Documents in: Bahasa Indonesia Deutsch Español Français Italiano Japanese Polski Português Russian Chinese Tagalog
International Communist League
Home Spartacist Workers Vanguard ICL Directory ICL Declaration of Principles Other Literature Events

Deutsch, English, Español, Français

Get Spartacist with a subscription to an English-language ICL periodical

View the Spartacist and Women & Revolution archives

Printable version of this article

Spartacist English edition No. 56

Spring 2001

Rearming Bolshevism

A Trotskyist Critique of Germany 1923 and the Comintern

“Without a party, apart from a party,
over the head of a party,
or with a substitute for a party,
the proletarian revolution
cannot conquer.”

—Leon Trotsky, Lessons of October

The aborted German Revolution of 1923 marked a decisive point in the history of the workers movement internationally following the Russian October Revolution of 1917 and the end of the First World War. Though proletarian unrest and upheavals had swept Europe in the aftermath of the war, proletarian state power remained confined to the old tsarist empire (minus Finland, the Baltic states and Poland). The modern industry created by foreign investment in the prewar period in Russia had been devastated by World War I and the bloody civil war which followed; the world’s first workers state found itself suspended above a largely rural, peasant economy.

Founding the Third (Communist) International (Comintern, or CI) in 1919 as the necessary instrumentality to achieve world socialist revolution, the Bolsheviks fought with all possible means and determination to spread the revolution to the advanced industrial countries of Europe. In August 1920, having beaten back an invasion by the Polish army under the nationalist Jozef Pilsudski, the Red Army followed the retreating Poles across the border in a bold move to achieve a common border with Germany. Soviet Russia’s defeat on the outskirts of Warsaw marked the farthest westward march of Bolshevism.

Germany, with its large, pro-socialist proletariat, appeared to offer the best opportunity to spread the revolution. From the founding of the German Communist Party (KPD), the Bolshevik leadership, beginning with Lenin himself, intervened heavily into the KPD. Lenin was only too aware that the young KPD had broken very late from the Social Democracy and had only partially assimilated Bolshevik politics.

Defeated in the first interimperialist war, Germany was in a state of ongoing political and economic crisis. Beginning with the working-class upheaval that led to the overthrow of Kaiser Wilhelm II in November 1918, the country was continually racked by protests, strikes and semi-insurrectionary risings. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) of Scheidemann, Ebert and Noske, which supported Germany during the imperialist slaughter, went on to become the crucial bulwark of the Weimar Republic that replaced the monarchy. The SPD politically disarmed and demobilized the revolutionary proletariat, then aided and abetted the bourgeois counterrevolution in bloody repression.

Providing a crucial left cover for the outright treachery of the SPD was the centrist and highly heterogeneous Independent Socialist Party (USPD), which split from the SPD in April 1917 and initially included the Spartacist group of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. The USPD’s right wing, which included Karl Kautsky, Rudolf Hilferding and Eduard Bernstein, were social-pacifists during the war. Kautsky, in particular, was quite skilled in using Marxist rhetoric to mask their firm commitment to reforming the bourgeois order. The Spartacists split from the USPD only in December 1918. The USPD split again in October 1920 as two-thirds of its active membership voted to join the Communist International, giving the KPD for the first time a real mass base in the proletariat. But later history would show how incomplete was the KPD’s split with Kautsky’s centrism on the level of program and theory.

The French occupation of the Ruhr in January 1923 provoked a political and economic crisis in which the potential for proletarian revolution was manifest. A clear indication of this was that the SPD—though strengthened by its reunification with Kautsky’s rump USPD in 1922—lost control over the mass of the German working class. The principal mechanism through which the Social Democracy chained the proletariat to the bourgeois order was its leadership of the trade unions. Amid the severe economic dislocation and hyperinflation of 1923, the unions were unable to function; they became paralyzed. The workers deserted them as well as the SPD itself in droves. But the KPD leadership failed the test of revolution. Having reined in the revolutionary strivings of the working masses earlier in 1923, it climbed down without a fight on the eve of a planned insurrection in October.

Instead of organizing the struggle for proletarian power, the KPD leadership under Heinrich Brandler operated on the false view that the party’s influence would increase in linear fashion. In a revolutionary situation, timing is critical. There are no “impossible” situations for the bourgeoisie; if a revolutionary party does not act, the bourgeoisie will regain control. Such was the outcome in 1923 in Germany.

At bottom, the KPD banked on the illusion that the left wing of the Social Democracy could be induced into becoming a “revolutionary” ally. This strategy was codified in the misuse of the “workers government” slogan, which for the KPD had come to mean something other than the dictatorship of the proletariat—increasingly, a coalition government with the SPD on the basis of the bourgeois parliament. This was an opportunist and self-defeating revision of the understanding of Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks that a workers government would be achieved by the overthrow of the bourgeois state apparatus and the forging of a new state power founded on workers councils (soviets). The KPD’s abuse of the workers government slogan was endorsed by the Comintern under the leadership of Zinoviev, and found its culmination in October 1923 in the entry of the KPD into coalition governments with the SPD in the states of Saxony and Thuringia. In the event, the “red bastions” in Saxony and Thuringia simply melted away when they were challenged by the German army; the KPD’s entry into these bourgeois provincial governments was the prelude to the party’s calling off an insurrection which the Comintern had prodded it into planning.

The defeat had enormous consequences, and not only in Germany. For the imperialists it meant a stabilization of the bourgeois order. In Soviet Russia, the workers had looked forward expectantly to the German workers revolution; the debacle in October unleashed a wave of disappointment and demoralization that was seized upon by the nascent Soviet bureaucracy to usurp political power from the proletariat in January 1924. Toward the end of that year, Stalin drew his balance sheet on the German events, promulgating the nationalist dogma of building “socialism in one country.” As Trotsky stated a few years later: “From 1923 on, the situation changed sharply. We no longer have before us simply defeats of the proletariat, but routs of the policy of the Comintern” (The Third International After Lenin [1928]). The default of the Comintern led ultimately to Hitler’s accession to power in 1933 without a shot being fired.

As the German events unfolded in 1923, Lenin was already seriously ill. Zinoviev, who then headed the Comintern, vacillated, while Stalin said that the KPD ought to be restrained. It was only in August that Trotsky realized a revolutionary situation existed in Germany, and it was he who demanded that the KPD and Comintern organize a struggle for power. But Trotsky’s approach at the time was largely administrative, centered on fixing a date for the insurrection. He approved of the KPD’s entry into the governments of Saxony and Thuringia, with the view that this would provide a “drillground” for revolution.

It was not until later that Trotsky grappled with the underlying political reasons for the failure. In a series of writings beginning a few months after the October debacle, Trotsky undertook a critical evaluation of the political problems of the German events, leading to his 1924 work, The Lessons of October. Trotsky drew an analogy between the German events and the Russian October, noting that a section of the Bolshevik Party leadership, including Zinoviev and Kamenev, had balked at organizing the seizure of power in 1917. Trotsky detailed the series of fights which Lenin waged after the outbreak of revolution in February 1917 in order to rearm the party. It was only these fights which made the victory in October possible. The fundamental issue in dispute was “whether or not we should struggle for power.” Trotsky asserted:

“These two tendencies, in greater or lesser degree, with more or less modification, will more than once manifest themselves during the revolutionary period in every country. If by Bolshevism—and we are stressing here its essential aspect—we understand such training, tempering, and organization of the proletarian vanguard as enables the latter to seize power, arms in hand; and if by social democracy we are to understand the acceptance of reformist oppositional activity within the framework of bourgeois society and an adaptation to its legality—i.e., the actual training of the masses to become imbued with the inviolability of the bourgeois state; then, indeed, it is absolutely clear that even within the Communist Party itself, which does not emerge full-fledged from the crucible of history, the struggle between social democratic tendencies and Bolshevism is bound to reveal itself in its most clear, open, and uncamouflaged form during the immediate revolutionary period when the question of power is posed point-blank.”

— Trotsky, The Lessons of October

Uncovering the Roots of the 1923 Defeat

The Lessons of October was part of the process through which Trotsky rearmed Marxism against the Stalinist bureaucratic perversion—beginning with the 1923 Russian Opposition and deepening fundamentally with his 1928 critique of Stalin/Bukharin’s “Draft Program of the Communist International,” the core of The Third International After Lenin.

Trotsky, however, deals with the actual events in Germany only in broad outline in The Lessons of October. It is no substitute for a concrete analysis of the events, as Trotsky himself later noted:

“They [the Brandlerites] accuse us of not yet having provided a concrete analysis of the situation in Germany in 1923. That is true. I have already many times reminded the German comrades of the necessity to produce such a work.... I formed my picture of the German situation just as I did of the Russian situation in 1905 and 1917. Of course now, after the fact, above all for the sake of the young generation, it is necessary to theoretically reconstruct the situation, facts and figures in hand. The Left Opposition should do this work and it will do it.”

— Trotsky, “Principled and Practical Questions Facing the Left Opposition,” 5 June 1931 (Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1930-31)

There have been few serious efforts to carry this out, notable among them an exchange between Walter Held and Marc Loris (Jan van Heijenoort) in the American Trotskyist press in 1942-43. The actual architects of the 1923 defeat engaged in massive coverup. Zinoviev blamed it all on KPD leader Brandler, while Brandler and his supporters sought to alibi themselves by claiming there had never been a revolutionary situation. Brandler’s alibi was later picked up by historian and Trotsky biographer Isaac Deutscher, and subsequently by the British Labourite journal Revolutionary History and every variety of de facto reformist. As for Brandler’s factional opponents, the KPD “lefts” organized around Zinoviev’s tools, Ruth Fischer and Arkady Maslow, they were just as incapable of charting a revolutionary course in 1923. Fischer’s later account in Stalin and German Communism (1948) is just as self-serving as (and even more mendacious than) Brandler’s.

In an attempt to get to the bottom of the apparent opportunist bulge on Trotsky’s part in supporting entry into the Saxon and Thuringian governments, the International Communist League undertook an investigation and discussion of the Germany events. A highlight of this discussion was an educational presentation given in 1999 by a leader of our German section, as well as discussion at two meetings of the ICL International Executive Committee and the publication of two international bulletins which included English translations of documentation from German-language sources.

The sources in the English language for studying the 1923 events are sparse. Documentation in German is much more abundant, but it is no easy task to cull what is useful from mounds of coverup. Often it is what is not said that is significant. Thus, a comrade who searched through issues of the KPD newspaper Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag) for the first six months of 1923 found exactly one reference to socialist revolution—and that was in a resolution of the Comintern Executive Committee (ECCI)—and none to the dictatorship of the proletariat!

Our study of the Germany 1923 events indicated that far from acting as a corrective to the parliamentarist appetites of the KPD leadership, the ECCI under Zinoviev was deeply complicit in its course. The CI-endorsed entry into bourgeois coalition governments with the SPD in Thuringia and Saxony was theoretically prepared by the discussion at the 1922 Fourth Congress of the Communist International, which included such coalition governments as possible variants of a “workers government.” The Spartacist tendency has always been critical of the obfuscationist Fourth Congress resolution; from our inception we have insisted that a workers government can be nothing other than the dictatorship of the proletariat. Our recent study showed that the Fourth Congress resolution was directly inspired by and an implicit codification of the revisionist impulse that would shipwreck the German Revolution.

This article is intended as a contribution toward the theoretical reconstruction of the Germany 1923 events which Trotsky pointed out was necessary for the rearming of future generations of revolutionaries. Certainly, with the passage of over 75 years, some of the events are difficult to reconstruct. We think we have uncovered the essentials, but we are under no illusion that we have the whole picture.

The Aborted 1923 German Revolution

In late 1922, the Weimar government failed to make reparation payments to France, in the form of requisitions of coal and other basic commodities, as dictated by the Versailles Treaty of June 1919, which had been designed by the imperialist victors of World War I to strip their defeated rival of its economic and military strength. This prompted the Poincaré government to occupy the Ruhr in January 1923. The German government, then under Chancellor Cuno, adopted a policy of “passive resistance”—civil disobedience toward the French and Belgian occupation authorities. Rightist paramilitary groups, maintained by conservative industrialists both with private funds and government funds siphoned from the army budget, quickly infiltrated the Ruhr. There they carried out provocative, though largely ineffectual, guerrilla warfare against the French troops.

