Theodor Bergmann

The Tragedy of Paul Levi: A German Revolutionary Between Communism and Social Democracy

Source: New Interventions, Volume 13, no 4, Summer 2011, translated by Mike Jones from Utopie kreativ (Berlin), no 105, March 2006. Prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

From the parties hatred and affection storm around him, his character-image fluctuates in history. — Schiller, Wallenstein

The Communists do him an injustice by calling him a renegade, as do the Social Democrats by calling him a convert. He was an international revolutionary Socialist of the Rosa Luxemburg school, he never denied it. — Carl von Ossietzky

Paul Levi was ignored for a long time, almost forgotten, the object of little Marxist research. In recent times a warm interest has emerged once more about this great revolutionary. Now, however, the fronts are reversed, and the two main currents of the German labour movement want to claim him for themselves. Here I will attempt to sketch out another portrayal that will do him better justice, although I am completely aware of my subjectivity.

Levi and the German Communist Party

The controversy around Paul Levi and the German Communist Party (KPD), of which he was the undisputed chairman until 1921, begins with the March Action of that year. With the ‘Theory of the Offensive’, August Thalheimer made a theoretical error that was supposed to serve as a justification for the unsuccessful March Action. Levi’s public disavowal of the theory was considered a breach of discipline and forgoing of solidarity in a dangerous time. In her Memories of Lenin, Clara Zetkin relates how she argued with Lenin to keep him in the Communist movement, which — as Lenin wittily remarked — did not have many heads to lose. [1] The Zentralausschuss of the KPD expelled him — with only two votes opposed: Clara Zetkin and Hans Tittel. Both remained in the KPD, while some important officials — Ernst Däumig, Otto Brass, Adolph Hoffmann — joined him in setting up the Kommunistische Arbeitsgemeinschaft (KAG — Communist Working Group), and they soon published their own journal, Unser Weg.

The strategic error — Thalheimer’s ‘Theory of the Offensive’ — was criticised and corrected in an intensive discussion with Lenin in Moscow. In a remarkable letter (written in German), Lenin apologised the following day for his rudeness. Thalheimer evaluated Levi’s accomplishments for the KPD in the Rote Fahne: ‘… an old comrade in arms… we have endured many difficult times together. None of us can rejoice when it concerns a man overboard. He was a leader of manifold, elevated and brilliant talents, from whom the party is separating itself.’

The ‘Theory of the Offensive’ and Levi’s expulsion are only explicable in historical context, as they were politically very closely connected. It concerned the longstanding attitudes of the discipline of conviction; and there were parallel interests: the Communists in the Soviet Union and in Germany both wanted a revolution. His views regarding the sovereignty of the KPD, of which Moscow’s emissaries — whom he called the ‘Turkestanis’ — were quite dismissive, were shared by the other KPD leaders. [2]

Back to the Social Democratic Party

Soon afterwards Levi and his friends in the KAG joined the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), whose left wing had fused with the KPD in the autumn of 1920. In 1922, at its Nuremberg Congress, almost all of the Independents entered the Social Democratic Party (SPD): Levi may not have felt happy in the party of Noske, Ebert & Co. He explained his step by saying ‘that the working class sees the Social Democratic Party as its party’. As the SPD’s leadership remained the same during this time, the fusion was therefore no unification of equal partners but ensued unconditionally, Levi may have had his doubts from the beginning. He stated that he had returned as a representative of the radical left in the party, just as he had left it in the World War. But nobody steps into the same river twice. The SPD leadership had developed further since 1914 — into a known quantity. The party machine treated him as an outsider and let him clearly feel that. The left-wing constituency of Chemnitz-Zwickau nominated him for the Reichstag — contrary to the wishes of the party machine. He was successful and he remained a Reichstag deputy until his death.

After his expulsion from the KPD Levi did something which enraged the other pupils of Luxemburg. In 1918, he had dissuaded Luxemburg from publishing her critique of the Russian Revolution. Now he published the essay and used it, so to speak, against the KPD. The important points of Luxemburg’s criticism, still relevant today, were shared by all her adherents, [3] but nearly all of them considered that it was inadmissible publicly to criticise the Bolsheviks whilst they battled against a world of enemies — an attitude that is rarely encountered today.

