Pierre Broué

Spartacism, Bolshevism and Ultra-Leftism
in Face of the Problems of the Proletarian
Revolution in Germany (1918–1923)


From Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 4, 2008, pp. 108–118.
Defence of doctoral thesis. [1]
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for the Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The work which is briefly presented here has been in preparation more or less continuously for nearly fifteen years – this is understandable in the case of a researcher who, throughout this period, has taken on heavy teaching duties, but who has never enjoyed the slightest material aid. It is not the work of a specialist on Germany and is not approached from the point of view of German history, but from that of the history of the international Communist movement, a subject to which the author has devoted a great deal of his time since his adolescence, for reasons that are so obvious that he will be forgiven for not referring to them here.

If we have been attracted by this set of problems, it was because we wanted to find an answer to questions which, in our view, had not hitherto been treated in a satisfactory fashion. We were struck by the place occupied by Germany in the general, global perspectives of the Russian Bolsheviks and the role they assigned to the German Revolution. For them, in fact, the Russian Revolution itself was not, and could not be, anything but the first stage of the world revolution, of which the second decisive stage, in which the whole history of humanity could come to a turning-point, could only be the German Revolution. This belief, whether merely implicit or made explicit, can be seen in all the analyses of the world situation developed by the Bolsheviks until 1923.

In this context, the very fact that the revolution – the world revolution – did not triumph in Germany itself, became a major fact of capital importance, at least in the history of Communism. It certainly cannot be denied that the events frustrated some of the Bolsheviks’ expectations, since the German Revolution was not successful. But it is also true that what happened in Germany between 1917 and 1923 did not refute, but rather confirmed, and not only in their own eyes, the Bolsheviks’ analysis of the imminence and chances of success of the German Revolution, and of its key role in the history of the unfolding world revolution.

From that point on, the question was raised as to what role had been played in the development of the German Revolution by the Russian experience as it was understood by the Russians, but also as it was understand by the German militants who aimed to emulate them. In other words, in these historical circumstances dominated by the victory in Russia of the first proletarian revolution, by what strategy and tactics did the revolutionaries who called themselves Communists seek to ensure its victory, that of a proletarian revolution? Of course here it was not merely a question of “theses”, but of the forms adopted – whether through or against the influence and the pressure of the triumphant Bolsheviks – by the translation of these theses into organisational forms, above all that of a Communist Party which was the German section of the Communist International.

It was this double initial preoccupation which led us to classify the subject under the description of “Spartacism, Bolshevism and ultra-leftism in face of the problems of the proletarian revolution in Germany”, which is the correct title of this work, even if unfortunately the book which has been published has a different and less appropriate title. [2]

In fact it is clear that the attempt to create in Germany a Communist Party capable of becoming in that country the “revolutionary leadership” which the Bolshevik Party had been in Russia, to form the organisation which could take the leadership of the mass movement which was natural, necessary and indeed “spontaneous”, and which could give a conscious expression to the unconscious process, took on forms which were different to those adopted in Russia during the formation and emergence of the Bolshevik Party. For in Russia, even if the conference of August 1917 revealed the real convergence, through a common attitude to the problems of the revolution, of several organisations or groups, the solid foundation of the revolutionary party was Lenin’s Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (Bolshevik), into which flowed the various “streams” of which Radek spoke. In Germany several currents of varying origin, weight and consistency, but in practice of equal importance, really fought and converged simultaneously in the long birth of the Communist Party.

It is Spartacism which is generally identified with German Communism in its first years. Doubtless there is an optical illusion here. In fact Spartacism was merely the colour taken on by the prehistory of German Communism, a pure product of social democracy, even if it was conceived and constructed in reaction against it, and even if it appears to be profoundly marked by a World War which the main body of social democracy did not experience in the same way – not by a long chalk.

