The First Mass Communist Party

Nathaniel Flakin

December 6, 2020

The United Communist Party of Germany (VKPD) was founded 100 years ago.

The foundation of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) is well known. On New Year’s Eve 1918 and New Year’s Day 1919, a stormy congress took place in the ballroom of the Prussian parliament. Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, and their Spartacus League united a disparate group of revolutionaries in the new party.

Yet the KPD was tiny. One could say the party’s real foundation took place two years later. The KPD’s sixth congress, which took place in Berlin on December 4–7, 1920, was a “fusion congress” that founded the United Communist Party of Germany (VKPD). The new party joined together the original KPD with the much larger left-wing majority of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD). The KPD had started with perhaps 10,000 members, but it now had up to 500,000 workers signed up, making the VKPD the first mass communist party in western Europe.

One hundred years later, the political struggles that were necessary to create a mass communist party offer important lessons. In a time when revolutionary socialists are again marginalized and in search of mass influence, there is a strong urge to hitch our wagons to neoreformist or even “progressive” bourgeois forces. The VKPD shows an alternative to reformist get-rich-quick schemes.

During the War

To understand the forces that united to form the VKPD, we first need to look back at the history of the German workers’ movement. Since 1875, the working class had been organized in a single party, the SPD, with different tendencies. The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 brought the SPD’s divisions out into the open.

The party’s right wing around cochair Friedrich Ebert, hoping to become a central component of a constitutional monarchy, came out strongly in support of German imperialism. The left wing, inspired by figures like Rosa Luxemburg, stuck to the SPD’s revolutionary principles, not only opposing the war but also attempting to use the crisis created by the war “to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.”1This was the formulation agreed to at the Stuttgart Congress of the Socialist International in 1907. Between these two wings, there was the “Center,” led by SPD cochair Hugo Haase and chief theoretician Karl Kautsky, who developed ambiguous theories to keep the left and right wings, with their opposing strategies, under the same organizational roof.

When the war began, the Center’s strategic ambiguity became untenable. The war demanded a clear answer: for or against? The centrists struggled to find a middle position. They would support a defensive war, but not an offensive one; they would give war credits to the kaiser, but lobby him to end it as soon as possible. This was all meaningless.

The right wing, with a clear, pro-imperialist policy, seized control of the party. The left wing was silenced by two separate police forces: the generals enforcing a “state of siege,” and the party bureaucrats with their “civil peace.” The bureaucracy prohibited strikes and demonstrations just as ruthlessly as the capitalist state. Over the previous 40 years, German capitalism had grown by leaps and bounds, and the workers’ movement had developed a powerful bureaucracy. By some estimates, the SPD and the unions had 100,000 full-time party and union bureaucrats. They led a privileged lifestyle that was financed by the superprofits of German imperialism, and they increasingly identified with the state. They were agents of the bourgeoisie within the workers’ movement, and the war allowed them to finally unfurl their banner.

Everyone, including the revolutionary Left, was shocked when the SPD voted to support the war on August 4, 1914. Just a week earlier, social democracy had organized massive demonstrations for peace.

Kautsky would later justify his refusal to oppose the war: what difference would it have made if a “handful of parliamentarians” had cried out in protest and given an “order” to fight back, if the workers themselves were not taking to the streets? The Russian revolutionary V. I. Lenin, who at the time was living in exile in Switzerland, responded,

It was this handful who were asked to express their opinion; it was this handful who were called upon to vote, they were in a position to vote; they were in a position to write articles, etc. The masses were not consulted. Not only were they not permitted to vote, but they were disunited and coerced “by orders,” not from a handful of parliamentarians, but from the military authorities.

The Left in Germany gathered that evening in Luxemburg’s apartment to discuss their response to the betrayal. They sent out 300 telegrams asking who would sign an antiwar declaration — and received a single positive response, from Clara Zetkin in Stuttgart. Luxemburg announced her intention to commit suicide as the only way to make the desperately needed protest heard.

Lenin lacked Luxemburg’s insights into the true nature of the SPD — when he received a newspaper announcing the SPD’s vote for war credits, he was sure it was a forgery by German military intelligence. But when he understood what had happened, he reoriented to the new situation, with a party and cadres ready to implement the new perspectives. In less than three months, this party declared that “the Second International is dead” and that forces needed to be gathered for a Third International.