Levi’s explanation for his difficult passage into the SPD reveals that he thought along the lines of the stereotype that very frequently cropped up in the German working class with its proud organisations: unity gives strength. But the SPD’s policies were not class conscious and Levi’s now continuous criticisms of them remained ineffective. And unity only gives strength with a correct policy.

Levi was isolated at the party congresses, which were dominated and manipulated by the apparatchiks. The SPD was no more democratic than the KPD, in which until late 1923 a great deal of discussion took place. In the Reichstag the group leadership usually prevented him from speaking, as it determined how much time its deputies had in which to speak. Of the ‘Unification Congress’ in Nuremberg in 1922, he said:

The proceedings were somewhat wooden, icy, the atmosphere was hostile… The opposition could only express its ideas disjointedly in contributions to the debates, and when one of the ‘opposition’ spoke a large section of the delegates — we do not say all of them — had the stony mask of the Grand Inquisitor on their faces. Almost akin to a pogrom atmosphere. And compared with this, the speakers of the party leadership had abundant opportunities to speak: in the reports as much as double the time agreed in standing orders, in the summing-up as long as they pleased. And intellectually they were all cut from the same cloth.

On many important questions he kept up his criticism. That was the case, for example, regarding the internal condition of the party. In his journal he published very critical voices concerning the ‘disregard for party democracy’, ‘a clique which directs an administration in the party that violated freedom of opinion’, the ‘manipulated, censored electoral lists’, the ‘party police’. So he was obliged to present his criticism through the mouths of letter-writers. Evidently he was later restrained from publishing any more voices of that kind.

He opposed the coalition policy of the SPD wholly in the sense of Luxemburg:

Coalitions, existing and anticipated, have their balance sheet, whose assets are often revealed to us. They are meagre enough even in a favourable presentation. The left-hand side, however, has both candid and secret entries. The secret entries represent the abandonment of the hopes expressed in the candid entries, which never come to fruition. It will soon be time to check coalitions and expectations of coalitions from this point of view.

Here too he was still a pupil of Luxemburg. How relevant is this statement considering the neo-liberal capital-offensive of today’s ‘red-green’ coalition; which is neither red nor green, but simply pro-capitalist. [4]

Exposing the Right-Wingers

Levi’s criticism of the Federal Execution of 1923, as the Federal President Friedrich Ebert sent the Reichswehr into Saxony and Thuringia, in order to depose the legal SPD–KPD coalition governments, was even sharper. Nothing happened regarding the counter-revolutionary putsch in Munich [5] at the same time:

What was destroyed in recent weeks will not be able to be rebuilt again for months, indeed perhaps for years. And the worst is that nothing was lost in open struggle with reaction, but that it was wrested from the republic and its red heart, the working class, without the latter defending itself. The republic continually undertakes putsches against itself, it has carried out the splendid putsch against itself just now in Saxony. It will shortly do it in Thuringia.

The counter-revolution develops in Germany according to plan; it doesn’t even need to get its fingers dirty, that is taken care of by others on its behalf. It doesn’t even need to increase its power; because the republic sees to it that thousands of its adherents desert it daily, with rage, pain and disgust over these occurrences, and they become apathetic and indifferent. So the reaction grows to the extent that the republic castigates itself, commits hara-kiri, one suicide after another.

What is more, the republic kills its children, lets them go under in their desperation, or, like the Saxon workers, to be shot down, as if hungry proletarians were the sole enemy of the country: 23 dead on the Saturday just in Freiberg, over 30 seriously wounded in the hospitals moaning with pain. Everyone suffering, on account of this leadership, despairing proletarians with the yearning for better days, dead as a result of a deliberate act, shot or crippled. And no mourning, not even a rousing protest in this country, which seems to lie in its death throes, even despairing about its future and hence like a madman proceeds to boast in public about its terrible deeds. Is German law only violated when the ‘national foe’ spills German blood, is it only a day of mourning if Germans are shot by the French? Are there only parliamentary manifestations and peals of bells when Germans die in Essen on the Ruhr at French hands? Is the blood shed by the Saxon workers caused by German action worth any less than that shed on Good Friday in the Rhineland as a result of French action? Incompetence and cynicism are the characteristics of this republic blessed by the chancellorship of Stresemann.

What is taking place in Saxony has only one precedent: Belgium during the war. Did we not succeed in conquering the enemy in the World War and defeating Poincaré on the Ruhr: there must he victory, and if it is then it is a bloody victory over the Saxon proletariat. Yet with this victory this republic will die; just as imperial Germany died with its ‘victories’ in the World War.

