Socialist Equality Party (Germany)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Germany)


32. Although the Spartacus League sharply criticized the SPD and the USPD, it did not break organizationally with them. While it insisted on full freedom of action, it nevertheless remained within the SPD and in 1917 joined the newly created USPD. Not until a month after the November revolution did it finally leave the USPD and, on January 1, 1919, form the German Communist Party. Just two weeks later, its most well-known leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, were killed by the murderous gangs of the social democratic Reichswehr Minister Gustav Noske.

33. Rosa Luxemburg justified remaining in the SPD and the USPD with the argument: “It is not sufficient that a handful of people has the best prescription in their pocket and already knows how one is to lead the masses. The masses must be mentally wrested away from the traditions of the last 50 years; they must be freed from them. And this can only be done in the vast process of constant internal self-criticism of the movement as a whole”.[1] This view underestimated the social gulf that had opened up between the SPD and the USPD on the one hand, and the working class on the other. Before the war, the withdrawal from the SPD—a legal mass party, which officially claimed to be Marxist and that enjoyed great authority among workers—would have isolated the revolutionary wing from the class-conscious workers. But after the SPD’s support for the war credits the situation presented itself differently. The SPD had gone over completely to the camp of the ruling class. This had to bring it, inevitably, into conflict with the working class. It was necessary to prepare for this conflict by elaborating a clear political and organizational alternative. If in Russia in 1917 the presence of a party steeled by many years of struggle against opportunism had made possible the victory of the October revolution, the absence of such a party in 1918-19 was the cause of bitter defeats for the proletariat in Germany.

34. Due to its late formation and the loss of its most important leaders, the first years of the German Communist Party, the KPD, were extremely difficult. It lacked political and theoretical unity and an experienced cadre. Bitterness over the betrayal of the SPD temporarily resulted in ultra-left, anti-parliamentary and anarchist conceptions gaining influence, and a leftwing split-off in the form of the KAPD in April 1920. In December of the same year, the majority of the USPD broke with the rightwing leadership and joined the KPD. This made the KPD a mass party, but it also brought new political problems. Between 1919 and 1921, the KPD took part in several premature and badly prepared attempted uprisings. Just five days after its establishment, the party supported the so-called Spartacus uprising in Berlin, which was bloodily suppressed. In 1921, in the so-called March action, the KPD and KAPD jointly called for a general strike and for the overthrow of the Reich government, after it had deployed armed police units against workers in central Germany. The subsequent defeat cost the lives of approximately 2,000 workers.

35. The Third Congress of the Comintern in 1921 argued intensively against the left radicalism in the KPD and other sections. In his pamphlet “Left-wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder”, Lenin criticised “petty bourgeois revolutionism”, which rejects political compromises under all circumstances, which denies the legitimacy of participation in elections or in parliament and which considers it impermissible to work in the reactionary trade unions. The Congress, Trotsky wrote, “advanced the slogan: ‘To the masses’, that is, to the conquest of power through a previous conquest of the masses, achieved on the basis of the daily life and struggles”.[2] It developed a programme of transitional demands, which linked the daily needs of the workers to the goal of the proletarian seizure of power, and endorsed the tactic of the united front. This tactic was aimed at establishing, in daily struggles on the basis of practical joint measures, an effective unity between the reformist, social democratic organisations and parties, which commanded the loyalty of the majority of the working class, and the revolutionary communist parties. The united front corresponded to the needs and instinctive drive of the masses for unity in the struggle to achieve important demands, the defence of wages and political rights and mobilisation against fascist attacks. It did not, however, mean renouncing criticism of political opponents inside the workers’ organisations. On the contrary, it created the conditions for the masses, on the basis of their own experiences, to convince themselves of the effectiveness of the communists and the uselessness of social democracy.

