Bernard Reichenbach:The KAPD in Retrospect - An Interview with a Member of the Communist Workers Party of Germany
Revolutionary History, Vol. 5, No. 2 Spring 1994
We have omitted the footnotes from this text as they are mainly short biographies of people in the text. This interview first appeared in Solidarity Vol. 6 no.2 when Reichanbach was a militant in the anti-parliamentary Left in Germany. He was interviewed by Rudi Dutschke (RH)
The German Workers' Councils
Between 1920 and 1923, the KAPD acted as an extra-parliamentary opposition. Do you consider this essential?
Yes. It educated people to act on their own political initiative, independently of any representatives.
At the time, this expressed itself not only as extra-parliamentary opposition but as anti-parliamentary opposition. Did you consider it essential that the working class should struggle against parliamentary institutions?
Definitely. You must remember that at the end of 1918 there was a revolutionary situation in Germany. Participation in parliamentary activity was, we felt, a betrayal. Parliament, amongst other things, was held responsible for the war. During 1919 almost the whole of left politics took place within the workers' councils, not in the trade unions or in parliament. The councils were extra-parliamentary, and potentially anti-parliamentary institutions. The trouble was that in these councils the Social Democrats were in a majority. They put forward economistic rather than political demands, and reformist rather than revolutionary demands. The Social Democrats, however, did not impose these views. Their majority reflected the will of the broad mass of the workers inside the councils, and that even during a revolutionary situation.
A Leninist would argue that what was missing was a leadership party which would have exposed the policies of the Social Democrats on the war and that it was the lack of such a party that prevented the revolutionaries from bringing the revolutionary situation to a conclusion.
The conditions in Germany differed considerably from those in Russia. Russia was emerging from centuries of autocratic rule. The whole social atmosphere was ripe for a fundamental change. Germany had a tradition of parliamentary institutions, a tradition of government by elected representatives. In such conditions, revolution is much harder, because it appears as coercion against democratically-elected representatives. After all the years of a bourgeois majority in parliament, the victory of the Social Democrats appeared as a decisive victory for the left. It is true that the decisive arena of struggle for political power was within the workers' councils, but, for the reasons mentioned earlier, any action against the elected government appeared out of the question, especially whilst the government had a majority within the councils.
What was the real activity of the councils vis-a-vis the unions and parties?
Independent councils, based on factories rather than trades, as had been common previously, appeared spontaneously all over Germany. This was to a considerable extent a result of the economic chaos. When a factory came to a standstill due to a lack of fuel or raw materials, there was no one to turn to for help. Government, parties, unions, capitalists - no one could do anything to solve the basic problems of transport, fuel, raw materials etc. Resolutions, declarations, orders, and even paper money, were of little use. Under these conditions, workers would form a council, and set out to solve these problems by themselves. We of the KAPD believed that the trade unions were an obstacle to the creation of the new society, and that the main thing was to encourage workers to take direct action, independently of the unions.
What was your attitude to union members, as opposed to the union leaderrship?
We continuously explained to them that it was essential to organise on the basis of places of work, not trades, and to establish a National Federation of Works Committees.
How many revolutionary parties then existed?
In 1920 there were five parties aiming at a Socialist reconstruction of society, and all calling themselves Marxist: the SPD, the USPD, the Left USPD, the KPD and the KAPD. Apart from these, there were various Anarchist groups. The working class was torn by their mutual strife, and showed little united action vis-a-vis the bourgeoisie.
What were the differences at the level of action between the members of your party and the KPD, at their places of work?
The KPD at the time acted organisationally and tactically in precisely the same way as the Social Democrats; the only differences were in the slogans. We stood for workers' direct action.
Did differences already emerge at that time within the KPD between those who stood for the rule of the party, and those who stood for the rule of the councils?
That differed very much from factory to factory. Generally speaking, it was the social atmosphere and widespread practice for workers' councils to operate as recognised - almost natural - institutions.
What were the relations between members of the rival parties at their places of work?
Thatt differed from works to works, too. A single individual in a key role would create an atmosphere which could decide the case. Quite often there was excellent cooperation between members of all parties. You could almost always trace it to a worker in a leading role, who was respected by everybody due to his capacity as a leader. In other places, there would be incesssant and acrimonious strife.
Could you describe in detail how things were organised inside a factory?
Not accurately. Firstly, I was not a professional worker, but a paid party activist. Secondly, whilst being a member of the management in a Berlin factory in 1920, my experience there is of little general relevance because the factory was owned by its workers, and there was therefore hardly any friction between the management and the council. It was in the privately owned factories that the councils would come into conflict with the management. Splits would occur within the ranks of the council over the question of policy towards the management - for example, between those who accepted the views of Social Democracy, and those who insisted on workers' management.
