The "German October" and the Origins of Trotsky's Opposition

CWO Introduction

In 1923 the Weimar Republic experienced a series of crises, including hyperinflation and the occupation of the Ruhr by French and Belgian troops. The KPD (Communist Party of Germany) was under – largely Russian – pressure in the Comintern to use the situation to start a revolution in Germany.

The situation leading up to the "German October" was as follows:

The KPD leaders were called to Moscow. The politbureau of the RCP [Russian Communist Party] met on 23 August, decided that the time for revolution in Germany was ripe and appointed a committee consisting of Radek, Piatakov [Georgy Pyatakov], Unshlikht [Józef Unszlicht], and Shmidt [Vasily Schmidt] to supervise policy in Germany. In September the situation was discussed at great length with the Germans and representatives of some other European parties in Moscow, and, according to the report to the ninth KPD congress, ‘the great plan of struggle was examined in detail and decided upon'.
It was agreed to make preparations for insurrection, although no definite date was fixed, and a small revolutionary committee of German and Russian officers, directed by Skoblevsky, was appointed to direct the rising, which was to start in Saxony, where the presence of KPD ministers in the Government (they did not actually enter the Government until 10 October) would, it was hoped, give them access to arms.

From Jane Degras ed., The Communist International Documents, Vol.II, p.62

In Saxony the SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany) had formed a government under Erich Zeigner in March 1923 which relied on the KPD for its majority. On 10 October Zeigner appointed two KPD members to his cabinet. The government in Berlin (led by SPD President Friedrich Ebert) demanded that he remove them and, when he refused, a Reichsexekution — armed intervention by the central government — was ordered against Saxony. Reichswehr troops duly entered Saxony on 23 October and removed Zeigner and his cabinet from office without violence or bloodshed. The KPD called off the attempt to start a revolution (though an isolated uprising still went ahead in Hamburg, where it was quickly suppressed by the police).

On the Origins of Trotsky’s Opposition

1924 was a crucial year for the destiny of the Russian revolution, for the Third International and for the outcome of the not yet exhausted international revolution. It was now the seventh year of isolation for the soviets in Russia and none of the major economic and political hurdles for their revolutionary survival had been overcome. Meanwhile many other events had occurred since October 1917, first of all limiting the experience and eventually distorting its whole tactical and final objectives.

Inevitably this whole process created centrifugal pressures: a whole variety of political currents and opinions which would give rise to serious oppositions. We have already dealt with the Italian and German oppositions. (See Prometeo nos. 2,3,4 and Battaglia Comunista nos 7,8,9.) Here we will deal with the Trotskyist variant. Even though the degenerative process had already made some fundamental steps, the year 1924 was crucial for at least four important reasons.

First of all there was Lenin’s death. As Marxists we understand that, no matter how enormous any particular political personality may be, their influence over events is limited by historical circumstance. Nevertheless, a ‘large’ personality with a wide-ranging grasp of events can offer the best strategy and tactics to the point of powerfully influencing what is going on. In both the Russian revolution and the international revolutionary movement, Lenin was one of those great political personalities. His departure at this crucial period removed the single valid political reference point, the one the Bolshevik Party had resorted to, and was obliged to turn to in the most difficult and historically dramatic moments, when hesitations and uncertainty could have compromised the path of the revolution itself.

Meanwhile, as the economic and political barriers to any kind of socialist solution continued to mount and in the absence of a revolutionary revival of the proletariat in the West, a bitter power struggle, spurred on by Lenin’s death, opened over both domestic economic policy and political policies to be pursued within the International; all accompanied by the obligatory ideological support without which no political battle can be fought, especially in a period of retreat.

The third important episode was the Fifth Congress of the Communist International (June/July 1924). Under the weight of the failure of the German revolution in October 1923, the Congress appeared formally to be balanced towards the Left: redefining for the second time the meaning of the “united front” tactic and the “workers’ government” slogan, with the role of social democracy momentarily reduced to “the left-wing of the bourgeoisie”. This, however, did not mean the struggle against the oppositions within the International was abandoned, especially against the Italian Left, as the policy of Bolshevisation was imposed on all the communist parties in the Third International.

