Loren: I put translations of the most important initials of organizations (SPD, KPD, etc.) up on the board. As I talk, I’m generally going to use the initials, just so everybody knows what they refer to. I don’t know if we’re going to really get to the Nazi seizure of power. If we do, it will be at the end, and rather schematically. But I just want to call your attention of the fact that Nazi in German comes from “National Socialist German Workers Party.” It’s really important to understand that the Nazis made real appeals to the working class, not very successfully, but they considered themselves to be a party that was for a workers’ revolution, but for a German Workers Revolution. So, that’s something often lost in translation when people just say “Nazis” or “National Socialists”.
Cindy referred to what we are doing today as a lecture and I corrected her and said this is a discussion and presentation and I really encourage people to ask questions as we go along. Hopefully I’ll manage to cover this stuff in an hour and half or two at the outside and then we can really get into it. But feel free, if I’ve made reference to anything you don’t understand, to just interrupt.
The first thing, very generally: I made a map of Germany because some people may not be familiar with where all these different cities are. Now as I said when I was handing it out, it’s unfortunately in Spanish but most of the spellings are pretty much the same. You notice for example that this eastern one fifth or so is now part of Poland. Essentially it’s been part of Poland since Poland reappeared on the map after World War I. Then over here, I believe, is still part of Russia, this area here. At one point, this is post-World War I, that is after Germany had given up territory, and particularly this blank space here between Koenigberg and the east. That was land that Germany had to give up after it surrendered in World War I. So Germany used to be a pretty large country. It still is, it’s still the biggest country in Western Europe. So as I am referring to cities I’ll occasionally point at this map. Notice that the map is a map of religious affiliation in Germany. We might think that’s not terribly important for what we are talking about, but in fact the difference between Protestant and Catholic in Germany is still quite real, not like it was during the Reformation when people were burning each other and fighting wars and things like that, but still there are areas that are very culturally Catholic, such as Bavaria, and very culturally Protestant, such as the area around Berlin.
We have some material here; there is a map, a list of organizations. One thing I wanted to mention, for those of you who might find this discussion of the teens and twenties to be somewhat ancient history, there are several points. First of all, in order to understand the political spectrum of today, basically you have to have a road map, and the road map is historical. It’s based on things that happened in some cases a long time ago. Like Stalinism for example; there aren’t too many people today in the world who call themselves Stalinists but there are plenty of people who are Stalinists in my opinion. To understand how that all came about you have to understand where Stalin came from. It’s come up in discussions before; what is the Spartacist League, and what is the RCP, and what are all these different Maoist and Trotskyist groups, and what are these Anarchist groups, and so on? They generally tend to have historical affiliation. So that’s one important reason to sort of understand this background.
The second thing is, I want to point out some very interesting parallels between Germany in the period we’re talking about and China today. This is not just something I made up. In China, in various think tanks, all kinds of people are studying exactly the stuff we’re studying, and earlier German history, in order to understand better what parallels and differences there are; because Germany a 120 years ago was a rising power, challenging the power of France, England and the United States. And today China is a rising power challenging the power of the United States, and the parallels continue. China is full of, I don’t know exactly how many, but probably 200 million workers who are becoming more and more active and combative. In the same way, since we talked about the theory of permanent revolution before, in the same way that Germany was the weak link of the world capitalist system, above all in 1848, Russia was the weak link in 1905 and 1917. I would say that one could argue that China is the weak link today. That is, it’s a place where capitalism is really emerging very powerfully and at the same time the country has to adapt itself to its new role in the world market. We can talk about this towards the end because to me it’s one of the most important aspects of why this stuff is really still alive, as historical questions.
I just want to go into a little background about German history in order to make clear what an unusual country it was in the period we’re talking about. I didn’t make a map of Europe as a whole but with imagination we can conjure it up. As you’ll see in a minute, German history was a series of disasters and misfortunes. It’s one of the things that kind of shaped it. Today or until recently, anytime anyone wrote a book about German history, the question in the background, whether it was about the 13th century or the 19th century, was always: why did Nazism happen in Germany? It’s kind of like with Russia, you can’t pick up a history book about Russia whether it’s talking about Peter the Great or Catherine the Great, the question is: why did Russia go the way it went? One of the answers to that question, about Germany, is that, first of all Germany’s geographical location is right in the middle of Europe and it has no real natural boundaries of defense. So, armies from other countries were rolling over Germany all the time.
Before the Reformation, before the rise of Protestantism, which was in some sense the beginning of a kind of bourgeois revolution in Germany, Germany was one of the richest parts of Europe. This was before the North Atlantic became important, before the Spanish and Portuguese and other voyages that developed the slave trade and shifted the whole balance of the European economy away from the old centre. The real centre was between Germany and Italy, and trade was going north and south. By the late 17th century, Germany had become something of a backwater and in fact so had Italy, because then France and Britain and the North Atlantic kind of replaced them. So that’s the first bad thing that happened to Germany.
In 1525 or in the early 1520s, the Protestant reformation took off. The Protestant Reformation struck a real chord in Germany, probably more than anywhere else. Martin Luther and his famous 95 Theses, and the way in which a large part of the German population rallied to Luther, for all kinds of reasons, generally didn’t have that much to do with religion as such. People were just sick of being exploited by the Catholic Church and having to pay tithes and having to pay for births and funerals and having to have everything mediated through a priest who spoke Latin.
One of the most important things Luther did was translate the Bible into German so people could really know what it was about. It all started nicely from Luther’s point of view, but pretty soon it got out of hand and there was a peasant uprising in large parts of Germany, which was very radical. One of the most important figures is a specific guy named Thomas Muenzer, a kind of a hero and rightly so, in Marxist history. All through the history of the East Germany, the German Democratic Republic, there was a 300-foot high statue of Thomas Muentzer somewhere …
Speaker 2: There is a Thomas Muenzer statue?
Loren: I don’t know if it’s still there.
Speaker 2: You haven’t probably found it!
Loren: [laughter] right! I forgot to mention, by the way, let’s be clear on this too: when I say Germany, at this time and for many years afterwards Germany was really a linguistic expression. It was incredibly disunited. It was in the interest of all the major European powers to keep it disunited, which was one of it misfortunes.
So the peasants revolted and scared the hell out of the landlords, and the Peasant Wars took place. Friedrich Engels wrote a great book called the Peasant Wars in Germany which I highly recommend, probably more insightful about German history than a 100 books by academics you might come across. The forces of the peasants were poorly armed, they had no military training, just pitch forks and staves and things like that. They were opposed by the knights, and they greatly outnumbered the knights. To show the limits of that kind of revolutionary ideology, Marx and Engels said, “Muenzer was a communist who came 300 years before his time.” At key moments in battle, the peasants would stop and wait for a sign from heaven telling them what to do next, and then they would be slaughtered by the knights. So, in a relatively short time, all of the peasant uprisings were put down. The result was, and for hundreds of years, this kind of conservative, very servile ideology that survived in the German peasantry, that made it different from other peasantries that actually rose up and won, like in France or earlier in England.