The occupation triggered massive financial chaos in Germany, not only impoverishing the working class but ruining the lower middle classes. Under armed guard, the French bourgeoisie extracted its blood-sucking reparations, crippling the rest of German industry. Inflation took off on a scale that is hard to believe. The value of the German mark depreciated from 48,000 to the U.S. dollar in May to an astronomical 4.6 million in August! From 6 percent in August, unemployment increased dramatically to 23 percent in November.

Hugo Stinnes and other Ruhr industrialists organized a series of protests against the occupation, preaching the necessity for national unity against the French. A de facto national front stretched from the fascists on the right to the SPD. The KPD, while initially quite contradictory, gradually fell into line. The Social Democrats issued statements solidarizing with Ruhr businessmen arrested by the French, while SPD propaganda sought to utilize anger over the French occupation to justify the SPD’s criminal support to German imperialism in World War I. But it was not lost on the proletariat that Stinnes’ appeals for “equal sacrifice” were sheer hypocrisy. The economic malaise was manipulated by the capitalists to attack the unions. The rapid depreciation of the mark made German goods dirt-cheap on the world market and enabled the industrialists to make a killing in profits, while the trade unions were utterly incapable of defending the standard of living of the workers in the face of hyperinflation. The initial intoxication of the workers with “national unity” did not last long.

The Communist International moved quickly to mobilize its European sections to respond to the French provocations in the spirit of proletarian internationalism. A few days prior to the occupation of the Ruhr, a conference of delegates from West European Communist parties meeting in Essen passed a resolution denouncing the Versailles Treaty and the threatened occupation.

In the Ruhr, fraternization with the French troops was an important component in drawing a political line against the German nationalists (and Social Democrats), and the KPD youth achieved some success in such efforts. The French Communists, working with the Communist Youth International, vigorously campaigned against the occupation; propaganda was distributed to soldiers in both French and Arabic. In one case, French troops tried to protect striking German workers from German cops, and several of the French soldiers were shot. After a massacre by French troops of workers in Essen, Die Rote Fahne published a letter of solidarity by French soldiers who were collecting money for the families of the slain workers. The KPD also ran a big solidarity campaign when French miners went on strike.

The CI-initiated campaign stiffened the German party. When Cuno called for a vote of confidence on his “passive resistance” policy in the Reichstag on January 13, the KPD parliamentary fraction demonstrated and voted against him. The KPD issued an appeal titled “Smite Poincaré and Cuno on the Ruhr and on the Spree [Berlin’s river],” a principled statement of opposition to both French and German imperialism.

But the KPD did little to organize independent proletarian resistance to the depredations of French imperialism. Strikes and protest actions in the Ruhr, appealing to fellow proletarians in France and especially in the French army of occupation, might well have led in a revolutionary direction and sparked broader international workers’ struggle. The KPD was far from such insurrectionary intentions. A manifesto issued by the party’s Eighth Congress in late January/early February 1923 revealed that it was already accommodating to the SPD’s defense of the Versailles-dictated postwar European capitalist order. The KPD effectively called for a “workers government” to pay the imperialist debt:

“The workers government will propose negotiations to France; it will state honestly and openly what portion of the debts imposed on it by the bourgeoisie the working people can pay. The workers government will appropriate from the capitalists assets as security for the payment of these debts, thus providing a guarantee that its words express an honest intention. In this way the workers government will assist the German workers in bearing the burdens that the bankrupt imperialist bourgeoisie has laid on them, until the French proletariat assists them in breaking the chains of Versailles.”

— Manifesto on “The War in the Ruhr and the International Working Class,” Eighth Party Congress, 28 January-1 February 1923, Dokumente und Materialien zur Geschichte der Deutschen Arbeiterbewegung [Documents and Materials on
the History of the German Workers Movement] Dietz Verlag, 1966

As anger at the French occupying forces heated up, the KPD bent to nationalist pressures, describing Germany as a virtual colony, with France the “main enemy.” In February 1923, Brandler’s lieutenant Thalheimer claimed that the German bourgeoisie had acquired “an objectively revolutionary spite of itself.” Sliding over to a defensist posture toward the German bourgeoisie, Thalheimer asserted, “The defeat of French imperialism in the world war was not a communist aim, its defeat in the war in the Ruhr is a communist aim” (quoted in E. H. Carr, The Interregnum, 1923-1924 [1954]). It fell to internationalist-minded Czech Communists like Neurath and Sommer to refute Thalheimer’s patriotic arguments. Writing in the KPD’s Die Internationale (1 April 1923), Sommer denounced Thalheimer’s thesis as “a magnificent flower of national Bolshevism” (quoted in The Interregnum), referring to the banner under which some German leftists had earlier advocated a “war of national liberation” together with the German bourgeoisie against the Entente powers. In a 22 September 1920 speech at the Ninth Party Conference in Moscow, Lenin had sharply condemned “national Bolshevism” as a “contrary-to-nature bloc,” warning: “If you form a bloc with the German Kornilovists [right-wing militarists], they will dupe you.”

On 13 May 1923, a strike wave began in the Ruhr city of Dortmund, a major industrial center. Starting as a strike over wages by miners at one pit, it quickly spread to include probably 300,000 strikers, about half the miners and metal workers in the Ruhr. There were pitched battles with the cops and demonstrations of over 50,000 workers. Workers militias, the so-called Proletarian Hundreds, took over the street markets and shops for the “control commissions,” which enforced price cuts.

But the KPD, which had real influence among the proletariat in the area, did nothing for four days! And when it did intervene, it was to counsel the workers not to raise political demands but simply to settle for a wage increase of 52 percent, which was quickly eaten up by the skyrocketing inflation. Reporting on the German situation to a September 21-25 meeting of the Russian, German, French and Czechoslovakian CPs in Moscow, Brandler literally bragged how the KPD had kept the Ruhr strikes within the bounds of economic demands. He claimed that fascistic elements worked in the Proletarian Hundreds with the aim of turning the wage struggles into a struggle for power, supposedly as a provocation to invite repression by the bourgeoisie. While there were some fascists operating in the Ruhr, this was a militant proletarian stronghold. Brandler in effect labeled any worker who wanted to fight for power an agent of reaction.

Just as the proletariat was beginning to break from nationalism, an overt appeal was made to the most backward, outright fascistic elements. On May 29, in an unvarnished appeal to nationalism, Die Rote Fahne published a statement titled “Down With the Government of National Disgrace and Treason Against the People!” In June, at an enlarged ECCI meeting in Moscow, Karl Radek made his notorious speech eulogizing the German fascist Schlageter, who had been executed by the French in the Ruhr. Schlageter had fought against the Bolsheviks in the Baltics and then against the workers in the Ruhr. The KPD’s embrace of the “Schlageter line,” endorsed by Zinoviev, set off a campaign of appeals to the German nationalists, including joint public meetings and “debates” with the fascists. This campaign undoubtedly had a chilling effect on the initiatives toward fraternization with the French soldiers, though fraternization apparently continued throughout 1923.

The KPD was adapting to both the nationalist right and the Social Democrats. In the universities, KPD leaders fraternized with Nazi students. However, among the proletariat the KPD played the “anti-fascist” card, whose real thrust was to look to the SPD for a bloc against fascism (which is how the entry into the Saxon and Thuringian governments was later motivated).

The “Schlageter line” was eagerly assented to by the KPD “lefts”—indeed, Ruth Fischer was a regular speaker at these “debates,” which continued until the Nazis broke them off. At one such meeting Fischer declared, “Whoever cries out against Jewish already a fighter for his class [Klassenkämpfer], even though he may not know it” (quoted in Werner Angress, Stillborn Revolution—The Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923 [1963]). Despite their shrill denunciations of the party leadership, the Fischer-Maslow “lefts” had no more impulse than Brandler to struggle for power. Both factions were mainly concerned with cliquist maneuvering to ingratiate themselves with Zinoviev.

Despite the KPD leadership’s efforts to pour water on the flames of class struggle, the working masses were breaking by the thousands from the Social Democracy to the KPD. This is attested to in a 1936 account by Arthur Rosenberg, who had been in the KPD in 1923 and was elected to the Zentrale (the resident leading body) in 1924 as a supporter of the Fischer group. Rosenberg noted:

“In the course of the year 1923 the power of the SPD steadily decreased. The Party passed through a crisis which was reminiscent of that of 1919. The Independent Trade Unions especially, which had always been the chief support of Social Democracy, were in a state of complete disintegration. The inflation destroyed the value of the Union subscriptions. The Trade Unions could no longer pay their employees properly nor give assistance to their members. The wage-agreements that the Trade Unions were accustomed to conclude with the employers became useless when the devaluation of the currency made any wages paid out a week later worthless. Thus Trade Union work of the old style became unavailing. Millions of German workers would have nothing more to do with the old Trade Union policy and left the Unions. The destruction of the Trade Unions simultaneously caused the ruin of the SPD....

“The KPD had no revolutionary policy either, but at least it criticized the Cuno Government loudly and sharply and pointed to the example of Russia. Hence the masses flocked to it. As late as the end of 1922 the newly united Social Democratic Party comprised the great majority of the German workers. During the next half-year conditions were completely changed. In the summer of 1923 the KPD undoubtedly had the majority of the German proletariat behind it.”

— Arthur Rosenberg, A History of the German Republic

Probably the most comprehensive English-language book on this period is Angress’ Stillborn Revolution. Even Angress, who manifestly does not believe that a workers insurrection was possible in 1923, acknowledges that the KPD was gaining strength and refers to the “diminishing hold which the Social Democratic Party was able to exert on its rank and file.”

If ever there was a revolutionary situation, this was it. But while the KPD had several hundred thousand revolutionary-minded workers at the base, the leadership lacked the appetite to mobilize the proletariat to take power. When the situation was at its hottest, Brandler declared in Die Rote Fahne (2 August 1923): “We must fight the battles to which we are destined by history, but we must always keep in mind that we are at the moment still the weaker. We cannot as yet offer a general battle, and we must avoid everything which would enable the enemy to beat us piecemeal” (quoted in Angress).

Brandler maintained this position long after the events of 1923. Today this same piece of “wisdom” is the sum and substance of what the British social democrats of Revolutionary History, a “non-party” publication supported by a spectrum of pseudo-Trotskyist individuals and groups, have to say about 1923. In an issue of Revolutionary History (Spring 1994) devoted to “Germany 1918-23,” Mike Jones claimed that Trotsky’s fatal mistake in 1923 was that he supposedly “underestimated the hold of the SPD over millions of workers. He underestimated the material strength of reformism, of bourgeois democracy, and so on, amongst the German workers.” This, of course, is the time-honored technique of opportunists, who always blame defeats on the “immaturity of the masses,” alibiing the misleaders.

With the SPD’s hold on the masses weakened, the KPD did little to expose the reformists and press its own political advantage. One of the grossest expressions of this conciliationism came in an article in Die Rote Fahne on 21 January 1923, which appealed to the SPD for “Burgfrieden”—civil peace—among the workers. “Burgfrieden” was the call of the Kaiser in 1914, demanding that there be no class warfare within Germany as the bourgeoisie went to war against its imperialist rivals! In Saxony, the KPD gave backhanded support to the government of left SPDer Erich Zeigner. When cops shot into a demonstration of workers and unemployed in Leipzig in June, killing several, Brandler refused to do anything about this and instead asked for...a commission of inquiry! Just as pathetically, on the CI side Zinoviev and Radek demanded that the KPD withdraw support from Zeigner unless...he appointed a new police commissioner. All sides clearly feared a political collision with the SPD “left” leaders who administered Saxony.

From August to October

The government was toppled in August by the “Cuno strike,” begun by Berlin printers who refused to print any more money. The KPD-influenced Betriebsräte, the factory councils, pushed this into a virtual general strike, over the objections of the trade-union tops. But the party lacked any offensive policy, never going beyond the framework of a militant strike. The strikers had demanded Cuno’s resignation. When that happened, the workers streamed back to their jobs, against the wishes of the KPD. The KPD called for a “workers government” but did not call for establishing organs of dual power that would serve as a bridge to proletarian rule.

The Cuno government was replaced with Gustav Stresemann’s “great coalition,” which included four SPD ministers. For Mike Jones and Revolutionary History, the Stresemann/SPD coalition put an end to any revolutionary possibilities which “could” have existed earlier in the year. But by no means did Stresemann’s government stabilize the situation to the extent Jones would have us believe. Stresemann himself wasn’t so confident upon taking office; hence his statement that “we are the last bourgeois parliamentary government.” There was still an expectant mood among the German masses in October 1923, as Victor Serge, who worked in Berlin as a Comintern journalist, later testified:

“On the threshold...Losschlagen! Losschlagen means strike the blow you had been holding back, trigger off action. This word is on everyone’s lips, on this side of the barricade. On the other side, too, I think. In Thuringia, outside semi-clandestine meetings where a Communist is due to speak, workers—whom he doesn’t know—plant themselves in front of him. A railwayman asks, coming straight to the point: ‘When shall we strike? When?’

