Communist Party of Germany (KPD) headquarters, 1932. The top line says “Anti-Fascist Action against war, hunger and fascism.”
By David Sole
Revolutions against oppressive conditions have taken place throughout recorded history. Revolutions that have challenged the economic foundations of society are rarer. And revolutions that have succeeded are rarer still.
Individuals who place themselves at the service of a developing revolution, and those in the modern era who use the science of Marxism to guide them, are an important component of a revolutionary process.
The great Russian Revolution of 1917 showed that it is critical for revolutionaries to forge a strong revolutionary party for a successful socialist revolution.
But unless the revolutionary and the revolutionary party have learned important skills and lessons from experience and from history, tumultuous revolutionary periods can
be derailed and ruined, putting off the chance of successful revolution for years or even decades.
Just having a party isn’t enough. Of course any individual or party can make mistakes. How quickly they correct such mistakes is important. We can see, even today, that incorrect theory and misinterpretation of events can be ruinous. Look at some of the groups on the “left” who denounce Cuba, China or other socialist countries because of their own false ideas of how revolutions “should” take place.
We need to bring together the best fighters for social justice into an organization that also has learned the most important lessons from the past – what made some revolutions succeed, but just as importantly, what caused the loss in other situations.
That’s why we need to discuss and understand the dangerous theory of social fascism. We will go back and examine its history – but remember we are doing so because there are proponents of it today.
In the current period where the revolutionary wing of the emerging socialist movement is still weak it is important for communists not to isolate themselves from the broader, and still dominant, social democratic wing. We should avoid unnecessarily scurrilous attacks on their leadership, especially those from the oppressed communities, even as we ideologically struggle against reformism to win over the rank and file to a revolutionary line.
The clearest application of the theory of Social Fascism in the communist movement took place in Germany from 1928 to 1933. But ideas don’t arise from thin air. To understand the German experience we first should look at the revolutionary situations that arose in the years before then.
The Birth of the Communist International
It should be remembered that Karl Marx led the International Working Men’s Association (also known as the First International) from 1864 to 1876. It was a loose federation of socialist and anarchist groups mainly across Europe and the United States. A second Socialist International was founded in 1889 bringing together socialist parties and labor unions around the world, many of the parties having a significant membership.
Revolutionary Marxists consider the Second International to have “collapsed” when World War I broke out (June 1914) and all but a few of the socialist parties came out in support of their own capitalist governments in a war they had long predicted and pledged to oppose.
The Russian Revolution (November 1917) established the first workers’ government in the midst of the war by turning the world war into a civil war. The Tsar was overthrown as well as the capitalist and moderate socialists who tried to continue the war and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was born.
By 1919 the Third International was founded in Moscow under the banner of the successful socialist revolution. This became known as the Communist International or Comintern. It was led by its Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI) with predominant influence naturally exercised by the leaders of the Bolshevik Party which had great moral standing among the worlds’ communists.
The hoped for spreading of revolutions to other nations that could also economically and militarily help defend the new Soviet Union did not materialize right away. A short lived Hungarian Soviet was overthrown and the German revolution, which overthrew the Kaiser and ended the World War (Nov. 1918) was unable to overthrow the capitalist class.
This had a conservatizing effect in the ranks of the Bolshevik Party with some losing hope that the working classes abroad could succeed. The failure of the young German Communist Party in 1923 to move quickly and take advantage of a revolutionary situation just strengthened the bureaucratization of the Bolshevik leadership.
The subsiding of the revolutionary perspective and loss of faith in the working class power affected the Soviet leadership and the leadership of the Comintern to look for quick fixes for revolutions This loss of revolutionary vision took a terrible toll in the next two years as a huge revolutionary ferment swept China.
The Chinese Revolution of 1925-27 and the Communist International
The Chinese bourgeois revolution overthrew the Manchu dynasty in 1911. The Kuomintang (KMT), or Chinese Nationalist Party, was founded by Sun Yat Sen, a bourgeois nationalist, and gained great influence in the following years..
