History: Why did Paul Levi lose out in the German Communist leadership? (Now with audio)

Paul Levi, 1920

Paul Levi, 1920.

[Click HERE for more by John Riddell.]

By John Riddell

This talk was part of a panel on “Paul Levi and the German socialist movement” at the Socialism 2013 conference in Chicago, June 28, 2013. The other speakers at this session were Jen Roesch and Paul Kellogg. You can listen to the full panel below, thanks to Wearemany.com.

July 5, 2013 -- Johnriddell.wordpress.com, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- Paul Levi’s career as a leader of the German Communist Party (KPD) was brilliant but brief. Before the party was founded, at the end of 1918, he was a close associate of both Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin. When Luxemburg was killed in 1919, he became the German Communist Party’s foremost leader. He headed the process through which it became a mass party at the end of 1920. Yet only four months later he was expelled from the party.

What explains his sudden downfall? I will address just one aspect of this story: the influence of shifts in the ranks of the German working class.

First of all, let me provide a summary of events during the months when Paul Levi left the Communist International. I will do this through the eyes of a young rank-and-file Communist participant in these events whom I came to know forty years after they took place. The words are mine, but they are consistent with how my friend saw things.

A view from the ranks of Levi’s fall

In October 1921, we finally achieved unity with the majority of the centrist USPD. We now had 375,000 members, many times more than before. Our fusion convention resolved that we were now strong enough to undertake actions on our own.

Much to my shock, Paul Levi and his team in the party leadership then published an Open Letter offering to join in struggle with the hated Social Democrats around limited immediate demands. Needless to say, the Social Democrats turned this down. Our campaign for the Open Letter led to gains in the trade unions, but it was a far cry from the socialist revolution I felt was possible.

But life is full of surprises. A month later, Levi and his team left the leadership. It seems he had supported Serrati, a discredited centrist, in a split in our Italian section. But the real issue was Levi’s passivity, his excessive caution.

The new crew stepped up our calls for confrontational action. They were hoping that tensions between Germany and the countries that won the First World War would boil over, enabling us to overturn the government. Our papers started calling on workers to pick up the gun.

Well, the international tensions did not explode. Instead, the Social Democrats marched police into central Germany, an area where we were strong. But a protest strike spread through the region, and then, suddenly, forces outside our party launched a guerrilla war. Police reinforcements arrived, with machine guns and artillery, and resistance was drowned in blood.

Our party had to respond. It called a general strike for overthrow of the government. That is what became known as our March Action. The strike was a failure. By and large, it did not even mobilise our members, let alone the class as a whole. We fought pitched battles against non-Communist workers.

Levi published a pamphlet denouncing our strike. He was immediately expelled. Meanwhile, our leadership said our action was a great success and had to now be followed up by more of the same. They carried that idea into our World Congress, calling it the “theory of the offensive”.

Yet even as they got on the train to Moscow, back in Germany, the party resumed initiatives similar to Levi’s Open Letter.

As for the world congress, it was hard to figure out. Levi’s expulsion was endorsed. But, curiously, Levi’s cautious approach gained general support. The congress issued a call, “To the masses”, and set the goal of winning majority support in the working class before making a bid for power. Many of us in the party were not happy with that. Later on, this became known as united-front policy, and in the end most of us came around and supported it.

Debate on strategy

Back to the present: How can we explain this strange course of events, in which so much of Levi policy was adopted, while he was expelled from the International?

As a Marxist leader, Levi was unusually talented, but there was a one-sidedness in his personal abilities. His achievements in building the German Communist Party were made possible by the strength and cohesion of the team around him, which was also the team that worked with Rosa Luxemburg in building the Spartacus League during the war. In 1920, that team shattered, leaving Levi exposed and fatally undermining his position as central leader.

The decisive factor in this division was a debate on revolutionary strategy in Germany, rooted in the experience of workers there in 1919, a time when capitalism in Germany seemed near collapse.

The initial outlook of revolutionary socialists in Europe in 1919 was summarised by Leon Trotsky at the Comintern’s 1921 congress. When the Comintern was formed, it was hoped that workers’ “chaotic, spontaneous assault” would mount in “ever-rising waves … and that in this way the proletariat would attain state power in the course of one or two years,” Trotsky said.[1] But in Germany, by mid-1919, the first attempts to achieve workers’ power had been crushed, at great cost in workers’ lives, and the capitalist class had regained the upper hand.

