Behind the Scenes of the Revolt

In 1968 there was an upsurge in class struggle in many parts of the world – including in Germany. The Trotskyist movement in West Germany actively participated in the revolt, but did not benefit much from it. What were the German Trotskyists doing in '68? Why couldn't they rally important sectors of the revolutionary youth around their banner? The following is a study on Trotskyist policies before and after '68 with some lessons for today.
  • Nathaniel Flakin | 
  • February 17, 2016
Photo: Rudi Dutschke, referent of the German student movement in the 1960s.

February 1968, West Berlin: Six thousand – mostly young people – from West Germany and other countries gather at the Technical University of Berlin for the International Vietnam Congress. The most prominent speaker is Rudi Dutschke from the Socialist German Student Union (SDS). But sitting next to him on the podium are Trotskyists like Ernest Mandel and Tariq Ali. Behind the scenes – literally and metaphorically – the small Trotskyist organization in West Germany is at work. This group does not even have a name – its members refer to themselves as “the German section” (sometimes adding “… of the Fourth International”). Although the writings of Leon Trotsky and Ernest Mandel are published by the SDS publishing house, Neue Kritik, and discussed in the student movement, in contrast to Maoism, Trotskyism as a political tendency is barely visible and benefits minimally from the ’68 revolts in West Germany.

The Trotskyist movement of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) has still not overcome this weakness today. For example, well-known French Trotskyist, 28-year-old postman Oliver Besancenot from the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR), received 1.5 million votes in the 2002 presidential elections. In contrast, Germany’s best-known Trotskyist, Lucy Redler, won only 40,000 votes as the top candidate of the WASG in the 2006 Berlin elections; the WASG was not even a Trotskyist organization, but rather, a split from the SPD that fused with the PDS soon after to form the Die Linke party. The results of other Trotskyist electoral projects generally look even worse.1To cite a few examples: In the federal elections of 2005, the Socialist Equality Party (PSG) got 15,605 votes (considerably less in other years). The International Marxist Group (GIM) got 4,767 votes in the general elections of 1976. The Spartacusbund participated in state elections in Bremen in 1975 and Baden-Württemberg in 1976 and received just 117 and 94 votes respectively. In the city of Rostock, Socialist Alternative (SAV) won a seat on the town council in 2004.

Perry Anderson, historian and longtime editor of the magazine New Left Review, asked at the end of his study, Considerations on Western Marxism, why Trotskyism, as a Marxist alternative to Stalinism, had so little attraction for the “New Left” after 1968, in comparison to the “Western Marxism” represented by the Frankfurt School and others: “Throughout this period, another tradition of an entirely different character subsisted and developed ‘off-stage’ – for the first time to gain wider political attention during and after the French explosion. This was, of course, the theory and legacy of Trotsky.”2Perry Anderson: Considerations on Western Marxism. London 1976. p. 96. The Trotskyist movement in France became, after 1968, a small but significant political force – in Germany in contrast, Trotskyism never emerged from marginality. This is particularly surprising, considering the fact that in the 1970s, up to 100,000 people “in some way passed through” the German Maoist groups (K-Gruppen).3Andreas Kühn: Stalins Enkel, Maos Söhne. Die Lebenswelt der K-Gruppen in der Bundesrepublik der 70er Jahre. Frankfurt am Main 2005. p. 287.

Longstanding Trotskyist Oskar Hippe (1900-1990), who supported the building of a new Trotskyist youth organization in 1969, noted in his autobiography that “no larger groups of students” approached Trotskyism: “Most of them at this time saw their salvation in Mao Zedong and in people’s war, and saw their forefather in Stalin.”4Oskar Hippe: … und unsere Fahn‘ ist rot. Erinnerungen an sechzig Jahre in der Arbeiterbewegung. Hamburg 1979. p. 261. (This is also available in English: Red is the Colour of our Flag. London 1990.) But why?

First we need to look at the international situation in a political and economic sense. Leon Trotsky had predicted that the Second World War would culminate in a new revolutionary wave that would sweep away the Stalinist bureaucracy of the Soviet Union. However, due to the role of the Soviet Army in the war against the Nazis, Stalinism emerged from the war with renewed legitimacy. New, bureaucratically deformed workers’ states such as the GDR were established, exerting a strong influence on the left in West Germany. Due to the force of attraction of Stalinism (and its variants such as Maoism), the revolutionary uprisings that developed in semi-colonial and colonial countries after the Second World War remained under petty bourgeois, nationalist leaderships and gave little impetus for revolutionary movements in central imperialist countries.

