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The German Revolution in the Leninist Period

Jean Van Heijenoort

This article, published under the pseudonym Marc Loris in the March 1943 issue of Fourth International, is a reply to Walter Held’s analysis of the failure of the German revolution which we reprinted in What Next? No.1. Born in 1912, Jean Van Heijenoort joined the Trotskyist movement in France. He served as Trotsky’s secretary for several years in the 1930s and at the time this article appeared was based in New York where he held the post of secretary of the Fourth International. After the end of the Second World War, Van Heijenoort was to renounce Trotskyism, abandon political activity and pursue an academic career as a mathematician. He died in 1985.

IT IS not without some embarrassment that I undertake a criticism of our comrade Walter Held’s article "Why the German Revolution Failed". The terrible conditions of the reactionary period which we are going through prevent Held himself from participating in the discussion.1 In spite of Held’s enforced silence, however, I feel forced to criticise his article, because it contains a number of errors on questions of prime importance for the revolutionary education of proletarian militants. For the very reason that his article contains excellent truths, very useful to recall, it is so much the more necessary to criticise it: nothing, indeed, is more dangerous than an error which takes refuge behind a great truth.

Held strongly emphasises, and rightly so, that without a tested party with a firm leadership it is impossible to lead a proletarian revolution to a successful conclusion. This great truth was certainly demonstrated positively in October 1917, in Russia, and negatively in Germany in 1918-19. Held, however, gives to this truth an abstract character.

Apropos of the various events of 1919-23 in Germany or Italy, Held incessantly uses the same expressions: "the conception [of the party] was not adequate from the very beginning", "the attempt to [build a party] was too late", "such an attempt [to build a party] was doomed to failure because there was a vacuum", etc. Held thus turns in a vicious circle: the party cannot be formed because it does not yet exist. But there was a time when the one real party that he recognises, the party of the October Revolution, also did not exist. How did Lenin and his co-workers pass from the non-existence to the existence of a fully-formed and tested party? Held is under the illusion that he has analysed this important question and that he applies what he has thus learned to the events of 1917-23. In reality, however, he simply reiterates, over and over again, that such a party was not created in Germany. As he must get out of this vicious circle one way or another he ends up by breaking through it haphazardly and arbitrarily. As the non-existence of the party is his sole explanation for everything, so he fetishises one incident in the party’s history into the sole explanation for its non-existence. He stumbles, in the history of the German movement, upon the Levi case, and is obliged to exaggerate and distort it in order to construct out of it a cause for the defeat of the revolutionary wave of 1917-23, and thereby for the degeneration of the Communist International and the Soviet state. Held has thus been led to a veritable revision of the history of the Comintern and the origins of our movement.

To clarify all the points raised by Held would mean to write a history of the Communist International. I will limit myself here to trying to correct his evaluation of a number of important facts. I will try to show how he was led to such inexact evaluations through a false method. It is to be hoped that this discussion will inspire many young members of our party to become much more familiar with the rich history of the first years of the Communist International.

The Second World War once more brings forward to our generation, under broadly analogous conditions, the tasks which were not resolved at the end of the First World War. The history of the Leninist period of the Communist International is of more burning significance today than ever before.

Paul Levi
In order to explain his criticism of the leadership of the German and Russian Communist parties, Held bestows the greatest eulogies on the pamphlet that Paul Levi wrote after the March Action of 1921 in Germany. He writes: "Immediately after the close of the event, he [Levi] published a brilliantly written pamphlet, Unser Weg: wider den Putschismus (Our Road: Against Putschism). Outside of Rosa Luxemburg’s Spartacus Programme, this is one of the most noteworthy contributions to be found in the whole history of the German Communist Party." Held does not dwell long on the circumstances of the publication of this pamphlet. Only indirectly does it appear in his article that Levi’s criticism of the leadership of which he was a member was made outside the party.

After the defeat of the March Action in Central Germany, the Communist Party underwent the most severe blows. In addition to the military and police repression there was the activity of armed reactionary bands such as the Orgesch. The courts unhesitatingly handed out long sentences to the Communist workers. Leaders were hunted down and arrested. One of them, Sylt, was killed "while attempting to escape". The bourgeois and Social-Democratic press was waging a violent campaign against the Communists, accusing them of sabotage, arson and murder. The entire bourgeois rabble and its Social-Democratic lackeys were crying incessantly about "the putsch". It was under these conditions that Paul Levi, on 3 April 1921, sent his pamphlet to press without the knowledge, much less the consent, of the party.2 Naturally, Levi understood the term "putsch" differently from the anti-Communist hounds, who so described any revolutionary action. Later we shall discuss whether Levi was justified in calling the March Action a "putsch" in the Marxist sense of the word. But if we admit for the moment that he was entirely right on the political plane, the irresponsible manner in which he presented his critique could not and did not fail to furnish a weapon against the party.

