Review: A Jewish Communist in Weimar Germany

by Darren Roso • Published 25 July 2020

Ralf Hoffrogge, A Jewish Communist in Weimar Germany: The Life of Werner Scholem (1895-1940). Translated by Loren Balhorn and Jan-Peter Herrmann. Brill Historical Materialism Series, 2017.

Readers of this journal are more likely to have heard of the Zionist Gerschom Scholem than his faithful communist brother Werner, and unlikely to have read much about the German Communist Party (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, KPD) past the lost October Revolution of 1923.[1] They are likely to be acquainted with Ralf Hoffrogge’s account of the revolutionary shop stewards and the origins of the council movement as detailed in Hoffrogge’s Working-Class Politics in the German Revolution: Richard Müller (2014). As for Werner Scholem, those who examined the biographical details of Pierre Broué’s classic The German Revolution would read this:

Son of printing worker, higher studies in history and law. In Socialist Youth in 1912, in SPD in 1913. Conscripted in 1914, sentenced in 1917 for anti-militarist activity. In USPD [Unabhängige Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands; Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany] in 1917, journalist in Halle. In VKPD [Vereinigte Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands; United Communist Party of Germany] in 1920, worked on Die Rote Fahne. Arrested after March 1921, played important role as organiser in Berlin district, supported Left in 1923. Member of Zentrale and Politbureau, responsible posts in Organisation Bureau in 1923, de facto KPD leader with Fischer until 1925, when he co-led ultra-Left. Expelled in 1926, joint organiser of Leninbund, worked with organ of German Trotskyist opposition. Arrested in 1933, executed in 1940.[2]

Eighty years ago, on 17 July, the SS guard Johannes Blank murdered Werner Scholem in the Buchenwald concentration camp. Blank shot Scholem in the back. Scholem died wearing a yellow triangle overlaid with a red – a symbol that he was a Jew committed to working-class liberation. It is therefore very precious that Hoffrogge has written a full-length biography of Scholem’s life; here is a labour of remembrance of the first order. A Jewish Communist in Weimar Germany details Scholem’s break with his bourgeois-Jewish family, his spurning of Zionism, the rise of German communism after the First World War and the November Revolution, its fall in defeat, the Stalinisation of the KPD and Nazism’s totalitarian counter-revolution that culminated in imperialist carnage and the Holocaust.

Hoffrogge divides Scholem’s life into six distinct periods: the early years (1895-1914), the First World War and Revolution (1914-1918), revolutionary journalism, parliamentary work and time in the German Communist Party (1919-1926, but comprised of two chapters), brief anti-Stalinist organising (1926-1928), renewed education as a lawyer and Scholem’s arrest, imprisonment and murder (1933-1940) in the “triumph of barbarism”. Hoffrogge’s attention to historical detail makes this book a very significant contribution to our understanding of the history of German communism.[3] Despite some reservations I have with aspects of the author’s approach, it is a must-read book.

The break with Zionism, war and revolution

Hoffrogge’s first chapter writes of Scholem’s break with Zionism in favour of socialism. Scholem was born into a politically divided and authoritarian Jewish family on a bourgeois ascent within a rapidly rising German capitalism. The Scholems made their money in the print industry, benefitting from the legal equality of Jews granted by the 1871 Constitution. Werner’s father Arthur represented the professional association of health insurance companies, his loyalty being “to the nation, and he considered Social Democracy to be little more than ‘anti-German activities’” (p19). Anti-Semitism remained pervasive, and with German Jews excluded from careers in the military and civil service, the Jewish population, including its bourgeoisie, grappled with the bigoted structures of German capitalism.

German Jewry at the turn of the twentieth century was divided into three camps: assimilationist, separatist (Zionist) or universalist (overthrow capitalism to rid society of anti-Semitism). Hoffrogge writes, “the existence of these different paths ensured numerous conflicts, and would soon test the Scholem family as well”, with the older brothers Reinhold and Erich firmly committed to German nationalism and liberalism (Reinhold was a nominal member of the German Democratic Party, while Erich was affiliated to the German People’s Party – both became co-owners of the Druckerei Scholem in 1920.) Werner, for his part, became politicised in 1912 at the age of 16 in the Zionist youth movement Jung Juda. But Zionism secured Werner’s allegiance for just a few months, as Werner found it to be a doctrine empty of emancipatory content. Socialism provided Werner with “a broader, more comprehensive sphere of activity” (p38). Hoffrogge writes:

Werner now joined the Workers’ Youth, the youth organisation of the German Social Democratic Party [Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, SPD], by then the strongest party in the European labour movement and heavily influenced by Marxist ideas. He quickly and with growing enthusiasm devoured all the short, cheaply produced pamphlets through which Social Democracy popularised Marxism; his brother mentions “the writings of Bebel and Kautsky, Die Lessingslegende by Franz Mehring, as well as various pamphlets”… Socialism, in seeking to replace the profit motive with collective labour for the benefit of all, offered the young Werner a purpose in life – something his family was never able to provide. Socialists criticised the authoritarian social conventions that repulsed Werner at home and in school by advocating pedagogical reform. They counterposed the bourgeois family with women’s liberation and demanded the dissolution of the army in the face of ubiquitous Prussian militarism. In short: the socialist programme stood for the establishment of a utopian society based on rationality and solidarity. (pp38-41)

Despite being won to the German Social Democratic Party away from Jung Juda, Werner continued to vacillate about Zionism during his years of trench warfare and imprisonment until the outbreak of the November Revolution. But as Hoffrogge shows, for Scholem “Zionism represented not hope but political confusion, ultimately little more than a Jewish variant of an already rapacious imperialism… In 1930, long after Werner had retired from active politics, he still teased his brother as a ‘servant to English imperialism’” (pp175-176).

Scholem was against the “civil peace” the Social Democratic Party entered into at the outbreak of the First World War. For his opposition to the war Scholem was denounced as a coward at a meeting of the SPD Workers’ Youth. Like so many others of his era, Werner was drafted to fight. The horrors of war had grown to dimensions unknown, the “development of artillery had progressed at an unforeseen pace since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1, and the invention of the machine gun brought the art of killing to an industrial level” (p67). Only workers’ revolutions and mass rebellions in the countries linking the imperialist chain together could break the war-mongering impasse. Werner was far-sighted enough to see that his principled opposition to the war necessitated revolution, writing to his brother on 2 December 1914: “The war, however, will cost over 20 billion: an unbelievable sum. The state will then have no money, and I hope for a revolution that makes 1789 look like child’s play, just as the wars of that time look like child’s play when compared to today’s. Should that occur we will become very intimidating characters indeed, should I still be alive” (p66).

Hoffrogge’s chapter on the world war and revolution dwells on the divergent conceptions of history that Werner and Gerhard Scholem had, Werner’s marriage to Emmy Wiechelt (who confronted the two-fold oppression experienced as a woman and a worker), the nature of the First World War on the Eastern and Western fronts as an outcome of global imperialism, the socialist resistance to the war – Karl Liebknecht’s vote against the war, the rank and file dissidence within the military and the development of the protest strikes – as well as the internal politics of the SPD, the Spartacist Group (led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht) and the Kiel sailors’ uprising that began (4 November 1918) the German Revolution.

Werner Scholem was convicted of lèse-majesté in the war years for his principled anti-imperialist convictions. His offence was to have demonstrated in soldier’s uniform, chanting “Long Live Liebknecht!” “Down with the war!”, before singing the Internationale, all on 27 January – the Kaiser’s birthday. Throughout the war Scholem built the anti-war Workers’ Youth and met with state repression as the regime inflicted a wave of arrests. These political prisoners would only walk free thanks to the November Revolution. The wave of terror and arrests was a test for the political convictions of the Workers’ Youth and Scholem’s generation. Imprisonment was a school of its own for the anti-war youth of the SPD:

Imprisonment proved to be a formative experience for this entire generation of politically active youth. Military physicals, military drills, class justice and forced labour behind prison walls – these were experiences none would soon forget. Those who came of age in these surroundings expected neither social reforms nor democracy from the state, and believed in neither the parliament nor the rule of law. Karl Kautsky’s ideas of a gradual economic development towards socialism, developed in times of peace, appeared just as unconvincing to these radical youth as Eduard Bernstein’s thesis of the SPD as a democratic-socialist party of reform. The situation was rather different for the war generation. Many had already been dissatisfied with the youth movement’s dependence on the party and the latter’s ossified structures before 1914, as Werner’s letters from the autumn of 1914 clearly confirm. The war had both stiffened their convictions as well as transformed them into a life experience. While trade unionists and deputies who complied with the party majority’s line were exempted from military service, radicals were drafted in order to silence them. If this proved ineffective, a prison sentence usually followed. (p143)

Werner’s life as a revolutionary socialist was conceived of as part of a historical struggle that could lead to the emancipation of humanity. Good in conviction, difficult in practice. Wars and revolutions are the ultimate tests of conviction. Werner undertook a constant struggle to humanise the world around him. The First World War combined futurist and archaic methods of murder. At close range, soldiers would use a shovel to pierce the skull of another in the trenches, this coincided “in strange asynchronicity with the futuristic modernity of the airships, aeroplanes and submarines that expanded the war to all three dimensions of space” (p73). Military technology instilled terror on the civilian populations of Europe with industrialised killing. Hoffrogge draws out the technological absurdity of imperialist warfare:

Artillery would in fact be a key term throughout the First World War. Although centuries old, the deployment of this means of warfare changed dramatically over the course of the war. This resulted not so much from the existence of individual superweapons like the infamous “Paris Gun” as from the sheer quantity of shelling conducted by both sides. One tactic for countering seemingly insurmountable waves of machine gun fire, developed in 1916, was to respond with continuous battery fire over a matter of days. Non-stop artillery fire served to wear down and demoralise the enemy, while hopefully damaging their fortified dugouts enough to poke holes in the machine gun-lined death zone. The concept was first successfully executed in Verdun in February 1916: the Germans initiated a so-called “drumfire” by firing 1,200 cannons simultaneously, damaging French positions to a degree that allowed them to capture Fort Douaumont. The fort, however, was retaken by the French in October of that same year; months of fighting and suffering had been for naught. Still, this naught exacted a high price: 600,000 deaths and injuries. Verdun quickly became the paragon of the war’s senselessness. Germany’s adversaries were soon able to adapt to the drumfire and the “battle of attrition” that cost so many lives and so much material, eventually adopting the tactic as their own. In the Battle of Arras in 1917, the British deployed 2,200 cannons, firing 2.5 million shells in rapid succession. Nevertheless, the German war machine was running at peak performance and exerted considerable military pressure on its adversaries. The French, stretched to the limit in Verdun, repeatedly urged their Russian allies to undertake an offensive in the east to relieve them and tie the hands of additional German forces… World War I was decided by productive capacities, logistics, transportation capabilities, technical innovations and the industrial application thereof – ultimately, by the capacity to fire the largest quantity of steel in the shortest amount of time. It was a kinetic war in which the soft human body appeared utterly out of place. (pp80-81)

In contrast to conservative myth-makers, Werner (who spent 1918 on the Western Front) drew the conclusion that there was nothing sacred about the war, but instead that it was necessary to fight for socialism to finish with imperial carnage once and for all.