Added to this was the post-war boom, which allowed the more privileged layers of the working class and especially the trade union bureaucracy to be coopted by the capitalists. Class collaboration became important in all imperialist countries, but in the FRG especially. While the 1968 radicalization in France led to a confluence of the students’ movement with workers’ strikes, especially in the general strike of May 1968, the youth radicalization in Germany remained isolated from the workers. Tendencies towards radicalization amongst workers in Germany came to the fore only with the September Strikes of 1969 and again with the strike way of 1972-73 – but even here, a significant part of the working class remained under the firm control of class collaborationist bureaucracies.

In addition to the difficult objective conditions, the subjective policies of the Trotskyist groups of the BRD during the ’68 revolt prevented them from attracting larger sectors of the radicalizing youth movement to their program.

Post-war Trotskyism

The Fourth International was founded in 1938 as a consistent opposition to the counter-revolutionary policies of the Second (Social Democratic) and Third (Stalinist) Internationals. Trotsky and his comrades-in-arms also fought against tendencies that wavered between revolutionary and reformist positions (centrism) in order to give the new international a clear revolutionary program. Beginning with the formation of the International Left Opposition in 1929, they had set out to build an international organization with an international program. This is why the development of German Trotskyism after the Second World War can only be understood in an international context. After the Second World War, the Fourth International would itself become a centrist tendency.

The degeneration of the Fourth International was a result of the massacre of Trotskyist cadre by both fascist and Stalinist executioners during the Second World War. The young revolutionaries who assumed the leadership of the international after 1945 were not able to analyze the new situation. Instead of the expected revolutionary upsurge, the post-war “Yalta order” strengthened the counter-revolutionary leadership of the workers’ movements. The Trotskyists, expecting the immediate outbreak of a “Third World War,” adapted to this leadership. Since the imminent war would leave no time to construct independent revolutionary parties, they decided to dissolve their organizations into social democratic or Stalinist mass parties and carry out conspiratorial, non-Trotskyist work. This policy of “entryism sui generis” meant abandoning an openly revolutionary program.5RIO: Theses on Rise, Crisis and Fall of the IV International.

Thus “after ’51-’53, the Fourth International became a centrist movement, where the common denominator of its main tendencies was the loss of a strategic orientation toward building independent parties and instead, eclectically adapting to each leadership that became strengthened in the mass movement – as was the case with the adaptation to Tito, Mao, Castro, etc. – thus breaking the continuity of revolutionary Marxism.” But this doesn’t mean we can simply push “Trotskyist centrism” aside. On the contrary, “we maintain, on the basis of partially correct resistance against the most open betrayals, that despite the rupture of revolutionary continuity, there have been ‘threads of continuity’ which form a point of departure for the reconstruction of the Trotskyist strategy.”6Emilio Albamonte / Matías Maiello: En los límites de la “restauración burguesa”. A critical analysis of the history of German Trotskyism, particularly in the crucial period around 1968, can provide lessons for the construction of a revolutionary party today.

The organizational conditions for the German Trotskyists in the post-war period were catastrophic. While the Parti Communiste Internationaliste (PCI) was able to maintain clandestine work in occupied France for the duration of the war – and even published a little-known internationalist newspaper for members of the Wehrmacht in France, Arbeiter und Soldat – the Internationale Kommunisten Deutschlands (IKD) were completely smashed by the Nazis in 1935-36:7Wolfgang Alles: Zur Politik und Geschichte der deutschen Trotzkisten ab 1930. Frankfurt am Main 1987. p. 238-243. in 1940, the group’s exiled leadership reported that of the roughly 1,000 members in 1933, 50 had gone into exile, half had withdrawn from politics and about 150 were in prison.8Internationale Kommunisten Deutschlands: Organizational Report Of The International Communists Of Germany (IKD). In: Will Reisner [Ed.]: Documents of the Fourth International. The Formative Years (1933–1940). New York 1973. p. 369. Only a small, illegal group in Berlin-Charlottenburg around Oskar Hippe remained active until 19459Hippe: Fahne. p. 164-193. – and in the meantime, the Foreign Committee of the IKD turned away from Marxism and finally broke with the Fourth International in 1948.10Second World Congress of the Fourth International: Reorganization of the German Section of the Fourth International. In: Fourth International. Volume IX, No. 6. New York, August 1948. p. 187-88. Thus, the destruction of German Trotskyism was complete.

