This article by Thalheimer was first published by Marken Press in 1993 and the translation is copyright by the translator Mike Jones. It is made available here by Revolutionary History in the strong belief that in any serious debate both sides in the Communist movement should be heard. To think that any leader however gifted, always got everything right has more in common with Scientology than the Marxist method. With the enormous benefit of hindsight many may feel, as might, it would be fair to say, the majority of members of our Editorial Board, that Trotsky was far more accurate than Brandler/Thalheimer on the nature of the Soviet Union and the prospects for Socialism in One Country while accepting that on other issues the latter may have sometimes been more correct.
The text is taken from: 1923: Eine verpasste Revolution? Die deutsche Oktober-legende und die wirkliche Geschichte von 1923, by August Thalheimer, pub1ished by Juniusver1ag, Berlin 1931. Reprinted by Gruppe Arbeiterpolitik. Available from Gesellschaft zur Förderung des Studiums der Geschichte der Arbeiterwegung e.V. (GFSA e.V.), Postbox 106426, 20043 Hamburg, Germany.
Please note that all of the emphases in the original text has been retained. Although there may appear to be an overuse of such emphasis to the contemporary reader, it was not unusual in the era in which the text was written. Mike Jones desired to remain as true to the original text as possible.
Introduction to 1923: A Missed Opportunity? by Mike Jones
1923: A Missed Opportunity? The German October Legend and the Real History of 1923 by August Thalheimer
THE 1923 LEGEND
1. Why Must the Issues of 1923 Be Explained?
2. Of What Does the Left October Legend Consist?
3. The Rise of the Left October Legend
4. The High Point of the October Legend
5. The Start of the Revision of the October Legend
THE CLASS FORCES IN RUSSIA IN 1917 COMPARED WITH GERMANY IN 1923
THE REAL STORY OF 1923
1. The Effect of the Occupation of the Ruhr
2, The Behaviour of the Party Until the Strike Against Cuno
3. The Speculative Plan of Action of the Comintern
4. The Intervention of the Bourgeoisie Changes the Situation
5. The Decisive Mistakes of the Party After the Cuno Strike
5. The Retreat and the Chemnitz Conference
7. Some of the Most Important Lessons
INTRODUCTION TO 1923: A MISSED OPPORTUNITY?
As far we know the pamphlet by August Thalheimer on the events in Germany during 1923, and their subsequent elevation into a legend which, as he points out, was revised by its creators as the occasion demanded, does not exist in an English language edition. Its relevance today owes itself to a number of factors. Not only are we obliged to set the historical record straight, but to examine whether this acknowledged turning-point in the history of Communism was the cause of a degeneration or whether the degeneration was the source of the myth-creation around the events.
However, much more important is an examination of the methodology of the protagonists. In essence it can be summed up as a choice between the argument presented by the ultra-left, whereby a minority around the KPD should have launched themselves into an uprising in the belief that decisive leadership would resolve things regardless of the objective conditions, and the view that the objective conditions for an uprising were not present and thus its launching in that situations would be an irresponsible adventure leading to disaster.
Many questions are discussed by Thalheimer in this pamphlet, these can be summarised as follows: Whether and when Communists should join a coalition government with Social Democrats. Could factory committees replace Soviet-type organs. Can uprisings be planned months in advance, based upon speculation. And in the meantime should political activity be downgraded and substituted by military technical-organisational preparation. Is it permissible to take power with a minority of the working class, so to speak behind the back of the class as a whole. Is consciousness wholly different once a hated government is removed during a mass movement to be replaced by another, in which the biggest working class party has a stake. This when steps are taken to stabilise the political and economic situation, and concessions are granted to the workers. And, at the same time, repression is meted out to the Communists. All these and other questions are treated in this pamphlet.
The translator encountered the arguments presented here over twenty years ago, at a time he considered himself a Trotskyist, and having accepted the 1923 October Legend along with the rest of the Trotskyist canon. From then on it became difficult to defend the Trotskyist view. Having had his faith undermined he sought out everything he could find in Trotsky’s writings to bolster it again. Alas it proved impossible. Trotsky never provides any serious evidence for his view but merely asserts it, based mainly on theoretical generalisations. Over the years since then the translator read every book he found, from biographies of participants, to general historical treatments, to those dealing with the economic issues, Soviet foreign policy, German-Soviet relations, diplomacy, etc., bearing on the 1923 events, and became confirmed in the arguments presented by Thalheimer. A number of historians, including those having Marxist views, such as Julius Braunthal (1) and Fernando Claudin (2), see Soviet foreign policy as the decisive factor for the apparent failure of the Comintern to make any revolutionary preparations in Germany until after the fall of the Cuno government. Cuno represented the anti-Versailles, anti-West orientation of certain bourgeois sectors not unfriendly to the Soviet Union, whilst Stresemann represented sectors with an opposing orientation. In the belief of the translator, whilst that certainly affected Soviet government circles, it was not a factor affecting the Comintern. In this regard, it is worthwhile looking at the books of the two Trotskyists engaged in high level Comintern work at the time: Alfred Rosmer’s Lenin’s Moscow (3), and Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary (4), who both focus on power struggles among the Russian leadership resulting in no attention being given to events in Germany, and see Brandler, Thalheimer and Radek as scapegoats.
It was during October 1923 that Trotsky opened up his attacks on the triumvirs over the situation in Russia and the bureaucratisation inside the party, and as newly published material in the USSR shows, Trotsky’s ‘demontage’ (demolition) began in the same month. (5) In his contribution towards Aufstieg und Zerfall der Komintern a series of essays on the rise and fall of the Comintern, Wladislaw Hedeler refers to recently published documents from the literary remains of Stalin’s secretary Bashanov verifying this. (6) As Thalheimer points out, the October 1923 events became, mixed up in the growing Trotsky debate. He mentions the speech by Radek making threats against the Russian CC majority if they should turn against Trotsky. Thalheimer saw that speech as the signal for Zinoviev initiating a change in the line of ECCI over its evaluation of Brandler’s CC and its decision to make a retreat.
In K.H. Tjaden’s study of the KPD-O (7), he says that Thalheimer is mistaken, and that Zinoviev’s letter came before Radek’s speech. However, that small detail is not of significance, and Tjaden sees Zinoviev, the figure really responsible for the outcome of events in Germany, as seeking to shift the blame, to hit at Trotsky through Radek, who in turn was allied with Brandler-Thalheimer,and thus avoid the KPD lining up with Trotsky, while at the same time winning allies among the ultra-left critics of Brandler’s CC majority in the KPD.
Thalheimer’s talk of panic in the Russian leadership caused by Zinoviev is likely to be the case. He had his own agents within the CP leaderships reporting to him. Any danger of a finger pointing in his direction would be cause for white-washing and scapegoating as is common in all institutions. The acknowledged Russian expert on the Comintern archives Friedrich Firsov, in his contribution to Aufstieg und Zerfall … quotes from the letter to the ECCI presidium and the RCP(B) CC of 23.12.1923, from the Polish CP CC, in which it places responsibility for the German defeat on the ECCI, voices its concern over the methods of the struggle inside the RCP(B), expresses its support for Trotsky without taking any position on the disputed issues, and proposed to put ‘the crisis in the RCP(B)’ on the agenda of the next ECCI plenum (pp.39-40). Apparently Amadeo Bordiga also blamed the ECCI for the defeat in Germany.
An article in Sozialismus No.2, 1993, on the internal struggles in the KPD during the 1920s, and the Comintern role therein, based on the documents newly studied from its archives, by Theodor Bergmann and Alexander Watlin (the latter is a pupil of Firsov and also contributes to Aufstieg und Zerfall) deals with the October events and describes them as being above all an idea of the CPSU summit which, after the illness and political absence of V.I. Lenin, wanted to strengthen its position through world-revolutionary activities’. ‘Victory has many fathers, defeats none’, they remind us, and the intention of being father to the victory in Germany played a not unimportant role with Lenin’s successors’, but ‘immediately after the defeat both in the CPSU and in the Comintern, the search to establish its paternity began’. Those who would be designated as responsible could then be labelled “rightists”, while the Comintern lurched into a frenzy of ultra-leftism.
Trotsky set out his analysis of the German defeat in Lessons of October, and kept to the fundamentals of it in every published text, although his original opposition to scapegoating the KPD CC majority and his pointing the finger at Zinoviev, gradually degenerated into describing Brandler and his associates as Social Democrats. Unwittingly, as Thalheimer points out, he provided a theoretical basis for the ultra-leftism which, until then had been unable to develop anything beyond assertions. In the belief of the translator, Trotsky’s arguments illustrate his tendency towards subjectivism which emerged again and again later. Practically this reflects itself in voluntarism, a characteristic common to the Fourth Internationalist movement. The contributions of other communist figures quoted by Thalheimer in regard to Trotsky’s methods are, it seems to me, pertinent in a study of Trotskyism.
