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Ruth Fischer: The Ongoing Fascination of the Ultra-left

Ruth Fischer was the chairwoman of the Communist Party of Germany in the mid-1920s, before she became a supporter of McCarthy. Her ultra-left policies continue to provoke discussions among socialists. A massive biography by Mario Keßler offers some lessons for revolutionary strategy today.

Nathaniel Flakin

July 3, 2022
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On the left, Ruth Fischer, former German communist party leader. On the right, the cover of her biography by Mario Keßler.

Originally published in Historical Materialism.

On February 18, 2022, three Stolpersteine were placed at Andreasberger Straße 9 in Britz, in Berlin’s Neukölln district. The brass cobblestones commemorate anyone who was persecuted or killed under the Nazis. These three mark the former home of Ruth Fischer and Arkadi Maslow, and as well as Fischer’s son Friedrich Gerhart Friedländer, until they fled the country in March 1933.

When I announced that I was applying for these Stolpersteine, a comrade responded: ‘Ruth Fischer is a terrible human being. Don’t do it.’ And yes, more than 60 years after her death, Fischer remains one of the most controversial figures from communist history, in Germany or anywhere else. I certainly would not claim her legacy. But it is not as if we were putting up a statue – a Stolperstein merely draws attention to the crimes of the Nazis.

One sign of the ongoing interest in Ruth Fischer is the massive biography by Mario Keßler, published in German in 2013 and weighing in at over a kilogramme. Against the author’s friendly advice, I read it from cover to cover.1Parts of this story are contained in Keßler’s much shorter English-language biography of Arkadi Maslow, Kessler 2020.

Fischer and Maslow are best remembered as the ultraleft leaders of the Communist Party of Germany for a brief period in the mid-1920s.2The third figure in their leadership triumvirate, the KPD’s Orgleiter Werner Scholem, has also been the subject of a door-stopper biography by one of Keßler’s students: Hoffrogge 2018.

What makes Fischer so fascinating is her inconsistency. She gained international fame as both a communist and an anticommunist, without lasting success in either role, thus alienating absolutely everyone. As an obituary by the journalist Sebastian Haffner put it, ‘her fate was to unintentionally damage the side she was temporarily aligned with more than the side she was fighting’ (quoted on p. 614; all translations from the work are mine).

Born in Leipzig, Fischer grew up in Vienna as Elfriede Eisler. The Eislers, including her younger brothers Gerhart and Hanns, made up, in the words of Eric Hobsbawm, ‘almost the quintessential Comintern family’ (quoted on pp. 8–9). Subject to myriad forms of antisemitism in the decaying Habsburg monarchy, the three siblings all dedicated themselves to revolutionary modernism, although in very different forms. Elfriede was a firebrand speaker who soon fell out with Stalinism; Gerhart was a party-apparatus man who remained loyal to ‘really existing socialism’; Hanns, a composer, became the most famous of the three.

While she cannot be called the founder of the Communist Party of German-Austria, Fischer did receive membership card #1 of this very small and putschist organisation. One of her earliest works was a pamphlet on the Sexual Ethics of Communism, published in 1920 in Vienna, in which she called for a radical break with the ‘monogamous forced union’: ‘the majority of people live polyamorously’, she wrote, and ‘homosexuality is natural’ (quoted on p. 53). It goes without saying that older and more prudish figures like Lenin and Zetkin were not impressed by this ‘young comrade from Vienna’.

Consistent with these views, Fischer subordinated her family responsibilities to her political duties, and set off for Berlin in 1919, which many saw as the centre of world revolution (‘the reddest of all cities on earth outside the Soviet Union’, in the words of Georg Glaser). While Fischer worked in the Comintern and KPD apparatuses, her son Friedrich Gerhart Friedländer remained in Vienna with both sets of grandparents, and only reunited with his mother a decade later. Berlin is where she met Arkadi Maslow (‘love at first sight’; p. 80), who would remain her personal and political companion until his death two decades later. Within two years, Fischer was the leader of the KPD’s Berlin-Brandenburg district, a bastion of the party’s ultraleft wing that openly defied the leadership. If Lenin described a revolutionary party as an orchestra, then Fischer’s specialty was a one-string banjo: her only theme was rejecting any kind of collaboration with the Social Democrats. Socialist revolution was to be achieved with permanent offensives and revolutionary purity.