Workers responded in two ways. The majority lapsed into pessimism, clinging to social democracy as their best defence against resurgent capitalism. A radical minority, however, rallied to the Communist Party, hoping it could relaunch the offensive against capitalism.

In these conditions, Paul Levi was a voice of caution. He warned against a premature showdown with the capitalist rulers, at a time when revolutionary-minded workers, although numbering in the hundreds of thousands, were still a small minority. He pressed Communists to take initiatives that were inclusive, aimed at restoring unity in action by the working class as a whole. This was not a new idea – it was rooted in the Bolshevik experience in Russia – but Levi was its outstanding proponent in Germany and in the Comintern as a whole.

Lessons of Hungarian revolution

In March 1919, Communists and Social Democrats formed a revolutionary coalition government in Hungary. The new regime, which declared itself a dictatorship of the proletariat, began to expropriate bourgeois property. But victory had not come to the workers through struggle, Levi pointed out; it had been handed to Communists by the collapse of bourgeois rule. He warned that taking power on this basis would lead to disastrous defeat.[2]

Levi cited here the founding principle of the German Communist Party, namely, that it “will never take governmental power except through the clear and unambiguous will of the great majority of proletarian masses in Germany, through their conscious agreement with the [Communists’] outlook, goals, and methods of struggle”.[3]

When bourgeois power collapsed in Hungary, Levi argued, the Communists would have done better to organise the proletariat through councils and win the councils to the perspective of a collective struggle for workers’ power.

The Hungarian revolutionary government survived only three months before being crushed by invading armies of the surrounding powers. It was replaced by a brutal military dictatorship.

Levi’s position on Hungary did not gain wide support in the Comintern. Many argued that the Hungarian revolutionary government could have won out if revolution had matured faster elsewhere. Karl Radek, the Comintern leader responsible for its relations with the German party, wrote that the existence of the Hungarian revolutionary government, even if brief, aided the Russian Soviet republic.[4]

Meanwhile, the German Communist movement was sharply divided between a wing headed by Levi, which favoured participating in elections and joining trade unions, and forces favouring a direct assault on capitalist power. Levi’s wing retained control, by a narrow margin, and imposed their policies on the party. However, the leftist opposition continued, now increasingly outside the party ranks.

Dispute over workers’ government

In March 1920, a united workers’ uprising in Germany overthrew a short-lived military coup, the so-called Kapp Putsch. A mighty general strike against the coup was called by the main German trade-union federation, which was led by Social Democrats hostile to revolution. The coup quickly collapsed, but the strike continued, as workers demanded decisive measures against future rightist threats. Desperate to get the workers back on the job, the union leadership called for an all-socialist government, formed of the workers’ political parties and the trade unions. The German Communist Party countered by saying that it would not take part in such a government, but would act toward it as a “loyal opposition”, provided the regime took serious measures against the rightists.

The statement aimed to link up with workers’ conviction that it was their unity that had defeated the putsch and advance a Communist perspective in that framework. The all-socialist government did not come into being, however. Communists divided on whether the German party’s response had been correct.

Levi did not write the “loyal opposition” statement (he was in jail at the time) but he gave it qualified support. However, the statement came under fierce attack from other leaders in the German party and also the Communist International; Radek said the statement’s authors had renounced their historic mission as revolutionary leaders. Moreover, he claimed that the party’s opposition to putschism had led to passivity, a refusal to act, “a kind of quietism”.[5] This turned the criticism against Levi himself and his overall record as a party leader.

Béla Kun, who spoke with authority as the main leader of the failed Hungarian revolution, went further, arguing that the “unity ideal” expressed in the Kapp struggle was itself counterrevolutionary, and that a united front of the workers’ parties was a reactionary illusion.[6] This view had support in the German party as well.

The Comintern discussion that followed was complex and inconclusive – a half-opened debate, as Pierre Broué calls it.[7]

Division in the leadership

With regard to Paul Levi’s role, four points are important.

  • The leadership team built by Rosa Luxemburg divided, with central figures – Ernst Meyer, August Thalheimer, Heinrich Brandler, Hugo Eberlein – going over to an ultra-left position.
  • The Comintern leadership divided as well. Radek, Zinoviev and others encouraged the leftist oppositionists, stressing the need for the German party to be more “active”. Meanwhile, Lenin’s writings were aligned strategically with Levi’s views.
  • The subsequent Second Congress of the Comintern did not discuss the Kapp experience and did not address the dispute related to it. But the congress did provide an occasion for some Comintern leaders to form a secret bloc with leaders of the ultra-leftist current in the German party.
  • The partisan intervention of Comintern leaders in the German dispute made it impossible for the German leadership to restore its unity through the lessons of own experience in Germany. Moscow’s involvement tended to freeze the German alignments.