The next misfortune was something called the Thirty Years War which was fought from 1618 to 1648. As I said, Germany was completely disunited at this time and most of the different small kingdoms and so on were not directly involved in the war. Just because of this problem of no natural boundaries, the war was completely fought on German soil for thirty years, with plundering and looting; by the way this, of course, was a Reformation war with Catholic armies against Protestant armies and huge battles. At that time soldiers didn’t really get paid, they mainly looted. So the winning side tended to just carry off all the crops and anything else of value in the areas that were captured. This went on for thirty years and when it ended, one-third of the population of Germany had been killed or had died from plagues and so on. So that was what really finished off the German area as an economic power for 200 years. There were totally abandoned towns and villages, wolves running in the streets, just absolute desolation. It was truly the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
So, the next thing that happened was the French Revolution. That was in 1789, and ten years later Napoleon took power and conquered all of Germany and expanded into Russia. That was an interesting episode because it was kind of like when the Red Army moved into Eastern Europe in 1945. In spite of being Stalinist and everything else you would care to mention, they carried out serious land reform. Napoleon did something of the same thing. Actually, in western Germany, which was always in the cultural sphere of France, Napoleon is remembered rather favorably because he broke the power of some of the old feudal landlord classes. That power was never really completely restored. But when Napoleon was finally defeated, Germany and Central Europe sank into a period of deep reaction which lasted for over 30 years, from 1815 to 1848. This so-called “Holy Alliance” involved Russia and different major parts of Germany, and down here in the south east, the Austrian Empire; the Habsburg Empire was the most powerful empire in Europe that time. Those three powers conspired to enforce a counter-revolutionary kind of repression of everything from education to the types of books that got published, not to mention political repression. So there was this long winter that continued to 1840, which was finally broken by the next misfortune in German history, which was the revolution of 1848.
One of the things I want to emphasize in this presentation is the way in which, for Marx and Engels and for later Marxists, in Germany the bourgeoisie came too late. The bourgeois revolution had happened in England, it had happened in France, but the German bourgeoisie, which was never terribly courageous, was ready to really try to get political power. The German economy had already created a significant working class, or just let’s say a wage labour class in cities and towns that could challenge the bourgeoisie from the left, and that’s what happened in 1848. It starts out with the usual liberal phrases but soon red flags were appearing in demonstrations and confrontations; Engels points this out in another very good book that I recommend called Revolution and Counter Revolution in Germany. Those two books by Engels will give you an excellent overview of the whole development of German history. The bourgeoisie recoiled and basically started to make peace with the status quo; in that time, the most important part of the status quo was the Emperor of Prussia. Prussia was this large eastern area of Germany that had a large Junker class; those were feudal landlords. By that time, of course, agriculture had been partially capitalized. They were producing for the world market, but the social structure and relations and mores in that cultural ambience were still very feudal.
So, those three powers, this Holy Alliance – Russia, Prussia and Austria, maintained a stranglehold on all of European politics. There was a liberal uprising in Spain in 1823 and French armies invaded to put it down, under the pressure of the Holy Alliance; that’s how totally they had the situation locked up. As you see, Germany had a problem having a real bourgeois revolution, even as it became capitalist.
So the next disaster was the unification of the country. That was carried out by Bismarck; I’m sure most of you have heard of Bismarck. Bismarck himself was a Junker, a very skillful politician. At that time, the bourgeoisie had been trying to unify the country because that’s what the bourgeoisie does. The bourgeoisie builds a nation state. Their conception was what was called the “greater German” (grossdeutsch) solution, which means that it would include lots of land that was part of the Austrian Empire. Their idea was that with Austria and the German lands together, authoritarian Prussia would be isolated, and liberalism would be more possible. Bismarck very skillfully isolated the liberals and unified the country under what was called the “smaller German” (kleindeutsch) solution, which meant excluding all the Austrian lands. He did this by a series of wars in the 1860s. Bismarck, for example, studied the Civil War in the United States. He was very interested in the use of railroads and machine guns because they were unknown at that time in warfare in Europe. So he had a real world perspective and he unified the country through three wars from 1862 to 1870. The last war was the Franco-Prussian War in which Germany defeated France, and set the stage for the Paris Commune. The entire Paris Commune took place with the German army just right outside of Paris, in case things got out of hand, and if the French reactionary forces weren’t able to handle it. Significantly, the German Socialists who were about to form the German SPD a few years later opposed the war from an internationalist point of view. They said no German soldier should die for this, in war against France. I think that was the last time that ever happened, as we shall see.
So again and again, what could be called the progressive bourgeois forces were stopped in their tracks, defeated, stymied and so on. So Germany emerged as a capitalist power, but without a real bourgeois democracy. It was a quite authoritarian modern country, with the Junker class sharing power with and really politically dominating the bourgeois. I won’t go into details but there were many key confrontations where the Junkers just put the bourgeoisie in its place and ran the country in order to preserve their power in this large eastern agriculture zone. So only when the Red Army occupied eastern Germany in 1945 were these people finally expropriated.
Now we can get into the current subject, but I think this background is important because one of the questions that has come up before was why there was no revolutionary party in Germany comparable to the Bolsheviks. I think one of the important things you can see from all the stuff that I just mentioned is how the country remained highly decentralized even when it had the Prussian regime in Berlin. There were four or five other poles of power, so that even after unification, after they’d been defeated by Bismarck politically or sometimes militarily, it just wasn’t a centralized economy in the way that the Soviet Union became with Stalinism.
We’ve covered a lot of ground before, particularly in the first meeting about Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin. So I’m not going to go over all of that again. But I do want to mention just a couple of things to keep in mind. One of the things that makes Germany so interesting, even today, is that Germany is China’s number one industrial trading partner. As I said, Chinese academics and advisors are studying the German case not just historically but also today because, for example, Germany after World War II introduced a very modernized set of labor relations in which they allowed– I think it’s right in the constitution– allowed for works councils in factories. Not workers councils, not soviets running the factories. but works councils, which mean the workers get some seats on the board of directors and sort of have some say. Some factories, for example, that would have been moved to lower-wage countries, stayed in Germany because of the pressure of these works councils. It’s a murky situation and I’m not meaning to imply that workers in Germany are in power, though they certainly have more power than workers in the United States.
So China is very interested, for example, with all the labour unrest that they’ve got: “Well, maybe we should have some works councils. Maybe we should make workers co-responsible for managing what’s going on.”
Getting back to why Germany is important and why was it so important. In some sense all the ideologies of the 20th century came out of Germany: Marxian communism, fascism (the forces that led to the Nazi seizure of power). There were of course ideologies in other countries as well. Mussolini took power eleven years before Hitler, but nonetheless Germany really put fascism on the map globally. The welfare state: Bismarck was a pioneer of the welfare state, starting in the 1880s; he faced a rising socialist movement, all these militant workers getting out of hand. He created old age insurance, health insurance and other kinds of benefits that we associate with the quickly disappearing modern capitalist welfare state. These were innovated by Bismarck. Corporatism, that is a different kind of idea that workers and peasants and capitalists together should manage society in some way, was also pretty much a German creation.
Speaker 3: I thought it was Mussolini that actually came up with corporatism in his doctrine.
Loren: He may have been the first one to use it, but there are German predecessors, there are predecessors elsewhere too. The Catholic Church was really into corporatism long before there was ever any real corporatism. But Germany had Lassalle, whom we talked about previously; he was essentially a corporatist. To him, socialism meant all workers having cooperatives, and revolution wasn’t even really necessary to bring that about.
So just to hit the highlights of a couple things we’ve talked about before: the First International collapsed in the 1870s because of the Marx-anarchism confrontation. The Second International was founded in 1889, and by the early 1900s there were large parties calling themselves socialists in Germany (the SPD), in France (the French Socialist Party), in Britain the Labour Party, which got going in 1906: these were all parties of the Second International. This is very important; the Second International was nothing like the Third International, even with the prestige of Germany, which after all is where all this Marxist theory came from. Karl Kautsky was viewed as kind of the Pope of Marxism at this time. He really kind of determined what was orthodox and what wasn’t. The idea of the Germans telling the French party what to do, or imposing discipline on some other party for its own political purposes, as the Communist government in Russia did, starting in the 1920s, was unthinkable; the Second International was a much looser association.