“This worker, who has traveled 50 miles by night to ask this question, understands little about matters of tactics and timing: ‘My people,’ he says, ‘have had enough. Be quick about it!’”

— Victor Serge, “A 50 Day Armed Vigil” (February 1924), reprinted in Witness to the German Revolution (2000)

In early October, the KPD entered the SPD governments in Saxony and Thuringia as coalition partners, supposedly with the aim of utilizing its ministerial posts to get arms. Naturally, nothing of the sort happened. General Müller, demanding that the Proletarian Hundreds be disbanded, marched on Saxony. Now himself a minister, Brandler pegged the organizing of an uprising to gaining the support of the Social Democrats at a conference of Saxon workers organizations held in Chemnitz on October 21. Brandler put forward a motion for a general strike, which was supposed to be the spark for the insurrection. But when the SPD delegates objected, Brandler simply backed down. And that was the end of the German Revolution, except for some fighting in Hamburg, where several hundred Communists seized a number of police stations and acquitted themselves well before being compelled to retreat.

Who ever heard of Communists organizing a revolution where the Social Democrats were given veto power? Historian Evelyn Anderson noted astutely:

“The Communist position was manifestly absurd. The two policies of accepting responsibility of government, on the one hand, and of preparing for a revolution, on the other, obviously excluded each other. Yet the Communists pursued both at the same time, with the inevitable result of complete failure.”

— Evelyn Anderson, Hammer or Anvil: The Story of the German Working-Class Movement (1945)

Russia 1917 vs. Germany 1923

Trotsky never based his evaluation of the KPD’s fatal vacillations in 1923 on the view that autumn represented the high point for revolution. Autumn was already late. In May 1924 Trotsky wrote:

“True, in the month of October a sharp break occurred in the party’s policy. But it was already too late. In the course of 1923 the working masses realized or sensed that the moment of decisive struggle was approaching. However, they did not see the necessary resolution and self-confidence on the side of the Communist Party. And when the latter began its feverish preparations for an uprising, it immediately lost its balance and also its ties with the masses.”

— Trotsky, introduction to The First Five Years of the Communist International

Within the Russian Political Bureau it had been Lenin’s assignment to monitor the German party; Trotsky had responsibility for the French. Lenin suffered a debilitating stroke in March 1923. Trotsky realized Germany had entered a revolutionary situation only in August. The Russian Political Bureau met on the 23rd of that month, with Brandler in attendance, to discuss the perspectives of the German party. Zinoviev was vacillating and equivocal, as was Radek. Stalin, as Trotsky was only to discover some years later, had been urging that the Germans be restrained, writing to Zinoviev and Bukharin: “Of course, the fascists are not asleep, but it is to our interest that they attack first.... In my opinion, the Germans must be curbed and not spurred on” (cited in Maurice Spector’s 11 January 1937 introduction to The Lessons of October). The PB appointed a standing committee to mobilize support for a German revolution, and initiated a campaign for solidarity that had an electrifying effect on the Red Army and on the Soviet populace more broadly. Scarce grain reserves were accumulated in the cities to be shipped to Germany at the critical moment. But the Political Bureau continued to dither about whether the KPD should set course for an immediate insurrection. Fischer and Maslow were summoned to Moscow and finally in September it was decided that the KPD should set the date for the seizure of power. Brandler was honest about his doubts regarding this course and his own abilities—he specifically said that he was no Lenin and asked that Trotsky be sent to Germany to lead the revolution. Evidently Brandler was hoping that Trotsky could conjure up soviets and a revolution out of the ground.

German considerations were increasingly becoming subordinate to the vicissitudes of the factional struggle within the Russian party. By this time, Trotsky was being sidelined by the leading troika of Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin. But the troika could hardly be seen to oppose proletarian revolution in Germany, and went along with Trotsky in setting the date. Zinoviev also went part way toward meeting Trotsky’s demand that Fischer and Maslow be kept in Moscow to dampen the disruptive potential of the German “lefts” during the insurrection (Maslow stayed in Moscow, while Fischer was allowed to return). But the troika could not risk giving Trotsky a chance to lead the German Revolution; they insisted Trotsky’s presence was required in Moscow.

Behind Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev stood the burgeoning bureaucratic apparatus of the Russian party and state. In a few months the troika would smash the anti-bureaucratic opposition and seize political power for the bureaucracy at the January 1924 party conference. But in the summer and early fall of 1923 the door was still open for Trotsky to fight for a Comintern intervention that would have made the critical difference in politically arming the KPD to take advantage of the revolutionary opportunity. Unfortunately, Trotsky lacked the political understanding and information as to the KPD’s actual practice in Germany. His approach at the time was largely administrative.

What was required in 1923 was a political rearming of the German Communists, akin to what Lenin had carried out in the Bolshevik Party upon his return from Switzerland in April 1917. In the early period following the February Revolution Stalin, Kamenev and other elements of the Bolshevik leadership returning from internal exile had overturned the early decision of the Bureau of the Central Committee and committed the party to a policy of extending critical support to the bourgeois-democratic Provisional Government formed after the abdication of the tsar “in so far as it struggles against reaction or counter-revolution.” In his April Theses, Lenin argued strongly against this capitulatory line, opposing any support to the Provisional Government or rapprochement with the social-democratic Mensheviks, and calling for all power to the soviets and for arming the workers. Without this crucial fight, as well as further struggles against those like Kamenev and Zinoviev who flinched at organizing the insurrection, the October Revolution would never have happened.

In particular, Lenin stressed the need for crystal clarity on the nature of the state. Even the most “democratic” bourgeois republic is an instrument for maintaining the rule of a minority of exploiters over the masses of exploited. Socialist revolution means the smashing of the existing state apparatus—whose core is the army, police, courts and prisons—and its replacement with a new one based on organs of proletarian rule, soviets, which would repress the capitalist class, thus constituting the dictatorship of the proletariat. This perspective was realized in the October Revolution, opposed even by left-wing Mensheviks like Martov.

Following the October Revolution, the German left social democrat Karl Kautsky took the Bolsheviks to task for liquidating the Constituent Assembly in his 1918 polemic, The Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Kautsky claimed that this bourgeois parliamentary body was a higher form of democracy than the soviets. Lenin, who had been forced to break off work on State and Revolution in order to lead the October Revolution, used the leftover material in his 1918 reply to “the renegade Kautsky.” Lenin illustrated that despite Kautsky’s “left” pretensions and his professed enthusiasm for soviets, Kautsky’s fundamental affinity lay with the Menshevik Martov and his horror at the idea of the soviets as the vehicle for proletarian state power:

“The crux is: should the Soviets aspire to become state organisations...or should the Soviets not strive for this, refrain from taking power into their hands, refrain from becoming state organisations and remain the ‘combat organisations’ of one ‘class’ (as Martov expressed it, embellishing by this innocent wish the fact that under Menshevik leadership the Soviets were an instrument for the subjection of the workers to the bourgeoisie)?...

“Thus [for Kautsky], the oppressed class, the vanguard of all the working and exploited people in modern society, must strive toward the ‘decisive battles between capital and labour,’ but must not touch the machine by means of which capital suppresses labour!—It must not break up that machine!—It must not make use of its all-embracing organisation for suppressing the exploiters!...

“This is where Kautsky’s complete rupture both with Marxism and with socialism becomes obvious. Actually, it is desertion to the camp of the bourgeoisie, who are prepared to concede everything except the transformation of the organisations of the class which they oppress into state organisations.”

— Lenin, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, October-November 1918 (Collected Works, Vol. 28)

This polemic between Lenin and Kautsky over the October Revolution foreshadowed what was about to happen in Germany. When Kaiser Wilhelm was forced to abdicate as a result of the November Revolution of 1918, the working masses set up workers and soldiers councils in an attempt to follow in the path of the proletariat of Russia. The SPD was desperate to liquidate these councils and replace them with the National Assembly, a bourgeois parliament. The newly formed KPD was for all power to the workers and soldiers councils. The Independents, the USPD, led by the likes of Kautsky and Rudolf Hilferding, claimed to be for both the National Assembly and the workers councils, demanding that the latter be incorporated into the Weimar constitution. The USPD proved of great utility to the SPD in getting the National Assembly accepted, after which it was relatively easy to dismantle the councils.

With no communist organization yet in existence, the working masses radicalized by the war had poured into the USPD. Although thoroughly reformist in deed, the USPD’s Marxist phraseology made it even more dangerous than the SPD, for it served to dupe more advanced workers who saw through the SPD. In the midst of the burgeoning revolution, the Spartakusbund of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht finally quit the USPD and joined with some smaller groups of independent radicals to form the KPD. The failure to break earlier with Kautsky’s centrism shipwrecked the 1918 German Revolution. The German Communists never really assimilated the importance of the Bolsheviks’ intransigent political split with all varieties of reformism and centrism.

In September 1918, as Kautsky’s attacks on the October Revolution went unanswered in Germany, Lenin wrote to the Soviet envoys in West Europe:

“Kautsky’s disgraceful rubbish, childish babble and shallowest opportunism impel me to ask: why do we do nothing to fight the theoretical vulgarisation of Marxism by Kautsky?

“Can we tolerate that even such people as Mehring and Zetkin keep away from Kautsky more ‘morally’ (if one may put it so) than theoretically.”

— Lenin, “Letter to Y.A. Berzin, V.V. Vorovsky and A. A. Joffe,” 20 September 1918 (Collected Works, Vol. 35)

Lenin urged the envoys to “have a detailed talk with the Left (Spartacists and others), stimulating them to make a statement of principle, of theory, in the press, that on the question of dictatorship Kautsky is producing philistine Bernsteinism, not Marxism.” It was Lenin and Trotsky, and not any of the German leaders, who wrote the main polemics against Kautsky, from Lenin’s The State and Revolution (1917), Renegade Kautsky and “Left-Wing” Communism (1920) to Trotsky’s Terrorism and Communism in 1920 and Social Democracy and the Wars of Intervention in Russia, 1918-1921 (Between Red and White) in 1922.

The German Communist leaders could not defeat Kautsky, the pre-eminent prewar leader of German “Marxism,” because they had never broken decisively from his conception of the “party of the whole class” and the parliamentarism of the old SPD. The prewar Social Democracy had increasingly accommodated to the autocratic legal structure of the Wilhelminian Reich. One expression of this was the SPD’s submission to a law—which remained in effect until 1918—mandating an official police presence at all publicly announced meetings, which included local branch meetings and even party congresses. As documented by Richard Reichard in Crippled from Birth—German Social Democracy 1844-1870 (1969), this meant that the cops could instantly shut down any SPD gathering if they heard something they didn’t like.

Marxist revolutionaries fight for the right to carry out their activities legally under capitalism. But to accommodate a priori to what the bourgeois state deems “legal” is to give up the struggle for proletarian revolution. Even in the most “democratic” capitalist countries, it required an illegal party organization and press for Marxists to be able to tell the truth about their own imperialist governments during World War I. Yet for the Brandler leadership of the KPD, the Leninist conception of the vanguard party and the whole experience of the Bolsheviks, including the necessity to set up a parallel illegal organization, were not appropriate for “civilized” countries like Germany. The KPD leadership oscillated between the opportunism and parliamentarism of Brandler and the idiot ultimatism of Fischer and Maslow, unable to organize the fight for power and decisively break the hold of the SPD on the working class.

In 1923, the KPD blurred the lines which Lenin had clearly demarcated between a bourgeois state and a workers state. Absent was any call for the building of soviets, or workers councils, that would be the organs of workers rule. Instead, KPD propaganda emphasized the building of a “workers government,” which a resolution at the KPD’s Eighth Congress in late January and early February 1923 made clear was “neither the dictatorship of the proletariat nor a peaceful parliamentary advance toward one,” but an “attempt by the working class, within the framework of and initially employing the instruments of bourgeois democracy, to pursue proletarian politics, based on organs of the proletariat and mass movements of the workers” (Dokumente und Materialien). In May, a resolution was cooked up in a meeting with the ECCI, supported by Fischer’s “lefts,” which was in principle no different, projecting that “the workers government can issue out of the existing democratic institutions.”

