October marked the centennial of the formation of workers’ governments in the German provinces Saxony and Thuringia in 1923. This anniversary is an opportunity for strategic reflection about why the revolution failed. This article will look at the relationship between defense and offense, and the tactics of the united front and the workers’ government. This is an excerpt from the third chapter of Emilio Albamonte’s and Matías Maiello’s book Estrategia Socialista y Arte Militar (2017), which will soon be published in English translation. For an introduction to these events, we recommend Doug Greene’s article in this issue of Left Voice Magazine.
What Happened in 1923?
Following Germany’s failure to pay the full reparations imposed on it by the allies at the end of World War I, in January 1923, Raymond Poincaré, France’s prime minister, launched an invasion of the Ruhr region, the heart of the German coal, iron, and steel industries, in order to requisition goods in lieu of payment. The consequence for Germany was increasing economic chaos, industrial paralysis, rampant unemployment, and hyperinflation, which reignited the revolution. A wave of strikes began in May. Factory committees (Betriebsräte) were formed as bodies of self-organization, “Proletarian Hundreds” (workers’ militias) raided markets and shops in order to get food, and commissions for the control of the price and distribution of food were formed, particularly in the Ruhr region. In August, there was a general strike centered on Berlin that overthrew the government of Chancellor Wilhem Cuno, who headed a cabinet of technocrats answering directly to the big industrial and financial bourgeoisie. It was succeeded by a coalition government led by Gustav Stresemann, four of whose ministers were members of the Social Democratic Party.
In this context, the possibility of building “workers’ governments” with the left wing of the SPD existed in both Saxony and Thuringia. A discussion on this issue had already begun the year before. At that time, Trotsky had rejected it as an immediate perspective but left it open as a possibility for when the class struggle deepened, which in fact happened with the opening of the Ruhr crisis.
Addressing a meeting in December 1922, Trotsky said:
If you, our German Communist comrades, are of the opinion that a revolution is possible in the next few months in Germany, then we would advise you to participate in Saxony in a coalition government and to utilize your ministerial posts in Saxony for the furthering of political and organizational tasks and for transforming Saxony in a certain sense into a Communist drill ground so as to have a revolutionary stronghold already reinforced in a period of preparation for the approaching outbreak of the revolution. But this would be possible only if the pressure of the revolution were already making itself felt, only if it were already at hand. In that case it would imply only the seizure of a single position in Germany, which you are destined to capture as a whole. But at the present time you will of course play in Saxony the role of an appendage, an impotent appendage because the Saxon government itself is impotent before Berlin, and Berlin is a bourgeois government.1Emphasis added.
In other words, Trotsky thought that participation in a regional government with the SPD in order to build a revolutionary bastion was a tactic that should only be used in the period of preparation for the insurrection, a period that, for Trotsky, constituted the first moment in the civil war—that is, of the strategic offensive of the proletariat.
A similar logic can be found in Clausewitz’s evaluation of the role of “fortresses” in the offensive. The Prussian general conceived of only two means of attack in his epoch. Obviously, the first one was armed force, “to which one must of course add any fortresses located close to the theatre of war, which may have a substantial influence on the attack. But this influence will weaken as the advance proceeds; clearly, the attacker’s fortresses can never play so prominent a part as the defender’s, which often become a main feature.”2Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.
On October 10, three members of the KPD (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands; Communist Party of Germany)—Paul Böttcher, Fritz Heckert, and Heinrich Brandler—joined the government of Saxony headed by Erich Zeigner, and on October 13, another three members of the KPD—Theodor Neubauer, Albin Tenner, and Karl Korsch—joined August Frölich’s government in Thuringia.
Two days after the entry of the communists into the government, Zeigner made public his intention to disarm the bourgeois formations and to strengthen the Proletarian Hundreds. As a result, tensions with the army (Reichswehr) deepened and General Müller, commander of the Third Military District (Wehrkreis), responded by ordering the dissolution of the Proletarian Hundreds and any similar bodies, as well as the immediate surrender of their arms. In the following days, a congress of Proletarian Hundreds took place in Saxony, but the key question for the KPD leadership was negotiations with the SPD. Meanwhile, the Zeigner government took no concrete measures to arm the Proletarian Hundreds. On October 19, Chancellor Stresemann demanded the re-establishment of order in Saxony and Thuringia. Two days later, a conference of factory committees was held in Chemnitz to discuss the way forward, but faced with the negativity of the Social Democrats the meeting was a failure and ended without any call for action. As a result, the KPD retreated and decided to abandon completely the plan for insurrection.3Broué, Pierre. The German Revolution, 1917–1923. Translated by John Archer. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006..
For Trotsky, the purpose of entering into “workers’ governments” was to establish “fortresses” that could be used as a means of prosecuting the offensive, that is, for the strengthening the factory committees and the Proletarian Hundreds with the aim of preparing the insurrection at a national level under the banner of the defense of the “workers’ government” against the Reichswehr. However, these fortresses became transformed into ends unto themselves by the KPD leadership, which abandoned the struggle for the general strike and the insurrection when the left wing of the Social Democracy opposed these policies. Far from serving as a springboard that would develop the offensive, these “fortresses” became a dead weight and had the opposite effect.