German Trotskyists in the Post-war Period

Unlike France, where several hundred Trotskyists continued their activity after the war, one single cadre with years of experience in the workers’ movement was available in 1945 to reconstruct the German section of the Fourth International: Hamburg worker Georg Jungclas (1902-1975) became the “mentor of German Trotskyism”.11Peter Berens: Trotzkisten gegen Hitler. Köln 2007. p. 158-159. Besides “Schorsch”, as Jungclas was called, there was also Willy Boeppele, a former KPD functionary who only joined the Trotskyists in 1951 but from then on played a leading role in the group,12Wolfgang Alles [Ed.]: Gegen den Strom. Texte von Willy Boepple (1911-1992). Köln 1999. p. 59. as well as Jakob Moneta and Rudolf Segall (two Trotskyists of Jewish origin who had survived fascism in Palestinian exile), who were prominent functionaries of trade unions of the main federation (DGB) and therefore had to be very reserved about their revolutionary convictions.13See the obituaries from the RSB: Wolfgang Alles: Rudolf Segall (1911–2006): Vom Zionismus zum revolutionären Marxismus. Ebd.: Wer war Jakob Moneta? – Ein Nachruf. According to Jochen Ebmeier, there was a group in Frankfurt “around the two senior trade union officials Segall and Moneta, who of course had membership cards [of the SPD], but were ‘far to exposed’ to intervene politically in the SPD.” Jochen Ebmeier: Letter to the author from September 2, 2012. Although it’s impossible to say exactly how big the group was in the first years of the post-war period, it was undoubtedly extremely weak.14Hippe writes about 52 members in the Berlin group in 1948 (who had presumably disappeared by 1956). Hippe: Fahne. p. 240. Kulemann mentions IKD groups in 14 cities in 1948, but without membership figures. Peter Kulemann: Die Linke in Westdeutschland nach 1945. Hannover 1978. p. 66. In any case, by 1968 the group had about 50 members.

The subjective weakness of the group was no match for the objectively difficult situation for revolutionaries in post-war Germany. Perry Anderson describes the pressure on Marxist intellectuals in this climate: “Post-war West Germany was now politically and culturally the most reactionary major capitalist country in Europe – its Marxist traditions excised by Nazi chauvinism and Anglo-American repression, its proletariat temporarily passive and quiescent. In this milieu, in which the KPD was to be banned and the SPD formally abandoned any connection with Marxism, the depoliticization of the [Frankfurt] Institute [for Social Research] was completed”.15Anderson: Marxism. p. 34. Anderson criticized the Frankfurt School for adapting to the academic world of capitalist Germany. The small Trotskyist group was exposed to similar pressures, not only due to isolation, but above all because of the intensely anticommunist atmosphere in the FRG and the fear of prohibitions. ” Although the repressive measures are mostly directed against the KPD […]”, Jungclas wrote, “the German section of the Fourth International is also […] threatened. We do not work publicly.”16Georg Jungclas: Von der proletarischen Freidenkerjugend im Ersten Weltkrieg zur Linken der siebziger Jahre. 1902-1975. Eine politische Dokumentation. Hamburg 1980. p. 212.

The post-war IKD produced a very small paper and agitated for the “merger of the independent left groups in one organization”. In this framework, they joined the short-lived Independent Workers’ Party (Unabhängige Arbeiterpartei, UAP), which was oriented to the Tito regime in Yugoslavia. The UAP was founded in March of 1951; by August of that year it had expelled its Trotskyist members, and shortly thereafter collapsed entirely.17Gregor Kritidis: Linkssozialistische Opposition in der Ära Adenauer. Ein Beitrag zur Frühgeschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Hannover 2008. p. 153-56, 160-68. After this, the section decided – in accordance with the decisions of the third world congress of the Fourth International in 1953 – on a policy of “entryism sui generis”, that is, long-term entry in the SPD and the abandonment of any public Trotskyist work.18Peter Brandt/Rudolf Steinke: Die Gruppe Internationale Marxisten. In: Richard Stöss [Hrsg.]: Parteien-Handbuch. Die Parteien der Bundesrepublik Deutschland 1945-1980. Band II: FDP bis WAV. 1984 Opladen. p. 1601-1606. To this end, from 1954-68 they published the magazine Sozialistische Politik (SOPO), which was de facto produced by Trotskyists, but included social democratic and trade unionist collaborators.19Günther Gellrich: Die GIM. Zur Politik und Geschichte der Gruppe Internationale Marxisten 1969-1986. Köln 1999. p. 19. As part of a solidarity campaign with the national liberation struggle in Algeria, they published the magazine Freies Algerien from 1961 onwards.20Jungclas: Dokumentation. p. 239-250. Above all, they worked in the social democratic youth organization Die Falken [the falcons], which “in some areas stood under strong Trotskyist influence (specifically in Cologne and Berlin)”.21Brandt/Steineke: GIM. p. 1604. The only openly Trotskyist publication at this time was the organ Die Internationale, which appeared irregularly in Vienna from 1956-68.22Jungclas: Dokumentation. p. 212.