Bismarck fell in 1890; he was in power for over 30 years. He fell essentially because people at the top of the German government saw that the working class was getting out of control and Bismarck had banned the socialists, with the anti-Socialist laws in 1878, for twelve years. The SPD wasn’t quite wiped off the map; they were still allowed to participate in elections and things like that, but they were highly restricted in terms of meetings and publications. They were producing all kinds of books and pamphlets in Switzerland and smuggling them into the country. By the time Bismarck fell, the SPD had become a major force in the German parliament. Not a majority by any means, but still it was becoming the largest single party. So they felt that Bismarck was getting old; they felt it was time for new faces, kind of like bringing in Obama right after the crisis in 2008 or something like that: a facelift on the political class.
We talked at our first meeting about the revisionism debate and this again is an important development that goes on through this whole period, the rise of people who were saying “this Marxist stuff–let’s forget about it, it’s just too apocalyptic, it’s always talking about the final crisis of capitalism and we see the German working class is living better every year.” This was articulated by several leading party figures but they were strongly put down by Rosa Luxemburg and also by Kautsky. Kautsky was the keeper of orthodoxy but what was developing were essentially three different currents in the German working class movement. There was the left – Rosa Luxemburg, her pamphlet The Mass Strike expressed probably better than anything else I can think of the way in which party apparatuses get in the way. She never said there’re not necessary but she did say that ‘’they do not declare mass movements and they do not bring them into existence’’. They can intervene in them, guide them and so on but as she put it, “the mistakes of a genuine mass movement in motion are better than the wisest decisions of the most intelligent central committee.” This is what really got Lenin and the Bolsheviks all worked up and starting to attack Rosa as a spontaneist and so on.
Then there was the centre that was headed by Kautsky’s orthodoxy. Luxemburg and Kautsky began to fall out about 1910. At that point, let me just talk about what was happening on the right. The right was centered in the trade union bureaucracy, and at every party congress the left and the Kautsky centre always won the debates, voting for “we’re orthodox Marxists, we believe in socialism, we believe in revolution.” In reality, in the daily practice of the SPD, the conservatism of the trade union bureaucrats was getting more and more influential. By 1910, Luxemburg had had it with Kautsky, and this is important for contemporary debates if you ever have to deal with any Trotskyist. They are always saying, “Rosa Luxemburg should have founded a vanguard party just like Lenin did.” Well, in fact, Lenin up to 1914 still looked to Kautsky as the most important Marxist in Europe. As I mentioned in the first week, he couldn’t believe it when the German SPD voted for war credits for Germany in August 1914. He thought the newspapers were fakes produced by the police. So it was Luxemburg who had seen, four years before Lenin, that Kautsky had resigned from the revolutionary movement, and yet Leninists today are still banging away about how Luxemburg should have formed a vanguard party. This is a very complicated question: why wasn’t there a push for an independent revolutionary party? Because Luxemburg by this time had no illusions about the SPD.
For those of you who looked at some of the readings I sent out, already in 1908, in Holland, there was a small group of people who were effectively left communists, who broke with Dutch social democracy and instead set up their own party. As far as I know, they never became more than 500 or 1000 people until World War I, but they were some of the most talented people in the Dutch movement. The Dutch working class was very militant. If you read the Bourrinet stuff that I sent out for the second talk, there were militant mass strikes going on in Holland from 1902/1903 right up to World War I. The three figures Herman Gorter, Anton Pannekoek and Henrietta Roland-Holst were all serious theoreticians. Pannekoek entered the mass strike debate with some articles in 1909 that Lenin thought very highly of. As a matter of fact, all references to Pannekoek in Lenin’s writings up until after the Russian Revolution are quite positive. By the way, let’s not overlook the fact that Pannekoek’s writings were also very influential in the United States. In the left wing of the Socialist Party, there was the International Socialist Review (not to be confused with the current publication of the ISO); it was read in 20 or 30 different languages, with some great articles by Pannekoek. There were Latvian workers up in Boston and Finnish workers out in Minnesota who were deeply influenced by Pannekoek’s mass strike perspective. When the Communist Party was founded in the United States in 1919, they had a hell of a time of winning these people over to the Moscow line because they were such hard left communist mass-strike theoreticians. So Pannekoek had very wide influence and Herman Gorter’s influence came a little later. Henrietta Roland-Holst was less radical, she kind of oriented toward the centre to some extent. By the way, these people were all famous artists and scientists which was another interesting point; we would be kind of surprised today if an astronomer like Pannekoek wound up as a theoretician of one of the most radical wings of the movement. Or take a poet like Herman Gorter. Herman Gorter’s most important epic poem is still read in Dutch schools today as the national poem. It’s kind of like Melville in America or something like that, these literary and scientific people having such prestige. Probably the reason for that, similar to things we’ve talked about with Bolsheviks, is that at that time there was a very significant gap between the small minority of educated people, people with kind of high bourgeois culture, and the mass of workers. The best of them tried to hook up with the working class movement in whatever way they could, in the cases of Pannekoek and Gorter, for example, very successfully. Pannekoek travelled all over Germany before World War I and was teaching is different party schools with Rosa Luxemburg; they were actually quite close.
This brings me to another important point for the revolution itself. You notice up here in northwestern Germany, the cities of Hamburg and Bremen were ports that were open to the world in a way that most cities in Germany, which were landlocked, were not. Therefore they were always kind of more liberal in the bourgeois sense and more radical in the working-class sense than almost any other city except for Berlin. This is where Pannekoek and Gorter had their biggest influence. I’ll come back to that momentarily.
So the war starts in 1914, the SPD collapses along with all the other major parties of the Second International except for the Serbians, the Italians and the Americans, who wound up opposing entry by their own countries into the war. Another significant episode is the mass demonstration, something that should indicate the limits of mass demonstrations all over Europe against the war, in the last days of July 1914. Rosa Luxemburg was on the platform in front of two or three hundred thousand people, probably in Brussels, and she fainted on the platform. She said, “I know that in two or three days all of these countries are going to vote to enter the war on the side of their own bourgeoisie, and that most of these people will go along with it.” People in 1914 had no idea what modern warfare was about, the main really modern wars had been the US Civil War and the very brief Franco-Prussian War in 1870, which lasted a couple of months. No one imagined the fire power of modern artillery or the use of machine guns; airplanes had not yet really began to be used for military purposes. So there was a festive atmosphere all over Europe, people were just kind of bored by bourgeois society. When the war was declared most people just thought it was a great adventure; almost everyone imagined that the war would be over by Christmas time (this is in August). For example, the French army marched off to the front against the German army with the officers wearing extremely colorful uniforms with big feathers and on horseback with sabers. It’s just the kind of unreality about what was about to happen, and what did actually happen, as you know, was this meat grinder of four years of which fifty thousand people would be killed and capture two miles of the front and then the next day the other army would charge back recapture that, and another fifty thousand people would be killed. This just went on and on. The front essentially ran from all along the border of Germany from Belgium down to Switzerland and then, of course, there was further fighting in the east, but not so much trench warfare. So the populations and the political parties were just totally unprepared for what happened.
As we discussed in the first meeting, these little minorities of people Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, the Dutch council communists, a few people in France, a few people in Britain kept their heads and opposed the war but they would risk their lives going out into these celebrating crowds to try to agitate against the war. This changed over time; you may have heard some bourgeois liberal professor say “World War I showed that nationalism is much more powerful than Marxism, look what happened in 1914.” Well, just look what happened a few years later as the reality of the slaughter and the meaninglessness of the slaughter had really set in. I’ll just highlight a couple of episodes that sort of show that starting in late 1918. For example, the German navy mutinied up here in Kiel, which was the main port from which the Germany navy operated. The German navy never was anything nearly as powerful as the British navy but some bright-eyed admiral decided to send the whole fleet out to fight the British navy, which was blockading the country, relatively late in the war; the sailors mutinied and took over all the ships and took over Kiel and this was a real warning shot to everybody who was watching what was going on. Earlier, in spring 1917, a French general named Neville decided to launch an offensive of the western front. It was such a slaughter that again, there was a massive mutiny and special divisions of the French army had to be brought in from all over the place to put it down. The repression was so great that to this day the government archives on what happened in that mutiny and repression have never been opened. No one can see them except maybe somebody with some high connections in the military. More and more the social peace that had been established at the beginning was breaking down all over the place. That’s when these different forces go into motion.