This was the heart of the problem: the KPD leadership—both wings—expected political power to devolve to them through the mechanism of the bourgeois state. What was absent was any concept of seizing power and the need for organs of proletarian rule to serve as a basis for that power. Soviets or some equivalent body would have to replace the existing state power in a process which would inevitably entail a military conflict.

When the Communists accepted ministerial portfolios in Saxony and Thuringia in October, this only reinforced existing parliamentarist prejudices. If this was indeed already a workers government, then presumably extraparliamentary revolutionary struggle, the formation of workers councils and armed workers militias, would be totally superfluous. The vast majority of workers had no clue that an armed uprising was in the offing. To be sure, no leadership in its right mind would telegraph in advance the date of an insurrection. But in Russia in 1917 the proletariat clearly understood that the Bolshevik program was to take power based on the soviets.

In The Lessons of October, Trotsky defended the advice of the CI in 1923 not to call for soviets, but to rely instead on the factory councils. Trotsky argued that the factory councils “had already become in action the rallying centres of the revolutionary masses” and that soviets formed at that stage in the struggle would be organizationally redundant. Moreover, as Trotsky explained in revisiting this question in his 1931 article “Workers Control of Production,” after 1917-18 the word “soviet” had become “a synonym for the dictatorship of the Bolsheviks, and hence a bugbear on the lips of Social Democracy.... In the eyes of the bourgeois state, especially its fascist guard, the Communists’ setting to work creating soviets will be equivalent to a direct declaration of civil war by the proletariat” (The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany [1971]).

The Betriebsräte (factory councils) were established by the SPD government under a February 1920 law as a substitute for the workers and soldiers councils that had been dismantled. The SPD wanted to keep the factory councils—which were to be elected in all enterprises with more than 50 employees—under the thumb of the union bureaucracy, so they were charged with enforcing the provisions of contracts negotiated by the unions. The month before the legislation was passed, tens of thousands demonstrated against it; the protest was fired on by the Berlin police, who killed 42.

However, in the years that followed the Betriebsräte increasingly became the locus of militant struggle. So-called “wildcat” (or unauthorized) conferences of factory councils took place on a regional and even national level. These were dominated by the KPD, and generally boycotted by the SPD. Our own research on the extent to which the working masses embraced the factory councils is somewhat inconclusive, although there is considerable evidence that they were becoming much more of a factor in 1923. Trotsky’s argument for the factory councils as instruments for a proletarian insurrection was a realistic revolutionary perspective in 1923. They were becoming potentially far more representative than simply factory-based organizations: factory councils were linking up with each other and also working with the Proletarian Hundreds and the control commissions that regulated distribution and prices of food, which were particularly widespread in the Ruhr.

The problem is that the KPD did not seek to invest these embryonic forms of proletarian dual power with revolutionary content. Even after the Comintern had prodded the KPD leadership into agreeing to organize an armed uprising, there is no evidence whatsoever that the factory councils were anything beyond militant strike committees. That could have been a starting point—indeed, the Russian soviets originally emerged from strike committees in 1905—but the KPD never sought to imbue the proletariat with the consciousness that it needed to create organs of workers rule. There was nothing along the lines of “All power to the Betriebsräte.” Nor were the Proletarian Hundreds conceived of by the KPD leadership as instruments to overthrow and supplant the bourgeois state, but more as adjuncts to that state. In Gelsenkirchen, a city in the Ruhr effectively controlled by the KPD, the Communists asked the local government to assign a police officer to instruct the workers militias! In Saxony, the KPD proposed that the SPD government integrate the workers militia into the police force. Likewise, the KPD strategy toward the control commissions was to try to get them “legalized” by local governments.

The Military Question

As the saying goes: victory has many fathers, defeat is ever an orphan. In The Lessons of October, Trotsky observed that had Lenin not been present to drive the Russian Revolution forward to victory, “The official historians would, of course, have explained that an insurrection in October 1917 would have been sheer madness; and they would have furnished the reader with awe-inspiring statistical charts of the Junkers and Cossacks and shock troops and artillery, deployed fan-wise, and army corps arriving from the front.”

Any number of writers, some of a leftist persuasion, claim to prove that revolution was impossible in Germany in 1923. The historian Helmut Gruber, arguing that “the proletarian hundreds were not intended as a match for the army or police but as a counterweight against rightist paramilitary units,” concludes that a “force of 250,000 well-trained and heavily armed men was a match for an uprising even with a broad popular base. In this case, as in others, the Russians obscured the danger by discovering homologues to their October Revolution” (Gruber, International Communism in the Era of Lenin [1967]).

Thus, as this tale goes, the German workers were hopelessly outgunned and outmanned; the sober-minded KPD leader Brandler understood this, but allowed himself to be bullied by the Russians, whose mistake was to believe that the experience of the October Revolution was relevant. And if revolution was impossible, then logic dictated that the only alternative was change through parliamentary reform, to which the mass of the German proletariat was ostensibly reconciled.

Yet the German proletariat was mobilized by the thousands with arms in hand in 1923, ready to take power. The workers had access to tens of thousands of small arms they had buried in the fields after the war, while their militias were composed of front-line World War I veterans who were quite experienced fighters. But the idea that an insurrection required disciplined units of men armed not only with rifles but with machine guns and heavy weapons proved totally beyond the ken of the KPD leadership.

The Reichswehr was an all-volunteer and highly motivated force, with many drawn from the ranks of the Freikorps—later euphemistically renamed “defense associations”—fascistic paramilitary units financed by big industrialists and experienced in counterrevolutionary butchery. The army carefully screened out communists, socialists and Jews and preferred to recruit from rural areas. The army could not be easily split, but its small size—limited to 100,000 men under the terms of the Versailles Treaty—made it little more than a good-sized police force. It would not be adequate to put down a determined national proletarian insurrection.

By 1923 much of the Freikorps had been integrated into the regular army. There were also the “Black Reichswehr”—illegally recruited adjuncts to the army, generally of dubious fighting ability—and the fascist bands. As Trotsky noted, the forces of the fascists were monstrously exaggerated and to a considerable degree existed only on paper, as was demonstrated by the ease with which Hitler’s “Beer Hall Putsch” in Bavaria was dispersed in November. Stalin and Radek had overstated the strength of the fascists as an excuse to avoid organizing an insurrection. This is not to say the fascists were negligible, but neither was this 1931, when Hitler had a hundred thousand stormtroopers.

Insurrectionary Turmoil in the Weimar Republic

The Weimar Republic had brought not some mythical stable parliamentary democracy, but five years of insurrectionary and semi-insurrectionary movements, with sizable clashes between armed workers and the state. In January 1919 and again that spring, there were massive confrontations between insurgent workers and the SPD government, which acted on behalf of the bourgeoisie to crush the threat of revolution. The USPD played a critical role in the first month following the abdication of the Kaiser, joining the government and thereby helping to lull the proletariat while the counterrevolutionaries regrouped their forces. The workers fought bravely in these early insurgencies, but lacked an authoritative revolutionary party to coordinate struggle on a national level. The government was able to isolate these struggles on a local level and pick them off one by one.

Reichswehr and Freikorps troops occupied Berlin in January 1919 and again in February. A punitive expedition was dispatched to depose the workers and soldiers council in Bremen, where a workers republic had been declared. Then came the turn of central Germany, where government troops occupied one town after another, in many cases after heavy fighting. Many thousands were killed during street battles. When a five-day strike broke out in Berlin on March 3, SPD defense minister Noske issued shoot-to-kill orders to the army, which was equipped with aircraft and artillery. Some 1,200 people were killed. Troops were also sent to Halle that spring to break a general strike. In the Ruhr there were militant strikes in the mines, at their peak embracing three-quarters of the workforce, which raised not only economic demands but called for acceptance of the workers councils, the arming of workers against the Freikorps, and recognition of the Soviet Union. The last major battle in 1919 was the suppression of the Bavarian commune, where a thousand were killed in the fighting and well over a hundred revolutionaries were murdered.

The new Communist Party had little sense of how to operate in a volatile situation where there were rapid surges of revolutionary and counterrevolutionary forces. Where the Bolsheviks took the necessary step of sending Lenin into hiding during the reactionary July Days in Russia in 1917, when the SPD government unleashed the Freikorps in 1918-19, the KPD did not take sufficient precautions to protect its leadership. Within the first few months of the founding of the KPD, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and Leo Jogiches were all murdered. In June, Eugen Leviné was shot by a firing squad for leading the defense of the Bavarian Soviet Republic.

On 13 March 1920, a general named Von Lüttwitz marched Freikorps troops into Berlin and sought to install a right-wing military government under the Prussian civil servant Kapp. The army officers behind the Kapp Putsch blamed the Social Democrats for the national humiliations of the Versailles Treaty and particularly its provision limiting the size of the army. The SPD government fled Berlin and appealed to the Reichswehr command for intervention. Not surprisingly, the army did nothing to oppose the Kapp Putsch. Finally, the conservative SPD head of the trade unions, Karl Legien, called for a general strike.

The powerful actions of the proletariat completely smashed the attempted putsch. After two days, the Kapp government was powerless, and after two more days it was gone. Legien tried to call the strike off, but the more combative sections of the proletariat were not to be restrained. Workers dug up the weapons they had hidden after the suppression of the 1919 uprisings. Workers militias sprang up, often under the leadership of the USPD lefts or the KPD, and a 50,000-strong “Red Army” was formed in the Ruhr. Highly decentralized and improvised, it was nevertheless capable of dispersing Freikorps brigades and even Reichswehr units. This highlighted the potential of an armed proletariat to equip themselves with weapons and overcome the army. As one writer described it:

“Meanwhile Reichswehr units in the area (largely unreconstructed Free Corps) demonstratively welcomed the new regime; and General von Watter, regional commander in Münster, misjudging the situation, set some of his units in motion toward areas where an insurrectionary spirit was suspected. The armed workers responded aggressively. At the town of Wetter on March 15 a Free Corps detachment was surrounded (largely by workers from Hagen) and, after several hours of battle, forced to surrender. The same night, insurgent forces surrounded another detachment of the same Free Corps in another town, receiving its surrender the next morning. Through such victories, and by disarming the citizens’ guards of the smaller towns, the workers’ forces soon acquired a proper arsenal of small arms. The example was followed elsewhere. On March 16 a larger Free Corps unit was badly mauled by a workers’ army while trying to march out of the district; two days later, the Westphalian part of the Ruhr was entirely free of Reichswehr troops, all having been disarmed by the workers or withdrawn from the area. There remained troops in the Rhenish part of the Ruhr and a large body of security police in Essen; but when the latter city fell on March 20, after a three-day battle, no regular armed forces were left in the district.”

— David Morgan, The Socialist Left and the German Revolution (1975)

The upshot of the workers’ suppression of the Kapp Putsch was the Bielefeld Accords signed on 24 March 1920 by bourgeois politicians, the unions, the two social-democratic parties, and two representatives from the KPD. These accords included a call on the state to disarm and liquidate the counterrevolutionary bands and to purge civil servants “disloyal” to the republic. The Red Army was to give up its weapons, except for some workers who would supposedly be incorporated into the local police. In exchange, the Reichswehr was supposed to stay out of the Ruhr. But when the workers surrendered their arms, government forces marched into the Ruhr, together with the Freikorps units—which had been dissolved...into the army! A virtual White Terror ensued; throughout Rhineland-Westphalia, working-class neighborhoods were pillaged and burned out and entire families were shot. It was a bloody lesson in what comes from trusting the “neutrality” and “evenhandedness” of the bourgeois state.

Although the KPD later claimed that its two representatives had no mandate to vote for the Bielefeld Accords, KPD propaganda during the early 1920s was saturated with similar appeals to the bourgeois state to outlaw fascist and monarchist groups, purge the civil service of reactionaries, constitute a police force out of “trade-union-organized workers,” etc. This was a touching display of confidence in the bourgeois state. The Law for the Protection of the Republic—passed in 1922 after a far-right hit squad assassinated Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau, a prominent Jewish politician—was used overwhelmingly against the left. The false conception that the state could somehow be rendered “neutral” by passing “progressive” laws undermined the necessary understanding on the part of the working class that it must take its defense into its own hands and that the state would have to be overthrown by the armed proletariat itself.