Their hypothesis that the nucleus of a revolutionary party would emerge from a left wing of the SPD proved to be false – as Georg Jungclas later wrote in a balance sheet, it was a “crucial miscalculation”.23Georg Jungclas: Aus der Geschichte der deutschen Sektion der Vierten Internationale. Hamburg 1972. p. 25-26. When the Socialist German Student Union (SDS) was expelled from the SPD in July 1960, the Trotskyist group felt unable to express solidarity with the SDS – there were no articles published about the expulsion in the “SOPO” due to the fear that otherwise the newspaper would no longer be tolerated in the SPD.24Jungclas: Dokumentation. p. 253. Jochen Ebmeier, a member of the group from 1963, reported that there had been discussions between the West Berlin Trotskyists and Rudi Dutschke’s small group – the latter sympathized with the ideas of Trotskyism, but rejected the Trotskyists’ work in the SPD.25Ebmeier: Letter. In this way, the Trotskyists isolated themselves from the only – small yet still significant – left-wing development in the Social Democracy during their 15 years of entryist work. In 1968, the group again tried – unsuccessfully – to win leading figures of the SDS to Trotskyism.

The group was involved with many initiatives, but was barely visible as a Trotskyist tendency. Peter Brandt, who was recruited to the group as a high school student in 1966, confirms that the group was unnamed and referred to only as “the German section of the Fourth International”.26Peter Brandt: Letter to the author from September 7, 2012. In contrast, the Pekinger Rundschau [Peking Review] had appeared in German since 1964 and clearly communicated the positions of Maoism in the emerging youth movement of the FRG.27Kühn: Enkel. p. 18. It wasn’t until 1969 that the Trotskyists finally left the SPD and founded an organization with a public profile. At the time, they had about 50 members.28Robert Alexander: International Trotskyism. 1929-1985. A Documented Analysis of the Movement. Durham 1991. p. 430. He refers to an interview with R. Segall. Brandt confirmed this number in: Brandt: Letter. September 7, 2012. They had survived the reactionary post-war period; however, they not only stagnated in a quantitative sense, but also abandoned their Trotskyist program and were poorly positioned for the new upswing.

The “Gradual Abandonment of Entryism”

The expectations of a radicalization within the SPD, in which the German Trotskyists would participate thanks to their entryist project, were not fulfilled in the course of the 60s. On the contrary, due to the decades-long cooptation of Social Democracy by post-war “social partnership”, the radicalization took place mostly in the form of a broad “extra-parliamentary opposition”, i.e. almost completely outside the SPD, which made a reorientation of the Trotskyist group increasingly necessary. Peter Brandt writes in retrospect: “In actuality, the years 1967-68 were already a phase of gradual abandonment of entryism under the influence of the youth radicalization.”29Peter Brandt: Letter to the author from August 24, 2012.

In 1967, a new student newspaper appeared at the Schadow high school in the Zehlendorf neighborhood of Berlin: Neuer Roter Turm [New Red Tower]. The second issue of the old paper, Roter Turm, had been banned by the principal because of an article on torture in Spain. The scandalous quality of this newspaper – discussed in the Berlin newspapers as well as in the Senate – was no doubt heightened by the fact that one of the editors, 18-year-old Peter Brandt, was the son of Germany’s Foreign Minister Willi Brandt.30Seda Mouradian: „Inter Esse“ und „Neuer Roter Turm“. Ein Beitrag zur Struktur der Berliner Schülerzeitungen. Unpublished magister thesis. Freie Universität Berlin 1968. p. 57-58. See also: Neuer Roter Turm. Schülerzeitschrift. #3. 1967. p. 38-39. The newspaper agitated in the style of the emerging youth movement against the authoritarian education system, for sexual education and against imperialist wars. The editors, including several young members of the “German section”, were active in Die Falken, but resigned the following year. It is noteworthy that in the many reports about this students’ paper, a Trotskyist organization is never mentioned – the paper’s content also offers no evidence of specifically Trotskyist convictions of individual editors.