If Trotsky’s published position on the German October never changed fundamentally, his private one seems to have done so (worth noting is the fact that although promising his German adherents a counter-balance sheet to the KPO one, it never emerged) according to the minutes of the meeting between him and SAP leader Jakob Walcher, in August 1933. These minutes, as well as containing a report of Walcher’s talks with dissident communist and left socialist parties and groupings in many European countries over establishing a new international centre to rival the degenerate ones, discusses differences with Trotsky’s ILO, among them its evaluation of the 1923 events. In them Trotsky declares his complete agreement with Walcher, asserting that he had not seen the retreat in October as the decisive fault, but the bad policy of the KPD CC and the ECCI earlier in that year. Readers must judge for themselves, but it appears that he is making an adjustment in his opinions. At present however, they must consult the French text published in Oeuvres, Vol.2, as although these very important minutes were known at the time, they were not included in the two supplementary volumes of Trotsky’s Writings, published by Pathfinder Press, New York 1979. A possible explanation for both the non-appearance of Trotsky’s balance sheet of 1923, and the minutes of the discussion with Walcher is, that his adherents in Germany originated from the ultra-left factions, as did those in some other countries, who did uphold the view that an uprising should have been launched in October 1923, just as the Trotskyist organisations do today.
August Thalheimer, author of the pamphlet presented here, is one of the major theoreticians of the Communist movement, yet today in Britain his name is obscure, largely linked to bygone polemics as a villain. As far as is know, the only writings of his in print here today are three texts on fascism in Marxists in Face of Fascism, by David Beetham (8), and his Notes on a Stay in Catalonia, in Revolutionary History Vol.4, No.1 & 2. His writings were available in oppositional Communist publications in the 1930s, and in the early 1920s, could be found in official CPGB and Comintern publications. Among them are analyses and in particular programmatic contributions.
In 1922, the KPD submitted a draft programme for the Comintern, written by Thalheimer, during the 4th Congress. Owing to sharp differences over the type of programme it was decided to delay adoption. Thalheimer insisted on the inclusion of transitional demands, which some saw as opportunism.. That view was rejected in a resolution adopted. (9) Whether an English translation was published by the Comintern is not known at this time, but the Contributions to a Programme of Action for Germany by Heinrich Brandler, can be found in the The Communist International Vol.5, Nos.3 & 4. This begins with a theoretical explanation and puts the struggle for workers control of production in the centre. It was jointly written by Brandler, Thalheimer and Leo Borochowicz, according to K.H. Tjaden. It became the rallying point for those desiring a strategy founded on transitional politics and a break from the inconsistency and leftist inclination of the Thälmann faction. Although drafted in 1927, it was suppressed until 1928. After 65 years hidden in the archives, Thalheimer’s critique of the draft programme for the 6th Congress of the Comintern has just resurfaced. (10).
Taking up ten points Thalheimer develops his fascism analysis, which is the longest section. He began this analysis in late 1922 and during 1923, seeing the Italian experience and the incipient Nazi movement in Germany. He introduced correction vis-a-vis the bourgeoisie and its use of the fascists after 1923. This analysis would be further elaborated in the KPD-O journal Gegen den Strom, following the expulsion of the “right” in late 1928 and early 1929. The text On fascism, whose torso is found in Marxists in Face of Fascism … is basically the section on fascism from Programmatische Fragen. The weakest section, in Thalheimer’s eyes, is on strategy and tactics, where he argues for, and explains the concept of, transitional demands. In the next section he does the same regarding partial demands. these ideas are set out in detail in the Platform der KPD(O), (1930), adopted after extensive discussions among the KPO membership, but it is necessary anyway to translate Programmatische Fragen into English, in order to set the historical record straight.
As well as delivering one of the major analyses of fascism and his programmatic contributions, Thalheimer can probably be considered as the theoretical exponent of the United Front par excellence. Brandler is rightly seen as the “father of the United Front” (11), usually through his action in Chemnitz during the Kapp Putsch, but K.H. Tjaden, in his research established that “the Stuttgart Demands” were formulated, after an exchange of opinions with Brandler and Walcher, by the Württemberg District Committee, whose secretary was Hans Tittel. (12) After the struggle for these demands took off, Levi recommended by Radek, drafted them into the famous Open Letter of January 1921, the first United Front campaign by the Communist movement.
Thalheimer was Editor in Chief of Rote Fahne & and the theoretical journal Die Internationale at that time, until the downfall of the ’right’ after 1923. The United Front as wielded by the KPD at that time was a product of that group of old Spartacists moulded politically by Rosa Luxemburg, and she was the source of their understanding. Luxemburg’s interpretation of Marxism. But if these concepts were common to them, they arose from a similar methodology, the duo Brandler-Thalheimer – the man of action and the thinker – were the major exponents.
The adopted positions on the Workers Government at the Comintern’s 4th Congress, emerged out of the arguments inside the KPD, between ultra-lefts and the ’right’. From the Kapp Putsch to the events in 1923, all these tactics were being put into practice (Thalheimer lost his head for a while around the ’March Action’, theorising a ’revolutionary offensive’). In his pamphlet Wie Schafft die Arbeiterklasse die Einheitsfront gegen den Faschismus? (1932), Thalheimer gives a ten page compressed historical account of the struggle for a United Front from the Open Letter to the 1923 events to remind or tell KPD members what the party was capable of earlier, in an attempt to convince them of the necessity against the Nazi threat. We hope to publish our translation of it, which should enlighten everyone who reads it.
August Thalheimer was born on the 18th March 1884 in Affaltrach, Württemberg, of Jewish origins. He studied at a number of universities, became adept at various languages and became a Doctor of Philosophy in 1907. He had already established links with the SPD left around Fritz Westmeyer, including Clara Zetkin. In 1910 he joined the SPD. Talent-spotted by Rosa Luxemburg, he edited a number of SPD newspapers. At the outbreak of war in l9l4 he joined the group around Liebknecht and Luxemburg. He wrote in the first issue of Internationale and participated in the first national conference of the Spartacists on 1st January 1916. His sister Bertha and Ernst Meyer represented the group at Zimmerwald in 1915. Thaiheimer was conscripted in 1916 and after being wounded at the front was employed as a translator. He returned to Stuttgart in the autumn of 1918. On the 6th November 1918 he published the first edition of Rote Fahne in Stuttgart. The day after he was arrested and gaoled.
Without his knowledge he was named as Finance Minister by the USPD in the Württemberg provisional government, a post he declined, refusing to join the ’government socialists’. Was active in the Stuttgart Workers and Soldiers Council. Member of Spartakusbund leadership, then KPD whose founding conference he attended. From then on he operated in Berlin at his political-theoretical posts.
During the life of the KPD-0, Thalheimer continued that activity with Gegen den Strom, the Arbeiterpolitik which went daily in 1930 until 1932, and international publications. From 1933 he first went to Strasbourg then to Paris, where the KPD-O and IVKO established their centre. With the start of the Second World War he was interned, but in 1941 succeeded in reaching Cuba. Gradually he and Brandler renewed links with a few comrades in exile, and planned the re-establishing of their grouping in the post-war. Political analyses were sent, with great difficulty, into Germany, once links were established with survivors.
In 1945 Thalheimer wrote his analysis of the Potsdam Agreement and its consequences for the working class (Die Potsdamer Beschlüsse) in which an independent class position is set out. (13) 1n 1946 fol1owed Grundlinien und Grundbegriffe der Weltpolitik nach dem Weltkrieg, where he again analysed the situation from the independent class viewpoint. Both texts are available today from Gruppe Arbeiterpolitik.
Though trying to return to Germany, both Brandler and Thalheimer were prevented from so doing by the Allied authorities, although the former succeeded in reaching London in 1947, where he stayed until 1949, developing a close relationship with Isaac and Tamara Deutscher. Thalheimer died in Cuba on 19th September 1948.
Those wishing to learn more can turn to my key sources:
Struktur und Funktion der KPD-Opposition (KPO), K.H. Tjaden, Meisenheim/Glan, 1964, which emerges in reprint from time to time; and Theodor Bergmann, Gegen den Strom – Die Geschichte der Kommunistischen-Partei-Opposition, VSA, Hamburg 1987, as well as the numerous pamphlets and other more substantial items, including the analyses of fascism, kept in print by the Arbeiterpolitik group.
1. History of the International, Julius Braunthal Vol.2, Thomas Nelson, London 1967.
2. From Comintern to Cominform, Penguin Books 1975.
3. Alfred Rosmer, Lenin’s Moscow Pluto, London 1971.
4. Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary 1901-1941, OUP, London 1963.