This line of conciliation went so far as to call on workers to abort the insurrection in Hamburg after a day of relatively successful combat. According to most sources, the Hamburg insurrection took place because the KPD resolution calling it off didn’t reach the local leadership in time. Events developed after October 21 with an extension of the general strike to enable the insurrection to be called on October 23. The fact that there were no Reichswehr troops stationed in Hamburg meant that the uprising scored important successes during the first hours. Despite having almost no weapons, at dawn the Proletarian Hundreds seized 17 police stations out of the 20 they had targeted. But poor political preparation meant that the first encounter that the masses had with the insurrection was on October 23 itself, and soon the insurgents were on the defensive.
However, from the early hours of the morning barricades were built in working-class neighborhoods. The insurrection was defeated in some neighborhoods, while in others fierce battles took place. In Schiffbeck, the insurgents disarmed the police and retained control for two days. During the night of October 23–24, Hugo Urbahns gave the order to abort the insurrection. In spite of this, the fighting continued in the city for a few days.4Ibid.
Could the insurrection in Hamburg have triumphed and become a revolutionary bastion for the rest of Germany? It is impossible to say. What we can say is that Hamburg was willing to fight and that it was the base for organizing a national plan of insurrection.
Despite that the German revolution of 1923 has profoundly marked the fate of the international revolutionary movement, it is generally not very well known, let alone studied. As we are trying to demonstrate in this brief summary of some of the events, the KPD didn’t orient itself from a strategic point of view, and in our opinion it is here that we have to look for the causes of the defeat.
The United Front and the Workers’ Government in the Communist International
At the Fourth Congress of the Comintern at the end of 1922, one of the main issues discussed in addition to the question of revolution in the East was the slogan of the “workers’ government.”
The “Resolution on Comintern Tactics” passed by the congress states: “The slogan of a workers’ government (or a workers’ and peasants’ government) can be used practically everywhere as a general agitational slogan. However, as a central political slogan, the workers’ government is most important in countries where the position of bourgeois society is particularly unstable and where the balance of forces between the workers’ parties and the bourgeoisie places the question of government on the order of the day as a practical problem requiring immediate solution. In these countries the workers’ government slogan follows inevitably from the entire united front tactic.”
Up until then, the tactic of the “workers’ government” or the “workers’ and peasants’ government” had referred to the experience of the Bolshevik Party in Russia, which before it won the majority of the soviets maintained the demand that the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries (SRs) should break with the capitalists and the imperialist powers and take power. In such circumstances, the Bolsheviks would commit themselves to defending the government against the bourgeoisie and would not confront it with insurrectional methods, but would refuse to enter into it or take political responsibility for its actions. This tactic had played a key role in increasing the influence of the Bolsheviks and preparing the conditions for the triumphant insurrection, while also contributing to the split in the peasant party (the SRs), allowing for the formation of the workers’ and peasants’ government of the Bolsheviks and Left SRs after the October insurrection.
The Fourth Congress of the Comintern goes a step further. With the same goal of developing the revolution, it is possible that under certain conditions of the disintegration of the bourgeois state apparatus, the communists can participate in governments with non-communist parties and workers’ organizations before taking power in order to help prepare the conditions for the insurrection and win the majority of the working class.
Like the united front, the “workers’ government” tactic included elements of maneuver as well as of strategy and tactics.5We can say that the united front constitutes a complex strategy that has elements of maneuver as well as of tactics and strategy. On one hand, implies agreements—due to the specific relation of forces between the tendencies—with reformists as temporary allies (the element of maneuver), with the aim of unity in the proletarian ranks for specific common battles (the element of tactics). On the other hand, it has as its main goal, the broadening of the influence of revolutionary parties through common experience (or its rejection by the reformist leadership), in the sense of reducing the ‘strategic reserves’ for taking power (the element of strategy). The element related to maneuver consisted in the possibility, under conditions of the collapse of the bourgeois state apparatus and with a favorable balance of forces, of forming coalition governments in which revolutionaries would participate alongside non-communist parties and workers’ organizations in order “to rally the proletarians and unleash the revolutionary struggle.” The resolution of the Fourth Congress clearly distinguished this type of workers’ government from liberal or Social Democratic workers’ governments, which “are not revolutionary governments, but disguised coalitions between the bourgeoisie and the counterrevolutionary workers’ leaders.” Communists should not participate under any circumstances in the latter type; on the contrary, they “should expose them mercilessly to the masses.”
The temporary alliance envisaged in the “workers’ government” tactic of the Comintern had precise tactical goals, namely the achievement of certain minimal points that the “Theses on Comintern Tactics” summarize as follows: “The most elementary tasks of a workers’ government must be to arm the proletariat, disarm the bourgeois counter-revolutionary organizations, bring control over production, shift the main burden of taxation onto the propertied classes and break the resistance of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie.” The strategic goal, as with the united front, was to win the majority of the working class for revolution as a result of their common experiences or their rejection of their reformist or centrist leaderships.