Finally, the end of 1924 saw the beginning of Trotsky’s opposition. A product of the struggle over Lenin’s succession as well as the political disputes over both NEP (New Economic Policy) and the international political policy required by the leading organs of the soviet state, he made his first moves at the beginning of the Fifth Congress.

The case of Trotsky opened ‘spontaneously’ in October 1924, exactly a year after the failure of the German October and during the first phase of the power struggle when the ‘troika’ of Zinoviev-Kamenev-Stalin were trying to woo the Party rank and file amidst a sea of problems and contradictions. The polemic formally opened after the publication of Trotsky’s pamphlet on The Lessons of October, starting with the whole series of problems already mentioned.

At the Fifth Congress, where he was on the Presidium, Trotsky had already begun to develop an autonomous position regarding the leadership of the Bolshevik Party. The Fifth Congress, precisely because it was pressured by the escalation of internal problems and the failure of events on an international scale, attempted to give a hasty solution to the very important German episode of a year earlier. All the blame was placed on Brandler and Radek, who were deemed at fault for making the wrong interpretation of the (correct) directives of the International on the question of tactics, and failing to discern the not entirely favourable objective conditions. Trotsky completely disagreed with the second formulation and only partially agreed with the first, in the sense that if the failure of the German revolution was attributable to poor tactics, this was the responsibility of the entire KPD and not just Brandler.

Why didn’t the German revolution lead to a victory? The reasons for it are all to be sought in the tactics, not in the existing conditions. Here we had a classic example of a missed revolutionary situation. After all the German proletariat had gone through in recent years, it could be led to a decisive struggle only if it were convinced that this time the question would be decisively resolved and that the communist party was ready for the struggle and capable of achieving the victory. But the communist party executed the turn very irresolutely and after a very long delay. Not only the Rights but also the Lefts, despite the fact that they had fought each other very bitterly, viewed rather fatalistically the process of revolutionary development up to September-October 1923.(1)

Trotsky had already expressed concern about the resolve and leadership capabilities of the KPD as events unfolded during the summer of 1923 when he had tried to shake the fatalism of the Brandlerian leadership by decisively addressing the question of a revolutionary assault. During the inevitable arguments which accompanied the "inquest", he tried to hold the International back from walking a tactical tightrope. He opposed making individual figures a convenient scapegoat, and did not share the false optimism of Zinoviev and his comrades on the subsequent developments of the class struggle in Germany, in the aftermath of the heavy defeat.

In fact Zinoviev, commenting on the prospects for the German proletariat in a series of articles that appeared in Pravda in February 1924, considered the situation still favourable for the seizure of power.

we must not expect there a period now, no matter how brief, of even an external pacification, any lull whatever; ... Europe is entering into the phase of decisive events. Germany is apparently marching towards a sharpened civil war …

A few days later, five to be exact:

The Communist Party of Germany must not remove from the agenda the question of the uprising and the seizure of power. On the contrary [!] this question must stand before us in all its concreteness and urgency ...(2)

For Trotsky, Zinoviev’s optimism about the prospects for resumption of the revolutionary struggle in Germany, expressed on behalf of the leadership of the Communist International, was equivalent to the fatalism of the leadership of the KPD on the eve of the events of October 1923. Two errors of tactics and perspective, but above all two errors of evaluation, the scope of which went beyond the episode itself to highlight the shortcomings of the International more generally in terms of analysis of the situation and the ability to link specific tactical aspects of the struggle to the wider strategic perspective.

In the Lessons of October, written by me under the influence of the capitulation of the German Central Committee, I developed the idea that under the conditions of the present epoch, a revolutionary situation can be lost for several years in the course of a few days. … It is a typical Menshevist dodge to shift responsibility for the mistakes of the leaders on the “masses” or to minimize the importance of leadership in general, in order thus to diminish its guilt. It arises from the total incapacity to arrive at the dialectic understanding of the “superstructure” in general, of the superstructure of the class which is the party, and the superstructure of the party in the shape of its central leadership. There are epochs during which even Marx and Engels could not drive historical development forward a single inch; there are other epochs during which men of much smaller caliber, standing at the helm, can check the development of the international revolution for a number of years.(3)

Trotsky’s assessment of the situation was bound to have repercussions on the International itself and on its Fifth Congress:

