual organisation can also be seen in the functioning of the KAPD, since alongside it there was a youth organisation (KAJ), auton­omous from the party.

b) Fraction and opposition

In contrast to the Italian Fraction later on, the KAPD saw itself as an ‘opposition' in the Inter­national and not as an organised body having an organic continuity with the old party. Its expul­sion from the CI in September 1921 did not allow it to link up with the most significant lefts, like that of Bordiga. The existence of groups in Holland, Bulgaria and Britain on the KAPD's pos­itions gave rise to illusions amongst a minority and, under Gorter's influence, to the artificial proclamation of a Communist Workers' Internation­al(KAI). This led to a split in the KAPD in March 1922 and hastened the numerical disinteg­ration of the party. After that the ‘official' KAPD (the Berlin tendency as opposed to the Essen tendency which followed Gorter) was to survive until 1933. In opposition to Gorter, it showed that a new International could only emerge when the objective and subjective conditions had mat­ured. But the real contributions on the question of the Fraction and the International were those of the Italian Left after 1933.

The weaknesses and shortcomings in the Theses of the KAPD should not make us lose sight of their positive acquisitions which, along with those of the Italian Left and in part those of the Dutch Left, are our acquisitions as well. Faced with the councilist danger in the class tomorrow, faced with centrist vacillations, these Theses show the necessity for the party, its indispens­able role in the triumph of the world revolution. It must be clear that the victory of the revolution will depend on the maturity of revolutionary minorities and their capacity to avoid being left behind by revolutionary movements. The history of the KAPD shows a contrario that the outcome of the revolution depends to a large ex­tent on the capacity of revolutionaries to form the international party not during, but before, the outbreak of the revolution. The 1980s are the years of truth for the revolutionary milieu, particularly for the ICC which must remain vigil­ant against any councilist underestimation of the necessity for the party, and which must be the most active element in posing the bases for its future constitution.


Theses on the role of the Party in the Proletarian Revolution (KAPD, 1921)

1. It is the historical task of the prolet­arian revolution to bring the disposal of the wealth of the earth into the hands of the work­ing masses, to put an end to the private owner­ship of the means of production, thus rendering impossible the existence of a separate, exploiting, ruling class. This task involves freeing the economy of society from all fetters of political power and is, of course, posed on a world scale.

2. The ending of the capitalist mode of produc­tion, the taking over of this production, and putting it in the hands of the working class, the ending of all class divisions and withering of political institutions, and building of a commun­ist society is a historical process whose indiv­idual moments cannot be exactly predicted. But, as regards this question, the role which polit­ical violence will play in this process is nev­ertheless settled on some points.

3. The proletarian revolution is at the same time a political and economic process. Neither as a political, nor as an economic process can it be solved on a national scale; the building of the world commune is absolutely necessary for its survival. Therefore it follows that until the final destruction of the power of capital on a world scale, the victorious part of the revol­utionary proletariat still needs political viol­ence to defend, and if possible attack, the political violence of the counter-revolution.

4. In addition to these reasons which make pol­itical violence necessary for the victorious part of the proletariat, there are additional reasons relating to the internal development of the rev­olution. The revolution - looked on as a politic­al process - has indeed a decisive moment, the taking of political power. The revolution, viewed as an economic process, has no such decisive mom­ent, long work will be necessary to take over the direction of the economy on the part of the prol­etariat, to eradicate the profit motive, and to replace it by an economy of needs. It is self-evident that during this period the bourgeoisie will not remain idle, but will try to regain pow­er for the purpose of defending their profits. It follows that in the countries with a developed democratic ideology - that is, in the advanced industrial countries - they will seek to mislead the proletariat with democratic slogans. It is thus essential that the workers wield a strong, unwavering political violence till they have tak­en over, in concrete terms, the control of the economy and broken the grip of the bourgeoisie. This period is the dictatorship of the prolet­ariat.

5. The necessity for the proletariat to hold political power after the political victory of the revolution confirms, as a consequence, the necessity for a political organisation of the proletariat just as much after as before the seizure of power.

6. The political workers' councils (Soviets) are the historically determined, all-embracing form of proletarian power and administration: at all times they pass the individual points of the class struggle and pose the question of complete power.

7. The historically determined form of organ­isation which groups together the most conscious and prepared proletarian fighters is the Party. Since the historical task of the proletarian rev­olution is communism, this party, in its prog­ramme and in its ideology, can only be a commun­ist party. The communist party must have a thor­oughly worked out programmatic basis and must be organised and disciplined in its entirety from below, as a unified will. It must be the head and weapon of the revolution.