The Fourth Congress of the Communist International even contemplated the possibility of participating in a “workers’ government” that would emerge out of a parliamentary combination, but always beginning from the same strategic objective, that is, to develop the revolutionary movement and the civil war against the bourgeoisie. “Such a workers’ government,” the resolution points out, “is possible only if it is born out of the struggle of the masses and is supported by combative workers’ organizations. … However, even a workers’ government that comes about through an alignment of parliamentary forces, i.e., a government of purely parliamentary origin, can give rise to an upsurge of the revolutionary workers’ movement. It is obvious that the formation of a genuine workers’ government must lead to a bitter struggle with the bourgeoisie or even to civil war.”
The tactical objectives of the “workers’ government” policy outlined in the resolutions of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International were linked to the strategy of making an effective contribution to the organization of a successful insurrection and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat based on factory committees and the Proletarian Hundreds.
However, as Trotsky pointed out, the “tactical routine” resulting from the daily struggle to win the masses played a fundamental role in the incapacity of the KPD leadership to make a political turn in line with the developments of the objective situation. The KPD’s policy was confined within the framework of bourgeois constitutional legality and limited by its confidence in the left wing of Social Democracy. It was the first great defeat for which the Communist International was responsible; a revolutionary opportunity had been missed. This was the judgment made by Trotsky on the role of the KPD in October 1923.
Substituting the Offensive with Entrenchment in “Fortresses”
In contrast with the points developed above, the academic “common sense” with regards to the question of revolution in Western socio-political structures is based on a particular interpretation that argues that the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci held the view that the main reason for the defeat of the revolution in the West “in general” was the inability to control specific positions or “trenches” that Western societies have as a result of their greater development.
On the same line as this “common sense” view, but with precise political arguments, there is a criticism of Trotsky for overestimating the revolutionary possibilities in 1923 and failing to appreciate the extent of the German working class’s illusions in bourgeois democracy. In particular, this expresses itself in Trotsky’s omission of an analysis of the Stresemann government and its capacity to derail the revolutionary process thanks to the inclusion of social democratic ministers. The conclusion is that, contrary to Trotsky’s opinion, the conditions for the insurrection did not exist.
In a similar vein, Mike Jones of the magazine Revolutionary History writes:
Here Trotsky seems to imply that one could undertake an overturn without the active participation or support of the majority of the workers, or even against them. After all, the numbers within and around the SPD far exceeded those around the KPD, not to speak of those under Christian or other influences. He also disregards the fact that although the reformists were losing ground to Communism in mid-1923, matters were reversed after the arrival of Stresemann. He does not even mention the change of government.
However, Trotsky did analyze the Stresemann government at the time. On October 19, 1923, he posed the question as follows:
The present crisis in Germany has grown out of the occupation of the Ruhr. Stresemann surrendered to French imperialism. But French usurers’ capital did not want to talk with the vanquished. The German bourgeois state is in its death-throes. Essentially, there is no longer a united Germany. Bavaria, with its population of nine millions, is under the rule of moderate Fascism. Saxony, with its population of eight millions, has a coalition government of Communists and Left Social-Democrats. Neither state takes any notice of the central government of Berlin, where the helpless Stresemann now rules. Parliament has ceded to him its powers, the powers of impotence. Stresemann holds on only because neither the Communist Party nor the Fascists have as yet finally seized power. But the Left Wing of Germany’s political front continues to grow.
As Trotsky wrote, the evolution of the situation, towards the left in Saxony and Thuringia, where a sector of the Social Democracy formed a common government with the communists, and towards the right in Bavaria where the fascists dominated, showed an increased level of polarization that continued after the coming to power of Stresemann. In this way, the government and the regime acquired a weak Bonapartist character—Kerenskyist if we make an analogy with the Russian Revolution—caught between the mobilization of the masses, who had engaged in a huge general strike in August, and the counter-revolutionary forces. This took place against the backdrop of the military occupation of part of the country, high inflation, divisions in the middle class, the growth of the KPD in the trade unions, and the phenomenon of self-organization expressed in the development of factory committees, and so on. For Trotsky, these developments showed the maturing of the conditions for preparing to take power. Another important factor that confirmed Trotsky’s characterization was the subsequent Hamburg insurrection, which took place despite being isolated.
Gramsci himself raises the same criticisms of Trotsky’s positions as those made by Jones—although he doesn’t develop them. In a letter to Togliatti, Terrancini, and others, Gramsci writes, “If there were errors, they were committed by the Germans. The Russian comrades, i.e., Radek and Trotsky, made the mistake of believing the confidence tricks of Brandler and company; but in fact even in this case their position was not a right-wing but rather a left-wing one, laying them open to the accusation of putschism.”6Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from Political Writings 1921–1926. Translated by Quintin Hoare. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1978, p. 194. It is obvious that Gramsci’s suggestion that Trotsky trusted in wrong information doesn’t stand up: Trotsky was very well acquainted with the German working class, had led the Petrograd Soviet in 1905 and 1917 and the October insurrection in 1917, and commanded an army of 5 million during the Russian civil war. Brandler himself, in an exchange with Isaac Deutscher,7Deutscher, Isaac. “Record of a Discussion with Heinrich Brandler.” February 15, 1948. New Left Review I/105, September/October 1977. recounts that it was Trotsky who had to spend an entire night convincing him of the correctness of the decision of the leadership of the Communist International to set a date for the insurrection.
