[Classics] What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat

9. The SAP (Socialist Workers Party of Germany)

Only functionaries gone mad, who are sure they can do anything, or stupid parrots, who repeat epithets without understanding their meaning, can label the SAP as a “social fascist” or “counter-revolutionary” party. Yet it would be an act of inexcusable light-mindedness and cheap optimism to place one’s faith, in advance, in an organisation which after breaking with the Social Democracy still finds itself midway between reformism and Communism, under a leadership which is closer to reformism than to Communism. In respect to this question as well, the Left Opposition does not assume the slightest responsibility for Urbahns’s politics. The SAP is without a program. We are not discussing the matter of a formal document; the program holds water only in the event that its text is tied up with the revolutionary experience of the party and with the lessons gained from battles which have entered into the flesh and blood of its cadres. The SAP has none of these. The Russian Revolution, its separate stages, the struggle of its factions; the German crisis of 1923; the civil war in Bulgaria; the events of the Chinese Revolution; the battles of the British proletariat (1926); the revolutionary crisis in Spain – all these events, which must live in the consciousness of a revolutionise as luminous guideposts for the political road, are for the cadres of the SAP only murky recollections culled from newspapers and not revolutionary experiences lived through and assimilated.

That a workers’ party is compelled to carry out the policy of the united front – that is not to be gainsaid. But the policy of the united front has its dangers. Only an experienced and a tested revolutionary party can carry on this policy successfully. In any case, the policy of the united front cannot serve as a program for a revolutionary party. And in the meantime, the entire activity of the SAP is now being built on it. As a result, the policy of the united front is carried over into the party itself, that is, it serves to smear over the contradictions between the various tendencies. And that is precisely the fundamental function of centrism.

The daily paper of the SAP is steeped in the spirit of going fifty-fifty. Despite Ströbel’s departure, the paper remains semi-pacifist and not Marxist. Isolated revolutionary articles do not change its physiognomy, on the contrary, they only accentuate it. The paper goes into raptures over Küster’s letter to Brüning on militarism which is, in spirit, tasteless and petty-bourgeois through and through. It applauds a Danish “socialist,” former minister to His Majesty, for refusing to accept a place in the government delegation upon terms too degrading. Centrism is content with trifles. But the revolution demands a great deal. The revolution demands everything absolutely everything.

The SAP condemns the trade-union policy of the Communist Party: the splitting of the unions and the formation of the RGO (Revolutionary Trade Union Opposition). Undoubtedly the policy of the Communist Party in the sphere of the trade unions is extremely erroneous: Lozovsky’s leadership is not being bought cheaply by the international proletarian vanguard. But the criticism of the SAP is not a bit less false. The fault of the Communist Party does not lie in that it “splits” the ranks of the proletariat, and “weakens” the Social Democratic unions. That is not a revolutionary criterion because, under the present leadership, the unions serve not the workers, but the capitalists. The Communist Party is guilty of a crime not because it “weakens” Leipart’s organisation but because it weakens itself. The participation of the Communists in reactionary unions is dictated not by the abstract principle of unity but by the concrete necessity to wage battle in order to purge the organisations of the agents of capital. With the SAP this active, revolutionary, attacking element in the policy is made subservient to the bald principle of the unity of unions that are led by agents of capital.

The SAP accuses the Communist Party of a leaning toward putschism. Such an accusation is also borne out by certain facts and methods; but before it has the right to fling this accusation, the SAP must formulate in detail and show in action its own attitude to the basic questions of the proletarian revolution. The Mensheviks were forever accusing the Bolsheviks of Blanquism and adventurism, i.e. of putschism. On the contrary, the Leninist strategy was as far removed from putschism as heaven is from earth. But Lenin himself understood and taught others to understand the significance of ’the art of insurrection’ in the proletarian struggle.

The criticism of the SAP in this respect becomes all the more suspicious in character the more it leans upon the authority of Paul Levi, who became frightened of the infantile diseases of the Communist Party and preferred to them the senile complications of the Social Democracy. During the intimate conferences on the events of March 1921 in Germany, Lenin said about Levi, “The man has lost his head entirely.” True, Lenin immediately added slyly, “He, at least, had something to lose; one can’t even say that about the others.” The term “others” denoted Bela Kun, Thalheimer, etc. No one can deny that Paul Levi had a head on his shoulders. But the man who lost his head and in that condition made a leap from the ranks of the Communists into the ranks of the reformists, is hardly qualified to be a teacher for a proletarian party. The tragic end of Levi, his leaping out a window in an irresponsible state of mind, seems to symbolise his political orbit.

Although for the masses centrism is only a transition from one stage to the next, for individual politicians centrism can become a second nature. At the head of the SAP stands a group of desperate Social Democratic functionaries, lawyers, and journalists – all people of such an age that one must consider their political education as having been completed. A desperate Social Democrat still does not mean a revolutionist.

