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Did the Russian NEP trigger the German March Action? — An exchange

July 25, 2013
My article on Paul Levi drew comments from two researchers well versed in the history of Levi’s time. Here are two contributions each from Charlie Post and Daniel Gaido, together with two responses from me. The exchange then continues with two new contributions. One, by Lars Lih, is reprinted with his permission from the CommunistHistory listserv. In the second, I suggest a different way to approach this question. 

On John Marot’s request, I have also added a short comment he made on this listserv. — John Riddell

Contents:
    • Charley Post: Do you have citations for these assertions?
    • John Riddell: Both these points can be deduced.
    • Daniel Gaido: The March Action probably was undertaken under pressure from those who wanted to avoid the transition to the NEP.
    • John Riddell: There is no sign of significant differentiation in Russia on the NEP.
    • Daniel Gaido: Perhaps Zinoviev saw victory in the West as the way to avoid the NEP.
    • Charlie Post: The Comintern leadership was trying to ‘hot-house’ revolutionary situations in capitalist Europe.
    • John Marot: ‘I have never come across such evidence’.
    • Lars Lih: The assertion that Zinoviev fomented the March Action to ward off the NEP is implausible.
    • John Riddell: Even if true, the ‘ward off the NEP’ hypothesis does not help explain the March Action debate.

Charley Post: ‘Do you have citations for these assertions?’

Do you have citations for these two key assertions about the Levi leadership of the KPD?

1. The Communist Party leadership often sought to restrain its trade-union forces from launching isolated struggles likely to lead to costly defeats. This policy of restraint was not popular among many in the party ranks.

2. Late in 1920, the Communist Party fused with the much larger left wing of the Independent Social Democrats, creating a united party with 350,000 members. In balance, however, these new forces increased the weight of impatience and adventurism within the united party.

John Riddell: ‘Both these points can be deduced’

On point 1, you could have a look at Larry Peterson, German Commnism, Workers’ Protest, and Labour Unions, Klewer 1993, pp. 61-69, especially the last two pages, and also Sigrid Koch-Baumgarten, Aufstand der Avantgarde, Campus Verlag 1986, pp. 97-99.

On point 2, see Pierre Broué, The German Revolution 1917-1923, Haymarket, 2006, pp. 451-55, and Koch-Baumgarten, pp. 88, 91-92.

In addition to such evidence, I think both these points can be deduced by comparing the way the case for the Third International was argued at the Halle convention (see Ben Lewis and Lars Lih, Head to Head in Halle) and the course of the VKPD fusion convention (Broué, pp. 464-65) with the general conditions of struggle and relationship of class forces in Germany during this period.

Daniel Gaido: The March Action probably was undertaken under pressure from those who wanted to avoid the transition to the NEP

The article raises many important questions, but it covers a lot of ground, and as a result leaves out some important issues. For instance, the March Action, which Levi called “the greatest Bakuninist putsch in history,” coincided in time with the Kronstadt revolt, and most probably was undertaken under the pressure of those sections of the Russian leadership who wanted to avoid the transition from war communism to the NEP.

Historical Materialism will shortly publish an article containing English versions of: 1) Levi’s ‘Heidelberg Theses’ (24 October 1919) against the anti-union, anti-elections ultra-left that later formed the KAPD, 2) the ‘Declaration of Loyal Opposition’ (23 March 1920) published during the Kapp putsch, which is exactly what the Bolsheviks did during the Kornilov putsch, and 3) the ‘Open Letter’ (8 January 1921), which, as you mentioned, for the first time launched the united-front policy outside the ranks of the Russian CP. Those initiatives were much criticised, but they were all fully endorsed by Lenin.

In the meantime, there are a couple of books people interested in this key period of the history of Communism should consult. The first is Zinoviev and Martov: Head to Head in Halle, with introductory essays by Ben Lewis and Lars T Lih, London: November Publications, 2011. The October 1920 Halle congress of the USPD had to decide the fate of an organization with 700,000 mostly working-class members and over 50 daily newspapers.

Levi’s whole campaign leading up to and during the congress was a huge triumph for the Communist International, and I don’t agree with your assessment that “in balance these new forces increased the weight of impatience and adventurism within the united party.” You seem to forget the numerical and political weakness of the old KPD(S), which boycotted the elections to the constituent assembly, joined a hopeless spontaneous revolt in January 1919, etc.