I mentioned briefly the Dutch left. The Dutch left is kind of a misnomer. It’s really the German-Dutch left with this great influence that Pannekoek and others had up in here in these very militant northwest working class areas of Germany. The Russian Revolution, just the February Revolution when the Tsar was overthrown, was another thing that radicalized the situation. Very interestingly, in the United States, Woodrow Wilson, who was president, was watching all of this very carefully and the famous 14 Points that you probably heard about in your high school civics class or something like that, were issued as a direct response to the Bolshevik Revolution. Because Wilson realized that it was a war of propaganda between the bourgeois western powers and the new Russian Revolution that had just taken power. So there is a big geopolitical element to it. The United States Army intervened in the war in the Spring of 1917. This is also important for understanding the revolution and what happened; up until even after the US intervened, it really looked like Germany was winning the war. We talked about the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which the Bolsheviks signed under duress in early 1918 or didn’t sign, or I guess they did finally sign. They gave away one-fourth of all Russian territories to Germany and Austria. This allowed Germany to start moving troops to the western front. So things were looking pretty good and the lines were all holding on the western front. Nevertheless in September of 1918, with all of these riots and strikes beginning to really accelerate, the high level of the German general staff looked at the situation and they just decided “it’s all over, we’ve got to surrender on the best terms possible”, thinking that they would get peace without annexations or something like that.
Speaker 2: So a lot of time when you look at bourgeois histories, the decisions to surrender in war makes it look like it’s just based on external situations. But kind of maybe the implicit thing of the presentation you’re putting out is that they’re also considering the internal dynamics of their country, whether they will be overthrown themselves, all the mutinies and what not.
Speaker 2: So, that’s definitely a dynamic in how long the fighting would last.
Speaker 1: Oh yeah! There is always the question of the internal politics of all the countries involved in war. In the United States as Woodrow Wilson was intervening, I understand some of you watched the Warren Beatty’s film Reds the other night; you know that Wilson got re-elected in 1916 on the slogan ‘He Kept us Out of War’; a few months later he declared war on Germany. From 1917 to 1920 the US government was repressing the IWW, pretty much unprecedented levels of repression with thousands of people jailed, with IWW offices being burned down and shut down by People’s Militias of essentially middle class people. So there was a very acute awareness of the explosive nature of the internal situation in the United States as the US entered the war. There was a lot of opposition to the war as well. The British and Americans above all were watching the situation in Germany very carefully. There were strikes going on in Britain as well and they knew that the German working class had these militant traditions and that after the war anything could happen.
As a matter of fact, Germany was under blockade during the war. The blockade was maintained for a year or two after the war ended. Why? Because they were controlling food shipments to keep revolution under control. People were hungry, starving; such people tend to go into the streets and make revolutions. In Austria, the monarchy had been overthrown exactly for that reason. In Hungary, there was a revolution; they didn’t actually take power until 1919 but the Allies knew, the Allies being France, United States and Britain. They knew that they had to deal with the internal situation in all these countries that were in the process of surrendering because they saw what happened in Russia.
So now we get into some very complicated stuff. I hadn’t really thought too much about the German Revolution for a very longtime until people expressed interest in talking about it here. So I spent a lot of time over the last week kind of reviewing and putting stuff together. Looking at it, to me at some levels it appears as kind of a blur so I’m sure those of you who are hearing about it for the first time or reading about it for the first time also experiencing something of a blur. I sent out two books to everybody who was on the list. By the way, anyone who didn’t get the notices please talk to me afterwards so I can put you on the list for further mailings. But the book by Jean Barrot (which was Dauvé’s pseudonym back in the 1970s) Jean Barrot and Denis Authier on the German Communist Left is a good source, I’ll talk about it a little later. I have my doubts about some of it, some of the people I know in Paris really hate that book for what might appear to be sectarian reasons but the second book I sent out by Phillippe Bourrinet on the Dutch and German Communist Left, I think it is more reliable. But I’ll get to that, those are X Y and Z kinds of considerations. Let me just try to touch on the A B and C.
So, Germany surrenders and the German emperor, the Kaiser, flees to Holland and crowds pour into the downtown areas of all the major cities, and above all Berlin. I think I’ve mentioned the first week that just to show where the working class was politically and in terms of consciousness, with a million people on the main downtown of Berlin on the day the Kaiser left; at one end were the Social Democrats who were getting ready to crush the revolution, by arms if necessary, proclaiming the German Republic. At the other end were Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the two best known antiwar agitators who had spent most of the war in jail, announcing the creation of the German Soviet Republic. There were wild cheers at both ends of the square. There was a lot of confusion about what was going on. The way in which Germany had collapsed, even though there is no question that in their personal communications that the top German commanders had said “this is all over,” this legend arose that became known as the “stab in the back” legend – that Germany was winning the war and that it was the Jews and Socialists who had knifed the whole thing. This was a major myth in the rise of Nazism.
So, crowds pour into the downtown areas of the main cities and all over Germany there are workers’, soldiers’ and sailors’ councils and red flags flying everywhere, the army just being essentially demobilized on both fronts. But it’s important not to fetishize these councils because a lot of them were not revolutionary. This became clear in the course of events from 1918 onward; just because people set up soviets and workers’ councils doesn’t necessarily mean that they are ready to have a communist revolution. This was one of the problems that Luxemburg and Liebknecht had in dealing with the situation. They were not totally aware of this because of course it was dazzling. The German Kaiser of the dynasty that had ruled for 350 years, was packing up and leaving town.
I’m just going to back up briefly to explain the political developments during the war. If we look at either one of those books or the short article by Bourrinet on the German Communist Left, we know the broad outlines that during the war, the antiwar sentiments in the Social Democratic party became quite significant. In early 1917 a large minority was booted out of the party for disloyalty to the war effort. They founded the USPD, the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany; I’ll just refer to it from now on as USPD. These included Kautsky and also Bernstein, who was the theoretician of revisionism. All the centre politicians left with the USPD, as did Luxemburg, Liebknecht and other leaders of the hard left. Very quickly, it was obvious that they were incompatible and within a year, shortly before the war had ended, the left constituted itself as the Spartakusbund. They were a minority; probably in all of Germany, they had 500,000 followers. Whereas the USPD had about 5 million followers and the Social Democrats, the true conservatives or reformists, Social Democrats had about six million followers. This is how it turned out in the first elections after the war. Then, within the Spartakusbund, there was already a split underway. The far left may not be brilliant in making revolutions, but it is brilliant in developing splits. This tension arose even before the collapse of the government and the German military surrender, between Luxemburg’s faction (Luxemburg of course was in jail almost all this time) but with people who founded the Spartakusbund, with the so-called IKD, who were the left communists up here; that’s the International Communists of Germany. Their real base was up here, in these radical cities Bremen and Hamburg, and elsewhere.
Now, another really interesting aspect of this whole development were these people known as the revolutionary shop stewards. They were centered in Berlin and they were sympathizers of Spartakusbund early on. They were against the war, they met almost every night; for some time during the war they were coordinating actions in the underground around Berlin and in some other key cities, and they were totally went over to the Spartakusbund.
Speaker 2: I had a quick clarifying question. According to this map as the Spartacus, the IKD, the- –
Loren: Left radicals?