A turning point for the youth movement of the FRG was the International Vietnam Congress, which took place on February 17-18, 1968 at the Technical University of Berlin. Six thousand people gathered in the overflowing main lecture hall (Audimax) under a banner with the slogan, “For the victory of the Vietnamese Revolution!” Rudi Dutschke’s role at this congress is well known; in contrast, the Trotskyists play no role in the historical recollection. But Georg Jungclas wrote that the “success” of the congress “was due to the activity of the section”,31Jungclas: Geschichte. p. 24. He is also referring to the solidarity campaigns for the revolutions in the colonial world as a political foundation of the congress, including the solidarity work for the national liberation struggle in Algeria which the German section carried out throughout the 60s. and the historian Peter Brandt claims, “The congress was under strong Trotskyist influence, organizationally and politically.”32Brandt/Steineke: GIM. p. 1603. At least three panel speakers were active in the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, namely Ernest Mandel, Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn.33The program of the congress was printed in: Michael Ludwig Müller: Berlin 1968: Die andere Perspektive. Berlin 2008. p. 200. The United Secretariat supposedly distributed a flyer, but this could not be found. However, these Trotskyist speakers from Belgium and Great Britain were not joined by comrades from Germany.

The Trotskyists did not present themselves as such. Tariq Ali mildly criticized the Soviet Union for not supporting the Vietnamese FLN, but referred to Vietnam as a “fraternal socialist country” (although Trotskyism had always denied the socialist character of Stalinism);34SDS Westberlin und Internationales Nachrichten und Forschungsinstitut: Der Kampf des vietnamesischen Volkes und die Globalstrategie des Imperialismus. Internationaler Vietnam-Kongreß 17./18. Februar 1968 Westberlin. 1968 Berlin. p. 31-38. Robin Blackburn referred to himself as “part of the same revolutionary movement” as “the Vietnamese, the Guatemalan guerrillas and the guerrillas of the Falcon Front [in Venezuela]”;35Ebd.. p. 39-43. Ernest Mandel argued for a guerrilla strategy in Argentina to supplement the workers’ class struggle (even though the armed struggle of small groups does not play a central role in Trotskyist strategy).36Ebd.. p. 76-80, 124-134. All three speakers referred positively to the FLN; none of them presented a criticism of Stalinism, neither in an abstract form nor with any concrete criticism of Ho Chi Minh. Their positions were oriented more to Che Guevara’s guerrilla strategy than to the strategy of proletarian insurrection represented by Leon Trotsky.

Two and a half years later, the Spartacus group published a criticism of their former tendency, writing that the United Secretariat of the Fourth International “did not intervene with anything other than a leaflet – the uninitiated participants of the Vietnam Congress could not have known anything about Ernest Mandel or the Jeunesses Communistes Révolutionnaires (JCR […]) other than that they were somehow Trotskyists.”37Spartacus. #19. p. 18-19.

The Reorientation of 1968-69

After the Vietnam Congress, the Trotskyist group began a complete reorientation. Beginning in May 1968, the German section published the magazine was tun [what is to be done] for the “organization of the strategic-theoretical discussion” in the extra-parliamentary opposition.38was tun. #1. p. 3. The 15-member editorial board included not only Trotskyists such as Lothar Boepple, Peter Brandt, Jochen Ebmeier, Hans-Jürgen Schulz, Wolfgang Zeller and Bernd Achterberg, but also prominent SDS activists such as Gaston Salvatore and even Rudi Dutschke. This (exclusively male) list includes the names of SDS activists who would soon become famous as spokesmen of West German Maoism, including Christian Semmler, who later founded the Communist Party of Germany (Construction Organization) (KPD(AO)) or Thomas Schmitz-Bender, who led the Workers’ League for the Reconstruction of the KPD (AB).39was tun. #1. p. 2.