From the Independent Social Democratic Party to the United Communist Party

Throughout the war Scholem denounced the right-wing trade unionists and the Social Democrats who supported class collaboration. With the outbreak of revolution, he was looking for a new party after his political life in the Workers’ Youth. Scholem decided to work within the USPD as opposed to the newly formed KPD. The USPD was a centrist formation combining a right-wing that had not broken with Social Democracy and a radicalising left-wing of rank-and-file activists. It had a broad base of support with leaders who came from the Revolutionary Stewards’ movement, who constituted the backbone of anti-war industrial struggle and were essential to the workers’ council movement. The KPD in December 1918 was a propaganda sect. The founders of the KPD faced a difficulty: they tried to build a party two months into the revolution. Revolutionary politics was not fused with the militant vanguard of the workers’ movement. The Spartacists could publish their arguments in Rote Fahne, but they did not yet have the support of the advanced rank-and-file workers who had spent years leading industrial struggles. This fusion was not built years prior to the German Revolution. As for Scholem, who wrote to his brother (December 1918) “my feeling drives me towards the Spartacus people, whom, by the way, all my friends and my wife have joined, yet my clear intellect allows me to see the futility and senselessness of this politics, preventing me from joining” (p167).

Scholem joined the USPD to fight on its left wing, to enter into a united front with the Spartacists. Already in January sections of the USPD were voting to join the KPD, for instance Spandau’s Independent Socialists voted 400 to 5 to join the KPD, then the Charlottenburg Independents voted as a whole to go over, and Neukölln separated itself from Emil Barth (a USPD local leader) when he debated Karl Liebknecht on the direction of the revolution. Relations between the USPD and the KPD were uneven and reflected the strengths and weaknesses of the left within Social Democracy prior to the revolution and war. But things were moving quickly, as Scholem wrote again to his brother in (February 1919):

Unfortunately, our movement is separate from the Spartacus movement here [Hanover-Linden], while in Braunschweig they work hand in hand. But our comrades here are also pushing to the left. The next party convention, which is coming soon, will bring about the decision as to whether the Independent Party will become Communist or majority-Social Democratic, whether it promotes the council system or parliamentarianism. I believe the decision will fall to the left. (p167)

Scholem agitated throughout the Hanover region to strengthen the revolutionary forces in the USPD. He participated as a delegate to the USPD’s first party conference since the outbreak of revolution (March 1919). The party was struck by deep crisis and had already suffered from the Spartacist split. Typical of centrist formations, it failed to provide a clear alternative to the counter-revolutionary SPD. The alternative was clear: slide backwards towards Social Democracy, or go forwards towards a genuine revolutionary alternative. After the conference, Scholem reported that “independent Social Democracy has, as was its duty, crossed over to the Communist camp with drums beating and trumpets sounding. In fact, only with this departure does it become possible for me to remain in this party” (pp171-172). Short of an organisational break with the centrists like Kautsky, this was only a half-truth. On paper, the party adopted workers’ councils as the organisational form for socialism in its “Action Programme” (at its Leipzig conference in November-December 1919) but in practice the leadership remained grafted onto the traditions of the old SPD. As such, the Comintern characterised the USPD as centrist formation that campaigned for “unity between Communist workers and the murderers of the Communist leaders, Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg” (quoted on p195).

Scholem spent his time in the USPD editing the Volksblatt in Halle from June 1919 onwards. Halle was a stronghold of the Independents, for the majority of workers there went over to the USPD against the old SPD (the Social Democrats held party majorities elsewhere in the country). Scholem reported that, “In Halle, we of course play first fiddle. Right-wing socialists are almost completely absent here. The entire administrative district of Merseburg, 8 former electoral constituencies, has become independent and honestly revolutionary!” (p179). The USPD had reached a membership of 750,000 by the end of 1919. It was ten times the size of the KPD. Its “structures had grown stronger, numerous new chapters had been founded, and the party produced a total of 55 daily newspapers” (p182).

Halle was also a centre of resistance against the Kapp Putsch (March 1920), when reactionaries tried to overthrow the Weimar Constitution and the democratic gains made by the November Revolution. Days after the 13 March coup (when the government was chased from the city), Halle workers began a general strike to beat back the coup. Kappists detained Scholem and the editorial board of the Volksblatt, but he was soon released. The fighting in Halle was violent and fierce. Some on the left counterpose the peaceful and democratic progress of socialism in the “West” (Germany) to the confrontational and violent character of socialism in the “East” (Russia). The Kapp putsch disproves this self-serving dichotomy. The united forces of reaction were prepared to bombard working-class districts with the latest technical methods used in the war. In Halle, these reactionaries met the combined resistance of the general strike and the workers’ defence brigades. After news of Kapp’s escape:

Troops complicit in the attempted coup nevertheless remained in their positions, leading to growing conflicts with local civilians. The first battles between armed workers and Kappists flared up on 18 and 19 March, and would expand over the following days. The workers dug themselves in at Hettstedt train station in the city’s southeast and defended their positions successfully, despite fighting with inferior weapons and material, and sought to drive the military out of Halle. In a tremendous display of human effort, they fought their way to the market square and established themselves behind barricades. The putschists subsequently staged a renewed offensive, going so far as to deploy heavy artillery inside the city itself, but their adversaries stood their ground. All the while the general strike continued, the city found itself in a state of emergency, and electricity and water supplies were shut down by the raging battles: “Young and old ran with buckets to the Saale to fetch water”, as the Volksblatt later reported. (pp190-191)

Workers did not win a total victory: the fighting ended in a ceasefire, the trade unions ended the general strike, yet the strike did defeat the putsch. Scholem drew the conclusion that there was a lack of proper leadership and unity to seize the revolutionary potential of the struggles against the Kapp Putsch. In a speech in October 1920, Scholem stated:

I would merely like to establish that wherever the workers were united, as well as in those places where the workers stood behind a united leadership, it was plausible, even during the Kapp Putsch, to stage an action in the interests of the revolutionary proletariat. We contend that the actions throughout the district of Halle should have occurred in the entire Reich. And if we ultimately had to end our campaign and sign a kind of truce, we did so in recognition of the fact that in other parts of the Reich as well as in the USPD’s leadership there was an absence of sufficient clarity and leadership required for such action, and we were unable to move forward by ourselves. But comrades, you could have held the same power as we did in a number of other districts. (p192)

The strike was an illustration of the bankruptcy of centrism. The USPD’s conflicting tendencies were ready to burst apart under the pressure of events. The right-wing leaders wanted the general strike against the Kapp Putsch to secure their place at the bargaining table to form a government of trade unions, the old SPD and the USPD, while the left wing wanted to complete the November Revolution while rejecting a governmental coalition with a thoroughly compromised SPD. Scholem’s “call for strong leadership…reflected multiple failures of the German Revolution, which was bogged down in local actions and uprisings time and again while the counter-revolution acted with centralised determination and brutal force” (p194). Within just days the leaders of the USPD in Berlin reached a deal with the SPD and the trade unions and ended the general strike.

These conclusions motivated Scholem to fight for affiliation to the Third International in the lead-up to the Halle Congress in October 1920, as opposed to the USPD right-wing’s compromise call for a “Second and a Half International”. Scholem campaigned for the “21 Conditions” throughout August and September 1920.[4]

In Jena Scholem’s campaign was supported by Karl Korsch who taught there. The Jena USPD held a membership assembly which adopted “the standpoint that the party must be restructured to become a tightly centralised fighting organisation capable of assuming leadership of the German proletariat at decisive moments of struggle” (pp196-197). In Jena, Korsch argued in support of Scholem: “Finally, Comrade Scholem says that he hopes the radical direction will prevail at the party conference. In such a scenario only some leading comrades would leave the party, but in his view there could be no talk of a party split, and the unification of the proletariat could then be pursued with fresh energy. You cannot remain on both sides in revolutionary times” (p197). The right-wingers present (who only won 23 votes out of 400) made the usual repertoire of conservative arguments: embrace of revolutionary politics would kill “controversy within the party”, the future party would be “nothing but a dead body” and “a sect” (p197).