The March Action and the “Theory of the Offensive”

By the time the March Action erupted in 1921, the KPD had become a mass party. In October 1920, the USPD had split at its Halle Congress over acceptance of the Comintern’s famous 21 Conditions, which were designed to draw a sharp line against the centrists and specifically called for the exclusion of Kautsky and Hilferding. Speaking against affiliation were Hilferding and Martov; answering Hilferding was Zinoviev, whose impassioned four-hour speech won the day. Brandler, notably, opposed the USPD split. The left wing of the USPD, about two-thirds of the active membership, fused with the KPD to form the United Communist Party (VKPD), though the party reverted to the name KPD after several months.

In March 1921, strikes, stop-work meetings and plant occupations rolled across the Mansfeld coal fields in central Germany in response to police provocations in the mines, and the miners flocked to the banners of the VKPD. On March 16 the Social Democrats Hörsing, governor of Saxony, and Severing, Prussian minister of the interior, sent troops and police to suppress the workers. What was in order were defensive tactics, which if successful might permit the proletariat to then go onto the offensive. But the VKPD leadership replied to the government’s provocation with a call for armed resistance. In some areas, the workers heeded the call and fought heroically, but even then the fighting was sporadic and by no means generalized. Elsewhere, the call went unanswered. A call for a general strike a week later was similarly unsuccessful, leading to physical fights in many places between a Communist minority and workers under the influence of the Social Democrats.

The VKPD eventually called off the action. Casualties were heavy and thousands were arrested. In Stillborn Revolution, Angress estimates that the VKPD probably lost half its membership, and according to official party figures it never fully recouped these losses, even with rapid recruitment in 1923. Most importantly, its trade-union base was significantly weakened.

At the time of the March Action the KPD was headed by Ernst Meyer, who had replaced Paul Levi in February. Levi, a brilliant but opportunist dilettante, had resigned as VKPD chairman after the Zentrale refused to endorse his actions at a January conference of the Italian Socialist Party. While adhering to the Comintern, the Italian leadership under Serrati had refused to accept the twenty-first condition of membership—the need for a break with the reformists. Levi had stood with Serrati. Now, in his pamphlet Our Road: Against Putschism (3 April 1921), Levi slanderously asserted that the March Action was a “putsch.” In fact, the workers in Mansfeld had responded en masse to a clear provocation by the SPD cop Hörsing. While many of Levi’s other criticisms of the March Action were correct, he went public with his attacks on the VKPD leaders—going so far as to compare them with Hitler’s crony General Ludendorff—at a time when the party was under fire from the class enemy. Showing no sense of solidarity with the party, as Lenin noted, Levi “tore the party to pieces” (Clara Zetkin, Reminiscences of Lenin [1934]). For this cowardly and spiteful act of indiscipline, Levi was rightly expelled from the party. For a period he had his own organization, but it was only a brief way station en route to returning to the SPD via the USPD.

Just prior to the March Action, the Comintern had sent Hungarian Communist Béla Kun to Germany. Only two years earlier, Kun’s disastrous liquidation of the Hungarian Communists into a common party with the social democrats had helped doom the Hungarian Soviet Republic. Now Kun was a prominent advocate of the “theory of the offensive,” insisting that a Communist party must be always on the offensive against the bourgeoisie. This so-called theory was upheld by the VKPD leadership of Meyer, Brandler and Thalheimer and by the “lefts” like Fischer and Maslow.

The Russian Politburo was split down the middle in the discussion on the March Action. This occasion marked a growing political rapprochement between Lenin and Trotsky following the deep rift that had developed between them over the trade-union dispute at the 1921 Tenth Party Congress. They won over Kamenev, thereby gaining the majority on the Politburo. Zinoviev and Bukharin (then a candidate member of the PB) supported the March Action, as did Karl Radek, the CI representative to Germany. For a period of time, the two sides met in separate caucuses, indicating a pre-factional situation.

Eventually the Russian delegation to the 1921 Third Comintern Congress reached agreement on a compromise motion. At the Congress Lenin and Trotsky defeated attempts by the German lefts and others to water down the motion by amendments aimed at gutting the resolution of any criticism of the March Action. The central slogan of the Third Congress was “To power through a previous conquest of the masses!” It marked a recognition that the political and organizational resources of the Communist parties were not yet sufficient for an immediate conquest of power. Lenin devoted much time and attention to the Organizational Resolution, which sought to distill the essence of how the Bolshevik Party functioned and to convey it to the young parties of the CI. Lenin was particularly concerned that these points be grasped by the German party, insisting that the report be written in German and that a German comrade be assigned to make the presentation at the Congress.

An interesting account of this period, which exposes the absurdity of the claims made later that to obtain arms the KPD had to enter the Saxon government, is contained in From White Cross to Red Flag, the Autobiography of Max Hoelz: Waiter, Soldier, Revolutionary Leader (1930). A self-taught worker, Hoelz organized a Red Army in the Vogtland area bordering Czechoslovakia during the Kapp Putsch and established an army of 2,500 partisans in central Germany during the March Action. Albeit on a small scale, Hoelz and his militia boldly armed themselves by disarming cops and soldiers and requisitioning munitions from local factories. Hoelz was an impulsive, primitive communist who generally did not wait for instructions before acting, but a smart leadership would have sought to utilize him for his obvious talents as a military leader.

After the March Action, Hoelz was sentenced to life imprisonment, serving seven years before being released under the terms of an amnesty act. Campaigning for his freedom, the Comintern saluted Hoelz in a 25 June 1921 resolution as a “brave fighter in revolt against the capitalist system,” while noting: “Max Hoelz did not act wisely. White terror can only be broken by the mass proletarian uprising, which alone guarantees the victory of the class. But his action sprang from his dedication to the proletarian cause and his hatred of the bourgeoisie.”

At his trial, Hoelz turned the tables on his accusers, saying that the real defendant was bourgeois society. Hoelz had become a pacifist after four years in the army during the war, but his experiences quickly convinced him that you couldn’t change anything through words or empty appeals to the bourgeoisie for justice. He had of course resorted to force, he said, but that was nothing compared to the wanton and gratuitous orgy of violence carried out by the perpetrators of the White Terror. The cruelties exacted by the bourgeoisie would harden the workers and make them less soft-headed. Hoelz scoffed at the prosecutor’s claim that change could come through elections, asserting: “What happened in 1918 in Germany was no revolution! I recognize only two revolutions: the French and the Russian” (Hölz’ Anklagerede gegen die bürgerliche Gesellschaft [Hoelz’s Prosecution Speech against Bourgeois Society] [1921]).

Brandler was tried a couple of weeks before Hoelz. The contrast was striking: with reprehensible cowardice and lack of solidarity, Brandler denied having anything to do with calls for an armed uprising and sought to save his own skin by pinning the blame for violence on Hoelz and members of the ultraleft Communist Workers Party (KAPD). Brandler assured the prosecutor that workers rule was compatible with the bourgeois constitution: “I say: the dictatorship of the proletariat is possible even under the German constitution!” He added, “Since 1918 the possibility of determining the fate of Germany through armed uprisings has increasingly diminished.” Dissociating himself completely from other targets of state repression, Brandler told the court: “In the KAPD, many think that this prolonged method of seizing power can be achieved through sabotage and individual terror. We expelled them from the party in 1919” (Der Hochverratsprozess gegen Heinrich Brandler vor dem ausserordentlichen Gericht am 6. Juni 1921 in Berlin [The High Treason Trial of Heinrich Brandler before the Special Court on 6 June 1921 in Berlin] [1921]).

This is illuminating as to the mindset of the KPD leadership after the March Action. Having burned their fingers, yesterday’s enthusiasts for the “permanent offensive” like Brandler, Thalheimer and Meyer now genuflected before bourgeois legalism and respectability. At an August 1923 meeting of the Russian Politburo, Trotsky said trenchantly of the German leadership: “What they have over there is the mindset of a whipped dog after the experience of the failure of its March [Action]” (Recording of discussion “On the International Situation” at the 21 August 1923 session of the Politburo of the CC of the RKP(b), Istochnik, May 1995 [our translation]).

In 1919 and 1920 there was no mass communist party that could take advantage of the revolutionary opportunities. In 1921 the Communists mistook a very powerful, but sectionally limited, outburst of class struggle for an insurrectionary situation. But the generalized radicalization precipitated by the Ruhr occupation and a mass Communist Party presented a pre-eminent opportunity to struggle for power. As Anderson noted:

“In 1923 a situation had developed in Germany in which ‘anything was possible.’ In 1923 the people—and by no means only the industrial working class—had become insurrectionist and the time had really come for that ‘offensive strategy’ which two years previously had failed so miserably. The situation had changed decidedly.

“But the Communist Party, too, had changed. Unluckily its change had worked in exactly the opposite direction. For fear of repeating the ‘ultra-left’ mistakes of 1921, the Communists had reversed their policy so thoroughly that they were quite incapable of taking action when the time for action came at last.”

Hammer or Anvil

The Origins of the “Workers Government” Slogan

The KPD’s blurring of the line between the dictatorship of the proletariat and a parliamentary coalition of workers parties stretched back at least to the time of the Kapp Putsch, described by Lenin as “the German equivalent of the Kornilov revolt,” the attempted military overthrow of Kerensky’s Provisional Government in Russia in August 1917. The Bolsheviks made a military bloc with Kerensky’s forces, but opposed any political support to the government. Following Kornilov’s repulse, Lenin, as he had before the July Days, challenged the parties of petty-bourgeois democracy, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, to break from their liberal bloc partners and take power on the basis of their majority in the soviets. Lenin explained:

“The compromise would amount to the following: the Bolsheviks, without making any claim to participate in the government (which is impossible for the internationalists unless a dictatorship of the proletariat and the poor peasants has been realised), would refrain from demanding the immediate transfer of power to the proletariat and the poor peasants and from employing revolutionary methods of fighting for this demand.”

— Lenin, “On Compromises,” September 1917 (Collected Works, Vol. 25)

Lenin’s point was this: since the Bolsheviks were then a minority of the proletariat, they would forswear revolutionary violence to overthrow a government formed solely of the reformist parties. But Lenin did not imply that such a government was a workers government, nor did he offer to give it political support, much less join it.

The Bolshevik tactic of a military bloc but no political support was also indicated in response to the Kapp Putsch. However, the KPD initially refused to join the general strike against the putsch and when it reversed its sectarian line a day later, it flipped to an opportunist posture toward the reformists. Thus, when Legien proposed a government based on the ADGB trade-union federation, the SPD and USPD after the putsch collapsed, the KPD announced that it would be a “loyal opposition” to such a “socialist government” if it excluded “bourgeois-capitalist parties.” It asserted:

“A state of affairs in which political freedom can be enjoyed without restriction, and bourgeois democracy cannot operate as the dictatorship of capital is, from the viewpoint of the development of the proletarian dictatorship, of the utmost importance in further winning the proletarian masses over to the side of communism.”

Citing this passage in an appendix to “Left-Wing” Communism—An Infantile Disorder (April-May 1920), Lenin stated that the “loyal opposition” tactic was in the main correct, explaining it as “a compromise, which is really necessary and should consist in renouncing, for a certain period, all attempts at the forcible overthrow of a government which enjoys the confidence of a majority of the urban workers.” But Lenin also noted:

“It is impossible to pass over in silence the fact that a government consisting of social-traitors should not (in an official statement by the Communist Party) be called ‘socialist’; that one should not speak of the exclusion of ‘bourgeois-capitalist parties,’ when the parties both of the Scheidemanns and of the Kautskys and Crispiens are petty-bourgeois-democratic parties.”

Lenin insisted that it was thoroughly wrong to pretend that reformist swindlers like the leaders of the SPD and USPD could “go beyond the bounds of bourgeois democracy, which, in its turn, cannot but be a dictatorship of capital.”

This lesson was never absorbed by the KPD leaders. The Legien proposal was in any case scotched because of opposition from the USPD’s left wing (which was already drawing close to the KPD). But it is evident that the KPD leadership’s idea of the “loyal opposition” tactic differed from Lenin’s and was more akin to Stalin and Kamenev’s line in March 1917 of political support to the bourgeois Provisional Government “in so far as it struggles against reaction or counter-revolution.”

When USPD leader Ernst Däumig (who later joined the KPD) denounced Legien’s proposal at a March 23 mass meeting of the Berlin factory councils, rejecting cooperation with the “compromised right-wing” SPD, it was Wilhelm Pieck, a leader of the KPD, who spoke and rebuked Däumig from the right:

“The present situation is not ripe enough for a council republic, but it is for a purely workers’ government. As revolutionary workers, a purely workers’ government is exceedingly desirable. But it can only be a transitional phenomenon.... The USPD has rejected the workers’ government, and has thereby failed to protect the interests of the working class at a politically advantageous moment.”