The fundamental tasks of the Fifth Congress were: first, to call this defeat clearly and relentlessly by its name, and to lay bare its “subjective” cause, allowing no one to hide behind the pretext of objective conditions; secondly, to establish the beginning of a new stage during which the masses would temporarily drift away, the social democracy grow, and the communist party lose in influence; thirdly, to prepare the Comintern for all this so that it would not be caught unawares and to equip it with the necessary methods of defensive struggle and organizational consolidation until the arrival of a new change in the situation.(4)

Although Trotsky's polemic was triggered by recent events, it did not stop at evaluations, however important, of the causes of the failure of the German revolution and the related contortions of the Fifth Congress, but extended to the internal political life of the party and the NEP; problems which would develop more fully in 1926 after the enlarged Sixth Executive, when the struggle within the party and the International had become irreversible.

Returning to 1924 and the problem of tactics, it must first of all be noted that the first steps of Trotsky's opposition did not go beyond the surface of the question. Trotsky’s polemical hypothesis about collective rather than individual responsibility by the leaders of the KPD, plus their incomprehension about objective factors overriding subjective ones, or, if you want, the alternating game between the two operated by the International, as well as its underestimation of the defeat: all this did not go beyond the narrow scope of method and timing of the action, while its political content was left out of consideration.

If, both before and during October 1923, the fatalistic attitude (a sort of sterile maximalism) of the KPD impeded its appreciation and response to events, causing it to submit slavishly to the directives coming from Moscow, it is equally the case that the behaviour of the International, in so far as it was limited to the childish game of blaming Brandler or the objective situation, depending on what was most convenient, avoided taking the burdensome responsibility of failure.

The failure of the German October had older and much deeper roots that date back to the serious ‘tactical’ deviations on the role of social democracy, on the unworkable alliances with it in the ill-defined “united front” for the achievement of an equally vague state form, described in the smoky formula of the “workers' and peasants' government”, the aim and content of which were modified from situation to situation in accordance with the economic and political exigencies of the increasingly isolated Russian revolution.

The alarm bell had sounded at the Third Congress of the International, when Radek — interpreting the concerns of the entire International over its growing isolation — had posed the tactic of going "to the masses" as a way of getting out of the political isolation in which the communist parties were stagnating. The concern was more than justified. A radical, enormous social upheaval such as a revolution which involves millions and millions of workers, cannot be the product of an act of good intention by anyone and cannot be decided round the table by the powerful minds of a handful of particularly aggressive theorists. For a revolutionary event to occur favourable basic conditions must exist: the economic crisis accompanied by an advanced degree of decomposition of bourgeois institutions; the willingness of the masses to move onto the field of direct confrontation with their class adversary; a political programme which, as well as outlining the strategic, final aims, also articulates the tactical and contingent objectives. In other words, an ideologically prepared and determined vanguard party must be in action; and finally a military programme and a minimum level of weaponry which, on the technical level of armed fighting, enable realisation of the political potential which they are fighting for. In summary, alongside the objective conditions created by the pre- and post-war crises, subjective, political and organisational ones must also come into play.

No party, no matter how well equipped politically, could have hypothesised a revolutionary solution(5) to the post-war crisis of international capitalism, if it did not have the vast majority of the working masses behind it. The Russian experience itself is testimony to this.

Yet politically the problem was not going "to the masses", but about how to go there. The October Revolution, the birth of the Third International, the deadly struggle against opportunism and revisionism, against reformism in whatever form it presented itself, had created a very deep rift between revolutionary expectations and social democratic ideology. The European proletariat had been heavily hit by the devastation of the war. Starving, and with nothing left to lose, it had split in two under the weight of the events of the Russian revolution and under the political influence of the Third International. One part, the more conscious and combative one, had taken on the revolutionary perspective; the other, perhaps equally combative but certainly less conscious, had remained within the old political and organisational structures of the social democratic parties. Going "to the masses" had to mean the ability to first understand, and then politically express, the real, concrete, daily problems of the masses, making these a moment of struggle and conflict, and at the same time a springboard for political object lessons which would prepare the ground for the revolutionary assault. It also had to mean the possibility of wresting the remaining part of the class from social democratic influence with the aim of creating the most compact class front possible, capable of being politically directed by the communist vanguard, or rather by the International itself.