The pamphlet was distinguished above all by its complete lack of solidarity with the party. It threw the grossest insults publicly at the party leaders. It used unsparingly the cheapest demagogy. The following is one example among many others: "You orphans and widows of the fallen proletarians! Do not hate capitalism; do not hate the Social-Democratic lackeys and hangmen, do not hate the Independent Socialist rascals who have stabbed the fighters in the back. Do hate the leaders of the Communist Party! And you workers who, maltreated in the jails, still raise high your bloody heads, convinced that you have fallen into the hands of the enemy in a gallant fight for the interests of the proletariat – you are mistaken. You have no right to be proud of your wounds, you are victims of new Ludendorffs who cynically and frivolously sent you to your death!"3

The leaders of the party are thus compared publicly, by a member of the leadership, to Ludendorff. Any honest member of the party could do no more than remain impervious to Levi’s arguments. By his irresponsible conduct Levi discredited his political critique of the leadership’s errors, and thus helped the leadership to avoid its political responsibility. As Lenin noted: "Levi behaved like an ’anarchist intellectual’ (if I am not mistaken, the German term is Edelanarchist), instead of behaving like an organised member of the proletarian Communist International. Levi committed a breach of discipline. By this series of incredibly stupid blunders Levi made it difficult to concentrate attention on the essence of the matter."4

Held passes very lightly over this whole problem of Levi’s conduct. Dealing with the criticisms of Levi that Lenin made in his conversations with Clara Zetkin, Held writes that, according to Lenin, "Levi’s critique lacked the feeling of solidarity with the party, and had embittered the comrades by its tone, rather than by its content". And Held comments: "This argument sounds surprising, coming from a politician who had always used the sharpest tone in his polemics, and had ridiculed every criticism of sharp tone as evidence of political weakness." Thus Held reduces the whole question to "tone", without quoting Lenin’s further declaration to Zetkin: "[Levi] tore the party to pieces. He did not criticise, but was one-sided, exaggerated, even malicious; he gave nothing to which the Party could usefully turn. He lacks the spirit of solidarity with the party."5

Indeed, Lenin knew how to employ "the sharpest tone in his polemics". But one must note that either this "tone" was directed against the enemies of the party, and not against his own party or, in polemicising against another party member, even where he used a sharp tone, Lenin always made clear that they both stood together within the borders of the same party. Levi did not understand how to discern these borders. He publicly "tore" his own party "to pieces".

Having reduced the affair to a question of tone, Held evidently cannot comprehend the attitude of Lenin and Trotsky. He writes: "It remains difficult to understand how Lenin and Trotsky could follow the Third World Congress in placing the form above the content" (of Levi’s criticism). But the question was by no means one of "tone" or "form"; the principles of democratic centralism, the very conception of a party, were at stake. By passing so lightly over this whole aspect of the problem, Held betrays a real blindness to organisational problems.

Under the given conditions the first duty of the German party was to cut immediately all ties with Levi, independently of any further political discussion. To act otherwise would have been to erase all party boundaries; indeed, for the party it would have been suicide. On April 29, 1921, the Executive Committee of the Communist International adopted a resolution approving Levi’s expulsion: "Having read Paul Levi’s pamphlet Unser Weg wider den Putschismus, the ECCI ratifies the decision to expel Paul Levi from the United Communist Party of Germany and, consequently, from the Third International. Even if Paul Levi were nine-tenths right in his view of the March offensive, he would still be liable to expulsion from the party because of his unprecedented violation of discipline and because, by his action, in the given circumstances, he dealt the party a blow in the back."6 Today, with the entire experience of the last 22 years that separates us from this declaration, I do not see a single word which could be changed.

Certainly Levi’s conduct hardly tallies with the flattering picture which Held paints of him. Let us try to construct a more balanced portrait. Levi was a lawyer, the son of a rich banker. He came into contact with the Social-Democratic movement before 1914 in the course of defending party members in court. However, he did not become really integrated in the labour movement. During the war he became an internationalist in his views, but did not join in the underground work of the Spartacists. The war over, it was above all his abilities as writer and orator, in view of the lack of cadres, that carried him to the first rank. Those who worked at his side from 1919 to 1921 report that in the difficult periods he sometimes spoke of retiring into private life, that he was not made for the struggle, etc. Zetkin, while defending Levi to Lenin, nevertheless said: "After the murder of Rosa [Luxemburg], Karl [Liebknecht] and Leo [Jogiches] he had to take over the leadership; he has regretted it often enough."7

