A leading rank-and-filer

Paul Frölich Im radikalen Lager: Politische Autobiographie 1890-1921 (1938) €29.80, pp416, edited by Reiner Tosstorf, Berlin 2013

Many readers of the Weekly Worker will be familiar with the name, Paul Frölich (1884-1953), from his portrayal of the life and work of Rosa Luxemburg, which he first published in 1928 and which has since appeared in many editions and languages. It remains an excellent read, not least because of Frölich’s rare ability to capture the strengths, shortcomings and contradictions of that increasingly rare breed of human beings: revolutionaries.

It is fair to say that Frölich is a natural biographer. So when, in 2008, during what appears to be a fairly routine tidy-up of the vast archives of the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, the manuscript of Frölich’s memoirs was discovered, this created much excitement amongst researchers of working class history. It was known that Frölich had written such a manuscript, but it was long assumed to have been either lost or destroyed by the Nazis.

These memoirs have now been published in German under the title In the radical camp: a political autobiography (1890-1921). The publication has been prepared, annotated and introduced by the historian, Reiner Tosstorrf, and it proves that the anticipation and expectation prior to its appearance was more than justified.

After all, Frölich achieved much more than writing a biography of Rosa Luxemburg, one of the greatest martyrs of our movement. He was born in Leipzig in 1884 - at the height of chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s ‘anti-socialist laws’. Fleeing the Nazis he found exile first in France and then in the USA. Having returned to West Germany, he died in 1953. Unlike, for example, Eduard Bernstein, Karl Kautsky or Franz Mehring, Frölich did not enter the ranks of social democracy from a privileged, liberal or intellectual background. (He could not afford to go to university and had to rely on the Leipzig Workers’ Educational Association for his further education).

He was raised by a proud and (relatively) well-off working class family, and both his parents were active social democrats - his mother less so, as more and more children arrived. Despite briefly being won over to Bernsteinism in the protracted revisionist debate, Frölich was consistently and self-consciously on the left of the German SPD. Having worked as a party journalist in several cities, he was in the forefront of struggles against both the war and the ‘social peace’ politics of the SPD majority. He went on to be a founding member of the Communist Party of Germany and participated in the Bavarian Soviet Republic of 1919. Following that he helped to defeat the 1920 attempted putsch against the Weimar republic by army generals Kapp and Lüttwitz and was a member of the KDP’s leadership during the abortive uprising, known as the ‘March action’.

This is where the memoirs somewhat tantalisingly end,1 although crammed into his recollections of these major events and organisations is an almost unique ‘first person’ perspective on the twists and turns of the workers’ movement both in Germany and abroad. When commissioning the memoirs in the 1920s, the Menshevik intellectual and archivist, Boris Nicolaevsky, made it clear to Frölich that he was not interested in “a history of the epoch” or “a political tract”. Frölich should rather focus on his impressions and recollections of those he encountered during his long career. And, given that an enduring Leitmotif of Frölich’s political self-understanding - for good and for ill, as we shall see - largely revolved around being “close to the masses” and “connected with the masses”, he was in many ways the ideal person for such a project.

Frölich absolutely despised the ‘bourgeois’ lifestyle enjoyed by many journalists and officials in the burgeoning SPD bureaucracy. They lived at the expense of the party and saw it as a career ladder. A gulf opened between the party leaders and the rank and file, which eventually ended in betrayal. Even when travelling around the country as a KPD leader he largely eschewed hotels, preferring to stay with - and hear from - activists in the localities. Given that he also held various leadership positions later on, I think the best way to describe Frölich after reading his memoirs would be to call him a leading rank-and-filer.

Some of the political figures he recalls and describes were later murdered either in the Weimar republic or at the hands of the Nazis; some of them proceeded to become supporters of either Weimar or Nazism, and many of them have been historically marginalised or forgotten. The helpful, and extensive, glossary is itself testament to the sheer number of working class activists encountered by Frölich. Frölich also describes how he responded personally and politically to many figures still familiar to us today: including Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Radek, Paul Levi, Leo Jogiches, August Thalheimer, Grigory Zinoviev and Vladimir Ilych Lenin.