In 1922 the KMT affiliated with the 3rd Communist International. Advisors and military aid were sent by the USSR to the KMT government in southern China. In 1925 Chiang Kai-Shek became leader of KMT after Sun Yat Sen died.
From 1925 – 1927 there arose a mass revolutionary upsurge of workers and peasants in cities and villages, often armed. On May Day 1924 over 100,000 workers marched in Shanghai and 200,000 marched in Canton (later named Guangzhou). In May 1925 strikes occurred in Japanese owned cotton mills of Shanghai. These turned into a general strike.
The Communist Party of China (CCP) quickly grew to tens of thousands gaining great influence over the emerging trade unions of millions of workers and peasant associations. Masses of the Chinese people were very aware of the successes of the Bolshevik Revolution and the gains it quickly achieved for workers and peasants.
It is important to understand that the political direction of all the Communist Parties, including the Chinese CP, came from the Comintern and its Executive Committee. Leadership of every member party had to follow the directions coming from Moscow or be replaced immediately under CI orders. CI representatives were on the scene with full authority.
The Chinese CP also gained great strength since there was no serious Social Democratic (reformist) leadership in China giving the CCP total and direct access to the revolutionary mass movements.
The KMT was in power in southern China with its government set up in Canton. North China was controlled by various “war lords” – military dictators in districts in alliance with big landlords and the western imperialists.
The KMT built an army, mostly peasants in rank and file and bourgeois officers. The KMT set a goal of defeating the northern war-lord government based in Beijing launching the “Northern Expedition” to unify the nation.
The Comintern took a position for CCP members to join en-masse with the KMT. But the KMT had no grass roots organizations that controlled it and was led by a Central Committee of generals and mainly bourgeois/landlord elements.. The Comintern called for a “bloc of 4 classes” in the bourgeois nationalist revolution (bourgeoisie, workers, peasants and landlords). To maintain this bloc and not alienate the bourgeoisie and landlords the CCP under CI direction agreed to 1) no criticism of KMT; 2) prohibit strikes – replaced with compulsory arbitration often in hands of bourgeoisie; 3) condemned peasant seizure of lands “until the final military victory of the Northern Expedition”; 4) prohibit agitation for formation of worker/peasant/soldier Soviets or councils; 5) the Comintern also built up Chiang Kai-Shek as a great revolutionary nationalist leader who was hosted in Moscow by Stalin and the ECCI; 6) No daily newspaper for the CCP.
These policies and directions were opposed by Leon Trotsky, Grigory Zinoviev and the Left Opposition in the USSR Communist Party and Comintern. This was the first time the writings and documents of the Left Opposition were restricted and suppressed. It also saw the start of expulsions of Opposition members from the Soviet party. As conditions in China more and more exposed the failure of the Comintern policies, even the documents of Stalin, Bukharin and the ECCI leadership were suppressed as being too embarrassing not long after they were published.
On March 20, 1926 mass movements were surging in the countryside and cities. Chiang Kai-Shek carried out a coup in Canton, massacred Communists and crushed the mass movements. In December 1926 the left leaning KMT majority withdrew to the north to Wuhan and set up a Left-KMT government in alliance with Chinese CP. That same month a leader of Chinese CP speaking to the 7th Plenum of ECCI (he had been Minister of Agriculture in the KMT government and led troops against peasant uprisings) stated “we sacrificed the interests of the workers and peasants in practice…” in order to preserve the bloc of 4 classes. The Comintern still insisted that this was not a “long-lasting defeat.”
In January 1927 the Chinese CP in Wuhan still called the Left KMT “revolutionary leaders.” The Communist position still was to stop peasant confiscation of large estates until there was a better military situation for the KMT. The Chinese Communist Party under Comintern orders opposed formation of Soviets (worker and peasant organs of power) to avoid antagonizing their bourgeois and petty-bourgeois allies. But only support for peasant seizure of land had the chance of shattering the peasant base of Chiang Kai-Shek’s armies that threatened the Communists and other progressive forces.
A report to the December 1926 Plenum of the Chinese CP stated: “It is unusually difficult for us to decide our tactics in relation to the middle and petty bourgeoisie, since the strikes of non-industrial and office workers are only conflicts within the petty bourgeoisie themselves. Both sides [workers and employers] being necessary for the national united front, we can support none of the two sides, neither can we be neutral…”
On February 19, 1927 a Shanghai general strike of 350,000 workers took place. Street fighting broke out between strikers and the police aided by Chiang Kai-Shek’s troops. The strike petered out with no decisive political leadership. On March 21 another general strike of over half a million workers took control of that city.
Yet at this very time, March 1927, the Comintern and Communist Party of the USSR press concluded that more workers and peasants should get into the KMT and join the KMT army – “strengthen it … but do not carry on any independent work there.” Chiang Kai-Shek had no illusions. He made the Chinese CP illegal in the territories under his control. On April 5 Stalin answered Trotsky’s warnings with “Chiang Kai-Shek is submitting to discipline, the KMT is a bloc, a sort of revolutionary parliament, when the right is of no more use we will drive it away. At present we need the right. It has capable people who still direct the army and lead it against the imperialists…Chiang Kai-Shek … cannot do otherwise than lead it against the imperialists.” This speech by Stalin was soon removed from the archives. The Chinese CP statement said “the question [of socialism] will not only NOT be raised at the present time, but will not come up in the near future.”
Chiang Kai-Shek’s armies were then marching north on Shanghai – the strong worker & Communist stronghold.
On April 11, 1927 revolutionary workers had taken control of Shanghai. The commander of the 1st Division of the KMT army in Shanghai gave warning that a military overthrow was in preparation by Chiang Kai-Shek and his generals.This commander said he was ready to refuse Chang’s order to leave the city. He was prepared to stay in Shanghai and have his troops join the working masses to defend the city against approaching Chiang Kai Shek troops. The Communist Party Central Committee in Shanghai refused his offer and ordered him and his troops to leave. As disaster loomed over their heads the Chinese CP leadership still did not want to “prematurely” provoke the bourgeoisie. The next day widespread massacres of workers & Communists began by Chang’s troops. Over the next year it is estimated that 200,000 Communist workers were killed.
After this debacle in Shanghai Arnold Losovsky, the Comintern representative in Wuhan and head of the Red International of Labor Unions, addressed trade union congress delegates urging them to call a march declaring loyalty to the KMT. At the height of this revolutionary wave the trade unions had a membership of 2.8 million workers in China. Only three years later the number was perhaps 60,000.
Around the world Communist Parties, misled by the Comintern line, organized mass meetings to hail the imminent taking of Shanghai by CKS’s nationalist armies.
In Wuhan the Left KMT now turned against the Chinese Communists and crushed them.
These stubborn facts could no longer be hidden or ignored. On August 7, 1927 the Executive Committee of the Comintern changed course in a wild swing to the left. Again, without regard to the actual conditions and possibilities, the Moscow-based leaders ordered the Chinese CP to prepare adventurous and doomed armed uprisings in Canton and other cities. The massacres and repression of the Communists, the confusion and disorganization of the workers and peasants, the accumulated months and years of erroneous policies all destined these putsches to fail. All of these Chinese CP led uprisings were easily crushed by Chiang’s KMT forces. The Comintern and Soviet leadership could have had no illusions that the uprisings could succeed. They were designed to give heroic, if futile, cover for all the past mistakes of these leaders.
This was the beginning of the application of adventurous and ultra-left policies that were codified at the Sixth World Congress of the Comintern in July 1928 as the “Third Period.” The First Period was defined as the revolutionary upsurge after World War !. The Second Period was defined as an era of capitalist stabilization in the 1920s. In theThird Period capitalism was collapsing and there was therefore to be no need for alliances, united fronts or coalitions.
It should be noted that following the disaster in the cities Mao Zedong and his grouping withdrew to the countryside to rebuild the Chinese Communist Party. Never again were the Communists in China able to build their base in the cities (until after the victory of 1949). Mao officially declared support of the Comintern and the Soviet leadership of Joseph Stalin and even gave lip service to the bloc with the KMT over the coming years. In reality Mao and his growing Communist Party ignored the failed line. Following their own course, the Chinese Communist Party survived the Japanese invasion as well as numerous offensives against them by Chiang Kai-Shek’s KMT armies. On October 1, 1949, twenty-two years after the debacle of 1927, Mao Zedong and the Red Army of China took power and established a workers’ state of the vast nation.