The issue was not about a misunderstanding of the facts, but the consequences that flowed from them. Brandler, for example, considered that if it were necessary to start fighting from a defensive position, the struggle was already damned, not that it could be the preparation for going on the offensive. At the same time, he drew a very sharp distinction between workers’ struggles for better wages and conditions and those that provided the impulse for taking power; for Brandler, the relationship between these two goals seemed to be an impenetrable secret. As a result, Brandler formally accepted the orientation of the party towards the insurrection, but without being completely convinced, something that could not be more dangerous for a leadership about to launch a struggle for power.8Brandler, Heinrich, and Isaac Deutscher. “Correspondence between Brandler and Deutscher 1952–59.” New Left Review I/105, September/October 1977.
As mentioned earlier, Trotsky’s strategic thinking was on a different track. Basing himself on the relationships between defense and attack, position and maneuver, and the impulse of the masses and conscious preparation, he fought against all forms of fatalism. He rejected the view that the Russian experience of military preparation and the development of soviets was the only possible model. In relation to the soviets, he points out in “The Timetable for Revolution” that the conditions for insurrection can be mature even though the bodies of self-organization are not sufficiently developed, and that in this case the steps for the formation of soviets should be included as part of the pre-insurrectional “timetable.” The same applies for the arming of the masses, which should be part of the preparations, as well as the primary goal of the insurrection itself.
“Revolution,” Trotsky wrote, “possesses a mighty power of improvisation, but it never improvises anything good for fatalists, idlers, and fools. Victory demands correct political orientation, organization, and the will to deal the decisive blow.”
United Front and Insurrection
The lessons of the defeat in Germany would become a decisive turning point in the strategy of the Communist International and in the history of the united front tactic in particular. Lenin having died a few months earlier, and the triumvirate of Stalin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev having begun the campaign against Trotsky, the Fifth Congress of the Third International in July 1924 ignored the main lessons of the German Revolution and instead began to revise the theses of the Third and Fourth Congresses on the united front and workers’ government tactics.
At the Fifth Congress, Trotsky was the sole defender of the united front tactic as originally formulated. As he pointed out in relation to Germany:
Zinoviev did not see the catastrophe, and he was not alone. Together with him the whole Fifth Congress simply passed over this greatest defeat of the world revolution. … In its resolution, the Congress lauded the ECCI for having: ‘condemned the opportunistic conduct of the German Central Committee and, above all, its perverted application of the united front tactic during the Saxon government experiment.’ This is somewhat like condemning a murderer ‘above all’ for failing to take off his hat upon entering the home of his victim.
The main problem was not the fact that a workers’ government had been set up in Saxony—a tactical maneuver—but that it had not been used for the benefit of the offensive; the insurrection had not been prepared and the opportunity to take power was lost without a fight. That is, even if the leaders of the German Communist Party had rejected the formation of coalition governments in Saxony and Thuringia, they would have maintained themselves within the framework of the legality of the bourgeois regime, since they did not fight to take power. Trotsky was referring to this when he said that to point out that the main mistake was entering the coalition government was like “condemning a murderer ‘above all’ for failing to take off his hat.”
For Trotsky, the main problem was that the leadership of the KPD had proved incapable of making the sharp turn of going on the offensive at the appropriate moment, and that it had been incapable of negotiating the passage from the “war of position” to the “war of maneuver,” to use Gramsci’s terms.
Faced with the right wing of the KPD led by Brandler, which had received Stalin’s support in restraining rather than unleashing the masses’ revolutionary tendencies, Trotsky pointed out:
At a time when the entire objective situation demanded that the party undertake a decisive blow, the party did not act to organize the revolution but kept awaiting it. … In the course of 1923 the working masses realized or sensed that the moment of decisive struggle was approaching. However, they did not see the necessary resolution and self-confidence on the side of the Communist Party. And when the latter began its feverish preparations for an uprising, it immediately lost its balance and also its ties with the masses. … some comrades hastened to announce that “we overestimated the situation; the revolution hasn’t matured as yet.” … In reality, however, the revolution failed to lead to victory not be- cause it generally “had not matured” but because the decisive link—the leadership—dropped out of the chain at the decisive moment.9Emphasis added.
Later Trotsky theorized on this issue and polemicized against those, such as Zinoviev at the Fifth Congress, who wanted to reduce everything to the workers’ government tactic itself:
In the German defeat of 1923, there were, of course, many national peculiarities but there also were profoundly typical features which indicate a general danger. This danger may be termed as the crisis of the revolutionary leadership on the eve of the transition to the armed insurrection. The rank and file of the proletarian party are by their very nature far less susceptible to the pressure of bourgeois public opinion. But certain elements of the party tops and the middle stratum of the party will unfailingly succumb in larger or smaller measure to the material and ideological terror of the bourgeoisie at the decisive moment. … To be sure, there is no panacea against it suitable for all cases. But the first necessary step in fighting a peril is to understand its source and its nature.10Emphasis added.