Hoffrogge’s depiction of the Comintern in the lead-up to the Halle Congress, which pitted Martov (leader of the Russian Mensheviks) against Zinoviev (chairman of the Comintern) on whether or not to affiliate to the Comintern and accept the 21 Conditions, is partial. Hoffrogge presents the Comintern as a “world party in which the individual parties would serve as mere national sections”, serving the dual function “to represent the vanguard of the world revolution, while simultaneously conducting Soviet Russia’s foreign policy” (pp194-195). Hoffrogge’s focus is on the centralism of the Comintern, without focusing on the political content of the orientation, and his throwaway lines like “A split – this was the Bolshevik version of revolutionary ‘clarity’” (p195) are unfortunately an obstacle to political clarity. Hoffrogge misses the fact that the Comintern was only effective so long as national parties weren’t blindly controlled, but provided with the support and experience – in the school of revolutionary strategy and tactics – so as to actually lead successful workers’ revolutions in their home countries. At certain points throughout his book, Hoffrogge’s own political terminology seems to flow into his subject matter, creating unnecessary obstacles: Lenin and defenders of the united front policy were “pragmatists” (Hoffrogge writes: Lenin “pursued a highly pragmatic approach to politics throughout his lifetime, committing numerous shifts in course which he never denied”) and Scholem’s move towards Leninist “vanguardist ideas” where “discipline and obedience were no longer part of the problem, but part of the solution” was part of his turn to “revolutionary centralism” (p201). Though this shouldn’t detract from the meticulousness of Hoffrogge’s book, political terms like “centralism” and “decentralisation”, “obedient and disciplined” versus “democratic and insubordinate” “pragmatism” versus “principled refusal to compromise”, and “vanguardism” versus “spontaneity”, do not provide an adequate way to learn from Scholem’s political experience in the German Revolution. For one thing, the terms can be and are often interpreted in different ways. And they do not of themselves convey Lenin’s practice, a problem which will become clearer below when we look at the misinterpretations of Lenin by the protagonists at the time and by Hoffrogge himself. Of the Halle Congress, Hoffrogge writes that Scholem was deeply impressed by Zinoviev’s speech, but describes it as “an impassioned sermon” whereas Martov’s speech “denounced the International and accused the Bolsheviks of terrorising his party” (p199).

While it may be true that the stage was already set for the acceptance of the 21 Conditions at Halle, Zinoviev’s and Martov’s speeches remain useful illustrations of revolutionary versus reformist methodology. More was at stake than a sermon and a denunciation of terror (the Bolsheviks granted Martov a passport to engage in the debate). Martov provides a case study in a species of intellectualism, wasting his many talents by giving left cover to reformism and the trade union bureaucracy at decisive moments of struggle and debate, Halle one of them. Martov swam like a fish in water when it came to small-scale politics: he could analyse regroupings in parliamentary politics, changes in the tendencies of the press and the manoeuvres of ruling circles, insofar as all this was limited to the peaceful conditions when only leaders, deputies, journalists and ministers of pre-war Europe acted in the political arena. Martov produced a “politics of the minor scale” – internal regroupings within parties and parliamentary games. But Martov’s Marxism didn’t venture beyond these parliamentarist boundaries. The closer major class confrontations approached, the more tragic Martov’s thought became: the greater the depth of crisis and confrontation, the more Martov’s thought “increasingly showed its weakness, turned dialectics simply into a screen for inner uncertainty, and fell under the spell of vulgar empiricists”.[5] Martov’s political mistakes grew in frequency and were consistently to the right of historical development – which at decisive moments became counter-revolutionary. This was clear at the Halle Congress, where Martov’s sole duty was to intellectually subordinate workers’ consciousness to bourgeois liberal democracy in the name of “unity” with the Kautskyism of the USPD right. If the liberation of humanity as a whole rests upon the intellectual orientation of the working class, which is won through struggle and ideological clarification, then Martov’s attacks were about blocking the fullest development of that process. The reality that emerged from the Halle debate was that Martov feared a liberating revolution; elevating this fear to a fundamental principle. As an ideologue of reformism in practice, Martov mocked the so-called religious fervour of the masses (which is why it doesn’t help when Hoffrogge says Zinoviev’s speech was a “sermon”). Martov was for social pacifism. Because fear of revolution was Martov’s fundamental principle, he tried to hush up the class struggle; when Martov was marching backwards like a crab, he wished class struggle to do so with him. As Zinoviev argued, “fear of the revolution really is the fundamental principle of many opportunist intellectuals”.[6]

Halle was Scholem’s home turf, and he fought alongside others like Karl Korsch and Emmy Scholem within the left of the USPD at the December 1920 party unification conference. The United Communist Party was produced by the fusion of the USPD left with the KPD, a process that – finally! – involved separation from the reformists and centrists. Scholem said that the new party would strive “not to be a debating club, but the party of revolutionary action for which the times call out” (p202). He saw the workers’ councils as the way forward for revolutionary change, experienced the fighting of the Kapp Putsch firsthand in Halle and was elected to the Prussian parliament.

Scholem now became an editor of the newly unified KPD’s Rote Fahne and moved to Berlin; he was soon elected to the Prussian parliament in 1921. Scholem was an editor of the KPD’s central organ during the March Action. Despite this involving some 200,000 workers, Paul Levi called the March Action the “greatest Bakuninist putsch in history”.[7] It was an example of ultra-leftism combining impatience from below and an inability to lead from above. The KPD leadership tailed working class impatience and developed an incorrect theory out of it – euphemistically called an offensive strategy, where the KPD called for a general strike and an uprising, without the preconditions existing. The lunacy caused many deaths, isolated the Communist Party for a time and poured cold water over the newly won momentum of the unification with the USPD. Throughout March and April (when it was clear the March Action was a failure) Rote Fahne defended and escalated the actions. Scholem’s name appeared on every edition of Rote Fahne and he was responsible in the eyes of German press laws. Hoffrogge writes that Scholem did not take charge of the KPD press’s editorial line, but rather “he accepted the honourable task of attaching his name to the strategy of the offensive and assuming legal responsibility for it” (p214). Hoffrogge relies on the testimony of the interrogation of Bernhard Karge (a district secretary from Kassel) to establish the fact that Scholem was appointed publicly responsible for the action because of his parliamentary immunity as Landtag deputy, but was actually internally critical of the March Action. The KPD did what the SPD pioneered: the Prussian parliament had to vote for every criminal prosecution of another parliamentarian, and the SPD had “had a tradition of deploying ‘sitting editors’ under the Kaiserreich whose sole task was to go to prison for the party if necessary” (p214). Outwardly, Scholem gave the appearance of party unity, but internally he may have criticised the March Action, and “publicly his name stood for the March Action” (p215). Unfortunately, nowhere in Scholem’s written word can a critical balance sheet of the March Action be found.

The chapter dedicated to Scholem’s time as an editor and parliamentarian in Prussia is valuable reading. Scholem intervened over school reform, demanded an expansion of asylum law, fought against right-wing terror and fascism, as well as against anti-Semitism – as a Communist and Jew, Scholem was the symbol of all the fascists hated. In these early years, Scholem called for united action against the Freikorps and other right-wing paramilitary groups. He did not indiscriminately denounce the Social Democrats as “fascists”, which became standard practice in the KPD, especially during the Stalinist Third Period that helped pave the way for Hitler’s rise to and consolidation of power.

The Berlin Opposition within the KPD

Berlin had its own distinctive mix of an individual labour movement and political radicalism. After Paul Levi (perhaps imprudently) expelled the ultra-left at the 1919 Heidelberg conference “the base of the KPD in Berlin collapsed almost entirely, forcing the district party to rebuild from scratch. The expelled majority formed a new party, the syndicalist-leaning Communist Workers’ Party of Germany [Kommunistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands, KAPD], which was stronger and larger than the Berlin KPD for some time,” Hoffrogge writes. The KAPD was not very influential by 1921 and the collapse of the party put “renewed pressure on the KPD, which again stood alone as the only force to the left of the SPD” (pp298-299).

The Berlin Opposition was made up of intellectuals and workers. It reflected the previous working-class traditions of Berlin, such as the Revolutionary Stewards of the anti-war movement and the pressures of the KAPD-inclined post-war radicalism. Hoffrogge shows how the district leadership of the Berlin Opposition was made up of mechanics, toolmakers and locksmiths, many of whom had been members of the Revolutionary Stewards. The Revolutionary Stewards only allowed skilled workers and respected militants within their ranks. Hoffrogge writes: “This concentration of so many Stewards suggests that the Berlin district was run by a well attuned network of labour movement veterans” (p301). Despite the merger of intellectuals and workers, the most well-known representatives of the Berlin Opposition were Fischer, Maslow and Scholem, and their dogmatic set of politics dominated. It was only a matter of time before their rigidity became a fetter on the further development of struggle. These representatives often came from outside Berlin and did not develop alongside the working-class movement there. They came to Berlin after the war and November Revolution had broken out. They weren’t tested by the Berlin working class for any length of time prior to the revolution. Clara Zetkin described the trio thus:

The opposition does not recruit its followers from the party’s mass constituency, but rather from some circle of sophisticated functionaries possessing mere smatterings of knowledge. It therefore finds it relatively easy to attract attention, as it remains at the surface of things, but also to establish factional links and to act in a coherent and unified manner. It is supported by broader sections of the party only where these are near clueless politically and exhibit a mere “emotional” revolutionary sentiment. Such comrades are strongly impressed by Maslow’s cynical brashness, Ruth Fischer’s booming rhetoric and Scholem’s muddleheaded impudence. (quoted on p300)

Once in Berlin (1921) Scholem was won to the Berlin Opposition, quickly becoming a leading member of the ultra-left within the KPD. Hoffrogge’s biography provides a test case of such ultra-left politics. The term “ultra-left” is difficult to deploy because it is often abused; for instance Social Democrats dismiss anybody with principled working-class politics as ultra-left. In contrast, revolutionaries like Lenin and Trotsky saw ultra-leftism as a distinct set of politics and attitudes characterised by radical rhetoric and passivity before the key political questions of the moment and their inability to appraise the concrete truth of a concrete situation. For Lenin and Trotsky, ultra-leftism hindered the ability to win a revolution in the West. But the nascent Stalinist bureaucracy also used the term to scold anybody who began to question the deformations or state-capitalist nature of the USSR.