Could you tell us something about the activity of the Third International?
In 1921 I participated as an observer in the sessions in Moscow. I stayed in the Lux Hotel. We met once a week, with Zinoviev as Chairman. The Russian delegation was the strongest, both in numbers and in influence. They ruled the meetings with an iron hand. The German delegation was the second largest. The tremendous influence of Lenin resulted very much from his strong personality. The other Russian comrades were not his yes-men. He carried them with him, if not by the power of his argument, then by the power of his personality. To European revolutionaries, Stalin was virtually unknown, and I never heard his name mentioned. People used to argue a lot about what this or that person had done or said in some situation in the past. During my stay of six months or so, I did not hear Stalin's name mentioned, even once.
I met Lenin in 1921 in his room in the Kremlin. We had a long discussion about the German situation. There was a big map of Russia on the wall, and it was obvious that Lenin was very overworked. He explained to me that as a ruling party, they had to manage a huge country like Russia, and he had hardly any time to become familiar with details of revolutionary activity in the West. I told him of our criticisms of the policy of the KPD, which was considered a sister party of the Bolsheviks. I criticised their - and his policy towards the insurrection of March 1921. He said that he accepted Trotsky's analysis on European matters, and Radek's analysis of Germany, without going into details. That meant that once we got into a conflict with Radek, we would find Lenin almost automatically lined up against us, despite the fact that quite often it was not he who formulated the Bolshevik line on that issue. Things were similar with respect to France.
What about discussions with different Russian comrades?
There were quite a lot of these discussions, especially with members of the Workers Opposition. A few days before the beginning of the Third Congress of the Communist International, Alexandra Kollontai, then a prominent member of the Workers Opposition, came to my room and told me that she was going to attack Lenin after he had made a speech about the New Economic Policy (NEP). She stated that she might possibly be arrested later, and asked me whether I could keep in safe custody the text of her speech about the Workers Opposition. I said I would, and as we were sending a courier to our Executive Committee in Berlin, I gave it to him.
The session during which she delivered her famous speech for the Workers Opposition (which was contained in the text she had given to me) was one of the most memorable experiences in my life. Lenin, Trotsky, Radck, Zinoviev, Bukharin and others sat on the platform. She stood with her back to them, facing the audience, which included revolutionary militants from all over the world. She spoke first in fluent German, which was the official language of the International. When she finished, she repeated the whole lot in French for the benefit of the French comrades. She probably didn't trust the interpreter. Finally, she repeated the whole speech in Russian. When she finished, silence fell. Lenin didn't say a single word, although he took notes all the time. Trotsky answered for the platform. He tried to play the whole thing down, to the effect that she was a 'softy', and far too sensitive for the tough business called revolution, which demanded an iron hand. Neither of the speakers dealt directly with her arguments or facts. The line was to play the whole criticism down by reducing it to a matter of her personality.
Behind the scenes, Trotsky took her in hand. She gave in, capitulating to party discipline. A few days later she came to me, and wanted her manuscript back. I was, of course, unable to return it to her. Later my comrades translated the manuscript into German, and published it under the title of Alexandra Kollontai's Die Arbeiter Opposition in Russland. When I returned to Berlin, the KAPD decided that there was no point in remaining an associate member of the Third International.
What was the attitude of Lenin and Trotsky to your party?
It was critical, although at first fraternal. They very much wanted that we should join the KPD, and give up our independent organisation. But the policy of the KPD, dictated by the Russians, made this impossible. It was obvious, as I said, that the KPD had become a tool of Russian foreign policy.
What can you tell us about the 1921 insurrection?
At the time I was in Russia. The uprising, the so-called 'March Action', had been undertaken by the local organisations of the KPD and the KAPD, the former in response to an instruction from the Russian emissary Bela Kun (the exiled leader of the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919). At first, the March Action was approved by Lenin. After its failure, however, he changed his mind, mainly under the influence of Clara Zetkin, a member of the Central Committee of the KPD, and Paul Levi, another Central Committee member, who resigned from the leadership of the party, and denounced the uprising as a 'putsch'. He did this in a pamphlet which was damned by Lenin and Trotsky, although they shared his criticism. Paul Levi's policies were continued.
Do you believe that there was a connection between the New Economic Policy of 1921 and the policy of the Third International towards the 'March Action'?