8. The main task of the communist party, just as much before as after the seizure of power, is, in the confusion and fluctuations of the prolet­arian revolution, to be the one clear and unflinching compass towards communism. The commun­ist party must show the masses the way in all situations, not only in words but also in deeds. In all the issues of the political struggle be­fore the seizure of power, it must bring out in the clearest way the difference between reforms and revolution, must brand every deviation to re­formism as a betrayal of the revolution, and of the working class, and as giving new lease of life to the old system of profit. Just as there can be no community of interest between exploiter and exploited, so can there be no unity between reform and revolution. Social democratic reform­ism - whatever mask it might choose to wear - is today the greatest obstacle to the revolution, and the last hope of the ruling class.

9. The communist party must, therefore, un­flinchingly oppose every manifestation of re­formism and opportunism with equal determination in its programme, its press, its tactics and activities. Especially it should never allow its membership to expand faster than is made possible by the power of absorption of the solid communist nucleus.

10. Not only in its entirety, but in its indiv­idual moments, the revolution is a dialectical process; in the course of the revolution the masses make inevitable vacillations. The commun­ist party, as the organisation of the most con­scious elements, must itself strive not to succ­umb to these vacillations, but to put them right. Through the clarity and the principled nature of their slogans, their unity of words and deeds, their position at the head of the struggle, the correctness of their predictions, they must help the proletariat to quickly and completely over­come each vacillation. Through its entire activ­ity the communist party must develop the class consciousness of the proletariat, even at the cost of being momentarily apparently in oppos­ition to the masses. Only thus will the party, in the course of the revolutionary struggle, win the trust of the masses, and accomplish a revolution­ary education of the widest numbers.

11. The communist party naturally must not lose contact with the masses. This means, aside from the obvious duty of indefatigable propaganda, that it must also intervene in the movement of the workers caused by economic needs and attempt to spiritually clarify such movements and develop them, by encouraging appeals for active solidar­ity so that the struggles are extended and take on revolutionary and, where possible, political forms. But the communist party cannot strengthen the spirit of opportunism by raising partial re­formist demands in the name of the party.

12. The most important practical performance of the communists in the economic struggle of the workers lies in the organisation of those means of struggle which, in the revolutionary epoch in all the highly developed countries, are the only weapons suitable for such struggle. This means that the communists must therefore seek to unite the revolutionary workers (not only the members of the communist party) to come together in the factories, and to build up the factory organisations (Betriebsorganizationen) which will unite into Unions and which will prepare for the tak­ing over of production by the working class.

13. The revolutionary factory organisations (Unions) are the soil from which action committ­ees will emerge in the struggle, the framework for partial economic demands and for the workers fighting for themselves. They are forerunners and foundation of the revolutionary workers' councils.

14. In creating these wide class organisations of the revolutionary proletariat, the communists prove the strength of a programmatically rounded and unified body. And in the Unions they give an example of communist theory in practice, seeking the victory of the proletarian revolution and subsequently the achievement of a communist soc­iety.

15. The role of the party after the political victory of the revolution is dependent on the international situation and on the development of the class consciousness of the proletariat. As long as the dictatorship of the proletariat (the political violence of the victorious working class) is necessary, the communist party must do all it can to push events in a communist direc­tion. To this end, in all the industrialised countries it is absolutely necessary that the widest possible amount of revolutionary workers, under the influence of the spirit of the party, are actively involved in the taking over and transformation of the economy. Being organised in factories and Unions, schooled in individual con­flicts, forming committees of action, are the necessary preparations which will be undertaken by the advanced guard of the working class itself and prepare them for the development of the rev­olutionary struggle.

16. In as much as the Unions, as the class organisation of the proletariat, strengthen themsel­ves after the victory of the revolution and be­come capable of consolidating the economic found­ations of the dictatorship in the form of the system of councils, they will increase in import­ance in relation to the party. Later on, in as much as the dictatorship of the proletariat is assured thanks to being rooted in the conscious­ness of the broad masses, the party loses its importance against the workers' councils. Finally, to the extent that the safeguarding of the revol­ution by political violence becomes unnecessary, in as much as the masses finally change their dictatorship into a communist society, the party ceases to exist.

From Proletarian, July 1921.

[1] We have made some corrections to RP's version (RP didn't cite the source of their translation) in order to bring it into line with the version published in the French edition of this International Review, which is in turn a corrected version of a translation by Invariance no. 8, October - December, 1969.


History of the workers' movement: 

Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: