Seventy years after his death in 1930, a full biography of Paul Levi is still awaited. In English, the material available on him is scant indeed. Yet the most basic facts of his life, cut short in middle years, suggest an individual whose contribution to the socialist cause was significant, and whose personality has a certain fascination. Levi led the German Communist Partyfootnote1 in its first two years, after the deaths of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht on 15 January 1919, and of Leo Jogiches on 10 March. The party he inherited, orphaned within weeks of its birth, suffered further defeats in the next few months. Yet, by the end of 1920, Levi presided over a buoyant party with a third of a million members—this dramatic turnaround due chiefly to his adept tactical decisions. His dispute with the Comintern, however, was already incipient: he resigned from the leadership in February 1921, and was expelled from the party after denouncing the disastrous ‘March Action’ instigated by Moscow’s emissaries. Though both Lenin and Levi sought for a while to repair the breach, the parting of the ways became final in 1922 when Levi published Rosa Luxemburg’s pamphlet on the Russian Revolution, and Lenin countered by compiling the list of heresies shortly to be known as ‘Luxemburgism’.

It is this controversy in the early years of Communism with which Levi’s name is principally associated. Yet his political career was far from ended. As a Reichstag member for ‘red Saxony’, he was intellectual leader of the left opposition within the reunited spd. Already in 1923, he warned of the dangerous social roots of the Nazi movement, and struggled to defend and advance the democratic gains of the Weimar republic. As a lawyer, he fought a string of celebrated political trials, culminating in the Jorns case which established the facts of the murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht and exposed the cover-up that had taken place. When he died suddenly in January 1930, among the many obituaries was that of Albert Einstein, who called Levi ‘one of the wisest, most just and courageous persons I have come across’.footnote2

Discussion of Levi in English literature has focused almost entirely on his expulsion from the kpd, and only one scholarly article has done justice even to this. In 1964, Helmut Gruber wrote in Survey on ‘Paul Levi and the Comintern’, and went on to publish some key texts by Levi and his adversaries in his collection International Communism in the Age of Lenin.footnote3 Gruber’s presentation still stands up well as far as it goes. But his narrow focus did not even allow a discussion of Levi’s achievement in building the kpd into a mass party, while the material on Levi gathered in subsequent German publications casts the ‘Levi case’ in a broader perspective. A review of Levi’s career at this point may assist debate on such questions as whether revolutionary socialism in Weimar Germany could have taken a different form from Leninism; whether Rosa Luxemburg’s interpretation of Marxism could have been successfully applied; and to what degree the division of the Left into two warring camps, unable to resist the rise of fascism, was historically determined.

Paul Levi was born on 11 March 1883 into a securely bourgeois family, typical of assimilated Germans of Jewish origin in its dedication to literature and the arts, and to the values of liberal democracy.footnote4 Less typically, their home was in Hechingen, a small town in the Swabian hills, where Paul’s father owned a textile mill. He attended the Gymnasium in Stuttgart, and his twin passions of socialism and law were formed before he left school. His university studies took him to France as well as other German cities, and he retained a certain admiration for Clemenceau—defender of Dreyfus and of the republic. The subject of his doctoral thesis at Heidelberg was ‘Complaints and Actions against the Administration’, but he was widely read even by the standards of his time, and, in the 1920s, was to produce original interpretations of the trial of Socrates and of the Cataline conspiracy. From 1906, he practised as a lawyer in Frankfurt, and contributed sufficiently to the work of the spd to be elected a town councillor in 1914. He made no original claims as a theorist, though he remained true to classical Marxism and competently edited Rosa Luxemburg’s posthumous Introduction to Political Economy. It was as a shrewd political tactician that Levi came into his own, seeking the best way forward for the proletarian cause.

Levi was uncompromisingly an intellectual, even something of an aesthete. He collected Chinese porcelain, and this figured significantly on the charge-sheet drawn up by Karl Radek as secretary of the Comintern. At meetings of thekpd Zentrale,footnote5 if business dragged, he would pull out a copy of the London Times to read. Tall and lanky, elegantly dressed, a keen skier and automobilist, he was equally removed from any Jewish stereotype and from being a ‘man of the people’. To his kpd comrades, he seemed somewhat solitary, and most of them did not feel very warm in their relations with him.footnote6 He never married, and enjoyed the freedom of a bachelor existence, though at his funeral ‘alongside left-wing journalists and writers stood fur-clad young women, more than one of whom could have worn widow’s weeds’.footnote7 He could lapse jovially into the Swabian dialect of his childhood environment, and in Saxony was to win friendship and admiration for his dedication to his working-class constituency.

In September 1913, Rosa Luxemburg was charged in Frankfurt after a speech in which she called on workers to refuse to fire on their class brothers if the threat of war materialized. Paul Levi was recommended to her as a lawyer, and became right away a staunch disciple. The case itself was a cause célèbre when it came to trial in February 1914, and Rosa Luxemburg’s defence a bravura performance. What remained a close secret, until her letters to Levi were unearthed in the 1980s, is that, for nearly a year, the pair had a passionate love affair. The correspondence—only her side survives—shows hasty meetings, joint speaking tours, holiday plans. A few brief extracts will give its complex tenor:

‘Darling, that was so nice: on Monday you preached on imperialism in Frankfurt, on Tuesday I did in Charlottenburg.’footnote8 ‘What do you think, darling, how fantastic! It’s a prosecution from war minister von Falkenhaym for insult to the officer corps and ncos, because at the Freiburg meeting on 7 March I proposed proceedings against the abuse of conscripts and told how these “defenders of the fatherland” are kicked around.’footnote9‘My love, yesterday the desire for a word from you made me sick, first thing today your letter arrived. I was already prepared for unpleasant decisions. Rosen[feld] and others here believe I may be imprisoned any moment. . .’footnote10