Scholem’s biography shows that the term “ultra-left” has meaning insofar as it is premised on the mistaken belief that the whole working-class has broken with reformism and bourgeois ideas simply because the radicalised layer has. Because of this illusion, ultra-left politics is vague and indeterminate whatever the rhetorical and political forms it takes: whether as anti-parliamentarism and rejection of trade-unionism of the KAPD, the Berlin Opposition or the March Action. Ultra-left impatience on the part of workers and intellectuals (or a party) speaks to a lack of training in revolutionary strategy and tactics or a forgetting of them. It is necessary however to distinguish between an inexperienced ultra-leftism from below and a top-down ultra-left leadership. Scholem and the Berlin Opposition fall into the latter category. They were stuck in the past: the first stage of party building (hounding the centrists to make a clean break with them) ended after the First and Second Congresses of the Comintern and the formation of the United Communist Party. The second stage consisted of learning to prepare for revolution and wage revolutionary struggle to win a majority of workers to revolution. That involved constant learning from mistakes about how to organise the struggle better. The Berlin Opposition never made the necessary transition – for example, they relentlessly campaigned against the united front policy. Over the years, the Berlin Opposition’s “political positions would grow increasingly dogmatic”, Hoffrogge writes, the “Left Opposition, also present in Hamburg and elsewhere, rallied around a complete rejection of any sort of agreement or alliance – let alone united front – with Social Democracy, or the trade unions, advocating an immediate ‘revolutionary’ approach instead” (p295).

Lenin’s alternative to ultra-left politics consisted in the following approach:

To win over the majority of the proletariat to our side – such is the “principal task”…and that is possible, even if, formally, the majority of the proletariat follow bourgeois leaders, or leaders who pursue a bourgeois policy…or if the majority of the proletariat are wavering… Let us make more thorough and careful preparations for it; let us not allow a single serious opportunity to slip by when the bourgeoisie compels the proletariat to undertake a struggle; let us learn to determine correctly the moment when the masses of the proletariat cannot but rise together with us.[8]

Marxists should strive for precision and clarity. Theoretical conscience forms a crucial part in the analysis of a concrete situation with a view towards its revolutionary solution. Scholem had a mediocre grasp of Marxist theory. The leadership of the Berlin Opposition were many steps behind the theoretical and political heights achieved by the Russians like Lenin and Trotsky, but also the Germans like Zetkin and Paul Levi.

The misinterpretation of “Leninism”

The Berlin Opposition, despite their self-proclaimed “Leninism”, had learnt nothing of value from the experience of Bolshevism (1903-1917) and the wealth of practical experience it had accumulated; they were in no position to be able to translate this practice, which as Lenin wrote “concentrated during so short a time such a wealth of forms, shades, and methods of struggle of all classes of modern society”.[9] No clarity about the nature of Lenin’s contribution to politics existed among the Berlin Opposition – that was a weakness, not a strength. Their dogmatism ensured they learnt nothing from the rich school of revolutionary strategy and tactics of the Comintern. Their failure also set the struggle against Stalinism back when the time came: forces in and around the Berlin Opposition were the strongest bastion (numerically) of anti-Stalinism to emerge from the KPD, but their lack of theoretical depth, their dogmatism and failure to understand the art of politics effectively sealed their fate, and with that, the fate of anti-Stalinism in the most important country outside of Russia.

The Berlin Opposition claimed to be “Leninists”, and so their style of ultra-leftism was different to the tradition of the KAPD and other syndicalist currents. They accepted the 21 Conditions and democratic centralism. They opposed the attempts to build united fronts (based on the “Open Letter” tactic proposed by Paul Levi) with the SPD and thought the revolution had no need for any compromise whatsoever to initiate class struggles. Instead they campaigned for united fronts “from below”. Years after his entry into the Berlin Opposition, Scholem wrote about its emergence. He outlined their disagreement with Levi’s tactics. Hoffrogge explains that “it is beyond dispute that the Left Opposition as it emerged in 1921 stood firmly on the foundation of Leninism” (p304), but this is an incorrect formulation. A mechanical acceptance of the 21 Conditions and democratic centralism hardly constituted the foundation of “Leninism”. A number of problems stand out. First, “Leninism” as a doctrine was being constructed by Zinoviev – far from being an attempt to authentically generalise from Lenin’s practice, it was itself a politically motivated distortion that sought to justify the growing power of the Soviet bureaucracy. Hoffrogge unfortunately conflates Lenin’s profoundly democratic body of politics with Zinoviev’s bureaucratically degenerate counterfeit. Second, Lenin’s works were hardly available in German, so the knowledge the Berlin Oppositionists could have had of Lenin’s work and practice was very limited. Last, there was confusion among the ultra-left about what Lenin represented, ie what could be learnt and drawn out of his theory and practice. For instance, Korsch (when editor of the KPD’s theoretical journal in 1924/25) reviewed George Lukács’ book on Lenin as well as Stalin’s pamphlet, praising both while later admitting that when he read the French edition of What is to Be Done? the things he learnt turned out to be “very embarrassing”. That such a statement could have come from the mouth of Weimar’s most serious Marx-scholar is indicative of deep confusion. Nevertheless, to return to Hoffrogge’s sketch of the formation of the Berlin Opposition on the basis of Scholem’s document:

Scholem commences his narrative in 1920 with the words, “following the unification of the Spartacus League and the left USP[D]”. According to Scholem, critics at the time had opposed the Levi leadership in “tactical questions”, their policies had already been “vigorously rejected” during a conference of Berlin party functionaries in the spring of 1921. This refers to the united front strategy of the “open letter”, with which Levi hoped to attract Social Democratic workers in early 1921. The opposition, on the other hand, was critical of any attempt to persuade the masses to join the KPD through appeals to whatever the popular demand of the day might be. This scepticism was motivated by an ever-present fear of “opportunism”, that is, a lapse into Social Democratic reformism. Whenever a debate on engaging in joint actions with the SPD broke out, the opposition warned of a “right-wing danger” that would result in the “liquidation”, i.e. dissolution, of the KPD. The consensus around which the opposition rallied was thus of a decidedly negative character. Paul Levi became their crown witness for the danger that “liquidationism” truly posed, as he did in fact return to the SPD after his expulsion. The Berlin left criticised the party’s careless treatment and readmission of Levi’s sympathisers, yet felt the leadership did not take them seriously. Scholem wrote that they had been misrepresented “systematically as a lot of ‘brawlers’, ‘intellectual fools’, and the like”. While Maslow, Fischer, Scholem and the Berlin left saw themselves as the true keepers of the Communist flame against a reformist deluge, the party leadership viewed them as little more than a group of troublemakers. Clara Zetkin, for instance, denounced the opposition’s purely negative consensus. According to Zetkin, the Opposition “not only criticises the party’s current policies, but ultimately renders all and any policy impossible due to its concern for the purity and independence of the party, leaving nothing but the propaganda of a tiny, pure sect”. (pp304-306)

The united front policy

The united front policy aimed to break the majority of workers from reformism. Lenin and Trotsky recognised that the communist parties couldn’t simply unite the working class around their own banner and their own immediate slogans, while skipping over the reformist organisations. Germany (as elsewhere) after World War I experienced a new fact of politics: competition between mass reformist and revolutionary organisations. This new fact required a specific policy: the united front. The united front policy appeals to reformist organisations for joint action around concrete demands (without sectarian preconditions attached). Where the revolutionary party making the proposal is a sizeable mass party, and is trustworthy, social democratic leaders were faced with a Catch-22 situation. Either join a united front struggle that furthers working-class struggle through militant action from below or reject the proposal (making them appear a hindrance to a unified struggle for working-class interests). Through joint struggle, the revolutionary arguments can become more convincing to rank-and-file social democrats who can see the superiority of extra-parliamentary struggle over electoralism; if the revolutionary party fights after having proposed joint action with the reformists (who refused it) there is a greater chance of rank-and-file reformists being sympathetic to any initiated struggle.

The united front was not based on a judgement that the reformist wing of the workers’ movement had shifted to the left or that they could be influenced to shift leftwards. It was aimed directly at the rank and file. The rank and file had to experience the power of revolutionary initiative as opposed to reformist gestures. Therefore, successful united front initiatives weaken the reformist organisations. The whole operation is based on the idea that the working class alone is capable of overthrowing capitalism, and that the higher the level of its political consciousness, the more powerful a movement against the system is.

The Berlin Opposition failed to make use of the united front. But it was the most successful and promising policy the German communists had at hand. As Marcel Bois has shown in his article “March Separately, But Strike Together!” The Communist Party’s United Front Policy in the Weimar Republic, the KPD went forward and built, grew in strength and rivalled the reformist SPD when it implemented the united front policy.[10] By contrast, the policy pursued by the Berlin Opposition was isolationist and incapable of winning over workers who had confidence in the SPD. The Berlin Opposition’s “united fronts from below” in practice meant avoiding the “Open Letter” tactic – in practice a “united front from below” meant unity could only be achieved if social democratic workers had already broken with their leaders. Once commanding the KPD, the ultra-left isolationist policy led immediately to a dead-end (the electoral debacles of 1925).

The Berlin Opposition rejected the logic behind the united front policy: at the 1921 Jena party conference, Ruth Fischer condemned the policy as proposed by the Zentrale. After Walter Rathenau’s assassination in June 1922, the Berlin Opposition escalated its campaign against the united front policy. Scholem received a formal rebuke from the leadership, and on 1 August 1922, the KPD leadership announced, “There is a clear agreement that the current leadership in Greater Berlin is using its organisational influence to mobilise against the line of the party in general and against the Zentrale in particular” (quoted on p308).