Luxemburg’s comrades, in contrast, had none of those resources. The German Left had to organize from scratch — under conditions of illegality. They published a first issue of a magazine, Die Internationale, in April 1915 — 5,000 issues were snatched up on the day it appeared, but it was immediately prohibited and confiscated by the military authorities. Karl Liebknecht, as a member of the Reichstag, enjoyed immunity. He had voted against the second war credits in December 1914 with a fiery denunciation of the imperialist war. This made him a working-class hero, and he began distributing fliers signed by “Spartacus.”

A Spartacus group was founded on January 2, 1916, in Liebknecht’s law office. By that time, Luxemburg was already in prison. Liebknecht was expelled from parliament a few months later and put in prison as well. The underground group managed to publish its first printed flyer, written by Luxemburg in her prison cell and titled Spartacus, in September 1916. Liebknecht declared, “Civil war, not civil peace!!”

The Center vs. the Left

As the war dragged on, hope of a quick victory disappeared, and the situation of the working class, both at the front and at home, became miserable. The kaiser’s government and its social democratic supporters no longer tried to present the war as “defensive” — they talked openly of their plans to annex territories in Belgium and France.

In December 1915, the SPD’s centrists finally voted against new war credits. These 20 “December men” were expelled from the SPD’s fraction in the Reichstag. Before long, the SPD leadership expelled anyone who didn’t share their enthusiasm for the war. Up to half of the party’s members were expelled — including whole SPD organizations in Berlin, Bremen, Leipzig, and other big cities.

In April 1917, the expelled founded their own party, which they called the Independent Social Democratic Party. How would the Left relate to this new party of the center? The Spartacists very critical of the “December men,” the “ Johnny-come-latelies” who had supported the war for more than a year and even now rejected revolutionary action to stop it. The new party, including not just Kautsky but even the father of reformism, Eduard Bernstein, could be nothing more than a “party of half measures and ambiguities,” as Luxemburg put it.

The strongest local branches of the Spartacus group, such as in Chemnitz or Stuttgart, wanted to boycott the USPD and create a new revolutionary party. This was also the case in Bremen, where the Left had been strong enough to take over the local SPD and kick out the reformists. Karl Radek, writing in the journal of the Bremen Left Radicals, called on the Left to march “under its own banner”:

The idea of constructing a party jointly with the centrists is a dangerous utopia. Whether the circumstances are favourable or not, the left radicals must construct their own party if they wish to fulfill their historic mission.2Karl Radek, “Unterm eigenen Banner,” in Arbeiterpolitik, nos. 8 and 9, 1917, quoted in Pierre Broué, The German Revolution 1917–1923 (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 81.

Spartacus had just a few hundred members, subjected to constant repression, but it also had the enormous prestige of Luxemburg and Liebknecht. They were the only ones who could take the lead in launching a new party. But they resisted. Leo Jogiches, Luxemburg’s lifelong comrade-in-arms who led the underground organization, believed that any new revolutionary party would be a “sect” — joining the USPD, in contrast, would allow the revolutionaries to stay in touch with the masses while retaining freedom of criticism. The USPD was a legal party with many newspapers and leaders working out of Reichstag offices — the leaders of the Spartacus group, in contrast, were trapped in prison.

Spartacus thus joined the USPD, whose centrist leaders would benefit from Liebknecht’s prestige. Spartacus remained critical of the USPD’s leaders, but organizational unity dampened this criticism. If everyone from Bernstein to Luxemburg could be in one party, could the Center and the Left be that different? And as the Trotskyist historian Pierre Broué pointed out, this decision effectively split the radical Left, as the Bremen Left Radicals formed their own organization, the International Socialists of Germany (ISD), outside the USPD. While the radical Left in Germany should have been hammering out a common program, Spartacus was tied to the USPD, while the ISD came under a certain syndicalist influence.