He never gave up, it is said, collecting antiques. The dilettante and the aesthete were always present in him. Lenin told Zetkin that already during the war he "was aware of a certain coldness in his [Levi’s] attitude to the workers. Something of a ‘please keep your distance’".8 Extremely interesting for the light it throws on Levi’s personality is the letter which he addressed to Lenin on 29 March 1921.9 In this letter he was already condemning the March Action, just ended, as a "fatal putsch",10 and explained what his conduct was going to be: "I will also now go no further than to write something like a pamphlet in which I will set down my conceptions; I will neither bring the case before the authorities who are now considering meeting in Germany, nor before the International Executive Committee. The comrades who bear the responsibility should not feel hindered by me."11

These lines might have been written by anyone but a revolutionist. Intellectual smugness, lack of solidarity with his organisation, condescension and even a certain contempt, and some fatalism – all these can be seen in his words. But even more is involved. This letter was written four days before he sent his pamphlet to press! Either he was guilty of duplicity in reassuring Lenin or, more likely, he reveals here his personal and political instability.

The March Action
We must now ask ourselves: Was Levi’s estimate of the March Action entirely right politically? In his pamphlet he denounced the party’s adventurism, and qualified the March Action as a "putsch"; it was even for him "the biggest Bakuninist putsch in all history". Held, without saying so specifically, seems to adopt Levi’s version completely. He speaks of "putschist riots" and of "putschists". He gives a highly coloured description of the March Action with the help of tragicomic episodes borrowed from Levi’s pamphlet. He neglects, however, to place it exactly in the trajectory of the German revolution.

This tacit adoption of Levi’s appraisal, and this absence of precise political analysis are all the more astonishing since Lenin and Trotsky were far from agreeing with Levi even on the political plane. Held, who could not fail to know the documents, did not undertake to discuss this point. He did not even note it. Lenin wrote: "Of course, Levi was not right in asserting that this action was a ’putsch’; this assertion of Paul Levi is nonsense."12

The most complete and precise political analysis of the March Action is found in one of Trotsky’s speeches before a membership meeting of the Moscow section of the Russian Communist Party at the end of July 1921, immediately after the Third Congress of the Comintern:

"What was the content of the March events? The proletarians of Central Germany, the workers in the mining regions, represented in recent times, even during the war, one of the most retarded sections of the German working class. In their majority they followed not the Social Democrats but the patriotic, bourgeois and clerical cliques, remained devoted to the Emperor, and so on and so forth. Their living and working conditions were exceptionally harsh. In relation to the workers of Berlin they occupied the same place, as say, did the backward Ural provinces in our country in relation to the Petersburg workers. During a revolutionary epoch it happens not infrequently that a most oppressed and backward section of the working class, awakened for the first time by the thunder of events, swings into the struggle with the greatest energy and evinces a readiness to fight under any and all conditions, far from always taking into consideration the circumstances and the chances of victory, that is, the requirements of revolutionary strategy. For example, at a time when the workers of Berlin or Saxony had become, after the experience of 1919-20, far more cautious – which has its minuses and its pluses too – the workers of Central Germany continued to engage in stormy actions, strikes and demonstrations, carting out their foremen on wheelbarrows, holding meetings during working hours, and so on. Naturally, this is incompatible with the sacred tasks of Ebert’s Republic. It is hardly surprising that this conservative-police Republic, in the person of its police agent, the Social Democrat Hörsing, should have decided to do a little ’purging’ there, i.e. drive out the most revolutionary elements, arrest several Communists, etc.

"Precisely during this period (the middle of March), the Central Committee of the German Communist Party arrived firmly at the idea that there was need of conducting a more actively revolutionary policy. The German Party, you will recall, had been created a short while before by the merger of the old Spartacus League and the majority of the Independent Party and thereby became confronted in practice with the question of mass actions. The idea that it was necessary to pass over to a more active policy was absolutely correct. But how did this express itself in practice? When the Social-Democratic policeman Hörsing issued his order, demanding of the workers what Kerensky’s government had more than once vainly demanded in our country, namely: that no meetings be held during working hours, that factory property be treated as a sacred trust, etc – at this moment the Central Committee of the Communist Party issued a call for a general strike in order to aid the workers of Central Germany. A general strike is not something to which the working class responds easily, at the party’s very first call – especially if the workers have recently suffered a number of defeats, and, all the less so in a country where alongside the Communist Party there exist two mass Social-Democratic parties and where the trade- union apparatus is opposed to us. Yet, if we examine the issues of Rote Fahne, central publication of the Communist Party, throughout this period, day by day, we will see that the call for the general strike came completely unprepared. During the period of revolution there were not a few bloodlettings in Germany and the police offensive against Central Germany could not in and of itself have immediately raised the entire working class to its feet. Every serious mass action must obviously be preceded by large-scale energetic agitation, centring around action slogans, all hitting on one and the same point. Such agitation can lead to more decisive calls for action only if it reveals, after probing, that the masses have already been touched to the quick and are ready to march forward on the path of revolutionary action. This is the ABC of revolutionary strategy, but precisely this ABC was completely violated during the March events. Before the police battalions had even succeeded in reaching the factories and mines of Central Germany, a general strike did actually break out there. I already said that in Central Germany there existed the readiness to engage in immediate struggle, and the call of the Central Committee met with an immediate response. But an entirely different situation prevailed in the rest of the country. There was nothing either in the international or the domestic situation of Germany to justify such a sudden transition to activity. The masses simply failed to understand the summons.

