August Thalheimer

1914 & 1921—Another Word on Ruhr Tactics [1]

Source: The Communist International, No. 25, 1923, pp. 104-108 (2,700 words)
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
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The views expressed in a leading article in this journal on the tactics which the German Communist Party should adopt in the Ruhr war have aroused considerable opposition. This opposition is formulated in a very pointed and direct—if not thoroughly thought-out manner in the article of Comrade Sommer printed in the last number of the “International,” which was sent us by the Frankfurt District Party Committee, with the comment that its own point of view was expressed in the article. We appreciate the pointedness and directness of the article; it facilitates discussion. Very much the same line of thought is conveyed in an article by Comrade Neurath (Czecho-Slovakia), entitled “A Suspicious Argument,” printed in No.81 of the Reichenberg party organ, “Vorwarts,” of April 7th. [2]

The German Communist Party and the Communist International have already expressed themselves practically in favour of the tactics, which were here outlined. Nevertheless, a theoretical examination of the question would be no mere hairsplitting. Unless we are perfectly clear on theory we shall certainly fail in practice. Indeed, scruples such as those entertained by Sommer have on former-occasions led to serious tactical errors, an outstanding example of which is the blood bath of Essen.

The problem of tactics involved goes beyond the war in the Ruhr. It embraces the whole policy of the Communist Parties in the capitalist countries which were defeated in the fight against Imperialist oppression, in the last world war. It is one of the central problems of our international party in those countries. Whether it is approached in a right or wrong manner is going to decide the fate of the Communist Movement, and, therefore, of the proletarian revolution, in those countries. For it is a question of the fate of the great mass of the population, the working class in the towns and the small peasantry in the country.

Not to see this is sheer blindness.

As we have said, the policy adopted by the German Communist Party corresponds with this line of tactics here advocated. Nobody has been able to deny the necessity in practice for such tactics, not even the various opposition tendencies in the party. What is lacking is the courage to carry the question to its logical conclusion, to admit frankly that the situation existing in 1923 is not the situation which existed in 1914, and that, therefore, our tactics cannot be the same. Our critics might have, at least, refrained from judging the tactics of the year 1923 from the point of view of the situation in 1914-18. It is certainly not Marxian for it is one of the first principles of Marxian politics to start on from the existing historical situation. This applies especially to wars of every kind. How often did Mehring assert this against the false arguments of the social Chauvinists and the Social-Pacifists during the war of 1914-18. From sheer fear of following in the footsteps of the Social-Chauvinists and Social-Pacifists, our critics are falling into the pit they are trying to avoid. It is not our principles which have changed since 1914, but the actual situation to which they are to be applied. The great error committed by our critics, inexcusable in Marxians, is that they fail to take into theoretical account the colossal change in the situation which has taken place between the years 1914-18 and the year 1923. No political thinker who wants to be taken seriously can do this.

Let us once again briefly survey the tactical consideration that underlie the action of the Communist Party in Germany. It is a two-sided tactic, directed at one and the same time against the French Imperialist invasion and against the German bourgeoisie. In both directions the Communist Party is seeking to secure the lead of the working class. The tactical point of departure is that the working class is conducting the fight against French Imperialism under the leadership of the bourgeoisie, through their intermediaries, the Social-Democrats and the trade unions. The leadership is to be snatched from the bourgeoisie by the working class under Communist leadership, defeating or exhausting the external enemy, which the bourgeoisie is either not able or not willing to defeat.

One of two things are possible: either the German working class must conduct a war of defence against French Imperialism, and this can only be if the defensive war is fought with a revolutionary aim. Or the aim is not revolutionary, in which case the working class must have nothing to do with the defensive war, and must either be indifferent to it, or even oppose it. This dilemma cannot be avoided. It must be faced courageously. When our critics say the war of defence occupies only a secondary place, or that they have no “illusions” about it, it is an unpardonable refusal to face the consequences.

What does this mean for the bourgeoisie, to the extent that it is conducting a war of defence? It means that to that extent it is playing an objectively revolutionary part. For in the present circumstances the fight against French Imperialism is objectively revolutionary. Does this mean a civil truce with the bourgeoisie? This is the prospect Comrade Neurath opens up. But that would be impossible, even if the German bourgeoisie seriously intended to carry on the fight against French Imperialism. In that case there would be a temporary parallel between the war of the working class and the war of the bourgeoisie, in which, however, the proletariat would have at all costs to carry on an independent class policy (as, for instance, on the German side up to Sedan during the Franco-German war of 1870-71).

