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The Tragedy of the german Proletariat after the First World War





( Brochure A5, 60 pages, January 2010, Price: 2 € ; 4 FS)





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For all Marxists at the beginning of the 20th century, Germany was the country predestined for the victory of socialism. In May 1918, as the war still continued, Lenin wrote: “And history (...) has taken such a peculiar course that it has given birth in 1918 to two unconnected halves of socialism existing side by side like two future chickens in the single shell of international imperialism. In 1918 Germany and Russia have become the most striking embodiment of the material realisation of the economic, the productive and the socio-economic conditions for socialism, on the one hand, and the political conditions, on the other. 

A successful proletarian revolution in Germany would immediately and very easily smash any shell of imperialism (...) and would bring about the victory of world socialism for certain...”(1)

During the previous decades, it was in Germany where the productive forces had grown the most rapidly, transforming the country, formerly dominated by the peasantry, artisanal production and small industry producing shoddy goods at a cheap price, into a very great industrial power where a form of “State capitalism” prevailed (in the sense of the interpenetration of capital and the State) with gigantic enterprises; this expansion placed it in the first ranks of the world's imperialisms (and on a collision course with the domininant but already declining British imperialism).

It is also in this country that a proletariat in full growth (nearly 12 and a half million in 1907 according to some estimates) (2) had built up in the  space of a generation, in legality as well as in illegality, the most powerful socialist party in the world, the Socialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD). As 1914 dawned, the SPD numbered close to a million members, the trade unions which it controlled had two-and-a half million (the christian and company unions together numbered about one million). Moreover it was the main pillar of the IInd International and Karl Kautsky, the editor of its theoretical review Die Neue Zeit, before becoming the “renegade” excoriated by the Bolsheviks at the outbreak of the war, had been the meticulous guardian of Marxist theory, to the point of being dubbed the “Red Pope”: Socialists of all countries, it was said, received his opinion on the most difficult questions of theory and program with as much confidence as did Catholics when they took note of the papal bulls from Rome.

This gigantic increase could not but be accompanied by the progression of petit-bourgeois and opportunist tendencies in the party, already denounced a few decades earlier by Engels (3), the leading party functionaries being recruited more and more from petit-bourgeois elements or from the aristocracy of labor; from the beginning of the century the party bureaucracy grew rapidly, reaching 15,000 full-timers on the eve of the war; a tenth of the members (roughly one hundred thousand) of the party were then employed in various social administrations, co-operatives, industrial tribunals, etc (4). This numerous stratum was obviously the breeding ground for all of these reformist tendencies.

It was a socialist leader, Bernstein, who had been a close collaborator of Engels before becoming his testamentary executor, who at the turn of the century attacked the very basis of the Marxist program of the SPD. According to Bernstein, the regular and peaceful development of capitalism, the disappearance of its economic crises, the improvement of conditions of the working class, had all contradicted the catastrophic analyses of Marx; the SPD has to revise its program, to give up the Marxist positions which were nothing other than antiquated residues of the 1848 revolutionary period, in order to openly become what it already was in fact: a party working to improve capitalism by reforms, and not to overthrow it. These iconoclastic positions were rejected with indignation; Bernsteinian revisionism was officially condemned and the revolutionary program reaffirmed in the congresses of the party.

However “opportunism”, that is the tendency to abandon revolutionary principles, continued to develop quickly in spite of proclamations of orthodoxy; it was indeed caused by bourgeois pressures and was sustained by party practice which theorized the formalized separation between “the maximum program” (revolutionary program) and “the minimum program” (the fight for reforms).

Conditions of the time did not allow for the appearance, in reaction, of a real left tendency organized in the party: revolutionary elements, like Rosa Luxemburg, Mehring, Liebknecht and others, prisoners of the traditions of party unity, remained personalities respected if not listened to, but isolated by the apparatus of the SPD.

The treason of the SPD in August 1914 which, like practically all the other parties of the International with the exception of the Bolshevik party, aligned itself with the enemy class in calling for participation in the imperialist war, was a devastating blow to the workers of which it is difficult to over-estimate the importance. At the decisive moment, the proletariat which patiently, with unsparing efforts and sacrifices, had built up these formidable organizations, found itself without organization, without party, thrown into the inferno of the world war without being able to resist!

The German proletariat which throughout the following years, during and after the war, gave innumerable proofs of its combativeness and heroism, which fought violently against the shock troops of the bourgeoisie, never succeeded in overcoming this decisive blow.

The revolutionaries, more numerous in Germany than in the other countries, remained prey to the greatest confusion, weakened by semi-libertarian or spontaneist currents. When a mass Communist party finally succeeded in stabilizing itself, it was to fall into rightist deviations, followed by adventurist putsches.

One rare day of lucidity, Paul Levi, the rightist leader of the Unified Communist Party, the slayer of “sectarians”, the critic of the “too left-wing”, “too minoritarian”, constitution of the Communist party of Italy after the scission of Leghorn, recognized: “Today in Germany there is not one Communist who does not regret that the foundation of a communist party had not been implemented long ago, during the pre-war period,  that the Communists did not group together as early as 1903, even as a small sect, and that they have not formed a group, even a small one, but which could at least have expressed clarity.” (5).

This lesson, which Levi forgot at once, has a universal importance; the party must be prepared and must be constituted before the outburst of the revolutionary period, as had been done in Russia, if not then it is too late and the immaturity and delay – the delay – cannot be made up for. This is where the tragedy of the German – and world – proletariat resides.


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In this brochure we are publishing  the text of a report at the General Meeting of the party on February12 and 13, 1972, “The tragedy of the German proletariat after World War One”, which produced a synthesis of former studies. We added an article more particularly devoted to the aforementioned “November Revolution” of 1918, along with one of the correspondences of 1920 by Amadeo Bordiga in “Il Soviet”, the organ of the Abstentionist Communist Fraction . Bordiga who had gone to Berlin en route to Moscow where IInd Congress of the Communist International was to be held, took the opportunity to meet the leaders not only of the KPD, but also of the KAPD, its “leftist” fraction which had been expelled by Levi. The assessments he gives are particularly interesting.

We invite interested readers to refer to other studies over this period within the framework of the History of the Communist Left and in particular: “The Marxist left of Italy and the international communist movement”, Communist Program n°58 («La gauche marxiste d'Italie et le mouvement communiste international», Programme Communiste n°58 where all the articles of Bordiga among others on this theme are published), and “The process of formation of the national sections of the CI: the German Communist party”, Communist Program n°86 («Le processus de formation des sections nationales de l'IC: le Parti Communiste Allemand», Programme Communiste n°86.)



(1) Lenin, “ 'Left-Wing' Childishness ”, Works, April 1918 [MIA]

(2) According to Sombart, who estimates that the proletariat in the broad sense of  term, counting families, would constitute 67 to 68% of the population. See Broué, “Revolution en Allemagne (1917-1923)”, p. 18.

(3) “The petit-bourgeois bring with them their narrow class prejudices. In Germany, we have too much of this and it is they which form this dead weight which impedes the work of the party”, see Engels-Lafargue, correspondence, volume I

(4) See Gilbert Badia, “Histoire de l’Allemagne contemporaine”, Volume I, p. 35.

(5) “Die Internationale” n°26, 1 12/1920, cited in Broué, op. cit., p. 438.



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