Isaac Deutscher and Heinrich Brandler had in common the fact that they were among the small number of communist oppositionists from the twenties and thirties who survived into the post-war era without modifying their fundamental political stance: without succumbing to cold-war, social-democratic or Stalinist pressures. In short, both remained revolutionaries and Marxists. However, they had a widely divergent political formation, and the correspondence below shows deep differences as well as significant areas of agreement. The material published here essentially covers two great complexes of events in Germany, commonly summed up in two dates, 1923 and 1953. 1923—the ‘German October’; 1953—the German Kronstadt (as Brandler might have put it) or the German Vendée (Deutscher’s implied evaluation). Even the sharp contrast of views on the latter, however, does not prevent the correspondence from being a notably fruitful and instructive exchange.

Deutscher’s general political position will be sufficiently familiar to most readers of nlr to make any elucidation superfluous. But Brandler’s comments need, I think, to be set in the context of his whole political life and activity, both inside and outside the Communist Party of Germany (kpd). In the leadership of the Party from its foundation, he was its dominant leader—despite periods in prison and political exile—from 1921 to 1924. Subsequently, despite being held in Moscow in ‘honorary imprisonment’, he was the absent presence in the factional struggles of the twenties within the kpd. After Stalin’s break with Bukharin in 1928, and the initiation of the ultra-left ‘Third Period’ course in the Comintern, the ‘Right’ was expelled from the German as from the Russian Party. A new Party was formed, the Communist Party of Germany (Opposition) (kpo), headed by Brandler and dubbed by its opponents ‘the Brandlerite faction’. There followed for Brandler years of struggle within Germany to achieve a united front against Fascism with the Social Democrats; then clandestine action against the Hitler régime, followed by years of exile, first in France, then in Cuba. Finally, remarkably enough, came Brandler’s post-war return to Occupied Germany and the reconstitution of the cadres of the old kpo and the renewal of political activity through the Gruppe Arbeiterpolitik.

The continuity of Brandler’s political activity from the twenties to the fifties is matched by a substantive continuity in his positions. In the early years of the kpd, he supported participation and work in the spd dominated trade-union movement; participation in elections and parliamentary debates; the expulsion of those communists who did not accept this policy (i.e. Levi’s coup at the Heidelberg Congress of 1919); and finally, and most importantly, the united front tactic of co-operation on the basis of a minimum programme with other working-class organizations—instituted in Germany in January 1921 well in advance of any decision by the Comintern. From 1921 to 1923, together with Thalheimer, he played a key role in the majority leadership of the kpd, defending and implementing the united front tactic against the attacks of the rising stars of the ‘Left’, Ruth Fischer and Arkadi Maslow.footnote1 The Left position was that the united front should only be applied ‘from below’; i.e. that appeals should be made to spd workers to come over to communism, but there should be no negotiations or joint action with the leaders of the spd or the trade-union Confederation (adgb).

It was Brandler’s misfortune to be chairman of the Party on the two occasions—March 1921 and October 1923—when a revolutionary situation was judged to be developing. His misfortune, because his entire united front policy was in fact based on the assumption that the post-war wave of revolution had passed over Germany, and that the kpd’s main task was to win over the majority of the German working class. Whether Brandler was right about this is open to debate, but matters were certainly made worse by his failure to act consistently in accordance with his views (in stark contrast to Levi and Meyer). Both the March Action of 1921 and the abortive German October of 1923 were initiated under his leadership. In the latter case, it is true, there was considerable pressure from the Comintern, i.e. the leading Russian Bolsheviks. Did he then have any choice? He claims that in 1923 he did: against his better judgment he accepted Zinoviev’s and Trotsky’s view that a revolutionary situation had developed in Germany, which the kpd must utilize to seize power. It would be interesting to know Brandler’s real role in the March Action. He asserts in the course of this correspondence that he agreed with Levi’s critique. Why then did he allow the March Action to take place?

Brandler was Party chairman from February 1921 until June 1921, when he was imprisoned on charges arising out of March. Shortly afterwards he escaped, and made his way to Soviet Russia, returning to Germany in 1922 under the Rathenau amnesty, to become Party chairman again in January 1923. Several ongoing crises reached their height in Germany in 1923. In foreign relations, there was the French occupation of the Ruhr and passive resistance to it. Economically, there was the Great Inflation with all its consequences for the standard of life of broad, and not only proletarian strata of the population. Politically, there was separatism in Bavaria, a rapid growth of Fascist and semi-Fascist groups all over the Reich, and a concomitant radicalization of the working class, whether social-democratic or communist. Brandlet’s reaction to all this was to stick to the demand for a ‘workers’ government’, in which communists would co-operate with other working-class organizations on the basis of a largely defensive programme. Opposition to this came from the Left, but for the first six months of 1923 Brandler’s leadership, and his line, were not seriously challenged, mainly because no leading Bolshevik yet thought a revolutionary situation existed in Germany.

Suddenly, however, and most probably early in August, under the impact above all of the news that a communist-led general strike had brought down the Cuno government (11 August), Trotsky and Zinoviev both decided that revolution was on the cards in Germany in the immediate future.footnote2 August 1923 was the time to strike, if ever (this is not the place to discuss whether the situation really was of a revolutionary or prerevolutionary character). The Ruhr crisis was at its height; the inflation was beginning to accelerate to astronomical proportions; the workers were eager for action. Yet here the inherent absurdity of conducting a revolution by remote control showed itself. Until the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ekki) recognized the revolutionary situation for what it was, it could not exist for the kpd; given communist discipline, a seizure of power unauthorized by the Comintern was unthinkable. Worse than this, the ekki, including Trotsky, insisted on planning every detail of the action. This inevitably meant a further delay, of seven weeks in fact. By then, any opportunity had slipped by. The ablest representative of the German ruling class of that time, Gustav Stresemann, was now in control of the situation. As so often, the hour produced the man. Brandler was no German Lenin; Stresemann was no German Kerensky. On the contrary, it was his historic task to integrate the discontented German bourgeoisie into the Weimar system, and to detach a part of the proletariat in support of this programme. In the short run, he succeeded. Faced with certain defeat or humiliating retreat, Brandler chose the latter. The German communists rose in one place alone, Hamburg, owing to a fault in liaison, and were duly routed.

Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, the October débâcle added fuel to the factional struggle which had been proceeding since Lenin fell ill. The ‘troika’, as Brandler calls them, consisting of Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin, invented a link between Brandler and Trotsky, and tried to tar Trotsky with the brush of Brandler’s inadequacies as a revolutionary leader. With supreme hypocrisy, Zinoviev in December 1923 described the entry of communist ministers into coalition governments in Saxony and Thuringia in October, a step taken by the kpd very unwillingly on the insistence of Zinoviev himself and others in the ekki, as a ‘banal parliamentary combination’. Brandler was now under attack from above, from Zinoviev, the head of the Comintern; he was also under attack from below, from the Left within the kpd. There was no way he could survive as leader of the Party. In the course of 1924, the Left succeeded in driving out first Brandler and Thalheimer (the ‘Right’) and then the ‘Centre’ group; by the time of the Ninth Party Congress (April 1924), Fischer, Maslow and Thälmann were able to secure exclusive power for their faction, Brandler was effectively forced out of the Party.