The Revolution Arrives

The revolution finally broke out in Germany in November 1918. Millions of workers and soldiers took to the streets, forming workers’ and soldiers’ councils all across the country. The best elements tended to join the USPD, including the sailors who mutinied on the battleships and the Revolutionary Stewards, the network of Berlin metalworkers who organized the insurrectionary general strike on November 9.

You might be interested in: 100 Years Ago in Berlin: German Revolutionaries Step on the Grass// Revolution and Counterrevolution in Germany // The Bitter Lesson of a Defeat

The USPD leaders held revolutionary speeches, yet they acted as a brake on the revolution. Figures like Haase and Wilhelm Dittmann joined together with right-wing social democrats like Ebert and Philip Scheidemann to form a new government, fraudulently called the Council of People’s Deputies. The USPD leaders served as a “revolutionary” fig leaf for the SPD — which, for its part, was preparing a counterrevolution.

When the workers’ and soldiers’ councils gathered for a national congress in December 1918, the big question was whether Germany should be “council republic” (implying a socialist system run by workers) or have a “national assembly” (a capitalist system under the control of the bourgeoisie). Spartacus was clearly for the former and the SPD clearly for the latter — while the USPD, true to its centrist principles, elaborated utopian plans to combine workers’ councils with a bourgeois parliament.

Finally, the Spartacist leaders realized they needed to form their own party separate from the centrists. They had hoped to win a majority in the USPD, but that party’s leadership was refusing to call a party congress to decide on the most pressing questions posed by the revolution. This is how the founding congress of the KPD was called for New Year’s Eve 1918. Jogiches, renowned for his unwavering positions, voted against founding a new party, and Clara Zetkin remained skeptical, but Luxemburg changed her mind.

The new party brought together the Spartacus League, the ISD (now the IKD), and other revolutionary groups. But it remained tiny. The Revolutionary Stewards, despite last-minute negotiations with Liebknecht, refused to join. In a few places like Neukölln, a workers’ district outside Berlin, the majority of USPD members voted to join the new Communist Party. But this was a rare exception: most USPD members stayed where they were.

Founded and Decapitated

The new KPD was not just tiny but politically confused. Many of the delegates at the founding congress had only awoken to political life in the stormy weeks of the revolution, and they assumed that the socialist revolution in Germany would be victorious in just a few weeks more.

Thus, why participate in elections to a bourgeois parliament? Why work in trade unions led by reactionary bureaucrats? All these complicated problems, the congress majority believed, would be quickly resolved by the rising tide of the proletarian revolution. Luxemburg tried in vain to explain that the revolution was closer to its beginning than to its end. Suffering from the “infantile disorder” of ultraleftism, the congress voted to boycott the upcoming elections to the national assembly. They would have voted for communists to boycott the trade unions as well, had Luxemburg not called for postponing a decision on this question.

Luxemburg and Liebknecht founded the kind of party that the German working class needed to triumph. But this step came far too late. During the revolution, the working class was divided between one counterrevolutionary party (the SPD) and another that wavered at every decisive moment (the USPD). The councils that had popped up all over Germany were still dominated by bureaucrats and adventurers. The masses of workers had as yet been unable to test these different leaderships by experience. There was no revolutionary party with cadres in every workplace and neighborhood that could, at every decisive moment, point out the next step toward workers’ power. The counterrevolution, in contrast, had a functioning general staff formed by the SPD and the military.

The Spartacists’ tardiness in founding a revolutionary party was not some organizational failure. Until the last second, Luxemburg opposed the step, writing,

It is always possible to walk out of small sects or small coteries, and, if one does not want to stay there, to apply oneself to building new sects and new coteries. But it is only an irresponsible daydream to want to liberate the whole mass of the working class from the very weighty and dangerous yoke of the bourgeoisie by a simple “walk-out.”3Rosa Luxemburg, “Offener Brief an Gesinnungsfreunde,” signed by Gracchus, in Der Kampf, Duisburg, no. 31, January 6, 1917, quoted in Broué, German Revolution, 71.