At the same time, Trotsky noted how this dynamic was associated with the development of right-wing groups in communist parties in pre-October periods, something that reflects both the difficulties of the “leap” that the insurrection involves as well as the pressure of bourgeois public opinion on the leadership.11As we previously analyzed, the masses at such moments, according to Trotsky, take a more guarded attitude because of their accumulated experience that indicates the impossibility of taking power without a decisive leadership at the helm. Trotsky called it “the calm before the storm.” The right-wing group that emerges in opposition to the necessity of preparing the insurrection is based on the interpretation of this phenomenon as “conservatism” of the masses, as a retreat, when in reality it is an expression of something very different, that is, that they have had practical experience of the limits of spontaneity as a means to achieving victory.
The lack of a strategic conclusion in this regard, and its substitution by the refutation of the united front tactic itself, would be the source of the adventurism following the Fifth Congress.12An example is the launching of the insurrection in Reval, Estonia, at the end of 1924, without taking into account the situation of the masses and the relation of forces, and which naturally ended in failure. The attack on the cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria, is another example. The failure of the leadership of the Communist International to make a serious evaluation of the importance of the defeat in Germany and its lessons constituted for Trotsky the “key strategic mistake of the Fifth Congress.”
For Trotsky, the critical issue was not to revise the tactic of the united front, let alone to use it to embark on putschist adventures or to transform it into a strategy to adapt to the left of the social democracy. According to Trotsky, the main conclusion of the Fifth Congress should have been as follows:
These are the extreme dangers from the “left” and the “right”—these are the limits between which the policy of the proletarian party generally passes in our epoch. We shall continue to firmly hope that enriched by battles, defeats and experience the German Communist Party will succeed in the not-so-distant future in guiding its ship between the “March” Scylla and the “November” Charybdis and will secure to the German proletariat what the latter has so honestly earned: victory!13Emphasis added.
Revolution in the “West” and in the “East”
Similarly to Trotsky, Trotsky also elaborated on the differences between the state in the “West” and in the “East,” although he did not assign an absolute nature to these. Neither the “massive structure” of modern democracies nor the greater efficiency of the repressive apparatus were considered unchanging phenomena. In differentiating between the revolution in Russia and Western countries, he pointed out,
It was an enormous advantage to us that we were preparing to overthrow a regime which had not yet had time to consolidate itself. The extreme instability and want of assurance of the February state apparatus facilitated our work in the extreme by instilling the revolutionary masses and the party itself with self-assurance. … The proletarian revolution in the West will have to deal with a completely established bourgeois state. But this does not mean that it will have to deal with a stable state apparatus; for the very possibility of proletarian insurrection implies an extremely advanced process of the disintegration of the capitalist state.
For this reason, Trotsky considered that the stabilization resulting from the 1923 defeat was only relative. It was rooted in the class struggle and not in the general characteristics of certain imperialist countries. The fundamental issue was therefore the preparation of Communist parties and their leaderships for sudden situational changes that would pose the need for rapid shifts from a defensive to an offensive position, and vice versa.
For Trotsky, the defensive united front was not an end in itself, but the condition needed in order to go on the offensive for the seizure of power. At a particular moment in the relation of forces, the defensive united front should move over onto the offensive—that is to say, go beyond the limits of the bourgeois regime with the aim of destroying it. The organizational form of this offensive united front was precisely, in Trotsky’s view, the soviets, or the soviet-style organizations that the working class had forged in its struggle. The transition to the offensive also marked the beginning of the civil war in broad terms, the start of the preparation for the insurrection.14Trotsky, Leon. The Challenge of the Left Opposition: 1923–25. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1975.
Position and Maneuver in Trotsky
One of Trotsky’s distinctive traits as a strategist was that, rejecting all passivity and fatalism, he always sought tactically to place the revolutionary forces on the defensive, even during the preparation of the strategic offensive, that is to say, the insurrection. In October 1917, under the cover of the soviets’ conciliatory leadership and through the Revolutionary Military Committee, Trotsky instigated the arming of the proletariat and the winning over of the barracks. Under the banner of the defense of Petrograd, he elaborated the plan for the insurrection, arranging the seizure of power to coincide with the session of the Second All- Russian Congress of Soviets in which the Bolsheviks were already a majority.
Trotsky himself, however, refused to generalize this example. While leading the Red Army, he argued that the civil war in the “West” would have a more positional character than Russia, where maneuver predominated due to its backwardness and the vastness of its territory.
As for the conditions for insurrection, he considered it improbable that those existing in Petrograd in October 1917—a regime not fully developed, the generalized arming of the masses, and the high level of development of the soviets—would repeat themselves.
It was the same strategic thinking that led Trotsky to support the policy of entering the government of Saxony and Thuringia in 1923. In the context of the enormous social crisis in the Ruhr region, he thought the conditions were ripe for the insurrection due to the regime’s state of decomposition and the willingness of the masses to take action. He didn’t accept the lack of sufficient arms, as argued by Brandler, or the underdevelopment of the soviet bodies as objections to starting the preparation for the offensive. These were tasks that a revolutionary leadership worthy of the name must deal with.
Rather than passively await the emergence of conditions analogous to those of the “Russian model,” Trotsky put forward the bold tactic of the workers’ government as part of an active policy of preparing for the insurrection. This “trench” had to serve for the arming of the proletariat and developing the factory committees and Proletarian Hundreds into a network of self-organization and self-defense bodies, regardless of their name. Both tasks had to be developed in the heat of the preparations for, and as an integral part of, the offensive.