But in order to cease being an empty and inoperative abstract formula, the political process of acquiring a revolutionary perspective — like the clashes within the various political and organisational strands of social democracy — had to travel down into all those forms, coherent or contradictory, clear or muddy, through which the tremors, certainly not linear, of the class struggle are expressed.

In the factories as in the neighbourhoods, within the struggles for demands as in the great political battles, daily, irreducibly it was necessary to accept or provoke the clash with social democracy, confronting it on all the terms of the class struggle. Only under such conditions would it be possible for propaganda, struggle techniques and revolutionary political content to polarise the remaining part of the masses, the hesitant and those without a party.

The problems of isolation or re-composition of the class front could not be overcome by trying to follow the illusory shortcut of political, much less organisational, compromise with the forces of social democracy itself. The final objectives, like the tactics to achieve them, cannot be separated from each other as distinct moments, each autonomous from the other. Class unity only makes sense if it is built, day by day, fight after fight, amidst a few victories in a sea of defeats, with the perspective of maturation — even if slow, difficult and very often contradictory — of an autonomous and revolutionary class consciousness, outside and against bourgeois ideology, whatever form it takes.

The Communist International itself, at its Second Congress, had clearly indicated what the main task of the adhering communist parties should be: 1) fight on all fronts against the social democracy of the Second International; 2) pursuit of the revolutionary path and consequent rejection of reformism or intermediate stages; 3) intense propaganda among the masses so that the ultimate aim of the class struggle, the dictatorship of the proletariat, was not an abstruse and confused slogan, but a precise political aim to be continually agitated for within the struggle of the class.(6)

But less than two years later the top leaders of the Bolshevik Party, including Trotsky, began to worry about how to prevent the Russian situation from becoming more isolated, even at the cost of compelling the communist parties to immediately change ‘tactics’ about hitherto fixed political cornerstones.

Thus, as we can read in the Rome Theses,(7) during those crucial years, the search for class unity — the “united front”, moved away from its natural home "below", to pursue impracticable alliances with the social democratic parties at the top — with all the negative consequences that led from this in terms of undermining the intensity of class struggle and obscuring workers' consciousness.

A class front from below is the starting point of a policy that combines the partial and contingent aspects of the conflict, the sectional and minority interests, within a single perspective of a wider struggle. But the “united front” achieved by means of political alliances at the top was a fictitious unity which gave the illusion of starting from a position of advantage.

In the first case the political underpinning always remained the all-out struggle against social democracy. In the second case, however, where the aim was to form political alliances within the bourgeois institutional framework in order to be able to resist while waiting for better times, social democracy — or rather the definition of its significance — varied depending on the unfolding of events, progress of the class struggle, reduced expectations or simply by virtue of tragic disappointments. Only under this logic is it possible to make sense of the Third International’s continual variations in interpretation, over a very short period of time, of the same political bodies, which from “supporting structures of the counter-revolution” became an “important part of the workers' movement” to be transformed again, under the pressure of events, into “the left-wing of the bourgeoisie” or, even, “social fascism”.

Beyond the wait-and-see attitude of the Brandlerian leadership with its lack of insight into the masses' willingness to fight, the failure of the German October highlights the nefarious role played by frontism. At a time when class unity had to be built outside and against the prospect of a social democratic government, the participation of three communist ministers in the social democratic government of Saxony — a participation endorsed by the International with the intention of unifying the divided proletariat and facilitating military preparation for the armed insurrection — had the only possible effect of further disorientating the German working class.

For the communist proletarians who, only two years earlier, on the basis of the Bolshevik experience itself, had had the idea hammered into their heads that the revolution would only be a revolution if it managed to pass over the corpse of social democracy, it was certainly not easy to see eminent exponents of one's own party enter the ministries of a bourgeois government alongside the flower of German social democracy.

Thus, it was no historical accident that the masses did not respond with enthusiasm to the call for a general strike, proclaimed by the leadership of the KPD against the anti-worker measures of the central government, forcing the same party to withdraw with its tail between the legs from a fight that had not actually started.

Nor was it an accident that, shortly afterwards, when the masses spontaneously took to the streets to shout their intolerance of the political conditions imposed by the regime, the party, their political guide, was taken by surprise and more intent on licking its own wounds than checking the situation that was unfolding.

