Notes on Pierre Broué, "The German Revolution 1917-1923"

Submitted by martin on 24 July, 2016 - 5:04


Ch.1, "The Battlefield", ch.2, "Social Democracy Before 1914"; ch.3, "The Lefts in German Social Democracy"

What was the economic condition and political system of pre-1914 Germany?

Which were the dominant cities? (The list of biggest cities today is different: Berlin; Hamburg; Munich; Cologne; Frankfurt; Essen; Dortmund; Stuttgart).

What percentage lived in the countryside? In what conditions?

What did the labour movement say about the threat of world war?

What was special about the German labour movement in this period compared to others?

What were its big debates? The "revisionism" debate. The mass strike debate following 1905. The imperialism debate following 1907 (Broué doesn't say much about that). The further mass strike debate in 1910-11. The further imperialism debate following 1910.

What were the main sources of strength for the right wing within the SPD?

What were the different currents in the SPD on the eve of 1914?

What was the "Radek affair" in 1912?

What do you make of Broué's argument that the SPD left should have split earlier?


Ch.4: "The War and the Crisis of Social Democracy"; ch.5: "The foundation of the USPD"

When did the SPD-aligned trade unions decide their stance on the war, and when did the SPD?

Why were socialists across the world so surprised at the SPD's stance?

How was left-wing opposition inside the SPD expressed? And organised?

What were the arguments about the left splitting from the SPD?

When did the "soft left" in the SPD first refuse in large numbers to vote for war credits?

When was the USPD founded, and how? What was its base? How was it structured?


Ch.6: "The rise of the revolutionary movement"; ch.7, "Problems of the world revolution"; ch.8, "The November revolution"

What was the German workers' reaction to news of the February revolution in Russia?

And (in January 1918) to the October revolution?

When did the German General Staff decide that the war was lost? What conclusions did they draw?

By October 1918 Luxemburg, Liebknecht, and the USPD leaders all saw revolution as imminent. They drew different political conclusions about what they should do. What were they?

How did the November revolution in fact break out and spread?

How did the SPD leadership retain control over the movement?


Ch.10, "The crisis in the socialist movement", ch.11, "The foundation of the KPD", ch.12, "The uprising of January 1919"

What was the initial assessment and perspective of the leading Spartacists after the November revolution? How did this work out in relation to the unions, and why?

What was the conflict within the USPD which led to the Spartacist League breaking away to form the KPD?

What was the debate in the IKD about joining with the Spartacists to set up the KPD?

At the founding congress of the KPD, what were the main disputes? What was distinctive about the perspective argued by Rosa Luxemburg in her speech to the congress? The story is that after the congress Jogiches wanted to abandon the KPD as a hopeless enterprise, and had to be persuaded to stick at it by Luxemburg: why?

The tensions in the early days of the KPD would continue, in different forms, throughout the revolutionary years. What general lessons can we draw about revolutionary socialist politics in countries with a long-organised labour movement?

Why and when did the USPD members resign from the Council of People's Commissars?

How did the January uprising develop?


Ch.13, "The Noske period", ch.14, "Stabilisation in Germany"

How did revolutionaries seize power in January in Düsseldorf and Bremen? And more spectacularly in Münich in April-May? Meanwhile the Hungarian Soviet Republic was proclaimed on 21 March 1919 and lasted until 1 August 1919. What was the outcome? What became known as Bettelheimerei?

There was a general strike movement in late February through to April 1919. With what outcome?

What was the outcome of the National Assembly elections of 19 January? What government did the Assembly form in February? What was the character of the constitution it adopted in July?


Ch.15, "The CP after January 1919", ch.16, "The ultra-left opposition and the split", ch.17, "The problem of centrism", ch.18, "The Kapp putsch"

Most of the prominent leaders of the Spartacist League, and IKD leader Johann Knief, had been killed, or had died, in early 1919. Who now became the KPD's foremost leader? Who was the main political influence on him?

There were opposition tendencies in Hamburg (Wolffheim and others) and in Bremen (Becker and others). What did they say? What happened at the Heidelberg congress of the KPD in October 1919?

How did Wolffheim and his group develop after October 1919?

To what ideas did the Dutch communists Gorter and Pannekoek influence the rest of the opposition?

How was the USPD developing in the meantime?

What was the Kapp putsch of March 1920? How did the SPD-led government respond?How did the trade union leaders respond? How did the KPD respond? How did the idea of the "workers' government" first emerge around this time?

When and how was the KAPD formed out of the opposition?


Ch.19, CP at the Crossroads; ch.20, Moscow and the German Revolutionaries (the Second Congress); ch.21, The Great Hopes of 1920; ch.22, Paul Levi.