One can discern some underlying common factors. The NEP was considered by Lenin as a fortification of the revolution in Russia; he considered the revolutionary process as having come to an end. The Bolsheviks had expected a victorious revolution in Western Europe. This failed to materialise, thus creating an ambiguous relationship between them, as a ruling party, and the capitalist regimes in Europe. On the one hand, they wanted normal inter-state relations, which would ensure them peaceful borders. On the other hand, the revolutionary struggle inside the capitalist countries weakened their regimes. Once the Bolsheviks became disillusioned with the revolution in the West, they began to consider the revolutionary movements as auxiliary tools of Russian foreign policy. That did not start with Stalin, but with Lenin and Trotsky, back in 1921. In 1921 Krasin, People's Commissar for Foreign Trade, warned in an interview with the Berlin Rote Fahne (the daily paper of the KPD) that a particular strike would interfere with deliveries of machinery being manufactured for the USSR.
Why did the KAPD disband in 1923?
Actually, the party did not disband in 1923. When the 'March Action' failed (and later the 1923 insurrection also), only a few hundred activists remained. Originally, we were a party of industrial militants, with only a few paid functionaries. When the industrial activity of these militants died down, our party simply ceased to exist. It was not a matter of taking a political decision. When our militants ceased to be active, all that was left to do was to acknowledge the situation, and draw the appropriate conclusions. We, the younger activists, decided to enter other political parties, simply because this was the only place where we could meet politically-minded workers, and try to win them over.
We failed for a number of reasons. Firstly, during our best period, in 1921, we numbered only 30 000, this being very small out of a proletariat of many millions. Secondly, we overestimated the revolutionary potential of the workers, and the role of the economic factor as an initiator of revolutionary activity. In this respect, our political adversaries Ebert and Scheidemann of the Social Democratic Party had a more realistic understanding when they concluded that a struggle for economic improvement can be contained by means of reform, and need not lead to revolution. Perhaps we erred in our analysis of society by considering it to revolve mainly on the economic axis, although in the 1920s this was certainly the main factor.
Did you consider yourself a Marxist at the time?
Yes, I and most of my comrades considered ourselves as people who put Marx's ideas into action, according to our interpretation of them. Naturally, every self-defined Marxist will be criticised by other Marxists for the non-authenticity of his interpretation. In general, our tendency to over-emphasise the role of 'objective factors' stemmed from our interpretation of Marx's ideas, and contributed to our failure. I think that Marx's stress on the economic factor as the main motivation for revolutionary activity is not always right and everywhere valid; whereas his sociological insights were right at the time.
Assuming your analysis of society was valid at the time, as you just said, where then do you locate your failures?
A valid social analysis is one thing, implementing it in reality is another altogether. One should distinguish between the theories of the KAPD and the practice through which it attempted to implement them (although the two were obviously interrelated). Up to 1923 the revolutionary activity of the working class was widespread throughout Germany in the wake of the collapse of the Kaiser regime, and of its political, social, economic and ideological institutions. But following the defeat of the insurrections of March 1921 and later of 1923, it became evident that, whereas during periods of political collapse and economic misery the working class exhibits independent revolutionary initiative and readiness to sacrifice a lot for the creation of a new social order, it does not sustain this type of activity during the prolonged periods between one political-economic crisis and the next.
Do you think that the non-materialisation of any revolution in Germany was a product of objective factors, or that it was due to the failure of the subjective - revolutionary - factor?
It is impossible to give a decisive answer to such a question. Objective factors can create conditions for a revolution, but its realisation depends on the subjective factor. Owing to our interpretation of Marx's theory, we considered the subjective factor as of minor significance when compared to the objective factors. We suffered from a tendency to base all our activity on 'economic determinism'.
Did not Lukacs criticise this tendency in 1924?
He did. On the other hand, Lenin also attacked us from the other side (in his famous Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder), accusing us of adventurism, by which he meant depending too much on the subjective factor. Gorter, one of our Dutch co-thinkers, wrote an excellent reply.
Who was Anton Pannekoek?
He was a Dutch astronomer, who, before the First World War, edited a revolutionary paper in Bremen. Karl Radek, who later became a Bolshevik expert on Germany, learnt his revolutionary theory from him whilst working on the paper. In 1917 Pannekoek and Herman Gorter defended the Russian Revolution. When the Russians instituted a Western European Bureau of the Cominlcrn in 1919, Pannekoek and Gorter were among those put in charge of it.
Their later criticisms of the Bolsheviks concerned mainly their analyse of and policies towards the working class and revolutionary movements in Western Europe, and their lack of understanding of the workers in the industrialised West. They pointed out that what was suitable for Russian conditions was not necessarily applicable to the entirely different conditions in the West. They made a very detailed and fraternal critique of Lenin's policies, to which Lenin never replied in kind. Instead, he declared: 'History will decide who was right!'