At first sight Bolshevism seems external, if not alien, to the German movement. After all, was it not conceived and defined by Lenin himself as the means of building in Russia the social democratic workers’ party, the “revolutionary party” which, in his view, already existed elsewhere? There were no German Bolsheviks, or scarcely any, merely German militants who, as individuals, adopted during the war the international positions of the Bolsheviks. Nonetheless it is impossible to treat Bolshevism as though it were a purely Russian current: in its very conception, its essential features – and all the Bolsheviks stress this – show that it was, all in all and making all necessary adaptations, the reproduction in Tsarist Russia of the German “model” of social democracy. This is what Zinoviev stressed, after the Halle Congress [3], when he was celebrating the triumph of the “old school”. But in historical terms, it did not weigh with its full weight in Germany, by a sort of rebound, or if you prefer by a dialectical turning back of history on itself, until after October 1917 and its victory in Russia.

Ultra-leftism – for there was a genuine current in Germany, and there were to be ultra-left organisations – appears in a substantially different manner. It presents itself as a concrete and correct interpretation of the two other currents, and at the same time runs through them and impregnates them. It also takes on contradictory characteristics. Without any doubt we can find its origin in the tenuous but real current which periodically shakes the grassroots organisations of pre-war social democracy and on occasion is expressed in the press, in unofficial strikes and even in congresses. But it will assert itself in the explosive rejection, in many respects circumstantial, by a whole generation of soldiers of the social democracy’s attitude to the war, and eventually by rallying after October 1917 to the Russian model of revolution with which it was to identify itself for a long time.

These three currents came together during the years 1917 to 1923, and were mingled in varying proportions both within the KPD (Spartacus) [4], which was affiliated to the Communist International, and also in the even broader layers of German workers who were organised until the end of 1920 in the Independent Social Democratic Party [5], where “Spartacism” was despised and “Bolshevism” was celebrated … It is this convergence, its rhythm, its shape and the true extent of the merger, and the relative survival and even the resurgence of the three currents within the KPD, that we have attempted to study, in terms of its forms and of its consequences. At the very heart of this subject is the study of the people who organised so that the proletarian revolution should be victorious.

The object of our research was therefore not the German Revolution in itself, and even less Germany during this period, but rather, in a sense, the German Communists in their organised form, in the framework of their party and their International, a framework which at the same time they were striving to build in order to be able to overcome and to bring to victory. Their procedure interested us not as an ideology taken in itself, but as a historical phenomenon. These militants undertook this task with their own baggage of ideas and experiences, with their own past, that of social democracy, its traditions being still more alive and powerful within them than they were conscious of, and which imposed themselves on them both in the form of their theoretical tools and in the form of experience, which was not always direct. They also took on the task on the morrow of the Russian Revolution which they had not lived through, but only imagined from a distance, an experience which had been transmitted to them and which they had perceived in a distorted fashion, and which they were far from having always assimilated in all its aspects, but which they had translated for their own use in the form of theses and revisions, in short of theoretical and practical acquisitions, centred for the majority of them on the notion of armed insurrection.

We were and still are aware that such a subject was perhaps too ambitious, above all with regard to the substantial material obstacles we have encountered in the field of documentation. When we embarked on our research, conditions seemed very favourable to us: abundant source publications, archive materials, leaflets, posters, considerable and apparently accessible resources in several European libraries. But soon difficulties began to build up: the closure till further notice of the archives of the Feltrinelli Institute which we thought we had moved closer to when we came to Grenoble (and the virtually clandestine reopening which we only learned of when it was too late to call everything into question), documents from outside the Communist movement, like the Potsdam police archives, which remained closed to us despite various approaches and interventions, internal documents, for example the archives of the Central Committee, which were likewise inaccessible, in the Institutes of Marxism-Leninism in Berlin and Moscow, although at one point we thought we might finally get access to the documents in the latter. We wondered whether we should carry on or not, whether “politics” pure and simple did not make such research impossible, especially for a researcher who made no secret of his opinions and his activity as a militant. There was great temptation to give up. But for various reasons we thought we should not do so.

