August Thalheimer: A Missed Opportunity? The German October Legend and the Real History of 1923



In 1923 the conditions were absolutely ripe for a victorious proletarian revolution but the then leadership of the KPD, with Brandler at its head, prevented this revolutionary victory. At first sight this view appears so fantastical and frivolous that a seems odd to be bothered about it today. But this view, known as the October Legend, is still today the official view of the Communist Party of Germany. It is hammered into the young party members as dogma, which they accept out of faith and trust, without suspecting that it is a historical legend, invented for the purpose of explaining away and supporting a erroneous KPD tactic. it is a historical legend, which has prevented the Party, and thus the working class, from abandoning a disastrous course and which has prevented any criticism of the KPD from being as effective in degree and tempo, as it otherwise would surely have been.

For that reason, the questions of the tactics and strategy of the KPD in 1923 are, alas, still highly relevant today. Or to be precise today, when the leadership of the KPD is making, in a more intensified form, the errors for which the October legend of 1923 provides an ideological refuge, they are more relevant than ever.

The official October legend is by now eight years old. In the meantime it has almost become canonical. It is one of the most important mainstays of the ultra-left policy. The ultra-left legend helps the real ultra-left orientation. And now, entangled together, they both mutually support one another. Whenever the October legend is encountered, ultra-left policies are met, and whenever the ultra-left action strikes, the legend strikes. As both originated jointly together and have sustained each other, so they will jointly collapse. But the longer the legend and the ultra-left policy flowing from it last, so much the greater will be the danger that the collapse of the revolutionary working class in Germany, which in 1923 was only a legend, will become bitter reality.

After the Reichstag elections on 14th September 1930, Pravda wrote that the KPD had never been so close to power as now. A greater self-deception cannot be imagined. Objectively, during the last two years the conditions for the victory of communism in Germany have been unusually favourable. Subjectively however, the KPD has never been so remotely distant fromthe possibility of a victory. Just as it has never been so far from, and for so long a period, genuine Communist politics, so it has never possessed such a leadership - wholly inept in every respect.

In 1923, a Communist victory was prevented primarily by the timely concessions of the bourgeoisie and only secondarily by errors of the Party and its leadership. But even if the KPD was not capable of achieving victory itself, it was capable of preventing the victory of fascism.

It was able to do this by virtue of the generally correct policies which it pursued up to August 1923, and, with the retreat in October, the timely and determined corrections of its own mistakes which it undertook.

If the ultra-left policy of the Party is carried on further - and, when the Party and the Executive of the Communist International perceive a triumph for this line in the election success of 14th September, the prospect of this not happening is extremely poor - then the way is open for the victory of fascism. And that means a real, severe and long lasting defeat of the workers movement and the Party. Then a new legend will have to be created which will prove that the Executive has always been correct and new 'guilty' people will have to be found.

But we believe that the first precondition for a Communist Party and leadership, which understands how to conquer, is that it rejects all legend-making and really starts to learn. As long as this learning from its own history has not begun, the Party, and with it the working class, instead of progressing will only permanently go in circles, and the result will always be new and successively greater defeats. The working class will forgive the Party any infantile sickness at its birth. It will not forgive it if it remains stuck in babyhood and childhood feebleness. And if the Party does not want to learn, then the class enemy will learn in its stead.

Today the KPD leadership wrongly quotes 1923 to confirm its crude and dangerous deviations on the national question. In 1923, in spite of individual mistakes and exaggerations, the Party had, on the whole, understood very well how to reject and thwart nationalist ideology. Today we see the opposite phenomenon, the distorting and thwarting of communist ideology by the nationalist one. Finally, we see how, after 10 years the infantile disorder on the trade union question which was understandable and which was overcome 10 years ago, has been raised to the official doctrine of the Party, the Communist International and the Red International of Labour Unions.

In a essay on Jena, Mehring quotes the words of Engels: "A great army, as any other great social organisation is never better than after a great defeat, when it repents and does penance for its past sins." Whereas the opposite, constant repetition and eulogising of past sins, in spite of more and more partial failures and partial defeats, the delusion which insists very precisely that black is white, that leads directly to - Jena.

Anyone today who impartially examines the state of the Party which has the task of leading the working class to the proletarian revolution, will have no doubt that it does not exhibit the image of the Prussian army after Jena.

The following account is the text of one of the lectures on October 1923 which I have frequently made during the last two years. Of course within the framework of a lecture only a outline can be developed. I hope soon to have the opportunity of submitting a more detailed exposition.

Berlin, 15th February, 1931,