A proper perspective on the question of the failed German revolutionary socialist opportunities starting in 1918 after the debacle of German defeat in World War I, the overthrow of the Kaiser and the establishment of a democratic republic until 1923 with the failure of the revolutionary opportunities resulting from the French reparations crisis is the subject of on-going controversy among revolutionaries. At the time most European revolutionaries, especially the Russians, placed their strategic aspirations on the success of those efforts in Germany. A different outcome during that period, with the establishment of a German Workers Republic, would have changed the course of world history in many ways, not the least of which would have been the probable saving of the isolated Russian socialist revolution and defeating German fascism in the embryo.
Since then, beginning with the Trotsky-led Russian Left Opposition in 1923 and later the International Left Opposition, revolutionaries as well as others have cut their teeth on developing an analysis of the failure of revolutionary leadership as a primary cause for that aborted German revolution. Against that well-known analysis, more recently a whole cottage industry has developed, particularly around the British journal Revolutionary History, giving encouragement to latter day hand wringing about the prospects (or lack of prospects) at that time and drawing the lesson that a revolution in Germany then could not have happened. To buttress that argument the writings on the prospects of the 1923 revolution by August Thalheimer, a central theoretician and key adviser to party leader Brandler in this period, have been warmly resurrected and particularly boosted. This kind of analysis, however, gets revolutionaries nowhere. It is one thing for those on the ground at the time in Germany and in the Comintern to miss the obvious signals for revolution it is another for later `revolutionaries' to provide retrospective political cover for those who refused to see and act on the revolutionary opportunities at the time. The events surrounding the failed German revolution were also echoed in what was called the `literary debate' inside the Russian Communist Party in 1924 at a time when the internal struggle, after the death of Lenin, was getting to a white heat. While at this historical distance it is probably impossible to argue all of the specifics of the revolutionary crisis of 1923 some lessons stick out.
A quick sketch of events beginning from the start of World War I with the famous treachery of the German Social Democratic leadership in voting for the Kaiser's war budget (and continuing to vote for it) are in some ways decisive for what happened in 1923. Later, facing the consequences of the defeat of the German army, war exhaustion and the possibility of harsh reprisals from the Allied forces the Kaiser's government was overthrown shortly after the armistice was signed and the fight was on in earnest for the future of Germany. That question however was not decided until the German working class had been subdued and or brought off with a bourgeois democratic republic, the notorious Weimar Republic. Unlike the earlier Russian experience in 1917 no independent mobilization of the working class through Soviets or other pan-working class organizations was established. And that is the rub. This is the start of the problem. No Bolshevik-type organization was present to take advantage of the revolutionary situation. What is worst, the forces that did exist led by the heroic martyrs Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were defeated and they personally were tragically and ominously murdered. Thus, a known and tested leadership was an essential missing ingredient that was to have consequences all the way through to 1923.
When a German Bolshevik-type organization finally was formed it contained many elements that were subjectively revolutionary but political naïve or disoriented, and suffered from anarchistic excesses in reaction to the stifling Social Democratic atmosphere of the pre-war period. While a party needs those subjectively elements to make the revolution and this writer would argue that it cannot be made without them this confusion gave the reformist Social Democratic party plenty of ammunition for its reformist, parliamentary position. The key result of this lack of organization and proper preparededness was the so- called March action of 1921. Unlike the overwhelming reaction of the German working class to the attempted Kopp Coup of the previous year this was an action that went off half -cocked and did much to discredit communists in the eyes of the working class. The sorry results of this action had reverberations all the way up to the Communist International where Lenin and Trotsky were forced to defend the action in public, expel the former German party leader Paul Levi for a breech of discipline for his open criticism of the action (while it was going on) but also point out that it was the wrong way to go. In any case one cannot understand what happened (or did not happen) in 1923 without acknowledging the gun shyness of the Communist party leadership caused by the 1921 events.
So what is the specific argument of 1923 all about? Was there or was there not a realistic revolutionary opportunity to fight for a Soviet Germany which would have gone a long way to saving the Russian Revolution? On the face of it this question is a no-brainer. Of course there was a revolutionary situation. If the disruptions caused by the French take-over in the Ruhr to obtain their war reparations and the resultant passive resistance policy of the German government and the later inflationary spiral that affected many layers of German society was not a classic revolutionary situation then there are none this side of heaven. End of story.
The real question that underlines any argument against a revolutionary crisis is what to do alternatively about it. This is where the previous "ultra' policies of the German Communist Party came into play. The party remained passive at a time when it was necessary for action. The leadership, including our friend Thalheimer, acted as if a revolutionary crisis would last for a prolonged period and that they had all the time in the world. They caught Zinoviev's disease (named for the Bolshevik leader who always seemed instinctively to go passive when it was necessary for action, and visa versa. Moreover, most critically they did not take advantage of the decline in the authority of the Social Democratic Party in order to win over the mass of the rank and file of that body that were leaving it in droves. That is where the preceding events described above come in. The destruction of the authoritative leadership of Luxemburg and Liebknecht left a lesser layer not known for an aggressive strategy when called for. It is hard to believe that Luxemburg and Liebknecht would have responded in the same way as the Brandler/Thalheimer leadership. I would argue if anything Liebknecht would have had to be restrained a little. This is, in the final analysis, the decisive problem of the failure of the German Revolution in 1923. Nobody can predict whether a revolutionary crisis will lead to revolutionary success but one must certainly know when to move as the Bolsheviks did.
And what of the other reasons given for holding back. The fascists were a menace but hardly more than that. Damn, if they were really as much of a menace as right-wing social democrats and communists have portrayed the situation in 1923 what the hell were the fascists in say 1930, when they had 100,000 well-organized and fighting mad storm troopers in the streets. With that view the only rational policy for Communist would have been to make sure the German working class had its passports in order. As we tragically know there are never enough passports. And what of the German Army? The army was not that big even if augmented by `unofficial' paramilitary forces. It definitely would have been harder to split these forces along class lines. But workers militias would have at least been able to hold the line. And do not forget the more than willing Red Army was within a few days march to assist. As the Bolshevik Revolution and the ensuing Civil demonstrated in the final analysis a revolution is victorious or defeated outside the influence of whatever foreign forces are scheming against the regime.
And what about the internal capitalist opposition? And what about the stabilization of the economic situation? One can go on forever with the problems and talk oneself out of any action. While all these factors by themselves might argue against a revolutionary crisis in 1923 jointly they create the notion that this was a big revolutionary opportunity lost. That should make one suspicious, very suspicious, of the credentials of those `revolutionaries' who argue that one did not exist. Read more on this subject.