At the same time, the German workers could not mechanically apply the Russian Revolution model and hope to conquer power in Berlin, expecting power to be seized in the rest of the Länder by a domino effect. This scenario, which in itself simplifies the way in which the Russian Revolution spread after Petrograd, was unlikely in Germany, where each Land had hundreds of years of history before their late unification in 1871. On the contrary, one possibility was to take advantage of the weak links of Saxony and Thuringia, where the army had fewer units in comparison to Berlin and other places, with the aim of turning each of them into “a revolutionary bastion during a preparation period for the next revolutionary uprising.”
The plan, which never materialized, was based on the assumption that both workers’ governments—which essentially agreed on the arming of the proletariat and the disarming of the counter-revolutionary detachments—would be intolerable for the central government. And that indeed was the case, because from the beginning the threat of military intervention was posed. The plan was to use insurrection to lure the army and the reactionary forces to Saxony and Thuringia, while at the same time calling for a general strike and an insurrection in the rest of Germany under the slogan of the defense of the “bastions of the revolution.” In other words, adopting a defensive tactical position in order to unleash a strategic offensive on a national scale. The Hamburg insurrection would have been a part of this general plan, but it was crushed due to its isolation.
In Trotsky’s Transitional Program, the practical formulation of the workers’ government elaborated in 1923 became part of a more general definition that clearly established the relationship between this tactic and revolutionary strategy in any of its concrete variants. As Trotsky wrote in the Transitional Program, “The slogan ‘workers’ and farmers’ government’ is thus acceptable to us only in the sense that it had in 1917 with the Bolsheviks, i.e., as an anti-bourgeois and anti-capitalist slogan, but in no case in that ‘democratic’ sense which the epigones later gave it, transforming it from a bridge to socialist revolution into the chief barrier upon its path.”
In other words, the only strategic objective implied in the formula of a “workers’ government”—and likewise, that of a “workers’ and peasants’ government”—is that of increasing the revolutionary forces in order to go on the offensive against the bourgeoisie and capitalism. It is always a tactical slogan without any independent value beyond that strategic objective, which, Trotsky stressed, can be achieved in various ways, with or without the emergence of this type of government.
On the one hand, the slogan’s educational value for the masses, who don’t yet see the need for a dictatorship of the proletariat but want their traditional leaderships to seize power from the bourgeoisie, would allow revolutionaries to accelerate this experience and consequently increase their influence to the detriment of conciliatory parties. As Trotsky points out, “The demand of the Bolsheviks, addressed to the Mensheviks and the SRs—‘Break with the bourgeoisie, take the power into your own hands!’”—had for the masses tremendous educational significance. The obstinate unwillingness of the Mensheviks and SRs to take power, so dramatically exposed during the July Days, definitely doomed them before mass opinion and prepared the victory of the Bolsheviks.
On the other hand, Trotsky wrote, “If the Mensheviks and the SRs had actually broken with the Cadets (liberals) and with foreign imperialism, then the ‘workers’ and peasants’ government’ created by them could only have hastened and facilitated the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat.” In other words, had the Bolsheviks’ tactical proposition materialized, they would have been better positioned to fight for a revolutionary program within the soviets.
In both cases, the aim was to modify the balance of power in favor of revolutionaries so as to prepare the conditions for an offensive. It was for this reason that, from September 1917, when Bolshevik influence was growing exponentially after the conciliatory leaderships had shown no interest in seizing power, the Bolsheviks did not wait to see whether a “workers’ and peasants’ government” would materialize, but instead advanced as a party towards preparing the insurrection. Had this transition from a war of position to a war of maneuver not been made, the tactic would have been transformed into its opposite, thereby ceasing to be a “bridge to socialist revolution’ in order to become the ‘main obstacle in its path.”
Nevertheless, after the triumph of the October insurrection and the split in the peasant party, the Bolsheviks once again proposed the tactic of a “workers’ and peasants’ government” to the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, establishing a coalition government in order to consolidate the power which had just been seized. But it never ceased to be a tactic subordinated to the advance towards the dictatorship of the proletariat. Attempts were made to maintain that coalition—which formally lasted until the resignation of the Left SR ministers in March 1918, but continued to a certain extent until the middle of the year—but without suspending the tasks of the moment, such as going on the defensive in the military arena by signing a peace treaty with Germany, and going on the offensive internally by addressing the nationalization of production.
This same dynamic relationship between position and maneuver was developed by Trotsky for Germany in 1923, but under different conditions. While observing that the bourgeoisie and the state in the “West” deployed the greatest degree of resistance before power is seized, and that the influence gained by the KPD in certain regions made it an indispensable factor in the creation of a “workers’ government,” Trotsky proposed a bold implementation of this tactic with the aim of conquering “revolutionary bastions” in the preparation of the offensive.
On the Combination of “Position” and “Maneuver”
In spite of this, it was common for many “centrist” trends within Trotskyism to use the fact that Trotsky had defended the tactic of a “workers’ government” in 1923 as a supposed justification for capitulating before different bourgeois governments. One of the justifications of this kind was developed by Daniel Bensaïd in “On the return of the politico-strategic question,” as well as by other leaders of the ex-Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) of France after abandoning the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and before its dissolution into the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA).15For a debate with Bensäid on this point, see Cinatti.