The second book is the anthology of Levi’s writings issued by Brill and reprinted by Haymarket: In the Steps of Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Writings of Paul Levi, edited and introduced by David Fernbach, Leiden: Brill, 2011. It shows Levi in his heroic period and then slowly going back to Social Democracy, much like the right-wing of the USPD that split at Halle had done before.

But see Lenin’s final assessment of him: “During the intimate conferences on the events of March 1921 in Germany, Lenin said about Levi, “The man has lost his head entirely.” True, Lenin immediately added slyly, “He, at least, had something to lose; one can’t even say that about the others” (Leon Trotsky, What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat, New York: Pioneer Publishers, 1932, p. 103).

John Riddell: No sign of significant differentiation in Russia on the NEP

Thank you Daniel, for you comments on several important topics. The Historical Materialism collection of Paul Levi-related material will be a major contribution, and you are right to highlight the book on the Halle congress and the collection of Levi’s writings.

Another collection of documents relating to Paul Levi will be published next year in the form of an appendix to my edition of the Communist International’s Third Congress.

Daniel, you are in good company in suggesting that the March Action “most probably was undertaken under the pressure of those sections of the Russian leadership who wanted to avoid the transition from war communism to the NEP.” True, the March Action came too early to be a reaction to the Kronstadt revolt and too late to be a last-ditch effort to avert the NEP. But the ultra-left offensive in Germany followed on several months of nudges and shoves by members of the Moscow-based Comintern Executive Committee seeking to “activate” the German party. Were they put up to this by an anti-NEP wing of the Russian leadership?

Certainly, this explanation would explain a great deal that otherwise seems puzzling. What does the historical record show?

I have not found any evidence to sustain this thesis: no sign that there was significant differentiation in the Russian leadership over the NEP decision; no record of divided leadership votes or contentious discussion on this issue.

True, there are many statements by comrades on every side of this discussion that the situation in Russia is difficult and a victory in Germany — even if partial — would render the Soviet government practical assistance. This was a commonplace of Communist politics at that time. Not only Radek and Bela Kun but also Levi and Clara Zetkin made this point. The Levi leadership launched a campaign to achieve this goal, and in a perverse way, the March Action was its continuation. But what tactical policy could bring such a victory? That was the question on which leading comrades divided in both Germany and Russia.

Given the absence of evidence that the course of events was shaped by the Russian party leadership, we should at least consider the possibility that forces in Central Europe may have played the determining role.

However, my knowledge of Bolshevik history at that time is limited, and I may have missed something. I would be very grateful for any information that helps us better understand the Bolshevik leadership’s role in the German events.

Daniel Gaido: Perhaps Zinoviev saw victory in the West as the way to avoid the NEP

Lenin noted in December [1920] that ‘the tempo of development of revolution in the capitalist countries’ was ‘far slower’ than it had been in Russia. [V.I. Lenin, ‘Speech Delivered at a Meeting of Activists of the Moscow Organisation of the RCP(B)’, Collected Works, Volume 31, p. 441.] But Zinoviev was telling the Italian Socialists that the proletarian revolution was imminent. [R. Paris, Histoire du fascisme en Italie, Volume 1, Paris, 1962, p. 202.]

Perhaps he was convinced that a revolutionary victory on the part of the parties of the International would ensure that Russia could avoid having to initiate the NEP, which he accepted only reluctantly after having vigorously opposed it in the Russian Political Bureau. [See the careful discussion on this point in E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, Volume 3, London, 1952, pp. 337–8.].” (Pierre Broue, The German Revolution 1917-1923, pp. 459-60.)

Charlie Post: The Comintern leadership was trying to ‘hot-house’ revolutionary situations in capitalist Europe

While I cannot assess Daniel Gaido’s specific historical claims about the relationship of those in the Bolshevik Party who may have opposed the introduction of the New Economic Policy to the German ultra-lefts, it is clear to me that the leadership of the ECCI was attempting to “hot-house” revolutionary situations in capitalist Europe.

Ultimately, one’s assessment of the Comintern’s handling of the “Levi Affair” should not focus (as did Broue’s otherwise excellent The German Revolution) on Levi’s personal and/or leadership qualities. Two challenges faced the new Communist Parties outside of Russia. The first was to forge leaderships as rooted in their national realities as the Bolsheviks had been in Russian reality. The second was elaborating a strategy for the Communists to move from being the party of the militant minority—real workers’ vanguard—to winning the majority of the class to revolutionary politics.