Zetkin despised this upstart opposition, whereas Lenin could only shake his head. While many of the leading figures of the ultra-left came from middle-class Jewish families, Fischer was not wrong when she said her faction was ‘not only meshuga students’.3Quoted in Hoffrogge 2018, p. 332. Ultra-leftism had a real base in Berlin’s working class, after numerous bloody betrayals by Social Democratic governments. Fischer and Maslow gave a voice to this tendency, and their team included many proletarians like the metalworker Anton Grylewicz. As they had both been politicised by the maelstrom of the World War and the chaotic revolutionary wave that followed, they had no sense of the patient work necessary to win the majority of the working class – hence their principled rejection of the united-front tactic.

Fischer must have been a uniquely enthralling speaker, since her political profile was not impressive – a lifetime of communist activism left behind only a handful of books. In the words of one contemporary, Ernst Meyer, Fischer’s predecessor as KPD chair, was ‘sometimes quite put out by her political ignorance, claiming that she never even read the Communist Manifesto!’4Leviné-Meyer 1977, p. 66.

When the German October collapsed in 1923, dashing hopes for a decisive leap in the world revolution, many rank-and-file KPD members wanted to rid themselves of a leadership that appeared overcautious. The fact that the ultraleft opposition, who had spent years calling for insurrections, had been totally passive during the revolutionary crisis, does not seem to have lessened their appeal. At the party congress of 1924, Fischer and Maslow were swept into the KPD leadership – even against the will of the Comintern Executive, who were aiming for a balance between the party’s different wings.

Thus, at just 28, Fischer became the first woman leader of a mass party anywhere in the world (p. 178; Keßler acknowledges that Luxemburg was also the leader of the KPD between its founding and her assassination two weeks later, but he says that this was not yet a mass party). Technically she was the ‘Chairperson of the Political Secretariat of the KPD’, called ‘Politleiter’ in Comintern-speak. Party chair was a separate, more symbolic post that was held at the time by the worker Ernst Thälmann. But Fischer was the de facto leader of the KPD from 1924 to 1925 – more so because Maslow spent much of this time in prison on trumped-up charges (after the police accused him of stealing a handbag in the park!).

As a party leader, Fischer was able to take her principled refusal to collaborate with Social Democrats to absurd lengths. KPD representatives in parliament were told to avoid shaking hands with their SPD counterparts – or if protocol required it, they were first to put on red gloves. As an ally of Comintern chair Grigory Zinoviev, Fischer led the ‘Bolshevisation’ campaign in Germany, quashing the KPD’s democratic traditions. Fischer argued for ideological monolithism, while Scholem cleared the apparatus of anyone suspected of disloyalty towards the new ultraleft leadership. In just over a year, however, the triumvirate themselves fell victim to the very regime they had created.

If one quote from Fischer is remembered today, it is surely from a speech she gave to far-right university students: ‘Those who call for a struggle against Jewish capital are already, gentlemen, class strugglers, even if they don’t know it. You are against Jewish capital and want to fight the speculators. Very good. Throw down the Jewish capitalists, hang them from the lamp-post, stamp on them. But, gentlemen, what about the big capitalists, the Stinnes and Klöckner?’ (quoted on p. 315).

This is an example of the idiotic attempts of certain Comintern leaders, such as Karl Radek, to appeal to Germany’s Far Right with their hatred of Versailles (the so-called ‘Schlageter Course’). Today, this is often quoted as an example of Communist antisemitism. That is a downright bizarre accusation against a party with a largely Jewish leadership. As Hoffrogge has shown, while there were certainly examples of antisemitic prejudice within the KPD, of all the parties in Weimar Germany the KPD was the most committed to the struggle against antisemitism. Under the Stalinist leadership of Ernst Thälmann, there were even more idiotic attempts to appeal to rank-and-file Nazis, especially with the so-called ‘red referendum’ in Prussia in 1932. Yet bourgeois talk of collaboration between the KPD and the NSDAP is wildly exaggerated.

By 1926, Fischer and Maslow were expelled from the KPD. They were active in a new organisation of the Left Opposition, the Leninbund (Lenin League). But when the KPD’s Central Committee offered an amnesty to anyone willing to renounce their views, the two jumped at the chance to get back into Stalin’s good graces. It did not work: Fischer and Maslow never did get back into the Comintern – but they also never seriously built up a competing organisation. Fischer got a job as a child social worker in the working-class district of Prenzlauer Berg. This is the time the couple lived in Britz, where they were joined in 1929 by Fischer’s son Friedrich Gerhart Friedländer, who attended the Karl Marx School in Neukölln.