At the Leipzig party conference (January-February 1923), which took place after the Fourth Comintern Congress, a majority voted in favour of the united front policy. Scholem was disgusted. He reported that the defeat of the Berlin Opposition at Leipzig was a sign of a “new communist revisionism” in the KPD (p310). The Leipzig party conference demonstrated the irreconcilability of two orientations: the “Open Letter” tactic and the united front “from below” that shunned any negotiation with the SPD leadership. The former took the road to winning a majority of workers to revolutionary politics; the latter put the vehicle in reverse to isolationist disaster (and fell straight into the hands of Social Democracy and Stalinism). Scholem said the conference had “torn it [the party] into two halves, of which one dominated the central apparatus and the other the party’s largest district organisations. It was therefore only a question of time before the most severe conflicts would erupt” (p312).

The Berlin Left Opposition were extremely mechanical in their approach to politics. They had this in common with the right-wing centrists like Frossard of the French Communist Party. Alfred Rosmer, for instance, reported to the Comintern that the leadership of the PCF accepted the united front in words, but failed it in deeds. That the Berlin Left Opposition and the French centrist-right shared a rejection of the united front policy shows how little the rejection has to do with a genuinely revolutionary orientation. For the ultra-left it is indicative of the fact that they had no way out of their political weakness against organised reformism. As Karl Radek (expert on German affairs) argued at the Fourth Congress, in which he revealed the ultra-left error of a “united front from below” that avoids the “Open Letter” tactic:

[W]hen negotiations began in the Rathenau crisis, the opposition came every day to the Central Bureau with a motion demanding either an ultimatum or a break-up. Why? That’s what is so mechanical about the whole outlook of the left comrades. Our united-front tactic does run according to a schema. We now know one thing in general: we are the weaker side. We face great barriers on the road to the masses; Social Democracy seeks to isolate us from its workers. When the pressure from the masses is great enough, they must negotiate with us. And, when they negotiate, we have an interest in breaking this off only at the point when we have compelled them to set the largest possible masses in motion or when it is already been clearly established for everyone that they do not want any action. To break off earlier, or even to have an impulse not to sit an hour with these people – or even half an hour – that is evidence that we feel ourselves to be weaker than we actually are … rather than pressing the Party to take a clear position before the masses, you are always tugging the Party by the hand to keep it from negotiating. That displays a kind of nervous hysteria that does not serve the Party well.[11]

Hoffrogge’s discussion of the united front policy is one-sided however: he over-emphasises the united front policy as a policy that addresses a government coalition and has the illusion that the united front was about pushing the SPD to the left. Hoffrogge sometimes suggests that the united front could be reduced to the question of coalition government, writing: “Even if the KPD managed to push the SPD to the left by means of clever united front tactics, this would only make the party more dependent on Social Democracy. By and large, the logic of elections and coalitions facilitated compromises within the existing order rather than a revolutionary rupture” (p306). The reduction of the united front to a means of pushing the SPD to the left or putting together governing coalitions is a serious misreading. The united front is first and foremost about interventionist struggle. It is a form of joint action between revolutionary and reformist parties of some size, with the specific goal of winning Social Democratic workers over to a revolutionary perspective. The entire logic of the policy is to wage a battle for hegemony within a workers’ movement that is split between a small but significant revolutionary wing and a mass and powerfully organised reformist wing. The situation can only by turned around by setting the gears of struggle into motion, in which old strategic debates take on new, concrete meaning.

The lost “German October”

The Berlin Opposition’s test came with the approach of the “German October” in 1923. Though the Brandler leadership failed to act decisively at this critical juncture, the Berlin Opposition proved itself to be an obstacle to seizing the “propitious moment”. Not only was the Berlin Opposition passive in the face of these events, they practically obstructed the work of the Zentrale because of their constant internal manoeuvring. Scholem was instrumental to this disastrous orientation. The Berlin Opposition was compelled to publicly defend the outcome of Leipzig (support for a united front), but the combination of internal disagreement and external agreement was unstable. By June Scholem (with Arthur Rosenberg) began to publicly dissent, calling for the KPD to take a harder line against the Social Democratic government in Saxony. The KPD was rapidly building its influence in the trade unions and the works councils, “the KPD appeared set to replace the SPD as the leading party of the German working class” (p321). The Berlin Opposition and the Zentrale agreed that a revolutionary situation was approaching; but the Berlin Opposition allegedly continued “systematically poisoning the internal atmosphere of the party. During a more turbulent meeting, even Ruth Fischer’s brother Gerhart Eisler called for his sister’s resignation”! (p322). Brandler went so far as to campaign for Maslow and Fischer’s detention in Moscow, saying “We believe we cannot be responsible for entering the civil war with these people”! (p322).

Scholem and the Berlin Opposition were a counterweight to Heinrich Brandler’s leadership, but “open hostilities had broken out between the Berlin-Brandenburg district leadership, the opposition’s primary stronghold, and the central leadership by the spring of 1923. The Berlin leadership, in which Scholem by this time held a leading position as Organisationsleiter (“organisational leader”) with authority over all full-time party functionaries in Berlin, used the crisis triggered by the failed uprising of October 1923 to go on the offensive” (p296). The manoeuvres of the Berlin Opposition (led by Scholem) overthrew the Brandler leadership when the rank and file was in a fit of disgust with the failure of the German October, but in actual fact Scholem and the Berlin Opposition provided no alternative course throughout the October events. They were caught up in their own petty squabbles and remained passive before the test.

Through all of the machinations of the Brandler leadership, the Berlin Opposition and Moscow, the political point Hoffrogge correctly draws out is that “Despite the revolutionary situation it continued to propagate, the Berlin left was unwilling to shelve factional in-fighting in the interests of party unity” (p323). Scholem himself began to warn against revolution and the factory occupations on the basis “that the adversary was simply too powerful” (p323). Hoffrogge writes, Scholem’s “turn is quite remarkable: at the last minute, Scholem believes the revolution to be less than imminent after all” (p324).

Scholem’s apprehensive turn before the test of events was papered over when the Berlin Opposition overthrew Brandler’s leadership of the KPD, to which I return below. But Hoffrogge’s explanation of the German October of 1923 remains wanting and fragmentary. He skates over the relationship between the KPD and the working class in the October events and provides no factual basis for his claim that the events were “disturbingly similar to that of March 1921. They had utterly misjudged the mood among the masses: despite widespread social immiseration, the German working class demonstrated little readiness to start a revolution. The KPD’s focus on armed revolt in emulation of the Russian model had blinded it to German political realities” (p326). For an extremely well researched book, failure to actually document that the working class demonstrated little readiness to start a revolution is not enough; instead Hoffrogge slides over a moment of crisis because of a political assumption about insurrection. Here the talk of a “Russian model” and the reduction of armed revolt to the March Action obscures matters. Hoffrogge doesn’t cite Pierre Broué’s The German Revolution for a narrative of these events. He relies on a footnote dedicated to August Thalheimer’s A Missed Opportunity? The German October Legend and the Real History of 1923 to establish the fact that the situation was not revolutionary. This is unhelpful because Thalheimer’s document flows from the pen of a writer who did not intervene into the revolutionary situation adequately, but covered up for it, decided that there was no revolutionary situation after all, supported Stalin-Bukharin in Russian affairs, failed to challenge the theory of socialism in one country, became a quasi-Stalinist and tailed the Comintern leadership on the Chinese Revolution and the Anglo-Russian Committee – all between 1923 and the writing of the actual document. Hoffrogge’s historical method is therefore inadequate and fatalist at this juncture: the revolution is presented as an objective thing you wait for; the historian tells whether or not the objective thing was there. But if the KPD won the confidence of masses of workers, heightened their expectations but then vacillated, paralysed the movement of workers, sowed doubt among their ranks and disintegrated their activity thus bringing ruin to the revolution, then if the historian (as Hoffrogge does) glibly writes that the masses were not ready, then this is apologetic writing.

Hoffrogge fails to adequately think through the political conjuncture at this moment of his book, which is more than simply leaving the facts out of the equation. The events of German October 1923 represent a political problem. One must take the fullest account of the historical determinations, the concrete circumstances and make a detailed breakdown of them (if you glibly claim to contrast the Russian model to the German political reality, you need to actually compare them, which Hoffrogge does not do). But the invocation of circumstances is not enough to think through a political conjuncture; if it were, all we’d need are the correct facts (which no doubt is indispensable). The paradox that confronts thinking through an event like the German October is that even where new evidence surfaces to suggest that a successful revolution was likely or not, the discussion remains abstract, because the difficulty is to think in the conjuncture as consistently as possible, and to do so means submitting to the political problem imposed by the matter in hand: the political conjuncture negatively but objectively posed the problem of insurrection and workers’ revolution in October 1923. Trotsky called this the “propitious moment” where the future was open, not fatalistically foreclosed. Practice was the only adequate test, as Chris Harman wrote:

[W]hether this working-class anger would translate into a willingness to fight could be tested only by revolutionary action. The point had been reached where most workers were no longer prepared to engage in struggles for limited demands or in protest strikes: apart from anything else, the level of unemployment was such that victimisation was all too easy for the employers. Only the struggle itself could now test whether the anger that had brought down the Cuno government had grown into revolutionary determination, or whether, as the then-Communist International functionary Victor Serge thought, “the unemployed are passing by swift stages from an insurgent enthusiasm into weary resignation”. The need to apply a practical test to the popular mood applied even more to the other strata of society. Since the “passive resistance” had been abandoned the ruling class had regained a certain self-confidence for the first time since the spring. They now believed they could solve the reparations question, the problem of inflation, and preserve national unity. But it is doubtful whether this new confidence had yet percolated down to the lower ranks of officialdom and the petty bourgeoisie, who were more impoverished than ever. Within the middle ranks of the armed forces the surrender in the Ruhr had increased rather than diminished the bitterness, although it was usually the far right who benefitted from this. The Communist Party had been projecting propaganda towards the ranks of the army and the civil service for months. But propaganda alone could provide no measure of the extent of any real divisions in the forces of the state – only revolutionary action could do that.[12]