The Third Period and Social Fascism
The term “social fascism” was not exclusively used by Communists from 1928 – 1933. It only got its theoretical justification and official imprimatur of the Communist International and was imposed on all Communist parties around the world that were required to follow Comintern directions. Leaders of Communist Parties could be, and were often, immediately removed on orders of the Comintern or its Executive Committee.
The German Communists had good reason to hate and vilify the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). The SPD had supported their own capitalists during World War I from the beginning. When the revolution broke out in Germany that overthrew the Kaiser and ended the war it appeared for a while that it would go in the same direction as the Russian revolution. The SPD played an ignominious role in making every effort to stop the revolution.
SPD leader Friedrich Ebert served as president of Germany in the tumultuous revolutionary days after the 1918 revolution. It was he who sent the ultra-right Freikorp (many of these veterans of World War I later became leaders and members of Hitler’s Nazi Party) to arrest and murder the two great German Communists leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, on January 15, 1919.
Ebert also ordered 39,000 German Army troops, along with the murderous Freikorp, to destroy the Peoples Council government based in Munich, Bavaria, which was headed by Communist Party leader Eugen Levine. On May 3, 1919 the Munich revolutionary government was overthrown and the execution of 700 revolutionaries began. Levine was arrested, court martialed and shot soon thereafter.
Hatred of the SPD ran deep in the Communist movement. And as early as 1923 the Executive Committee of the Comintern described the SPD as “fascist.” But the SPD still had the loyalty of the large majority of the German working class and kept firm control over the powerful German trade unions.
The question for serious Communists was how to win over the millions of rank and file SPD members and supporters to revolutionary communism. The tactic of united fronts that had been a fundamental principle of the Comintern and explained by Lenin in his book “Left-wing Communist an Infantile Disorder” was dropped in favor of a “united front from below.” This meant no dealing with the leaders of the huge and influential SPD. Many German trade unionists were instructed to leave the SPD dominated unions .
The Communist Party of Germany (KPD) adopted this ultra-left position in a resolution at their 9th Congress: “The SPD … literally went over to Fascism. Social Democracy has been so thoroughly exposed that even a temporary cooperation of the KPD with Social Democratic leaders is out of the question. It is a vital matter for the development of the revolution that this most dangerous counter-revolutionary party be annihilated.”
The KPD leadership again reversed itself in December 1925 and was able to force the SPD (and their unions) into a united electoral front. The aim was to defeat the German government plan to pay compensation to the German nobility who had been expropriated in the 1918 revolution that overthrew the Kaiser and ended World War I. The referendum, held in March 1926 chalked up 14.5 million votes – 4 million more votes than the combined KPD plus SPD got in the December 1924 national elections.
In 1925 – 1926 the KPD also launched a drive to reintegrate KPD workers into the SPD led unions. This led to some success such as the November 1925 elections of the Union of Mineworkers where Communists took control of 35% of the locals across Germany.
But in 1926 the KPD was still labeling left-SPD leaders as the “main enemy.” Elections in October 1927 to the Hamburg city council gave the SPD and KPD a big majority. The Hamburg KPD offered to work with the SPD in a coalition city government but the SPD refused.
In December 1927, at the 15th Congress of the Communist Party of the USSR, Stalin arbitrarily announced the end of the period of capitalist stabilization in the West. January 1928 saw the ECCI, announcing a “new rise of the revolutionary wave in the West.” No evidence was or could be provided. This was the continuation of the wild swing to the left with adventurist insurrections ordered by the ECCI to the Chinese CP in the summer and fall of 1927.
The ECCI ordered Communist Parties to split SPD dominated unions in favor of forming separate “Red” unions. The Sixth Congress of the Comintern (July-August 1928) drove this line decisively. Over 6,000 KPD members, described as rightists (for opposing this ultra-left line) were then expelled from German Communist Party.