What was Paul Levi's criticism of the CP leaders' line in the Kapp putsch? How was it received?

Radek was criticised in the Comintern for having allegedly trained the CP in too cautious an approach. He responded by arguing a different account of the roots of the mistakes over the Kapp Putsch: what?

What were the debates about the CP Zentrale's declaration that the CP would be a "loyal opposition" to a hypothetical SPD-USPD government? How did Lenin comment?

As the Comintern Second Congress of July-August 1920 approached, there was international debate over attitudes to parliament, to trade unions, and to disciplined and mass party organisation. How did the debates in the German CP intertwine with the international debate?

How did differences between Radek and Levi, who had previously been close, develop in 1920?

From early 1920, though sometimes zig-zaggedly, the CP and the Comintern started to work on winning over a majority of the USPD. Why did they do that? What were the arguments about it?

The immediate backdrop to the Second Congress of the Comintern was a victory of the Red Army against invading Polish troops, and the decision by the Bolshevik leadership (against Trotsky's opposition) to send the Red Army advancing into Poland, in the hope of triggering revolution there. What effect did that have on the Comintern's mood?

What were the shortcomings of the document adopted by the Second Congress on the role of the Communist Parties, drafted by Zinoviev? How did that relate to the "21 Conditions"?

What was the argument around the Second Congress about the KAPD?

Broué evidently thinks - though he does not argue it straight out - that the decision to set up the Red International of Labour Unions (formally launched in 1921, declining in the 1930s, and formally wound up in 1937) was a mistake. What do you think about that?

What was the follow-up from the Second Congress within the USPD? What happened at the USPD's Halle Congress in October 1920?

The KPD-USPD merger was a triumph for Paul Levi. But what personal attitude of his, reported by Broué as expressed in late 1920, may shed light on the tensions and disputes that he was already involved in, and which would sharpen in the early months of 1921?


Ch.23, "First Steps"; ch.24, "Italian SP split"; ch.25, "March Action"; ch.26, on the fall-out from the March action.

The mid-1920 illusions of the Russian-Polish war leading to quick revolution across Europe lingered for some time after the decisive defeat of the Red Army near Warsaw in late August 1920. But in December 1920 the KPD in Stuttgart sketched the outline of a new policy with its "Open Letter", a forerunner of the "united front" as codified at the Comintern Third Congress in mid 1921.

• Why did Zinoviev and Bukharin at first oppose the Stuttgart Open Letter? Why did Lenin, Levi, Radek support it?

• Why, given that Radek and Levi concurred on this main issue, was there so much conflict between Radek and Levi? [Ch.25 reports Radek saying that "Levi will soon go" [anyway]].

The conflict between Radek and Levi was brought to a head by the split in the Italian Socialist Party in January 1921 at Livorno - which left with the SP a whole current only later to be won over to the CP, and resulted in much of the old SP membership dispersing. Levi argued that the split had been managed ineptly, and had failed to win over to the new Italian CP as many as could be won.

• What were the reactions in the KPD to Levi's comments?

• What was the fall-out from the row in the KPD leadership over those comments?

The KPD went from that row into the "March Action".

• What was the meaning of the slogan of "activating the party" which Radek agitated for in the period up to the March Action, and how did that lead into the March Action being prepared under the leadership of the usually cautious Brandler?

• What happened in the March Action? How did the KPD leadership defend itself against the polemics of the SPD after the Action? What was the outcome of the March Action as regards the strength of the KPD?

• Levi published a pamphlet denouncing the March Action, which among other things described it as trying to apply a "Russian model" too closely to Germany. Do you think his picture of the "Russian model" reflected the reality of Bolshevik activity in 1917, or the culture generated by "war communism" and Zinoviev's personal role as president of the Communist International (from 1919 to 1926)?


Ch.27, "Moscow Compromise", describes the Third Congress. Ch.28, "Unity preserved", describes the conflicts in the KPD as the united front policy and the agitation for "Erfassung der Sachwerte" or "taxation of real values" developed. Ch.29 describes the united front policy developing internationally, and ch.30 the Rapallo treaty between Germany and the USSR.

(The "Erfassung der Sachwerte" was a proposal, first mooted by a Catholic Centre Party politician and then adopted by the ADGB [German trade union federation] to combat the easy tax evasion by the rich in a time of rapid inflation - they just delayed payment until their tax bills were trivial - by levying taxes in the form of government seizure of chunks of real property rather than requirements to pay amounts of currency. The KPD at first dismissed it, and then took it up, in a more radical form than the ADGB, as a campaigning slogan for united-front agitation).