In terms of these challenges, the Comintern’s handling of the Marzaktion and the expulsion of Levi was a complete disaster. Not only was the most articulate advocate of the united front—the key to “winning the masses”—condemned and excluded from the Communist movement, but the German party—the largest outside of Russia—was saddled with a leadership that looked to the Bolsheviks for tactical advice. The KPD and German working class (and global working class in the forms of Stalinism and fascism) paid, in my opinion, a very high price for this in 1923.

John Marot, ‘I have never come across such evidence’

According to Gaido, the March Action most probably was undertaken under the pressure of those sections of the Russian leadership who wanted to avoid the transition from war communism to the NEP.

I have never come across any evidence to substantiate this.  Riddell is correct.

The Bolsheviks responded to ferocious opposition to War Communism by the peasantry and large segments of the working class by abolishing it. The transition to NEP had little or nothing to do with the imminence or not of workers’ revolution abroad.

Lars Lih:  The assertion that Zinoviev fomented the March Action to ward off the NEP is implausible

Daniel Gaido states that the March Action “most probably was undertaken under the pressure of those sections of the Russian leadership who wanted to avoid the transition from war communism to the NEP.” When challenged, he cites one secondary source (Broue) citing another secondary source (Carr). But on examination, the cited sources do not provide any support for his assertion.

Let us look at the passage from Carr cited by Broue (pp. 337-8 of Bolshevik Revolution, vol. 3). Carr starts off by saying: “the question of personal responsibilities in Moscow for the action has never been fully cleared up.” He then follows with a series of guesses and speculations, clearly labeled as such. “It may be assumed … it is doubtful whether … [Radek] does not seem to have known what was afoot,” and so on.

In a footnote, Carr adds: “Radek is the only leading Bolshevik about whose attitude specific, though rather inconclusive, evidence is available.” He then cites a couple of articles by Radek. These are the only primary sources cited in his discussion.

The only comment on Zinoviev is: “It may be assumed that Bela Kun acted on explicit or implicit instructions from Zinoviev. But it is doubtful whether these instructions were considered or endorsed by the Politburo or whether their import was known or understood outside Zinoviev’s circle.” There is not a word in Carr’s whole discussion about Zinoviev’s motives or his alleged opposition to NEP (on this, see below).

In other words, the only definite conclusion we can draw from Carr’s discussion is: we don’t know.

We now turn to Broue who writes: “Perhaps he was convinced that a revolutionary victory on the part of the parties of the International would ensure that Russia could avoid having to initiate the NEP, which he accepted only reluctantly after having vigorously opposed it in the Russian Political Bureau. [See the careful discussion on this point in E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, Volume 3, London, 1952, pp. 337–8.].”

As just noted, Broue’s citation of Carr is misleading. If Carr’s discussion is “careful,” it is only because he makes clear that he is guessing. But Broue gives the impression that Carr is backing up his own statement about Zinoviev’s opposition to NEP and his probable motives in relation to the March Action. Broue says that “perhaps” Zinoviev was convinced that a German revolution would prevent NEP. Yes—and perhaps not.

Finally, Gaido takes Broue’s statement and changes Broue’s “perhaps” to “most probably.” He also takes a specific assertion about Zinoviev and expands it to “those sections of the Russian leadership who wanted to avoid the transition from war communism to the NEP.”

Even if Carr and Broue did actually support Gaido’s assertion, it would certainly not end the discussion, since neither Carr nor Broue are far from sacrosanct authorities. Carr wrote over a half century ago, he worked fast, covered a vast range of topics, and, inevitably, made a lot of mistakes. As I know from experience, he not infrequently simply mistook the meaning of a document. Broue wrote in 1972 and did not use Russian-language sources for this book. He is not an independent authority on the internal politics of the Bolshevik regime.

