[Marxism] Ian Birchall and the March Action

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Apr 11 22:16:53 MDT 2013

Ian Birchall:
Levi’s characterisation of the March Action as a putsch was misleading. 
Thousands of Communist workers took part, many with enthusiasm, often 
former Independent Socialist Party members who had joined the KPD hoping 
for rapid action.21 The best estimate of those participating was over 
200,000 workers on strike, plus unemployed and youth who took part in 
demonstrations: far too few for a bid for power, but rather a lot for a 

full: http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=891&issue=138#138birchall_9


In March of 1921 the German Communist Party attempted a putsch that was 
the result of its own immaturity and some ultraleft prompting from Bela 
Kun, a Comintern emissary. The March Action, as it became known, was a 

Paul Levi, who had resigned as party chairman earlier in the year, would 
emerge as the sharpest critic of the March Action and a key critic of 
Comintern interference in the German party. He had become embroiled in a 
dispute between the Italian Socialist Party and the Comintern over the 
infamous 21 conditions. The Italian party was divided into 3 
factions--right, center and left--, but only the right was consciously 
reformist. The Comintern representatives to the Italian party convention 
in January 1921, as would be expected, ordered the Italians to throw out 
the right wing. The leader of the center faction, Giacinto Serrati, did 
not want to alienate the Comintern but he was equally unwilling to break 
with the right faction on the spot since these party leaders had a 
strong union base. To Levi's consternation, a Comintern-engineered split 
took place and the remaining left faction formed the Communist Party of 

When Levi returned to Germany to sit down with the Zentrale (Central 
Committee) to discuss the Italian events, one of the two Soviet 
emissaries who engineered the split, a Hungarian by the name of Matyas 
Rakosi, invited himself to the meeting. He defended the split and 
threatened that other parties, including their own, could get the same 
treatment if they didn't toe the line. The cowed Zentrale took a vote on 
the Italian events and Levi's position lost 28 to 23, whereupon he 
resigned as party chairman.

This left the Germany Communist Party in the hands of one Heinrich 
Brandler, a total mediocrity whose only claim to fame was some 
trade-union experience and commanding an armed detachment of workers in 
Saxony during the fitful 1919 uprising. Brandler had few strong 
convictions of his own and soon found himself accommodating to a rather 
aggressive ultraleft faction led by Ruth Fischer. Fischer and her 
followers thought that the Communist Party should be a party of action, 
an approach that stripped of its Marxist verbiage was pure Blanquism.

The German Communists received a surprise visit from a three emissaries 
from the Comintern, who at this point were covering as much territory 
per month as modern-day jet-setters. They were led by Bela Kun, who had 
led an unsuccessful revolt in Hungary 2 years earlier and was now on 
official duty in Germany to give the Communists there the benefit of his 

The party, Kun advised, must take the offensive even it had to resort to 
provocative measures. Once the Communists launched an offensive, 2 to 3 
million German workers were bound to follow their bold lead. When he 
revealed his ideas to veteran Communist Clara Zetkin, she was shocked. 
She went immediately to Paul Levi and stated that a witness must be 
present at all future conversations with Kun, who she regarded as an 
adventurer despite his Comintern credentials.

Kun and the Fischerites were successful in winning Brandler to their 
ultraleft schema and he announced in early March 1921 that "...We have 
in the Reich today two to three million non-Communist workers who can be 
influenced by our Communist organization, who will fight under our 
flag...even in an offensive action. If my view is correct, then the 
situation obligates us to deal with the existing tensions at home and 
abroad no longer passively; we must no longer exploit...them merely for 
agitation, but we are obligated...to interfere through Action in order 
to change matters in our sense."

This ultraleft putschism bore rotten fruit in the next few weeks when 
tens of thousands of workers in Central Germany were thrown into a 
ill-prepared battle with the police and army. The Prussian province of 
Saxony and the neighboring states of Thurngia and Saxony formed a 
powerful industrial base that had recently been the scene of pitched 
battles between strikers, especially coal-miners, and the state. Otto 
Horsing, the head of Prussian Saxony, decided to provoke the workers 
into a major battle so as to vanquish them once and for all. He called 
for their disarmament while turning a blind eye to right-wing militias 
in neighboring Bavaria.

On March 17, word of Horsing's provocation reached Brandler's Central 
Committee who decided to turn the local fight into a revolutionary 
struggle for power. To say that they had no idea how one thing would 
lead to another is the understatement of the century. What followed was 
a series of miscued confrontations that left the workers defeated and 

The Communists summoned the workers to battle with words drafted by Bela 
Kun himself:

"The bourgeoisie stands in arms and refuses to surrender them... and the 
German workers have no weapons!.. Now the law means nothing any more; 
nor does Versailles. Weapons will decide, and the counterrevolutionaries 
refuse to surrender theirs...Every worker will simply ignore the law and 
must seize a weapon wherever he may find one."

This is an utterly cavalier attitude to take to the armed struggle, to 
say the least. What happened is that the call to arms was largely 
ignored by the Social Democrats and the Independent Socialist rank and 
file, while being actively opposed by their leaders. No significant 
armed actions were mounted by the Communists themselves. The most 
successful insurrectionary activity was organized by one Max Hoelz who 
had been thrown out of the party in 1919 after getting on Brandler's 
wrong side.

Hoelz was a fire-breathing adventurer who had a real talent for Action. 
He formed shock troops almost immediately and began robbing banks, 
burning down buildings, dynamiting trains in a bold but strategically 
insignificant campaign. For example, the repeating dynamiting of 
passenger trains filled with workers going off to their morning factory 
jobs tended to alienate them and the people who worked on the railroads.

The German Communists could not control this insurrection which did take 
on a certain life of its own. Many deeply frustrated unemployed and 
lumpen elements joined in the rioting and looting. Neither were they 
capable of spreading the struggle to other parts of the country. In 
Berlin, despite their most inflammatory slogans, the masses remained 
uninvolved. This was a purely Communist Action and regarded with polite 
curiosity at the best. In most cases, it earned bitter resentment.

Heavy fighting continued for several days until the government won the 
upper hand.. Despite the defeat, the Communists viewed the events as a 
qualified success. They put all the blame on the "treacherous" 
non-Communist workers parties. The March Action left hundreds of workers 
dead, while thousands of others lost their jobs and prospects for future 
employment Only two leaders, Brandler and the adventurer Hoelz, were 
jailed. Most of the retribution was directed against their followers. It 
is not surprising that in the aftermath, the Communist Party of Germany 
shrank from 350,000 to 180,000 by the summer of 1921.

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