Levi attentively followed the dismantling of bourgeois democracy under the mendacious formula of the law for the protection of the republic from 1922, which supposedly should have been employed against right-wing extremism. As, however, the state apparatus, particularly its legal sector, had not been purged after 1918, he rightly assumed that the law would be mainly employed against the left, although everything indicated that the enemy of the republic was on the right:

I recall the judicial farce on the occasion of the Arco case [6] where this judicial farce was played out not just inside the court; but outside too, where the students demonstrated on behalf of Eisner’s [7] murderer, and the Bavarian government, in a festive spirit, granted a pardon to Eisner’s killer. It has become the cultivation of the mentality of murders, the cultivation on the part of the authorities. [Shout from the Communists: And Pöhner [8] is back again as a judge!] Yes, Pöhner is a judge again, the same Pöhner who calmly tolerated for years in Munich, the same place from whence the murderer of Erzberger had been sent, how Arco was celebrated as the national hero in poems, postcards, posters on walls and pillars. Mr von Pöhner didn’t want to see anything and has seen nothing.

In that context, I would like to ask a further question of the federal government, which is not represented here today. How do things stand therewith? The superficial view of the judicial prosecution associated with the murder of Erzberger [9] still gives the impression that something or another is unsafe here. As far as I am aware, the Baden authorities — I believe it was on 2 September — arrived in Munich at 11 o’clock in the morning; and at eight o’clock the murderers were brought to the station.

I would like therefore the federal government to reply to the question, whether they have directed their attention to the point that undoubtedly a connection existed here between the murderers and their associates on one side and certain circles in Munich on the other, who were made aware of the arrival of the Baden authorities, or, to be blunt, the only place which was informed about it was the headquarters of the Munich police under the leadership of Mr Pöhner. [Very true, from the Communists.]

Where I now, as I believe, have shown that profound and intrinsic relationships exist between the murderers and the milieu from whence they came, and the structure and the extrinsic organisation of the German republic, then it is indeed to set the fox to keep the geese when one now, for the defence of this republic, appeals once more to German officialdom and the laws of the republic, which are executed by those who hitherto, knowingly or unknowingly — that may be quite indeterminate — have been with the accomplices of the illustrious people who carried out the murder.

Levi’s criticism of the class-based justice was caustic, when in the Reichstag he denounced ‘the moral depravity of German justice, which cherished and protected murder in Germany’. With his political foresight, Levi saw the danger posed by the SPD, due to its policies aimed against the Communists, which were taking an axe to the roots of the bourgeois republic and abetting the demagogy of the fascists, even if by accident:

The profound convulsion of the social structure by the war and postwar events is only now entering the consciousness of those affected by it… They have no faith in this republic… To them the republic is almost identical with the cause of their suffering. And in order to complete the misery, this republic has been identified with socialism to such a large degree that on the day when the masses ought to turn to us, those who are distant from and hostile towards us, socialism is powerless to attract them, offering them no confidence, dispensing no hope, and promising no happiness… This vast stratum of the despairing and only recently disinherited are the social foundation that furnished the rallying position for the putsch named after Hitler, which the one named after Kapp didn’t have.

The struggle against the murderers of Luxemburg and Liebknecht remained one of Levi’s main concerns, and he repeatedly expounded on the subject in the Reichstag and before the Leipzig supreme court. One of his targets was the supreme court judge Paul Jorns, who had from the outset protected, aided and abetted, and freed the murderers. Against the latter he won a moral victory for which he was congratulated by Albert Einstein:

Dear Paul Levi. It is elevating to see how, by a love of justice and acumen, an isolated person without support has cleansed the atmosphere, a wonderful pendant to Zola. In the finest among us Jews there still lives something of the social justice of the Old Testament.

Levi and the Soviet Union

Levi’s criticism of the Soviet Union was guided by the good intention of understanding its problems; it differed both in form and content from the anti-Communism which dominated the SPD’s press, even if there were sympathies for the Soviet Union at the rank-and-file level. His criticism became gradually sharper, and he surely erred when, for example, in 1924 he raised the question of the Soviet Union adopting an imperialist orientation:

One thing is certain. The powerful economic energies of the country, once developed, will give the nationalism of its inhabitants a legitimate foundation, and then for Europe and the world a bloody chapter of imperialism will begin.