"Nevertheless, certain very influential theoreticians of the German Communist Party instead of acknowledging that this summons was a mistake, proceeded to explain it away by propounding a theory that in a revolutionary epoch we are obliged to conduct exclusively an aggressive policy, that is, the policy of revolutionary offensive. The March action is thus served up to the masses in the guise of an offensive. You can now evaluate the situation as a whole. The offensive was in reality launched by the Social-Democratic policeman Hörsing. This should have been utilised in order to unite all the workers for defence, for self-protection, even if, to begin with, a very modest resistance. Had the soil proved favourable, had the agitation met with a favourable response, it would then have been possible to pass over to the general strike. If the events continue to unfold further, if the masses rise, if the ties among the workers grow stronger, if their temper lifts, while indecision and demoralisation seize the camp of the foe – then comes the time for issuing the slogan to pass over to the offensive. But should the soil prove unfavourable, should the conditions and the moods of the masses fail to correspond with the more resolute slogans, then it is necessary to sound a retreat, and to fall back to previously prepared positions in as orderly a manner as possible. Therewith we have gained this, that we proved our ability to probe the working masses, we strengthened their internal ties and, what is most important, we have raised the party’s authority for giving wise leadership under all circumstances.

"But what does the leading body of the German Party do? It gives the appearance of pouncing upon the very first pretext: and even before this pretext has become known to workers or assimilated by them, the Central Committee hurls the slogan of the general strike. And before the party had a chance to rally the workers of Berlin, Dresden and Munich to the aid of the workers of Central Germany – and this could perhaps have been accomplished in the space of a few days, provided there was no leaping over the events, and the masses were led forward systematically and firmly – before the party succeeded in accomplishing this work, it is proclaimed that our action is an offensive. This was already tantamount to ruining everything and paralysing the movement in advance. It is quite self-evident that at this stage the offensive came exclusively from the enemy side. It was necessary to utilise the moral element of defence, it was necessary to summon the proletariat of the whole country to hasten to the aid of the workers of Central Germany. In the initial stages this support might have assumed varied forms, until the party found itself in a position to issue a generalised slogan of action. The task of agitation consisted in raising the masses to their feet, focusing their attention upon the events in Central Germany, smashing politically the resistance of the labour bureaucracy and thus assuring a genuinely general character of the strike action as a possible base for the further development of the revolutionary struggle. But what happened instead? The revolutionary and dynamic minority of the proletariat found itself counterposed in action to the majority of the proletariat, before this majority had a chance to grasp the meaning of events. When the party ran up against the passivity and dilatoriness of the working class, the impatient Communist elements sought here and there to drive the majority of the workers into the streets, no longer by means of agitation, but by mechanical measures. If the majority of workers favour a strike, they can of course always compel the minority by forcibly shutting down the factories and thus achieving the general strike in action. This has happened more than once, it will happen in the future and only simpletons can raise objections to it. But when the crushing majority of the working class has no clear conception of the movement, or is unsympathetic to it, or does not believe it can succeed, but a minority rushes ahead and seeks to drive workers to strike by mechanical measures, then such an impatient minority can, in the person of the party, come into a hostile clash with the working class and break its own neck."13

As we see, Trotsky does not speak, and could not speak of a "putsch".14 Classic examples of the putsch are: the attempted insurrection of Blanqui in Paris on 14 August 1870, the insurrection of 1 December 1924 organised by the Estonian Communist Party in Reval or, on a reactionary plane, Hitler’s attempt at Munich on 8 November 1923. The March Action is far from this type. It embraced hundreds of thousands of workers. The slogan of political power never went beyond a propagandist character, and played only an episodic role. The question of the arming of the workers was connected with the struggle against the fascist bands and not to a direct struggle for power.15 Thus, the call for a general strike at Mansfeld declared: "The workers should secure arms where they can, and smash the Orgesch [armed reactionaries] wherever possible."