• This is the period of the emergence of a new left faction in the KPD, centred in Berlin. Who led it and what did it say? How did it link its arguments about Germany with arguments about Russia, and whom did it link with in Russia?

• What effect did the SPD's publication of KPD documents about the March Action have?

• What was the Rapallo Treaty?

• What was the general effect of the united front policy of the KPD? What changes were happening in the SPD?


Ch.31 further describes the united front agitation. Ch.32 gives facts and figures about the KPD in 1922, as it recovered from its serious losses after March 1921. Ch.33 and 34 describe the debate about the workers' government slogan.

• The main practical outcome in this period of the united front agitation was the growth of factory councils and the KPD's increasing influence in them. How did that work?

• In the March Action, the KPD sometimes tried to generate strikes by mobilising unemployed workers to try to picket out employed workers. And in the early 1930s the KPD was notoriously a party mostly of unemployed workers, while the SPD dominated among regularly-employed workers. But in 1922 the picture was different. How?

• United front agitation in this period - especially in the June 1922 crisis after the assassination of Rathenau - generally includes the demand to disarm and ban monarchist, nationalist, and right-wing organisations. However, Trotsky, in his writings on fascist in the early 1930s, emphatically rejects such calls for the existing state to ban far-right groupings. What difference of circumstances do you think might explain the fact that the 1922 demands for disarming and banning right-wing organisations seem to have been uncontroversial in the very fractious KPD? Do you think those differences justify the 1922 demands?

• Was the KPD's membership in 1922 concentrated among the poorest, or the better-off, sections of the working-class?

• What was its age and gender balance?

• How was it organised? What were its demands on members as regards regular meetings and dues?

• In the early 1930s the KPD would have 8000 full-timers. How many did it have in 1922?

• 61% of the KPD's "cadres" in 1922 had come into activity in the workers' movement before 1916, but some were quite young: Ruth Fischer became leader of the KPD in Berlin at the age of 24 in 1920, and Werner Scholem editor of the main KPD paper Rote Fahne in 1921 at the age of 25. And Broué bemoans the lack of a stable leading core in the party with roots in the SPD and the Spartacusbund. What do you make of that?

• Broué records that the circulation of the KPD's press was small in proportion to its membership. Yet from 1924 the KPD would pioneer new formats in socialist journalism, with the Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung, a paper with many illustrations which eventually achieved a circulation of 350,000 weekly, and which Shachtman tried to copy in the design of the Labor Defender in the USA. Broué doesn't discuss this, but do you think the low circulation of previous KPD publications was a serious problem in the development of the KPD?

• In 1918-19 Spartacus and the KPD had denounced the SPD-USPD coalition government. In 1922 they offered semi-support or "loyal opposition" to SPD-USPD or SPD-only governments, and in mid-1923 they would join the SPD-led governments in Saxony (round Leipzig, Chemnitz, and Dresden) and Thuringia (round Erfurt and Jena). What were the differences in circumstance which made sense of the "workers' government" agitation in 1922? What are the further differences between "workers' government" agitation in 1922 and today? "Workers' government" agitation is not infinitely modifiable according to circumstances: what are the limits beyond which it becomes demagogic or opportunist?


Ch.35 describes French occupation of the Ruhr (from 10 January 1923. It mostly ended in 1924, though the last French troops were not withdrawn until 1925. The turmoil surrounding it subsided in late 1923, after the Stresemann government dropped "passive resistance" in September 1923 and KPD's revolutionary preparations failed in October 1923).

Ch.36 describes the arguments in the KPD about response to the extraordinary situation, where the right-wing German government was encouraging and financing workers' strikes in the Ruhr, and simultaneously hyperinflation was generating mass pauperisation and radical discredit for the government.

Ch.37 describes the growth of Communist Party influence in 1923. It also discusses the "Schlageter tactic", from June 1923.

It will be useful to read some other texts:

Trotsky's assessment of Germany in October 1923 - [notice that, though Trotsky does not discuss the Schlageter agitation explicitly, he does say explicitly that the coming German revolution will not include direct confrontation with the French army in the Ruhr] [very sharp denunciation of Schlageter tactic; also denunciation of the KPD entry into the governments in Saxony and Thuringia, defended by Trotsky in the text just mentioned] [comments written at the time by Victor Serge]

• What were the ways and forms in which the KPD rapidly grew in influence in 1923?

• What do you think of Ruth Fischer's argument, reported by Broué, of an orientation towards "a workers' republic of the Ruhr", which she counterposes to Brandler's tactic of building from Saxony and Thuringia?