— quoted in Arthur Rosenberg, “The Kapp Putsch and the Working Class” (excerpted and translated by Mike Jones from Geschichte der Weimarer Republik [History of the Weimar Republic] [1961])

Clearly, as early as the spring of 1920 at least some KPD leaders viewed a social-democratic parliamentary government as a halfway house to workers rule.

Following the fusion with the left wing of the USPD, the VKPD found itself holding the balance of power between the SPD and USPD, on the one hand, and the right-wing bourgeois parties on the other, in regional parliaments (Landtags) in Saxony and Thuringia. After the November 1920 elections to the Saxon Landtag, the KPD decided to support the formation of an SPD/USPD government and voted for the budget, which of course included funding for the police, the courts and the prisons. The budget vote constituted a vote of political confidence in this capitalist government.

“Left-Wing” Communism has been willfully misinterpreted and misused over the years by fake leftists to justify opportunist maneuvering. But in this work as well as in his intervention in the Third Congress discussion on the united front, Lenin sought to imbue the young Communist parties of the West with the understanding that the conquest of power had to be prepared through a patient and methodical struggle to win the proletariat to the program of communism, including through the use of intelligent tactics aimed at exposing the social-democratic misleaders.

In spite of Lenin’s sharp criticism of the KPD in “Left-Wing” Communism, in November 1921 Die Rote Fahne published “Theses on the Relationship to Socialist Governments.” The theses asserted that such “socialist governments” were the “immediate result” of mass proletarian struggles “at a stage when the proletariat lacks the consciousness and power to establish its dictatorship.” The KPD promised to facilitate such governments and “defend them against bourgeois rightists, just as it actively defends the bourgeois republic against the monarchy.” This statement of “lesser evilism” blurs any distinction between a military bloc with bourgeois democrats against right-wing reactionaries and political support to bourgeois democrats in the form of the Social Democracy. The theses did stop short of advocating KPD entry into a regional government. But there was an inexorable logic posed here: If one could support a capitalist government from the outside, then why not join it in order to “push it to the left”? It didn’t take long before debates on exactly this issue broke out within the KPD.

The Comintern, notably Zinoviev and Radek, played a role in this, not only approving the decisions of the KPD but actively driving forward such a perspective. In a 10 November 1921 letter expressing “serious reservations” about the KPD theses, Radek explicitly laid open the possibility of entering an SPD government:

“The Communist Party can join any government with the will to struggle seriously with capitalism.... The Communist Party is not an opponent in principle of participation in a workers government. It stands for a soviet government, but in no way does this specify how the working class will achieve one. It is just as likely that a soviet government will be won by force in a revolution against a bourgeois government as that it can arise in the unfolding struggle of the working class in defense of a democratically attained socialist government that honestly defends the working class against capital.”

— cited by Arnold Reisberg, An den Quellen der Einheitsfrontpolitik: Der Kampf der KPD um die Aktionseinheit in Deutschland 1921-1922 [At the Sources of United-Front Politics: The KPD’s Fight for Unity in Action in Germany 1921-1922] (1971)

The thrust of this was duly incorporated in KPD statements. An 8 December 1921 circular asserted that “The KPD must say to the workers that it is willing to facilitate, by all parliamentary and extra-parliamentary means, the coming into being of a socialist workers government, and that it is also willing to join such a government if it has a guarantee that this government will represent the interests and demands of the working class in the fight against the bourgeoisie, will seize material assets, prosecute the Kapp criminals, free the revolutionary workers from prison, etc.” (Political Circular No. 12, 8 December 1921).

The same month a CI resolution, later appended to the “Theses on Comintern Tactics” adopted at the CI’s Fourth Congress in 1922, endorsed a KPD decision to “support a homogeneous workers government that is inclined to take up with some degree of seriousness the struggle against the power of the capitalists” (Protokoll des Vierten Kongresses der Kommunistischen Internationale, Verlag der Kommunistischen Internationale [1923] reprinted by Karl Liebknecht Verlag [1972]). In January 1922, the ECCI advised the KPD to publicly declare its willingness to enter a “workers government of struggle against the bourgeoisie” (Reisberg). The change in terminology from “socialist workers government” to “workers government” was aimed at leaving open the possibility of bringing in the Catholic trade unions!

The KPD couched its opportunist policy toward SPD/ USPD governments as an application of “united-front tactics.” But the real issue here was that the KPD leaders were not prepared to take power through leading the proletariat to smash the bourgeois state and replace it with organs of workers power. The KPD leaders (as well as Zinoviev/ Radek) saw the reformist and centrist leaders not as obstacles—the last line of defense of the disintegrating capitalist order—but as potential (if vacillating) revolutionary allies. Their policy was, in essence, “Make the SPD lefts fight!” This is reflected in an article by August Kleine (Guralski), a Comintern representative to the KPD who was known as a “Zinoviev man”:

“Overcoming the right wing of the SPD and USPD, the strengthening of their left wing and control of the socialist government by the organized working class are the prerequisite for the struggle of the masses for vital reforms.

“These are simultaneously the preconditions that we pose for our entry into the socialist government. But carrying out these demands means the creation of a workers government.”

— “Der Kampf um die Arbeiterregierung” [The Fight for a Workers Government] Die Internationale,
27 June 1922

Such views did not go unchallenged inside the KPD. One example was Martha Heller, a correspondent from Kiel, who was quoted as follows in an article by the right-wing KPD leader Paul Böttcher:

“Suddenly everything we hitherto held to be the common beliefs of all Communists has disappeared. Revolution, mass struggle to smash the bourgeoisie’s apparatus of economic and political power is magicked away, and we obtain the class government of the proletariat simply by casting votes, by accepting ministerial posts.”

— “Falsche Schlussfolgerungen: Eine Replik zur sächsischen Frage” [Wrong Conclusions: A Response on the Saxony Question] Die Internationale, 18 June 1922

In the summer and fall of 1922, a major debate raged within the KPD over the Saxon Landtag, where the KPD held the balance of power. In July, the Zentrale took a position to vote for the provincial budget. The Zentrale subsequently reversed its position when the SPD refused to pass a face-saving amnesty bill, but the KPD’s parliamentary fraction dragged its feet. It wasn’t until late August that the SPD provincial government was brought down.

But even as the KPD voted to bring down the government, it looked to new elections scheduled for November to potentially increase the number of KPD deputies and create “the possibility of expanding the basis of the government through the entry of the Communist Party into the government.” The KPD drafted a proposal laying out “ten conditions” for entry into a “workers government” with the SPD, which later became the basis for negotiations. The results of the November elections were 10 deputies for the KPD, 42 for the SPD, and 45 for the right-wing parties. Shortly thereafter, the SPD sent a letter to the KPD inviting it to “join the government, while recognizing the Reich and State constitutions” (Reisberg, citing Vorwärts No. 535, 11 November 1922). This proposal precipitated a split in the KPD leadership; the issue was then thrown into the lap of the Comintern at the 1922 Fourth Congress.

Where the sharp differences within the German party had been openly fought out at the Third Congress, this was not the case in 1922. In the interim, Lenin had suffered his first stroke, and the main Comintern operatives in Germany became Radek and Zinoviev, much to the detriment of the KPD. Lenin’s ill health prevented him from playing more than a limited role at the Fourth Congress. There was no agenda point to address the dispute over Saxony and the KPD’s parliamentary tactics more generally. These matters were only referred to obliquely in the Congress sessions.

The question of entry into the regional Landtag was taken up at a consultation between German and Russian delegates (which apparently included Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Bukharin and Radek). According to the East German historian Arnold Reisberg, documentary reports on the conversation have not been preserved. From the memoirs of some of the participants and from what came out in the wash following the October 1923 debacle, it seems evident, however, that the Russian delegation spiked the proposal favored by the majority of the KPD leadership to enter the Saxon government. A 5 April 1924 letter by Zinoviev to Clara Zetkin notes that the Russian comrades were unanimously opposed to the entry. Similar statements were made by Zinoviev and others at the January 1924 ECCI post-mortem on the German events. However, we do not know the political parameters of the Russian intervention, though it undoubtedly saved the KPD from overtly crossing the class line at that time. The meeting was never reported into the Fourth Congress. There was never a real discussion inside the KPD (or CI) to correct the ominous parliamentarist bulge of the German party, and the KPD went into the critical events of 1923 politically disarmed.

The 1922 Fourth Comintern Congress

The beheading of the German party leadership in 1919 brought its every weakness to the fore. The KPD tended to polarize between staid, plodding parliamentarists like Meyer, Zetkin, Brandler and Thalheimer on the one hand and petty-bourgeois demagogues like Fischer and Maslow on the other. Zetkin’s recollections of Lenin from this period are particularly interesting, since her memoirs (unlike those of the mendacious Ruth Fischer) do not purport to have Lenin agreeing with her about everything. According to Zetkin, Lenin had little use for the Fischers and Maslows: “Such ‘leftists’ are like the Bourbons. They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. As far as I can see, there is behind the ‘left’ criticism of the mistakes in carrying out the united front tactics, the desire to do away with those tactics altogether.” He told Zetkin that he considered Fischer to be a “‘personal accident,’ politically unstable and uncertain.” But if such people got a hearing from revolutionary workers inside the KPD, said Lenin, it was the fault of the party leadership:

“But I tell you frankly that I am just as little impressed by your ‘Center’ which does not understand, which hasn’t the energy to have done with such petty demagogues. Surely it is an easy thing to replace such people, to withdraw the revolutionary-minded workers from them and educate them politically. Just because they are revolutionary-minded workers, while radicals of the type in question are at bottom the worst sort of opportunists.”

— Zetkin, Reminiscences of Lenin (1934)

In Lenin’s one speech to the Fourth Congress, he emphasized the importance of the Third Congress Organizational Resolution. He worried that the resolution was “too Russian,” by which he did not mean (as has often been misrepresented) that it was irrelevant to West Europe but rather that it was difficult for the young Communist parties to grasp. He urged that they “study in the special sense, in order that they may really understand the organisation, structure, method and content of revolutionary work.” Lenin believed that the Communist parties—the German party in particular—had not yet assimilated the Bolshevik revolutionary experience. Tragically, he was proven right.

The “Workers Governments” Discussion

The discussion at the Fourth Congress on the “workers government” slogan took place mainly under Zinoviev’s ECCI report. Neither Lenin nor Trotsky were at the session. In his opening presentation, Zinoviev reasserted his statement at an expanded ECCI plenum several months earlier that the workers government was simply a popular designation for the dictatorship of the proletariat. But when he was challenged by Radek and Ernst Meyer, Zinoviev retreated. The ensuing codification in the “Comintern Theses on Tactics” is deliberately obfuscationist and at times self-contradictory, incorporating different political thrusts. The theses recognize five possible varieties of “workers governments,” grouped in two categories:

“I. Ostensible Workers Governments:

“1) Liberal workers government, such as existed in Australia and is also possible in the near future in England.

“2) Social-democratic workers government (Germany).

“II. Genuine Workers Governments

“3) Government of the workers and poorer peasants. Such a possibility exists in the Balkans, Czechoslovakia, etc.

“4) Workers government with participation of Communists.

“5) Genuine revolutionary proletarian workers government, which, in its pure form, can be embodied only through the Communist Party.”

Protokoll des Vierten Kongresses der Kommunistischen Internationale

(This is our translation from the German. The English-language Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International [Ink Links, 1980] is not reliable; here, for example, it omits the classification of workers governments into two categories.)

The schema of a sliding scale of “workers governments” ranging from the not-so-good to the very-good-indeed was taken by the KPD leadership as an endorsement of its conciliation of and submissiveness to the left Social Democrats. The theses also state that “The Communists must under certain circumstances declare their willingness to form a workers government with non-Communist workers parties and workers’ organizations. However, they may do so only if there are guarantees that the workers government will really wage a struggle against the bourgeoisie.”

Zinoviev tried to delimit the conditions in which the workers government could be realized: “It can only be adopted in those countries where the relationships of power render its adoption opportune, where the problem of power, the problem of government, both on the parliamentary and on the extra-parliamentary field, has come to the front.” But in situations where the question of power is being raised on the streets—i.e., a prerevolutionary situation—the most fatal mistake is to confuse the workers as to the class nature of the state.

What delegates were really concerned about was whether the Communists could join a coalition government with the Social Democracy. In that regard, Zinoviev asserted:

“A third type is the so-called Coalition government; that is, a government in which Social-Democrats, Trade Union leaders, and even perhaps Communists, take part. One can imagine such a possibility. Such a government is not yet the dictatorship of the proletariat, but it is perhaps a starting point for the dictatorship. When all goes right, we can kick one social-democrat after another out of the government until the power is in the hands of the Communists. This is a historical possibility.”

