Leon Trotsky

The First Five Years of the Communist International

Volume 1

A Creeping Revolution [1]

THE GERMAN revolution bears clear traits of similarity with the Russian. But no less instructive are its traits of dissimilarity. At the beginning of October [2] a “February” revolution took place in Germany. Two months later the German proletariat was already going through its “July days” [3], that is, engaging in the first open clash with the bourgeois-conciliationist imperialist forces, on a new “republican”foundation. In Germany, as in our country, the July days were neither an organized uprising, nor a decisive battle spontaneous in origin. This was the first stormy manifestation, a pure manifestation of the class struggle, occurring on the soil conquered by the revolution, and this manifestation was accompanied by clashes between the vanguard detachments. In our country the experience of the July days served and aided the proletariat in further concentrating its forces in the organized preparation for the decisive battle. In Germany, after the first open revolutionary manifestation of the Spartacists was crushed and after their leaders were murdered, no breathing spell followed, not for a single day virtually. A succession of strikes, uprisings, open battles occurred in various places throughout the country. No sooner had Scheidemann’s government succeeded in restoring order in the suburbs of Berlin than the valiant Guardsmen, inherited from Hohenzollern, had to rush to Stuttgart or Nuremberg. Essen, Dresden, Munich in turn become the arena of sanguinary civil war. Every new victory of Scheidemann is only the point of departure for a new uprising of Berlin workers. The revolution of the German proletariat has become protracted and creeping in character and, at first sight, this might rouse fears lest the ruling scoundrels succeed in bleeding it white, section by section, through a series of countless skirmishes. At the same time the following question seems automatically to arise: Haven’t the leaders of the movement perhaps committed serious tactical blunders which threaten the entire movement with destruction?

In order to understand the German proletarian revolution one must judge it not simply by analogy with the Russian October Revolution, but by taking the internal conditions of Germany’s own evolution as the starting point.

History has been so shaped that in the epoch of imperialist war the German Social Democracy proved – and this can now be stated with complete objectivity – to be the most counter-revolutionary factor in world history. The German Social Democracy, however, is not an accident; it did not fall from the skies but was created by the efforts of the German working class in the course of decades of uninterrupted construction and adaptation to conditions prevalent under the capitalist-Junker state. The party organization and the trade unions connected with it drew from the proletarian milieu the most outstanding, energetic elements, who were then molded psychologically and politically. The moment war broke out, and consequently when the moment arrived for the greatest historical test, it turned out that the official working-class organization acted and reacted not as the proletariat’s organization of combat against the bourgeois state but as an auxiliary organ of the bourgeois state, designed to discipline the proletariat. The working class was paralyzed, since bearing down upon it was not only the full weight of capitalist militarism but also the apparatus of its own party. The hardships of war, its victories, its defeats, broke the paralysis of the German working class, freed it from the discipline of the official party. The latter split asunder. But the German proletariat remained without a revolutionary combat organization. History once again exhibited to the world one of its dialectic contradictions: precisely because the German working class had expended most of its energy in the previous epoch upon self-sufficient organizational construction, occupying the first place in the Second International both in party as well as trade union apparatus – precisely because of this, in a new epoch, at the moment of its transition to open revolutionary struggle for power the German working class proved to be extremely defenseless organizationally.

The Russian working class which accomplished its October Revolution was bequeathed by the previous epoch a priceless legacy in the shape of a centralized revolutionary party. The pilgrimages of the Narodnik (Populist) intelligentsia among the peasantry; the terrorist struggle of the Narodovoltsi [4]; the underground agitation of the pioneer Marxists; the revolutionary manifestation during the early years of this century, the October general strike and the barricades of 1905; the revolutionary “parliamentarianism” of the Stolypin epoch [5], most intimately bound up with the underground movement – all this prepared a large personnel of revolutionary leaders, tempered in struggle and bound together by the unity of the social-revolutionary program.

History bequeathed nothing like this to the German working class. It is compelled not only to fight for power but to create its organization and train future leaders in the very course of this struggle. True, in the conditions of the revolutionary epoch this work of education is being done at a feverish pace, but time is nevertheless needed to accomplish it. In the absence of a centralized revolutionary party with a combat leadership whose authority is universally accepted by the working masses; in the absence of leading combat nuclei and leaders, tried in action and tested in experience throughout the various centers and regions of the proletarian movement; this movement upon breaking out into the streets became of necessity intermittent, chaotic, creeping in character. These erupting strikes, insurrections and battles represent at present the only form accessible for the purpose of openly mobilizing the forces of the German proletariat, freed from the old party’s yoke; and at the same time they represent under the given conditions the sole means of educating new leaders and building the new party. It is quite self-evident that such a road calls for enormous exertions and demands countless sacrifices. But there is no choice. It is the one and only road along which the class uprising of the German proletariat can unfold till final victory.

After Bloody Sunday, January 9, 1905, when the workers of Petrograd and after them the workers throughout the country came gradually to understand the necessity of struggle and concurrently sensed how dispersed their forces were, there ensued in the land a powerful but extremely chaotic strike movement. Sages then arose to shed tears over the expenditure of energy by the Russian working class and to foretell its exhaustion and the defeat of the revolution attendant on this. In reality, however, the spontaneous, creeping strikes in the spring and summer months of 1905 were the only possible form of revolutionary mobilization and of organizational education. These strikes laid the groundwork for the great October strike and for the building of the first Soviets.