• What do you think of Broué's defence of the Schlageter tactic? Is he reflecting the politics of the political current (the Lambertists) of which he was a member from the early 1950s until 1989 (18 years after he published this book)? Today, in their admittedly further-degenerated form, the Lambertists agitate much more against the European Union than against capitalism. The other characteristic of the Lambertists is their fetishisation of the "workers' united front" (despite the fact that they almost never work with other left groups). Do you see a bit of that in Broué's book?

• In his writings on Germany in the early 1930s, Trotsky indicates that the particular forms of the united front he is proposing are those appropriate for "advanced capitalist countries". "The slogan of 'only from below'" he describes as not just a mistake, but "a gross anachronism, fostered by memories of the first stages of the revolutionary movement, especially in Tsarist Russia". - What is the connection here between different forms of united-front policy and different political and social conditions?

• There is a strand in this development skated over by Broué. The KPD's belief in 1923 was that the only possible outcomes then were workers' revolution or fascism. At that time, when fascism in Italy was still not fully-developed, their conception of fascism was vague. Zinoviev would say in early 1924 that social democracy was the twin of fascism. The KPD certainly did not distinguish between fascism and military dictatorship. Nevertheless, when in November 1923 the KPD formally stated the opinion that fascism had won (this is in ch.42), it surely meant a form of government in which elections had little role and the workers' movement was more or less suppressed by terror. Given the economic collapse, the discredit of the parliamentary government, the repeated military interventions in politics, and the growth of the Nazis and the strength of milder far-right parties like the DNVP which openly advocated a return to monarchy, the KPD's assessment was not at all far-fetched. In fact the hyperinflation was halted by the end of 1923; the US-sponsored Dawes Plan to ease Germany's reparation payments was worked out in early 1924 and agreed in August 1924; the attempted Nazi putsch in Munich in November 1923 was easily suppressed; the Weimar Republic survived, and German capitalism was relatively prosperous for a few years, until 1929. In the next elections, in May and December 1924, the SPD was ahead of other parties, with 26% of the vote in December, a 5.5% increase on May; and the KPD got only 12.6% in May, only 9% in December. What are the lessons for us from that unexpected turn of events?


Ch.38 describes the strike wave of June 1923, the KPD's "Anti-Fascist Day" of 29 July 1923, and the fall of the Cuno government in August 1923. (The Stresemann government, which succeeded it, lasted only until November 1923; then successive administrations headed by Wilhelm Marx and Hans Luther would run until 1928).

These events jolted the Comintern and the KPD into seeing Germany as on a short timescale to revolution or counter-revolution. The KPD set to vigorously building a united-front militia (the "proletarian hundreds") and from early September had tens of thousands of activists go underground to prepare for an uprising.

Trotsky argued that the KPD should set a definite date for an uprising:

Meanwhile counter-revolution also gathered. There was a military coup in Bavaria. Ebert declared martial law. Then the army intervened to suppress the SPD-KPD government in Saxony. The KPD was unable to win a majority for immediate resistance at a labour-movement conference in Saxony; it let all its plans fall; and the army evicted the government of Saxony with relatively little resistance.

Ch.39 describes the discussions in Moscow and the KPD's preparations; ch.40 describes a series of articles by Zinoviev; ch.41 the events of October-November.

• What were the main events in Germany from June to November 1923?

• What do you make of Trotsky's call for fixing a date for an uprising?


Ch.42 describes the immediate aftermath, especially in Russia and in the Comintern, where Zinoviev used the fiasco in Germany to scapegoat Brandler and Thalheimer, to launch a new demagogic "left" turn in the Comintern, to start "Bolshevisation", and to launch a fightback against Trotsky's Left Opposition, which had emerged in the course of 1923. Ch.43 reviews GDR histories of the KPD; ch.44 gives Broué's summary on the idea that the KPD suffered from excessive Russian domination; ch.45 gives his defence of Levi; ch.46, his assessment of Radek; ch.47, his summary of Trotsky's verdict.

Worth reading as supplement:

Trotsky on Radek

together with Trotsky's 1936-7 comments on Radek, p.898.

• What about the argument that the errors of "war communism" - freely admitted after the event and sometimes at the time by Lenin and Trotsky - had a bad effect on the Comintern and the KPD?

• What do you make of Radek's assessment: "A good workers' party, we are nowhere a good Communist Party. That is the outstanding feature of the situation". And Trotsky's, in "Lessons of October", esp. ch.6 ?

• How were those different from the "Bolshevisation" line, as it emerged under Zinoviev?

• How would you summarise the main lessons of lasting importance from the experience of the KPD in 1918-23?