On the 100th Anniversary of the Foundation of the Communist Party of Germany
The foundation of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) on 31st of December 1918 in the ceremonial hall of the Landtag of Prussia in Berlin was a consequential turning point in the history of the German and international labour movement. It was the conclusion and culmination of a process lasting nearly two decades during which several, eventually irreconcilable, directions evolved within the German social democracy whose ideological and political differences lastingly outweighed the remaining commonalities. Similar processes took simultanously place in the social democratic parties of other countries. (1)
The statement of Rosa Luxemburg at the founding congress of the KPD "We got back to Marx, under his banner" (2), indicated the aspiration and self-understanding of the new party to be heir and successor of the revolutionary traditions of the German labour movement which - in their interpretation - had been ultimately abandoned by social democracy at the latest with its "Burgfriedenspolitik" (party truce politics) during the First World War.
The foundation of the KPD came at the peak of the November Revolution, in a moment when fundamental decisions about direction and aim of the great social change at the end of the First World War had already been taken. The newly founded party, which had just begun to come to an understanding about its programme and create organisational structures, failed to have a lasting influence on the continuation of the November Revolution and the fights in its defence.
Already the rejection of participating in the elections for the Weimar National Assembly on 19th of January 1919 - against the declared will of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht - was a first clear sign that the KPD in its entirety was neither ready nor capable to understand and accept the founding of the Weimar Republic as the crucial and most important event of the November Revolution. Indeed, it did not mean an upheaval of social conditions but a gain in political rights and freedoms from which the working class - whose representative and stakeholder the KPD considered itself - profited as well.
The murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, Leo Jogiches, Eugen Leviné and other outstanding personalities of the KPD during the first months of 1919 robbed the young party of those forces which, by their political authority and intellectual capacities, would have been able to organise the necessary programmatic clarifications within the party and to lead it. Substantially influenced by Paul Levi the party, nonetheless, succeeded in enforcing its "guidelines on Communist principle and tactics" 83) at the party congress in Heidelberg in October 1919; a temporary rejection of ultra left positions.
Thus, after the leadership was initially hesitant the KPD could join the ranks in the large-scale fights defeating the Kapp coup and defending the Weimar Republic in March 1920.
Through the merger with the left wing of the USPD (Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany), which was strong in members, the KPD became a mass party in December 1920. Under the leadership of Paul Levi and Ernst Däumig for a short historical moment the opportunity arose to develop the KPD into a left socialist party which did not follow the Bolshevik party model.
Yet, already the March action of 1921, an armed riot attempt doomed to failure from the outset, which was mainly supposed to serve internal and foreign political interests of Soviet Russia, demonstrated that those forces within the KPD fighting for an alternative understanding of politics, especially in relation to the Weimar Republic, at no time succeeded to lastingly influence the development of the party. The expulsion of Paul Levi, the most decisive opponent of the Bolshevik party model within the KPD in May 1921, thus became an early warning.
Crucial for the fate of the KPD was and remained its anchoring and incorporation in the Communist International founded on 5th March of 1919 in Moscow. Rosa Luxemburg warned in vain to not consider the Russian October Revolution of 1917 as "sublime model of socialist politics”. 84) Yet, given the conditions, "Moscow” becoming the centre and leading power of the international Communist movement was unavoidable, rendering the KPD and its leadership at the same time subject and object of the workings of the Communist "world party”. High ranking functionaries of the KPD assumed important positions in the leadership of the Communist International at all times and thereby carried responsibility for the formulation and implementation of the respective political guidelines.
By the incremental transformation of the Communist International from an alliance of Communist parties into an instrument of Soviet foreign and security policy the KPD - the biggest and most importat Communist party outside the Soviet Union - more and more became a pawn in the power plays within the leadership of the Soviet Union. The party itself reflected these power plays in inner-party conflicts which partly became very personal.
The creation of "workers’ governments” (coalitions of Social Democrats and Communists) in autumn 1923 in Saxony and Thuringia were serious steps of SPD and KPD towards a pragmatic political convergence which in persperctive could have had great influence on the relationship of both workers’ parties and thus the fate of the Weimar Republic. Yet, the workers’ governments failed due to the violent resistance of the Reich authorities which was not just tolerated but explicitly encouraged by the social democratic President of Germany (Reichspräsident) and the leadership of the SPD and due to the incapability and unwillingness of the leadership of the Communist International and the KPD to consider these workers’ goverments as more than a merely short-term influential instrument in preparation of the "German October Revolution”.
The failed "German October” in 1923 was the last attempt of an armed revolt to seize political power. It plunged the KPD into an existential crisis after which new left radical forces assumed the leadership of the party. Since spring 1924 Ruth Fischer and Arkadi Maslow practiced a "Bolshevisation” of the KPD which at times did not exclude a more distanced relation to the leadership in Moscow but drove the party again into political isolation. With this practice the last remnants of innerparty democray had been eventually destroyed and mechanisms of innerparty discourse were established by which Fischer and Maslow were initially "removed” from their functions and later from the party in 1925.
Especially under the leadership of Ernst Thälmann who assumed the top position in the party in August 1925 after Moscows leading bodies insisted, the KPD was incapable to find a way out of the self-inflicted dilemma to practice revolutionary politics in non-revolutionary times. Real political approaches like the participation in the popular decision and referendum on the non-compensatory expropriation of German dynasties during 1926 remained an exception. The fact that the KPD increasingly turned into a party for the unemployed with "proper” workers constituting a minority in the latter half of the 1920s objectively restricted the party’s opportunities to act as well.