Representative of this type – its best representative – is Georg Ledebour. Not long ago I chanced to read the official report of his trial in 1919. And while reading, more than once I mentally applauded the old warrior, for his sincerity, his temperament, and his nobility of nature. But Ledebour just the same did not step over the boundaries of centrism. Wherever the matter touches mass actions, the highest forms of class struggle, their preparation, and the assumption by the party of the outright responsibility of leadership in mass battles, there Ledebour remains only the best representative of centrism. This separated him from Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. It separates him from us now.

Indignant over Stalin’s accusation that the radical wing of the old German Social Democracy is passive in its attitude to the struggle of oppressed nations, Ledebour in response refers to the fact that he always had evinced great initiative on precisely national questions. Ledebour personally never failed to respond with great passion to the notes of chauvinism in the old German Social Democracy, not at all hiding thereby his own powerfully developed national feeling. Ledebour was always the best friend of Russian, Polish, and other revolutionary emigrants; and many of them preserve a cherished memory of the old revolutionise who in the ranks of the Social Democratic bureaucracy was referred to with patronising irony either as “Ledebourov” or “Ledeboursky.”

Nevertheless Stalin, who is acquainted with neither the fact, nor the literature of that period, is correct on this point, at least insofar as he repeats Lenin’s general appraisal. In his attempt to refute, Ledebour only corroborates this appraisal. He advances the fact that in his articles he gave vent to his indignation more than once over the complacence with which the parties of the Second International observed the handiwork of their fellow members: Ramsay MacDonald, for instance, while he was solving India’s national problems with the aid of bombing planes. This indignation and protest provides an undebatable and honourable distinction between Ledebour and an Otto Bauer, not to mention the Hilferdings and the Welses: those gentlemen lack only an India for proceeding with democratic bombings.

Nevertheless, Ledebour’s position even on this question does not leave the precincts of centrism. Ledebour demands that a battle be waged against colonial oppression; he is ready to vote in parliament against colonial credits; he is ready to take upon himself a fearless defence of the victims of a crushed colonial insurrection. But Ledebour will not participate in preparing a colonial insurrection. Such work he considers putschism, adventurism, Bolshevism. And therein is the whole gist of the matter.

What characterises Bolshevism on the national question is that in its attitude toward oppressed nations, even the most backward, it considers them not only the object but also the subject of politics. Bolshevism does not confine itself to recognising their “right” to self-determination and to parliamentary protests against the trampling upon of this right. Bolshevism penetrates into the midst of the oppressed nations; it raises them up against their oppressors; it ties up their struggle with the struggle of the proletariat in capitalist countries; it instructs the oppressed Chinese, Hindus, or Arabs in the art of insurrection and it assumes full responsibility for this work in the face of civilised executioners. Here only does Bolshevism begin, that is, revolutionary Marxism in action. Everything that does not step over this boundary remains centrism.

The policy of a proletarian party can never be appraised solely on the basis of national criteria. The Marxist holds this as an axiom. What then are the international connections and sympathies of the SAP? Norwegian, Swedish, and Dutch centrists, organisations, groups, or individuals, whose passive and provincial character enables them to straddle between reformism and Communism – such are its closest friends. Angelica Balabanoff is the symbolic figure for the international affiliations of the SAP: she is even now busy trying to merge the new party with the shreds of the Two-and-a-half International!

Leon Blum, the defender of reparations, the socialist godfather of the banker Oustric, is termed “comrade” in the pages of Seydewitz’s paper. What is this, politeness? No, lack of principle, lack of character, lack of backbone! “Petty quibbling,” some office wiseacre will reply. No, these trifles reveal the political undercurrent much more correctly and honestly than does the abstract recognition of the soviets, which is not attested by revolutionary experience. There is no sense in making oneself ridiculous by calling Blum a fascist. But he who does not feel hatred and disgust toward this political breed – is no revolutionist.

The SAP divorces itself from “comrade” Otto Bauer within the same limits as does Max Adler. To Rosenfeld and Seydewitz, Bauer is only an ideological antagonist perhaps even a temporary one, whereas to us he is an irreconcilable foe who has led the proletariat of Austria into a fearful quagmire.

Max Adler – there one has quite a sensitive centrist barometer. One cannot deny the usefulness of such an instrument, but one must know definitely that while it is capable of registering changes of weather, it is incapable of acting upon them. Under the pressure of the capitalist impasse, Max Adler is ready once again, not without philosophic grief, to accept the inevitability of revolution. But what an acceptance! What reservations! What sighs! The best thing possible would be for the Second and Third Internationals to merge. The most would be gained if socialism were installed in a democratic manner. But, alas, this method is apparently impossible. It seems that even in civilised countries, not only among barbarians, the workers will have to – O me! O my! – make a revolution. But even this melancholy acceptance of the revolution is – only a literary fact Such conditions as would enable Max Adler to say, “The hour has struck!” never obtained in history and never will. People like Adler are capable of justifying the revolution in the past and of accepting its inevitability in the future. but they can never issue a call to it in the present. One must accept as hopeless this entire group of old left Social Democrats who were changed neither by the imperialist war nor by the Russian Revolution. As barometric instruments – if you please. As revolutionary leaders – never!