There is a certain analogy between what is now occurring in Germany and the period of the first Russian revolution I have just indicated. But the German revolutionary movement is, of course, developing on incomparably higher and mightier foundations. While the old official party has suffered complete bankruptcy and has become converted into an instrument of reaction, this naturally doesn’t mean that the work accomplished by it in the preceding epoch has disappeared without a trace. The political and cultural level of the German workers, their organizational habits and capabilities are superlative. Tens and hundreds of thousands of worker-leaders, who had been absorbed during the previous epoch by the political and trade union organizations and seemingly assimilated by the latter, in reality endured the violence done to their revolutionary conscience only up to a certain point. Today in the course of partial open clashes, through the hardships of this revolutionary mobilization, in the harsh experience of this creeping revolution, tens of thousands of temporarily blinded, deceived and intimidated worker-leaders are awakening and rising to their full stature. The working class is seeking them out, just as they themselves are finding their places in the new struggle of the proletariat. If the historical assignment of Kautsky-Haase’s [6] Independent Party consists in introducing vacillation among the ranks of the government party and supplying refuge for its frightened, desperate or indignant elements, then contrariwise, the stormy movement in which our Spartacist brothers-in-arms are playing such a heroic role will, as one of its effects, lead to the uninterrupted demolition from the left of the Independent Party whose best and most self-sacrificing elements are being drawn into the Communist movement.

The difficulties, the partial defeats ad the great sacrifices of the German proletariat should not for a moment dishearten us. History does not offer the proletariat a choice of ways. The stubborn, unabated erupting and reerupting, creeping revolution is clearly approaching the critical moment when, having mobilized and trained all its forces in advance for combat, the revolution will deal the class enemy the final mortal blow.

First published in Pravda, No.85, April 23, 1919.


1. The defeat of the German revolution, or more correctly the series of defeats (1918-19, 1921, 1923), which led to the crushing defeat of 1933 (the assumption of power by Hitler), was the most decisive single event in the interval between the two world wars. In his autobiography, Trotsky quotes from a letter he wrote to the Political Bureau, CPSU, in 1928: “The Lenin wing of the party has been under a hail of blows ever since 1923, that is, ever since the unexampled collapse of the German revolution. The increasing force of these blows keeps pace with the further defeats of the international and the Soviet proletariat as a consequence of opportunist [Stalinist] leadership.” (My Life, p.559.) The world working class, and mankind as a whole, has paid a frightful price for the defeat of the German revolution, and all the other catastrophies brought about primarily by the Stalinist leadership and its abysmal betrayals.

2. In October 1918 the military defeat of Germany led to the uprising of sailors in Hamburg, the proclamation of the Republic in Munich, etc. This series of events finally forced the Kaiser to abdicate his crown.

3. The reference here is to the famous demonstration of the Petrograd workers and soldiers on July 3-5, 1917. For further details see Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, Vol.II, Chapters I and II.

4. In 1876 the revolutionary intellectuals of Russia, who called themselves Narodniki (Populists), organized a party “Zemlya i Volya” (Land and Freedom) inside which contradictory political tendencies began to develop. In 1879 this organization split into two parties: “Narodnaya Volya” (People’s Will) and “Cherny Peredel,” headed by Plekhanov. The followers of Narodnaya Volya, known as Narodovoltsi (a contraction of the party’s name) turned more and more toward methods of individual terror. After the assassination of Czar Alexander II (1881), their organization was smashed. Lenin’s brother, A.I. Ulyanov, was a member of this party, and was executed together with others in 1887 after an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Czar Alexander III. The Plekhanov group migrated abroad (1880) and evolved toward Marxism, forming the first Russian Marxist organization “Emancipation of Labor Group,” in Switzerland (1883).

5. The Stolypin epoch covers the period of reaction following the defeat of the 1905 revolution in Russia. Stolypin, one of the largest feudal landowners, headed the Czarist cabinet in this period until he was assassinated in 1911. His favorite formula was: “first pacification, then reform.” “Pacification” meant the intrenchment of autocratic rule through suppression of the press, abolition of the trade unions, martial law, and large-scale application of firing squads. Stolypin’s “reforms” came down to an attempt to stabilize Russian society through the artificial fostering of “strong” peasant economies (kulaks) in the country. All his attempts both at “pacification” and “reform” proved abortive.

6. Haase – one of the founders and leaders of the Independent Socialist Party of Germany (USP) formed in 1917. Before the First World War he was the first vice-chairman of the German Social Democracy. During the imperialist conflict, he headed the “moderate opposition” within the German party. On March 1, 1917, he became chairman of the Central Committee of the Independent Socialist Party of Germany. During the Spartacus uprising of January 1919, he tried to play the role of “peacemaker.” In October of the same year he was assassinated on the steps of the Reichstag by a Monarchist officer.

The USP withdrew from the Second International when the Comintern was formed and began negotiations concerning entry into the latter. In 1920 when the USP numbered 800,000 members, its Congress at Halle voted by two-thirds majority to accept the “21 conditions” for admittance into the Third International; thereupon the majority of the USP fused with the German Communist Party. The minority continued to exist as an independent organization adhering to the 2½ International until 1922 when the USP returned to the ranks of the official Socialist Party, with the exception of a small centrist group headed by Ledebour.

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Last updated on: 19.4.2007