The "Bolshevisation" of the KPD, 1924-5

Submitted by martin on 29 August, 2019 - 4:15 Author: Martin Thomas
Scholem, Fischer, Maslow

Werner Scholem, Ruth Fischer, Arkadi Maslow - leaders of the KPD in 1924-5


Hermann Weber's Die Wandlung des deutschen Kommunismus gives a detailed account of "Bolshevisation" in 1924-5 in the German Communist Party (KPD).

The KPD was then an authentic revolutionary-socialist party, not the Stalinist organisation it later became.

It was the biggest communist party outside the USSR. It was also morally and intellectually the most weighty, with many activists and writers trained in Rosa Luxemburg's "left-radical" wing of the old German Social Democracy. In November 1918 it had been the first Communist Party to be founded outside the USSR (other than the small Communist Party of the Netherlands, a short while earlier).

"Bolshevisation" can be seen in hindsight to have been a pivotal step in the reduction of Communist Parties to frontier-guards for the USSR, readily manipulated from Moscow. It was not clear at the time.

Amadeo Bordiga, a leader of the Italian Communist Party, denounced "Bolshevisation", but won little support. The Left Opposition inside the USSR, formed in October 1923, had been forced onto the back foot, and remained quiet until in early 1926 it formed the United Opposition with Zinoviev and Kamenev (who had broken with Stalin) and the "Democratic Centralist" group.

In many parties, the British for example, "Bolshevisation" appeared as a process of replacing old habits of ramshackle organisation, a discussion-circle orientation, and a press which circulated little outside the party membership, with outward-looking, systematic routines and a focus on the workplaces and the unions. That was part of it.

But it was packaged with a drive for "monolithic" organisation (no internal factions) and for a demagogic, heresy-hunting political culture, directed against "Trotskyism" and "Luxemburgism".

It was a drive to make the Communist Parties "Bolshevik" on the model of the bureaucratised, Stalinising party which the civil war and post-1921 consolidation had created in the USSR, not that of the Bolshevik faction and party which had organised from 1903 and 1917, and led the revolution. As Weber argues, in the Communist Parties outside the USSR it was a decisive step on the road to Stalinisation.

Trotsky wrote later, in 1928:

"The change [in the Comintern] began in 1924 under the name of 'Bolshevisation'... The 'Bolshevisation' of 1924 assumed completely the character of a caricature. A revolver was held at the temples of the leading organs of the communist parties with the demand that they adopt immediately a final position on the internal disputes in the CPSU without any information and any discussion...

"Taken as a whole, the 'Bolshevisation' consisted in this: that with the wedge of the Russian disputes, driven from above with the hammer blows of the state apparatus, the leaderships being formed at the moment in the communist parties of the West were disorganised over and over again. All this went on under the banner of struggle against factionalism..."

Even so, and even with hindsight, given the scarcity of detailed critiques of "Bolshevisation" at the time, the revolutionary socialist left has often tended to adopt the "systematised" 1924-5 model of "Bolshevism" as good coin. Or, in reaction, to reject, together with that degenerated "Bolshevism", all systematic, disciplined, politically-sharp organisation.

Weber's account shows us how the "Bolshevisation" campaign was able to take root even in the KPD, and partly to be shaped by the exigencies of the KPD, before it became an engine for destroying the KPD as a revolutionary party.

In 1923 German capitalism had been in acute and apparently intractable crisis, politically and economically. The KPD was growing both in numbers and in influence, especially in the factory councils.

In the later part of the year, the KPD leadership started systematically preparing for a revolutionary uprising. KPD ministers joined left-SPD provincial governments in Saxony and Thuringia, to gain a stronger base for the rising and access to provincial arsenals. Thousands of KPD activists went underground to do military training for the rising.

The crunch came in late October when the central government - under the presidency of Friedrich Ebert, an SPD member - sent the army to suppress the provincial "workers' government" of Saxony. The KPD urged a general strike and uprising in response. The SPD left dithered. The KPD leaders decided that they were too weak to call action on their own. The military suppression went through without resistance other than a botched uprising in Hamburg, where the KPD leaders' countermanding instructions had come through too late.

The KPD declared that this meant the victory of "fascism" in Germany. (No-one was yet very clear what "fascism" meant. The only accredited example was in Italy, where Mussolini was still only harassing the labour movement and parliamentary democracy, rather than crushing them). In fact, after late 1923 coalition governments of the bourgeois centre under Gustav Stresemann and then Wilhelm Marx were able to get hyperinflation and mass unemployment under control, and to start a period of relative bourgeois stability which would last until 1930.

