[Marxism] Get your latest Marxist book for only $169

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon May 22 11:00:40 MDT 2006

(Not only does the journal Historical Materialism make *zero* of their 
articles available online, they are now in the business of publishing books 
(on proletarian revolution, no less) for $169! Pierre Broue was a 
Trotskyist activist who died a year or so ago. I wonder what he would think 
of this kind of racketeering.)

Published by H-German at h-net.msu.edu (October, 2005)

Pierre Broue. _The German Revolution, 1917-1923_. Translated by John
Archer. Edited by Ian Birchall and Brian Pierce. With an introduction by
Eric D. Weitz. Historical Materialism Book Series. Leiden: Brill, 2005.
xxvii + 991 pp. Introduction, chronology, bibliography, biographical
details. $169.00 (cloth), ISBN 9-0041-3940-0.

Reviewed for H-German by Jennifer Benner, Department of
History, University of Washington.

A Defeated "Socialist Revolution"

Originally published as _La revolution en Allemagne, 1917-1923_ in 1971,
this volume does bear some marks of its age. As Eric D. Weitz points out in
his cogent introduction, Broue treats the working and capitalist classes in
the singular and virtually ignores women's activism, both approaches
challenged in more recent historiography (pp. xiv, xv). However, _The German
Revolution_ remains a remarkable account of these tumultuous years both in
the context of German history and in the history of international communism.
Broue's particular strength is in restoring a sense of contingency to this
historical moment, when Germany was regarded as the center of the
international communist movement and believed to be on the verge of
following the path of the 1917 Russian Revolution.

To call _The German Revolution_ a history of the early German Communist
Party (KPD) does not convey the scope of Broue's study adequately. Broue
assumes a solid knowledge of German history and familiarity with the history
of international communism, and such knowledge is essential for reading his
work. The book offers densely detailed accounts of worker and popular
actions, internal and intra-party politics (both international and local),
and disputes, many highly personal, over theoretical and practical matters
at all levels. Party factions, splits, and re-alliances (which only
multiplied in the period under study), along with shifts in policy and
tactics are thoroughly recorded and analyzed by Broue. His descriptions of
the most intense revolutionary agitation in Germany and of the pivotal
decisions made in international and private conferences often include
developments by the hour. Broue devotes considerable attention to relevant
events in Germany, such as the sailors' mutinies of 1917 and the Kapp Putsch
of 1920, as well as abroad, like the 1921 split in Italian Socialism.

Broue begins by outlining the nineteenth-century origins of the Social
Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany. He then quickly moves onto the "Crisis of
Social Democracy" during World War I, which culminated in the first split of
German Social Democracy--the founding of the Independent Social Democratic
Party (USPD) in April, 1917. The split was precipitated by the decision of
the SPD to support the German war effort by voting for war credits. Yet even
before 1917, the major fault line of organized socialism in Germany was
already visible in the struggle over that old question: "Reform or
Revolution?" The SPD had long since chosen the former (p. 19). As is clear
throughout the book, Broue believes the SPD never had the ability or desire
to lead a true socialist revolution. Indeed Broue credits the SPD's
commitment to the bourgeois Weimar Republic, along with the strength of the
German bourgeoisie, as two of the greatest obstacles to revolution, making
the German situation qualitatively different than the Russian one (p. 168).

The history of the brief "German Republic" under Friedrich Ebert and the
announcement of the "German Socialist Republic" by Karl Liebknecht,
culminating in the foundation of the German Communist Party (KPD) and the
murders of Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg by Freikorps on January 15, 1919
(p. 257) is well known. The new party faced many difficulties. Determining
the role of the KPD in German parliamentary government and its relationship
to the Communist International (Comintern) were complicated and contentious
issues. However, as Broue argues, the KPD's biggest problem was its failure
to win a critical mass of workers away from the SPD. The lack of committed
workers spelled failure for the German Communists' attempt to force a
"second revolution" in the weeks before the murders (pp. 224-225). According
to Broue, Berlin workers were simply not ready "to engage in armed struggle"
or to participate in the "civil war" breaking out between the USPD and the
KPD, "both of which equally claimed to be socialist" (pp. 246, 248). In
addition to these unfavorable circumstances, Broue attributes this early
failure to indecisive leadership and poor planning: "The leadership of the
Communist Party had not been able to prevent the crushing of the movement
which it had helped to unleash, and which it had done nothing to prevent or
to check. ... it was to pay dearly for the ultra-left action which had been
undertaken without adequate reflection by Liebknecht and the majority of the
revolutionary delegates" (p. 255). Yet while these problems persisted,
exacerbated by the presence of hard to control ultra-left elements, those
within and outside of Germany continued to see the nation as ripe for
revolution. In 1920, the KPD absorbed much of the left-wing USPD membership,
creating the VKPD (United Communist Party), and bringing total membership to
half a million (p. 502). Despite the setbacks of the previous year, in 1920
German communists were optimistic, for, as Broue writes: "for the first time
since the Communist International was founded, a mass Communist Party
existed in one of the most advanced countries of Europe, Germany, the
country which revolutionaries always regarded as the pivotal point of the
world revolution" (p. 449).