The character of the movement in Central Germany in its early stages is typified by a resolution adopted by the several thousand workers of the Leunawerke factory on March 21: "An action committee was elected which was put in charge of drawing up the following demands and taking the necessary measures to realise them. The following demands were formulated: 1. Immediate withdrawal of the armed police and of the military occupation forces from Central Germany. 2. Disarming of the Orgesch and its accomplices. 3. Arming of the workers for defence against counter-revolutionary coups. 4. If the factories are occupied [by the armed forces] all work is to be stopped immediately."

On 24 March, the Central Committee of the party threw itself into the adventure of the general strike, which was a complete failure. The March Action is an example of a partial struggle where a minority is ready to go much further than the class as a whole. Such a situation always raises very difficult tactical problems for the revolutionary party. It is very possible that even with the most prudent policy an experienced party might not have been able to come out of that situation without having received serious blows. The Bolshevik Party was not able to avoid them in July 1917 and, as Trotsky notes, the March Action is related much more to a situation of this type than to a putsch.

The Third World Congress
On the political plane, Levi was of course much closer to the truth than the majority of the German party leadership. Nevertheless, our examination of the question of the "putsch" enables us to evaluate Held’s criticism of the Third Congress of the Communist International. To Held, who adopted Levi’s theory of the "putsch", any mention of the fact that the German Communist Party in spite of everything had participated in a great proletarian struggle is a "concession to the general rhetoric of the Congress". As neither Lenin nor Trotsky refrained from often mentioning this important fact, Held saw in this a part of the "compromise" that Lenin refers to with the majority of the German delegation. The remainder of the compromise, according to him, is the attitude of the Congress toward Levi. Held writes that the main theses on tactics adopted by the Congress "anathematised the critics of the ultra-leftists". On this point, however, the theses stated:

"In making a thorough examination of the possibilities of struggle, the VKPD must carefully note the circumstances and opinions which indicate difficulties, and subject the reasons advanced against an action to searching inquiry, but once action has been decided on by the party authorities all comrades must obey the decisions of the party and carry the action through. Criticism of the action should begin only after the action itself is ended, it should be made only in party organisations and bodies, and must take account of the situation of the party in relation to the class enemy. Since Levi disregarded these obvious requirements of party discipline and the conditions of party criticism, the congress confirms his expulsion from the party and considers it impermissible for any member of the Communist International to collaborate with him."16

This is the "anathema" of which Held speaks. In reality, the resolution simply recalls the most elementary principles of revolutionary discipline. But we have already seen that Held has a real blindness toward the demands of democratic centralism. For him, the decision of the Third Congress is bureaucratism. Even worse, it is bureaucratism that caused the bankruptcy of the International and the degeneration of the Soviet state. Held writes: "The delegates must have gained the impression that it would always be better to make mistakes following orders of the Comintern than to act correctly while violating discipline. In this way the foundation stone was laid for the development which was to change the Communist International in the course of a few years into a society of Mamelukes, in slavish dependency upon the ruling faction in Moscow, and finally into the mere instrument of Stalin’s opportunist nationalistic foreign policy." And at the end of the article he mentions, among the causes of the failure of Lenin and Trotsky: "the treatment of it [the German March Action] by the Third World Congress, where form was placed above content, and a bureaucratic conception of discipline was sanctioned."

Held’s somewhat vulgar contrast between "to make mistakes following the order of the Comintern", and "to act correctly while violating discipline" is not correct, for there were not, as we shall see, any "orders of the Comintern" in the March Action. With this criticism, which is certainly the weakest point of his article, Held comes dangerously close to the petty-bourgeois critics of Bolshevism, who also discovered that the "foundation stone" of Stalinism was laid by the Bolsheviks themselves. For them this stone is the discipline of the party, the prohibition of factions in the Bolshevik Party, or the repression of Kronstadt. For Held it is the "bureaucratic conception of discipline" of the International. We will return later to this method of interpretation. Let us now cite still more facts to elucidate the problem of Paul Levi.

Did Lenin and Trotsky give Levi’s head to the leadership of the German party as their part of the "compromise" which Lenin mentioned at the Congress? Not at all. Lenin’s attitude toward Levi is well known through his conversations with Clara Zetkin, as well as through his speeches at the Congress: Levi committed a serious breach of discipline, he attacked the party in an irresponsible and disloyal manner, and the Congress could not retract his expulsion; however, Levi has great abilities, and if he disciplines himself, and wishes to collaborate, Lenin would intervene in a few months for his reinstatement. Trotsky’s position was essentially the same:

"The decision concerning Levi adopted by the Congress at Moscow is perfectly clear and requires no extended commentaries. By the decision of the Congress, Levi was placed outside the Communist International. This decision was not at all adopted against the wishes of the Russian delegation, but on the contrary with its rather conspicuous participation, inasmuch as it was none other than the Russian delegation that drafted the resolution on tactics. The Russian delegation acted, as usual, under the direction of our party’s Central Committee. And as a member of the Central Committee and member of the Russian delegation, I voted for the resolution confirming Levi’s expulsion from the International. Together with our Central Committee I could see no other course. By virtue of his egocentric attitude, Levi had invested his struggle against the crude theoretical and practical mistakes connected with the March events with a character so pernicious that nothing was left for the slanderers among the Independents to do except to support him and chime in with him. Levi opposed himself not only to the March mistakes but also to the German party and the workers who had committed these mistakes....