First of all contemporary polemics on the one hand, and on the other the opening of the Paul Levi [6] archives in the Buttinger Library in New York, made available documents which either replaced the inaccessible originals or else allowed us to cross-check with a high degree of probability. And also because in the last ten years, researchers in the GDR such as Mr Reisberg [7] have begun to publish documents which prove that the opening of the archives is no longer directly subordinated to immediate political concerns, and because other foreign researchers, who were not victims of the same prejudices as myself, were publishing extracts, summaries and conclusions of documents which could prevent us going too far: in particular this was the case of the works in Serbo-Croat by the Yugoslav historian Vera Mujbegović. [8] Finally, and above all, because giving up would have meant giving in, surrendering without a fight in a struggle for history, when we were firmly convinced that the continuation of our work, its academic defence and publication were one of the most effective means of inciting or even compelling the publication of, or at least improved access to, sources which have hitherto been kept hidden for reasons which could not be acknowledged. And that is why we did not give up.

Numerous difficulties remained. We shall merely mention the distance between the locations of archives and the high cost of travel and microfilms when we never received any subsidy, the extraordinary volume of press material, the time and the expense of analysing them for a provincial researcher, the difficulties of a “political” nature, the sudden ending of a subscription service, the refusal of a meeting, the refusal to guarantee a story which had just been told to us, not to mention the unpleasant surprises such as the discovery of an unpublished document followed by its publication in thousand of copies, or the fact that after spending weeks and months tracking down an extremely rare document, it suddenly appeared as a reprint. In the most recent period, a flood of studies and publications bearing witness to a growing and encouraging interest in our subject eventually threatened at any moment to make our manuscript into Penelope’s tapestry. [9]

Despite these difficulties and the undoubted inadequacies which are at least indirectly the consequences of them, even if they cannot all be attributed to “objective” conditions, we have nonetheless arrived at some essential conclusions which we are presenting here in outline.

* * * * *

The first concerns the heterogeneous nature of currents which were originally distinct. It is clear that Spartacism had many faces, that despite their shared tragic fate, Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were not identical, and that there were moreover profound divergences between the two of them and the rest of the nucleus gathered around them, the Spartacus League in which existed side by side men like Paul Levi – a right-wing Communist – and Otto Rühle [10] – a typical ultra-left. It is also apparent that between the various spokespersons of “Bolshevism” there were more than mere shades of difference, that there were contrasts and even contradictions; and this was not the case merely in the sphere of application, of practice, but in such fundamental theoretical questions as that of the conception of the party: on this point Lenin did not think the same as Zinoviev, and this was not merely a temporary difference … Finally the ultraleft current seemed to us to take on a character which, if not permanent, was certainly chronic, for the organisations or groups which it inspired rapidly disintegrated and were born again almost immediately in a different form in a different organisation: it was a deep current, with roots in the revolt against the social structure and rigidity of social democratic practice, but also a current produced by specific circumstances, linked to the context of Germany after defeat, born of the anger of broad social layers and being reignited at the slightest shift in the conjuncture.

Not only did German Communism aspire to be a synthesis of these three currents, themselves heterogeneous, but it also aimed, basing itself on its Russian model, to achieve this synthesis on a higher level, that of the German working-class movement in its totality, becoming reunited on the road to victory and by the very fact of this potential victory.

Our second conclusion deals with the causes of the failure of this enterprise, and we believe, in the course in the thousand pages to which our study runs, that we have added enough nuances so that we can sum up this judgement here in a way that can only seem to be very brief. The failure of the German Communists in their enterprise of split and reunification was only partly due to factors that were external – in time and space – to the framework of our subject, for the role of “German factors” is considerable and generally underestimated, both in the policy carried out by the Communist International until 1923 and in the history of the Bolshevik Party itself before and after 1923.