36. The change in course carried through at the Third Congress strengthened and stabilised the KPD. But in 1923 the political situation changed dramatically. France’s occupation of the Ruhr area unleashed a political and economic crisis, which culminated in an exceptional revolutionary situation. The collapse of the German currency led to the pauperisation and radicalisation of broad layers of workers and the middle classes. The SPD rapidly lost influence, while the KPD’s support grew. On the right, fascist groups won influence. In August, a general strike initiated by the KPD forced the rightwing government of the industrial magnate Wilhelm Cuno to resign. The DVU politician Gustav Stresemann formed a new government along with the SPD. It handed executive power to General von Seeckt, the commander in chief of the Reichswehr, and by means of an enabling act eliminated the social achievements of the November revolution, including the eight hour working day. The whole country was polarized. In Saxony and Thuringia, left-wing SPD governments moved towards the KPD, while in Bavaria, fascist forces in alliance with the military prepared a coup against the Reich government.

37. It took a long time for the KPD to recognise the revolutionary situation. Only from August onwards did it undertake serious revolutionary preparations, in close co-operation with the Comintern. But on October 21 the party leadership, under Heinrich Brandler, called off a carefully prepared uprising at the last second, because leftwing SPD delegates at a factory councils’ congress in Chemnitz refused to give their agreement. Instead of culminating in a revolution, the German October ended in a political fiasco. In Hamburg, the decision by the leadership to call off the struggle for power came too late, and the uprising went ahead nevertheless. It remained isolated and was suppressed by force. In Saxony and Thuringia the Reichswehr deposed the left-wing governments. The KPD was banned.

38. Trotsky paid great attention to the lessons of the German October. Contrary to Stalin and Zinoviev, who justified the defeat by invoking the supposed immaturity of the situation, he called it “a truly classic example of a revolutionary situation permitted to slip by”, whose causes “lie wholly in tactics and not in objective conditions”. The Russian October revolution had already shown that the subjective factor, the party, plays the decisive role in an objectively revolutionary situation. The same had now been proven in the German October, but in the negative.

39. “From the moment of the Ruhr occupation”, Trotsky concluded, “it was imperative for the Communist Party to steer a firm and resolute course toward the conquest of power. Only a courageous tactical turn could have unified the German proletariat in the struggle for power. If at the Third Congress and in part of the Fourth Congress we told the German comrades, ‘You will win the masses only on the basis of taking a leading part in their struggle for transitional demands,’ then by the middle of 1923 the question became posed differently: after all the German proletariat had gone through in recent years, it could be led into the decisive battle only in the event that it became convinced that this time the issue was posed, as the Germans say, aufs Ganze (i.e., that it was not a question of this or that partial task, but of the fundamental one), and that the Communist Party was ready to march into battle and was capable of securing victory. But the German Communist Party executed this turn without the necessary assurance and after an extreme delay. Both the Rights and the Lefts, despite their sharp struggle against each other, evinced up to September-October [1923] a rather fatalistic attitude toward the process of the development of the revolution. At a time when the entire objective situation demanded that the party undertake a decisive blow, the party did not act to organize the revolution but kept awaiting it”.[3]

40. In his pamphlet “Lessons of October”, Trotsky stressed that the leadership of a revolutionary party must be capable of recognizing abrupt changes in the objective situation in time and to reorient the party. Based on past experiences, he wrote, “We can posit as almost an unalterable law that a party crisis is inevitable in the transition from preparatory revolutionary activity to the immediate struggle for power”. A new tactical re-orientation always meant a break with past methods and customs. “If the turn is too abrupt or too sudden, and if in the preceding period too many elements of inertia and conservatism have accumulated in the leading organs of the party, then the party will prove itself unable to fulfil its leadership at that supreme and critical moment for which it has been preparing itself in the course of years or decades. The party is ravaged by a crisis, and the movement passes the party by and heads toward defeat. A revolutionary party is subjected to the pressure of other political forces. At every given stage of its development the party elaborates its own methods of counteracting and resisting this pressure. During a tactical turn and the resulting internal regroupments and frictions, the party’s power of resistance becomes weakened. From this the possibility always arises that the internal groupings in the party, which originate from the necessity of a turn in tactics, may develop far beyond the original controversial points of departure and serve as a support for various class tendencies. To put the case more plainly: the party that does not keep step with the historical tasks of its own class becomes, or runs the risk of becoming, the indirect tool of other classes”.[4]


Rosa Luxemburg, Rückblick auf die Gothaer Konferenz, Gesammelte Werke, Band 4, p. 274.


Leon Trotsky, Lessons of October.