"I do not mean to say by this that I considered Levi irretrievably lost to the Communist International as far back as the Congress. I was too little acquainted with him to draw any categorical conclusions one way or the other. I did, however, entertain the hope that a cruel lesson wouldn’t pass for nought and Levi would sooner or later find his way back to the party.... But when I learned – and this happened two or three weeks after the Congress – that Levi instead of patiently climbing up the embankment began noisily proclaiming that the track of the party and the entire International must be switched over to the precise place where he, Paul Levi, had tumbled, and that therewith Levi began building a whole ‘party’ on the basis of this egocentric philosophy of history, I was obliged to say to myself that the Communist movement had no other recourse – deplorable as it may be – except to definitely place a cross over Levi."17

Zetkin herself, Levi’s close political companion, had to state to the Congress: "My personal opinion is that Paul Levi himself will say the last word about this, when he, as I hope, in spite of everything, will work and fight with us again in the future as a Communist on a principled basis and on the line of the Communist Party."18 Indeed Levi said the last word. He soon attacked the October Revolution, and took refuge in the Social Democracy, so that Lenin was able to write a few months later: "Levi and Serrati are not characteristic in themselves; they are characteristic of the modern type of the extreme left wing of petty-bourgeois democracy, of the camp of the ‘other side’, the camp of the international capitalists, the camp that is against us."19

Then exactly what was the "compromise" of which Lenin spoke at the Congress? The compromise had very precise limits: Lenin and Trotsky so formulated the resolution on tactics, written largely by Lenin, that the German delegates could join in a common vote on it. Had they desired, Lenin and Trotsky could have worded it in a way that would have made it impossible for the Germans to vote for it, thus necessitating a separate vote on the tactic of the March Action. One can recognise that there was a question whether to have a common resolution with the Germans, and that it could be answered by yes or no without unleashing by that the degeneration of the International and the USSR. The possibility of a separate vote was mentioned by Trotsky,20 who added that the Russian delegation would probably be in the minority, for the Germans had the support of the Austrian and Italian delegations, the majority of the Hungarian delegation, etc. Naturally, it was not the fear of being in the minority which held back Lenin and Trotsky from demanding a separate vote, although this fact was not without importance.

The main reason for their attitude was the immaturity of the German leadership. The German party, and moreover the whole International except the Russian party, was still in the process of formation. It must be added that the struggle against centrism in the International was far from being ended. It well seems that for all these reasons Lenin and Trotsky were right, after their sharp political attack on the March Action, in seeking a common vote. However, in a certain sense the question on this particular point remains open. But this by no means signifies that one could, like Held, derive such disproportionate consequences from such a narrowly-limited "compromise".

To appraise Held’s criticism of the Third Congress, we must examine one further point: the responsibility of the International in the March events. Held attributes the direct responsibility for the March Action to the Secretariat of the Executive Committee of the Communist International. He writes: "Lenin and Trotsky shook their heads at all this folly. They were unaware that the March Action was contrived by the Secretariat of the ECCI." And further: "Since Lenin and Trotsky based the necessity for the introduction of the New Economic Policy on the failure of the international revolution to materialise, Zinoviev and his associates in the Secretariat thought they could provide a speedy remedy. This was precisely their chief motive for unleashing the infantile March Action."

For an accusation of such gravity, we must demand serious proof from Held. Held explains lengthily that, in view of their opposition to the New Economic Policy, Zinoviev and Bukharin could not but have desired the March Action. That is possible, but even if it were certain, it would be no proof that they "contrived" and "unleashed" the March Action, i.e. an accusation of direct responsibility. Held was only repeating one of Levi’s accusations, which he too had advanced without proof. In reality, it seems demonstrable, at least indirectly, that such responsibility did not exist. Indeed, the Third Congress was the scene of the most violent discussions; letters and telegram until then unknown were pulled out of pockets; the leaders of the German party were under fire from Lenin and Trotsky and even from Zinoviev, who was then under pressure from Lenin. If there actually had been some telegram or order, written or verbal, from Moscow about the unleashing of the March Action, it is extremely unlikely that such a bomb would not have burst at the Congress, or even before it. Shortly after the Congress Trotsky had occasion to write on this subject: "the German bourgeois and Social-Democratic newspapers, and in their wake the press throughout the world began howling that the March uprising had been provoked by orders from Moscow; that the Soviet power, in difficult straits at that time (peasant mutinies, Kronstadt, etc), had issued, to save itself, you see, an order to stage uprisings regardless of the situation in every given country. It is impossible to invent anything sillier than this!"21