This criticism was already being presented by the beginning of the Stalin era, but there is no doubt that at this time Soviet foreign policy was purely defensive, and in no way imperialist in character. (And also in regard to later periods the characterisation of ‘imperialism’ would seem to be objectively false.) It is no doubt true that Levi’s attitude towards the Soviet Union changed over time, as Uli Schöler has demonstrated. [10]

Levi rejected the New Economic Policy, just as he rejected Lenin’s agrarian policy. A detailed discussion of the agrarian question and its significance both in revolution and the construction of a socialist society is out of place here. Nevertheless, it seems to me that a misunderstanding of Russian economic problems on his part is discernible, although in the mid-1920s there was no experience yet in the field of socialist construction, and no comparison could thus be made. The warning of Bukharin and later of Trotsky about an exorbitant demand on the peasantry through exacting too high a ‘tribute’ via the terms of trade seems sensible to me. On the other hand, Preobrazhensky’s demand for a high contribution from the agrarian sector towards the construction of industry was mistaken.

Levi directed his energies vehemently against German rearmament, on account of which in 1931 a split took place in the SPD. Levi would surely have been the appropriate leader of the Socialist Workers Party (SAP). [11]

Levi’s Critics

Levi remained unpopular with the mighty of the SPD. It had been so when he was still a KPD official. Vorwärts wrote at the time: ‘A certain Levi and the loud-mouthed Rosa Luxemburg, neither of whom ever stood at the vice or in the workshop, are close to ruining everything we and our fathers conquered.’ [12]

This hostility remained unchanged when Levi returned to the SPD. Schöler’s attempt to interpret Levi and Luxemburg’s differences with Lenin as an antithesis seems to me therefore to be historically dishonest. In 1930, Thalheimer described the distinction between Luxemburg and Lenin quite differently. He believed their aims were the same — the defence of the Russian revolution, a revolution in Germany — but their methods and organisational principles had to be different, since the movements in which they operated and the circumstances of their political activity were wholly different. The Bolsheviks operated in an agrarian country in harsh illegality, thus their organisation was illegal and persecuted, and hence required professional revolutionaries. Rosa Luxemburg operated in Germany, a country with a strong, growing industrial working class, who were no longer illiterate, and who possessed formally democratic, legal organisations. The hard, continuous class struggle was conducted mostly in legal forms, even if this legality had to be vigorously fought for. The Russian proletariat was still a class in itself, in statu nascendi; the German was, on the other hand, already a class for itself, educated by auto-didactic workers’ leaders — the turner August Bebel, the chimney-sweep Friedrich Westmeyer, the bricklayer Heinrich Brandler, the metalworker Jacob Walcher, to name just a few. [13]

Following Levi’s death on 9 February 1930, there was a shameful scene in the Reichstag. That the NSDAP deputies withdrew during the commemorative words is understandable, as this honours Paul Levi, the courageous opponent of German reaction. But the KPD deputies did the same. Many obituaries did him justice. Albert Einstein wrote thus: ‘He was one of the most upright, wittiest and bravest people whom I have encountered on my journey through life… One of those who act naturally from the inner compulsion of an insatiable necessity for justice.’

In a very humane obituary in Gegen den Strom, Thalheimer said:

I first met him in the summer of 1918… He was prominently involved in the preparations for November… He was a brilliant contributor to the Rote Fahne under Rosa Luxemburg’s editorial control. At the same time he made his appearance as an public speaker at mass gatherings… Following the deaths of Rosa and Karl he was the actual leader of the party… If he, as Lenin openly declared, was 90 per cent correct with his criticism of the March Action of 1921, if he could easily have been able to prevail with organised, disciplined, patient steps, then he ruined everything by acting in the opposite manner… Communism, to which Levi once belonged, has no reason still to accuse Paul Levi beyond his death. The working class can clearly and impartially separate the bright past, when he served Communism, from the later times. [14]

That was the tone and the manner that earlier had been customary and normal among revolutionaries.

In her obituary, Bertha Thalheimer, August’s sister and co-founder of the Spartakusbund, was not so friendly. She admitted that he had indeed been right in his criticism of the March Action, but thought that he should have ‘tolerated the historical injustice of his expulsion, in spite of the acknowledged correctness of his criticism, in the interest of the construction of the Communist Party and the International’. [15] Perhaps this obituary was aimed more at her own comrades in the KPD-O; in order to exhort them to continue with their difficult struggle. In 1928, both the Thalheimers acted otherwise; but the condition of the KPD in 1928 was probably wholly different to 1921: critics could no longer even hope to be heard. The time of debates was over: the general line of Stalin should no longer be doubted.