But who is imposing this revolutionary task upon the bourgeoisie? Our critics pretend that it is we, the Communists, tinged with “National Bolshevism,” who are attempting to do this. But not at all; it is being done in spite of us, owing to the mere fact that the German bourgeoisie is at the present in power, and the German workers who share our point of view are not.

But, and this is the keynote of our tactic, the bourgeoisie, as a reactionary class, must be traitors to the task placed upon them. As a reactionary class it is unable to use the revolutionary means by which alone that task can be performed. That can be done only by the revolutionary class, the proletariat. The fact that the bourgeoisie is confronted with a task it is unable to fulfil means the deathblow of the bourgeoisie as leader of the other classes in the nation, the workers and the small peasantry; it is the springboard by the help of which the working class itself can leap to the place of leadership in the nation. But that, of course, can only happen if the German working class and its revolutionary party regards the fight against French Imperialism as their own revolutionary cause, and act accordingly.

It is possible that the war in the Ruhr will not end in the overthrow of French Imperialism, but even extend its power further, that is, will make the yoke still more oppressive. The problem will then remain, but in a more acute and urgent form.

The task of emancipating Germany from Imperialistic oppression is the special historical role of the German Communist Party. No power exists that can do this apart from the Communist Party. It must either perform it, or go down with all the other parties and classes. Therefore, a clear perception of the task it has to play is essential to the party, and therefore the scruples and uncertainties of our critics must be swept aside. On this question the party must act with absolute confidence.

Now, as to the arguments of our critics, they all come to the same thing in the end: a complete failure to comprehend that the situation in Germany has changed fundamentally since 1914.

Our critic deals with 1870-71. He declares that the German bourgeoisie had a timely revolutionary task to perform in 1870-71, viz., the creation of national unity and a form of state that would permit the development of capitalism. It has no such revolutionary task to-day. Our critic might have gone still further. He might have said that it is this very bourgeoisie which is unable to defend its great achievement of 1870-71, national unity, and is even helping to bring about the disintegration of Germany, and of Imperialist France with her. He is hammering at an open door, and meanwhile has overlooked the main fact, viz., the contradiction between the present task of Germany (the defence and restoration of national unity) and the impotence of the bourgeois class to perform that task.

A second argument of our critic is something as follows: in reference to Ireland, Poland and Austria, one could speak of oppressed nationalities—a combined political, national and economic oppression—but not in reference to Germany in 1923. Why? Because the German bourgeoisie is not fighting for “self-determination,” but for the recovery of its Imperialist power.

That is to say, 1914—but with the parts distributed in a different way. But our critic forgets one detail, which is, however, very important.

Nobody has any doubts as to the desire of the German bourgeoisie to recover their Imperialist power. But more than desire is necessary, for meanwhile a trifling factor has come into play, viz., its military power has been smashed to atoms. To overlook this fact—which is a decisive determinant of the foreign policy of the German bourgeoisie—and instead to regard the innocent wish of the German bourgeoisie to return to the Imperialist paradise of 1914 as a reality, this is mere childishness and has not the least connection with Marxism.

On the contrary, what is characteristic of the situation is that the German bourgeoisie is not fighting for the overthrow of French Imperialism (and that is not the only condition for the restoration of their old Imperialist power), but is attempting to come to terms with the French Imperialist slave masters; for that is the only way of dealing with the obstacle to its aims: the proletarian revolution.

The proletarian revolution in Germany would restore the unity of the nation (which was only partially achieved by Bismarck. German-Austria being excluded), and secure “democratic self-determination” (which has not yet been achieved), but it would thereby put an end to the bourgeoisie and their dream of restored Imperialist power.

This the German bourgeoisie knows better than many a German Communist, and for this reason it is keeping its fingers off the hot iron; for this reason it is consenting to nationalist bankruptcy. Nationalism with the German bourgeoisie is, even subjectively, empty demagogy, a mere bait. But, and this is, not without importance—there are large sections of the petty-bourgeoisie who still dream of the restoration of the old Imperialist glory. They might—after pursuing a devious path, being subjected to powerful fluctuations and in the end being bitterly disillusioned—come to ally themselves with the proletarian revolution, which, it is true, offers a deathblow to the hopes of restoration of Imperialist power, but will save the nation in a different manner.