According to Bensaïd, “The debates at the time of the fifth congress of the Communist International (1924) on the record of the German revolution and the Social Democrat-Communist governments of Saxony and Thuringia in the late summer of 1923 … reveal the unresolved ambiguity of the formulae that came out of the early congresses of the Communist International and the range of interpretations which they could give rise to in practice.” With this in mind, he elaborates his own interpretation of the requirements for participating in a “workers’ government,” in which the existence of the subjective conditions necessary to begin the preparation of an insurrection is replaced by a “significant upsurge in social mobilization.” He suggests that “more modestly than the arming of the workers demanded by Zinoviev [sic],” there be minimal demands in the form of a series of leftist measures to be adopted by the government in question. The final requirement is that the “revolutionaries” have the necessary strength so that “even if they cannot guarantee that the non-revolutionaries in the government keep to their commitments, they have to pay a high price for failure to do so.”
This entire reflection is aimed at justifying the participation of a leader from the United Secretariat16We are referring to Miguel Rossetto, the Minister of Agrarian Development for the PT in Brazil. as a minister in Lula’s government: “We chose not to make this a matter of principle (though we expressed our reservations orally to the comrades about participation and alerted them to the dangers). We preferred to go along with the experiment so as to draw up the balance sheet alongside the comrades, rather than give lessons ‘from a distance’.”
A minimally serious analysis of the controversy surrounding the German revolution of 1923 shows that one can find arguments to support or participate in governments of class collaboration in the theses on the Popular Front set forth in the Communist International’s Seventh Congress, but they could certainly not be found, to say the least, in the policy defended by Trotsky. As we pointed out before, in the face of Stalinism and trends in favor of the Popular Front, Trotsky clearly explained in the Transitional Program the anti-bourgeois and anti-capitalist meaning, contrary to the “purely ‘democratic’ meaning later assigned to it by the epigones,” of the “workers’ government” slogan.
From the other extreme of those who see “workers’ governments” in any circumstance, the Spartacists of the International Communist League (ICL) use the statement by Trotsky cited from the Transitional Program to maintain that the founder of the Red Army implicitly rejected his own policy for Germany in 1923. However, in Trotsky’s view, both in 1923 and in 1938, the slogan of the workers’ government was always conceived as “anti-bourgeois and anti-capitalist,” and opposed to the ““democratic” meaning” later assigned to it by all kinds of trends favoring the Popular Front.
In fact, Trotsky has no qualms about comparing the creation of the “workers’ government” in Saxony to the Bolshevik tactic in October 1917. “Under certain conditions,” he stated, “the slogan of a workers’ government can become a reality in Europe. That is to say, a moment may arrive when the Communists together with the left elements of the Social Democracy will set up a workers’ government in a way similar to ours in Russia when we created a workers’ and peasants’ government together with the Left Social- Revolutionaries. Such a phase would constitute a transition to the proletarian dictatorship, the full and completed one.”
The ICL (the international Spartacist tendency) responds to what they see as Trotsky’s ‘heresy’ as follows: “This analogy is totally inappropriate. The Left Social Revolutionaries entered the government after the proletarian seizure of power and on the basis of soviet power, whereas in Germany the question concerned a regional bourgeois parliament in a capitalist state!”
However, Trotsky emphatically opposed these types of idealizations of the October Revolution with the aim of justifying sectarian passivity and fatalism by defending a supposed “Russian model.” According to the founder of the Fourth International,
Not only up to the Brest-Litovsk peace but even up to autumn of 1918, the social content of the revolution was restricted to a petty-bourgeois agrarian overturn and workers’ control over production. This means that the revolution in its actions had not yet passed the boundaries of bourgeois society. During this first period, soldiers’ soviets ruled side by side with workers’ soviets, and often elbowed them aside. Only toward the autumn of 1918 did the petty-bourgeois soldier-agrarian elemental wave recede a little to its shores, and the workers went forward with the nationalization of the means of production. Only from this time can one speak of the inception of a real dictatorship of the proletariat. But even here it is necessary to make certain large reservations. During those initial years, the dictatorship was geographically confined to the old Moscow principality and was compelled to wage a three-year war along all the radii from Moscow to the periphery. This means that up to 1921, precisely up to the NEP, that is, what went on was still the struggle to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat upon the national scale.
In this scenario, which is the only one that corresponds with the historical development of the Russian Revolution, it is a travesty to limit the problem of the seizure of power in Russia to the occupation of the Winter Palace while rejecting the comparison with Germany in 1923.
Paraphrasing Clausewitz, Trotsky considered that “civil war is nothing but the violent continuation of the class struggle by other means.” He wrote, “Civil war is a definite stage of the class struggle when, breaking through the framework of legality, it brings the opposing forces onto the plane of confrontation, publicly and, to some extent, physically.”17Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition, ibid. It comprises at least three stages: the preparation of the insurrection, the insurrection itself, and the consolidation of victory.
From this point of view, how does the Fourth Congress of the Communist International elaborate on the Bolshevik tactic in October 1917? In the stipulation that the “workers’ government” extends to the first stage of the civil war, as a way of building “revolutionary bastions” to advance the preparation of the seizure of power in a country.