It appears that this editorial board never functioned – there is not a single article from the SDS activists or the later Maoists. Nevertheless, the magazine did not have a particularly Trotskyist profile: Although there was sharp criticism of the “real socialism” in the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh and Kim Il-Sung were all praised; Stalin was criticized for having “degraded the Communist International to an instrument of Soviet foreign policy”, but even at this convenient opportunity there was no reference to the Fourth International that had been founded by Trotsky in opposition to Stalinism.40For an uncritical attitude toward the Communist Party of Vietnam, see: was tun. #2. p. 9. For a long and uncommented speech by Fidel Castro, see: was tun. #2. p. 11. For praise of the industrialization of the Korean People’s Democratic Republic, see: was tun. #5. p. 17-19. For an article on the 50th anniversary of the Communist International, see: was tun. #6. p. 14-15. The fifth issue was the first to include a quote from Trotsky; the eleventh issue printed excerpts from a statement by the United Secretariat of the Fourth International; finally, the twelfth issue included a picture of Trotsky (on the title page as an advertisement for his essay: “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay”). Beginning with the twelfth issue, i.e. after a full year, was tun was officially published by a Trotskyist group.41was tun. #5. p. 6, #11. p. 8, #12. p. 1-5.

In October 1968, members of the German section in West Berlin, who worked as a group around the students’ paper Neuer Roter Turm and had already resigned from Die Falken, organized a broader split in the Berlin organization of Die Falken. The “revolutionary tendency in Die Falken”, i.e. the district organizations in the Wedding and Neukölln neighborhoods, left the social democratic youth group and together with the Neuer Roter Turm (which by its own account consisted of “about twenty men”,42Brandt: Letter to the author from October 24, 2012. Brandt corrected later that up to a third of the members of the Neuer Roter Turm were women.) founded the “Initiative Committee for a Revolutionary Youth Organization” with the perspective of building up an “independent, autonomous organization”.43was nun. #5. p. 6-8. Previously they had “abandoned the illusion that via the SPD it would be possible to set sizable proletarian masses in motion and thus initiate a process of differentiation within the party, one day leading a broad left wing to split off.”
Regarding the size of the Wedding and Neukölln groups that left Die Falken, there are no concrete numbers. It was likely around 50 people.
This group published the first issue of the magazine Spartacus in January 1969. At its formal foundation, in order to distance itself from its history in the SPD, it called for the “creation of a revolutionary party of the working class” – the construction of a revolutionary youth organization was intended as a step in this direction. Their role model was the French JCR, which had gotten a lot of attention at the Vietnam Congress in West Berlin.44Spartacus. #3. p. 6.

Finally, in March 1969, these West Berlin Trotskyists together with younger members of the section from West Germany formed a “Bolshevik Faction” (Bolfra), an internal platform that demanded the complete exit from the SPD and the construction of a revolutionary youth organization at a national level (i.e. the extension of the “Initiative Committee” policy to the entire section).45Brandt/Steineke. p. 1605-1606. The West Berliners wanted to create a fait accompli: As Brandt put it 45 years later, “the foundation [of the Initiative Committee] was an act of highhandedness, with which the Berlin group wanted to force the hand of the whole German section”.46Brandt: Letter of September 7, 2012. This was not to be. At a conference of the section during the Pentecost weekend in May 1969, the group split. The immediate issue was the not explicitly political question of whether Lothar Boepple should become the full-time secretary of the group, which neither the Bolfra nor his step-father Willy Boepple agreed to. Willy Boepple, who for nearly two decades had played a leading role in the section, retired from active politics, even though he remained in sympathy with the Trotskyist movement.47Alles: Strom. p. 237-238. This split was particularly unfortunate because the political differences between the two wings of German Trotskyism were only to be worked out after the formation of two separate organizations.

The Impact of the Split

After the split, there were two Trotskyist groups in Germany. Both claimed to represent the majority of the old section, and at least according to Brandt, they were “equally strong”. After several months, the Gruppe Internationale Marxisten (GIM) around Jungclas, Moneta and Schulz was recognized as the German section of the United Secretariat.48Brandt/Steineke: GIM. p. 1606. The GIM, which “at the beginning didn’t have more than 30 members”49Jungclas: Dokumentation. p. 276. did not stick to the entryist work in the SPD, and instead implemented the central demand of the Bolfra by founding an independent group at that very conference; soon thereafter they began with the construction of an independent youth organization called the Revolutionär-Kommunistische Jugend (RKJ), which was founded as a national organization in May 1971.50was tun. #16. p. 3. The Internationale Kommunisten Deutschlands (IKD) around Ebmeier, Brandt and Zeller took up the traditional name of the Trotskyist group in Germany and continued their work for the construction of a Trotskyist youth organization oriented to working class youth. Their Kommunistische Jugendorganisation (KJO) Spartacus was founded as a national organization in March 1971.51Spartacus. #21. p. 6.