The Berlin Opposition used the defeat to wage a vicious campaign against the Brandler leadership for having called off the uprising. But the Berlin Opposition had not prepared for a decisive uprising, and Scholem argued for a retreat even before Brandler officially cancelled it. Radek criticised the Berlin Opposition too for their passivity, “although they had criticised the leadership for ‘dodging the armed struggle’, they had also failed to mobilise any class forces whatsoever…the opposition demanded revolution, but was unsure of itself when the decisive moment arrived” (p329). The Berlin Opposition proved itself to be without conscience or genuine political thought outside of its own factional struggle – Scholem, Maslow and Fischer denied the accusation that they too were passive before the October events. They didn’t learn from the mistake; they were consequently badly placed to orient the KPD once in charge. Inside the KPD the campaign against Brandler was also a campaign against “Trotskyism” (and Radek). To reach for power, the Berlin Opposition initially lined up with Zinoviev and Stalin, supressing Zinoviev’s role in the October defeat. Throughout November 1923 and early 1924 the Berlin Opposition was holding membership meetings to wage a campaign against Brandler (and Trotsky). In Berlin Scholem addressed a 2,500-strong meeting in which he launched a frontal assault on Brandler’s role. The KPD faced with crisis, Scholem’s reasoning ran as follows “if Zinoviev wanted to save the KPD, he had to support the left” (p325). Moscow was uneasy about giving its full support to the Berlin Opposition, but since the Opposition was winning over district after district, Stalin cynically used them as they seemed to be the future.

The Lefts drive the Bolshevisation process

After the October defeat Scholem and the Left Opposition took over the party. Scholem was the German architect of the Bolshevisation process. At the Fifth World Congress of the Comintern, Zinoviev announced that the slogan of the next period was to be the Bolshevisation of the Communist parties. The meaning of the term was vague, but in German conditions Bolshevisation meant subordinating the party to the central apparatus organisationally and the party to the Lefts politically. In fact, the only clear meaning attached to “Bolshevisation” was the stamping out of workers’ democracy and the imposition of a monolithic, repressive political culture in the Comintern’s affiliate parties.

Scholem continued the campaign against the united front, the “rightists” in the party and even against work in the ADGB (Allgemeiner Deutsche Gewerkschaftsbund, General German Trade Union Federation) trade unions. Hoffrogge explains that Scholem and Arthur Rosenberg were even more extreme than Maslow and Fischer. By the time the Frankfurt party conference took place in April 1924, the Berlin Opposition had won a majority and was in full command of the party, and the candidate list for the May 1924 Reichstag elections was dominated by the ultra-lefts. The defeat of October 1923 “fundamentally eroded the membership’s faith in the party’s old guard” (p338), which the Fischer-Maslow-Scholem clique opportunistically used to take control. The Lefts in power showed themselves to be inward-looking and more concerned about the old leadership and the “right” than the wider struggle to intervene into the political situation adequately. This meant an uncompromising struggle against the founders of the Spartacist League who were close to Rosa Luxemburg, as well as a fictional construction of “Luxemburgism” (defined by its so-called theory of spontaneity) as counterposed to “Leninism”.

Hoffrogge’s narrative of Scholem as the lead organiser of the KPD apparatus runs through all of the ins and outs of Scholem’s campaign against the old leadership at every level of the party apparatus. Scholem bureaucratically stifled dissent and used Stalin’s manoeuvres to justify his own actions. Scholem fitted Stalin’s approach of the moment, as Stalin wrote the “last half year is remarkable in the sense that it presents a radical turning point in the life of the communist parties of the West, in the sense that the social democratic survivors were decisively liquidated, the party cadres Bolshevized, and the opportunist elements isolated”.[13] Before the “Bolshevisation” slogan became an official slogan of the Comintern, Scholem and Fischer argued for it. Before the ultra-left came to power, Fischer supported a party resolution in February 1924 stipulating “not de-Bolshevisation of the R(ussian) CP, but Bolshevisation of the European parties” (p341), which was a clear signal of support to Stalin. Scholem glorified this as a “party revolution” (p342). Hoffrogge lists two political successes during Scholem’s time as lead organiser: the May 1924 Reichstag elections (the KPD won 12.6 percent of the vote, gaining 62 deputies) and the anti-fascist counter rallies in Halle and other cities. But these successes were buried in the mainstay of Scholem’s paranoid and authoritarian leadership: he demanded loyalty (to himself and his power base) with a focus on purging the survivals of the KPD old guard. “Once the organisation in Berlin manages to kill off the moles it will be able to handle the bourgeoisie, the Social Democrats and the new syndicalists” (p357).

The need to reorient in a period of retreat (after October 1923) while being able to sharpen theory and politics, criticise past practice and assess the objective situation concretely was beyond this Left leadership. The KPD went downhill from the December 1924 snap general elections, then the first and second rounds of the presidential elections in 1925. Scholem had no serious answer to these defeats, his ultra-left political line was unchanged despite the economic recovery that was underway. He remained dogmatic, as Hoffrogge writes: “During his time in office, Werner Scholem was forced to acknowledge a ‘relative stabilisation’ of capitalism, but would not consider changing his political line as a result” (p364). For instance, after Hindenburg came to power in the presidential elections (he would declare Hitler Chancellor of Germany eight years later), Fischer, on her return from Moscow, wrote an “open letter” to the leaderships of the ADGB and the SPD which constituted a turn to the united front on Fischer’s behalf. Fischer won the majority of KPD districts to the renewed attempt of a united front, with Scholem practically dissenting, and he lost his post as organisational leader. The difference between Fischer and Scholem proved to be the most serious since the emergence of the Berlin Opposition in 1921, as Scholem went into opposition (now subject to the consequences of the anti-democratic Bolshevisation process he helped construct) as the ultra-left wing of the Fischer KPD.

When the Lefts took over the leadership, they achieved two things that set the workers’ movement backwards: they managed to entrench the KPD’s isolation with their “class against class” policies and they “Bolshevised” the party, making it much easier for the Stalinisation of the KPD. Hoffrogge is correct to distinguish between Bolshevisation and Stalinism. Stalinism had to break political souls to ensure the KPD was “a vehicle of interchangeable political substance, determined by the requirements of Stalin’s rule” (p399). There was nothing automatic about the Stalinisation of the KPD: the “fierce conflicts surrounding the replacement of the left-wing KPD leadership demonstrate, however, that no automatism existed in this sequence of events. Scholem’s KPD career exhibits a crucial ambivalence – he was both a protagonist and champion of Bolshevisation, as well as determined opponent of Stalinisation” (pp399-400). On 5 November 1926, Scholem was expelled from the KPD.

In practice the ultra-lefts played a pivotal role in sidelining Trotsky’s legacy in Germany. For instance, Arthur Rosenberg, who was close to Scholem and based much of his knowledge of the Comintern proceedings on Scholem’s word, “viewed Trotsky’s tendency as the actual ‘right’ within the Russian party, he also accused Zinoviev and Stalin of opportunism, but argued that an alliance with this faction could be legitimate in order to counter the right”. (p336). Damien Durand corroborates this in Opposants à Staline: L’opposition de gauche internationale et Trotsky (written under the supervision of Pierre Broué); the strong ultra-left current of the KPD understood the Trotsky-led Opposition as a right-wing deviation. They confused Brandler and Trotsky’s respective roles and mixed them up: both were supposed capitulators and their vision of the united front was opportunist, to which the ultra-left counterposed their own version of the united front “from below”. The core of German anti-Stalinism in the 1920s came from the Left milieu, at a time when the “German party was bereft of anybody who would invoke Trotsky”.[14] Scholem curbed democracy in the party and freedom of speech, which was inevitably part of an attack on Trotsky’s legacy. Ruth Fischer the Zinovievite even moved a resolution in Wedding (a working-class district of Berlin) to expel Trotsky. As Broué wrote:

These “Lefts” hunted down the least sympathy for “Trotskyism” in the party. Thus the German Left was in no sense the German current of an international “Left” of which, as we know, Trotsky was the leader. It was an authentic current, genuinely German and “Leftist”, the leaders of which in the International were partisans of Zinoviev, and with the apparatus and that ever-decreasing fraction of the apparatus which he controlled in 1925. These are two adequate reasons to explain the hostility of the German Lefts to Trotsky and the poor opinion which Trotsky had at the time of the political capacities of their leaders. Consequently, nothing predisposed them to be “Trotskyists”, or even allies of Trotsky; quite the reverse.[15]

Scholem wastes anti-Stalinist momentum

Because the Berlin Opposition hunted down support for Trotsky within the KPD, once Zinoviev broke with Stalin and moved towards Trotsky, they found themselves opposing Stalin as Zinovievists, spokespersons for the Leningrad Opposition. The supporters of the former Leningrad Opposition founded the Lenin League (April 1928), with six former members of the Central Committee of the KPD and a handful of Reichstag deputies. The Lenin League was strong in Berlin, implanted in the working class and also had a daily paper at their disposal, the Suhl Volkswille, and influenced tens of thousands of workers who looked to it for a lead. In reality, the Lenin League turned out to be an obstacle to the building of a socially implanted party that could not only rival the Stalinised KPD, but could also provide a road forward in the struggle against Nazism.