Thus, the primary cause of the failure of the German October was not fatalism, incompetence or bad timing or, as the International officially said, poor interpretation of the tactic of the united front. The real cause of the failure of the revolution in Germany was the very principle of alliance with social democratic organisations, albeit passed off as a tactical, instrumental and episodic moment. This not only undermined the masses' drive to fight, at the same time it disarmed their political vanguard.

Even more absurd was the only statement from the International, which appeared alongside the official one condemning the actions of the KPD in June 1924.

If in May 1923, when the mark was comparatively stabilised and the bourgeoisie had achieved a certain degree of consolidation, after the middle class and the petty bourgeoisie went over to the Nationalists, after a deep crisis in the party, and after a heavy defeat of the proletariat, if after all this the communists are able to rally 3,700,000 votes, then it is clear that in October 1923, during the unprecedented economic crisis, during the complete disintegration of the middle classes, during a frightful confusion in the ranks of the social democracy resulting from the powerful and sharp contradictions within the bourgeoisie itself and an unprecedented militant mood of the proletarian masses in the industrial centres, the communist party had the majority of the population on its side; it could and should have fought and had all the chances for success.(8)

In its account of the situation on the eve of October 1923, the Communist International drew a picture of general economic crisis accompanied by a situation of “frightful confusion in the ranks of the social democracy” as one of the favourable conditions for the working class to win power, which only the ineptitude of the KPD had been able to underestimate and nullify.

In fact, when it comes to political confusion, there were more “powerful and sharp contradictions” operating within the proletariat who were disorientated by the absence of a precise strategic aim, with no clear tactics and incoherent political directions.

Certainly, like all bourgeois political and institutional bodies of those years, German social democracy was not sailing in calm water. The devastation of the war was still very much in evidence so any post-war economic re-launch could only begin on condition that capital and the labour force were reconstituted in a climate much more favourable to the former. Above all, the bodies whose interest was to preserve capitalism — in this case those of the ‘left’, i.e. social democracy — needed to fully carry out their task of containing the economic and political demands of the working class: stemming their wage demands and confusing their political objectives.

Within German social democracy there was no confusion, they were not short of objectives or ways to achieve them. Their main problem, in a political climate in which they could have been overwhelmed at any moment by the desperation of the masses, was precisely how to act as a dam in a limited encounter; how to embroil the disintegrating efforts of the masses into false objectives, dragging them along in an ambiguous political adventure which hides the bourgeois plan for preserving capital under the corrupting cover of ideological mystification. In short: the “united front”, or rather the political alliance of the two sections of the workers' movement for objectives that were neither a revolutionary solution to the economic crisis nor the dictatorship of the proletariat — the only valid class response to the bourgeoisie’s political crisis. If the “united front” had not been proposed, and partly implemented, by the KPD under the directive of the Third International, it would have been invented by social democracy itself.

In any case, it was precisely the proletariat who suffered the extreme confusion of the general situation, both from the disintegration of the middle class and from the lack of coherent political guidance as to how to respond politically.

Further on, the passage concludes by stating that “the communist party had the majority of the population on its side; it could and should have fought.” This argument, far from being dialectical, follows the most banal formal logic. In other words, the gist of the statement goes like this: if in 1924, with all the negative things that happened, the KPD managed to get almost four million votes, in 1923, when the working class went on the attack in certainly more favourable conditions, what could it have done if it had dared; or rather, if it had behaved more intelligently from a tactical point of view? Paradoxically, the answer goes beyond the fictitious context of the question, and proposes another much more pertinent question. Perhaps the “united front”, whether in its general meaning, or as specifically implemented in the German events of October 1923, was not the most suitable tactical means to bridge the gap between the party and the masses; not the best way to reunify the two sections of the working class created after the birth of the Third International?

If the KPD had actually had “the majority of the population” behind it, it would not have had to resort to an alliance with social democratic bodies, either to reunify a front that was already united, or to connect with the masses who, by definition, were already on side.

Or else the KPD had to resolve these two problems, in 1923 as in 1919, in which case the appropriate tactic was still the one that had been agreed by the Second Congress of the Communist International in light of the victorious experience of the Russian revolution and not that of the “united front”, of conjuring tricks and alliances with social democracy. And in any case the fact remains that it was precisely the International that forced the leadership of the KPD to enter the government of Saxony and form an alliance with social democracy.