The fear that Nationalism will bring us to the side of the bourgeoisie is based upon an entire misunderstanding of the situation and its possibilities. If it brings us to the side of the petty-bourgeoisie and the semi-proletariat, it will be a clear gain for the proletarian revolution, if only to the extent that at the critical moment of the seizure of power a section of the petty-bourgeoisie will be neutralised, and perhaps a small number will even fight actively on our side.

That is part of the revolutionary strategy in Germany.

Our critic declares directly that no difference between 1914-18 and 1923 exists.

This is simply to assert that Germany in 1923 is still as much an Imperialist power as it was in 1914-18, to deny that the military power of German Imperialism has been shattered.

Because the German bourgeoisie cherishes the impotent wish of restoring its Imperialist power, our critic overlooks firstly the fact that this power no longer exists, and secondly the objective hindrance to the restoration of this power.

The political conclusions from this point of view are obvious, and are made, it is true, half-heartedly by our critic.

If during 1914-18 the object of the proletariat in all countries was to unleash civil war against their own bourgeoisie and to secure the military defeat of their own bourgeoisie, the object must be the same to-day—that is, if the situation in 1923 were the same as that of 1914-18.

Accordingly our critic says:—

“The victory of Germany led by the bourgeoisie in the Ruhr war would be a severe defeat for the German proletariat, who will have to pay with their own blood for the consolidated rule of the German possessing classes that would thereby result.” On the other hand, he says:—

“It is true we cannot adopt a passive attitude towards the occupation of the Ruhr which is making the lot of the proletariat far harder and is menacing it with the threat of war, but we must not cherish the illusion that any improvement in the lot of the German proletariat would result from the victory of the bourgeoisie.”

This is a gross inconsistency on the part of our critic.

If the situation in Germany is the same as in 1918 we must be active only internally, against the German bourgeoisie alone, and the fight against French imperialism without any illusion, is from the standpoint of the proletarian revolution impossible.

We are, then, in Germany, as: in France, to conduct a single-fronted war. The political consequences of this point of view in their full absurdity are drawn not by our author, but by the Independent, Theodor Liebknecht.

The revolutionary party of the proletariat would be thereby completely side-tracked.

Our critic makes references to Brest-Litovsk. The comparison limps on both feet.

The Russian bourgeois, Kerensky, in 1917 wanted to continue the war on behalf of the Entente. The masses in Russia neither wanted nor were capable of this. They were just as little able, and wanted just as little to conduct an independent revolutionary war against German Imperialism. They were too exhausted. They needed a breathing space to consolidate the (already victorious!) proletarian revolution internally and to build up their Red Army. These basic facts determined the tactics of our Russian comrades in 1917.

But what are the basic facts of the situation in Germany in 1923?

1. The proletarian revolution is not yet victorious; the bourgeoisie is in power.

2. The bourgeoisie is neither willing nor able to conduct a victorious struggle against French Imperialism, it is anxious to capitulate at the cost of the proletariat; it is only fighting for favourable terms of surrender to French Imperialism.

The basic conditions of victory for the proletarian revolution in this situation is to conduct an active struggle against French Imperialism, and to out-manoeuvre the bourgeoisie.

An analogy with Brest-Litovsk does, however, exist, namely, that the German masses are also unwilling to go to war, and that they wish to confine defensive action to passive resistance. A victorious proletarian revolution in Germany could obtain a breathing space at the expense of the bourgeoisie (but in the long run at its own expense). But in order to be victorious the proletariat must snatch the leadership of the defensive fight from the bourgeoisie, who are sabotaging defence.

That is what the Communist Party in Germany is aiming for.

If it acted differently, and it would have to act differently if it accepted the standpoint of our critic, it would be destroying the sources of its own victory. It would sink into the morass with the Bourgeoisie. The masses would desert the party which deserted them in a struggle they were obliged to fight for life or for death.

And they would be right!



1. Reported from “Die Internationale,” Vol. 8, VI year.

2. Owing to some error this article was not received by the Editor of the “International.”