Marcel Bois: Kommunisten gegen Hitler und Stalin – Die linke Opposition der KPD in der Weimarer Republik – Eine Gesamtdarstellung (Book Review)

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Marcel Bois
Kommunisten gegen Hitler und Stalin
Die linke Opposition der KPD in der Weimarer Republik – Eine Gesamtdarstellung
Klartext Verlag, Essen 2014
ISBN 978-3-8375-1282-3

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With this 600 page strong book Marcel Bois offers the first comprehensive overall presentation of the history and sociology of the left opposition of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in the 1920s and early 1930s. The emphasis is on a very detailed and scientifically documented depiction of those groups who left the KPD from the mid-20s onwards in the course of its Stalinisation. These were on the one hand the groups around the former leaders of the party such as Ruth Fischer, Arkadij Maslow and Werner Scholem, who with Hugo Urbahns and others, founded the Leninbund (Lenin-League). On the other hand there were the Entschiedene Linke (Decisive Left) and the Gruppe Kommunistische Politik around Ernst Schwarz and Karl Korsch respectively, as well as The Wedding Opposition and smaller groups like Bolschewistische Einheit (Bolshevik Unity). A bit later, the organisational roots of Trotskyism in Germany also emerged. The Spartakusbund linkskommunistischer Organisationen around Franz Pfemfert had a special position in the milieu of the left oppposition.

The founding conference of the KPD took place at the turn of the year 1918/1919 within two months of the end of World War I. Less than two weeks later, two of its most important leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, were murdered. There were several attempts from this time through 1923 to make the revolution in Germany happen, which all failed. Already in 1919 a back-and-forth started between more ‘left’ or ‘right’ leaning leaderships, and as early as October 1919 a large section of the party’s left were expelled. The issues at stake were the rejection of elections to parliament and the Leninist party concept by the left. In April 1920 this left constituted the Communist Workers Party (Kommunistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands, KAPD), and took with them a large part of the membership of the KPD. This marked a decisive historical break in the international communist movement that was echoed in similar processes of regroupment in other countries. Lenin famously targeted the left with his nasty pamphlet “Left-Wing” Communism, An Infantile Disorder, denouncing its ‘opinion, declamations and angry ejaculations’ as ‘childish’, ‘particularly stupid’, ‘fundamentally wrong’ and amounting ‘to no more than empty phrase-mongering’. In the process he defended participation in parliamentary elections and reactionary unions, and effectively the dictatorship of the party over the dictatorship of the proletariat. The KPD in the meantime ditched the ‘right’ leadership under Paul Levi, who was appalled by the fact that the party had been dragged into the ‘putschist’ adventure of the ‘March Action’ in 1921. Levi then printed the previously unavailable – now famous – text by Rosa Luxemburg in which she severely criticised the Bolsheviks.

The party tried to go both ways: on the one hand participating in elections, on the other preparing the revolution. However, there was one last ill-fated attempt at a ‘German October’ in 1923. Strangely, it was exactly then that the party made another leftward move sending the previous leaders August Thalheimer and Heinrich Brandler to the Soviet Union and replacing them with Ruth Fischer, Arkadij Maslow, Werner Scholem and others. Ironically, they strove to centralise the party more, a process often referred to as Bolshevisation. With this they also inadvertently prepared the organisational ground for the subsequent Stalinisation of the party, and their own exclusion and that of many others. Historian Hermann Weber wrote in Die Wandlung des deutschen Kommunismus that the KPD subsequently mutated into a ‘bureaucratic-dictatorial organisation which was as far removed from theoretical insights as from revolutionary fire, but caught up in organisational fetishism and new rigid forms of hierarchy‘.

In the Soviet Union, Stalin steadily worked to gain absolute power and presented himself as Lenin’s heir while at the same time propagating the very un-Lenin-like (and generally un-Marxist) ‘theory’ of ‘Socialism in one country‘. This model proposed that the isolated SU would be able to create a socialist society even in the absence of world revolution, which had been seen as the precondition for socialism by all other radical Marxist theorists, including Lenin. But it wasn’t just Stalin’s lust for power and talent for intrigue that led him to ‘success’, and so many Communists to perdition. Stalin was the character mask of a new ruling stratum and the perfect leader for the political and economic organisation of the bureaucracy. The Leninist party model was transformed through the act of taking power in a backwards country into an authoritarian machine of oppression.

