Victor Serge, Witness to the German Revolution, Redwords, London, 1999, pp238, £8.99


HIS book gathers a selection of articles written for the Comintern press agency during 1923 by Victor Serge, then working illegally for Inprekorr in Germany. It also includes two pieces, one from 1922 which helps to set the scene, and another from 1924 which reflects on the events. Ian Birchall has translated the articles from French, seems to have provided most of the annotation, and has supplied the reader with a chronology, an explanation of the abbreviations and German terms used, as well as brief biographies of key personalities, tips for further reading, an appendix on article sources, and an introduction to the collection. Though inspired by the French edition edited by Pierre Broué, this one has eight further items not included there.

For some reason, Ian insists on using the Polish names for Breslau, Danzig and Stettin, which at the time were in Germany, or, in the case of Danzig a free city, and known the world over by the above names. Yet in the case of Küstrin, erroneously placed ‘near Berlin’, when it is actually on the Polish side of the Oder, which marks the postwar border, and thus named Kostrzyn, the old name is used. It is as if a Chartist action was described as occurring in a Welsh‑named town then known widely only by its English name.

Lübeck was not in Saxony (p49); it was a free city for centuries until 1937, when the Nazis abolished the status. The translations of some of the newspapers are sometimes a bit quirky, but only in the case of the Völkische Beobachter would I make a fuss. Völkische can be rendered as ‘racial’ or ‘national’, so it could be called the Racial Observer, but certainly not the Popular Observer. Of the three Communists in the Thuringian government (p168), Tenner, Korsch and Neubauer, only Korsch is deemed worthy of a note. Albin Tenner had been a minister in a number of left‑wing ­governments during 1918‑20, became a leading German Communist Party (KPD) member and would lead its Landtag Group in Thuringia. During Ruth Fischer’s regime, he was expelled as a rightist for some months in 1925. In 1929, he was again expelled as a rightist and joined the Communist Party (Opposition) (KPD(O)). Theodor Neubauer became a loyal Stalinist and a Reichs­tag Deputy. He conducted himself with courage under the Nazis, and built up a resistance organisation in Thuringia which linked up with those in Saxony and Berlin. He perished in the aftermath of the July Plot in 1944. At a meeting of top Social Democratic Party (SPD) people, a ‘woman militant, Wurm’ is quoted, but not identified (p146). This would be Mathilda Wurm, a Reichstag Deputy who, with her husband Emanuel, was a close friend of Rosa Luxemburg. All of the above‑mentioned seem to me to be worthy of a note.

In his introduction, Ian writes that ‘reading between the lines, it is also possible to see the fundamental weakness of the KPD’ because owing to the series of revolutionary crises during 1918‑23, it had not been possible ‘to build a stable and consistent leadership, and to establish the necessary relations of intelligent trust between leadership and rank-and-file activists. The KPD had come into existence only in 1917 — no organisation had been built in advance of the crisis. Hence the rapid changes of leadership, the hesitations and tactical zigzags that marked the years of upheaval.’ (p xi) Here we see both an oversimplification and a total failure to understand the real lessons.

When the KPD was set up at the end of 1918 and the beginning of 1919, only three delegates voted against, one being Leo Jogiches, Luxemburg’s mentor. It adopted ultra‑left positions, the maj­ority of its 100 000 or so members upholding positions devel­oped by Anton Pannekoek and Herman Gorter. The KPD was unable to adopt a coherent Communist approach to day‑to‑day matters as long as this was so, and the two fundamentally hostile tendencies fought each other. Paul Levi manoeuvred the ultra‑left out of the KPD in the latter part of 1919 and early 1920. Some of them then set up the Communist Workers Party (KAPD). He then turned to winning over the approximately one million members of the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD). Levi also admitted that Leo Jogiches had been right, and that had the Spartacus Group stayed in the USPD ‘for another three or four months… the whole prob­lem of how to divide the revolutionary masses in that party from their opportunist leadership would not exist’.

The revolutionary Marxist current had existed within the SPD long before August 1914. It crystallised out of the differences with the Marxist Centre around Kautsky over how to evaluate the Russian Revolution of 1905. The Spartacus Group established itself as a separate political current from the centrists on 1 January 1916, when it adopted the Junius Theses, though it did not separate itself organisationally from the most advanced workers, then belonging to the USPD. The ISD (International Socialists of Germany), which became the IKD (International Communists of Germany) during the revolution of November 1918, and which was the kernel of ultra‑left concepts within the KPD, had separated from the SPD already in 1915. They, of course, had no more success in winning over the masses than Pannekoek and Gorter’s Dutch party, the Tribune Group, which had split from the Social Democracy in 1909.

