How a mass German Communist Party was born

Submitted by AWL on 21 February, 2013 - 12:43

In 1920, the German workers' movement stood at a crossroads. The Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) had split from the pro-war SPD in 1917. In 1918 the war was finally ended by a revolutionary upsurge of workers, soldiers and sailors, which forced German surrender and deposed the Kaiser. Radicalised by this struggle, and disgusted by an SPD whose leadership had sided with the ruling class to save capitalism, even to the extent of having revolutionaries Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht murdered in 1919, thousands streamed into the ranks of the USPD.

But what direction should the USPD take? The left of the party took inspiration from the revolution in Russia, and favoured affiliating to the new, revolutionary Communist International (Comintern). The right of the party opposed the idea, preferring a reformist course more or less as a more palatable version of the SPD. In the meantime the party wavered in the middle. Not quite reformist, not quite revolutionary, the USPD was described as belonging to neither the Second, nor the Third, but the "Two-and-a-Half International". The question of how to relate both to the question of revolution in general, and the Comintern specifically, was to be decided at the party conference in Halle. Grigori Zinoviev, the Bolshevik chair of the Communist International, was to address the conference in favour of affiliation. Julius Martov, the old (left) Menshevik opponent of the Bolsheviks, was to speak against.

Zinoviev and Martov: Head to Head in Halle, edited and translated by Ben Lewis of the CPGB (the Weekly Worker group) and the academic Lars T Lih, is a fascinating examination of a remarkable moment in the history of German socialism. The speeches of both Zinoviev and Martov are included, along with commentaries describing the historical context, and a diary entry from Zinoviev on his 'Twelve days in Germany'.

This short account of his time in Germany not only gives the reader a feel for the intense public interest and government suspicion toward the conference, but is also pretty funny. For example, the captain of the boat carrying the Bolshevik delegation was mystified to discover that 75 passengers had boarded a vessel designed to carry 30. It was soon realised that this was down to the enormous number of spies who had crowded on board. "There were at least 40 spies, an average of 5 to each communist!", Zinoviev remarks. "Since spying on us could not occupy the whole of their time, they resorted to spying on each other. This was extremely funny."

The speeches themselves are remarkable. Zinoviev's, which stretched to four hours, was not only conducted in a language that was not his own, but, thanks to questions from hecklers, almost completely improvised. In his introduction, Lewis points out that the Zinoviev has come in for a very bad press from history - executed as a conspirator by the Stalinist bureacracy, disliked by the Left Opposition for his earlier bloc with Stalin, and widely portrayed as an arrogant and opportunistic figure by accounts from the period. In this speech, however, he shines. As each shouted question is thrown at him from the right wing, he counters it in detail, and to great applause.

Zinoviev argues that the utter bankruptcy of the old social-democratic international necessitates a new one, committed to the spread of the revolution and a principled working-class politics. In response to hysteria generated about his arrival, he claims the vehemence with which the right of the USPD had denounced the left, as well as the readiness with which they slipped into the conservative vernacular of "communists in disguise" and the "Moscow knout", demonstrated their real anxiety ? fear of the revolution they claimed formally to be fighting for.

Martov's speech against affiliation is also provided. He argues that Russian revolution is "sick and cannot be cured by its own means". It is isolated by hostile states, devastated by war and famine, and creaking beneath the contradictions involved in trying to develop a workers' democracy in the midst of an underdeveloped peasant mass. He argues that these pressures have lead the Bolsheviks to rule arbitrarily and brutally, clamping down too harshly on dissent in a bid to stave off counter-revolution. As such, the leadership of a new international should not be at Russia's initiative, but from "Marxist tendencies of the worker parties of Western Europe".

Even in 1920 there was some truth in Martov's critique. With the benefit of retrospect we see that the Russian state did soon degenerate completely into bureaucratic counter-revolution, and that the prominence of the Stalinised Russian party in the international did have a distorting and reactionary effect on class struggle throughout the world. But 1920 was not 1924, let alone 1928 or 1936. Zinoviev's retorts still win out. While there were clearly serious problems in Soviet Russia, the Russian working class still ruled, through the Bolshevik party - this was not yet anything like totalitarian nightmare of Stalinism. Furthermore, it had long been the position of the Bolsheviks that the only salvation for the Russian revolution was for the revolution to spread and break its isolation. As long as the siege conditions persisted, the situation could only worsen. The necessity at all costs was for the organisation of a radical, sincerely revolutionary realignment in the workers' movements of the world, and especially in a Germany so central to European capitalism. It was by working for that goal, as Zinoviev was, that could best guarantee a revivial of socialist democracy in Russia.

When the congress voted two to one in favour of affiliation, 400,000 workers - as well as a minority but substantial layer of parliamentary deputies, journalists, union officials and so on - joined the previously tiny Communist Party (KPD), which had previously split from the USPD. The revolutionary Marxist left was now a major force in German politics. In 1919, workers and soldiers had revolted en masse, but the number of socialists arguing and agitating consciously for revolution (as opposed to the reformism of the SPD) was still small. With the leadership of the SPD holding the decisive sway in the battle of the ideas, the ruling class was able to demobilise and turn back the revolution. With the merger of the USPD into the Communist Party, things were now radically different. The next time a revolutionary moment would develop, the chances of success were greatly improved.

However, despite his performance at Halle, Zinoviev's role in the German movement would more than once prove disastrous at decisive turning points.

In 1921, the new KPD tried to artificially provoke a revolution in an abortive uprising known as the 'March Action' - with the encouragement of Zinoviev among other Comintern leaders. It was a dismal failure, and many KPD cadres were arrested or killed. Nevertheless, despite these early, "infantile" errors, the party's formation was significant. As the crisis deepened, the potential for revolutionary leadership was present in a way not that hadn't been true in 1919. When a revolutionary crisis gripped Germany again in 1923, German workers streamed into and around the Communist Party.

But the crisis was bungled and this revolutionary opportunity missed - again, ironically given his "left" stance in 1921, with Zinoviev's involvement. After this failure, the Stalinist bureaucracy consolidated itself, going on to strangle the Russian workers' state and the Comintern, and in turn Stalinist leadership fatally hamstrung the KPD in its fight gainst the rise of fascism, leading to the crushing of the German labour movement despite all its unparalleled size and strength.

The decisions made at the Halle Congress created a mass revolutionary organisation which, though it failed in its task, held the real promise of achieving something radically different. This book is inspiring in the way it captures a moment when an alternative outcome to the struggles of the period was tantalisingly possible.

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