There are two issues:

  1. Did in fact Zinoviev “accept NEP only reluctantly after having vigorously opposed it in the Russian Political Bureau”? I tried to find evidence for this assertion but failed. Broue refers to a passage in Carr, but, as noted above, Carr says nothing of the sort in this passage. Nor can I find Carr saying this anywhere else in The Bolshevik Revolution. All I can find is the following: “Everyone, once the first shock of surprise was over, accepted NEP as a necessity. But it was accepted by some willingly, by others with an uneasy conscience.” (2:272-3). Compare this statement to Gaido’s comment about those Bolshevik leaders “who wanted to avoid the transition from war communism to the NEP.”Broue gives no evidence for his assertion about Zinoviev’s opposition other than the misleading Carr citation. If anyone can point me toward genuine evidence on this topic, I would appreciate it.
  2. If Zinoviev did oppose NEP, was this a motive for his support for the March Action, such as it was? So far, the only evidence for this is Broue’s guess, based on his undocumented assertion that Zinoviev opposed NEP.

I admit I have not studied this subject – by which I mean, I have not undertaken a focused examination of primary sources. For what it is worth, I strongly support John Marot’s comments: the assertion that Zinoviev or anyone else fomented the March Action in order to ward off NEP is a priori implausible. But if actual evidence is provided to the contrary, I will be glad to reconsider.

John Riddell: The ‘ward off the NEP’ hypothesis provides no insight into the debate over Germany

I’d like to suggest a different approach to the question. During late-1920-1921, all currents within the Comintern — not just Zinoviev and Bukharin — were worried about the problems afflicting the Soviet Republic and concerned to find ways for the workers’ movement in the West to lend practical assistance. In Germany, three proposals were put to the test:

  1. The Communist Party of Germany (KPD) launched a campaign for Germany to conclude a diplomatic and trade alliance with Soviet Russia.
  2. The KPD also initiated what later became known as a united front policy (the January 1921 “Open Letter”), to press for workers’ unity for the Soviet alliance and other goals.
  3. A couple of months later, the KPD began moving to confrontational actions that could mobilize the working class and, possibly, lead to a favourable change of government in Germany — an orientation that led it into the disastrous March Action.

Why did Russian and German Comintern leaders differ regarding which of these policies to support? Concern over Soviet Russia’s distress fails as an explanation because it was not a differentiating issue — it was a point on which they all agreed.

Moreover, the ‘confrontational action’ policy failed completely as a means of easing pressure on Russia. On the contrary, it so weakened the German Communists that they were taken right off the board as a strategically significant factor in the politics of the German state. Soviet Russia got a treaty with Germany a year later — but with little thanks to the German Communist Party. Clara Zetkin argued persuavely at the Comintern’s June-July 1921 congress that a united-front approach combined with the Soviet alliance demand would have been much more effective in easing pressure on Russia.

So if Russia’s distress does not explain the disagreement, what does?

The logical place to start is with the candid and heated discussions that went on in leadership circles at the time. In these debates, Comitern leaders zeroed in on two issues:

1. Differing assessments of the international relationship of forces — Has the wave of revolution now in decline?

2. Disagreements on the situation in Germany — How could Communists reverse the decline of revolutionary spirit among the mass of workers?

There is good reason to accept this debate at face value. The European class struggle was at a turning point, and it was to be expected that Comintern leaders would initially differ in assessing and responding to this shift.

As for the suggestion that disagreements in Russia over the NEP played a central role in the debate over Germany, Lars has noted the lack of evidence for this hypothesis. I would add that even if such a debate took place, it does not help explain the March Action fiasco.

3 Comments
  1. John Marot permalink

    Why have you edited out my comments?

    John

    • Dear John–

      Your comments were on the Communist History list, and I had no right to lift them without your permission. Lars sent me a copy of his remarks and gave permission to reprint. That said, I should have contacted you about reprinting your remarks. So I will ask you now. I would be grateful if you would post your previous comments and any further thoughts you may have on the question. I’ll acknowledge this in my introduction to the exchange.

      It’s awkward when a discussion is taking place in two separate frameworks simultaneously. I do think that the various viewpoints — including yours — are worth airing on the open Internet. Indeed given the specialized nature of the discussion, the Internet readership is surprisingly large.

      Best regards, John

  2. Seth Jucovy permalink

    It has been decades since I read Carr and others that are relevant to this discussion but I find it interesting and would agree that JR’s summary of the state of analysis at this point is persuasive. Exploration of periods such as this is of value from a purely historical perspective but one can hope that it also can be of some value in working out how to find a transition from various political struggles of the day into deeper and more powerful movements for change – including the question of organizing parties of revolution of real size, purpose and power. The internet can have enormous impact but I guess I am old fashioned in believing that political parties, with appropriate organizational structures, are still required.

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