5. Aufstieg und Zerfall der Komintern, Eds. Theodor Bergmann and Mario Kessler, Podium Progressiv, Mainz, 1992.
6. ibid. see p.105, note 22,
7. K.H.Tjaden, Struktur und Funktion der KPD-Opposition, Vol. 2,1964. pp.1 13 114, note 1.2.11
8. Marxists in Face of Fascism, David Beetham, Manchester University Press, 1983.
9. The Communist International 1919-1943, Documents, Ed. Jane Degras, Vol.1, Cass 1971, pp.445-446).
10. Programmatische Fragen, A.Thalheimer, Decaton, Mainz 1993.
11. Zinoviev during the post-mortem on 1923 in International Communism in the Era of Lenin, ed. H.Gruber, 1972, Anchor Books, Garden City New York 1972, p.391.
12. Struktur und … Vol.2, pp.90-91, note 1.1.80.
13. Oskar Hippe quotes approvingly from it in … Red Is The Colour of Our Flag, Index 1991, on p.278.
1923: A MISSED OPPORTUNITY?
THE GERMAN OCTOBER LEGEND AND THE REAL HISTORY OF 1923
In 1923 the conditions were absolutely ripe for a victorious proletarian revolution but the then leadership of the KPD, with Brandler at its head, prevented this revolutionary victory. At first sight this view appears so fantastical and frivolous that a seems odd to be bothered about it today. But this view, known as the October Legend, is still today the official view of the Communist Party of Germany. It is hammered into the young party members as dogma, which they accept out of faith and trust, without suspecting that it is a historical legend, invented for the purpose of explaining away and supporting a erroneous KPD tactic. it is a historical legend, which has prevented the Party, and thus the working class, from abandoning a disastrous course and which has prevented any criticism of the KPD from being as effective in degree and tempo, as it otherwise would surely have been.
For that reason, the questions of the tactics and strategy of the KPD in 1923 are, alas, still highly relevant today. Or to be precise today, when the leadership of the KPD is making, in a more intensified form, the errors for which the October legend of 1923 provides an ideological refuge, they are more relevant than ever.
The official October legend is by now eight years old. In the meantime it has almost become canonical. It is one of the most important mainstays of the ultra-left policy. The ultra-left legend helps the real ultra-left orientation. And now, entangled together, they both mutually support one another. Whenever the October legend is encountered, ultra-left policies are met, and whenever the ultra-left action strikes, the legend strikes. As both originated jointly together and have sustained each other, so they will jointly collapse. But the longer the legend and the ultra-left policy flowing from it last, so much the greater will be the danger that the collapse of the revolutionary working class in Germany, which in 1923 was only a legend, will become bitter reality.
After the Reichstag elections on 14th September 1930, Pravda wrote that the KPD had never been so close to power as now. A greater self-deception cannot be imagined. Objectively, during the last two years the conditions for the victory of communism in Germany have been unusually favourable. Subjectively however, the KPD has never been so remotely distant from the possibility of a victory. Just as it has never been so far from, and for so long a period, genuine Communist politics, so it has never possessed such a leadership – wholly inept in every respect.
In 1923, a Communist victory was prevented primarily by the timely concessions of the bourgeoisie and only secondarily by errors of the Party and its leadership. But even if the KPD was not capable of achieving victory itself, it was capable of preventing the victory of fascism.
It was able to do this by virtue of the generally correct policies which it pursued up to August 1923, and, with the retreat in October, the timely and determined corrections of its own mistakes which it undertook.
If the ultra-left policy of the Party is carried on further – and, when the Party and the Executive of the Communist International perceive a triumph for this line in the election success of 14th September, the prospect of this not happening is extremely poor – then the way is open for the victory of fascism. And that means a real, severe and long lasting defeat of the workers movement and the Party. Then a new legend will have to be created which will prove that the Executive has always been correct and new ‘guilty’ people will have to be found.
But we believe that the first precondition for a Communist Party and leadership, which understands how to conquer, is that it rejects all legend-making and really starts to learn. As long as this learning from its own history has not begun, the Party, and with it the working class, instead of progressing will only permanently go in circles, and the result will always be new and successively greater defeats. The working class will forgive the Party any infantile sickness at its birth. It will not forgive it if it remains stuck in babyhood and childhood feebleness. And if the Party does not want to learn, then the class enemy will learn in its stead.
Today the KPD leadership wrongly quotes 1923 to confirm its crude and dangerous deviations on the national question. In 1923, in spite of individual mistakes and exaggerations, the Party had, on the whole, understood very well how to reject and thwart nationalist ideology. Today we see the opposite phenomenon, the distorting and thwarting of communist ideology by the nationalist one. Finally, we see how, after 10 years the infantile disorder on the trade union question which was understandable and which was overcome 10 years ago, has been raised to the official doctrine of the Party, the Communist International and the Red International of Labour Unions.
In a essay on Jena, Mehring quotes the words of Engels: “A great army, as any other great social organisation is never better than after a great defeat, when it repents and does penance for its past sins.” Whereas the opposite, constant repetition and eulogising of past sins, in spite of more and more partial failures and partial defeats, the delusion which insists very precisely that black is white, that leads directly to – Jena.
Anyone today who impartially examines the state of the Party which has the task of leading the working class to the proletarian revolution, will have no doubt that it does not exhibit the image of the Prussian army after Jena.
The following account is the text of one of the lectures on October 1923 which I have frequently made during the last two years. Of course within the framework of a lecture only a outline can be developed. I hope soon to have the opportunity of submitting a more detailed exposition.
Berlin, 15th February, 1931,
THE 1923 LEGEND
1. WHY MUST THE ISSUES OF 1923 BE EXPLAINED?
Why is it still necessary to explain the 1923 events and the tactics and strategy of the Party at this time? Not primarily to defend or to justify the then leadership of the Party. That is not a very noble aim. it is not worth engaging in a long discussion about it. What Brandler, Thalheimer and so on, who were then among those participating in the Party leadership, had shown of leadership qualities, is not a question of great significance. The main purpose of such a discussion can only be to draw out the real lessons for the proletarian revolution by examining the mistakes made by the Party in 1923. It is often repeated that we, the then leadership of the Party, are not willing to admit that serious mistakes were made. That is absolutely not the case. Such an opinion could only arise because a series of, in part, detailed declarations, which we made to the CC of the Party in the years 1923, 1924, 1925, 1926 and still later, were not brought to the attention of party members and as the latter were not told they must think that we admit to no mistakes at all. That is not so. But it does concern finding out which type of mistakes were made and which lessons from the future can be drawn from them. This is the nub of the question. The events of 1923 have a general significance in so far as the questions of strategy and tactics involved are not unique questions but general issues of strategy and tactics of the proletarian revolution which are contained within them.
Hence it follows that we will not get clarity on questions about the communist movement in Germany until these questions, which do not just concern the past, have been fully explained. That, through the hitherto existing discussions, it has been neither formally or factually explained is best illustrated by the fact that, later on in Germany, the lessons which were drawn from the events of that year, were in fact the conclusions of Ruth Fischer and Maslow – and this, the ultra-left line, almost led to the break-up of the Party. The first open letter addressed to the German Party in 1925 by the Executive of the Communist International is spot-on in examining the failure of Ruth Fischer’s and Maslow’s ultra-left line and in liquidating and clearing it up, but it protected the legend fabricated over 1923. It was stated then that it was not the left that was bankrupt but some left leaders. And thus it was possible to break some of the worst leaders from the line, to liquidate some of the crudest practices but then a new exaggerated relapse into the ultra-left line followed.
This second relapse, which we are still seeing today, is the empirical evidence that shows that without a genuine clarification of the 1923 events, that is the direction of the proletarian revolution in Germany, then a secure, clear and solid deployment of the Party cannot be attained. One cannot fool history. It is not possible to arrive at a clear and definite balance through little tricks and legends. The account must be settled in full.
2. OF WHAT DOES THE LEFT OCTOBER LEGEND CONSIST?
We now ask what the October legend, on which from 1924 onwards the ultra-left line was built, comprises and which, today, still underpins this ultra-left line and frightens off Party members from listening to our arguments since the question of 1923 is brought up repeatedly. The content of this ultra~left legend can be summed up in a few words. The core of the case is the claim that 1923 was comparable with 1917 in Russia, that is that objective conditions in Germany were just as ripe as in 1917 Russia. If the revolution conquered in Russia then it was thanks to the leadership of the Party through its Central Committee headed by Lenin. If the victory did not occur in 1923 it was because no such party and no such leadership existed at the time, that the leadership both made clumsy mistakes, was not sufficiently alert or “missed” the revolutionary moment – or even betrayed it. Such was the left legend.