It is true – and many historians have already pointed it out – that the influence of the Russian Revolution, then that of the Soviet state, weighed very heavily on Germany, on its working-class movement, and on the very course of the class struggle which unfolded there: the role played in 1921 by Bela Kun [11] in launching the March adventure [12] is obviously a clear illustration and a classic example. But it is less often understood that there is another side to the coin. The perspective of the German Revolution, the second stage of the world revolution, imminent, within reach, was not only valid from 1917 to 1919 – where it was the background to the dispute between Lenin and Bukharin about Brest-Litovsk [13] – but also in 1920, 1921 and even more in 1923, when it formed the axis of the international perspective on the basis of which the Bolsheviks worked out their policy. It is moreover obvious that Germany in these years formed an experimental laboratory in Bolshevik eyes, a measuring device which they believed enabled them to test and verify their policy, to refine and adjust it. There they sought and thought they had found the theoretical expression and the immediate slogans which would enable them to translate into a foreign language the political line and the practice of the Bolsheviks, in other words to transpose Bolshevism into Western Europe. Thus the notorious Twenty-One Conditions [14] devised by the Bolsheviks on the basis of their general analysis of the world situation and elaborated on the basis of their analysis and characterisation of the Independent Social Democratic Party seemed to them to have been tested and verified in the strong sense of the term by the vote of the majority of the latter at Halle, in favour of affiliation to the Communist International. It was the debates opened up in Germany, after the successful response of the working class to the Kapp Putsch [15], by the proposal of the trade-union leader Legien [16] to form a “socialist government”, and which was followed up with the “declaration of loyal opposition” [17] of the KPD to such a government which formed the crucible in which was developed the slogan, soon taken up by the whole International, of the “workers’ government”, then the “workers’ and peasants’ government”. It was the initiative of the Communist engineering workers in Stuttgart in late 1920, an opportunity seized on by Radek, and developed by him and Paul Levi in the Open Letter of January 1921 [18], which formed the basis on which the Communist International was to develop the strategy of the workers’ united front from December of the same year. [19] Finally, the so-called “Bolshevisation” – coming after the failure of a genuine Bolshevisation which would have been achieved by the transposition attempted previously – certainly came from Moscow, when it was imposed on the KPD in 1924, but it was also, to a large extent, the translation into Russian and the response to what had happened and above all to what had not happened in Germany up to this time …

Finally, the genesis of the KPD, and its construction between 1918 and 1923 remained a unfinished process, which was not only interrupted by external factors, since it was precisely the fact that it was incomplete which was the main reason for the free play of other factors, whether it was the solidarity of foreign capitalists in “saving” Germany from disaster or the brutal interruption of the perspective of the German Revolution in the eyes of the Russians. In fact it confirmed the isolation of the Russian Revolution on the basis of which would develop in Russia both the bureaucratic layer and, as a result, the theory of “socialism in one country”. Well before this period, the deference of the German Communist leaders towards the Russians could already be explained by the awareness they had, or the anticipation they felt, of their own failure, at least as much as by the confidence and authority of the Russians.

From this point of view, the history of the struggles of the German revolutionaries, among themselves and against the old world, did not seem to us to be comprehensible except by a rejection of any rigorous determinism. Nothing was really laid down in advance, and undoubtedly it was rare for human beings to have within their reach the achievement of their ambition, which was to change the world. We do not mean by this that the story of the first years of Communism in Germany can be reduced to a tale of missed opportunities, but the study, to take a single example, of the “Levi affair”, shows without any possible doubt that many other developments were possible for the history of Germany and of the world starting from these “crossroads”. If the World War launched in 1939 appears implicitly more than once during these pages devoted to working-class struggles, it is not only because, less than ten years later, Adolf Hitler was to come to power. There was a real choice dependent on the action of Marx’s disciples in the Germany of the 1920s, between “socialism” and “barbarism”, and the question we face, which is doubtless a long way from being satisfactorily answered, is why they missed the opportunity when so much was at stake.

This is the question we have attempted to reply to, and it would not be possible to sum up all the points made in a few lines or even in a few pages. In the minds of its founders the KPD was certainly a privileged historical tool, aiming to solve in terms of revolutionary leadership the crisis of humanity which had been revealed so blatantly during four years of world war. It was nonetheless the object of history, a social organism subject to its environment, to the past, to external social forces and to the internal divisions of the class on which it claimed to base itself; it went through phases of growth and of disease, of progress and retreat, not always grasping in time the changes of conjuncture on which it needed to base its own formation in the course of class struggles which it did not and could not control.

Thus the KPD during the period being studied presents numerous contradictory features: in fact it brings together the German past, the “old school” of social democracy and the emergent tradition of Communism on its Bolshevik foundation, in a sense which is actually very different from that which Zinoviev gave it, but which Lenin’s remarks to Clara Zetkin [20] show him to have understood quite differently. [21] Just like the German Social Democracy, the KPD, already a “mass party”, was in 1922 showing all the signs that a real “counter-society” was beginning to appear, although, for all that, unlike the pre-war social democracy, it did not show any signs in its theory and practice of a tendency towards social integration in this complementary form.