Yet the projected revolutionary actions would be frustrated repeatedly: in
1921 and again in 1923. The so-called "March Action" of 1921, inspired by
Bela Kun, ended in defeat for the striking workers and the KPD, leading to
the loss of 200,000 members after striking miners were involved in violent
altercations with police and the party leadership rescinded its March 24th
call for a general strike. In the wake of the March Action, the Third
Comintern Conference convened early, in May, 1921, remaining hopeful that
revolution would triumph both within the workers' movement and in the German
setting. Broue points out the difficulties in Germany however, where "the
simultaneous existence of two workers' parties, one reformist [SPD] and the
other revolutionary [KPD] ... contributed to the prostration of the masses,
and to the frustration of their strong desire for unity" (p. 560). In Fall,
1923, it appeared as if the KPD, SPD left, and the trade unions might
finally produce the "united front" that would guarantee the success of
socialist revolution.

In one of the most detailed sections of the work, Broue points to "an
unprecedented pre-revolutionary situation" (p. 709) before the "German
October" of 1923. The crisis in the Ruhr after the French occupation of 1922
had "declassed" the country, with inflation and unemployment leveling
differences (p. 713). The German government's policy of "passive resistance"
failed, sending inflation out of control. When Chancellor Wilhelm Cuno's
government fell on August 11, Broue writes, Communist leaders saw "the sign
that the situation was riper than they had believed. The bourgeoisie rushed
to conclude a compromise which would free their hands on the international
level for disposing of the threat of revolution" (p. 753). When, in
September, Communists joined the SPD-led governments of Saxony and Thuringia
(p. 794), the military responded by proclaiming a state of siege in Saxony
(p. 798). Communists believed that the threat of military action against the
SPD government in Saxony would mobilize workers throughout Germany, and
calls for a general strike were issued by a workers' group at the suggestion
of KPD chairman Heinrich Brandler. Even the left Social Democrats ultimately
refused to support the strike, however, and held out for "a deal with the
Reich government to protect Saxony" (p. 807). The planned insurrection was
in serious trouble, and, as Broue writes, "[i]t had to be recognized that
Zeigner's government, despite the presence of three Communist ministers, had
done nothing to arm the workers" (p. 809). The Saxon ministers were forcibly
expelled, and a general strike announced by the confederation of trade
unions "lost its momentum in 24 hours, and had petered out by the end of the
third day" (p. 815). The new national government under Gustav Stresemann was
able to stabilize the economy and ensure the short-term survival of the
Weimar Republic. Broue argues that the inglorious end of the German October
killed the chance for a revolution led by German Communists and sent power,
control and initiative from Berlin back to Moscow. He concludes the chapter
with a devastating judgment: "The fiasco of 1923, combined with internal
crisis of the Russian Party and the political struggle seen by historians as
the battle for Lenin's succession, marked the end of a period in its
history. From now on, the policies of the KPD were to be written almost
entirely in Moscow, and in Russian" (p. 816). After 1923 the KPD became "a
party of a new type, which was soon to be known as Stalinist" (p. 835).

In 1971, Broue was consciously writing against the official histories of the
Communist parties, especially the SED of the GDR. To this end he includes
chapters reassessing the contributions of Paul Levi and Karl Radek, who were
written out of official histories. Since 1923, the lost revolution had
warranted little discussion, though Broue contends this discussion was badly
needed if anything was to be learned from the failure (p. 899). Yet, as
Broue points out, "[i]t would have been imprudent to recall that the
Communist International in Lenin's time had the world revolution as its aim,
not the construction of socialism in a single country," and that the
Bolsheviks, in attempting to create a Germany party after their own image,
had ignored the tradition of German proletarian democracy (p. 842). Further,
Broue argues that Western historians have essentially accepted the history
sanctioned by Walter Ulbricht (p. 848).

The chapter "History and Politics" is one of the book's best, perhaps
because Broue is so upfront about his own commitments and reasons for
writing. In his task of rescuing the history of the German Revolution from
its dismissal as a pseudo-socialist revolution, Broue is especially
concerned to situate it within the context of the longer history of Social
Democracy and of worker activism in Germany. It is this history that made
the attempt to apply the Bolshevik experience to the German case especially
problematic. Broue writes, "Bolshevism was, in a certain sense, an
experience and a doctrine external, not to say alien, to the German worker's
movement" (p. 852). Again stressing the importance of the German context,
Broue shows convincingly that "[t]he KPD cannot be understood apart from the
crisis of Social Democracy" (p. 851). It is therefore unfortunate that
Broue's analysis of the SPD lacks nuance. His treatment of SPD motivations
is, if not as dogmatic as official histories, nonetheless somewhat
one-sided. Broue concludes with the assertion that "German Revolution" might
have been successful (p. 849). Broue is thus sympathetic to the 1957 history
by "an old Communist Robert Leibbrand" who attacked the Stalinist thesis
that "the November Revolution of 1918 had been 'not a socialist but a
bourgeois revolution.'" Leibbrand rather "saw the German Revolution as a
defeated 'socialist revolution,' 'in its historical tasks, its
fundamental forces and the aims of the proletariat'" (p. 844).

Considering its prodigious length (the text itself runs 913 pages) and
detail, _The German Revolution_ is remarkably readable. Broue's style is
clear and concise; translator and editors have done an admirable job. Broue
includes many long passages of quoted text, but they are always
well selected, capturing the mood and energy of the events they describe and
analyze. His selections also show well the nature of theoretical differences
and practical debates. Forty-seven individual chapters with descriptive
sub-headings make the dense text easier to navigate. Though there is no
general index, the biographical index is immensely helpful. This edition
includes Broue's bibliography as well as a useful guide to further reading
at the end of Weitz's introduction. Because of its superior organization and
detail, _The German Revolution_ will be useful both for those interested in
the history of the SPD, KPD and Comintern in the period, as well as those
who want to know more about a particular event or personality.

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