Speaker 2: Are they all still part of the USPD as tendencies as fractions?
Speaker 1: Yes!
Speaker 2: Oh, so they’re not independent groups?
Speaker 1: Yes, as you see but by the way I want to explain that, while I was photocopying this, this side over here got cut off but this is basically the syndicalist forces that were concentrating different kinds of unions for direct action workers groups and things like that. I frankly don’t know that much about them, for the narrative I’m developing I don’t think they’re terribly important. So, I apologize for that.
Speaker 4: The FAUD?
Speaker 1: Yeah the FAUD and then other groups that moved in and out of the far left during the key years from 1918 to 1921/1923.
Speaker 3: In your presentation, I’m wondering if you’re going to go into a little bit about how, I know Luxemburg’s concern was not forming a sect or becoming isolated from the working class. So she was always trying to navigate a pretty complex relationship to the USPD. But when you read Trotskyist histories, they kind of slam her hard because she didn’t break with the USPD, and ended up muddling a clear organizational position.
Speaker 3: Okay.
Loren: Yeah, you know, that is true. Luxemburg felt very strongly the need not…, she was very friendly with the Dutch ultra-left people and particularly with Henrietta Roland-Holst, who kept saying “Rosa, what are you doing in that rotten reformist party? Why don’t you break out and start your own group?” and she said, “better to be part of a reformist mass group than to be a small sect on the sidelines.” That was her attitude and that is how she continued after the German military collapse, after the revolution so to speak. By the way, the first head of state after the Kaiser left was Ebert, who was one of the key right-wing socialists. The situation was so dire that the only people they could think of to put in power after the Kaiser left was the SPD. I should mention that for a year before that, the German military had been in contact with the right wing of the SPD preparing for this situation. There was something called the Groener-Scheidemann Pact. Scheidemann was another wretched right-wing SPD politician, Groener was a German general, and they worked out a deal that if the Kaiser goes, the SPD will take power and the military will support the SPD’s right wing. So, everything kind of fell into place, such as it was.
The hardcore followers of Pannekoek and Gorter up in those northwestern cities also gave Luxemburg a hard time about not breaking immediately with the USPD. The real split of the USPD from the SPD happened after Luxemburg was killed, when it was absorbed into the KPD to form a new mass party. The IKD people said the KPD would rather have five million wretched reformist left-wing Social Democrats than to have fifty thousand hardcore revolutionary workers. That certainly is not how Luxemburg imagined it but that kind of was the result of her policies.
The radical base in Bremen and Hamburg included longshoremen and other people who were connected to the ports, but I think also some important industrial workers as well. But clearly the atmosphere of the port, the constant interaction with foreign influences and things like that, was one of the reasons why those cities were more open and more radical than some of the cities in the heartland. So the right wing of the SPD took power with the support of the military. Given that it was a revolutionary or a proto-revolutionary situation, they had to move very carefully because here were all these people out in the streets waving red flags and talking about the establishment of a German Soviet Republic. The military put in these two guys Noske and Ebert, whom I just mentioned. Ebert was now the head of state, Noske was key in mobilizing this group called the Freikorps. The Freikorps was kind of like the French Foreign Legion, these were people who had spent the entire war in the trenches, very battle-hardened, very reactionary. They were pulled off the fronts where they were fighting against the Bolsheviks and the worker uprisings that were going on in Finland and in the Baltic countries, and in the western part of Russia.
There’s a book, a bit long and a bit flavored by post-modernist language, but really remarkable, called Male Fantasies. The author is Klaus Theweleit. He goes through the diaries and newspapers and somehow gets transcripts of the dreams of these Freikorps people. It’s filled with, of course, anti-Semitism, but that was the least of it. What the Freikorps was really into was incredible misogyny, and Jewish Communist women were to them anathema. Rosa Luxemburg was the symbol of everything they despised and they reveled in capturing and killing communists and executing them, but they were particularly vengeful and violent with the women communists that they captured. So these were not nice people and there were thousands of them and they were brought into Berlin by the Social Democrats. At the time, again, we have to remember, as we look back on world wars, massacres and things like that: that’s not something that we relish but we are unfortunately kind of used to that kind of catastrophe, but at this time, after a hundred years of relative peace, a peaceful development of capitalism and so on, this was just all so completely new. The Freikorps came into Berlin and street fighting started in January 1919. The KPD was founded at the very end of 1918 by those two factions I mentioned. Rosa Luxemburg and the people around her who were the leaders of the party were extremely cautious about it. What they were even more cautious about was the creation of a Third International into which they were being pressured by the Bolsheviks, because their feeling was that a new international would be dominated by the Russians. They defended the Russian Revolution down the line; Luxemburg wrote some great articles where she said, “yes, the Russian Revolution will be strangled in defeat, but it will be strangled above all by these cowardly Social Democrats who have just sit back and let it happen.” She blamed the reformist leaders of Western European social democracy more than anyone for the isolation of the Russian Revolution. She also, in one of her very last articles in the KPD daily newspaper, Rote Fahne (Red Flag), you can just imagine it’s a daily communist newspaper and it was just one of 15 or 20 daily KPD newspapers all around Germany, just to show you the depth of the revolutionary sentiment at that particular time. She wrote: “in previous class wars throughout history the opposing side entered battle under their own banners, class against class. But today, what we’re seeing is the counter-revolution entering the battle under the flag of a Social Democratic Party. If the question were posed clearly, capitalism or socialism, the great mass of German workers would have no doubts about which way they wanted to go.”
But we have entered this period in which no question can be posed clearly. Debord quotes this passage in The Society of the Spectacle, if you recall. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were murdered two weeks later. Street fighting started in Berlin and the Freikorps didn’t have too much trouble mopping up the communist people who were in the streets.
There was no mass strike backing it up; it wasn’t exactly like Occupy against the NYPD, but it was a pretty one-sided battle because behind the Freikorps who after all, were just paramilitary volunteers, behind them was the German army and the police. It is interesting, however, that the chief of police of Berlin at this particular time after the revolution was a member of the USPD and he actually helped by managing to keep the police off the backs of the communists; I think he was ousted shortly after this. It just shows what happens in a revolutionary situation, with a left Social Democrat as chief of police and so on. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were hunted down and arrested, and they were murdered by the Freikorps in January 1919. This was about two or three weeks after the creation of the KPD, and the repression came down very hard and continued for the next few months. A number of other major figures were also assassinated in that period including, see did I put him on the list? Yes, the second name Leo Jogisches. He was Luxemburg’s partner for the better part of their adult lives, also a very brilliant Polish Marxist revolutionary.
Speaker 2: Gustav Landauer also?
Loren: Yes, but Gustav Landauer was an anarchist.
Speaker 2: Yeah, I know.
Loren: He wasn’t in Berlin, he was in Munich, but I’m glad you mentioned him. He was a great, vibrant, very good writer, very good revolutionary.
But the tensions are developing between the Spartacus faction of the KPD and this IKD group from the northwest cities, with sympathizers elsewhere. This is where it gets very murky; what were the issues between them? One issue was that Luxemburg wanted to participate in the parliamentary elections for the National Assembly in January 1919. The IKD said “we are not interested in elections”; they were in agreement on breaking with the trade unions and seeing the trade unions as hopeless and irrecoverable. Again, all of them agreed that the question of forming a new international which, would tend to fall under Russian control, was something to be avoided at all cost. This remained a sentiment in the KPD for at least a couple of years after the revolution. Now, the rest of the history of the German Revolution is, and I tried to hit the high points in this second page of this handout but like I say, it really becomes a blur. What’s probably most striking about it is that there’s one revolutionary insurrection after another all over the country, but never coordinated, always in one city, always crushed in isolation. So, for example, the Bavarian Soviet Republic was declared in April of 1919, with a lot of very brilliant anarchist and communist leaders: Gustav Landauer, Erich Muehsam and others, proclaiming this variant of a republic. But notice, for example, that Munich is right in the middle of Bavaria, one of the most densely Catholic and conservative areas of Germany. So it was kind of an extreme split between the city and the countryside. Within a week the Bavarian Soviet Republic was isolated and crushed; in this case, they didn’t need to use paramilitary troops; I think the army finished them off.
