Germany 1918-23: A forgotten history of revolution

Joe Sabatini reviews a collection of articles about how the German Communist Party organised in the early 1920s  – only a few years after revolution had swept through Germany – and translates two of the pieces.


Best of KPD: Linke Organisierung Damals Und Heute  – in English Left Organisation Then and Now –  is a collection of sixteen essays published by the German Marx21 group in its series theorie21. The purpose of these theoretical essays is to bring together a number of debates within the German revolutionary left on core topics such as racism, political strategy and fighting oppression.

The focus for this year’s collection is on the legacy of the German Communist Party, or KPD, which existed from 1919 to 1933.

pli14548For a long time the party and its history has served as an object lesson for the revolutionary left, and I would recommend anyone new to this area to read Chris Harman’s The Lost Revolution to get a basic overview of the period 1918-23.

The KPD was born at a time of revolutionary ferment. A massive upsurge of strikes, protests and a naval mutiny in November 1918 fed into the decision of the German High Command to concede defeat and hand power to the SPD, or the Social Democrats (the equivalent of Britain’s Labour Party). Although the aim was to retain the old system under new management, this proved to be impossible. Within weeks the Kaiser had abdicated, and across Germany workers’, soldiers’ and sailors’ councils were established. These were forms of direct democracy in which workers, soldiers and sailors directly elected representatives and overthrew the officers.

On 9 November, amidst some of the largest street mobilisations in German history, the SPD proclaimed a Republic from the windows of the Reichstag. Meanwhile at the same time a group of revolutionaries and sailors had occupied the royal palace and Karl Liebknecht of the Spartakus League proclaimed a Socialist Republic. For historians this dual declaration marked the birth of the Weimar Republic, which was to end with Hitler’s accession to power in 1933. It is also the period which has provided us with the clearest example of a mass revolutionary socialist party within a western parliamentary democracy.  Throughout this time the KPD had a membership that varied between 50,000 and 400,000, sold daily newspapers and won up to 4 million votes at certain points during the period.

This collection of essays clearly sets out to study from this history and learn its lessons:

Our concern with the current edition of theorie21 is… to make available the “best of” the early KPD, whose progressive approach has largely been forgotten, and is largely overlooked in the established historical accounts. This collection sets out to show the democratic and emancipatory core of the politics of the KPD…

To understand this it is worth situating the collection in terms of the political conditions for revolutionaries in Germany today, and how this presents similarities and contrasts with the 1920s.

The first parallel is that with the rise of Die Linke, Germany has for the first time since 1933 a mass party that is to the left of the SPD. The second parallel is that coalition politics is very much back and the SPD are in coalition with Angela Merkel’s party, the CDU. This creates an ongoing space to the left of the SPD, which Die Linke are well placed the fill. The size of the party, its position in the trade unions and its national share of the vote are all very similar to that of the KPD in its time, and this marks a number of the detailed discussions in the contributions.

If this accounts for the main similarity, it goes with mention that we are living through a period weakness for the global the revolutionary left, while the KPD was the child of a revolutionary surge. In 1919 the Bolshevik revolution was barely a year old. There was a real opportunity to establish revolutionary socialist republics across Italy, Germany, Austria and Hungary (with several actual attempts). Also unlike Die Linke, the KPD was a revolutionary party from day one, and was crystal clear on the need to overthrow capitalism and support the Bolsheviks in Russia (its later Stalinisation and failure to confront Nazism is well covered in the collection).

pli04600_1The situation today is that revolutionaries, particularly those grouped round Marx21 are operating as a tendency within Die Linke. Several of their members are MPs and have influence in the trade unions and social movements. This gives a small number of revolutionaries a preponderant opportunity to influence a larger audience who are already politically mobilised.

Therefore rather than a dry history of the 1920’s, these collection springs very much from the contemporary situation and falls into three main strands: those dealing with the political strategy of the KPD; those focusing on the impact of the KPD on its contemporary society; and those which focus on lessons for today.

The first three pieces fall within what I have termed the first strand. The opening essay is a short piece by Stefan Bornost called The Road to the KPD, and provides an accessible account of the pre-history of the party, and how two elements came together: the Spartakus group centred around national intellectuals like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, and the Bremen Linke, who were well organised within the city of Bremen. I found that the piece tackled an issue that had always bothered me in relation to Chris Harman’s notion that the absence of a revolutionary party on the Bolshevik model led to the failure of the revolution between 1919 and 1923. What this piece demonstrates is the whole argument is abstract and counterfactual, and that we have first to reconstruct the conditions of pre-war Germany, to test whether such a notion was viable.