Moreover in addition the then Party leadership was accused of betrayal, neglect and idiocies which prevented the otherwise objectively ripe revolution – all arising from its opportunist attitude. The tactics and leadership in 1923 were the natural and necessary result of its opportunist attitude, which it had demonstrated in previous years. What was stressed as the essence of this “Opportunist attitude” was first, the United Front tactic, as carried out by the then Party leadership and Party. It was declared erroneous and opportunist. In part this was direct since the United Front was absolutely rejected but in part it was stated that the United Front “from below”, – whatever that might mean – was permissible but that the United Front “from above” was wrong because it was opportunist. It was also stated that the leadership of the Party then had imagined that power could be conquered in a government coalition with Social Democracy. The evidence for this was the coalitions with Social Democracy in Saxony and Thuringia that we had entered.
According to the left legend the third opportunist crime was that we thought that the trade unions could be won to Communist ideas from within. In the spring of 1924 the left comrades went around the country declaring far and wide that the slogan of winning over the Trade Unions was erroneous. This went so far that Maslow declared at a conference in Moscow in January 1924 that the slogan of winning over the trade unions should be rejected and replaced with the call for the destruction of the Trade unions! The practical consequences drawn by Maslow and the other ultra-lefts from their evaluation of the opportunism of the previous leadership are the following, that first that the United Front tactic had to be abandoned. This was done and entitled the ‘United Front from below’. Under the mask of ‘United Front from below’ the United Front was totally abandoned because, by this, it was understood that proletarian organisations, Trade Unions as well as the lower level organisations of Social Democracy, did not have to be approached. In this conception of ‘United Front from below’ attempts were to be made to win Social Democratic, Christian and other workers directly to joint action with the Communist Party without regard to their organisational affiliations.
If that is a United Front, how simple it would be. But the particular problem of the Communist Party in Germany, and in a number of other countries, consists precisely in resolving the question that when there exist two tendencies in the workers’ movements, how, in spite of their fundamental differences, joint working class action can be achieved. How can the workers, involved in their partial struggles, be brought together? Where only one party dominates the workers movement, as was the case before the war, this situation does not arise at all. It is a specific problem of the post-war period that cannot be disposed of by ignoring it.
Furthermore the conclusion was drawn that only total solutions must be advanced: the “organisation of the revolution” – something totally misunderstood too. These ultra-left conclusions reacted quite disastrously on trade union work. I have already mentioned Maslow’s proposals for the destruction of the trade unions’ at a conference in Moscow during January 1924. It is very characteristic that a man like Tomsky, for many years the leader of the Russian Trade Unions, at first accepted this slogan. That showed that he had no real idea of the conditions for struggle of the Trade Unions in the West. This crude formulation was later corrected, but, even then, such loopholes remained that it was possible for quite some time to follow an ultra-left trade union line and to move to the creation of new separate trade unions. The formula, ”organisation of the unorganised,” provided an opportunity for this. The result was that the influence of the Party in the trade unions, which had reached a high point in 1923, declined continuously and was almost destroyed.
Yet another conclusion drawn from 1923 was that, only in 1924, with the appearance of Maslow and Ruth Fischer was ‘Bolshevisation’ started. Everything done by the Party until then, even during the stormy revolutionary years of 1918-1923 and the war as well, had been, according to the left legend, more or less opportunism. The real Bolshevisation only began in 1924.
Hence the further conclusion was drawn that the older party cadre had to be expelled and the Party had to be based on the younger cadre which had not had the unhappy experience of going through the Spartakusbund. This ‘Bolshevisation’ led to the establishment of an authoritarian regime in the Party, to the suffocation of any free discussion and to the lack of any control over the leadership by the members. This was considered ‘Bolshevist’ until the 1925 Open Letter of the Executive of the Communist International demanded the “normalisation of Party life” and characterised the party regime introduced by Fischer and Maslow (though with the aid and toleration of that same Executive) as a caricature of the essence and requirements of a Communist Party. These are the practical effects of the left legend concerning the 1923 events, the politics of the then party leadership and the opportunist sins that led to such politics. When such practical consequences are displayed, it can be implicitly deduced that the theoretical basis from which these consequences flowed is not a firm one.
3. THE RISE OF THE LEFT OCTOBER LEGEND
How did this legend arise? For this I must quote from some documents, some facts which will throw light on the methods of the leadership of the Communist international. The facts were either unknown to most comrades until now or have been in part forgotten. Therefore they must be quoted again. First then I must mention the fact that until December 1923, that is well after the October retreat, the then leader of the Communist International, Zinoviev, had repeatedly declared both in speech and writing that the tactics agreed by the KPD in 1923 were essentially correct. Implicitly this was the view put forward in a series of articles in Pravda which was then published in Germany under the title, Probleme der deutschen Revolution, which, after October, were distributed throughout Germany. I want to quote one passage from it. Here, Zinoviev says the following about the tactics chosen by the German Party leadership in 1923:
During 1923 it did not succeed in winning over the majority of the working class to struggle for power by means of the United Front. But this is a partial truth for without the previous success gained through the United Front tactic, the question of taking power in 1923 could not even have been raised. If the Party only had the influence in the Metal Workers or other unions that it had under Ruth Fischer or has today, no-one would have dared to do so. Only because of the colossal progress that we made using this tactic was it at all possible to raise the question. Now I want to quote yet another witness, who – after October too – intervened to agree that the tactics and strategy of the then Party leadership had been basically correct. This witness is Hermann Remmele. The quotation is taken from the statement made by Remmele at a meeting of the German comrades with the Executive Committee (of the CI) on 11th January 1924. What Hermann Remmele said on that occasion is as follows:
This passage can be found in the pamphlet Die Lehren der deutschen Ereigneisse, pp.40-44. It was Hermann Remmele who said that in January 1924 with the immediate experience of 1923 behind him.
A change first occurred – as can be established in the documents – in the Executive’s evaluation of the tactics of the German Party in December 1923. Only subsequently have we been able to find out the precise date and the reasons for this change. How did the change come about? How was it that Zinoviev and the Executive, which until then had approved of the tactics in substance, made a 180 degree change of course. The context was the following: on the 13th December – if I do not err – comrade Radek gave a speech in a large Party gathering in Moscow where he intervened in the then growing Trotsky debate when he declared that, if the majority of the Russian CC turned against Trotsky, then not only he but the leaderships of the French and German parties, that is the main parties in the West, would turn against the Russian CC majority. That was on the 13th December.
A few days later Zinoviev sent a letter to the leadership of the German Party in which he completely changed course and opened up a violent attack against it. In this way there began the general witch-hunt against the leadership. The real reason for the turn was a panic in the leadership of the Russian party caused by Zinoviev because he took seriously Radek’s assertion that the German Party leadership would back Trotsky against the Russian majority. That was the cause of the turn. The story had nothing at all to do with any event in Germany, France or the Comintern as such. It was simply the result of a manoeuvre in the internal Russian factional struggle. We only heard of Radek’s speech very much later. As we, at the 5th Congress, first heard about the real reason for the turn in Moscow, the campaign, the bombardment was in full swing and Maslow and Co had been unleashed. The peculiar thing about it was that Radek’s assertion was a total invention. Nobody had authorised him to say that we would back Trotsky if he was attacked. When we first heard about the dispute with Trotsky we said that we would have to have more facts about the basis of the dispute before we made up our minds. As soon as something was known about it I wrote an article in Die Internationale which was opposed to Trotsky’s ideas. Therefore it was not even our genuine view about the internal Russian factional struggle but an imaginary one.
4. THE HIGH POINT OF THE OCTOBER LEGEND
It was the perfidious letter from Zinoviev mentioned above, which followed Radek’s speech, which introduced the turn. The fact that Clara Zetkin and Wilhelm Pieck were both asked where they stood on the October 1923 retreat and whether or not it was correct, was even more typical. Previously the Executive had always claimed that it was correct. Now Zinoviev started to oil out of it. Despite repeated requests he refused to put down anything in writing about it. As a result the ultra-left legend was given the green light. Since there was no official decision to the contrary, Maslow could claim that this retreat was wrong, had been a betrayal and had ruined the revolution. This conclusion was drawn by Maslow and Ruth Fischer in the crudest and most insane way. At the Rhineland-Westphalia district Congress on 6th March 1924, in the presence of Ruth Fischer, a resolution was submitted which said on this point:
Reading these things in cold blood one can only wonder how a party majority, how an Executive, could accept such total nonsense. In effect it is saying that we were totally unprepared for the struggle, the decisive battle, but, in spite of that, the showdown had to be attempted in October – such an assertion is completely contradictory but it is swallowed whole. In Germany that was the high-point of the legend. It attained its highest point in Russia a series of speeches by Trotsky. One of them was made in Tiflis. In this his intention was not to take aim at the majority of the leadership of the German Party but he wanted to demonstrate the following – that the revolution was not victorious in Germany in 1923 because we had at the head of the International not Lenin but the opportunist Zinoviev. He wanted in other words to strike at Zinoviev, at that time his bitterest enemy and who, with Kamenev and Stalin, were waging the fight against him. As part of this dispute Trotsky published a text, Lessons of October, in which he set down his detailed view, first of the Russian October of 1917 and then of the German October of 1923. And here can be found the October legend in its bluntest, and if one can use the term, classical form. The passage to be considered is as follows:
“Point 2. Germany. the question of the defeat of the German proletariat in October is even more interesting. In the second half of last year we saw there a classical demonstration of the fact that a quite extraordinarily favourable revolutionary situation of world historical significance can be missed.”