In the spring of 1920, now a year and a half after the revolution and the creation of the Communist Party, there’s this very important event called the Kapp Putsch. Now, Kapp was some right-wing politician who was backed by a lot of these paramilitary elements as well as by people in the army. He staged a coup in Berlin and expected the whole country would follow. But in fact what happened instead was a general strike throughout all of Germany. This is significant because it shows that even though basically the result of the general strike was to bring back this wretched so-called socialist government, the workers knew that these far-right elements behind Kapp were preparing a bloodbath against the working class and the general strike was intended to stop that.
People have argued ever since whether they should have pushed on for revolution, or what exactly was expressed in that moment. But it was really the last time that there was a nationwide expression of working-class hostility to the move to the right. I was talking briefly last week with Tom about this. It’s just amazing… I forgot to mention, this period from 1918 till Hitler took over in 1933 is referred to in German history as the Weimar Republic. It’s called the Weimar Republic because the constitution was written in the city called Weimar, which is on the map just a little bit south of… It’s not important, it’s a small town, it’s famous because that’s where Goethe sort of held court. It has a kind of cultural symbolism in Germany. In the Weimar Republic the entire judiciary remained the judiciary of the pre1918 period and therefore, filled with judges who were monarchists and proto-fascists and so on. So that through this whole at fifteen-year period, every time a right-winger, a Kapp for example, I think he got six months in jail for trying to stage a coup. Every time a right-wing or far-right individual or group came before these courts, they would get a slap on the wrist, whereas any leftist involved in anything would either be sentenced to death or given a very long prison term. So right from the beginning, this Weimar Republic was a very shaky operation.
In 1922, there was this very charismatic guy named Walter Rathenau; he was a Jewish businessman who was the foreign minister. He was assassinated by a far-right terrorist group. Again, there were mass demonstrations all over Germany, and probably some strikes, and so on. As far as I recall, the people who killed him were never arrested and some of them, after World War II, reemerged as famous writers and things like that. Just as one would expect in any capitalist bourgeois democracy, everything was tilted towards repressing the left and at best slapping the right on the wrist.
Since I mentioned Rathenau, I want to go into another element of sort of geopolitics that played an important role. Because of the Russian Revolution, this starts with a guy named Karl Radek, who is on our list. Karl Radek, like Rosa Luxembourg and Leo Jogisches, was a Pole or maybe even a Lithuanian, but one of these people who spoke five languages and was active in the revolutionary movement all over Central and Eastern Europe. He came to Berlin as a Comintern emissary in early 1919 and was a very talented guy, politically kind of all over the map. One day he was sympathizing with the IKD, the next day he was sympathizing with somebody farther to the right. He was very quickly arrested but it was an arrest like very few others, in which he basically held court in his prison cell in Berlin for several months. He was a very important guy and he was very well known, and not just in left-wing circles. So for those two months, all kinds of top-level businessmen and military figures, as well as people from the left and the trade unions, were coming to Radek’s cell; it was like a salon. So, Radek of course became kind of the expert on the German question, for the Third International, and for the Soviet government and so on. Shortly after this, there was already a momentum for a kind of rapprochement between Germany and the Soviet Union, no matter who was in power in Germany. This is really incredibly interesting, I don’t think I should go off into too much detail but it’s just so interesting that I want to say a few words about it.
You recall last time we were talking about how the Red Army invaded Poland, in the summer of 1920, with the hope of sparking a worker’s revolt in Poland, and being on the border of Germany, when the German revolution happened. At this particular time, some members of the IKD were in Moscow and they met Lenin. Lenin pulled down a map of Germany and said, “so, comrades, our army will soon be on the eastern border of Germany; where do you expect the revolt to break out first here, in eastern Prussia?” They all just kind of looked at each other because it would be like saying, where do you expect the revolution to start in Mississippi and Louisiana next week? It was one of the most conservative parts of Germany. This already gave the IKD people a certain sense that Lenin was a little out of touch with what was going on there. The important thing is that, as a result of all this fighting that was going on, and not just in Poland and on the Polish-German border, but also up here in the Baltic states, in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and in Finland, where there was a vicious civil war going on between the Reds and the whites, which the whites unfortunately won with help from Western powers, as a result, the German army, the German High Command was coming into contact with the Red Army and the top levels of the Red Army. There’s a very murky history that goes from 1919 right up to the Stalin/Hitler pact of 1939, in which these ties were really never broken. In 1920, Germany made its first steps towards a kind of diplomatic rapprochement with the Soviet Union, which already was a slap in the face of the Allies. The Allies had imposed this treaty, called the Versailles Treaty, on Germany in the spring of 1919; a very draconian treaty, just unbelievable reparations. I think it was calculated that Germany would finish paying these reparations in 1950, and the German army was restricted to 100,000 reservists.
All kinds of cutting-edge factories and other equipment were shipped to France and Britain. It was really a, what they call a Carthaginian peace, where Germany was left with very little. Needless to say, this treaty was very unpopular, and the Social Democrats who signed it were further considered to be traitors. At first, they had supposedly knifed the German war effort, and then they signed this horrendous treaty. Since a lot of the leaders of the SPD were Jewish, it was very easy to play up the fact that there was a Jewish conspiracy selling out the country. It was right-wing propaganda right up to 1933 when Hitler took power, and Hitler tore up the treaty. He agitated against it through all those fifteen years, along with everybody else on the right and the far right, and most of those reparations were never paid. So, Germany and Russia begin to have diplomatic feelers, and the first thing that happens is that German industrialists were allowed to build factories in the Soviet Union. This was in 1920, while the Civil War is still going on. They were allowed to make military equipment and other key materials that had military use. I of course got interested in this, I looked into it a little bit. Some of the people on the German side actually traveled to Moscow and met with Lenin and Trotsky. I have to say as critical as I am of Lenin and Trotsky, I could not find any smoking guns. It was a very straightforward pragmatic deal. “We need this military equipment, you need some profits, so we’re going to let you build these factories.” It was one of the ways in which these ties between the two governments began to be established. Around this time, there was a very colorful character, Colonel Max Bauer, who had excelled in crushing several working class uprisings. He traveled to Moscow, he meets at a ceremonial dinner with Lenin and Trotsky, and further contracts assigned. Then Max Bauer goes on to China, where he becomes a consultant to Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang); there he’s involved in crushing the communist workers in Shanghai and Guangzhou in 1927. So, there’s a kind of a set of relationships that are being set down here.
I don’t want to draw any conclusions. Some people think that already allowing German factories to be built in the Soviet Union was another step towards the emergence of the Soviet Union as a nation state that was pursuing nation state aims, and to hell with the international movement. We can talk about that, but this was going on. In 1922, a formal agreement called the Treaty of Rapallo who was signed, and the guy who engineered it on the German side was this guy Walter Rathenau, and for his trouble he was promptly assassinated by these far-right underground groups. It also is hard to keep a chronological narrative going because so much is going on all over the place. The Kapp Putsch happens in March of 1920, it fails because of the general strike. In the Ruhr, the most industrial area of Germany, the true industrial heartland., there’s an uprising that lasts for a week and it results in the forming of what was known as the Red Army of the Ruhr, which was formed out of workers militias. They even had a little air force, and of course, the German Army moved in very quickly.
