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


Introduction by Mike Jones

This article by Thalheimer was first published by Marken Press in 1993 and the translation is copyright by the translator Mike Jones. It is made available here in the strong belief that in any serious debate both sides in the Communist movement should be heard. To think that any leader however gifted, always got everything right has more in common with Scientology than the Marxist method. With the enormous benefit of hindsight many may feel that Trotsky was far more accurate than Brandler/Thalheimer on the nature of the Soviet Union and the prospects for Socialism in One Country while accepting that, on other issues, the latter may have sometimes been more correct.

The text is taken from: 1923: Eine verpasste Revolution? Die deutsche Oktober-legende und die wirkliche Geschichte von 1923, by August Thalheimer, published by Juniusverlag, Berlin 1931. Reprinted by Gruppe Arbeiterpolitik. Available from Gesellschaft zur Förderung des Studiums der Geschichte der Arbeiterwegung e. V. GFSA eV. Postbox 106426, 20043 Hamburg, Germany.

Please note that all of the emphases in theoriginal text has been retained. Although there may appear to be an overuse of such emphasis to the contemporary reader, it was not unusual in the era in which the text was written. Mike Jones desired to remain as true to the original text as possible.

As far we know the pamphlet by August Thalheimer on the events in Germany during 1923, and their subsequent elevation into a legend which, as he points out, was revised by its creators as the occasion demanded, does not exist in an English language edition. Its relevance today owes itself to a number of factors. Not only are we obliged to set the historical record straight, but to examine whether this acknowledged turning-point in the history of Communism was the cause of a degeneration or whether the degeneration was the source of the myth-creation around the events.

However, much more important is an examination of the methodology of the protagonists. In essence it can be summed up as a choice between the argument presented by the ultra-left, whereby a minority around the KPD should have launched themselves into an uprising in the belief that decisive leadership would resolve things regardless of the objective conditions, and the view that the objective conditions for an uprising were not present and thus its launching in that situations would be an irresponsible adventure leading to disaster.

Many questions are discussed by Thalheimer in this pamphlet, these can be summarised as follows: Whether and when Communists should join a coalition government with Social Democrats. Could factory committees replace Soviet-type organs. Can uprisings be planned months in advance, based upon speculation. And in the meantime should political activity be downgraded and substituted by military technical-organisational preparation. Is it permissible to take power with a minority of the working class, so to speak behind the back of the class as a whole. Is consciousness wholly different once a hated government is removed during a mass movement to be replaced by another, in which the biggest working class party has a stake. This when steps are taken to stabilise the political and economic situation, and concessions are granted to the workers. And, at the same time, repression is meted out to the Communists. All these and other questions are treated in this pamphlet.

The translator encountered the arguments presented here over twenty years ago, at a time he considered himself a Trotskyist, and having accepted the 1923 October Legend along with the rest of the Trotskyist canon. From then on it became difficult to defend the Trotskyist view. Having had his faith undermined he sought out everything he could find in Trotsky's writings to bolster it again. Alas it proved impossible. Trotsky never provides any serious evidence for his view but merely asserts it, based mainly on theoretical generalisations. Over the years since then the translator read every book he found, from biographies of participants, to general historical treatments, to those dealing with the economic issues, Soviet foreign policy, German-Soviet relations, diplomacy, etc., bearing on the 1923 events, and became confirmed in the arguments presented by Thalheimer. A number of historians, including those having Marxist views, such as Julius Braunthal (1) and Fernando Claudin (2), see Soviet foreign policy as the decisive factor for the apparent failure of the Comintern to make any revolutionary preparations in Germany until after the fall of the Cuno government. Cuno represented the anti-Versailles, anti-West orientation of certain bourgeois sectors not unfriendly to the Soviet Union, whilst Stresemann represented sectors with an opposing orientation. In the belief of the translator, whilst that certainly affected Soviet government circles, it was not a factor affecting the Comintern. In this regard, it is worthwhile looking at the books of the two Trotskyists engaged in high level Comintern work at the time: Alfred Rosmer's Lenin's Moscow (3), and Victor Serge's Memoirs of a Revolutionary (4), who both focus on power struggles among the Russian leadership resulting in no attention being given to events in Germany, and see Brandler, Thalheimer and Radek as scapegoats.

It was during October 1923 that Trotsky opened up his attacks on the triumvirs over the situation in Russia and the bureaucratisation inside the party, and as newly published material in the USSR shows, Trotsky's 'demontage' (demolition) began in the same month. (5) In his contribution towards Aufstieg und Zerfall der Komintern a series of essays on the rise and fall of the Comintern, Wladislaw Hedeler refers to recently published documents from the literary remains of Stalin's secretary Bashanov verifying this (6). As Thalheimer points out, the October 1923 events became, mixed up in the growing Trotsky debate. He mentions the speech by Radek making threats against the Russian CC majority if they should turn against Trotsky. Thalheimer saw that speech as the signal for Zinoviev initiating a change in the line of ECCI over its evaluation of Brandler's CC and its decision to make a retreat.