The 6th World Congress of the Communist International in summer 1928 decided and announced another "left turn” of the sections of the Communist "world party”. Especially as a consequence of the Wittorf affair of autumn 1928 the remaining "right-wing” party members, among them the former party chairs Heinrich Brandler and August Thalheimer, as well as the "reconcilers”, among them Ernst Meyer and Arthur Ewert, were ousted from influential positions, excluded from the party, or otherwise muzzled. At this point the latest the Stalinisation of the KPD had become irreversible, a process for which party chair Ernst Thälmann carried personal responsibility.
Any attempts to establish alternatives outside the KPD failed. Communist groups and assemblies could at no time in the history of German party Communism gain popular influence. The KPD (opposition), being established exactly ten years after the founding of the KPD in December 1928, and clearly dissociating itself from the Bolshevik KPD by professing left socialist positions was eventually grinded between KPD and SPD.
The Communist Party of Germany failed to realise the profound threat by the rising fascism in time and to develop appropriate political strategies. In full compliance with the respective positions of the Communist International it rather declared social democracy as the main "social fascist” enemy whose destruction was considered a precondition for the successful fight against fascism. Thereby it facilitated the decision of the traditionally anti-Communist right-leaning leadership of the SPD to reject all Communist offers to form a front of unity "from the bottom”. (Whether the creation of an anti-fascist unity front between 1932 and 1933 would have prevented Hitler’s rise to power is yet another question. (5))
Only at the "Brussels Conference” of March 1935 in Moscow the KPD reached another perspective towards its politics of the previous years, not least due to the contribution of top officials of the Communist International like Georgi Dimitrow and Palmiro Togliatti (Ercoli). Yet, the party was still not willing to distance itself from the "Social fascism” thesis and to eventually fundamentally reject it.
Committing itself to anti-fascist popular front politics was the only possible way for the KPD to organise the fight against the Hitler regime on a broad basis. The missing readiness to refrain from a "leading role” within a potential popular front and the deeply rooted - and well justified - reservations of potential partners, but mainly the unconditional support of the KPD for the Moscow Trials between 1936 and 1938 and the Great Terror in the Soviet Union deprived the popular front politics of its necessary basis. The so-called Hitler-Stalin Pact of August and September 1939 dealt the death blow to it.
Part of the great tragedy in the history of the KPD is that numerous German Communists - officials and members -, which sought refuge in the Soviet Union from the persecution of the Hitler regime, became victim of Stalin’s terror. They were murdered or spent years and decades in prisons or camps.
A real climax in the history of the KPD was the fight of thousands of Communists in the ranks of the International Brigades which had been set up to defend the Spanish Republic.
During the years of the Hitler regime, Communists were at the front line of the resistance, often together with social democrats and anti-fascists of the bourgeois camp. Communists paid an especially high death toll - tens of thousands of them died in the concentration camps and correction houses of the Third Reich.
Its sacrifice gave the KPD the moral right to come forward with own proposals for the future of Germany after deliberation from fascism in May 1945. The call of the KPD of 11th June 1945 was a convincing concept for the reconstruction of Germany after the devastating years of the Hitler regime. The party demanded a comprehensive anti-fascist democratic new order of Germany. The aim was "the construction of an anti-fascist, democratic regime, a parliamentary democratic republic with all democratic rights and freedoms for the people" (6). In this context the KPD briefly found a self-critical perspective towards its politics of the years prior to 1933.
With the beginning of the Cold War between the Allies of the Second World War such ideas and thoughts became obsolete. Furthermore, the division of Germany and the double founding of states in 1949 created two German states which would over decades pursue very different and sometimes diametrically opposed development paths.
KPD and SPD merged to form the SED (Socialist Unity Party) in the German part occupied by the Soviets, a procedure which is controversial until today - mainly for political motifs.
In the Western zones of occupation and the later (old) Federal Republic of Germany the KPD could at no time establish itself as an influential political force, even though it could delegate representatives to the parliamentary assembly and the first Bundestag (German parliament). The prohibition of the KPD by the federal constitutional court in August 1956 is and will remain an indelible stain in the political and legal history of the Federal Republic.
In its Erfurt Manifesto of October 2011 the party DIE LINKE commits to its origin and traditions rooted in the Communist movement as well. This commitment is unsolvably connected to the principal rejection of Stalinism as a system.
This declaration was drafted by Dr. Ronald Friedmann, debated and basically confirmed by the Historical Committee of DIE LINKE on 24th March 2018 and on 11th September 2018 agreed to be published in its current form by the leading body of the Historical Committee.
(1) Therefore the division of German social democracy as a consequence of the continued approval of war credits but also for example the Russian October Revolution of 1917 merely functioned as catalysts.
(2) Rosa Luxemburg, Über Programm und politische Situation, in: Rosa Luxemburg, Gesammelte Werke, Band 4, Berlin (DDR) 1974, S. 488-513, hier: S. 494.
(3) Leitsätze über kommunistische Grundsätze und Taktik, Beschluss des 2. Parteitags der KPD, Heidelberg, 21. Oktober 1919, in: Geschichte der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung, Band 3, Berlin (DDR) 1966, S. 576 ff.
(4) Rosa Luxemburg, Zur russischen Revolution, in: Rosa Luxemburg, a.a.O., p. 332-365, here: p. 335.
(5) See: Zum 80. Jahrestag der Machtübernahme des Hitlerfaschismus. Declaration of the Historical Committee of the party board of the party DIE LINKE of 22nd January 2013.
(6) Call of the Central Committee of the Communist Party to the German people to construct an anti-fascist democratic Germany, on 11th June 1945 (www.1000dokumente.de, German).