After the defeat of the Kapp Putsch, there was a social democrat who was concerned that the workers in the Ruhr area had never given in their weapons. They were still armed, and so there’s some evidence that the initial incident that sparked it was, of course the Kapp Putsch; Kapp wanted the workers to rise up because he thought they would be isolated, and they were, and therefore they could be relatively easily defeated. But it was quite a battle that was probably the most extended armed confrontation of the whole revolution in which thousands of workers were killed during the repression and of course afterwards, after they were rounded up.
I was in Germany last fall and I stopped off to see this guy I know in the Ruhr who’s a kind of a historian, kind of a maniac. He has 25,000 books in his library, but that’s another story, and he knows a lot about this stuff. I was looking around; nothing much of significance had happened in the Ruhr for a very long time. My friendsaid, “yes, it’s very curious; there’s a magnificent three- volume study of the Ruhr revolt, unfortunately not translated into English”.
When the author was writing this book, which was in the 70s, he went around the Ruhr and tried to find people who had had experiences in this, and it was just almost forgotten. It was just like it never happened. He talked to people who had actually fought. Of course a lot of the most class conscious and militant people had been killed, if not then, then later or during the Nazi period. But it was just like a historical amnesia like you can’t believe. Somewhat like Vietnam today in the United States, where one person in a hundred could say five interesting things about what happened in Vietnam, and why it happened and so on. That’s a far-fetched analogy but you get the idea.
So the Ruhr uprising was crushed. And then after that, last week I mentioned the 1921 March Action. Again this was in central Germany; this was basically down here south of Berlin in another industrial area where the workers also had not given up their weapons after the dust had settled in 1918/1919. This involved the Communist Party and the left communists, the KAPD. I forgot to mention that in fall 1919, the KAPD as a majority left the KPD, where I think may even have been expelled, and formed the KAPD, which lasted only a couple of years as a really mass party. When I say mass party it was maybe fifty thousand people or a hundred thousand people. I’d like to have a left communist group in the United States with fifty or a hundred thousand members, but I mean in Germany at that time, given all the other forces on the left and the right, it didn’t have a lot of weight.
I think (Anton) Pannekoek had been kicked out of Germany, since he was a Dutch citizen. Gorter was in Holland. Probably the most interesting guy on the scene at this point was a guy named Max Holz, who was a working-class firebrand, incredible speaker and great street fighter and strategist. He kind of excelled in these kinds of confrontations. He managed to play a leadership role in the March Action and then escaped to the Soviet Union and wrote a autobiography, which I haven’t read but which is supposed to be really good about what happened. He died later, much later; I don’t know in what circumstances.
So, both the KAPD and the KPD have troops, people on the ground in central Germany, and there’s tremendous hesitation in both parties actually about the wisdom of an uprising at that time. The great majority of workers in the immediate area in fact were hostile to the March Action, which involved seizing some factories with armed militias and getting ready to fight the police and the army. In fact, even the great majority of workers kind of held back and so once again, even though people like Max Holz organized brilliant resistance for a couple of weeks, the uprising was crushed. I think a thousand workers were killed, many more arrested and sent to jail for long terms, and there was much hand-wringing and accusation afterwards.
Interestingly the head of the KPD was a guy named Paul Levi, who was kind of a disciple of Rosa Luxembourg but with none of Luxemburg’s talents. He was opposed to the March Action, but it was kind of out of his control. He wrote a pamphlet called Our Road Against Putchism. He published it before the March action, and for his troubles he was expelled from the KPD. Lenin actually privately agreed with Levi, but because he broke party discipline by publishing this pamphlet, nothing was said. In the KAPD itself, there was a lot of criticism of the March action as well, that it was poorly prepared and isolated. I think the term “adventurist” was used.
So, this was not really a sticking point between the two parties at that point. There was a lot of hesitation on both sides and ultimately it was kind of an ill-considered action, which further isolated the revolutionary elements among the left communists and the best people in the left wing of the Communist Party. So that was the spring of 1921.
As I mentioned last week, I really see that as kind of the turning point of the whole world revolution after World War I. The failure of the March action, the question of Kronstadt in the Soviet Union, the Anglo-Russian trade agreement, which was the first time that relations were normalized with a capitalist country. The NEP, the New Economic Plan which opened up the market to the peasants, who were 85% of the population. Then, finally, and also lesser known, was the Soviet-Turkish commercial treaty, also in March 1921, in which Attaturk, the leader of the Turkish nationalists, was recognized and supported with Soviet money and weapons while he was crushing the Turkish Communist Party. This established a certain kind of precedent which would be followed many times in the future.
So. none of these events were particularly coordinated; what they showed was a pulling back of the revolutionary wave. Trotsky said right after 1917, “the world revolution is a matter of months away” and then by 1921 “well maybe it’s a matter of years”. Of course, Stalin moved into this whole discussion saying, “look, the world revolution is off the agenda, we’ve got to deal with our situation” and he eventually launched this formulation, which I think I mentioned before, of “socialism in one country”. Something unheard of in the Marxist tradition up to that point! So the ebb has kind of set in.
Now, just let me add a couple of more points; then we can get into our discussion. The situation in Germany was going from bad to worse. So you may recall the mass inflation of 1922/1923, when German pensioners and other people were literally pushing their weekly pensions down the street in wheelbarrows in one billion mark notes that were being issued massively by the central bank. It was just the exchange rate between the mark and the dollar went from 4 or 5:1 in 1914, up to two or three billion to one by 1923. It was just a chaotic situation. Workers were constantly striking, if for no other reason because they had to keep up with inflation, and the workers didn’t do too badly.
The people who really got screwed were the middle class, and the pensioners who had bought all these war bonds during the war. They would cash them in and the money they would get back would buy a box of matches, or pay for lunch, or something like that. The life savings of the whole German middle class were wiped out, and also all the debts of German industry were wiped out. So the industrialists generally came out of it very well. The employed working class didn’t do too badly; it was the people who had no organizing strength who just got absolutely hammered by this inflation. So the situation was deteriorating, and there was this one last attempt at a revolution in the fall of 1923. There had been discussion of sending Trotsky to Germany to run the German Revolution, the way he had run the Bolshevik seizure of power, but it never happened. I don’t know what would have happened, but finally in October of 1923, this crisis came to a head. There was Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, an attempt to seize the Munich government, which failed. At the same time, there was a completely botched uprising in Germany. I think I mentioned last time that the Comintern analyzed the situation, decided to call it off, sent off telegrams, and the guy with the telegram who
was supposed to notify the Hamburg working class that the insurrection was off missed the last train. So the Hamburg workers rose up and they were crushed in isolation. Interestingly, the weapons that the German army used there were from the Soviet Union. Not that the Soviet Union had sent them for this purpose, but they were weapons that were part of this deal in the German-Soviet accord.
Okay! I’ve talked too much, so why don’t we move to questions and discussion and see what we can flesh this out more, in terms of these different factions, and what this means for today? Just one last thing, again it’s the parallels and differences with contemporary China that I think are the most interesting aspect of why this stuff is not just ancient history for edification on a cold winter night.
Okay, first of all Germany was the most dynamic industrial country in the world at this time, with the exception of the United States. Around 1870 or at the latest 1880, both Germany and the United States passed England as leading industrial powers. In some ways Germany’s development was more interesting than that of the United States, because it had this statist top-down element that I mentioned with Bismarck. But it went much farther than that; for example, in 1870 in the United States, there were no graduate schools. If you wanted a better graduate school in the 1870s, 1880s and really up until the 1930s, you went to Germany, particularly in the sciences and in mathematics. It wasn’t just graduate schools; it was technical institutes that were innovating all kinds of stuff in engineering, steel production, chemistry, electronics and so on. It was, in that way, the most advanced industrial country. The United States was copying it with all these people coming back from studying there. None other than W,E,B Dubois went to graduate school in Germany between about 1908 and 1911; in 1912, he took classes from sociologists like Max Weber. That’s how widespread this fascination with Germany was. When the United States finally decided to have a central bank, the Federal Reserve Bank, which was created in 1913, was copied from the German central bank. There were congressional studies over several years, saying “we’ve got to have something like this.”