The ICL cites historian Evelyn Anderson, who, in their view, “noted astutely [sic]” that “the Communist position was manifestly absurd. The two policies of accepting responsibility of government, on the one hand, and of preparing for a revolution, on the other, obviously excluded each other. Yet the Communists pursued both at the same time, with the inevitable result of complete failure.”
What doesn’t take much astuteness to see is that the Spartacists do not understand Trotsky. While shielding itself with a simplistic scheme, passive sectarianism ends up reproducing the same operation that characterizes opportunistic interpretations such as that which we quoted from Bensaïd. Namely: the separation of the “workers’ government” formula from the strategy as a whole. According to Trotsky, the two are inseparable.
The German revolution of 1923 was a true turning point for revolution in the West, which was at the same time the first great defeat for the Communist International. It marked the beginning of a kind of “ebb” in strategic thinking in the ranks of the Comintern and the gradual abandonment of the main conclusions of its first four congresses. The first steps in this revision took place during the Comintern’s Fifth Congress over the tactics of the united front and the “workers’ government.”18This retreat would be followed by others: in December 1925 with the official view of the “theory”’ of socialism in one country, which would cut the links with the internationalism that had characterized the Third International since its foundation; with the call to build “combined workers’ and peasants’ parties”— a policy that in China would imply the subordination to the Kuomintang and catastrophe for the revolution in the East. This drift would deepen at the Sixth and Seventh Congresses. This was a consequence of denying the defeat in Germany and refusing to draw its strategic lessons.
None of the Trotskyist currents that emerged after the split in the Fourth International in 1953 have revisited this debate in depth in order to understand Trotsky’s revolutionary legacy. Rather, there were those who opportunistically tried to use his defense of the workers’ government tactic in 1923 to justify subordination to Stalinist and petty-bourgeois leaderships, and to extend support to, and even enter into, bourgeois governments. Conversely, there were sectarians who interpreted Trotsky’s political position in those years as an opportunist error. Many, like Isaac Deutscher, did not assign great importance to this part of Trotsky’s life because they thought that he had exaggerated the revolutionary possibilities in Germany.
Trotsky’s political intervention as a member of the executive committee of the Third International, however, and his conclusions on the events in Germany in 1923, show the real stature of Trotsky as a strategist—matching his intervention in Petrograd six years earlier—and his ability to develop the concept of the united front and the tactic of the workers’ government, beginning from the establishment of a complex relationship between attack and defense drawn from Clausewitz’s best developments. Overall, this would become a key component of his political work and his thoughts on strategy, without which it would be impossible to understand his revolutionary legacy.
Editing by Stefan Schneider of Klasse Gegen Klasse. Editing in English by Scott Cooper and Nathaniel Flakin.
|↑2||Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.|
|↑3||Broué, Pierre. The German Revolution, 1917–1923. Translated by John Archer. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006.|
|↑5||We can say that the united front constitutes a complex strategy that has elements of maneuver as well as of tactics and strategy. On one hand, implies agreements—due to the specific relation of forces between the tendencies—with reformists as temporary allies (the element of maneuver), with the aim of unity in the proletarian ranks for specific common battles (the element of tactics). On the other hand, it has as its main goal, the broadening of the influence of revolutionary parties through common experience (or its rejection by the reformist leadership), in the sense of reducing the ‘strategic reserves’ for taking power (the element of strategy).|
|↑6||Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from Political Writings 1921–1926. Translated by Quintin Hoare. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1978, p. 194.|
|↑7||Deutscher, Isaac. “Record of a Discussion with Heinrich Brandler.” February 15, 1948. New Left Review I/105, September/October 1977.|
|↑8||Brandler, Heinrich, and Isaac Deutscher. “Correspondence between Brandler and Deutscher 1952–59.” New Left Review I/105, September/October 1977.|
|↑11||As we previously analyzed, the masses at such moments, according to Trotsky, take a more guarded attitude because of their accumulated experience that indicates the impossibility of taking power without a decisive leadership at the helm. Trotsky called it “the calm before the storm.” The right-wing group that emerges in opposition to the necessity of preparing the insurrection is based on the interpretation of this phenomenon as “conservatism” of the masses, as a retreat, when in reality it is an expression of something very different, that is, that they have had practical experience of the limits of spontaneity as a means to achieving victory.|
|↑12||An example is the launching of the insurrection in Reval, Estonia, at the end of 1924, without taking into account the situation of the masses and the relation of forces, and which naturally ended in failure. The attack on the cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria, is another example.|
|↑14||Trotsky, Leon. The Challenge of the Left Opposition: 1923–25. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1975.|
|↑15||For a debate with Bensäid on this point, see Cinatti.|
|↑16||We are referring to Miguel Rossetto, the Minister of Agrarian Development for the PT in Brazil.|
|↑17||Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition, ibid.|
|↑18||This retreat would be followed by others: in December 1925 with the official view of the “theory”’ of socialism in one country, which would cut the links with the internationalism that had characterized the Third International since its foundation; with the call to build “combined workers’ and peasants’ parties”— a policy that in China would imply the subordination to the Kuomintang and catastrophe for the revolution in the East. This drift would deepen at the Sixth and Seventh Congresses.|