Fourth Congress of the Communist International, Abridged Report of Meetings Held at Petrograd and Moscow, Nov. 7-Dec. 3, 1922 (London, CPGB, undated)

This nonsense is a gross denial of the lessons of the October Revolution. Zinoviev’s whole conception assumes that the other side—the social democrats and the bourgeoisie—are incapable of thinking. In practice, things worked out quite differently in Germany a year later, as they were bound to. As soon as the KPD announced its coalition with the SPD in October 1923, the Reich government took immediate steps to suppress it militarily. Correspondingly, the idea that there exists a halfway house between the dictatorship of the proletariat and that of the bourgeoisie constitutes a revision of the Marxist-Leninist understanding of the state. The working class cannot simply “take hold” of the existing state machinery and run it in its own class interests. The bourgeois state must be overthrown through workers revolution and a new state—the dictatorship of the proletariat—must be erected in its place.

It did not take the German developments in October 1923 to demonstrate the dangers of coalition with the social democrats; the Comintern already had experienced several such disastrous experiments. In Finland in 1918, a pro-Bolshevik minority in the social-democratic party proclaimed a dictatorship of the proletariat before even forming its own Communist organization. What ensued was a massive bloodbath of the Finnish proletariat by General Mannerheim’s forces in league with German imperialism. In the spring of 1919, soviet republics were proclaimed in Hungary and Bavaria. The Hungarian Soviet Republic was formed on the basis of a reunification of Béla Kun’s small Communist forces with the Social Democracy. In Bavaria, the government included the Independents and even a section of the SPD, some of whose ministers then organized a punitive expedition to crush the revolutionary government. Eugen Leviné heroically led the defense against the reactionary onslaught. But both the Bavarian and Hungarian Soviet Republics were soon drowned in blood.

Much of the Fourth Congress discussion suffered from trying to base programmatic generalizations on historical speculations. But tactics are concrete, and depend on particular circumstances. Two Polish delegates, Marchlewski and Domski (a Polish “left” who was aligned with Ruth Fischer) spoke particularly well on this point. Marchlewski said:

“I would like to speak a few words on the slogan of the Workers’ Government. I believe there has been too much philosophical speculation on the matter. (“Very true,” from the German benches.) The criticism of this slogan is directed on three lines —the Workers’ Government is either a Scheidemann Government or a coalition government of the Communists with the social traitors. It finds support either in Parliament or in the Factory Councils. It is either the expression of the dictatorship of the proletariat, or it is not. I believe that philosophical speculation is out of place—for we have practical historical experience. What did the Bolsheviks do in 1917 before they conquered power? They demanded ‘All Power to the Soviets.’ What did this mean at that time? It meant giving power to the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries who were in the majority in the Soviets. It meant at that time a Workers’ Government in which social traitors participated, and which was directed against the dictatorship of the proletariat. But this slogan was a good weapon of agitation in the hands of the Bolsheviks.”

Domski observed:

“Comrade Radek has solaced me in private conversation that such a government is not contemplated for Poland (Comrade Radek: I never said that). Oh, then Poland will also have to bear the punishment of this sort of government. It is thus an international problem. Comrade Radek says that the workers’ government is not a necessity but a possibility, and it were folly to reject such possibilities. The question is whether if we inscribe all the possibilities on our banner we try to accelerate the realisation of these possibilities. I believe that it is quite possible that at the eleventh hour a so-called workers’ government should come which would not be a proletarian dictatorship. But I believe when such a government comes, it will be the resultant of various forces such as our struggle for the proletarian dictatorship, the struggle of the social-democrats against it and so forth. Is it proper to build our plans on such an assumption? I think not, because I believe that we should insist on our struggle for the proletarian dictatorship.”

Fourth Congress Abridged Report

As the old Comintern saying went, the German party was the biggest, but the Polish party was the best.

Trotsky Drew the Lessons

In a December 1922 report on the Fourth Congress, Trotsky made the following analogy in introducing the Saxony question:

“Under certain conditions the slogan of a workers’ government can become a reality in Europe. That is to say, a moment may arrive when the Communists together with the left elements of the Social Democracy will set up a workers’ government in a way similar to ours in Russia when we created a workers’ and peasants’ government together with the Left Social-Revolutionaries. Such a phase would constitute a transition to the proletarian dictatorship, the full and completed one.”

The First Five Years of the Communist International, Volume II

This analogy is totally inappropriate. The Left Social Revolutionaries entered the government after the proletarian seizure of power and on the basis of soviet power, whereas in Germany the question concerned a regional bourgeois parliament in a capitalist state! Trotsky explained that the CI had opposed the KPD entering the Saxon Landtag at that time. But he added:

“In the Comintern we gave the following answer: If you, our German Communist comrades, are of the opinion that a revolution is possible in the next few months in Germany, then we would advise you to participate in Saxony in a coalition government and to utilize your ministerial posts in Saxony for the furthering of political and organizational tasks and for transforming Saxony in a certain sense into a Communist drillground so as to have a revolutionary stronghold already reinforced in a period of preparation for the approaching outbreak of the revolution.”

Trotsky’s “drillground” conception assumed that the major battalions of the German proletariat were ready to break decisively from the bourgeois order and embark on the course of insurrection under Communist leadership. In other words, he assumed exactly what still had to be forged, tested and tempered. When the KPD did enter the governments in Saxony and Thuringia the following October, Trotsky defended this in several speeches, including a 19 October report to the All-Russian Union of Metal Workers and another two days later to the Conference of Political Workers in the Red Army and the Red Navy (The Military Writings and Speeches of Leon Trotsky, How the Revolution Armed, Vol. V [New Park Publications, 1981]). Trotsky may not have been aware of the degree to which the KPD had sunk into parliamentarism, but the tactic he defended could only have reinforced such appetites.

Trotsky began to evaluate the reasons for the defeat almost immediately. Though the German events did not figure as a central issue in the fight of the 1923 Opposition, Trotsky made a preliminary statement in a December article:

“If the Communist Party had abruptly changed the pace of its work and had profited by the five or six months that history accorded it for direct political, organizational, technical preparation for the seizure of power, the outcome of the events could have been quite different.... Here a new orientation was needed, a new tone, a new way of approaching the masses, a new interpretation and application of the united front....

“If the party surrendered its exceptional positions without resistance, the main reason is that it proved unable to free itself, at the beginning of the new phase (May-July 1923), from the automatism of its preceding policy, established as if it was meant for years to come, and to put forward squarely in its agitation, action, organization, and tactics the problem of taking power.”

— Trotsky, “Tradition and Revolutionary Policy” (December 1923, later published as part of The New Course)

Trotsky drew a parallel between the routinism of the KPD leadership and the conservativism of the newly crystallizing bureaucratic stratum in the Soviet Union. Stigmatized as a “new boy” because of his more recent adherence to the Bolshevik Party, Trotsky ridiculed the “old Bolsheviks” (like Kamenev) who stood on the ground of what Lenin called the “antiquated” formula of the “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” in order to oppose Lenin’s April Theses in 1917.

Trotsky’s re-evaluation of the German events led him to an implicit self-criticism of his earlier, administrative stress on the need to set a date for the insurrection. In June 1924, he wrote that “a sharp tactical turn was needed” from the moment of the occupation of the Ruhr:

“The question of setting a date for the uprising can have significance only in this connection and with this perspective. Insurrection is an art. An art presumes a clear aim, a precise plan, and consequently a schedule.

“The most important thing, however, was this: to ensure in good time the decisive tactical turn toward the seizure of power. And this was not done. This was the chief and fatal omission. From this followed the basic contradiction. On the one hand, the party expected a revolution, while on the other hand, because it had burned its fingers in the March events, it avoided, until the last months of 1923, the very idea of organizing a revolution, i.e., preparing an insurrection.”

— Trotsky, “Through What Stage Are We Passing?”, 21 June 1924 (Challenge of the Left Opposition, 1923-25)

The importance of such a turn and the necessity to politically combat and overcome the conservative, Menshevik resistance in the party to this turn is developed most fully in The Lessons of October.

Where Trotsky tried to address the root cause of the German defeat, for Zinoviev the main point of the ECCI plenum convened in January 1924 to discuss the October debacle was to amnesty his own role and scapegoat Brandler. (The Polish Communists submitted a letter sharply criticizing the ECCI’s failure to take any responsibility for the German disaster.) In his pamphlet Probleme der deutschen Revolution (Hamburg, 1923) and again at the plenum, the infinitely flexible Zinoviev had taken to again asserting that the workers government meant the dictatorship of the proletariat and cynically attacked the Brandlerites for denying this. Having personally signed the order for the KPD to enter the governments of Saxony and Thuringia, Zinoviev couldn’t very well criticize Brandler for that. Instead he insisted that Brandler had not conducted himself as a Communist minister what was a bourgeois government! Leadership of the KPD was soon turned over to Fischer and Maslow. And compounding the October defeat, the majority line in the ECCI pushed by Zinoviev argued that the revolutionary moment had not passed but rather was impending, a position that could only be disorienting.

At the January 1924 ECCI plenum, Radek submitted a set of theses whose purpose in part was to alibi the leadership of Brandler (and Radek himself) in the 1923 events. Trotsky, then ill, was not at the plenum. Radek contacted him by telephone in an effort to get his support. Although he later acknowledged that he had placed too much confidence in Radek in agreeing to have his name appended to a document which he had never read, Trotsky explained that he had endorsed the theses on the assurance that they recognized that the revolutionary situation had passed. In a March 1926 letter to the Italian Communist Amadeo Bordiga, Trotsky stressed that “I lent my signature because the theses affirmed that the German party had let the revolutionary situation lapse and that there began for us in Germany a phase that was favorable not for an immediate offensive but for defense and preparation. That was for me the decisive element at the time.”

Since Radek had been allied with Brandler on Germany, and Trotsky was associated with Radek in the 1923 Opposition, Trotsky’s signature on Radek’s theses made it easy for Zinoviev and later Stalin to attack him as a “Brandlerite.” This was, of course, an entirely cynical game. Trotsky opposed scapegoating Brandler, not out of political solidarity, but because he knew the Comintern leadership was also complicit and that Fischer and Maslow were no better. Trotsky’s differences with Brandler were spelled out in a number of speeches and writings. This was well known in the upper circles of the Russian party, but less so among European Communists. Trotsky was compelled several times to repeat the explanation he had made to Bordiga, including in a September 1931 letter to Albert Treint and one in June 1932 to the Czech Communist Neurath.

Trotsky’s Later Writings

In his later writings, Trotsky fully recognized that the “workers government” (or “workers and peasants government”) slogan had been, in the hands of the degenerating Comintern, a theoretical opening for the most monstrous opportunism. In the Transitional Program (1938), Trotsky wrote:

“This formula, ‘workers’ and farmers’ government,’ first appeared in the agitation of the Bolsheviks in 1917 and was definitely accepted after the October Revolution. In the final instance it represented nothing more than the popular designation for the already established dictatorship of the proletariat....

“The chief accusation which the Fourth International advances against the traditional organizations of the proletariat is the fact that they do not wish to tear themselves away from the political semi-corpse of the bourgeoisie. Under these conditions the demand, systematically addressed to the old leadership: ‘Break with the bourgeoisie, take the power!’ is an extremely important weapon for exposing the treacherous character of the parties and organizations of the Second, Third and Amsterdam Internationals. The slogan, ‘workers’ and farmers’ government,’ is thus acceptable to us only in the sense that it had in 1917 with the Bolsheviks, i.e., as an anti-bourgeois and anti-capitalist slogan, but in no case in that ‘democratic’ sense which later the epigones gave it, transforming it from a bridge to socialist revolution into the chief barrier upon its path.”

However, to our knowledge, Trotsky never explicitly repudiated the Fourth Congress formulations on the “workers government” slogan.

That resolution has since been used as a theoretical opening for pseudo-Trotskyist revisionism of all stripes. In a series of articles in Max Shachtman’s Labor Action in October-November 1953, Hal Draper cited the Fourth Congress discussion in an attempt to argue that a “workers government” need not be a workers state. The purpose of this was to embellish the Attlee Labour government elected in Britain in 1945. In the early 1960s, Joseph Hansen of the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP) likewise drew on the 1922 CI discussion to buttress his claim that the Castro regime in Cuba was a “workers and farmers government.” This was in the service of the SWP’s uncritical enthusing over the Castroite leadership of the Cuban deformed workers state. Hansen even extended the label to the neocolonial government of Algeria under Ben Bella, using it as a theoretical basis to extend political support to bourgeois populist and nationalist regimes.