Reductionist Marxists would say that there was no possibility of building an alternative to Stalinism that had a mass base in Germany. But this does not take into consideration the role of individuals and their subjective politics. Scholem again provides a test case, in which it is difficult to say that subjective politics played no role in the failure to build an alternative to Stalinism. It could be said that Scholem’s entire framework precluded him from building a genuine alternative. Despite Scholem’s limitations, we could read his struggle in the trace of Victor Serge, who wrote of his and Trotsky’s struggle: “We knew that we were more likely to fail than to conquer, but that too, we felt, would be useful. If we had not at least put up a fight, the revolution would have been a hundred times more defeated”.[16]

After banishment and expulsion from the Comintern, Scholem and Hugo Urbahns (who was renowned in the KPD for his role in the Hamburg uprising) launched a circular – the Mitteilungsblatt – in January-May 1927 to begin building out of their defeat. Scholem and Urbahns’ orientation was for a return to the KPD. They consistently criticised Stalin for his reformism: “Scholem and Urbahns, in concert with the Russian Opposition, sought to rid the KPD and the Comintern of the Stalin faction and put the movement back on the ‘right’, that is to say, left track” (p418). But Stalinism’s turns couldn’t be understood through a “left” and “right” logic (left being closer to working-class interests and right being further away), but only as expressions of power politics in Russian conditions. Scholem and Urbahns wrote on world politics against Stalin’s line in China. They published a report from Shanghai in September 1927, documents from the Russian Opposition and consolidated their position as established anti-Stalinists. Their argument that Stalinism was a variant of “reformism” seemed to be confirmed by Stalin’s China policy, the Anglo-Russian trade unions, the NEP and negotiations with France to repay the Russian empire’s debt.

Three fault lines ran through Scholem’s and Urbahns’ opposition: Scholem hardly accounted for his own ultra-left errors from the KPD years; the duo denied they were building a “second party” to rival the KPD (Scholem was still stuck on readmission to the party); and their identification of Stalinism with reformism would not be able to withstand Stalin’s so-called left turn and the KPD’s turn to ultra-leftism in Germany (this confusion was reinforced by Scholem’s lack of learning from the ultra-left period). Once Stalin defeated Zinoviev at the 15th party conference of the CPSU in December 1927, the fault lines began to break apart the foundation of Scholem’s new project, as Zinoviev publicly denounced the German opposition and submitted to Stalin’s authority. The Zinovievist Left “effectively split in two, between those who followed the historic leaders and those that wanted to continue the struggle through the Leninbund”.[17] The latter group was scathing towards Zinoviev and Kamenev, who they saw as giving up the battle. The capitulation and split was of capital importance because Zinoviev had played a dominant role in the opposition. “In principle”, Durand wrote, it was “favourable to the development in Germany of a specifically ‘Trotskyist’ current, but the results wouldn’t be immediate”.[18] But it is important to be clear that Trotsky wasn’t the panacea to the German anti-Stalinist left’s ills: Trotsky was not for building a second party against the KPD (until 1933) and he was caught wrong-footed by Stalin’s left turn (Trotsky’s theory of the bureaucracy in the USSR experienced profound crisis in 1928-29, as his predictions were out of whack with reality and the Left Opposition went through a profound ideological crisis that saw many of its leaders capitulate to Stalin.[19])

Scholem began to identify with Trotsky in January 1928. The Lenin League was set up in March-April 1928. The idea that Scholem and Urbahns weren’t building a second party was discordant with their practice on the ground. In a (most likely exaggerated) report to the founding conference of the Lenin League, Scholem claimed that it had 100 groups, 5-6 thousand functionaries and 100,000 sympathisers. Here was a concrete possibility to build an anti-Stalinist force that could act independently of Moscow, begin to rival the KPD while also challenging the SPD in the face of the mounting Nazi threat. Very early on tension broke out within the party over putting a Reichstag candidate list that was independent of the KPD. Scholem was against an independent list, and the tension spoke to the illusions Scholem had about the Lenin League’s relationship to the KPD as to the possibility of a reconciliation with the Stalinists. The Lenin League proclaimed itself to be a public faction of the KPD. Its first congress on 8-9 April had 153 delegates present. Two reports were unanimously voted on: the first was of an organisational nature and the second concerned the period. The first report was presented by Scholem, in which he attacked the leadership of the KPD’s splitting attitude, for having broken the party’s unity. Scholem argued that the KPD leadership was totally subordinated to Stalin’s “erroneous course in the Comintern…a shift away from the proletarian class line (the Russian question, Chinese and English policy)”, an “opportunist policy, effacing communist principles” and challenged the KPD’s “total passivity with regards to daily activity”.[20] It is significant that Scholem also attacked the ultra-lefts at the Congress, who he claimed had given up the terrain of Leninism. In the second report delivered by Urbahns on the global situation, he claimed that “our period remains…the time of wars and revolutions” and condemned the theory of socialism in one country.[21]

Scholem proved to be disarmed before Stalin’s adoption of ultra-left rhetoric and the turn to industrialisation in the Soviet Union. He even cheered on the shooting of peasants because it seemed to be a blow to Bukharin’s right wing. Stalin’s so-called leftward turn disoriented Scholem as well as Trotsky’s supporters. These were communists who were hardened by war, combat and imprisonment. Even the Nazi death-camps weren’t capable of breaking the political souls of those like Scholem. Physical repression alone couldn’t have broken the anti-Stalinist opposition. Yet they capitulated before Stalin’s new course. The reason must have been ideological and political. Indeed, this is the picture one gathers from Hoffrogge’s book:

In an attempt to match the reality on the ground to their political theory, the German Left Communists regarded the cities and the industrial proletariat as the true bearers of the revolution. To them, Zinoviev and the urban “Leningrad Opposition” represented a bulwark against Stalin and his rural state capitalism. When Stalin suddenly and violently turned on the peasants, the Left Communists were perplexed. Things became even more curious when this “left course” resulted in a foreign policy shift: the 9th plenary of the ECCI stated that the establishment of workers’ councils was a mandatory precondition for the victory of the Chinese Revolution, while declaring Social Democracy the proletariat’s main enemy. Having eliminated all of his critics, Stalin could now afford such a volte-face. Far from eroding his credibility, the move actually instilled renewed hopes in the last remaining oppositionists that “constructive” work in the party would again become possible. Given this complex set of factors, it is understandable why the Lenin League debated so long and so intensely over its participation in the May 1928 Reichstag elections, as this would represent the crucial last step on the path to becoming a “second party”, and the Left Communists would finally position themselves outside of the Comintern. An already weighty decision was made all the more complicated by the Soviet leadership’s apparent taking heed, albeit extremely cautiously, of the left’s criticisms. As Stalin’s new course was consolidated between February and April, the newly founded Lenin League found its existence called into question. (p428)

To make matters more difficult for Scholem’s wavering about building a “second party”, the Comintern and the KPD welcomed any rank-and-file worker back to the fold only if they denounced the Lenin League. This demoralised many in the Lenin League and a sizeable number of members went back to the KPD. But the political orientation of the leadership of the Lenin League failed this test. Scholem’s whole political analysis of Stalinism revolved around it being a species of reformism that would ostensibly drift to the right in a direct and linear fashion. They couldn’t handle the twists they mistakenly thought were moves to the left. For Scholem, so long as the KPD was drifting rightward, it was legitimate to found a new organisation. “But should the Comintern, and with it the KPD, return to being a revolutionary organisation, then no other Communist organisation had the right to exist, and would in fact represent an obstacle to Communism’s triumph”, Hoffrogge writes (p430). Scholem’s illusion was that Stalin’s twist was a renewal of a revolutionary orientation. He resigned from the Lenin League, withdrew his candidature for the Reichstag elections and called on members of the Lenin League to vote for the KPD. Scholem wrote in his resignation statement:

The Left Opposition within the KPD has for years considered the reunification of all Communists on the basis of Leninism the goal of its struggle, and has always vehemently rejected the claim that it was seeking to form a second Communist Party […] The founding congress of the Lenin League, however, has resolved the very opposite line. Lacking any serious consideration of the current situation in Soviet Russia, in the Comintern and in the KPD, and without even taking into account the resistance of the proletarian elements against the dangers of liquidation in Soviet Russia […], a majority guided by utterly unpolitical considerations voted in favour of entering a candidate list of our own for the upcoming elections. This resolution effectively signifies the establishment of a second Communist Party, even though it is clear that such a party would have neither the possibility nor the right to exist. (quoted on pp430-31)

Hoffrogge is right to say Scholem submitted to Stalin out of conviction, not cowardice. Scholem “truly hoped for a left turn on Stalin’s part” (p431). Leaders of the Lenin League like Fischer and Maslow followed Scholem’s resignation. The illusions and dogmatic political perspectives of these leaders literally led them to throw the best hope in Germany of an alternative to Stalinism out of the window. They didn’t just stand at the window of their Berlin apartment throwing a few cigarettes out of it; they launched the piano, carpet and bed straight out of the window and they went crashing down onto the sidewalk. If ever there was an example of false consciousness acting as a political fetter upon a necessary development, here it was: “The Lenin League found itself stripped of its leadership, and members were furious” (p432).

The primacy of politics: some critical comments

Werner Scholem was a remarkable man and the best of his legacy should be remembered. Nevertheless, three mistakes emerge from his politics that we need to learn from.

Scholem failed to learn from the concrete situation, instead insisting on imposing his abstract slogans onto the development of the class struggle. He entrenched a Leftist deformation of Marxism that lacked the ability to raise the elemental battles by workers within capitalism to a struggle for hegemony and state power. He had no real ability to connect Marxist principle (the interests of the working class as a whole) with the organic development of workers’ struggle. This mistake manifested most clearly in his opposition to the united front. Scholem consistently viewed the united front policy as a distraction for workers. But politics is a strategic art and the united front requires neither capitulation to Social Democracy, nor isolation of one’s own party. Events would prove Scholem’s mechanical view of politics wrong time and again: in 1926, even when the KPD was being Stalinised, it conducted “the most successful united front project of the 1920s: the campaign to expropriate the nobility”.[22]

Scholem’s authoritarian Bolshevisation of the KPD was the organisational counterpart to his political deformation of Marxism. Scholem’s bureaucratic practice throughout the Bolshevisation process signalled that he “had failed to understand that the democratic character of the Communist movement possessed an inherent value and a dynamic of its own” (p390) – Scholem combined organisational centralism with ultra-left policy. Hoffrogge is correct to draw the reader’s attention to the importance of workers’ democracy, but his conflation of “Leninism” with Zinoviev’s bureaucratic distortion misrepresents Lenin. Lenin constantly affirmed the struggle of shades of opinion within a workers’ party: he constantly campaigned for political convictions to be fought out before the organisation in a dignified way.