Further along, Held explains, on the basis of Radek’s later revelations that, in the period immediately preceding the March Action, "Zinoviev and Bukharin had continued their machinations against Levi’s policies and, as a result, the March Action had taken place". Here Held abandons his main thesis, that of direct responsibility, devoid of proof, as we have seen, for a new thesis of indirect responsibility, difficult to define with precision: Zinoviev and Bukharin had favoured the leadership which had set out on the adventure of March 1921. In this diluted sense responsibility can be extended indefinitely.

Lenin and Trotsky may in this sense be held responsible for not having more closely controlled the work of the Secretariat. And historically there is some truth in this: Lenin and Trotsky were occupied with the building of the Soviet state, they were not always able to prevent Zinoviev and Bukharin from making errors. This general responsibility Trotsky willingly recognised when he wrote: "If we were to blame for the March mistakes – insofar as it is possible to speak here of blame – then it was only in the sense that the International as a whole, including our own party, has up to now failed to carry on enough educational work in the sphere of revolutionary tactics, and for this reason failed to eliminate the possibility of such mistaken actions and methods. But to dream of completely eliminating mistakes would be the height of innocence."22

In this realm it is necessary above all not to lose a sense of proportion. In the concrete case of the German leadership, if one wishes to go to the point of explaining why Levi did not have enough authority to prevent the March Action, one must look – as much as to Zinoviev’s machinations – to the personal traits of Levi himself.

Held’s method
Summarising his criticism of the Third Congress, Held writes: "the Third World Congress already contained the diseased germs which were a few years later to precipitate the degeneration of the Communist International and, along with it, the Soviet state." We have already seen how unjustifiable are the historical points of Held’s criticism. We must now dwell upon his method. With his "germ" theory, Held follows a method long practised by the critics of Bolshevism. Trotsky had occasion to reveal the emptiness of this explanation in his pamphlet Stalinism and Bolshevism, in which he showed, specifically, how Souvarine "seeks the inner flaws of Bolshevism" to "explain all subsequent historical mishaps."23

Why was Held carried along this beaten track of the causal continuity of Bolshevism and Stalinism? He recognised, with good reason, the absolute necessity of the party for the success of the revolution. But this in no ways means that the subjective factor – the party – is all-powerful. It operates in a given milieu. If in a historical analysis this factor is artificially separated from the milieu, its development, and its transformations are then assumed to be found within itself, that is to say, it must contain its whole future within itself. This leads to explanation by "germs". Held’s way of explaining thus unfolds from an abstract and super-historic interpretation of the role of the party. In a word, Held errs in an excess of subjectivism.

We are forced to the same conclusion when we examine Held’s attitude toward two very important problems, the founding of the Third International, and that of the Fourth International. For Held, one of the reasons for the defeat of the world revolution after the First World War is "the all-too-late unmasking of Kautskyism [and] the consequently delayed founding of the Communist International." That Lenin held, until 1914, illusions about the character of the German Social Democracy is a well known fact. We should not, however, exaggerate the depth of these illusions. Through them, Held tries to detect a delay in the founding of the Third International, and so he places himself on the ground, unstable enough, of historical hypothesis. Let us try to follow him.

We must first ask ourselves the question: if Lenin had not had these illusions about Kautsky, should he have proceeded with the founding of the Third International in 1903, in 1910 or in 1914? (For this question to make sense, we must suppose that the revolutionary consciousness of the masses would not have been very different from what it was in reality. For if we were to assume that not only Lenin but also large layers of the proletariat had lost confidence in the German Social Democracy, the founding of the Third International would have been possible and necessary well before 1914. But psychologically this is a pious wish, and logically a tautology: if the movement had been in an advanced stage, it would have formed an advanced organisation.) Let us suppose that Lenin alone, or one of the small groups around him, had been fully conscious before 1914 of the role of Kautsky. Should Lenin then have made a split on an international scale? This question raises a large number of hypotheses, but even in this extremely abstract and artificial form, I am ready to answer no.

Held writes: "With so much bitterness did Lenin turn against Kautsky, when he realised his mistake in 1914, that his opinion of Kautsky had been mistaken. From this point on, Lenin propagandises unhesitatingly for the foundation of a Third International." Thus Held connects the recognition of the necessity of a new International with Lenin’s loss of illusions about Kautsky. But – separating the subjective factor from its milieu – Held does not mention the fundamental fact behind this: the war, i.e. the entry into a new historical epoch, which brought changes in the consciousness of the masses.