On May 1, 1929 a march by the KPD in Berlin was held in violation of a ban issued by the police chief who was an SPD official. His police killed 25 and wounded 160 unarmed Communist workers. The next month the KPD declared the SPD “social fascist” at their 12th Party Congress.
Ernst Thalmann, the KPD leader said at the Congress: “The active appearance of the National Socialists [Nazis] in all parts of Germany” are outliers of Fascism. The SPD was “an especially dangerous form of Fascist development, the form of Social Fascism…[which] consists in paving the way for Fascist dictatorship.” This was to be the last KPD congress before Hitler took power in 1933.
In February 1930 the KPD declared that “Fascism is in power in Germany” because the SPD was in the government. “It is already here.” “Social Fascism knows that for us there can be no cooperation with them” only a “united front from below.” This meant that the KPD would only allow individual SPD workers to join KPD led organizations against fascism.
In March 1930 the SPD quit the national government rather than reduce unemployment benefits in Germany. The KPD carried out widespread physical attacks on SPD members. “He who still belongs to the SPD is rotten and has to go.” And “we must ruthlessly purge the ranks of the proletariat in factory and trade union, of all the rotten elements.”
In July 1930 Stalin, the ECCI, followed by the Central Committee of the KPD demanded a more vigorous fight against “left” SPD elements. “The sharpest struggle must be conducted against the left SPD as the most dangerous enemy within Social Fascism.”
The KPD supported by the Comintern became proponents of an ultra-nationalist line to compete with the Nazis. In the September 1930 elections the KPD bragged about going from 3.3 million votes to 4.6 million an increase of 1.3 million votes. But the Nazi Party increased their vote by 6 million. The KPD had predicted the Nazis would decline and fall. Explaining the huge Nazi increase away, KPD chair Thalmann declared “don’t overestimate the Fascist danger – it was Hitler’s best day.”
Early in 1931 the Nazis and other nationalists called for a referendum vote to dissolve the SPD led Prussian Diet (parliament). The real fascists hoped that this would lead to new elections that would fail to give SPD a majority. The Communist Party supported this Nazi initiative – covering themselves by calling it a “Red Referendum.” Stalin and Molotov directed the ECCI to force the KPD to do this when some resistance was expressed. Held in August 1931 the referendum failed to gain its goal. It is estimated that 37% of KPD rank and file refused to follow their own party’s repulsive order to vote for this.
In October 1931 a Nazi-Nationalist united front led to pressure from the masses to have a working class united front. The left wing of the SPD broke off and formed the Socialist Workers Party. In November 1931 the leader of the SPD offered a united front to the KPD which was rejected. KPD offered a Red United Front but it first required the defeat of the SPD before fighting fascism.
KPD stated in January 1932 “the united front led by the KPD will create the conditions necessary for annihilating the mass influence of the SPD.”
In June 1932 the KPD set up “Anti-Fascist Action” as a mass organization but excluded any reformist organizations. Even this denunciations from Moscow when the ECCI telegrammed a warning against opportunism arising from united front tactics and neglecting the struggle against Social Democracy. The ECCI cautioned that the KPD was overestimating the danger from the Nazis.
When Heinz Neumann, a KPD leader, proposed on May 24, 1932 shifting the Communist party to make the Nazis the main enemy, he was removed from leadership – this action was confirmed both by the KPD Central Committee and the ECCI in August 1932.
The end was near. On January 22, 1933 the Nazis marched on the KPD Berlin headquarters. The KPD leaders urged their members to “ignore” the provocation. To counter it the KPD called for a peaceful counter demonstration 3 days later.
On January 30, 1933 the KPD finally called upon the SPD and all the union federations to join in a general strike against a Hitler dictatorship. It was too late. Even KPD loyalists hardly responded. Years of political misdirection and confusion had disarmed the masses politically. On that same day, January 30, 1933 Hitler was appointed Chancellor and Goering Minister of Interior (national police).
