Hermann Weber has added about nine hundred pages to the already long bibliography of German Communist history, with his massive work Die Wandlung des deutschen Kommunismus.footnote1 The first question prospective readers will ask is: did he have to? The answer, on the whole, is yes. These two volumes are a monument of erudition and patient, thorough research—17 public archives in Western Germany alone have been consulted—though unfortunately only a provisional one. The major sources for the history of the kpd in the Weimar Republic are in Moscow, and therefore likely to be inaccessible for quite a while, and in East Berlin, and therefore also inaccessible to researchers without the backing of the Central Committee of the sed, among whom Dr Weber is not going to be numbered. He has had to rely essentially on public records, notably police files (when will students of the British left in the 1920’s have as much access to relevant material in our Public Records as historians in other countries?), on a few private archives, a mass of interviews and memoranda from survivors of the period, printed sources and the literature. Probably he has not missed very much, but a monograph about 6 years of kpd history designed on this scale must inevitably suffer far more than a less detailed book from the inability to get at crucial documentation.

Still, let us be grateful for what we have until something even better becomes possible. Dr Weber has written at the very least an invaluable work of reference. The statistical data about the kpd’s districts in vol. I and the 300-page Who’s Who of its functionaries in vol. II are enough to make the work indispensable. But there is more here than a mere collection of facts and data, or even one of the comparatively rare histories of German Communism which is free from the embittered personal involvement in past party and Comintern infighting, from which older writers find it impossible to escape. Weber has written a rather sensible book, which throws light on problems which go far beyond the interest of students of the kpd.

The problem with which he is essentially concerned is what happens to a revolutionary party in a non-revolutionary situation. The kpd was founded and grew as a revolutionary party, or at least a party of radical and active rejection of, or rather—to use the current slang—‘confrontation’ with, the status quo. It was founded when the Empire had collapsed, and the German Councils’ Republic might reasonably be expected to follow soon, as the Russian October had followed February; and in so doing inaugurate the world revolution. 1919 was an apocalyptic year. Even Lenin, the most hard-headed of revolutionaries, thought it might bring the great break-through. The young German cp brought to its great tasks an able if small marxist leadership, immediately decimated by the assassinations of Luxemburg, Liebknecht and Jogiches, but also a rank-and-file composed largely of the utopian radicals, quasi-anarchist or socially marginal elements who are likely to flood into small and loosely structured nuclei of radical opposition in times of revolutionary upsurge. Most of these ultra-lefts moved away from the kpd within a year or two, though not without leaving behind a tendency towards ‘heroic illusions’ about the possibilities of the situation, a certain putschism, and a residuum of ultra-radicalism.

The German ‘October’ did not take place. On the contrary, the old regime, minus the Emperor but plus a passionately and viscerally anti-revolutionary and governmental Social-Democracy, re-established itself. What became the mass kpd, after the 1920 merger with the left wing of the Independent Socialists, expressed essentially the profound disappointment of large strata of the German working class with the failure of the social revolution and their embittered economic discontent. It represented all those forces—proletarian and intellectual—which rejected and hated a Republic which had few Republicans, but plenty of generals, policemen, bureaucrats, tycoons and judges whose reactionary bias was flagrant and incendiary, and which had installed a restoration of economic, social, political and legal injustice.

In social terms, the new kpd attracted the young—in 1926 80 per cent of its leading functionaries were below 40, 30 per cent below 30 and its average age was 34;footnote2 the unskilled—an unusually high percentage of 13.5 among the top functionaries were drawn from them; the unemployed—in 1927, at the peak of economic stabilisation, 27 per cent of the Berlin membership were jobless. Like all working-class organization, however, its cadre rested largely on the basic rock of skilled proletarians, especially—as so often—the metalworkers. Three quarters of its leading functionaries had only elementary school education, though at the other extreme 10 per cent were university graduates; among the membership 95 per cent had only been to primary school, 1 per cent to universities. Historically, half its leaders but 70 per cent of its members had entered politics since 1917. The relatively large number of pre-1917 Social-Democrats among the functionaries came into it at the time of the merger with the Independent Socialists. Only about 20 per cent of the functionaries in the 1920’s had belonged to the Spartacus League or the radical left during the war, so that the direct Rosa Luxemburg traditions were distinctly weak; on the other hand only 36 out of the almost 4,000 full-time employees of the Social-Democratic party bureaucracy in 1914 were to be found as kpd full-timers in the 1920’s.

The kpd was new, young, underprivileged, radically hostile to the system and ready for revolution, which seemed to be possible if not probable until its great defeat in the autumn of 1923. This explains the strength within it of the uncompromising, offensive-minded, activist and often sectarian left. There is no doubt that among the various factions and currents of opinions within it, which fought out their differences in the early years with the usual pre-stalinist freedom and vigour (those were the days when it did not need a communiqué to state that discussions had been ‘full and frank’), the Left enjoyed by far the greatest support—in 1924 perhaps 75 per cent. The Right, mostly ex-Spartacists who provided the basic leadership until 1923, was weak, except among the skilled workers—though not the intellectuals. The middle group or ‘conciliators’ which split away from the Right after 1923, as the Left took over, represented mainly party professionals, though they could count on about a quarter of the membership.

The kpd’s problem up to 1923 was how to make the revolution, which seemed within reach, and which was essential not merely for the triumph of world socialism, but for the Soviet Republic itself. The German soviet revolution was the necessary complement to the Russian revolution, and even Lenin was quite prepared in theory to envisage a situation when the home of Marx, Engels, technological progress and economic efficiency would take over as the centre of the socialist world. In 1919 the Comintern regarded Berlin as the logical place for its headquarters, its location in Moscow as temporary. The German cp was treated as an equal—according to Weber even at the end of 1922—though we may suspect that the wily Radek, whose long experience of the German socialist movement made him the man chiefly responsible for German affairs in Moscow, held distinctly more modest expectations about its chances. The major problem for the kpd in this period was posed by its deep involvement with Moscow; an involvement arising both from the relative age, strength and tradition of the kpd and from the crucial importance of German prospects for Soviet Russia and the whole international revolution. The kpd might not wish to be mixed up in Russian affairs, but it could hardly help being so, especially since Zinoviev was in charge of the Comintern and Radek, a supporter of Trotsky at a crucial stage, was its German expert. Beside this, the internal confusion of the party seemed a minor problem. In the first place the years 1919–23 clarified it somewhat by eliminating both the bulk of the utopian-syndicalist ultra-left and a ex-socialdemocratic right. In the second place, the prospect of revolution makes differences which might otherwise bulk large, comparatively manageable: in 1917, after all, such fundamental distinctions as those between Marx and Bakunin had not caused much trouble in Russia.