Both groups experienced rapid growth, reaching 300 members each. In this time, especially the Spartacus group began to critically reexamine its own tradition, but only very slowly.52It takes two years before Cuba is mentioned for the first time in the press of the Spartacus group, and even then there is no critical analysis about whether Castro’s system is socialist – as the United Secretariat had analyzed – or not. See: Spartacus. #22, p. 22-23. It is significant that neither of the two groups mentioned the split in the press or tried to draw lessons from it – it was two years before the first critical debates and polemics between the groups appeared. Although the development of the GIM after 1971 goes beyond the scope of this work, it can be briefly stated that the GIM failed to establish a clear Trotskyist profile for itself. (There are countless examples of political adaptations to trending movements, as have been shown in was tun and the intervention at the Vietnam Congress.) In 1986, the GIM fused with a Maoist group on the basis of a confused program, which led to the rapid demise of the new organization.53Frank Nitzsche: „Aus dem Schatten in die Reichweite der Kameras“. Die Entwicklung trotzkistischer Organisationen in Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz unter besonderer Berücksichtigung des Einflusses der neuen Sozialen Bewegungen von 1968 bis heute. Unpublished Dissertation. Universität Siegen 2009. p. 50-53.

The Spartacus group made various efforts to update the Trotskyist program for the 1970s, but suffered from an excessive focus on youth work (“youth avant-gardism”), which was only overcome in 1974 after a split and a later reunification.54Brandt/Steineke: GIM. p. 1631-32. In the end, this group was never able to form an international tendency as an alternative to the United Secretariat of the Fourth International from which they had broken. This contributed to the sudden dissolution of the Spartacusbund by its Central Committee in 1977.55Nitschke: Entwicklung. p. 58-59. Without an international framework, the group was condemned to “an existence of uninterrupted internal crises”, as the GIM polemically declared in 1971.56GIM: Wider den „National-Trotzkismus“. Hamburg 1971. p. 112. After the split, two groups emerged, which – despite recruitment in the youth movement – were not only numerically weak, but also could not overcome their centrist legacy.

At the same time, new Trotskyist groups were formed in Germany via exchanges with different international tendencies. These included the Internationale Arbeiter-Korrespondenz (IAK) as part of the “International Committee” of Lambert and Healy, the Voran Group as part of the “Committee for a Workers’ International” (CWI) of Ted Grant, and the Sozialistische Arbeitergruppe (SAG) as sister group of the “International Socialists” of Tony Cliff. These belonged to traditions that also emerged from the centrist degeneration of the Fourth International. Even though their histories cannot be dealt with in this work, it can be said that all were based on the centrism of the Fourth International in the post-war period and not on the legacy of Leon Trotsky

Conclusions for Today

The policies of the German Trotskyists until 1968 prevented them from forming a pole of attraction for radicalizing youth. While the “Mao bible”, the little red books with quotes from Mao Zedong, were distributed en masse, Trotskyist groups only began to disseminate the writings of Trotsky in 1970.57The first reference to a pamphlet by Trotsky, “What Next?”, can be found in the tenth issue of Spartacus in 1970. Spartacus. #10/11. p. 38. A Trotskyist who took part in the student movement in Frankfurt am Main in 1968 reports that he knew certain books by Trotsky from non-Trotskyist publishing houses, “but I was not aware at that time that there were political groups who based themselves on Trotsky’s legacy.”58N.N.: Letter to the author from August 24, 2012. Entryism made the Trotskyist group practically invisible in the decisive moment.

Willy Boepple defended entryism in the SPD in a talk he gave in 1988, arguing there was “no other possibility until well into the 1960s to develop practical work on a day-to-day basis”.59Alles: Strom. p. 270. But even if entryism represented a chance to “hibernate” for the reactionary period after the Second World War, it must be said that the group woke up from this “hibernation” very slowly. They were not able to respond to the altered situation in 1968, to the worldwide upsurge in the class struggle, which in Germany was principally expressed by the youth radicalization. The split showed that the group lacked the political preparation for a turn of this kind – therefore the previous “day-to-day work” was of little long-term value. Even the structures that had been built up inside the SPD were of no use for the new orientation. The result was that the Trotskyist movement in Germany after 1968 had to be rebuilt from scratch, with practically no continuity, as a youth movement with a few older advisors.60This includes not only Georg Jungclas, who was active in the GIM, but also Oskar Hippe, who supported the Kommunistische Jugendorganisation Spartacus. Hippe: Fahne. p. 260-261. In 1970 the GIM described the “work style of the older comrades” rather negatively as one of “theoretical sterility, waiting for ‘real fights’, social democratic organizational practices and an uncritical relationship with the International Secretariat”, imprinted “during 15 years of entryist work”. GIM: Zentraler Rundbrief. #27.