That was in fact the lesson. An ‘extraordinarily favourable revolutionary situation’ had been missed because of the leadership and, by this, Trotsky meant, primarily the leadership of the Comintern.
5. THE START OF THE REVISION OF THE OCTOBER LEGEND
But now at this point, both ideas and public statements in official circles in both Germany and Russia underwent a change. This involved, in opposition to Trotsky, an attempt to show that both his conception of the Russian October 1917 as well as the German October 1923 was quite wrong and there was a concern as to whether it was correct that, the objective conditions for revolution in Germany in 1923 as asserted by Maslow, tolerated by Zinoviev and sharpened by Trotsky, had been present, as they had in Russia during October 1917. From now on this idea started to be revised in official circles – the left legend had to be changed. I want to quote here some particularly suggestive passages but by no means the only ones. Let me mention first some statements by comrade Bukharin from an article on the Lessons of October in a Pravda feuilleton:
So Bukharin wrote against Trotsky in 1925 and note well that it was the same Bukharin who, together with the majority of the Politburo and the majority of the Russian CC, had led the struggle against Trotsky at the time. Then Kuusinen, the present Comintern secretary, followed by Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife and finally Stalin intervened in the debate on the revision of the October legend. in an article attacking Trotsky, Kuusinen said: “It must here be added that whether such moments did or did not exist, not only Trotsky, but also Maslow and other comrades, ignored a possible army of millions on the side of the revolution.”
Attacking Trotsky, Krupskaya said:
Here comrade Krupskaya also stresses that it is essential to examine and establish the objective circumstances and the relative class forces in October 1923 and not the subjective factors stressed by Trotsky. Lastly I want to quote some remarks by Stalin which, if not directly, are at any rate closely linked to this and which he made to comrade Wilhelm Hertzog who asked him about the conditions for a proletarian revolution in a country like Germany. What Stalin said then throws a very clear light on the process of how the question should be correctly posed and on the question of what the conditions for a revolution in Germany are. Stalin said:
What Stalin says here is that a lasting solid victory of the Communist Party and the proletarian revolution is only possible when the Social Democratic Party has been reduced to an insignificant minority, and when the great mass of workers uniformly follow the Communist leadership already. If this question, of whether the Social Democratic Party had been reduced to an insignificant minority, is asked in respect of 1923, then it must be totally rejected. This was absolutely not the case.
With the revision of the left October legend, a process was begun but not finished and therefore we must deal directly with the questions posed by comrade Krupskaya: the question of the objective class forces, that of the relative strengths and influence of the KPD and SDP and that of the real factors influencing events.
2. THE CLASS FORCES IN RUSSIA IN 1917 COMPARED WITH GERMANY IN 1923
Fundamentally we must examine in outline the question as to whether the objective situation in Germany in 1923 could be compared with that of Russia in 1917 as far the conditions for a revolution were concerned. If the main elements of Russia in 1917 are contrasted with those in Germany in 1923 then fundamental differences observed. What were the main factors which favoured the October Revolution of 1917?
First the war question. The great mass of workers and peasants wanted peace and the end of imperialist war. There was no other party except the Bolsheviks ready to enforce peace, to break off the imperialist war and to give up the alliance with the Entente. It soon became clear that the Bolsheviks were the only ones for peace. This was a great boost for them. Millions had to back peace and to do so that had to back the Bolsheviks as it turned out that there was no other political force than them which wanted to struggle for this demand.
Second the land reform question. The peasants wanted the landlords’ land. For years the Social Revolutionaries had promised the peasants the land. But as the peasants did not wait for the Constituent Assembly but chased away the landlords, seized the land and cultivated it, everyone turned against them. Kerensky sent out military expeditions to recover the land. The Bolsheviks alone represented the standpoint of the peasants and said that it was right to immediately occupy the land and supported the peasants in so doing. The peasants, that is the overwhelming majority of the Russian people, saw their interests here represented by the Bolsheviks. Then this affected the workers. In Russia during 1917 the stage was reached when the supply of food to the towns failed. Factories were shut down in order to try to break the power of the workers’ councils. From this situation, not out of any theoretical reflections but out of necessity, the idea spread among the Russian workers of wanting to restart the factories and supply them with raw materials. The idea of’ Workers Control of production’ developed. The struggle over this logically evolved into the idea that the factories had to be confiscated from the employers. But this demand too, for the confiscation of the capitalist employers, was only put forward by the Bolsheviks.
The national question was a further driving force of the revolution. Here also the Bolsheviks were alone in representing the idea of complete national self-determination which embraced secession from the Great Russians. All the other parties that had previously represented the idea of national liberation turned against it when the time came for its realisation as when, for example, the Finns wanted to be independent. Only the Bolsheviks were consistent on this issue. A not unimportant circumstance is that, in Russia at the time, the army consisted of conscripts, the overwhelming majority peasants and workers, who wanted the land, the landlords’ land, and peace and a decisive majority of whom rallied to the Bolsheviks. So the question of power, of the proletarian revolution in Russia, was simple to resolve inasmuch as the decisive military forces in Petrograd, Moscow and other centres went over to the Bolsheviks.
The problem that we faced in 1923, and which faces us again today, that of arming the workers, did not really exist at all in 1917. The key regiments in Petrograd went over to the Bolsheviks. The armed struggle there was very slight. In Moscow it was harder. In the last analysis the fact that the key military forces, the great majority of those in possession of arms, stood behind the Bolsheviks meant that the victory of the October Revolution was very easy. Lenin never tired of stressing how easy that victory had been. He repeatedly stressed how the revolution spread through the country in triumph, how it swept away everything before it in a few weeks and months while the great majority of the people stood behind it. This was particularly obvious when the foreign powers appeared to organise and support the counter-revolutionary forces.
If we examine it in detail the picture of the motor forces of the German Revolution of 1923 is quite different. The first question, that of the war, was that in 1917 the Bolsheviks could appear as the peace party – the party the masses hoped would give them peace. But what about 1923? There was no bloody war as in 1917. The Ruhr War was only a pretend war. Britain and France were armed but Germany limited itself to passive resistance. But this Ruhr war oppressed the population and they were weary of it so it played a significant role in developing the forces which were brought about by the end of this struggle. But it was not us but the bourgeoisie which foresaw growing danger in the continuation of this struggle and, after getting an understanding with the French capitalists, broke it off. Then there is the question of the international situation in 1917 as compared with 1923. In Russia in 1917 the revolutionary forces could develop without being checked by external forces – that is by German imperialism. The Central Powers saw the Bolshevik revolution assisting their aims. The Entente was unable to intervene. In Germany in 1923 the situation was totally different. At that time it was above all both Britain and the USA which had a direct and indirect interest in supporting the German bourgeoisie against an approaching revolution. Britain wanted to counter France with a strong bourgeois Germany. The USA was interested in supporting them and thus getting back the money that it had invested there. Above all the USA must have feared that a victorious revolution in Germany in the autumn of 1923 meant grave danger to the whole of European bourgeois society. So the USA and Britain intervened against the proletarian revolution to help the German bourgeoisie.
I will later set out in more detail the facts that are important here. The most important economic motor of the revolution was the inflation or the depreciation of money. This caused conditions which increasingly upset the population. But in Germany this economic crisis was solved by the bourgeoisie itself and resulted in the stabilisation of the currency. Here it gave concessions which weakened the revolutionary forces by splitting the forces within the working class between those who wanted to take up the fight for power and those who wanted a few small adjustments to alleviate the immediate situation and who were inclined to renounce the fight for power. As a result of these concessions on inflation and the Ruhr war the working class was split and the Communist Party did not succeed in getting the majority of the working class behind it as the Bolsheviks had done in Russia during 1917.