The murders of Luxemburg, Liebknecht, Jogiches and others, the death of Mehring, and the constant interference by the Russian Communist Party (RCP(b)) leaders were the reasons why no stable leadership could be established. Through Radek, Lenin was pushing for a split from the USPD and for setting up the new International, whereas both steps were at first strongly opposed by Jogiches and Luxemburg. Creating a new International with no other powerful parties other than the Bolsheviks would only lead to them dominating it. Writing in 1930, Paul Frölich described it thus: ‘For 10 years the German Communist Party has been the guinea‑pig for all sorts of political quackery and surgical interventions.’ Not only was the KAPD courted by the RCP(b), but the Comintern bureau in Berlin was a law unto itself. Spies and informers were installed in the KPD’s leading organs, and groupings and people were played off against each other. The Berlin leftists around Ruth Fischer were encouraged as a pressure group upon the Zentrale. Fischer, Maslow et al opposed the united front, and the permanent intrigue not only hindered the KPD’s activities, but even threatened to split it. Indeed, in late April 1923, a conference took place in Moscow to try and reconcile both groupings. Brandler was forced to take four leftists into the Zentrale, Fischer and Thälmann among them. Brandler suspected the ECCI of playing a double‑game, and on 12 July 1923 offered his resignation: ‘If the political line of the Berliners is correct, then the Executive should transfer the leadership to them.’ These underhand methods were used against Paul Levi within the USPD even before the split at Halle. Then, at the unification congress six weeks or so later, Levi’s manif­esto advancing a sensible orientation was replaced by one from Radek, in a dubious fashion, which boasted: ‘The VKPD [United Communist Party] is strong enough where events allow or require it to go into action off its own bat.’ That was a few months prior to the March Action. Levi objected that the KPD was not a ‘branch office’ of the Bolsheviks. The archives contain letters from Brandler, Zetkin and others protesting to Lenin over these methods. Nothing changed — and all this was long before the rise of Stalin.

Moreover, it is inaccurate as well as an oversimplification of the problem facing the KPD to claim that the majority of the USPD fused into the VKPD in December 1920 (p47). Out of the about one million members, only around 280 000 joined the VKPD (it revised its initial optimistic figure of 500 000 to 350 000 members in 1921), around 340 000 stayed in the USPD, but the majority, around 350 000 or so showed their disapproval by dropping out of either party. The delegates at Halle only reflected the keen protagonists for or against the Comintern’s ‘Twenty-One Conditions’. In ‘red Saxony’, for example, only 21 delegates at Halle voted for acceptance, while 49 opposed the motion. All the USPD Landtag deputies, the party press and most of its officials stayed in the USPD, while only a small part of the membership went into the VKPD. Between November 1920 and January 1921, the Saxon KPD rose from 24 000 to 40 000 members, whereas the ‘right’ USPD kept more than double that until 1922. The KPD’s membership was mainly concentrated in West Saxony, while the KAPD was stronger in East Saxony (Otto Rühle in Dresden had a big following), but the right‑wing SPD dominated the working class. The KPD faced rivals on its left and on its right. The reason for the majority of USPD members rejecting the Comintern was mainly the proposal to split the trade union movement and set up a ‘red union’ centre, but it was also due to the excessive centralisation of the Comintern.

Serge’s articles are valuable, and often show a literary quality, and the observational side is stronger than the analytical, as he is lumbered with the catastrophism of the Comintern as well as its sectarian language. The ‘fascist’ label is attached to all and sundry reactionaries. On the whole, I agree with Ian’s comments on them, and for example, Serge’s recent Anarchist past could account for his leftism. While he quotes Mathilda Wurm with approval, he is over the top in his comments on Levi and Kurt Rosenfeld, who were both from the same political current, and were both devoted to the working class (p46). The mature Serge would be better in that regard.

The article on the meeting of the three Internationals in Berlin (pp8‑13), rather triumphalist and moralising, ends with­out reporting the conclusion or — of necessity in an account — the outcome. For the record, it was an initiative to bring about a united front proposed by the KPD Zentrale at its meeting on 21 December 1921. The omission could reflect his underestimation of the need, as noted by Ian, to win over Social Democratic workers, as one gets the sense that Serge focuses on the KPD alone. Whether he upheld the belief that one must capture a majority of the working class before taking the power, as did the pupils of Rosa Luxemburg, as set out in the first party programme, or thought in terms of a vanguard, is unclear.

