Monday, September 16, 2013

David Fernbach (ed) - In the Steps of Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Writings of Paul Levi

In recent years there has been renewed interest in the work of the German revolutionary socialist, Paul Levi. In part this has been inspired by the publication in English of Pierre Broue's classic book on the German Revolution, which emphasised the role that Levi played in the early years of the German Communist Party. Following the murders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Leibneickt, Paul Levi took on the difficult task of guiding the fledgling party in its early years.

Building mass revolutionary organisation during a revolution is not an easy task. The revolutionary wave that swept Germany at the end of World War One dragged millions of workers into action. Levi's task then, was to try and shape the rapidly growing Communist Party into the type of organisation that could lead a revolution.

The first few articles in this selected works, deal with Levi's writings and speeches in this early period. His address to the founding conference of the Communist Party (KPD) is a polemic designed to win an argument that KPD members needed to involve themselves in the elections to the German Parliament. On this question, and others, Levi was trying to challenge the ultra-left instincts of the new, young communists. Levi lost the argument and the KPD abstained. But millions of workers didn't and the KPD found themselves isolated in the debates around the election.

That said, the KPD grew rapidly, benefiting in part from its links with revolutionary Russia. Nonetheless, the lack of theoretical clarity meant that the KPD's leadership made some serious tactical errors. Paul Levi was the most able of the leaders and his articles are often critical looks at strategy and tactics, trying to learn lessons and teach the party.

Most famously the KPD attempted to force a revolutionary situation in Germany in March of 1921, the so called "March Action". This was a dismal failure and the KPD lost tens of thousands of supporters and many people were killed. Using the unemployed to try and force strikes, KPD members invaded work places, blew up railcars and tried to provoke a revolution that didn't fit with the experience of the majority of German workers.

Paul Levi, who by this point was no longer on the party's central bodies, wrote a long polemical critique of the Action. When published, his pamphlet led to his expulsion for breaking party discipline. It seems fairly clear to me though, that by this point, Levi had decided the KPD was broken beyond repair. His critique is a brilliant defence of the role of revolutionary socialist organisation and roots of the KPD's mistakes. This, and his speech in his defence to the KPD's CC are must reads for anyone trying to understand what took place in Germany in the early 1920s.

Comrades no doubt might argue whether or not he was justified in his actions. But famously Lenin quipped, that while Levi had lost his head, "at least he had a head to lose". But it is clear from these writings that Levi rapidly lost much of what made him such a brilliant leader. In the aftermath of his expulsion and his creation of a new, small left organisation, Levi argued that the KPD was no longer reformable. Part of the blame for this, he argued lay in the decline of the Russian Revolution and the resultant rot in the Communist International. What marks out Levi from others who drew these conclusions, was that Levi was doing this as early as 1921, long before the battles for the future of the Comintern or the Soviet Union had been decided. Levi's intervention in support of (say) Leon Trotsky could have been crucial. Instead he appears to have abandoned them.

Paul Levi
So, contained in these writings are two pieces that Levi writes at this time, one an introduction to a piece by Rosa Luxemburg on Russia, the other a very critical introduction to Trotsky's In Defence of October. Levi critiques the Russian Bolsheviks for their actions post October. But in the latter of these essays, and in other pieces, he clearly fails to see that Trotsky's polemic that is part of an argument about the way forward for the Soviets. Indeed in critiquing Trotsky, Levi ends up siding with those in the Bolshevik leadership who had done most to damage the Germany party.

Having written a brilliant defence of the Democratic Centralist method pioneered by Lenin in 1919, Levi is reduced to criticising the Bolsheviks for a method that meant the "stations of its development... were resolutions and splits on account of resolutions". Levi ignores the decades of brilliant underground work that the Russian Revolutionaries undertook, in order to blur the reasons for the very creation of the Bolshevik party on very specific principles of organisation.

Similarly he attacks Trotsky for writing long polemics on (eg) the Anglo Russian agreements or the revolution in China. Clearly Trotsky does this for fun. Levi seems to miss that both of these arguments went to the heart of Trotsky's battle with Stalin over the direction of Russian policy. Was the Russian party going to look outwards to Revolution, or inwards to Socialism in One Country?

Ultimately I found this a frustrating collection. Some of the articles are very important and will help socialists understand the German revolutionary process and the mistakes of the KPD. However the picture they paint of Levi himself is confused. In the immediate post-war period he comes across as a brilliant revolutionary, striving for revolutionary clarity and a party capable of leading a revolution. His 1919 polemic is a particularly brilliant example of this - it meant the forcing out of a section of the party that was influenced by anarchism and syndicalism. The resultant renewed clarity of ideas meant the KPD recruited thousands of new members within months on a much clearer basis.

But quickly after he leaves the KPD he comes across as a much more liberal socialist (an able one at that) whose polemics against the Russian Revolution seem more about a sectarian assault on the KPD than developing revolutionary clarity.

Sadly this book is also marred by an awful introduction, which, while an excellent outline of the life and times of Paul Levi, has several problems. Not least of these is that the author of the introduction tries to recast Levi as the living embodiment of Rosa Luxemburg's ideas. I think this is unfair on both Levi and Luxemburg, who were both brilliant individuals capable of making judgments based on concrete situations, rather than having some innate set of ideas that remained unchanged over years. Speculation whether Luxemburg would have taken the same decisions as Levi at key points is not particularly useful in clarifying the historical process in my view.

More worryingly, the introduction appears to lay the blame for the failure of the German Revolution and the rise of Fascism on "Leninism". But the KPD of the late 1920s and early 1930s was a long way away from Leninism - it had become, as Broue points out well, a tool of Stalin's foreign policy. It was no longer a revolutionary organisation that was struggling to end capitalism. It's weaknesses flowed from this position, not from a Leninism that was far from its own practise. Indeed in the earlier 1919 article, Levi clearly models his vision of the KPD in part on the Bolsheviks' own practise.

These criticisms aside, few of Paul Levi's writings have been available to the English reader and this book makes some of his key writings (particularly his critique of the March Action) available. This is something that should be welcomed by socialists and historians everywhere. But the book needs to be read in conjunction with a decent history of the German Revolution - Pierre Broue's brilliant work would be ideal, or Chris Harman's Lost Revolution.

Related Reviews

Broue - The German Revolution 1919 - 1923
Reissner - Hamburg at the Barricades

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