Then there is the question of the armed forces. This too was wholly different in the Russia of 1917 from the Germany of 1923. We had no general conscription in Germany but the Reichswehr, not only by its size, but above all by its class composition, was constituted quite differently. In Russia the great bulk of the army was made up of peasants, whereas the Reichswehr was made up of socially backward elements in its ranks and trustworthy reactionaries and counter-revolutionaries in its leadership. In no way could it be said that the Reichswehr reflected the true class composition in the country. The Reichswehr is a class army in the reactionary sense. What did the Reichswehr do in 1923? It stood firm and stayed totally controlled by its leadership. We did get a series of reports that some symptoms of disaffection existed in the Reichswehr and even today many comrades still base their expectations of what would have happened on these reports. But we learnt later that these reports had been intentionally leaked to us by the Reichswehr leadership to mislead us.
Naturally the peasant masses did not play the same numerical role here as they did in Russia in 1917 and still do today. That was very closely linked to the inflation and its effect on the peasantry or a large part of it. The inflation had affected the peasantry in such a way that the majority were better off because of it. They had used the inflation to get rid of their mortgage debt which had been reduced to ridiculously low sums by it. A second factor that favoured the peasants during the inflation was the much greater fall in the prices of industrial products than in those of agricultural ones. That price-scissors benefited the peasants. In no way can it be said that the mass of the peasantry in Germany in 1923 became radicalised. They became worried in July and August when the inflation was on such a scale that the food supplies to the town stopped but became quite happy again when the currency stabilisation was introduced.
Thus if the decisive events which promoted the revolution in Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1923 are examined then the essence of these two situations is seen to be entirely different and all the decisive factors, which led in Russia to the support for us of the majority of the population, were not present in Germany.
THE REAL STORY OF 1923
1. THE EFFECT OF THE OCCUPATION OF THE RUHR.
After this general overview of the motor forces of the revolution in Russia in 1917 and the events in Germany in 1923, I come to a short description to the main events of 1923. This is all the more necessary as in any case during the whole discussion nobody in the Party took the trouble to explain the objective march of events and the economic conditions in 1923 and since then no-one has returned to these topics either.
First the question must be asked as to what were the effects of the Ruhr occupation and the inflation up to August. The effects were very different on the occupied and unoccupied areas. Germany had been split into two with contrasting political and economic conditions. In the occupied area the whole of heavy industry lay inert because of passive resistance. But that was quite an extraordinary state of affairs. Workers went on strike but with the consent of their German employers. They were praised as patriots for closing down the mines and steel works and so on. But not only that – they were paid for their time on strike. This was hardly a situation conducive to revolutionary consciousness – to strike and simultaneously to be paid by the bourgeoisie and even hailed as patriots for doing so!
The situation in the rest of Germany was such that the rising inflation led to growing pressure on wages. Real wages fell but, as can be seen from contemporary data, unemployment up to August 1923 was below the normal pre-war average. Unoccupied Germany experienced a sharp rise in production which was impelled by the export premium provided by inflation. This rise in production was made possible by the wholesale import of British coal which replaced the Ruhr production. Germany exported at dumping prices. I do not want to go into details but as far as a great many goods were concerned, exports in 1923 were higher than in 1922. A huge accumulation of capital occurred then. Wages had fallen below their value. The reduction of real wages to a fraction of ‘normal’ wages daily increased the poverty and want of the working class.
As far as the peasantry was concerned until July-August it did brilliant business because of the inflation and it got rid of its debt and acquired equipment and durable goods. Taxes more or less disappeared in the inflation. So in this period it was, apart from the working class, only the urban petty bourgeoisie which came under great pressure and endured colossal privations. These were the most important objective effects.
2. THE BEHAVIOUR OF THE PARTY UNTIL THE STRIKE AGAINST CUNO.
What did the Party do? In this situation it issued a series of partial slogans and partial demands. I mention the slogan of shifting the burden of the Ruhr struggle on to the bourgeoisie, the confiscation of tangible assets, control of production, the creation of control committees for commodity prices, which also occurred, the slogan of Workers Hundreds (Defence Squads eds.) and, as the unifying slogan, the workers government, which based on its own class organs, would carry out the workers’ demands.
For the unoccupied area the Party issued a ten point programme including the distribution of the Ruhr coal, 6 hour shifts, cost-of-living wage rises and a forced loan from the bourgeoisie. Of these slogans, only the one for Defence Hundreds really took off in the Ruhr. This was so successful that the Hundreds sprang up with great rapidity. The Party aimed for the struggle for power. And it prepared it correctly through partial slogans, transitional slogans and partial struggles appropriate to the situation. It avoided adventures such as the left proposal to occupy the enterprises in the Ruhr in face of French bayonets.
Thus things developed until the Cuno strike. This was the high point of the mass movement in 1923. At the time the Party had the illusion that it had initiated and led the Cuno strike. If the matter is examined, then it can be seen that the main cause was the breakdown in food supply, brought about by the acceleration of inflation.
How unready the working class was to take up the immediate fight for power during the Cuno strike is indicated by the fact that some relatively small measures were sufficient to bring the strike to an end and to check the movement. The result of the Cuno strike was the creation of a grand coalition with the entrance of the SPD into the government. And, as Remmele correctly said in January 1924, the entrance of the SPD into the government awakened new illusions amongst the workers. These were strengthened by a series of measures which alleviated the immediate want of the workers. First food supplies were secured. There was a supply of fats. One key measure undertaken was the introduction of gold-wages.
3. THE SPECULATIVE PLAN OF ACTION OF THE COMINTERN.
I now turn to the Comintern and to an evaluation of its intervention. The then leadership of the German Party has been accused of not realising at all the revolutionary effects the occupation of the Ruhr could produce. From the outset it had not considered the seizure of power, not “unrolled the question of power” as Ruth Fischer said. Of course in January we had already quite clearly seen the possibility of a revolutionary development arising from the Ruhr occupation, but also another possibility, namely, that it could result in a compromise between German and French capitalists, which was in fact the case. That was expressed in Rote Fahne, especially by Radek.
It is very interesting if one looks back on the position of the Executive, since in no way does it accord with what the upholders of the legend claim was the correct one. Not at all in January, not even in June, had it considered the revolutionary struggle for power. In June, there was a plenum session of the Executive. There was no talk of an impending revolutionary struggle in Germany. At the heart of the session was the question of Anglo-Russian tension, where Radek reported on the issue of the growing danger of war between Soviet Russia and Britain. Zinoviev, the president of the Communist International, made a report on the question of the united front tactic. Not even he considered the struggle for power as immediately on the agenda. In June 1923 then, the Comintern still saw the situation thus.
The leadership of the Russian Party and the Comintern first became aware of the problem through the appeal of the CC of 11th July for an Anti-Fascist Day and the campaign of the KPD for the Anti-Fascist Day on 29th July, which saw the call for a dictatorship unfolded through the German bourgeois press, and where the leadership of the German Party raised the question of arming the workers. The Executive first became aware of the question of the armed struggle by the Party and then by the working class in that way. That first set it in motion. What did it do about it? It summoned a conference in which the leading comrades from here participated, together with the Executive. Most of the Russian comrades were away when the conference was called. Brandler and others had already arrived in Moscow by the end of August. Plenty of time was allowed before opening the talks and in carrying them out. Seven weeks were spent in Moscow, drafting a plan of action for the revolution, while the events in Germany developed. in weeks of long negotiations a plan of action for the revolution was drafted, which was worked out in advance.
What was characteristic of the plan of action was that it was not drafted on the basis of the already existing facts but was drafted weeks and months in advance on the basis of a hypothesis about the events which ought or should occur in Germany in four to eight weeks time. In Russia, once the Bolsheviks had attained a majority in Leningrad, once they were already sure about the armed forces there, once Kerensky had been ruined, once the situation was ripe, then a date was set for the uprising in 1917. The plan of action for October 1923, was not based on such facts but on the hypothesis that the events in Germany from August on would take the same course as had occurred in Russia from August to October, that is, that in the meantime the Party would have attracted the majority of the population behind it, that in the meantime the workers would have armed themselves sufficiently and the enemy, in the meantime, would have become impotent and undermined. In Russia a plan for the uprising was fixed on the basis of real assumptions, but not weeks, as Trotsky says, but days beforehand. But in Germany it was fixed months beforehand. That is the decisive thing. The schema of October 1917 was transferred to Germany, without the facts being present – it was hypothetical!
A few more things relating to this must be mentioned. The entry into the Saxon government was not Brandler’s error, but resulted from a decision taken against Brandler’s opposition. Brandler opposed it arguing that the preconditions for this were not yet present amongst the workers. First concerned the creation of the preconditions for entering the government. He asked for a certain delay in order to create these preconditions in the factories. So it was put to him: if you believe in the revolution then you must carry this out. They appealed to his discipline. Moreover, the question was raised as to whether the factory councils could provide a base for the organs of power of the proletarian revolution. In Moscow it was decided that they could be substituted for the political workers councils. A wrong decision was made. The plan of action, after many weeks of deliberations, was now finished.