In K.H.Tjaden's study of the KPD-O (7), he says that Thalheimer is mistaken, and that Zinoviev's letter came before Radek's speech. However, that small detail is not of significance, and Tjaden sees Zinoviev, the figure really responsible for the outcome of events in Germany, as seeking to shift the blame, to hit at Trotsky through Radek, who in turn was allied with Brandler-Thalheimer,and thus avoid the KPD lining up with Trotsky, while at the same time winning allies among the ultra-left critics of Brandler's CC majority in the KPD.

Thalheimer's talk of panic in the Russian leadership caused by Zinoviev is likely to be the case. He had his own agents within the CP leaderships reporting to him. Any danger of a finger pointing in his direction would be cause for white-washing and scapegoating as is common in all institutions. The acknowledged Russian expert on the Comintern archives Friedrich Firsov, in his contribution to Aufstieg und Zerfall ... quotes from the letter to the ECCI presidium and the RCP(B) CC of 23.12.1923, from the Polish CP CC, in which it places responsibility for the German defeat on the ECCI, voices its concern over the methods of the struggle inside the RCP(B), expresses its support for Trotsky without taking any position on the disputed issues, and proposed to put 'the crisis in the RCP(B)' on the agenda of the next ECCI plenum (pp.39-40). Apparently Amadeo Bordiga also blamed the ECCI for the defeat in Germany.

An article in Sozialismus No. 2, 1993, on the internal struggles in the KPD during the 1920s, and the Comintern role therein, based on the documents newly studied from its archives, by Theodor Bergmann and Alexander Watlin (the latter is a pupil of Firsov and also contributes to Aufstieg und Zerfall ) deals with the October events and describes them as being above all an idea of the CPSU summit which, after the illness and political absence of V.I.Lenin, wanted to strengthen its position through world-revolutionary activities'. 'Victory has many fathers, defeats none', they remind us, and the intention of being father to the victory in Germany played a not unimportant role with Lenin's successors', but 'immediately after the defeat both in the CPSU and in the Comintern, the search to establish its paternity began'. Those who would be designated as responsible could then be labelled "rightists", while the Comintern lurched into a frenzy of ultra-leftism.

Trotsky set out his analysis of the German defeat in Lessons of October, and kept to the fundamentals of it in every published text, although his original opposition to scapegoating the KPD CC majority and his pointing the finger at Zinoviev, gradually degenerated into describing Brandler and his associates as Social Democrats. Unwittingly, as Thalheimer points out, he provided a theoretical basis for the ultra-leftism which, until then had been unable to develop anything beyond assertions. In the belief of the translator, Trotsky's arguments illustrate his tendency towards subjectivism which emerged again and again later. Practically this reflects itself in voluntarism, a characteristic common to the Fourth Internationalist movement. The contributions of other communist figures quoted by Thalheimer in regard to Trotsky's methods are, it seems to me, pertinent in a study of Trotskyism.

If Trotsky's published position on the German October never changed fundamentally, his private one seems to have done so (worth noting is the fact that although promising his German adherents a counter-balance sheet to the KPO one, it never emerged) according to the minutes of the meeting between him and SAP leader Jakob Walcher, in August 1933. These minutes, as well as containing a report of Walcher's talks with dissident communist and left socialist parties and groupings in many European countries over establishing a new international centre to rival the degenerate ones, discusses differences with Trotsky's ILO, among them its evaluation of the 1923 events. In them Trotsky declares his complete agreement with Walcher, asserting that he had not seen the retreat in October as the decisive fault, but the bad policy of the KPD CC and the ECCI earlier in that year. Readers must judge for themselves, but it appears that he is making an adjustment in his opinions. At present however, they must consult the French text published in Oeuvres, Vol.2, as although these very important minutes were known at the time, they were not included in the two supplementary volumes of Trotsky's Writings, published by Pathfinder Press, New York 1979. A possible explanation for both the non-appearance of Trotsky's balance sheet of 1923, and the minutes of the discussion with Walcher is, that his adherents in Germany originated from the ultra-left factions, as did those in some other countries, who did uphold the view that an uprising should have been launched in October 1923, just as the Trotskyist organisations do today.


Those wishing to learn more can turn to my key sources:

Struktor und Funktion der KPD-Opposition (KPO) K.H.Tjaden, Meisenheim/Glan, 1964, which emerges in reprint from time to time; and Theodor Bergmann, Gegen den Strom- Die Geschichte der Kommunistischen-Partei-Opposition, VSA, Hamburg 1987, as well as the numerous pamphlets and other more substantial items, including the analyses of fascism, kept in print by the Arbeiterpolitik group.


1. History of the International, Julius Braunthal Vol.2, Thomas Nelson, London 1967.

2. From Comintern to Cominform, Penguin Books 1975.

3. Alfred Rosmer, Lenin's Moscow, Pluto, London 1971.

4. Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary 1901-1941, OUP, London 1963.

5. Aufstieg und Zerfall der Komintern, Eds. Theodor Bergmann and Mario Kessler, Podium Progressiv, Mainz, 1992.

6. ibid. see p.105, note 22.

7. K. H. Tjaden, Struktur und Funktion der KPD-Opposition, Vol. 2, 1964. pp. 113-114, note 1.2.11