Note 2 on pages 42‑43 points out: ‘Since 1921 there had been much discussion of the demand for a “Workers’ Government”, that is, a KPD‑SPD coalition within the existing parliamentary framework. Such a demand flowed from united front policies, yet risked encouraging reformist illusions.’ To clarify the picture, it is worth going into historical facts on this matter. The birth of the Workers’ Government as a parliamentary combination first appeared in a brochure entitled Der nahende Zusammen­bruch der deutschen Bourgeoisie und die KPD, by Karl Bremer, that is, Radek), published in Hamburg in November 1921 by the Comintern firm Hoym. Radek was expressing the views of the Comintern’s Executive. When he advanced them as theses in a meeting of the KPD Zentrale, they were opposed by theses drafted by Thalheimer and Clara Zetkin, and rejected. The KPD Zentrale came under pressure from the ECCI. At its session on 18 December 1921, the Zentrale was attacked by Radek for rejecting his concept. The Fourth Con­gress of the Comintern in late 1922 discussed the Workers’ Gov­ernment, but rather than clarify things it further confused them. Radek’s concept was adopted by the KPD’s Leipzig Congress in January 1923 under pressure from the ECCI. The Workers’ Govern­ment proposed by ADGB leader Legien during the Kapp Putsch, and which the KPD offered to support critically but not join, was wholly different, as it would have rested on the struggling organisations of the working class in a situation of civil war in parts of Germany during the greatest general strike hitherto seen.

Of particular interest is the last article, published in the left‑wing non‑party organ Clarté in February 1924, and which looks back over events in order to make his judgements on the causes of the failure to undertake a seizure of power during 1923. Serge mentions the underestimation — admitted by the KPD — ‘of the force of inertia of the Social Democrats in general’, and the overestimation of ‘the extent of Communist influence on the left Social Democrats’, but sees that of only minor importance. He identifies the difficulty in being able to ‘concentrate a great superiority of forces at the decisive point’ owing to the ‘extreme’ decentralisation of Germany’, etc (p223). He also makes the extremely valid point that the labour force was everywhere ‘worn out by years of hunger, overwork and acri­mony’ (p228). Various historians have made that point, and the fact that not only does one need to think of the years since 1918, but the war years too, and that the decisive errors of a sectarian nature were made between 1918‑20, when a united labour movement should have fought to break the back of reaction by dispossessing the big industrialists and landlords, and by demo­cratising the state. Furthermore, the decisive revolutionary opportunity was in 1920 during the Kapp Putsch. Serge rejects the views of the KPD left around Ruth Fischer, and quotes quite extensively from the theses of the newly-formed Centre Group. He could have been expressing the views of the ECCI, as at a meeting to discuss the German events in January, it had come out favouring an evaluation somewhere between that of the Centre Group and the leftists, and recommended that the KPD Zentrale be re­jigged to be composed of five Centre people plus two leftists. That was duly carried out in February. It is not the case that ‘Ruth Fischer… became KPD leader with Zinoviev’s support in 1924’ (p231 n10). The scapegoating of Brandler, in which Serge did not indulge, the charge of ‘rightism’ and whipping up of leftism, combined with the anger and disappointment of the rank and file, elevated Fischer, Maslow & Co into the KPD leadership at the Frankfurt Congress in April 1924, against the wishes of the ECCI.

Owing to the struggle to succeed Lenin, the German events became a useful tool whereby rivals and their perceived suppor­ters could be discredited. Thus no discussion ever took place, either in the KPD or the Comintern, to determine what went wrong in 1923. Only now with the opening of archives and new studies can we begin to get a picture of what was going on behind the scenes. Klaus Kinner’s Der deutsche Kommunismus (Berlin, 1999) deals with the KPD during the Weimar Republic. The biography of Jacob Walcher by Ernst Stock and Karl Walcher (Berlin, 1998), builds on Walcher’s unpublished autobiography until 1922. The rest was removed by the Stasi when Walcher died, but much of interest is included that reflects over the early years. Jens Becker, Heinrich Brandler (Hamburg, 2000) will help illum­inate the events of 1923. Serge’s writings help to set the scene.

Mike Jones