On the basis of this observation it is possible, without putting forward what would be a mere banality, to conclude that the KPD during the period being studied, and taking into account the general and national context, was a formation whose margin for development was relatively slender, and which would very rapidly win a total victory – reunifying the German movement on new bases – or, on the other hand, degenerate, and that therefore, in any case, it was only a transitory formation. This observation would provide a useful working hypothesis for another piece of research: in any case it is far removed from the notion that there is some sort of ahistorical “essence” of Communism, and, of course, is quite opposed to all points of view which identify Bolshevism and Communism and especially Bolshevism and Stalinism.

The political character of the problems posed, the impression left on historiography by “everyday” politics, the monuments of falsification, distortion and evasion which we have had to clear aside in order to draw out the lines of development of the overall process presented us with special requirements, notably that of reconstructing in detail, in certain given circumstances, a context and a development which some would perhaps describe as factual history: there is no history, in general and even more so in a case like this, which can, without such a way of proceeding, offer its readers the guarantee that the work is based on a very careful examination of the texture of a development which was not laid down in advance, and not based on an a priori ideology, even if it is hidden behind a so-called scientific vocabulary ...

It must be clear that above all we wanted to give an account of what we have decided to call the “conscious part” of the “unconscious process” which was unfolding in the depths of the German working class during this period, that is, the visible part of the iceberg, the efforts of the militants to organise, master and qualitatively transform a class movement which they did not control. We shall not deny that it would have been just as interesting – perhaps more – to deepen our knowledge of the unconscious process, to try to dismantle the mechanisms of a “spontaneous” movement which formed the basis of the intervention of the militants whom we have applied ourselves to studying. Is it really necessary to say that in order to carry out such a task in our day we should have needed not only different political conditions, but a whole different political development behind us? We did not have at our disposal, and in all likelihood no-one will ever have at their disposal with regard to the German Revolution, those materials which enabled Trotsky, in his History of the Russian Revolution, to give an account of those hidden but decisive phenomena which form the framework for all the political initiatives, for the ground in which thought and militant practice were rooted. We have had to be satisfied – and in the end it is at least something – with recording this movement through the reflection and awareness of the people who strive to make history consciously.

From this point of view, it would be unfair to criticise us for having written a history simply on the level of the party leaderships, which would first of all imply that there were ”several” leaderships, and then that we constantly remained on the level of political bureaux and central committees, whereas the scope of our work includes a party with hundreds of thousands of members, without counting its periphery, the revolutionary “milieu” in which it operated. It is true that the problems we are confronting are indeed problems of “leadership”, if what is meant by that is the attempts of human beings to make their own history. But then we should expect to be told, without lapsing into the crudest and most unscientific determinism, how human history – and indeed “History” – can be achieved through a functional analysis of structures, which would obviously be the perspective to contrast to our own, and which we for our part consider to be totally sterile outside of artificially demarcated and narrowly limited circumstances, that is, taking no account of the movement of history itself. Such a method could only be used for circumstantial partisan purposes, not for the understanding and ultimately the control of human history.

However, we must indicate that we should never, throughout the length of our work, lose sight of the presence and interaction of factors which we have neither forgotten nor underestimated, but on which we did not insist because they were not our subject, and that for obvious reasons in view of the extent of the material used and dealt with: economic and social power; intelligence, that is the political experience of the German bourgeoisie which was able to assimilate to its own advantage the Russian experience at a time when the working class perceived it only in its most schematic form and sometimes even as a caricature; its scientific practice of class struggle, its capacity for foreseeing the future, for taking the initiative, whether by reforms, promises or provocation; and finally international factors, other than the Russian Revolution in the strict sense, above all the hatred of the world revolution which had just appeared in Russia, the Holy Alliance of the privileged in their “Great Fear”.