KPD leaders Heinrich Brandler and August Thalheimer were heavily discredited among the KPD membership. They were removed by being drafted to the USSR for tasks there in early 1924, and a new "Centre" leadership took over in the KPD, under Hermann Remmele and Wilhelm Koenen.

The "Centre" removed all members of Brandler's and Thalheimer's "Right" wing of the party from the smaller day-to-day leading bodies of the party.

But in the rank and file of the KPD, a "Left" wing, led by Ruth Fischer, Arkadi Maslow, and Werner Scholem, became much more influential. These were younger and newer leaders than those of the "Right" or "Centre": Fischer and Scholem were 28; Maslow was a bit older (33) but had been in socialist politics only since 1919.

The KPD was banned after October 1923 and until 1 March 1924. In illegality, it lost over half its membership, though until mid 1924 it still did well in factory-council elections.

The members who continued active despite illegality tended to support Fischer and Maslow, who roundly denounced the retreat of October 1923. They made "Organise the Revolution" their chief slogan, and argued that the party must be more than just "the vanguard of the proletariat". It must be "the motor of the proletariat".

United front agitation, through which the KPD had grown since the second half of 1921, was discarded almost entirely, with the policy that it could now be only "the united front from below".

That meant joint action with SPD members at rank-and-file level, but no approaches to SPD leaders. Even at rank-and-file level, it was official KPD policy in early 1924 that KPD members should not greet SPD members ("good morning...") or shake hands with them.

Even the "Centre" leaders deferred to to this mood in the KPD rank and file, declaring that the SPD leaders were a "fraction of German fascism with a socialist mask".

The "Centre", perhaps because it was at a loss for arguments against the Left, centred its argument on the call for "Bolshevisation" of the party as the precondition for revolution.

Trotsky argued that the defeat of October 1923 was due to conservatism and bungling over the year 1923 in the Moscow leadership of the Communist International, headed by Zinoviev, who at that time was part of a leading trio in the USSR (Zinoviev, Kamenev, Stalin). For Zinoviev to blame Brandler and Thalheimer was scapegoating.

Karl Radek, another member of the 1923 Left Opposition, had worked closely with the KPD since 1918. He agreed that Brandler and Thalheimer should not be scapegoated, and argued further that in the circumstances of October 1923 they had done the right thing by retreating.

Zinoviev was nervous about his position in his alliance with Stalin. If the KPD, the biggest force in "his" department, the Communist International, declined, was discredited, or turned against him, then he would be weakened.

In early 1924 Zinoviev backed the Centre leadership of the KPD. He too made such claims as that the German Social Democracy was "a fascist Social Democracy", and he went along with the "united front from below" line.

He was wary of the Left for two reasons. He feared it would pull the KPD to further ultra-left positions (separate "communist" unions: there were already some KPD-led unions here and there, which were doing well). And he saw the Left as more likely to be critical of the USSR.

Zinoviev wanted to draw the Left, or a section of it, into a new KPD leadership. To that end, he played on divisions in the Left (real ones, as subsequent events would show) to try to split it and make it more manageable. The Left resisted.

In April 1924 the KPD, now re-legalised, held a congress. In the preparatory district congresses, the Left had had over 910 delegates, the Centre 350, the Right only 11. Berlin had been 100% Left.

At the congress itself, the Left had 92 delegates, the Centre 34. The Right had no delegates at all from the districts, and was represented only by members of the outgoing Central Committee.

Zinoviev's Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI), through a letter to the congress and interventions by two Comintern delegates (Solomon Lozovsky and Dmitry Manuilsky), went along with the "united front from below" line, but argued strongly for staying in the SPD-led unions. It finessed the question of immediate revolution by arguing that there was a "dual perspective" (maybe a quick revolution, maybe slower development).

The congress settled for a compromise formula on the unions. But in the elections for the new Central Committee, it went against the Comintern's advice to retain a strong representation from the Centre and to include the veteran Clara Zetkin from the Right.

A committee of 11 from the Left and four from the Centre was elected. The day-to-day leadership was put into the hands of the Left - Ruth Fischer, Arkadi Maslow, Werner Scholem.

After the congress, 60% to 70% of KPD officials were replaced. Some of the Centre came over to the Left. Taking up the Centre's old battle-cry, Ruth Fischer declared for a party with a "united leadership, united ideology, united structure".

The Right mostly kept its head down, but in late 1924 and early 1925 the Fischer-Maslow-Scholem regime began selective expulsions of the Right and a push for what Weber calls "almost military discipline".

KPD membership, however, did not recover, and in late 1924 and early 1925 the KPD's wider influence declined too.

From late 1924, the Right and elements of the old Centre began to regroup, round Ernst Meyer, Jacob Walcher, and Paul Frölich. In late 1924, too, the Left began to differentiate within itself: Fischer-Maslow-Scholem also expelled advocates of forming KPD-led unions.