Like all the other Bolshevik leaders, Trotsky was also one of the architects of the “united front” tactic and he never faced up to the issue. He did not engage in self-criticism on the fundamental question, but built his critical opposition to the German events and the policy of the Third International emerging from the Fifth Congress, more on secondary issues than on substantive ones. Thus:

Zinoviev did not see the catastrophe, and he was not alone. Together with him the whole Fifth Congress simply passed over this greatest defeat of the world revolution. The German events were analyzed principally from the angle of the policies of the communists ... in the Saxon Landtag. In its resolution, the Congress lauded the ECCI for having “... condemned the opportunistic conduct of the German Central Committee and, above all, its perverted application of the “united front” tactic during the Saxon government experiment.” This is somewhat like condemning a murderer “above all” for failing to take off his hat upon entering the home of his victim. … Those who were wide awake to the situation and pushed the significance of the October defeat to the foreground, those who pointed out the inevitable subsequent lengthy period of revolutionary ebb and temporary consolidation (“stabilization”) of capitalism (with all the ensuing political consequences), the leadership of the Fifth Congress endeavored to brand as opportunists and liquidators of the revolution.(9)

Not only does Trotsky’s polemic go no further, but just at the moment when the Comintern was exhibiting a semblance of afterthought about the communists entering the government of Saxony (something that was soon abandoned) — he reduces the question to a trifle of little importance with his parable of the murderer and the hat.

Trotsky continued with his polemic over the German defeat beyond the Fifth Congress of the International. Above all, his criticism focussed on the error of perspective regarding the presumed permanence of a revolutionary situation in Germany and, despite the crushing defeat, on the presumed weakening of the role of social democracy:

In the meantime, the social democracy which was going to pieces in 1923 like a rotted mat of straw, began to recover systematically after the defeat of the revolution at the end of 1923, to start up and to grow, and chiefly at the expense of communism. Inasmuch as we had foreseen this – and how could one have failed to foresee it? – our forecast was attributed to our “pessimism.” Is it still necessary now, after the last elections in May 1928 in which the social democrats received more than 9,000,000 votes, to prove that we were correct when at the beginning of 1924 we spoke and wrote that there must inevitably follow a revival of the social democracy for a certain period, while the “optimists” who were already chanting the requiem over the social democracy were grossly mistaken? Above all, the Fifth Congress of the Comintern was grossly mistaken.(10)

Trotsky had a thousand and one reasons for fearing, against the opinion of the 'optimists', a social democratic revival accompanied by a process of capitalism’s stabilisation, encouraged, if not determined, by revolutionary failure. Yet once again, we repeat, it is no good pretending that everything can be explained in terms of errors of perspective and evaluation or incompetence. The KPD failed, and with it, the possibility of a revolutionary solution to the crisis, both because it artificially anticipated the situation, in the initial phase, and then because it was itself overtaken by events. Above all, however, the tactic of frontism prevented the party from providing a clear political lead. Thus, even in the subsequent phase when the party was overtaken by the workers' spontaneous action, not only was it unable to adapt, but it became an obstacle to the maturation of the situation.

Having created the conditions, defeat could only be inevitable, and on the open road of defeat the path of capitalist preservation in social democratic guise began.

Fabio Damen
Battaglia Comunista
October 1982


(1) Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin (1928),

(2) Zinoviev quoted by Trotsky, ibid.,

(3) Trotsky, ibid.,

(4) Trotsky, ibid.,

(5) In those years (1921-24) both before and after the failure of the German Revolution, in both the centre of the Communist International and within the Communist groups on the periphery, it was believed that the situation was still "objectively" revolutionary. Only in 1926, in the Sixth Enlarged Executive, were two tendencies made explicit: that of the stabilisation of international capitalism (Bukharin) and that of the permanence of the revolutionary situation (Zinoviev).

(6) See the 21 Conditions of Admission to the Communist International, 1920.

(7) In 1922, just one year after its formation, the PCd'I (Communist Party of Italy), which programmatically owed its existence to the Bolshevik experience and the guidelines of the Second Congress of the International, found itself having to deal with the 'deviation' of the Third Congress of the International over the policy of the “united front” and “workers' government”.

(8) Pravda quoted by Trotsky, ibid.,

(9) Trotsky, ibid.,

(10) Trotsky, ibid.,

Friday, January 12, 2024