It remains that our study – at least we think so – has brought to light some “terrifying seeds of reality” which ideologists of various shades will find it hard to assimilate. We have no doubt that, in such cases, they will not blame their own fixed ideas or their own cult of the accomplished fact – the most unhistorical approach possible – but rather what they will call our “ideology”, whether or not they consider it to be “coherent”. We can simply offer them our apologies: it is not our fault if the Russian Revolution preceded the German Revolution chronologically, if the Communist militants who thought they should adapt the lessons of the Russian Revolution to their own country played a more determining role than the supporters of anti-authoritarian philosophies, if the role of Lenin and even of Radek was far more important than that of the very likeable Otto Rühle, whose part was not completely insignificant. It is also not our fault if the people who were the subject of our study were not able to take advantage of the recent development of social sciences which is said to prove irrefutably, according to some people, that their “project” – the cause for which a number of them sacrificed their lives – was in fact only a second-rate utopia! Let our critics refrain from criticising us for not having written the book they would like to have written! For our part, in the framework of this historical study, we have tried to give an account of the German Communist militants, and of their thought and action.

The other questions, despite the inevitable interactions – whether accidental or malevolent – belong to a different framework in which we shall always be ready to continue or to begin a public discussion of.


1. Defence of his doctoral thesis at the University of Paris X.

2. The book was originally published in Paris in 1971 under the title La révolution en Allemagne 1917–1923. The English translation is The German Revolution 1917–1923 (Leiden 2005).

3. The Special Congress of the Independent Social Democratic Party at Halle in October 1920 voted to affiliate to the Communist International, following which the majority fused with the German Communist Party. See Broué, The German Revolution, pp. 439–43.

4. In December 1918 the Spartacus League split from the Independent Social Democratic Party and formed the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). See The German Revolution, pp. 198–225.

5. Formed at Easter 1917 when the anti-war opposition split from the Social Democratic Party. See The German Revolution, pp. 73–87.

6. Paul Levi (1883–1930): lawyer, close to Luxemburg, President of German CP in 1920, but expelled 1921 for public opposition to March Action; later returned to Social Democratic Party.

7. Arnold Reisberg (1904–1980): Austrian-born historian of Communist movement.

8. Author of a study of the German Communist Party 1918–23 (Belgrade 1968).

9. Penelope, wife of Odysseus, kept her suitors at bay during his long absence by saying she would not remarry until her tapestry was complete; but each night she unravelled what she had woven during the day.

10. Otto Rühle (1874–1943): Social Democratic deputy, backed Liebknecht 1915; spokesman at KPD Founding Conference for ultra-left majority; joined KAPD and later expelled by it; returned to SPD in 1923; emigrated to Mexico, helped organise Dewey Commission on Moscow Trials.

11. Bela Kun (1885–1937): Founder of Hungarian Communist Party, briefly in power 1919; sent to Germany at time of March Action 1921, played important role in Comintern, opposed Stalin’s German policy 1932, and later opposed Popular Front, for which arrested, tortured and executed.

12. The March Action, a premature and unprepared general strike launched by the German CP in March 1921. See The German Revolution, pp. 491–503.

13. Peace treaty, signed on 3 March 1918 between Russia and the German Empire, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Ottoman Empire, marking Russia’s final withdrawal from World War I; Bukharin opposed this, advocating revolutionary war against Germany. See The German Revolution, pp. 101–2, 117, 123.

14. Conditions for admission agreed at the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920. See The German Revolution, pp. 423–32.

15. Attempted right-wing coup in March 1920, defeated by workers’ action. See The German Revolution, pp. 349–80.

16. Karl Legien (1861–1920), German trade union leader, right-wing Social Democrat, member of the Reichstag from 1893, President of the German Trade Unions; supported war in 1914, but called for general strike against Kapp Putsch. See The German Revolution, pp. 353–71.

17. See The German Revolution, pp. 361–71.

18. See The German Revolution, pp. 468–73.

19. See The German Revolution, pp. 585–98.

20. Clara Zetkin (1857–1933): Veteran German Social Democrat, organised Socialist women, close to Rosa Luxemburg; joined German Communist Party shortly after its formation and remained on its right wing, supporting Paul Levi.

21. A reference to Lenin’s discussions with Zetkin during the Third Comintern Congress. See The German Revolution, pp. 549–51.

Last updated on 1.11.2011