On February 27, 1933 under the ruse of the Reichstag fire, Hitler took dictatorial power and the Nazis began to pulverize both the SPD and the KPD. Despite these parties having hundreds of thousands of members and many millions of supporters across the country the Nazis took over without a shot being fired. Amazingly, voting on March 5, 1933 went ahead even though the KPD was already outlawed. The Communist Party of Germany got 4.8 million votes. But it was too late. Over 4,000 KPD leaders were arrested by late 1933. Over 130,000 KPD members were dragged off to concentration camps and an estimated 2,500 were simply murdered.
This dangerous theory of “social fascism” had destroyed any chance of stopping Hitler and the Nazis. It decimated the working class physically and politically and led directly to the Second World War.
The Comintern and Communist Parties around the world never wrote an analysis of this crushing defeat in the days and years to follow.
The Communist International, unable to continue the same line, simply swung back to the right. It was now the era of the “people’s front.” But not a united front where communists artfully maneuver so that the masses can be won over from moderate social democracy to militant communism. No, it was a front, as had been carried out in China a few years previously, of uncritical coalitions that taught the masses nothing and could only lead to more crushing defeats.
How not to carry out a united front – the Spanish Civil War
The Spanish Civil War of 1936 – 1939 provides more evidence that the Comintern, unable to provide revolutionary leadership, had swung once again to the right after the disaster (and embarrassment) of their ultra-left Third Period line.
We cannot here recount the drama and heroics of the Spanish Civil War. But a few points will make clear how a revolutionary situation can be lost with the wrong line.
The Republican side represented the government of the Second Republic, a bourgeois government with representatives of the Communist Party and various anarchist and socialist parties. The popular front policies proclaimed by the Comintern after Hitler’s victory in Germany, went back to the policies of the bloc of several classes so disastrous in China ten years earlier..
The Spanish Communist Party would not introduce any demands that might antagonize the bourgeoisie and large landowners who continued to lean to the Republican side in the civil war. Popular Front politics demanded that social reform would have to wait until after a victory over General Franco’s fascist side.
How do you defeat an opposing army? Large armies are made up of mainly workers and peasants. Franco didn’t have many workers in his ranks. He had recruited or drafted mainly peasants. Another important component of the fascist armies was troops from the Spanish colony of Morocco.
Two policies might have disintegrated Franco’s control over his troops. One would have been for the Republic to decree land to the peasants. Every peasant, upon hearing this, would have seen their loyalty shift to the Republic and peasant youth in Franco’s ranks would see which side really represented them. The other policy would be for the Republic to have recognized the national independence of Morocco. That would have spread through the fascists’ ranks and led to winning over those colonial troops to the revolution.
Neither of these policies was permitted so as to keep the bourgeoisie and landlords happy. These are only two examples but they show clearly a losing strategy that led to Franco’s victory and rule in Spain until 1975.
Why study this stuff?
Many, especially among the youth, aspire (and even proclaim themselves) to be revolutionaries. But it is not one’s subjective desires and intentions that determine history, but rather objective actions that count.
Capitalism, including United States capitalism, will constantly generate class struggle, even mass uprisings, against poverty, war, racism and all forms of oppression. Even the broadest of revolts does not insure success. Without a clear program and revolutionary organizations that really penetrate the mass movement, struggles can, and will, be derailed, misled or simply peter out.
Real revolutionaries must study and learn from the revolutionary situations of the past, those that succeeded but also those that failed. That’s why we took the time to review some of the history of the past century. But armchair revolutionaries are less than worthless. Knowledge must be combined with thoughtfulness, skill, practical experience, passion for the struggle and a good dose of humility.
The coronavirus pandemic is thoroughly exposing the failure of U.S. capitalism to be able to sustain the multi-million working class and oppressed masses. The stark contrast in how China, with its planned economy, has handled this crisis is the main reason both the Republicans and Democrats are united in their growing vilification of China, as the capitalist approach spirals into death and depression. Life itself is educating the vast mass of workers and oppressed people in a way that all of the radical organizations put together could never have done. It is a challenge to all of us to find the way to unify our movements and to give revolutionary direction to the inevitable struggles to come.