This situation lasted until the end of 1983, when the Socialist Unity Party of East Germany finally honoured Paul Levi. During a festive arrangement on the occasion of the sixty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the KPD, Horst Sindermann, a Politbureau member, stated:

Such prominent fighters of the German labour movement as Rosa Luxemburg and Wilhelm Pieck, Hermann Duncker and Käte Duncker, Hugo Eberlein and Paul Frölich, Leo Jogiches and Ernst Meyer, August Thalheimer, Paul Levi and Paul Lange, were delegates [to the founding congress].

Before the relentless polemics began, Lenin expressed himself extraordinarily appreciatively about Levi in a conversation with Clara Zetkin: ‘You know how highly I valued Paul Levi. I got to know him in Switzerland and held out hopes for him. He has proved himself in the time of the worst persecution, he was brave, wise and dedicated.’ [16]

Against the ‘Professional Revolutionary’

In conclusion I would like in addition to express some general thoughts about Paul Levi.

Politics not as a profession but as a contribution. The most intensive activity in the socialist movement was a necessity of life for Paul Levi. But he wanted both inwardly and externally to be independent, not to live off politics, but for it. He understood that in Russia the conditions had necessitated the professional revolutionary, he opposed this for the German movement (and for himself). In 1926 he wrote thus:

One of the many transfers from Russian conditions into Western European ones, and German ones in particular, is the creation of the professional revolutionary… a Russian phenomenon surely in its psychic prerequisites, certainly in its political. In Germany out of the professional revolutionary with fire in the belly, hunger, self-sacrifice, has emerged the resignation of the revolutionary functionary. The professional revolutionary has in fact nothing… but he does have his political opinion. In the KPD, however, there are men who are professional revolutionaries; men who have understood how to remain in their posts, since they have no opinion. [17]

Levi and the Jewish Question

An early anti-Semitic leaflet in late 1918 said: ‘The Jew has seized the crown. We are governed by Levi and Rosa Luxemburg.’ [18]

In the socialist movement anti-Semitism was taboo, with rare exceptions, such as perhaps Wilhelm Keil in Stuttgart. [19] Jewish workers and intellectuals, occasionally a far-sighted industrialist, too, belonged to the labour movement in Germany, without their Jewishness seeming in any way remarkable, like Paul Singer and Hugo Haase, who were elected to the SPD leadership. For these Jewish socialists and revolutionaries, in spite of the latent and often very open anti-Semitism, there was no ‘Jewish Question’.

For German Jews at that time — long before Auschwitz — there were three routes:

1: Assimilation, in many cases even as far as formal conversion — parents allowed their children to be baptised.

2: Zionism, the movement which aspired to emigration and eventually the establishment of a state in Palestine — a small minority at the time.

3: The belief that a socialist society would resolve all national questions in the spirit of internationalism, among them the Jewish question too. We socialists have still to honour this claim.

That was before Auschwitz, before the most horrific crimes of German fascism, the reign of terror of the German bourgeoisie, which nobody, not even the most far-sighted Marxists, could imagine. After Auschwitz, the Jewish Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher wrote:

Naturally, I repudiated my anti-Zionism long ago, which was based on my trust in the European labour movement, or — more generally — on my trust in European society and civilisation, because this society and this civilisation have given the lie to that. If in the 1920s and 1930s I had called upon the European Jews to go to Palestine instead of opposing Zionism, I might have helped to save a few human lives which later were annihilated in Hitler’s gas chambers. For the remnants of European Jewry — really only for them? — the Jewish state has become an historical necessity. Furthermore, it is a living reality… Nevertheless, today I am no Zionist. [20]

Anti-communist historians criticise not only the active participation of Jews in the struggles of the working class; in their narrow-mindedness they actually saw Marxism and the proletarian movement as a Jewish invention, as part of the Jews’ supposed quest for world domination. For Marxist historians, however, another question poses itself. How did it come about that relatively many Jews became revolutionaries or progressive thinkers of modern development and ideas and made their contribution on many fronts of the international class struggle, risking their lives? Deutscher the Marxist answered this with another statement which seems obvious to me:

