Paul Levi (1883-1930) was one of the founders of the German Communist Party (KPD) and a powerful voice in the early Communist International.
Levi was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Hechingen, south-west Germany. In 1906 he joined the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and became part of its left wing along with Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.
During the First World War, Levi was conscripted. Discharged in 1916, he joined the Zimmerwald Left, headed by Lenin, which attempted to uphold revolutionary internationalism amidst the wreckage of the war and the treacherous capitulation of the Second International’s leadership to social-patriotism.
Levi became a founding member of the Spartacist League, which soon became the KPD. Following the death of Luxemburg, Liebknecht and Leo Jogiches after the failure of the Spartacist Uprising in January 1918, Levi became the KPD leader, waging an immediate political struggle against the council communists who split in April 1920 to form the Communist Workers’ Party of Germany (KAPD).
One of the first tests for the KPD came in March 1920 when a putsch was launched against the Weimar Republic by a right-wing general, Walther von Lüttwitz, and the fervent nationalist, Wolfgang Kapp.
During the so-called Kapp Putsch, KPD propaganda in Berlin declared that “the proletariat will not lift a finger for the democratic republic” and urged workers not to participate in the general strike call issued by Karl Legien, the Social Democratic trade union chief.
The KPD quickly corrected itself; but, at first, following a similar logic to the later theory of “social fascism”, the KPD refused to intervene in what they saw as a battle between two reactionary forces — the social democrats and the putschists. Levi, in prison at the time, denounced this position as “a crime” and argued vehemently for KPD intervention to raise the political level of the general strike.
Space had opened up for day-to-day co-operation between the various parties of the working-class. At a local level, many KPD cadres took to the streets to defend the Republic alongside members of the SPD and USPD.
Following the defeat of the putsch the trade union leader Karl Legien, previously a hidebound conservative, called for a “workers’ government”, meaning a coalition of the SPD, USPD, KPD, and trade unions. That this did not happen was due in part to the left-wing of the USPD not wanting to co-operate with the SPD, and to the weakness of the KPD which had marginalised itself by its initial hesitancy in the face of the strike call.
Levi’s believed the KPD needed to find its way to the masses and anticipated the Communist International’s strategy of the United Front. Following the expulsion of the ultra-left from the KPD, Levi set about winning over the rank and file of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) to Communism.
The USPD’s leadership had sided with the counter-revolution but its rank and file comprised hundreds of thousands of workers who were supportive of the German Revolution and the young workers’ state in Russia.
Levi’s tactics proved their worth when, at the Halle Congress in October 1920, a motion to urging the USPD to join the Communist International was passed by 237 votes to 156, provoking a split which saw around 400,000 USPD members merge into a new united German Communist Party.
The new KPD soon ran into problems. Levi resigned his position in 1921 and came into sharp conflict with the new party leadership. Increasingly influenced by Bela Kun, and the “theory of the offensive” propagated by Zinoviev and Bukharin within the Communist International, the KPD launched an ill-fated armed uprising, known as the March Action, in 1921.
Levi, loyal to Luxemburg’s theories of mass action, with an emphasis on the self-organisation and movement of the working-class, was furious and denounced the March Action in a pamphlet which accused the party of launching a “Bakuninist putsch”. According to Clara Zetkin, Levi “firmly believed that [the leadership] had thoughtlessly put the existence of the party at risk, and frittered away that for which Karl, Rosa, Leo and so many others gave their lives. He had wept, literally wept with grief at the thought that the party was lost. He believed that its rescue was only possible by using the strongest means. He wrote his pamphlet in the mood of the legendary Roman who voluntarily plunged into the open abyss, there to sacrifice his life in order to save the fatherland. Paul Levi’s intentions were of the purest, and the most unselfish.”
Levi was expelled for breach of discipline. Lenin’s view was that “Levi lost his head”, and made his criticism in a “unilateral, exaggerated and even malicious fashion”. Nevertheless, Levi’s criticisms were substantially correct. This was confirmed when Lenin and Trotsky argued at the Third Congress of the Communist International in June-July 1921 for the need to turn away from the “theory of the offensive” and seek to convince the broad mass of workers of revolution through the method of the united front.
Lenin told Zetkin that “we must not lose Levi, both for ourselves and for the cause. We cannot afford to lose talented men; we must do what is possible to keep those that we have.” Unfortunately, Levi was to be irrevocably lost to the Communist movement. In 1922 he published, against Luxemburg’s wishes, her pamphlet on the Russian Revolution. Levi then drifted back into the left-wing of the SPD, via his own short-lived Communist Working Collective.
He died tragically in 1930 after sustaining injuries from falling out of a window and, during a minute’s silence in the Reichstag, Nazi and KPD (by this time completely Stalinised) deputies ostentatiously left the chamber.
Levi was a revolutionary in the Rosa Luxemburg school. His leadership of the German Communist movement provided a necessary connection between the best elements of the revolutionary Second International and a new generation communists.