Towards the end of September, the SAP issued an appeal to all workers’ organisations that meetings be organised throughout the entire country during which orators of every tendency would be allotted equal times. It is plain enough that nothing can be achieved in that fashion. Indeed, what sense can there be in the Communist Party or the Social Democratic Party sharing the platform on equal terms with Brandler and Urbahns and the spokesmen of other organisations and groups which are too insignificant to pretend to a special place in the movement? The united front is to unite the Communist and Social Democratic working masses and not to patch up an agreement with political groups that are without the masses.

We shall be told that the bloc between Rosenfeld-Brandler-Urbahns is only a propaganda bloc for the united front. But it is precisely in the sphere of propaganda that a bloc is out of the question. Propaganda must lean upon clear-cut principles and on a definite program. March separately, strike together. A bloc is solely for practical mass actions. Deals arranged from above which lack a basis in principle will bring nothing except confusion.

The idea of nominating a candidate for president on the part of the united workers’ front is at its root a false one. A candidate can be nominated only on the grounds of a definite program. The party has no right to sacrifice during elections the mobilisation of its supporters and the census of its strength. The party candidacy, in opposition to all other candidates, can in no instance conflict with any agreement made with other organisations for immediate aims of struggle. Communists, whether official members of the party or not, will support Thälmann’s candidacy to their utmost What we are concerned with is not Thälmann but the banner of Communism. We shall defend it against all other parties. Breaking down the prejudices with which the rank and file of the Communists have been inoculated by the Stalinist bureaucracy, the Left Opposition will clear the road into their consciousness for itself. [4]

What were the policies of the Bolsheviks in relation to those workers’ organisations that developed from the left or reformism or centrism toward Communism?

In Petrograd, in 1917, there existed an intermediate interdistrict organisation, embracing about 4,000 workers. The Bolshevik organisation in Petrograd counted tens of thousands of workers. Nevertheless, the Petrograd Committee of the Bolsheviks entered into agreements on every question with the interdistrict organisation and advised it of all plans and in this way facilitated the complete merger.

It might be argued that the interdistrict workers were politically close to the Bolsheviks. But the matter was not confined solely to the interdistrict workers. When the Menshevik-Internationalists (Martov’s group) aligned themselves against the social patriots, the Bolsheviks left nothing undone in order to achieve joint action with the Martovists, and if in the majority of instances this was not achieved, it was not the Bolsheviks who were to blame. Incidentally, one must add the fact that the Menshevik-Internationalists formally remained within the framework of their party in common with Tseretelli and Dan.

The same tactic, but in an immeasurably wider scope, was likewise applied in relation to the Left Social Revolutionaries. The Bolsheviks even drew a section of the Left SRs into the Revolutionary War Committee, i.e., the organ of the overturn, although at the time the Left SRs still belonged to the same party with Kerensky against whom the overturn was directly aimed. Of course, this was not very logical procedure on the part of the Left SRs and it showed that not everything was in order in their heads. But if one waited until everything was in order in everybody’s head, there would never have been victorious revolutions on this earth. Subsequently, the Bolsheviks concluded a governmental bloc with the party of the Left SRs (left “Kornilovists,” or left “fascist” according to the new terminology), which lasted a few months, and broke up only after the insurrection of the Left SRs.

Here is how Lenin summarised the experience of the Bolsheviks in relation to the left-leaning centrists. “The correct tactic of the Communists must consist of exploiting these vacillations, and not at all of ignoring them: to exploit them, concessions must necessarily be made to those elements which turn to the proletariat and join ranks with it then and wherever and insofar as they do so in the struggle against those elements which turn to the bourgeoisie ... By making a rapid fire decision ‘to dispense with all compromises whatsoever and not to tack or veer on our course,’ one can only do harm to the further strengthening of the revolutionary proletariat ...” In this question as well, the tactic of the Bolsheviks had nothing in common with bureaucratic ultimatism.

It is not so long since Thälmann and Remmele were themselves in an independent party. If they strain their memories, they will succeed perhaps in recalling their political sensibilities during those years when, after breaking with the Social Democrats, they joined an independent party and pushed it to the left. Suppose somebody had then said to them that they only represented “the left wing of the monarchist counterrevolution” ? In all probability they would have concluded that their accuser was either drunk or crazy. And yet this is just their manner at present of defining the SAP!