Having spent so much of her revolutionary life fighting the bureaucracy that was suffocating the German workers’ movement, Luxemburg believed that revolutionary workers needed to resist all forms of centralized leadership. In the final article she wrote before her murder, she drew a balance sheet of the workers’ uprising in January 1919. “The leadership failed,” she wrote. “But a new leadership can and must be created by the masses and from the masses.” This idea, that such a leadership could be improvised in the stormy days of revolution, had already proved a devastating error. And Luxemburg had recognized that error, at least implicitly, by founding the Communist Party.

Two weeks later, this new party was decapitated. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were assassinated by right-wing paramilitary Freikorps on the orders of the SPD government. Jogiches took over the KPD leadership — and was himself killed by police in March 1919.

Long Live the Third International!

On March 2 of that year, the Communist International was founded at a congress in Moscow. This congress brought together the Bolsheviks, who had led the successful revolution in Russia and now led a workers’ government, with mostly small groups from other countries. This provided some international leadership for the German communists.

You might be interested in: Kautsky, Luxemburg, and Lenin in Light of the German Revolution

The task of fighting the KPD’s “infantile” ultraleftism fell to Luxemburg’s successor, the lawyer Paul Levi. At the KPD’s second congress in October 1919 in Heidelberg, Levi had the delegates vote on the basic principles of the Communist International, principles that would serve as the basis of party membership — these included participating in bourgeois elections and working in reformist trade unions, always as a revolutionary opposition. In this way, the leadership around Levi drove out a large ultraleft tendency, perhaps half the membership, from the KPD. They went on to form the chaotic, syndicalist Communist Workers Party of Germany (KAPD), which began to fall apart even before it could establish itself.4It has sometimes been claimed that Levi resorted to bureaucratic tricks to expel a majority. But as the historians Florian Wilde and Marcel Bois demonstrate with a detailed study of the source material, the decisions of the Heidelberg congress were based on clear majority votes after months of discussion. Marcel Bois and Florian Wilde,“‘Modell für den künftigen Umgang mit innerparteilicher Diskussion’? Der Heidelberger Parteitag der KPD,” Jahrbuch für Forschungen zur Geschichte der Arbeiterbewegung, 2007/II.

Leaders of the Comintern criticized Levi’s drastic move, since it cut short the political discussion with the ultraleftists, who represented a mass tendency in the German working class. Lenin was convinced that while opportunists needed to be ruthlessly driven out of the workers’ movement, ultraleftists could be won over by patient argument. Levi’s orientation, however, was soon proved right. By distancing the KPD from amateurish ultraleftism, he was able to attract masses of workers from the USPD.

The development of the revolution was rapidly sharpening the contradictions within the USPD. Workers streamed into the party — it reached almost 1 million members in 1920 — and they generally sympathized with the Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks. The foundation of the Communist International was met with such enthusiasm that USPD leaders had to travel to Moscow for the second congress in the summer of 1920. They asked to join the Third International — without accepting the fundamental principles of communism. In response, the Comintern drafted its 21 conditions for any party that sought to enter.

The USPD leaders rejected these conditions as a diktat. They wanted to protect the “autonomy” of their German party rather than build a worldwide communist party. But the USPD’s membership wanted to unite with the Bolsheviks. This contradiction came to a head at the party congress in October 1920 in Halle. Grigori Zinoviev, the president of the Comintern, spoke in favor of joining, while Julius Martov, the leader of the Russian Mensheviks, that is, the reformists, spoke against.5Ben Lewis and Lars T. Lih translated both these historic speeches: Grigori Zinoviev and Julius Martov, Head to Head in Halle (London: November Publications, 2011). Much to the dismay of the USPD bureaucracy, almost two-thirds of delegates voted to join the Comintern. The party’s right wing — which had always claimed the mantle of “democracy” for themselves in opposition to the Bolsheviks — simply walked out.

During the decisive months of the revolution, the USPD had been an instrument for bureaucrats to maintain political control over hundreds of thousands of revolutionary workers. This instrument was now broken. This set the stage for a fusion congress of the KPD and the left majority of the USPD, also including some elements of the KAPD. The KPD, once tiny, now had 450,000 members and 33 daily papers. Above all, the new party had cadres with deep roots in the German working class. With this fusion, the Revolutionary Stewards finally joined the KPD.

Too Early or Too Late?