4. THE INTERVENTION OF THE BOURGEOISIE CHANGES THE SITUATION
Unfortunately, not only we, the revolutionary party, drafted plans of action, but so did the enemy. Not only that, it acted. Furthermore, the situation was such, that, after the plan of action was finished and the comrades had returned here to carry it out, the hypothetical situation upon which the plan was constructed had totally changed and in fact had turned into its opposite. The bourgeoisie had seized the initiative. The basis upon which the plan of action was built proved to be castles in the air. The bourgeoisie knew that it it did not actively intervene through concessions to the workers and compromises with French capitalism, then a real danger of revolution threatened it. But it did not let it passively approach but in the shortest time it made the necessary concessions. It hastened to break off passive resistance and called off the Ruhr struggle. Stresemann stepped forward to take the path of diplomatic negotiation. Social Democracy, especially its left-wing, urged the end of passive resistance. After the Cuno strike, the bourgeoisie, headed by Stresemann, soon brought the Ruhr struggle to a close. The most important dates are below:
23rd August – Stresemann made a speech in which he offered a compromise to France.
2nd September – Speech in Stuttgart.
6th September – Speech for representatives of the foreign press.
11th September – Negotiations started with France.
24th September – The German government issued official instructions to end passive resistance.
25th September – These instructions were published.
26th September – An appeal of the Reich President and the government, in which a public request to end passive resistance was made.
In a few weeks the bourgeoisie was capable, in its turn, of ending the Ruhr struggle, thus leading to peace, and making a compromise with the French capitalists. Linked to that was the reining in of the Fascists. After using them for sabotage attacks in the Rhineland, for the Black Reichswehr, as it was then called, they were now kicked out. Breaking off the Ruhr struggle was the first policy change. The second, enacted by the bourgeoisie after the Cuno strike, was the end of inflation and the start of stabilisation. This turn started with the introduction of accounting in gold, first in wholesale trade; it had already been accomplished in a large part of industry.
At the start of September, accounting in gold had already become general in industry and trade and had even penetrated the retail trade. If the bourgeoisie reduced inflation after August, it was not only because of the danger of the revolution that it brought, but also because, after a certain point, the effects of inflation change into its opposite. After a certain point inflation no longer acts as an export stimulus, but the reverse. The bourgeoisie had quite coolly exploited the inflation conjuncture to the very end. It had gone as far as it could possibly go, and had only stopped as the inflation conjuncture began to turn into an inflation crisis.
The second act after the introduction of accounting in gold was the introduction of gold wages, the fixed-value wages. Since June agreements had already been reached over fixed value wages and wage payments 2-3 times a week. Of course it was not a real fixed value wage but it meant an alleviation of the depreciation of real wages.
On the 14th August Stresemann appeared in the Reichstag and officially announced the introduction of fixed value wages. Then stabilisation was tackled.
According to Reichsbank statistics on fixed-value emergency funds, between August and the issue of the Rentenmark on the 15th November, no fewer than 989 million gold marks had been issued. Thus a change of direction through a whole series of emergency measures had occurred well before the introduction of the Rentenmark.
The decisive turn that occurred in mid-August after the Cuno strike is given convincing testimony by E Pawlowski (Varga) in his pamphlet Vor dem Endkampf in Deutschland the forward of which is dated 10th October 1923. Varga was as officious then as he is today.
We can read on p.42:
And on p.47:
And on p.64:
5. THE DECISIVE MISTAKES OF THE PARTY AFTER THE CUNO STRIKE
Both these series of events show how the preconditions on which the plan rested were totally changed by the intervention of the bourgeoisie. So what did the Party do then? The main error of the Party consisted of this – that it believed the already drafted plan, it went on with it and thus omitted to take measures towards the political preparations for the struggle for power just limiting itself technical-organisational preparations. Trotsky had declared “Politics is made by the enemy”. He considered that the chief defect of revolutionaries in the west hitherto was they had insufficiently valued the question of the technical and organisational preparations of uprisings. The enemy certainly used politics, very appropriate for themselves, while it was precisely the main error of the Party after the Cuno strike for they put forward no policies, that is they omitted the political preparations through partial struggles and partial actions but limited itself to technical-organisational preparations. What kind of error is this? Is a ‘right’ or ‘left’ mistake? I believe that it is a pronounced left error to want to engage in a uprising. On the basis of purely technical organisational preparations without sufficient political preparations and preconditions. It must be understood that after the Cuno strike the enemy dealt the workers’ movement a whole series of blows to which the Party did not reply because it did not want to waste its energies in partial struggles. By doing this the Party neglected to link up the rest of the masses and to establish and to establish which forces among the masses it could control.
Among the government actions after the Cuno strike must be mentioned.
17th August – Severing dissolved the National Committee of the Factory Councils without any protest activity from the Party.
13th October – The government gave itself emergency powers again without any Party reaction.
The Party limited itself to continuing its technical organisational preparations. Then on the 12th October it joined the Saxon government and shortly after the Thuringian one too. As already mentioned, joining the Saxon government was not the result of our free will but was a decision of the Executive with which the whole leadership of the German Party, including the left of Ruth Fischer and so on, had agreed.
Had any of us imagined that we could gain and hold power while linked with Social Democracy? None of us thought that. But the belief underlying the Executive’s decision to join the Saxon and Thuringian governments was that the Party could use the government apparatus to arm the workers. The Executive had the notion that we could sit in the government, arm the workers, do nothing meanwhile and that we could ‘ignore’ General Müller, the head of the Reichswehr. But General Müller by no means ignored us but intervened at once. He immediately took over the State Police. When Böttcher made a speech calling for the arming of the Proletarian Hundreds, Müller issued, with Ebert’s agreement, an ultimatum and the Reichswehr immediately marched in. From these events it can be seen that the situation in which we had gone into the Saxon and Thuringian governments hardly accorded with the preconditions which we thought would justify Communist participation in the government. The opposition which Brandler had put up in Moscow was fully justified. A government could only have been built when we could have acted as Communists and revolutionaries and crushed the resistance of the bourgeoisie. But that could only have been done on the basis of the support from the majority of the working class for the dictatorship of the armed proletariat and an uprising which had already been victorious.
So the entry into the Saxon government occurred under erroneous assumptions. What actually happened? There were only two possible courses of action. The first was to act immediately as a revolutionary dictatorship which would naturally stir up the bourgeoisie to resist and so the coalition would inevitably break up. The second, the one actually decided on, was to use the state to arm the workers but in every other respect to stay within constitutional limits hoping that the enemy would not react. Both courses of action would have stopped our plan being carried out. But in the first case the plan would have been prevented by a series of measures which would have functioned in a revolutionary propagandist way. A government which included Communists would have had to impose dictatorial measures immediately. There was huge unemployment in the country. To help the unemployed money had to be confiscated from the employers at once. To create work the closed factories had to be reopened immediately. Food supply also needed dictatorial measures. No real action could be taken by the government without such measures. We had drafted a whole programme of such measures to be carried out at once. But allied in government with the Social Democrats it was neither possible to do these things using the existing bourgeois state machine nor to remain long enough in power to push them into it. The Reichswehr arrived with a rush.
THE RETREAT AND THE CHEMNITZ CONFERENCE
The retreat is closely linked to the Chemnitz conference of 21st October where the decision was taken. Some facts. It has frequently been claimed that this conference was not really fully representative of the Saxon working class and that it was not a conference of workers representatives but only of officials. This was not the case. The composition of the conference was as follows:
140 factory workers, 15 representatives of action committees, 26 delegates from the co-operative societies, 102 representatives from Trade Unions, 16 unemployed, 7 official SPD delegates, 60 official KPD representatives, 1 official USPD delegate, 102 trades union delegates representing Trades Councils.
The majority of delegates present were from factories. If the composition of this conference is examined it cannot be denied that it was, in its essentials, an accurate reflection of the mood in the Saxon-Thuringian working class.
What happened at this conference? On the previous evening the Zentrale had unanimously taken the decision that, in view of the news of the advance of the Reichswehr, the demand for a general strike which would include an armed rising should be put forward. But it was then decided that we would have to await the outcome of the conference to find out the real mood. There, with the agreement of the Zentrale, comrade Brandler put forward the demand that the conference issue the slogan of a general strike as a battle cry against the Reichswehr invasion. If there had been a real revolutionary mood at the conference which was already in favour of a struggle for power then, obviously, the gathering would have taken up the slogan with enthusiasm and, from the general strike, the armed rising would have developed.