The debate continued for a year, and is well described in Broué’s history, The German Revolution. Here I want only to underline the role played during the next year by the worker ranks in Germany.

During the year after the Kapp Putsch, the capitalist state continued to consolidate, and its repressive forces grew stronger. Living conditions were harsh. Workers were, in Clara Zetkin’s words, “almost desperate” yet “unwilling to struggle”. Meanwhile, a significant layer of revolutionary-minded workers, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, were moving to the left, inspired by the victories of the Soviet government and increasing in impatience and determination.

A leftist leader then arrayed against Levi later commented, “Everything was bogged down. We faced a wall of passivity. We had to break through it, whatever the cost.”

In discussion with Zetkin, Lenin referred to “discontented, suffering workers who feel revolutionary but are politically raw and confused... World history does not seem to hurry, but [they] think that your party leaders don’t want it to hurry.”[8]

Pressures from the ranks

This mood of impatience gained increasing influence in the Communist Party as the months passed.

  • After the Kapp Putsch, an ultraleft party consolidated outside the Communist Party. The Communist Workers Party of Germany had about 50,000 members, strongly rooted in the factories, and it exerted a strong leftist pressure on the Communist Party ranks.
  • The Communist Party leadership often sought to restrain its trade union forces from launching isolated struggles likely to lead to costly defeats. This policy of restraint was not popular among many in the party ranks.
  • Late in 1920, the Communist Party fused with the much larger left wing of the Independent Social Democrats, creating a united party with 350,000 members. In balance, however, these new forces increased the weight of impatience and adventurism within the united party.
  • In January 1921, the party adopted what later became known as a united front policy, pressing other currents in the workers’ movement to join in action for workers’ basic needs. Paul Levi was the prime mover of this initiative, which was a sharp change of course for the Communist Party. This policy did not bring any dramatic victories. It could only have been effective over time. It clashed with the belief of many members that bold action could bring workers’ power in the coming months.

All these tendencies strengthened the hand of Levi’s leftist opponents.

In February 1921, the ultralefts won a majority in the German Communist Party leadership. The stimulus came from a split in the Comintern’s Italian section, which was marked by an alignment of Moscow-based Comintern leaders, an ultraleft Communist current in Italy and an impatient working-class minority similar to what was crystallising in Germany. But even without that development, ultraleft pressures were increasing in the German party.

The following month, the German ultralefts launched an insurrectional general strike, the disastrous March Action, which launched the Communists into a confrontation not only with the state but with the working-class majority.

The destructive role of Moscow-based leaders in this drama needs an explanation. I see no evidence that they reflected ultraleft pressures from the Russian Communist party. Comintern leaders seem rather to have been adapting, with considerable vacillation and uncertainty, to the moods of impatient radical layers among central European workers. Indeed, members of the Moscow Comintern leadership directly involved in the German and Italian events came from Hungary, Poland and Bulgaria, and Germany, not Russia. They were disoriented by the fact that a broad and impatient vanguard layer, made up of the best revolutionary forces in Germany as in Italy, was headed in a different direction from the rest of the mass movement.

Only a united and authoritative leadership in Germany could have persuaded that vanguard to struggle for unity with more conservative working-class forces. The Bolsheviks carried out that task successfully in Russia in 1917. The team built by Rosa Luxemburg, however, was shattered by the challenge. Once the team was broken, Paul Levi’s position was untenable, and his exit from the leadership was only a matter of time.


[1]. John Riddell, Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! New York: Pathfinder, 1991, vol. 1, p. 27.

[2]. Paul Levi, “Die Lehren der Ungarischen Revolution”, in Die Internationale, vol. 2, no. 24 (1919), pp. 32–41.

[3]. Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson, The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, New York: Monthly Review, 2004, pp. 356-7.

[4]. Karl Radek, “Die Lehren der Ungarischen Revolution“, in Die Internationale, vol. 2, no. 21 (February 25, 1920), pp. 56–60.

[5]. Pierre Broué, The German Revolution, Chicago: Haymarket, 2006, pp. 383, 386.

[6]. Béla Kun, “Die Ereignisse in Deutschland,” in Kommunismus, no. 12–13 (April 1920), pp. 349–50, 406.

[7]. Broué p. 385.

[8]. Quoted in John Riddell, “Origins of the United Front Policy”.