But the problem was not solely that the Trotskyists were too late and remained behind the scenes of the revolt. They in fact reacted with a program that reflected their previous adaptation to social democracy and Stalinism in the Third World. Thus they did not stand out in the generally radical milieu. The worldwide upsurge in the class struggle pushed the Trotskyist movement to the left, but there was a high “cost of the years of adaptation”, because the years of adaptation to Social Democratic or Stalinist parties had left programmatic marks. The Trotskyists had an important political legacy. “However, the years before the upsurge had not been used by the different currents of Trotskyism to re-appropriate this legacy in order to define the strategic framework and to build up revolutionary currents within the workers’ movement.” The result of this programmatic weakness was that the Trotskyist organizations grew quantitatively, but could not break free from their centrist legacy and restore revolutionary continuity. “Although at the beginning of the upsurge the forces of the different currents of Trotskyism were mostly dissolved within Stalinism and Social Democracy, tendencies towards class independence were strengthened in confrontations with the official leaderships of the workers’ movement. This strengthened the currents of Trotskyist centrism, which in several cases became currents of several thousand militants (ie., the Ligue Communiste in France, the American SWP or the PST in Argentina in the 70s).”61Albamonte/Maiello: Limites. This development also existed in the FRG, although the organizations of Trotskyist centrism only included several hundred and not several thousand members.

Precisely the policy of “Entryism sui generis” before 1968 and the centrist program that underlay it provide a critical explanation for why Trotskyism is so weak today in Germany. Some historians have come to the conclusion that it was a mistake for the section to leave the SPD at all. They claim that especially after 1968, many young people surged into Social Democracy, so the Trotskyists should have worked there. Thus, the former Trotskyist and current SPD member Peter Brandt writes, “It is striking that entryism was abandoned precisely in a situation when the conditions for a more open form of work in the SPD were beginning to improve.”62Brandt/Steineke. p. 1604. (Brandt was expelled from the Spartacusbund in 1973 and joined the Sozialistisches Büro; in the 90s he became a member of the SPD. Ebmeier broke with the Spartacusbund in 1974 and joined the SPD directly.) In the same vein, Wolfram Klein argues that “most Trotskyist groups in the 1960s abandoned work in the Social Democratic parties precisely as the conditions were getting better, and instead threw themselves into the ’68 movement.”63Wolfram Klein: Zur Geschichte des Trotzkismus. Klein is a member of the SAV, which worked in the SPD from 1973 to 1994 and now carries out the same policies in the left party Die Linke. Based on on the historical account that has been retold here, this assessment must be rejected. The political adaptation to the SPD actually made the Trotskyists unattractive for the radical sectors that they were most likely to have won.

A historical balance sheet of the deep entryism of German Trotskyists in the SPD – 45 years after the Vietnam Congress, which marked the beginning of the end of the entryist project – is essential to develop a revolutionary policy for today. The largest organizations in the FRG today that base themselves on the legacy of Leon Trotsky, namely the SAV (formerly Voran) and Marx21 (formerly SAG and Linksruck) have had a similar orientation to the Left Party since 2007. They are not completely hidden as tendencies, but they argue in favor of left-reformist and not revolutionary Marxist positions, i.e. they hide their programmatic identity. They believe that they can win more influence in the Left Party or – sine the Left Party currently has lots of reformist bureaucrats and few active members – that a future intensification of the class struggle will lead countless new members to join this party.

A similar policy, justified with similar prognoses, was practiced by the German Trotskyists from 1953 to 1968 within the SPD. The results of this policy were catastrophic. The entryists were not able to build up a revolutionary current in the SPD – and their political program was not visible as wide sectors of the youth were searching for revolutionary ideas during the upsurge of 1968. Had a small Trotskyist group campaigned openly in 1968 for the ideas of Trotskyism, the radical left of the FRG might look different today.

First appeared in Klasse Gegen Klasse #6, April 2013. Translation by the author in February 2016.


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Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from New York City. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which appeared last year in German and this year in English. He is on the autism spectrum.



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