Rather than being the ‘world party of the proletariat’, the Communist International (Comintern) gradually became a tool of Soviet foreign policy. In this spirit, the various parties internationally were subjugated to the line of the Russian Communist Party. Already in “Left-Wing” Communism, An Infantile Disorder, Lenin took many outrageous liberties slamming German, English and Italian comrades who disagreed with him on tactics and strategies by writing things like ‘we (sic!) cannot regard as equally ridiculous and childish nonsense the pompous, very learned, and frightfully revolutionary disquisitions’. This became worse under Stalin. It also became clear that the revolution wasn’t going to happen anytime soon in Western Europe or North America.

In 1925, the new leadership of the KPD under Ernst Thälmann was installed, which was strictly faithful to Stalin. However, the left and ‘ultra-left’ were not all expelled simultaneously. Instead, the Central Committee (instructed by the Comintern) used salami-tactics to get rid of the different factions one by one using their differences to its advantage and trying to play them against each other. First to go was a group around the communist MP Iwan Katz, who denounced the dependency of the KPD on the ‘petty-bourgeois interests of Moscow’ and the ‘Russian capitalist peasant majority’. This fierce denouncement lead the Katz-group into an alliance with some of the ‘first wave’ of the extreme Left who had already left the KPD in 1919, in this case the AAU-E and Franz Pfemfert, editor of Die Aktion in the Spartakusbund Nr. 2. The AAU-E stood for Allgemeine Arbeiterunion-Einheitsorganisation (General Workers Union-Unitary Organisation), and they rejected the idea of a separation of the party and unions. The new Spartakusbund soon faltered after its initial successes of apparently gaining the support of up to 12,000 members. One crucial point was that Katz didn’t want to give up his seat in parliament (which he held as an independent after getting expelled from the party) despite the fact that the organisation was strictly anti-parliamentarian.

A similar fate awaited the next ‘slice’ – the Entschiedene Linke around Karl Korsch, Ernst Schwarz and others. They split again with one wing around Schwarz opting for a decisive break with the KPD and an approach to the KAPD. The Soviet Union was already viewed as state capitalist, and the EL adopted the anti-parliamentarian positions of the KAPD, which lead to problems with Schwarz who, like Katz, still had a seat in the Reichstag. The wing around Korsch called itself Gruppe Kommunistische Politik adopting the name of the journal they published, and they still hoped to be able to influence comrades in the KPD. Korsch was one of the most important Marxist thinkers of the time. He wrote Marxism and Philosophy, which is widely seen as a key early text of ‘Western Marxism’ along with Georg Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness, which both appeared in 1923. While Lukács tried to assimilate to the Stalinist machine, Korsch remained an active Marxist dissident.

Bois then goes into the foundation of the Leninbund, which at first brought together an impressive number of former Central Committee members of the KPD, including the main figures of the left leadership of 1924/25 such as Ruth Fischer, Arkadij Maslow, Werner Scholem, Hugo Urbahns and others. As the name of the organisation implies, it was strictly Leninist, which demonstrated a difference from the previous two ‘slices’. The other groups were moving away not only from the Stalinised SU, but also ultimately from Leninism. By contrast, the Leninbund and the other dissidents who left the KPD saw themselves as the ‘real’ Leninists, and in their opinion it was the Russian leadership that was digressing from the ‘orthodox’ path. When the Leninbund decided to stand in elections it caused the organisation to break apart, since many of them still dreamed of recapturing the KPD and thus opposed running candidates against it. Scholem, Fischer and Maslow left the Leninbund. The election results were poor and the organisation was weakened.

At the same time, the Left Opposition in the SU distanced themselves from their international allies as a condition to be allowed to remain in the party there. This was orchestrated by the Stalin leadership to weaken the opposition internationally – and Zinoviev and Trotsky fell for it, even if only for a short time.

Another problem was that the KPD embarked on an ostensibly ‘left’ course from 1928/9 onwards after they also expelled the oppositional ‘right’ around August Thalheimer and Heinrich Brandler, who went on to form their own party, the KPD-Opposition or KPO. They were the last independent thinkers and indeed the last Marxist theoreticians who deserved that name who were expelled. The KPD was then servile to Stalin’s line, leading it to disaster and collapse in the face of the Nazi takeover.

In this last phase before complete Stalinisation, 1928-1930, Bois goes into great detail about some currents that have previously been largely overlooked like the Wedding Opposition named after the Berlin working class district, but which also had sections in other parts of the country. He then discusses the early years of Trotskyism in Germany, which was a movement that stayed quite small compared to the other left oppositionist groups, and didn’t fail to split in two. It was also subject to infiltration by the GPU, the Russian secret service, within a short time. All of these accounts are very readable and thoroughly researched, which definitely makes Bois‘ book a must for anyone interested in the process of the degeneration of the communist movement in the second half of the 20s. Although Bois follows Hermann Weber’s groundbreaking work Die Wandlung des deutschen Kommunismus from 1969 in many ways, he does manage to map out some blank spots of the left opposition and adds many details.