Let us recall the manner in which Lenin reasoned upon the inception of an independent party: “Why is it that in Germany the same, entirely identical (with that in Russia 1917) gravitation of the workers from the right to the left has brought not the immediate strengthening of the Communists but of the intermediate party of the ‘Independents’ at first? ... Obviously one of the causes for this lies in the erroneous tactic of the German Communists, who should admit their mistake fearlessly and honestly and who must learn how to correct it ... Their mistake originated in the numerous manifestations of that ‘left’ infantile disease, which has now broken out openly. and which will be cured all the better and sooner and to the greatest advantage of the organism.” Yes, this was indeed written just for the present moment!

The present German Communist Party is much stronger than the then Spartakusbund. But if today there appears the second edition of the independent party, under the same leadership in part, then the blame for it that falls upon the Communist Party is so much the greater.

The SAP is a contradictory fact. Of course, it would have been best had the workers joined the Communist Party directly. But for this, the Communist Party must have another policy and another leadership. In appraising the SAP, one must take one’s point of departure not from an ideal Communist Party, but from the one that actually exists. To the extent to which the Communist Party, remaining on the positions of bureaucratic ultimatism, counteracts the centrifugal forces within the Social Democracy, to that extent, the inception of the SAP is an inevitable and a progressive fact.

The progressive character of this fact is, however, extremely weakened by the centrist leadership. Should the latter entrench itself, it will wreck the SAP. To reconcile oneself with the centrism of the SAP for the sake of its general progressive role would mean that one would thereby liquidate its progressive role.

The conciliationist, compromising elements that stand at the head of the party are experienced manoeuvrers, and they will smear over the contradictions and put off the crisis. But these means will suffice only until the first serious onset of events. The crisis within the party may develop at the very moment that the revolutionary crisis flares up, and it may paralyse its proletarian elements.

The task of the Communists consists in giving timely aid to the workers of the SAP to purge their ranks of centrism and to rid themselves of the leadership of their centrist leaders. To achieve this, it is imperative that nothing be hushed, that good intentions be not accepted for deeds, and that all things be called by their names. But only by their own names, and not by fanciful ones. One must criticise, not vilify. One must seek ways for coming together and not hold one’s fist ready to slam away.

Regarding the left wing of the independent party, Lenin wrote, “To fear compromise with this wing of the party – that is simply comical. On the contrary, it is obligatory that the Communists seek and find a suitable form for a compromise with them; i.e., such a compromise as would on the one hand facilitate and hasten the inevitable final fusion with this wing; and on the other in no way hamper the Communists in their ideological-political battle against the right wing of the Independents.” There is nothing to add even today to this tactical course.

To the left elements of the SAP we say, “Revolutionists are tempered not only during strikes and street battles but, first of all, during struggles for the correct policies of their own party. Take the ‘twenty-one conditions’ worked out, in their own time, for the admission of new parties into the Comintern. Take the works of the Left Opposition where the ‘twenty-one conditions’ are applied to the political developments of the last eight years. In the light of these ‘conditions’ open a planned attack against centrism within your own ranks and lead the matter to its conclusion. Otherwise nothing will remain for you except the hardly respectable role of serving as a left cover for centrism.”

And then what? And then – face in the direction of the Communist Party. Revolutionists do not ever straddle fences between the Social Democracy and the Communist Party, as Rosenfeld and Seydewitz would like to. No, the Social Democratic leaders represent the agencies of the class enemy within the proletariat The Communist leaders, though confused, poor, and incapable, are revolutionises or semi-revolutionists that have been led from the right track. That is not one and the same thing. The Social Democracy must be destroyed. The Communist Party must be corrected. You say that this is impossible? But have you seriously tried working at it?

Just now, at this very moment, when events are pressing down on the Communist Party, we must help the events with the onset of our criticism. The Communist workers will all the more attentively listen to us the sooner they are convinced in action that we do not seek a “third” party but are sincerely straining to help them turn the present Communist Party into an authentic leader of the working class.

And what if we don’t succeed?

Should we not succeed, that would almost certainly signify in the given historical environment the victory of fascism. But on the eve of great battles the revolutionist does not ask what will be if he fails but how to perform that which means success. It is possible, it can be done – therefore it must be done.


[4] All the other views of this group rest on the same plane and are only a rehash of the grossest blunders of the Stalinist bureaucracy, but accompanied by even more exaggerated ultra-left grimaces. Fascism is enthroned already; there is no independent danger in Hitler; and besides, the workers don’t want to fight. If that’s the way matters stand; if there’s still plenty of time left, then the theoreticians of Der Rote Kaempfer might as well put their leisure to some use; and instead of scribbling bad articles they ought better to read a few good books. Marx long since explained to Weitling that ignorance never did anyone any good.

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