Germany’s precarious stability was shattered in January 1923 when French troops occupied the Ruhr industrial area to extract, at gunpoint, the “war reparations” which the German imperialists were being forced to pay as the price of their defeat in the World War.
The German economy slumped. Inflation, already skyrocketing during 1922, became astronomical – probably in the region of 1,000,000,000,000,000% during 1922-1923!
The living standards of workers and the middle class collapsed. The working class swung sharply to the left. Factory councils sprang up in opposition to the reformist union leaders. The KPD (Communist Party of Germany) grew by tens of thousands. “Proletarian hundreds” (workers’ militias) were formed, involving 60,000 workers by the autumn, with (by capitalist estimates) 11,000 rifles in their hands.
In two states, Saxony and Thuringia, left-wing SPD governments were in power, relying on KPD support.
On 11 August a general strike brought down the right-wing Cuno government in Berlin. Germany was in a revolutionary crisis.
The workers’ leadership was unprepared. The KPD leadership was divided between the “centre”, “left” and “right” factions, with the cautious Brandler at its head. Hesitation and uncertainty marked its policy throughout.
The Comintern was increasingly affected by the struggle in the Soviet party. The conservatism and short-sightedness of the bureaucracy, transmitted through the leadership of the Soviet party, was beginning to prevail.
The Comintern representative in Germany, Radek, gave his full backing to Brandler. As late as July Stalin advised that “the Germans should be restrained and not spurred on”. (Carr, The Interregnum 1923-1924.)
Only with the fall of the Cuno government did the Executive Committee of the Comintern (ECCI) accept Trotsky’s argument that a struggle for power was on the agenda in Germany, that political and organisational preparations for armed insurrection urgently needed to be made.
But tragically, this policy was not followed through. Trotsky sums up what happened:
Why didn’t the German revolution lead to a victory? The reasons for it are all to be sought in the tactics, and not in the existing conditions. Here we had a classical 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 convinces 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 [to insurrection] very irresolutely and after a very long delay. Not only the Rights but also the Lefts… viewed rather fatalistically the process of revolutionary development up to September-October 1923.The Third International After Lenin
The triumvirate was incapable of intervening and instilling a bold revolutionary understanding of the situation in the KPD leadership. Trotsky was deliberately isolated. The consequences were disastrous. As a close co-worker of Trotsky wrote in 1936 (quoted in Ted Grant, The Rise and Fall of the Third International): “When the German bourgeoisie at last gathered its forces, proclaimed a state of siege, proceeded to take the offensive, the [KPD] capitulated without a struggle” – that is, they called off the insurrection. (Word of the capitulation did not reach Hamburg in time, and an isolated uprising took place, which was crushed after days of fighting.)
The failure of the KPD leadership cost the German working class, and the European revolution, the chance of a victory that would have changed the course of world history. Instead, the KPD was declared illegal for some months. With massive US aid, the German economy was stabilised and capitalism pulled back from the brink.
A few months earlier the mass Bulgarian Communist Party after its leaders, dogmatically, refused to enter a united from with the Peasant Union government against a right-wing military coup. Also in Poland the workers, inspired into action by the German events, were defeated.
These setbacks had a critical effect on the inner-party struggle in Russia. Germany in particular had always been seen as the key to the European revolution. Now it became clear that no relief could be expected from Western Europe in the months or years ahead.
A vicious cycle was set in motion. The increasing grip of the bureaucracy on the Soviet party (and through it, on the Comintern) was becoming a serious obstacle to the development of revolutionary policies and leadership internationally. The setbacks resulting from this, in turn strengthened the currents of demoralisation and conservatism which the bureaucracy thrived on.
Less politicised workers began to lose confidence in the Marxist perspective of international revolution. To backward layers, the scepticism and cynicism of the bureaucracy began to look “realistic”.
“A wave of depression passed over Russia,” Serge wrote, “and the bureaucracy had its own way for three years.” (From Lenin to Stalin.)