Have they perhaps influenced human thought so decisively on account of their ‘Jewish genius’? I do not believe in the unique ingeniousness of any particular race. But I do believe though that in many respects they were very Jewish… They were a priori extraordinary, inasmuch as they as Jews had lived on the margins between different civilisations, religions and national cultures, and are born and grew up on the margin between different epochs… They lived in the border areas or in the cracks and folds of their respective nation… This condition has enabled them to elevate themselves in their thinking above their society, above their time and generation, to open up new intellectual horizons and push forward far into the future. [21]

In the same essay, concerning the radical Jewish thinkers, he says:

All these thinkers and revolutionaries have had certain philosophical principles in common… They are all determinists therefore, since they have observed many societies, have studied many life-forms at close-hand, and thence also grasped the fundamental laws of life… They understood reality as something dynamic. Finally, all of them, from Spinoza through Marx up to Freud, had believed in the ultimate solidarity of man… In their hearts these ‘non-Jewish Jews’ were always optimists, and their optimism reached a height which is difficult to attain nowadays. They could not have imagined that ‘civilised’ Europe could sink so deep into barbarism in the twentieth century. [22]

So Jews have understood their persecution and prejudice against them as part of the far-reaching oppression and from the outset have fought alongside their comrades in the socialist movement, and also done their bit on all fronts in the struggle against German fascism. One of their great intellects was Paul Levi.

Levi the Luxemburgist

Heinrich Winkler called Levi an ‘intrigant inside the SPD’; [23] Schölar claimed him as a ‘left social democrat of the 1920s’. [24] I’m inclined to doubt that Levi became a social democrat. He would rather seem to have experienced that the SPD apparatus determined the party’s politics, and even the strong opposition exercised no influence upon it. Of course, he was strong and free enough to express bluntly his non-social-democratic opinion, although scarcely through the official channels and in the publications of ‘his’ party. Nevertheless, I do not want to go as far as Heinz Niemann, who thinks that objectively ‘he helped the reformists to maintain their influence’. [25]

Yet at times he seems to have hoped that the division of the German labour movement could be overcome once more by means of and within the SPD. To me that seems unhistorical; the organisational splits in 1914 and 1918 was necessary; the political divisions inevitably led to it. The furious anti-communism of the SPD leadership, the political actions of Otto Hörsing, Carl Severing, Karl Zörgiebel and others had contributed their share to the deepening of the split. As long as different conceptions about the road to socialism exist, more than one proletarian party is necessary. The necessary unity in the day-to-day class struggle must be created by the united front, not by a united party of reformists and revolutionaries.

Charles Bloch has, it seems to me, summed up Levi’s principles. [26] Levi always stuck to three principles:

1: Bourgeois society can be replaced by socialism only by way of a revolution. The bearer of this revolution must be the proletariat, even if it is in alliance with other classes.

2: In order to attain its goal the working class must be united; this unity can only rest on the basis of complete conceptual clarity.

3: Free debate and internal democracy must always exist within the party, the dictatorship of the proletariat also must preserve a certain degree of freedom. In the long term, democracy and socialism are inseparable. They mutually supplement and deepen each other, and only with this unity can the needs of the masses be satisfied.

Above I quoted from Ossietzky, who believed that both the SPD and the KPD would label Paul Levi, following his death, as their opponent; and so it was too. In 2004 it is the reverse. In a copy of Disput, Heinz Niemann and Jörn Schütrumpf claim Levi for the PDS, [27] while the social democrat Uli Schöler claims him for the social democrats. [28]

Levi was perhaps no great theoretician of Marxism; but he had absorbed it and in his political analyses and in his party activity he was a master in applying it.

Since 1924, when Ruth Fischer uttered her nasty lumpen-proletarian words about Rosa Luxemburg, and up to the death of Fred Oelssner and the demise of the SED, Luxemburgism was regarded as one of the greatest political sins of the German labour movement. Paul Levi would have been proud to be characterised as a Luxemburgist. His expulsion from the young KPD did not change him politically; he remained one of her most faithful pupils. However, for the KPD this decision was an early mistake and led to a great loss.