This is reinforced by the solid sociological basis Bois describes in the last part of the book (which is perhaps a bit more boring to read), but almost more importantly by two excursuses. The first looks into the relationship between Leon Trotsky and Alexandra Pfemfert-Ramm, who was his German translator, and her husband, Franz Pfemfert, the editor of Die Aktion and a key figure of the Weimar ultra-left. The second investigates the (non-)relationship between Trotsky and August Thalheimer, particularly regarding their fascism theories.

This also shows that the author’s focus is on the tendencies corresponding to the Left Opposition in the SU, at first more Zinoviev-ist, then more Trotskyite. This is fair enough as it is indeed the subject of his research as the subtitle of the book shows. However, by calling the opposition ‘left communist’ throughout much of the book a problem is created: specifically, the distinction between the LO and the ‘other’ Communist Left, namely the anti-Leninist tradition starting with the already mentioned break of the KAPD from the KPD. Generally there is no agreed terminology in the wider literature on the topic and it remains somewhat unclear what is meant by terms like Communist Left, Ultra-Left, Left Communist or Left Opposition. Bois’ ‘solution’ is to call the KAPD, etc. ‘left radical’, which at least echoes Lenin’s discriminatory invectives.

Therefore, the KAPD, its spin-offs and wider milieu don’t play a significant role in Bois’ narrative except where they come into contact with the various KPD-Oppositions. To some degree that is an understandable decision as the specific aim of Bois’ book is to chronicle in detail the various oppositions within the KPD after Lenin’s death. They generally didn’t renounce Leninism. On the contrary they mostly saw themselves as the true Leninists in contrast to the party which they saw as abandoning its Bolshevik heritage.

However, this hadn’t been the case with the ‘first generation’ left communists organised in the KAPD and in other more council communist organisations (AAU, AAU-E, etc.). While initially they saw themselves as part of the one world communist movement and tried to become members of the Comintern, they soon rejected the established tenets of the ‘official’ movement. They then analysed the Soviet Union as ‘state capitalist’ and its press denounced the SU’s efforts to start economic, political and military collaborations with capitalist countries, including common manoeuvres of the Red Army with the Reichswehr. Nevertheless, they considered themselves – and should be seen and treated as – communist.

The fact that the most intelligent heads of the communist movement ended up in small organisations is telling as well. We can conclude that there was no longer any space for real Marxist theory in the large organisations (the KPD in this case) as soon as these parties became the concrete political administrators for the interests of a particular stratum. The communist party was no longer the expression of the world proletariat as the executor of the world revolution whose aim was to abolish all classes, but instead became the agency of the new ruling stratum of the bureaucracy in the USSR. The party itself was a huge bureaucracy of wanna-be rulers, which people who survived the Stalinist purges partially realised in the form of the DDR after the war.

In the post war years, the historiography of the Eastern Bloc attempted to re-write the history of the communist movement by blocking out whole sections, touching up others and generally falsifying and distorting it, sometimes beyond recognition. Trotsky and the old guard of the Bolsheviks who were massacred by Stalin and his henchmen are only the most famous victims of this gross falsification. The same applies to all of the smaller and more marginalised groups and individuals. At the same time in the West there was little interest in presenting a narrative that indeed there had been many communists opposing Lenin and (many more opposing) Stalin. Both sides in the Cold War profited from the objectively wrong view that Stalinism = communism, when in reality it was a new form of counter-revolution.

It wasn’t in the supposedly communist East but instead in West Germany where it was possible for some of the radical groups that claimed lineage from the Communist Left of the 20s as well as from the dissident ‘right’ KPO (in the form of the Gruppe Arbeiterpolitik which still exists today) to continue their work. In the ‘anti-authoritarian’ phase of the 60s protest movement, many of these dissident strains were unearthed and their rich heritage was appreciated for the first time. In the context of historiography, it was the University of Marburg where from the late 60s onwards a number of monographs were written mostly in the form of doctoral theses dealing with various dissident strains of communism. After a certain lull in the following decades, there seems to be a resurgence of interest and research helped by the fact that after the breakdown of the SU, new archival material has become available. Marcel Bois’ book is a welcome contribution to this archeology of resistance.

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