Though Scholem became a critic of Stalin and even belatedly identified with Trotsky, he was “mistaken about the political constellation of actors involved [in Russia], for it was by no means Trotsky and Radek who signified an authoritarian ‘state capitalist’ development in Russia, but rather Stalin, who would soon elevate the interests of the Russian state above those of the revolutionary movement” (p390). Though Scholem fought for anti-Stalinist campaigns such as the “Declaration of the 700” (a petition put together by oppositionists) he was still under the influence of Zinoviev’s Leningrad Opposition, which proved to be unstable ground from which to wage a fight against Stalin.

Hoffrogge has produced a wide-ranging and historically detailed study of Werner Scholem. But it is wanting when the reader asks what we can learn from the defeat of the German Revolution. Some of Hoffrogge’s political concepts fail to make his case as intelligible as it could be. At certain points, the reader is given extremely close detail with clichéd notions. For example, Hoffrogge has the tendency to refer to Lenin and Trotsky as leading because of their “charisma” – a term taken from the sociologist Max Weber – and Hoffrogge’s constant throwaways of “vanguardism” and “centralism” hardly help us understand the art of revolutionary politics (pp326, 331).

The German Revolution represented the closest a workers’ revolution in the West ever came to success, only to have this possibility interned in the Buchenwald, Dachau and Auschwitz concentration camps. Revolutionary Marxism doesn’t recount and recollect the event for its own sake, but integrates the historical experience of the German Revolution into a theory of revolution for our times. Genuine Marxism is distinguished from bourgeois politics by the fact that it strives to act on theoretical principles derived from the material experiences of class struggle in history. The German Revolution as historical material supplies the further development of a theory, not of revolution in general, but a specific theory of revolution in the advanced capitalist countries for the twenty-first century. Without the revolutionary experience of workers’ struggles, mass strikes and industrial struggles, there can’t be a coherent sense of the relationship between the goal of socialism and the road towards it; without this coherence, it is hardly likely that capitalism can be overthrown. The horrors of fascism inflicted on Scholem are more likely.

Much historical writing on today’s left doesn’t produce real history, only fictional constructions that hope to make an ideological point.[23] Ideological storytelling fails to learn what can be learned from history. In practice it writes bad history. It is arbitrary and fails to excavate facts that substantiate one line of argument and bury another. Against these orientations, Hoffrogge’s Werner Scholem is an excellent work of excavation. Yet, though Hoffrogge’s book provides extensive factual material and narrative, therefore great insight into the detail of events and explanation of why the ultra-left did what it did, it doesn’t develop coherent theoretical principles as a consequence of an event that (as all revolutions do) puts principles and viewpoints of revolution to the ultimate test. The greatest political lesson to emerge from the book is that “Leninism” is bad, but this is more a retrospective judgment on Hoffrogge’s behalf than a lesson, because nowhere in the book is a serious appreciation of Lenin’s politics presented, let alone a substantive critique.

An activist readership needs to answer a series of questions if it wants to learn to think: how do the contradictions of the capitalist mode of production produce social crises and revolutions? How does working-class consciousness develop and bourgeois ideology (materialised in the trade unions and reformist parties) break down? Why does class consciousness develop unevenly through the process of struggle? What is the role of a political party in cohering the most advanced revolutionary workers in light of this fact? What is the meaning of an interventionist political party capable of pushing struggles to their highest promise, while training a membership that can read a political situation, implant themselves in the working class and win over those around them? What are the roles of the state, mass politics and force in history, and what is the function of emergent working-class institutions like the workers’ councils in a revolutionary process? Answers to these questions require a historically grounded theory capable of pointing a way out of the repetition of political failure; without a theoretical comprehension of history, it is likely activists will repeat the mistakes of the past. Hoffrogge’s biography of Scholem can serve as material for these questions – that is why it should be read – but it falls short of answering them adequately. Faced with the renewed threats of fascist barbarism and the instability of global capitalism, learning from Scholem’s rigidity and mistakes in order to work out a viable revolutionary politics is a fundamental task of our day.


Bois, Marcel 2016, “A Transnational Friendship in the Age of Extremes: Leon Trotsky and the Pfemferts”, Twentieth Century Communism, 10, Spring.

Bois, Marcel 2020, “‘March Separately, But Strike Together!’ The Communist Party’s United-Front Policy in the Weimar Republic”, Historical Materialism (Advance articles), Brill.

Broué, Pierre 1985, The German Left and the Russian Opposition (1926-28),

Broué, Pierre 2006, The German Revolution 1917-1923, translated John Archer, Haymarket Books.

Cliff, Tony 1993, Trotsky Vol. 4: The darker the night, the brighter the star 1927-1940, Bookmarks.

Durand, Damien 1988, Opposants à Staline: L’opposition de gauche internationale et Trotsky (1929-1930), La Pensée sauvage.

Harman, Chris 1985, The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918 to 1923, Bookmarks.

Lenin, Vladimir 1964 [1920], “‘Left-wing Communism’ an Infantile Disorder”, Collected Works, Volume 31, Progress Publishers.

Levi, Paul 2011, In the Steps of Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Writings of Paul Levi, translated David Fernbach, Brill Historical Materialism Book Series, 31.

Lih, Lars and Ben Lewis 2011, Martov and Zinoviev: Head to Head in Halle, November Publications.

Riddell, John 2012, Towards the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922, edited and translated by John Riddell, Haymarket.

Serge, Victor 1943, In Memory of Leon Trotsky, Partisan Review.

Taylor, Daniel 2019, “Bhaskar Sunkara’s Socialist Manifesto”, Marxist Left Review, 18, Winter.

Trotsky, Leon 1970, The Third International after Lenin, Pathfinder Press.

Trotsky, Leon 1998, Trotsky’s Notebooks, 1933-1935: Writings of Lenin, Dialectics and Evolutionism, iUniverse.

Twiss, Thomas 2014, Trotsky and the Problem of Soviet Bureaucracy, Brill Historical Materialism Book Series, 67.

[1] I would like to thank those who read this article prior to publication and provided useful feedback: Ian Birchall, Ralf Hoffrogge, Sean Larson, Michael Buckmiller, Mario Kessler and Omar Hassan.

[2] Broué 2006, p984.

[3] Loren Balhorn and Jan-Peter Herrmann should be commended for their fine translation. Many standard works on left-wing Weimar do not yet exist in English: Ossip K. Flechtheim’s Die KPD in der Weimarer Republik (1969) and Hermann Weber’s Die Wandlung des deutschen Kommunismus: Die Stalinisierung der KPD in der Weimarer Republik (1969) are the most notable. Other studies, of lesser worth yet nonetheless important, like Rüdiger Zimmermann’s Der Leninbund: Linke Kommunisten in der Weimarer Republik (1978) and Marcel Bois’ more recent Kommunisten gegen Hitler und Stalin (2014), provide insight into what was the largest and most important anti-Stalinist left in Europe in the late 1920s. With the collapse of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) the KPD’s party archive became available in the Federal Archive (of parties and mass organisations) in Berlin, altering the conditions for historical research.

[4] The “21 Conditions” were the terms of admission to the Comintern. They were designed to win over the revolutionary wing of the centrist parties from the right-wing leaders. The conditions were put forward to make clear to the workers of the German USPD and the Italian and French Socialist parties that the Comintern demanded the coordination of revolutionary activity at home, the expulsion of leading centrists and an uncompromising break with reformism at every level of the party, in every sphere of struggle, and with Second International ideology.

[5] Trotsky 1998, p95.

[6] Zinoviev, quoted in Lih and Lewis 2011, p184.

[7] Levi 2011, p148.

[8] Quoted in Broué 2006, p581.

[9] Lenin 1964, p26.

[10] Bois 2020.

[11] Radek quoted in Riddell 2012, p165.

[12] Harman 1985, pp287-88.

[13] Trotsky 1970, p125.

[14] Bois 2016, p14.

[15] Broué 1985.

[16] Serge 1943. There is a typo in the original.

[17] Durand 1988, p26. (Translations by Darren Roso.)

[18] Durand 1988, p26.

[19] See Twiss 2014, chapter five, and Cliff 1993.

[20] Durand 1988, p26.

[21] Durand 1988, p26.

[22] Bois 2020.

[23] Bhaskar Sunkara’s The Socialist Manifesto is an example of how history can be turned into ideological fiction. Taylor 2019 is correct to say Sunkara’s book “systematically buries, distorts, and inverts the conclusion of every experience it describes”.

Lenin and a theory of revolution for the West

Sandra Bloodworth argues that Lenin and the other great revolutionaries of the early twentieth century provide us with a theory of revolution for advanced democracies.

The Comintern’s encounter with syndicalism

Ian Birchall examines how the Communist International engaged with syndicalists in an attempt to build an revolutionary working-class movement in the wake of the Russian Revolution.

Revolutionary strategy and the united front

Rick Kuhn looks at the history of the revolutionary strategy known as the united front, which aims to draw wide layers of workers away from the influence of their reformist leaders and into revolutionary struggle. Rick’s study draws out lessons for socialists from these experiences.

Socialist trade union strategy in the Bolshevik era

In the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution, the newly formed Communist International  attempted to develop a revolutionary approach to union work in the West. Mick Armstrong looks at the application of that strategy in Australia and Britain.