The second piece is a substantial historical piece written by Marcel Bois on the politics of the The KPD and the United Front during the Weimar Republic. This covered the whole period from 1919 to 1933 and is one of the best writings on the topic of the United Front, in terms of setting out how it worked. It helps bring to light a number of talented people in the KPD such as Heinrich Brandler and August Thalmann, who are worth rescuing from near oblivion. The essay has excellent discussions of the national rail strike in 1922, and a most fascinating account of the national referendum in 1926, that was kick started by the KPD, over whether to expropriate the property of the deposed kings and princes of the pre-Weimar period. To my eyes this read very much like the recent Scottish referendum, and made me think about what it would have meant if the RIC initiated the Yes Campaign from day one by putting pressure on the SNP (that would be the approximate parallel). Finally it tells the lamentable story of thesis of Social Fascism when the Stalinist leadership of the KPD imposed a policy of treating the Social Democrats as the main enemy and not the Nazis. Along with the familiar critique by Trotsky (this time with some Thalmann thrown in), it goes on to highlight how the SPD treated the KPD – to show this was a two way street, and also summarises some excellent archival research which reveals the true degree of co-working between the parties in a number of cities.

The third piece by Florian Wilde brings to end the theme of the opening essays by developing a set of general theses on the United Front. It stresses the importance of the United Front in non-revolutionary times, the use of open letters from revolutionaries to leaders of reformist parties in the hope of reaching their grassroots, the focus on extra-parliamentary action over coalitions in parliament and the focus on winning over the majority of the working class.

What follows is a piece in which Luigi Wolf from Marx21 interviews the co-chair of Die Linke, Bernd Riexinger. Although there was a lot to disagree with in Riexinger’s answers, it was fascinating to see a revolutionary interviewing a leading figure of a national party on the lessons of the KPD and the application of the United Front today.

pl006951Christina Kandl’s piece maintains the focus on Die Linke in terms of exploring how the party can act as a focus for left unity, as well as its role within the wider European Left. This is followed by Diether Dehm discussing the way in which the united front could be updated to take in actions against the banks and anti-imperialist struggles.

The next four pieces shift back to focus on the period of the KPD, but with a greater emphasis on the practical ways in which communists could influence social change. Volkhard Mosler’s essay on the history of KPD and the trade unions between 1919 and 1923 covers similar ground to Bois’s essay on the United Front, and provides a useful discussion of ultra-leftism at the time.

While Mosler’s main arguments are familiar to anyone in the revolutionary left here who has read about the period, the following three essays tackle some of the less told stories of the period.

Loren Balhorn’s piece traces the history of the US Communist Party in terms of its engagement with the Black American population. Firstly it plays into the debates we are seeing today in the aftermath of Ferguson, and shows how deep the relationship between the left and black liberation runs in the US. Secondly it is an exemplary piece of historical writing that shows how even during the period of Stalinisation it was possible for local communists to depart from the line and carry out innovative political work.

Carsten Schmidt’s essay is the longest in the whole collection and provides a superb history of the role women played through the history of the KPD. It situates the history in relation to the development of feminism within Germany, and especially between bourgeois and working class women’s movements. It goes on to show how female participation was greater in the KPD than in other parties (often in spite of a male dominated leadership and party style), and continued to rise as a proportion of overall party membership through the lifetime of the party. Most fascinating is the discussion of the initiative taken by women in the KPD around the campaign to legalise abortion. After the 1929 crash the cost of raising families rose and communists were able to integrate gender equality with bread and butter issues to forge an effective campaign that was driven by women in local areas often acting in ways that defied the top down policies of the national party. Again it shows how Stalinism outside Russia has to be read carefully in the 1930’s. Often it took time for the Stalinisation to affect the deep structures of mass parties that had their roots in the early 1920s, and how this local level of initiative took root in wider forms of struggle. For me this is a leitmotiv that runs throughout the collection forming one of the ‘best of’ elements of the KPD.

Building on this focus on initiative and innovation, the following essay by Marcel Bois and Stafan Bornost charts the origins of the photo-journal die Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung, or AIZ. This essay is a must-read for anyone today looking at how to use new media to reach the widest possible audiences. It shows how it was the KPD under the influence of the leftist media mogul Willi Münzenburg, who overhauled the traditional model of a heavy party newspaper and introduced one of the world’s first colour photo-magazines that presented articles written by worker correspondents, who were often issued with cameras.

pl006826The remaining essays play on themes already developed. Some provide critiques of positions outlined earlier. One that I would translate as ‘Roll Over Lukács’, states that the working class never was united in its consciousness, and critiques the notion that the 1920’s presented such an opportunity. Another two, including a translation of a recent Ian Burchill piece in International Socialist Journal, reviews the career of Paul Levi. For English language readers this offers less that is new, or unavailable, especially as David Fernbach has produced for the Historical Materialism book series an anthology of Levi’s writings (so I would direct readers to that book and Ian’s piece in ISJ rather than comment here).

The final piece is a collective article written by Marx21 on the development of a recent national movement by workers in the retail industry for better wages and conditions. This is fascinating in that it brings the whole debate bang up to the minute, and talks about campaigns that will be stretching into 2015. Also it shows how context matters, and that a group we think of in the Anglo-American sphere as precarious is supported in Germany through processes of collective bargaining, which facilitates the potential for grass roots strike action to develop into bigger and more co-ordinated strikes (while also raising the question of central control over the whole process and its redirection towards limited ends).

In conclusion, I would recommend this collection to anyone who reads German, as it opens up territory that would help us today as we figure out what has worked and what has not worked in the past century of revolutionary movements.

Best of KPD – Linke Organisierung damals und heute, 334 pages, €6.50 from


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