  1. Clara Zetkin, Erinnerungen an Lenin (Berlin, 1957).
  2. In a letter of 19 February 1922, Zetkin, Walcher and Brandler complained about Moscow’s tutelary strivings.
  3. See the letter from Leo Jogiches to Sonja Liebknecht in Feliks Tych and Ottokar Luban, ‘Die Spartakusführung zur Politik der Bolschewiki’, IWK, Volume 33, no 1, 1997, pp 92-102.
  4. A reference to the coalition government in Germany at the time of the writing of this article. Composed of Social Democrats and Greens, it lasted from 1998 to 2005.
  5. That is, Hitler’s ‘Beer Hall Putsch’.
  6. Count Arco-Valley (1897-1945) was an officer. Condemned to death for the killing of Eisner (qv), his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and suspended in 1924.
  7. Kurt Eisner (1867-1919) was a USPD member and Prime Minister of Bavaria during 1918-19.
  8. Ernst Pöhner (1870-1925) was the Munich police chief in the early 1920s, and was accused across the left of favouring the right. He gave support to the Organisation Consul, a Freikorps death squad (see note 9). In 1923 he was the Justice Minister in the Bavarian government. In his Putsch in November 1923, Hitler had Pöhner marked down as a Prime Minister of Bavaria, and he was condemned to five years’ jail in the ensuing trial of Hitler and his plotters.
  9. Matthias Erzberger (1875-1921) was a prominent member of the Centre Party and a Reichstag deputy. He signed the armistice with France in November 1918. This led to his being branded by the far right as a ‘traitor’, and he was murdered by the Organisation Consul. The organiser of his murder, Manfred von Killinger, also arranged the murder of the German Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau in 1922, and became a prominent official under the Nazi regime.
  10. Uli Schöler, ‘Der unbekannte Paul Levi’, Utopie kreativ, no 165-166, July-August 2004, pp 737-51.
  11. The Socialist Workers Party (SAP) was formed in October 1931 after the SPD expelled several left-wing Reichstag deputies including Kurt Rosenfeld and Max Seydewitz.
  12. Cited in Charlotte Beradt, Paul Levi: Ein demokratischer Sozialist in der Weimarer Republik (Frankfurt/Main, 1969) , p 22.
  13. August Thalheimer, ‘Rosa Luxemburg oder Lenin?’, Gegen den Strom, Volume 3, no 2, 1930, pp 21-22 (translation: ‘Rosa Luxemburg or Lenin?’, What Next?, no 7, 1998, pp 38-41).
  14. August Thalheimer, ‘Paul Levi’, Gegen den Strom, Volume 3, no 7, 1930, pp 103-04.
  15. The obituary is quoted more fully in Theodor Bergmann, Wolfgang Haible and Galina Ivanova, Die Geschwister Thalheimer: Skizzen ihrer Leben und Politik (Mainz, 1993), pp 76-77.
  16. Cited in Otfrid Arnold, Paul Levi: Sozialdemokrat — KPD-Vorsitzender — Sozialdemokrat (Berlin, 1996), p 16.
  17. Sozialistische Politik und Wirtschaft, 15 August 1926.
  18. Cited in Beradt, Paul Levi, p 22.
  19. Wilhelm Keil (1870-1968) was an SPD newspaper editor, longstanding Reichstag deputy and member of the South-West German parliament both before 1933 and after 1945.
  20. Isaac Deutscher, Der Nicht-judische Jude (Berlin, 1988).
  21. Deutscher, Der Nicht-judische Jude.
  22. Deutscher, Der Nicht-judische Jude.
  23. Heinrich Winkler, Von der Revolution zur Stabilisierung. Arbeiter und Arbeiterbewegung in der Weimarer Republik 1918 bis 1924 (Berlin/Bonn, 1985).
  24. Uli Schöler, ‘Der unbekannte Paul Levi’.
  25. Heinz Niemann, ‘Paul Levi in unserer Zeit’, Geschichtskorrespondenz, Volume 10, no 1, 2004.
  26. Charles Bloch, ‘Paul Levi: Ein Symbol der Tragödie des Linkssozialismus in der Weimarer Republik’, in Walter and Julius H Schoeps (eds), Juden in der Weimarer Republik (Stuttgart/Bonn, 1986), pp 244-61.
  27. See also Niemann, ‘Paul Levi in unserer Zeit’; Jörn Schütrumpf, ‘Unabgoltenes Politikverständnis bei Paul Levi’, Utopie kreativ, no 150, April 2003, pp 330-42.
  28. Uli Schöler, ‘Der unbekannte Paul Levi’.