However the effect was totally different. Brandler’s proposal to the meeting fell flat on the floor and the gathering acted icily towards the suggestion. What took place then was that the left SPD minister, Graupe, declared that if the Communists did not give up the call for a general strike here and now then he would leave the meeting with his seven people. Had there been a really battle-ready revolutionary gathering a storm of indignation would have swept the defeatist away. But the contrary occurred. At once the gathering decided to reject the call for a general strike and instead appoint a small committee to look into the matter. It was a pauper’s burial of the proposal.
What did this mean? It meant that all the measures taken by the bourgeoisie had had their effect on the Saxon workers, that the working class was split and that it was quite out of the question that at that moment the majority of Saxon workers were prepared to fight for power. There were some towns where that was the case but for Saxony and Germany as a whole it was on no account so. The real situation was totally different from that envisaged in the plan of action. On the basis of an appreciation of the real situation the Zentrale took the unanimous decision that there had to be a retreat. Not only Brandler but all the “left” comrades of the Zentrale too and also all the foreign comrades at that time in Germany agreed with the decision without exception. Some of the latter had hurried to Saxony just to prevent the decision for a rising.
If this decision had not been taken the Party would have let itself become involved with a superior enemy which would only have left a real mess behind. In similar situations, in Bulgaria for instance, other acted differently and there are other examples of the same kind. But they do not invite imitation. The Leadership of a Party cannot justify the call for a decisive struggle if it foresees certain defeat. It can be objected that there are other situations where the Party had fought alongside the working class with only the prospect of defeat. Indeed we had fought thus in January 1919 when there was no hope of conquering power and in Munich too when everyone know that there was no prospect of winning. But the difference in the situation was that in one case it was the great mass of the working class that rose and the Party did not dare to forsake them in their struggle. It is quite different if the battle is confined to the Party and the masses do not stand behind it and if the defeat, when it comes, is because of the mistaken tactics of the Party which arise from its faulty assessment of the situation. That does not improve the standing of the Party in the eyes of the masses but discredits it. In such a situation it takes more courage to sound the retreat than to lead an adventure which takes the Party into battle in isolation and destroys it for years.
This impression of the situation which was made at the Chemnitz conference was confirmed by some later events. Here I only want to mention two.
First the Hamburg Uprising. Remmele has given the impression that, as one of the messengers of the Zentrale, he had left Chemnitz too early to be recalled (Remmele was in charge of Kiel but not Hamburg.) The call for a general strike was made in Hamburg and two hundred brave Communists rallied to the call but the great majority of Hamburg workers behaved in such a manner as if to say ‘The Communists are brave fellows, courageous lads’ and kept their hands in their pockets. This is easily understood if it is remembered that there was plenty of work in Hamburg. Just four items of economic data illustrate this quite adequately.
In 1923 Hamburg was a key port for the import of raw materials and coal from Britain and the USA. Consequently the main mass of Hamburg workers had no inclination for a general strike and armed uprising. Incidentally six hundred workers fought with the republican defence force. When there was an attempt to create a new legend about the May 1929 events in Berlin, suddenly the story about the Hamburg uprising was dropped and in The Theses for Agitators and Propagandists one can read about “the significance and lessons of the May fighting in Berlin” while on 1923 “The Hamburg rising was a rearguard battle, a fighting retreat in the moment of a downswing of the revolutionary wave as the mass movement in the country had already passed its highest point.”
Secondly what happened in Berlin as the Berlin leadership at that time was ‘left’. The Zentrale repeatedly called on it to arrange mass demonstrations under armed protection. But as soon as the demonstrations were called only a few dozen people turned up who soon disappeared again.
These other examples show the real nature of affairs after Chemnitz, namely that the vast majority of workers were not prepared to fight for power.
In spite of all attempts by Ruth Fischer and Maslow to fan the fire of factional struggle, the Party was about to make an orderly retreat and to employ its whole fighting energy against the SPD but in Decernber the then left, with the open support of the Executive unleashed its factional onslaught and so removed the possibility of making any breakthrough into the SPD for which otherwise there were the most favourable pre-conditions. The Party was undermined through methodological panic-mongering. When Maslow and Ruth Fischer boast that they had, “saved” the Party after the October retreat the truth is that they first generated the panic which then allowed them to pose as Party saviours. Besides their task was eased by the fact that for weeks after the October retreat the Party was still under extreme strain. In an army which had thought victory was securely in its grasp and which instead is forced to withdraw under the heaviest enemy attack it is not too difficult to start a panic. It is the easiest thing in the world if, instead of being called to order by the highest army leadership, the panic-mongers are encouraged.
But the German Party and Communist International suffered grave damage because of this, not only at the time but for years afterwards. Indeed the Party has not recovered from this even today.
7. SOME OF THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSONS
With that I end my presentation of the main points about the events of 1923. I only want to add briefly what my views are in regard to some of the most important lessons of these events.
I believe that the first and most important lesson must be that revolutionary plans of action cannot be drawn up some 2,000 kilometres away for eventualities eight to ten weeks later but can only be done by those actually on the battlefield who can follow events with their own eyes. A further lesson for the Communist Parties outside Russia is that they can only hope to carry out a revolution in their own countries it they have learnt to assess independently the relationship of class forces in their own countries, to develop through their own judgement tactics and strategy of revolutionary struggle and if they are capable of critical and independent thought even it opposed by the international leadership. The gravest and most fatal error in 1923 was that the Party and its leadership failed to insist on their independent and critical judgement.
Why was this? Certainly not from a slavish attitude to the Russian comrades but for reasons which, on the face of it, appear quite plausible. Brandler often recounted what had induced him, often against his better judgement, to follow the advice of our Russian comrades in 1923. His train of thought ran thus: “So far our Russian comrades are the only ones to have carried out a victorious revolution. I like to think that I know something about German workers and German conditions. But we have not carried out a revolution. Therefore, where the case is doubtful, we must submit to the judgement of those who have.” Today we must say that this is wrong, a most grave danger and one of the reasons for the crisis in the Communist International. Unless that question is settled by accepting that parties in other countries have to learn to lead the class struggle by using their own judgement then the revolution will not be victorious in any other country. In order to defeat the bourgeoisie in reality it must first be beaten intellectually. All revolutionary battles are fought out in the head before they are fought out in reality. In the Russian revolution too it is not just a question of looking at October. Thirty years of fundamental thinking about the ways and means of revolution was the political preparation for the Russian revolution. That was decisive. And it will be exactly like that in other countries too.
As the genuine leader of the proletarian revolution the Communist International needs both a collective leadership and mature communist parties.
The next lesson that we can draw is that the revolution demands political preparations and not just technical and organisational ones and that the majority of workers, the majority of the working class, must be won over through partial actions and partial demands before the conditions arise where it is possible to lead a struggle for power.
Next I think we must learn from the events in Saxony about some aspects of arming the working class. It is an illusion to think that it is possible to distribute arms to the workers behind the backs of the ruling class. The arming of the workers must go hand-in-hand with the political struggle and it is not just a technical organisational matter.
Moreover we ought to learn that, even with a Communist-Social Democrat coalition, parliament cannot lead the struggle for power. In order to win the Party must have a solid majority behind it, ready to give their lives to establish their class in power. Another lesson is that factory committees cannot replace the political workers’ committees.
Of course the above list is not exhaustive, I have only touched on the most important lessons here. Also I have given only a small selection of facts on the economic and political developments in 1923. But I think that these are enough to blow away the Left October Legend. And I furthermore believe that the lessons that we can still draw today from 1923 are not just historical lessons from the past but are also extremely relevant in a situation where the Communist international suffers even more severely from the errors which were so prevalent then. The ultra-left policy in the Communist International and Communist Party of Germany still prevails. So this lesson on the erroneous nature of this policy is always useful as the bogey of October 1923 raises its head again.
The victory of the proletarian revolution in Germany poses the resolution of its tactical and strategical issues beforehand. These questions cannot be resolved on the basis of a legend but only on the basis of hard facts.
The left legend of 1923 has already attained great antiquity and has almost entered the canon. But that is no help. It must be liquidated and it will be liquidated as unquestionably as the revolution in Germany will be carried out by a communist party that has mentally mastered the task beforehand.
An indispensable part of the task is to understand the issues of 1923.
How Stalin evaluated the 1923 events at the time can be judged from the letter he sent to Zinoviev and Bukharin at the beginning of August. Zinoviev made its contents public at a plenum of the Russian Central Committee in late 1927. This is what he wrote:
From a speech by Zinoviev against Trotsky from the Leningrad Pravda, no.106, Sunday 11th May 1924.
The Brandlerist Zentrale was accused of failing to recognise the opportunist role of the SPD and of giving up the Leninist conception of the state by entering the governments of Saxony and Thuringia in 1923. So sections of the appeal written by Brandler to the party members on 11th July 1923 which concern the Anti-Fascist day are given below:
Updated by ETOL: 28 November 2009