From this experience, Luxemburg’s closest collaborators all drew the same conclusion: the German working class could have conquered power if a party like the VKPD had existed when the November Revolution broke out — a disciplined and visible organization that could systematically oppose the counterrevolutionary machinations of the SPD and the dithering of the USPD. The defeat of the revolution by the Social Democrats and Freikorps ultimately opened the gates to fascism. A socialist revolution in Germany would have united with the revolution in Russia and thus prevented Stalinist degeneration. In all likelihood, this would have marked the beginning of revolution all around the world.

Franz Mehring, the great Marxist historian and founding member of the Spartacus Group, wrote that they were wrong about only one thing: “when we organizationally joined the independent party after its founding … in the hope of driving them forward.”6Illustrierte Geschichte der deutschen Revolution (Berlin: Internationaler Arbeiter-Verlag, 1929), 163–64, our translation. Paul Levi, Luxemburg’s successor, put it succinctly:

There is not a single communist in Germany today who does not regret that the foundation of a Communist Party did not take place long ago, before the war, and that the Communists did not come together in 1903, even in the form of a small sect, and that they did not form a group, even a small one, which could at least have expressed clarity.7Paul Levi, “Der Parteitag des KP,” in Die Internationale, no. 26 (December 1, 1920): 41, quoted in Broué, German Revolution, 453.

Today, paradoxically, there are communists who see the KPD’s formation as having been too early. Ben Lewis of the CPGB/Weekly Worker group, for example, writes that the KPD’s split from the USPD was “clearly a premature move.”8Ben Lewis, “The four-hour speech and the significance of Halle,” in Zinoviev and Martov, Head to Head in Halle, 19. Ottokar Luban, a prominent historian of the Spartacus Group, writes that in founding the KPD, the group’s “leaders had particularly surrendered themselves to the pressures of a radical spectrum” and could have formed a mass party had they remained in the USPD.9Ottokar Luban, “The Role of the Spartacist Group after 9 November 1918 and the Formation of the KPD,” in Ralf Hoffrogge and Norman LaPorte, Weimar Communism as Mass Movement 1918–1933 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2017), 54. Stefan Bornost from Marx21, a group inside Germany’s left party Die Linke, published an article praising Luxemburg and Liebknecht as “the networkers,” justifying their decision to stay in the SPD and then the USPD. Bornost writes that KPD “did not use its chance” because it had left the USPD. This is, of course, just an attempt to justify Marx21’s adaptation to the bureaucracy of a reformist party that is currently in government in four different German states.

But the Spartacists who joined the USPD drew the opposite conclusion. It was not the presence in the USPD that allowed the Spartacists to reach the masses. It was Liebknecht’s brave, uncompromising stance against the war — in clear opposition to the centrists. By appearing under the same banner as Haase or Kautsky, Liebknecht lent them a prestige that they in no way deserved. It meant that the revolutionaries had their hands tied and were unable to fight for their own program at decisive moments, such as the council congress in mid-December 1918.

By founding the KPD, the Spartacists could push all the left-wing elements of the USPD to abandon their “peaceful coexistence” with their party’s leaders. They showed that an independent party was not just necessary but entirely possible.

Today, similar divisions exist within the socialist movement. If we look at socialism in the United States, we see a right wing made up of reformists who are very open about supporting the Democratic Party of the ruling class, and thus end up giving support to the policies to U.S. imperialism. We also see a left wing of the socialist movement that is fighting for the working class to constitute itself as an independent political force and lead a socialist revolution — we from Left Voice see ourselves as one part of that Left. Finally, we see centrists who try to bridge this gap with confusing and confused theories that seek to blur the line that divides reformists and revolutionaries.

Like the most far-sighted revolutionaries in Germany during the First World War, the task today is to unite the Left, which requires a clear delimitation not only from the Right but also from the Center. In other words, creating a unified socialist movement requires a fight against any compromise with the Democratic Party and its racist and imperialist policies — such policies divide the working class, today as much as 100 years ago. Such a delimitation might appear “sectarian” at the moment — but as the history of the German revolution shows, it is the absolutely necessary precondition for revolutionaries to reach the masses.


Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from New York City. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which appeared last year in German and this year in English. He is on the autism spectrum.