However, these questions on the founding of the Third International become a little more concrete if we consider the creation of the Fourth International. Until 1933, that is, after the Communist International had committed even more dreadful crimes against the international proletariat than had the Social Democracy before 1914, the Left Opposition considered itself a faction of the Comintern. And this after the whole historical experience of the betrayals and splits of the war and its aftermath. The Left Opposition waited to proclaim the necessity of a new International until the Comintern had its own "August 4th" – until the shameful capitulation of the German Communist Party before Hitler in March 1933. Was this because Trotsky had illusions about Stalin as Lenin had about Kautsky? Obviously not. And it is here that we see the emptiness of Held’s appraisal of the founding of the Third International.

But perhaps Held, after all, does not agree with the politics of the Left Opposition? Indeed, this soon becomes apparent. Like many others he opens fire against the policy of the Left Opposition in the USSR. "If Trotsky had publicly stepped forward in the spring of 1923", everything would have been better. This question has been discussed so many times that I do not feel much can be added here. The only new note which Held has introduced is a letter from Engels to Bebel on the end of the First International. Alas, Held does not say a word about the differences between the two epochs. The comparison thus holds a purely literary, and I must say, superficial, character. But it is important to note that this conception of Held’s again reveals in him a certain intellectual subjectivism.

Held poses the following question: "Why had not Lenin and Trotsky succeeded in building a serious Marxist International during the period from 1917 to 1923?" One can only reply that as yet the old society proved too resistant, this resistance having several aspects, such as reformism, the slowness and the difficulty of the formation of revolutionary cadres, etc. Held wants to go further, to find a cause for the defeat of the International in the International itself.

These problems of historical causality can easily turn into casuistry, if one does not state precisely what one is speaking about. In clear terms the question is this: Was there, in the Leninist period of the Communist International, a specific error perpetrated without which there would have been a good probability that the degeneration would not have been produced? Held cites the Levi affair. Until now, it was the method of the petty-bourgeois critics of all shades – the ultra-lefts like Gorter, the anarchists, Souvarine, etc, etc. – to place the cause of the defeat of Bolshevism in Bolshevism itself. We willingly relinquish to them this barren method.

Editorial Notes

1. Attempting to reach the USA from Sweden overland across the USSR in 1941, Held had disappeared. We now know that he had been arrested en route and executed.

2. Levi initially tried to get his pamphlet issued by the KPD but got no response. He then published the pamphlet himself.

3. Van Heijenoort cites as a source Karl Radek’s article "The Levi Case", in Die Kommunistische Internationale, No.17, 1921. In a footnote he adds that the quotation is "from the first edition of Levi’s pamphlet. In the second edition of Levi’s pamphlet, which is now the easiest to come by, this sentence has been somewhat altered". In fact the quoted passage appears in neither edition of Levi’s pamphlet – the words are those put into Levi’s mouth by Radek. A translation of Radek’s article can be found in H. Gruber, ed, International Communism in the Era of Lenin, 1967, pp.341-6.

4. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.32, p.517.

5. C. Zetkin, Erinnerungen an Lenin, 1957, p.38.

6. J. Degras, ed, The Communist International 1919-1943, Documents, Vol.1, 1956, pp.219-20.

7. Zetkin, p.39.

8. Ibid, p.38.

9. The letter was in fact dated 27 March 1921.

10. This was another "quotation" invented by Radek.

11. P. Levi, Zwischen Spartakus und Sozialdemokratie, 1969, p.43.

12. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.32, p.516. Here the translation is: "essentially much of Levi’s criticism of the March action in Germany in 1921 was correct (not, of course, when he said that the uprising was a ‘putsch’; that assertion of his was absurd)."

13. Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol.2, 1974, pp.19-22.

14. However, Trotsky did later refer to the March Action as an example of "putschism". See Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin, 1970, pp.89, 98.

15. This isn’t really true. For the insurrectionist rhetoric adopted by the KPD during the March Action, see B. Fowkes, Communism in Germany Under the Weimar Republic, 1984, p.66.

16. Degras, p.252.

17. Trotsky, First Five Years, pp.84-87.

18. Protokoll des III. Kongresses, p.698.

19. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.32, p.211. Serrati, who along with Levi had opposed the January 1921 split in the Italian Socialist Party, did in fact subsequently join the Communist Party of Italy.

20. Protokoll des III. Kongresses, p.644.

21. Trotsky, First Five Years, p.18.

22. Ibid, pp.18-19.

23. Trotsky, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1936-37, p.425.