In early March 1933, after the Reichstag fire and the Nazis’ rigged elections, Fischer and Maslow fled by motorbike to Czechoslovakia, and eventually made it to Paris. Friedländer was arrested by the SA and detained in an improvised concentration camp for two days before eventually making it to Vienna. (His unpublished autobiography is available in different archives, and contains numerous personal letters from Maslow.) In Paris, Fischer got a job as a social worker in St Denis. The pair met Leon Trotsky several times during his French exile. Trotsky recruited them to the nascent Fourth International, despite the objections of its German section in exile, and they were members for several years under the names Dubois and Parabellum.

After the fall of France, Fischer and Maslow escaped to Portugal. She was able to secure a visa for the US and sailed for New York City; he, with Soviet citizenship, could only make it to Cuba. After half a year, Fischer was able to secure a US visa for Maslow as well. When she called Havana to give him the news, she learned that he had been found dead on the street – likely the victim of a Stalinist assassination, but definitive proof has not been found to this day.

At this point, Fischer made a radical shift. After years as an unaffiliated communist, from one day to the next she transformed herself into a rabid anticommunist. The shock of Maslow’s death was certainly the cause – but equally important was Fischer’s new milieu, in which New York intellectuals were moving rapidly to the right. The former KPD chairwoman famously appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee to denounce her brothers Gerhart and Hanns Eisler, who were both in US exile at that time. She accused them of helping to assassinate Maslow – which, besides going against family loyalty, was also totally preposterous. Gerhart was a communist agent at the time, but was far from the ‘key figure of the American Communist Party’ that his sister made him out to be (p. 424). She received a scholarship from Harvard University to write a book about Stalin and German Communism. Keßler agrees with most other commentators that it is an unreliable and self-serving portrayal of Fischer’s time at the top of the KPD, systematically avoiding any reflection on her role in ‘Bolshevisation’.

This is where the popular understanding of Fischer’s life ends. Yet Keßler shows that she went through another radical shift that opened up a final chapter. He explains this with a single shocking letter. After the war, Fischer was courted by both bourgeois media and secret services as an expert on Stalinism. She received a letter full of praise and an offer for collaboration from Eberhard Taubert, the leader of an anticommunist association in West Germany. She would not have forgotten that Taubert had been a leader of the Nazi stormtroopers (SA) in Berlin, who had detained her son in 1933. This seems to have been a wakeup call: by the early 1950s, Fischer scaled back her collaboration with the FBI and moved to Paris, where she worked as an independent journalist. She was cautiously optimistic about de-Stalinisation in the Soviet Union, and reported favourably on the Bandung Conference to end colonialism. She re-established links with critical communists such as Heinrich Brandler and Isaac Deutscher. After years of wrangling, she was also able to receive a West German pension for her stolen career as a social worker. Fischer died of a heart attack in 1961. She was survived by her son, who had studied mathematics in England and went on to be a university professor.

After 2,000 words’ reviewing Fischer’s life, we must now ask about the political meaning of all this. No one, as far as I am aware, would consider themselves a Fischerite. As a Communist leader, she was feckless, even before becoming a turncoat.

Why, instead of being relegated to a footnote in communist history, have Fischer, Maslow, and Scholem each been the subject of biographies in the past decade? How do we explain the ongoing fascination of the ultra-left? Every history book is a contribution, even if unintentional, to debates about socialist strategy today. Keßler’s biography calls for a ‘democratic communism’ (p. 245) that would reject insurrections and remain on the parliamentary road. There is a kind of ‘Eurocommunism’ that exists among historians. This tendency is pronounced in Alexander Rabinowitch’s unparalleled scholarship concerning the October Revolution. Rabinowitch defends the Bolshevik Party’s right wing, wishing that the Bolsheviks had renounced the spoils of a victorious uprising in order to form a coalition government with all socialist parties.5See the Epilogue of Rabinowitch 1976. It goes without saying that such arguments, even from diligently apolitical scholars, have consequences for socialists today.

In Keßler’s study of Fischer, we see this problem in his discussion of the tactics of the united front and especially the workers’ government. In a sense, Trotsky is too popular today. His passionate calls for a united front of communists and social democrats to stop the Nazis make him seem like a Marxist Cassandra. But praise for this tactical proposal is divorced from its strategic context. The antifascist united front is presented as a purely defensive measure – but in defence of what? Bourgeois democracy? For Trotsky, the united front was a tool for a communist party to gather forces for the proletarian revolution (‘an active defence, with the perspective of passing over to the offensive’, as he put it). It was not intended to save bourgeois democracy, but rather to destroy it. A purely defensive conception of the united front has more to do with Käthe Kollwitz, Albert Einstein, or perhaps the SAP than with the Bolshevik-Leninists. Yet this is precisely the vision advocated by many modern historians who are sympathetic to Trotsky.