Germany became this model, in terms of class composition; it was a highly skilled workforce; there were not only was these technical schools. To this day, for example, Germany has these apprenticeship programs that it’s definitely a class-tilted kind of thing, sort of like tracking in the United States. Around the age of 16, if you’re not going to go to the university, you go to one of these apprenticeship schools. It turns out hundreds of thousands of skilled workers in their late teens every year. So, one of the reasons that today China and Germany have such close trade relations, with Germany exporting so much, machinery and cars and equipment and so on to China, is because of this highly skilled workforce that by comparison the US workforce fails in comparison.
So, there was this high level of labor formation and the real core industrial areas that as I mentioned earlier. The main one was over in the Ruhr area, bordering on Holland, Belgium and France. Bavaria was little industrialized, and then there was the industrial area around Berlin and then Hamburg and Bremen were more kind of export oriented but with some industry. As for the class composition within this, there’s no question that there was a division between these skilled workers who were relatively well paid and a larger mass of unskilled workers. But as for breaking it down by industry, I’m not really in a position to do that. In terms of ethnicity, there was a lot of Polish immigration into eastern Germany. A lot of Poles worked as agricultural laborers and there was some anti-Polish feeling about that.
Anti-Semitism in Germany was essentially aimed at the middle class. There was a huge Jewish working class in Poland and in some parts of Russia and other Eastern European countries. But to my knowledge there wasn’t much of a Jewish working class in Germany. The anti-Semites played on the fact that the Jews played a key role in banking and owned a lot of department stores and other things that were associated with modernization. But to my knowledge anti-Semitism played next and no role in the working class itself. The Social Democrats, just to flaunted their internationalism and their relatively advanced progressive character, went out of their way to run Jewish candidates in well-known right wing anti-Semitic areas. Anti-Semitism was something that came as a result of some fundamental transformations of German society.
There’s so much written about the German Revolution and all the stuff and I was thinking it might have been a good idea along with the Barrot-Authier and the Bourrinet chapters, to read Lenin’s pamphlet, as well as Gorter’s answer, which is also a brilliant pamphlet.
Lenin wrote Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder in the spring of 1920. The two targets in it are the German left communists, the KAPD, as well as the Dutch left and the Bordigists. We can take this up and actually maybe for our last session when we deal with left communism, we should read Lenin’s pamphlet because it’s a good introduction from the other side. Many years ago, I went to the library with that pamphlet and I looked up all the people that Lenin was denouncing, wondering “what do these people have to say?” That’s kind of how I stumbled on to the left communist tradition; at that time of course not much was published about it. Even today, there’s not a great deal that’s published but much more now.
What Lenin was basically saying, the argument was that the model of the Russian Revolution was the model for a revolution in the West. This was the process that Rosa Luxemburg had been so worried about, that by the very nature of being the only country with a Marxist party in power, that they would take over the Third International. Even though it was obvious to everyone, including the Bolsheviks, that Germany’s working class was much more important and more powerful than the Russian working class. What Lenin was trying to hammer home, what he was calling the “infantile sectarian” quality of the Western European left communists, was their refusal to enter into alliances with other forces. At the third congress of the Comintern, in 1921, the KAPD was expelled from the Third International. They set up a new international with some other left communist forces centered in Amsterdam, which unfortunately only lasted a couple of years. Trotsky made a speech (this was after Kronstadt); he said “we hear a lot of talk these days about the need for a third revolution. Well, if we’re going to have a third revolution, why not a Fourth International? Surely being overwhelmed by numbers will not be the problem of a Fourth International, if one day such an organization is ever founded.” It’s one of Trotsky’s many prophecies that wound up applying to himself!
But what Lenin was trying to do, the real core of it as I recall, was the question of the United Front. What is the United Front? The term has been used and abused ever since, but at that time it meant essentially aligning with the Social Democrats, or the left- wing Social Democrats. For example, you see here that ultimately, I did mention that, ultimately the KPD fused with the majority of the USPD to found a mass Communist Party. That was in 1920. Bordiga down in Italy was polemicizing all this time about the dangers of an absorption of the left-wing Social Democrats. Most of whom, not just in Italy but everywhere in Europe, had supported their own country in World War I. In fact there’s a very nice continuity between left Social Democrats who voted for war credits for their own bourgeoisie, who would be in the left wing of the Socialist Party after the war, and who became Stalinists five years later. So there was a certain kind of logic in their evolution. Bordiga was adamant when the Comintern ordered the Italian Communist Party, “you’ve got to fuse with the left wing of the socialists”. Bordiga said, ‘’no way!’’. So that’s how he gets into this pamphlet. But he’s really not mentioned that much. The real force of Lenin’s polemic is aimed at the KAPD and the Dutch left communists for their infantile refusal to make alliances with other forces.
Now in his reply, Hermann Gorter, along with Pannekoek, one of the two most important leaders of the Dutch leftm wrote this “Open Letter to Comrade Lenin” which you can find on Libcom. It’s really quite remarkable and in retrospect, it all seems very obvious. But here’s this guy, a poet; not really that well known outside of Holland and Germany, taking on Lenin, who was at the height of his prestige in 1920. He’s saying, “Look, Lenin, what you’ve got to understand is that the revolution in Russia triumphed because you had the support of the peasantry. The peasantry didn’t love you, they were suspicious of you and you stole the whole program of the left wing of the Social Revolutionaries by agreeing to the seizure of land in 1917, as if the Bolsheviks had any choice about that.” The peasants seized the land and handed it out among themselves, which was not the Bolshevik program. The Bolshevik program was nationalization of the land and the creation of collective farms, voluntarily. Nevertheless those were the circumstances and that was what neutralized the peasantry in the Civil War. No matter what the Whites tried to do, they could never convince the peasantry that they weren’t going to bring back the landlords, which is of course exactly what they intended to do. (see my later article, inspired by these talks ( http://breaktheirhaughtypower.org/the-agrarian-question-in-the-russian-revolution-from-material-community-to-productivism-and-back/ )
So the alliance is between the hammer and sickle. What is the hammer and sickle? It’s a symbol of the alliance of the working class and the peasantry, but this was not on the agenda in western Europe. In western Europe, in Gorter’s words, “the working class stands alone and cannot ally with any other political force.” One might say, I think it’s right that in some cases the revolutionary working-class party could say to peasant smallholders and landless workers in the countryside, “you’ve got to recognize, capitalism is headed for large-scale capitalist agriculture. It’s going to wipe you out. We offer you, as a doomed social class, we offer you the best possible way out. On that basis you could make an alliance, but to ally with, above all with the Social Democrats who have just drowned the revolution in blood a couple of years earlier in Germany, and were getting ready to do so in other places, no.
There was just something that many communists, as well as left communists just could not swallow, and that’s what Lenin was trying to hammer away at. But the real issue in both the case of Bordiga and the Dutch left was to say that this “dual revolution”, proletarian revolution in the cities, bourgeois revolution in the countryside, land to individual peasants smallholders, that this was not the model for world revolution. This is where the Russian dominance of the International really made itself felt most forcefully. Because from that point on, nobody could argue with the Russian party and the Russian state which was using the Third International as one aspect of its foreign policy. So that that’s it, but I think when we get to the left communists in our final meeting we should definitely read Lenin’s pamphlet and Gorter’s reply, something like that!