Hansen’s revisionist apologias filled up a whole Education for Socialists bulletin (April 1974) on the “Workers and Farmers Government.” In addition to the Fourth Congress theses, Hansen also seized on the following guarded speculation by Trotsky in the Transitional Program:

“One cannot categorically deny in advance the theoretical possibility that, under the influence of completely exceptional circumstances (war, defeat, financial crash, mass revolutionary pressure, etc.), the petty-bourgeois parties including the Stalinists may go further than they wish along the road to a break with the bourgeoisie. In any case one thing is not to be doubted: even if this highly improbable variant somewhere at some time becomes a reality and the ‘workers’ and farmers’ government’ in the above-mentioned sense is established in fact, it would represent merely a short episode on the road to the actual dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Just as the Stalinists (and other opportunists) abused Lenin’s “Left-Wing” Communism to justify the most grotesque class-collaborationist betrayals, clever revisionists like Hansen sought to impute to Trotsky their own reformist capitulation to non-proletarian forces.

The Revolutionary Tendency (RT)—predecessor of the Spartacist League—waged a sharp struggle within the SWP against the leadership’s capitulation to Castro. In an 11 June 1961 document titled “A Note on the Current Discussion—Labels and Purposes” (SWP Discussion Bulletin Vol. 22, No. 16 [June 1961]), James Robertson, one of the leaders of the RT, pointed to the link between terminology and political appetite:

“And over the Cuban question the same underlying issue is posed—what do you want, comrades? Take the use of the transitional demand ‘the workers and peasants government.’ It is transitional right enough, that is it is a bridge, but bridges go two ways. Either the workers and peasants government is the central demand of the Trotskyists in urging the workers and peasants to take power into their own hands through their mass organizations—i.e., the struggle for soviet power (this is the use the Cuban Trotskyists put it to); or it is a label to apply from afar to the existing government and thus serve, not for the first time, as an orthodox sounding formula to side-step the consummation of proletarian revolution and to justify revolution ‘from above’ by leaders ‘one of whose principal difficulties is imbuing the working people with a sense of revolutionary social responsibility.’

“In short, is the Cuban revolution to pass forward over that bridge to soviet power or is an American SWP majority to go backwards?”

Indeed, the SWP’s adaptation to Castro marked its descent into centrism and, a few years later, reformism.

In the course of fusion discussions with the Communist Working Collective (CWC) in 1971, which had broken to the left from Maoism, we discovered that they had similar misgivings about the Fourth Congress (see Marxist Bulletin No. 10, “From Maoism to Trotskyism”). The comrades in the CWC were very familiar with Lenin’s writings on the state. They knew that in the imperialist epoch there were only two types of state, the dictatorship of the proletariat and the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, corresponding to the two fundamental classes—what then was this vague “workers government” in between? The convergence of views over this augured well for a solid revolutionary regroupment!

In the early 1930s, Trotsky wrote quite a bit about the urgency of applying the united-front tactic against the Hitlerite fascists. Yet the “workers government” à la Zinoviev, i.e., a KPD/SPD government, is never an element in Trotsky’s propaganda. His formulations on the state are likewise much sharper and clearer than in 1923. Trotsky is categorical, for example, that the cops are the class enemy, even if they are under Social Democratic influence:

“The fact that the police was originally recruited in large numbers from among Social Democratic workers is absolutely meaningless. Consciousness is determined by environment even in this instance. The worker who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist state, is a bourgeois cop, not a worker.”

— “What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat,” 27 January 1932 (The Struggle
Against Fascism in Germany

Seeking to justify their invariable electoral support to the social democracy, latter-day centrists and reformists acclaim the “workers government” as the highest form of the united front. In contrast, Trotsky wrote in “What Next?”:

“Just as the trade union is the rudimentary form of the united front in the economic struggle, so the soviet is the highest form of the united front under the conditions in which the proletariat enters the epoch of fighting for power.

“The soviet in itself possesses no miraculous powers. It is the class representation of the proletariat, with all of the latter’s strong and weak points. But precisely and only because of this does the soviet afford to the workers of divers political trends the organizational opportunity to unite their efforts in the revolutionary struggle for power.”

But against the fetishists of the united front, Trotsky stressed that soviets “by themselves” were not a substitute for a communist vanguard in leading the struggle for power:

“The united front, in general, is never a substitute for a strong revolutionary party; it can only aid the latter to become stronger....

“To avow that the soviets ‘by themselves’ are capable of leading the struggle of the proletariat for power—is only to sow abroad vulgar soviet fetishism. Everything depends upon the party that leads the soviets.”

The Fight for New October Revolutions

The last serious examination of the German events in the Trotskyist movement was an exchange in the pages of the American SWP’s Fourth International in 1942-43 between the German Trotskyist Walter Held (“Why the German Revolution Failed,” December 1942 and January 1943) and Jean van Heijenoort, using the pseudonym Marc Loris (“The German Revolution in the Leninist Period,” March 1943). The exchange has the merit of attempting to situate the KPD’s problems in 1923 in the political weaknesses which plagued the German party from its inception. Held viewed the utterly justified expulsion of Paul Levi in 1921 as the definitive error which doomed the 1923 German Revolution to defeat, even seeing in Levi’s expulsion the seeds of the Stalinist bureaucratic degeneration of the Comintern. Van Heijenoort skewered Held for his support to Levi. At the same time, Van Heijenoort wrongly sneered at Held’s correct criticism of Trotsky for failing to carry out Lenin’s instructions to wage a fight against Stalin at the Russian Twelfth Party Congress in 1923. Held did believe there were revolutionary possibilities in 1923, and he despised Brandler. Held also correctly condemned the KPD’s entry into the governments in Saxony and Thuringia—though not acknowledging that Trotsky himself supported this.

One’s appreciation of the history of the workers movement very much correlates with programmatic outlook. All manner of fake Trotskyists view the events of 1923 through a prism distorted by social democracy. Pierre Broué’s Révolution en Allemagne 1917-1923 (1971) uncritically supports the CI’s Fourth Congress line on the “workers government.” A pamphlet published by the German Workers Power group (Arbeitermacht) on the November Revolution claims that the Ebert-Scheidemann regime—butchers of Liebknecht and Luxemburg—was a “workers government,” albeit of a “non-genuine” type. Pierre Frank, a longtime leader of the United Secretariat (USec), wrote a polemic denouncing Zinoviev for correctly asserting (on occasion) that a workers government meant the dictatorship of the proletariat.

These groups mystify the fact that a parliamentary regime headed by a social-democratic party is a capitalist government, not a “workers government” or a “reformist government.” This is in line with their own politics of operating as pressure groups on the mass reformist parties. The perfection of this social-democratic outlook was the Allende Unidad Popular government in Chile in the early 1970s—a bourgeois coalition of Allende’s Socialists, the Communists and some smaller capitalist parties—which lulled the working masses with suicidal illusions in the “constitutional” military, and paved the way for Pinochet’s bloody coup.

Brandler himself moved sharply away from Leninism, becoming a leader of the Communist Right Opposition and hardening up around social-democratic politics. In an exchange with Isaac Deutscher, Brandler oozed with the smug satisfaction of a provincial German social democrat who had nothing whatsoever to learn from the Bolsheviks:

“Only now do I realize how tremendous was the treasure of ideas which the German workers’ movement acquired by its own exertions and quite independently. We were so impressed by the achievements of the Bolsheviks that we forgot our own. Take Lenin’s Imperialism, which is quite correctly regarded as a standard work. Already at the 1907 International Congress in Stuttgart, and at other conferences at the end of the previous century, most of the ideas which Lenin developed in his Imperialism were already being debated, mainly by Kautsky.”

New Left Review No. 105, September-October 1977

Lenin’s Imperialism was a polemic against Kautsky, whose theory of “superimperialism”—today resurrected by the “anti-globalization” crowd—is premised on the lie that national antagonisms can be transcended within the framework of capitalism and therefore interimperialist war is not inherent in the capitalist system. It was in counterposition to such social-pacifism and social-chauvinism that Lenin launched the struggle for the Third International!

As for the British Labourite Revolutionary History, the editorial in its 1994 issue on Germany couches its anti-revolutionary thesis in a series of questions:

“Was this series of events a failed revolutionary opportunity? Was the upsurge aborted into a bourgeois republic by the treachery of Social Democracy and the failure of the revolutionary left? Was a liberal bourgeois republic a possibility? Were the glaring mistakes of the Communists a result of their own ineptitude, or due to the meddling of the Communist International? How far were the policies of the German Communist Party swayed by the Soviet preference for an alliance with right wing German militarists, a coalition of the two outsiders excluded from the Versailles system? Could more have been gained out of the situation than what finally emerged? Was the later triumph of Hitler made inevitable by the events of this time? If the German Communist Party had not been established, and the working class had maintained its organisational unity, could Hitler’s victory have been prevented?”

Where Revolutionary History’s line of reasoning leads is clear, even if it is necessary to read between the lines, as is usually the case with this “non-party” journal. The line goes something like this: the proletarian revolution did not triumph in Germany in 1918-23 and only sectarians and madmen could think it was in the offing; in the Soviet Union, where in 1917 the revolution did triumph, the Bolshevik leadership soon proved to consist mostly of misguided fanatics and frauds. What’s left for RH, then, but to lament the split of the proletarian revolutionary forces from the Second International? At all costs they seek to deny the fact that Hitler’s rise to power was the result of the SPD’s craven attachment to the Weimar Republic, combined with the Communist Party’s inability to decisively put an end to it in 1923. Fascism, the brutal oppression imposed by imperialism on the colonial masses, interimperialist war, racism—in the eyes of a social democrat, these are not the necessary outgrowths of the rotting bourgeois social order but unfortunate aberrations which episodically mar the orderly, democratic bourgeois norm.

At bottom, what they all call into question is the validity of the October Revolution and the attempt of the Bolsheviks to extend that revolution internationally. Brandler’s line was always one of “Russian exceptionalism,” i.e., maybe Lenin’s program worked in Russia but it had no applicability in Germany with its ostensibly more “cultured” working class, allegedly wedded to the framework of parliamentary democracy. With the destruction of the Soviet Union, revisionists have “discovered” that Lenin’s program didn’t work in Russia either, that the Soviet workers state was a “failed experiment.” That’s why all of the reformists end up today in the camp of the “anti-globalization campaign,” beseeching the imperialists to be “responsible” and “humane.”

Fake leftists like Workers Power and the USec moved far to the right through their support to the counterrevolutionary forces that destroyed the Soviet Union and deformed workers states in East Europe in 1989-1992. Championing the “democratic” credentials of the imperialists and their chosen counterrevolutionary henchmen, they helped destroy the world’s first workers state, condemning the proletariat of East Europe and the former USSR to the penury dictated by the imperialist stranglehold on the world market. This underlies the commitment in practice of these fake Marxists to the parliamentary reformist sandbox of bourgeois “democracy,” tailing right-wing social democrats like Labour’s Tony Blair in Britain or, in countries like Italy or France, popular-front coalitions of reformist workers parties and openly bourgeois parties.

The October Revolution remains our compass. It demonstrated how a revolutionary party rooted in the proletariat can win the working masses away from the reformist class traitors and lead them to power. The critical factor was the subjective element—the revolutionary party. That was the difference between Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1923.

The strategic task posed for German communists is to break the proletariat from the Social Democracy. As Trotsky rightly concluded, that could have been done in 1923. The obstacle was neither the objective situation nor the “omnipotence” of the Social Democracy; it lay with the failure to pursue a revolutionary line, particularly in the critical time period. Here the programmatic weaknesses of the German party, reinforced rather than corrected by a Comintern that itself was beginning to degenerate, proved decisive. We seek to critically assimilate the lessons of 1923 in order to strengthen our international party for the revolutionary struggles that lie ahead.

English Spartacist No. 56

ESp 56

Spring 2001


Rearming Bolshevism

A Trotskyist Critique of Germany 1923 and the Comintern


A Critical Balance Sheet

Trotsky and the Russian Left Opposition


Women and the French Revolution

(Women and Revolution Pages)


Susan Adams, 1948-2001


ICL Statement for Prague Protest Against IMF, World Bank

Smash Imperialist Exploitation Through World Socialist Revolution!