Werner Scholem sacked KPD treasurer Artur König in late 1924 for mismanagement, and a section of the Left led by Ernst Thälmann protested that this was a move by "intellectuals" in the leadership against the "workers".

The growing tensions led to an intensification of "Bolshevisation" and in particular of campaigns against "Trotskyism" and "Luxemburgism".

Paul Levi's publication in 1922 of Rosa Luxemburg's unfinished prison writings critical of the Russian Revolution had led to no revulsion against "Luxemburgism" in the KPD. In October 1922 the KPD central committee knocked back a draft program for the party, drafted by Thalheimer, on grounds of being insufficiently oriented to Luxemburg's ideas.

And as late as September 1924 the Berlin KPD organised a "Trotsky Evening" as a celebratory event.

Now "Luxemburgism" became a stick with which to beat both the Right (because many of them were old members of the Spartacist League, who had been close to Luxemburg) and the emerging "ultra-left" (who upheld Luxemburg as a critical spirit).

"Trotskyism" was a bludgeon against the Right, who were seen as associated with the "Trotskyist" Radek, and with the united front policy which Trotsky had vehemently argued for at the 1921 Third Congress of the Comintern.

Both "Luxemburgism" and "Trotskyism" were decried as representing slides towards "Menshevism".

Arkadi Maslow wrote a whole book against Trotskyism, boosted on its publication (April 1925) by a KPD paper describing it as "the most important book for every party member). In January 1925 KPD leader Heinz Neumann wrote a pamphlet on Bolshevisation which, says Weber, showed already in formation "the contours of the later 'party of a new type'."

Fischer, Maslow, and Scholem were not cynics saying whatever was passed down to them from Moscow. They believed what they were saying. All of them would later, at various times, work with the Trotskyist movement.

But in mid-1925, when the Comintern held its Fifth Congress, they had been adopted as favourites by the Zinoviev leadership in Moscow.

They had "managed" a political shifting of the KPD without open criticism of their past views. In January 1925 their Central Committee decided that Germany was no longer on the brink of revolution, but "between two waves of revolution".

In mid-1925 they turned to emphasising the "monarchist danger" and called for the KPD to pledge support in the second round of the presidential election of that year to the SPD candidate Otto Braun, against the monarchist Paul Hindenburg.

United front policies "from above" as well as "from below" were rehabilitated.

Events were discrediting the old "revolution tomorrow" line, and the ultra-left opposition to these turns was in a minority. That minority was denounced by Fischer as being "against Bolshevisation". In a breach with previous norms, its views were excluded from the KPD press. Manipulation from above reduced it to ten delegates (as against 160 backing Fischer) at the KPD congress in July 1925.

Even then there was tension between the Moscow leadership and the KPD. The Comintern leadership argued for the ultra-left and the Right (Zetkin) to be represented in the new party leadership. Fischer overrode the plea, and had a new Central Committee elected by acclamation.

At the Fifth Congress of the Communist International, 17 June to 8 July 1925, Ruth Fischer was put up as one of the three speakers for the opening ceremony in Red Square. Within the Congress proceedings, she was a leading voice for "Bolshevisation". Her KPD delegation backed Zinoviev against the "Right" (the French and Czechoslovak CPs) and against the "ultra-left" (Bordiga). She defended the Comintern leadership against criticisms by Bordiga of its role in Germany in 1923.

Zinoviev, in his closing speech for the congress, declared for "the creation of a firmly-established, centralised organisation, hewn from a single stone". The Communist International must be "cast as a single piece".

"From now on", comments Weber, "all weaknesses were deemed to be lack of 'Bolshevisation'."

Zinoviev, in a speech of April 1925, had indicted "Luxemburgism" as comprising four faults - (1) overestimating spontaneity, underestimating the role of the party (2) underestimating the technical preparation for a revolutionary uprising (3) errors on the peasant question (4) errors on the national question.

By late 1925, however, the Fischer leadership had served its purpose for the Moscow bureaucracy. And in Moscow, Stalin, more confident that his bureaucratic machine could control affairs, no longer needed Zinoviev and Kamenev as allies.

Open conflict between Stalin and Zinoviev-Kamenev broke out in September 1925. Zinoviev was left with the presidency of the Communist International, but the Comintern felt obliged to write an open letter to the KPD in September 1925, indicting Fischer's leadership for sins including "ultra-centralism".

Fischer was removed by summoning her to Moscow (where she was kept until she was allowed to return to Germany in late 1926, and then expelled). Maslow was off the scene because he had been jailed in Germany in May 1925.

Ernst Thälmann, more liable to do whatever Stalin ordered, was made party leader in their stead.

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