 The workers’ government, as discussed among the Communist International throughout the first half of the 1920s, can only be understood as the culminating moment of the united front. The discussions were contradictory – see Zinoviev’s confusing remarks about the ‘four kinds of workers’ government’ – yet the slogan was always conceived as some kind of step along the road to proletarian dictatorship. Clara Zetkin, for example, who was on the right wing of this debate, said that such a government could only be ‘formed as the crowning effect of a tremendous mass movement, backed by the political organs of proletarian power outside of parliament, by the workers’ councils and by their congress, and above all, by an armed working class.’

Keßler, in contrast, presents such a workers’ government as a parliamentary coalition in contradistinction to proletarian revolution. For him, ‘the only left-wing project that promised success at this time’ was an SPD–KPD government that could have ‘more thoroughly democratised’ Germany (p. 245). For this, the KPD would have needed to develop ‘in the direction of a democratic communism’ and break ‘with every kind of vanguard theory’. In this, he follows Sebastian Haffner in speculating that a democratic but not socialist revolution could have saved Germany from fascism. It is undeniable that the half-revolution of 1918, drowned in blood by the SPD, prepared the ground for Hitler. Yet Keßler and Haffner wonder about a three-quarters revolution which would have left capitalism in place while nonetheless seriously reforming the state apparatus. Rosa Luxemburg once posited that society faced a choice between ‘socialism and barbarism’ – but these historians claim to have found some kind of golden mean between the two.

In response, it is worth quoting Trotsky at some length, who summed up the binary choice posed by the class struggle in Germany in the early 1930s:

That is the situation approaching with every hour in Germany today. There are forces which would like the ball to roll down towards the right and break the back of the working class. There are forces which would like the ball to remain at the top. That is a utopia. The ball cannot remain at the top of the pyramid. The Communists want the ball to roll down toward the left and break the back of capitalism.

The climate catastrophe, alongside growing inter-imperialist tensions, are once again presenting us with this binary choice. We need a revolutionary strategy that can break the power of the bourgeoisie. Such a strategy can only be developed on the basis of the historical experience of the workers’ movement – the case of the ultra-lefts can, among many other examples, be instructive.

The recent biographies, however, tend to present a dichotomy, as if the only alternative to childish ultra-leftism would be a coalition government alongside reformists. This is completely false. The problem with Fischer was not that she tried to win a majority of the working class for proletarian revolution. The problem was that she did not understand how to accomplish her goal. A study of Fischer’s failures does not, in any way, justify a return to social democracy under the banner of ‘democratic communism’. Quite the opposite: it means doing a better job of fighting against reformism to win the masses for a revolutionary perspective.

Despite my disagreements with Keßler, this excellent work of scholarship offers a rich historical account from which to draw such conclusions.

References

Hoffrogge, Ralf 2018, A Jewish Communist in Weimar Germany: The Life of Werner Scholem (1895–1940), translated by Loren Balhorn and Jan-Peter Herrmann, Historical Materialism Book Series, Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Kessler, Mario 2020, A Political Biography of Arkadij Maslow, 1891–1941: Dissident Against His Will, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Leviné-Meyer, Rosa 1977, Inside German Communism: Memoirs of Party Life in the Weimar Republic, edited and introduced by David Zane Mairowitz, London: Pluto Press.

Rabinowitch, Alexander 1976, The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd, New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Trotsky, Leon 1932 [1931], ‘For a Workers’ United Front Against Fascism’, translated by Morris Lewitt, The Militant, V, 2: 1, 4, available at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/germany/1931/311208.htm>.

Notes

Notes
1 Parts of this story are contained in Keßler’s much shorter English-language biography of Arkadi Maslow, Kessler 2020.
2 The third figure in their leadership triumvirate, the KPD’s Orgleiter Werner Scholem, has also been the subject of a door-stopper biography by one of Keßler’s students: Hoffrogge 2018.
3 Quoted in Hoffrogge 2018, p. 332.
4 Leviné-Meyer 1977, p. 66.
5 See the Epilogue of Rabinowitch 1976.
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Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. 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 has appeared in German, in English, and in French, and in Spanish. He has also written an anticapitalist guide book called Revolutionary Berlin. He is on the autism spectrum.

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