Bremen left

At the end of 1913 Frölich was asked to work at one of the SPD’s many local publications, the Bremer Bürgerzeitung. He accepted, not least because the journal’s line corresponded more closely to his own views than others. Yet the prospect of his joining the editorial board triggered a factional fight, the bitterness of which was typical of the strained relations within the party at that time. The right and left wings actually had two votes each on the editorial board, leading them both to court Alfred Henke, the member closest to the centre around Karl Kautsky. Henke held the decisive vote ... and eventually Frölich got the job. He was working on the Bremer Bürgerzeitung when the SPD’s parliamentary fraction voted to approve war credits on August 4 1914. Frölich details the utter confusion that ensued: it took some time for confirmation of the treacherous act to reach Bremen. Rumours circulated about the SPD deputies voting in favour, but were mainly dismissed as impossible by party activists. When confirmation came it was a real shock.

Frölich was drafted into the army and served in various roles, including on the Russian front. But he tried every trick to get leave, so as to concentrate on political work. At times, however, he managed to be given administrative duties in the army, allowing him to carry out editorial work for the Bremen left’s journal, Arbeiterpolitik, on the quiet. Founded in June 1915, this “weekly paper for scientific socialism” was edited by Frölich’s best friend, Johann Knief, and took up the cudgels against the SPD’s capitulation to kaiser imperialism.

Arbeiterpolitik was actually a legal publication and as such was even read by soldiers on the front line. Perhaps its most famous subscriber was a certain Switzerland-based Russian revolutionary by the name of VI Lenin. Yet its influence was marginal - circulation probably did not exceed 3,000. It had a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater and draw syndicalist conclusions from the SPD’s capitulation - not least the idea of so-called ‘unity organisations” of the party and unions (Frölich concedes that he was wrong to entertain such illusions). Some like Knief even dismissed the Luxemburg-Liebknecht Spartacus League as a “leader party”.

Frölich’s army days are fascinatingly recalled, especially when it comes to the changing relationship between officers and men. At the outbreak of the war the officers’ authority was all-pervading and rarely challenged - if at all. Frölich kept his head down and sought to avoid trouble as much as possible. However, by 1916 things has turned round. He tells how the supreme command deemed it necessary to introduce ‘national consciousness-raising’ lectures, which were followed by general discussion. Frölich used this as a wonderful opportunity to take on the officers in public debate and win support. At one point he even called for a revolutionary political struggle against the war (rather “stupidly”, he later admits!).

When he was able to absolve himself of military duties, he also contributed to the struggle against war at an international level, attending the Kienthal conference of April 1916 as a representative of the Bremen left. Clearly typical of his then leftism, he spoke out against Luxemburg’s anti-war Junius pamphlet for even theoretically broaching the possibility (following Friedrich Engels’ thoughts in the 1890s) of a kind of Jacobin, revolutionary ‘national defence’. Of course, both Luxemburg and Frölich were absolutely right to attack the ‘national defence’ excuse trotted out by those on the right of the workers’ movement to justify the policy of ‘civil peace’. Yet Frölich rejected any notion of ‘national defence’ outright and also said that Luxemburg’s call to agitate for a republic reflected her illusions in “bourgeois democracy” (still a commonplace today).

Nevertheless, Frölich interestingly notes the equivocal nature of the Spartacus League around Luxemburg, Jogiches and Franz Mehring. Something fully on display at Kienthal. They were, he reports, “Definitively against the centrists, but by no means in alliance with the Bolsheviks!” Of course, there were substantial differences between the Bremen left and the Spartacus League. For example, the Spartacus League joined the 1917 split which established the Independent Social Democrats. Naturally Frölich’s comrades refused.

What makes Frölich’s account so interesting are the details. He tellingly pictures the antagonism between Jogiches and leading Bolsheviks on display at Kienthal. Frölich traces this back to previous controversies: not least the tensions in Polish social democracy following the Prague conference of Russian Social Democrats in 1912. Then there was the so-called ‘Radek affair’, which for Frölich amounted to a crude attempt by Jogiches to smear Radek by implicating him in all sorts of dodgy business. Frölich sides with Radek and is generally scathing of Jogiches, all the while recognising that the latter was one of the most talented revolutionaries he had ever met.

Revolution and regroupment

Frölich was jailed for anti-war activities but managed to get out on November 6 1918. On this same day he and his comrades agreed to rename the Hamburger Echo the Rote Fahne (Red Flag) - described as the “official organ of the workers’ and soldiers’ council”. The fervour, hopes and the confusion that gripped activists in these heady Hamburg days is described in some detail - not least those of the left syndicalist and later ‘national Bolshevik’, Heinrich Laufenberg, whose lack of sleep fed into his delusional aspirations to become the ‘president’ that Germany apparently now needed so desperately.

Frölich was at the crucial meeting at Bush Circus in Berlin on November 10, which elected the executive of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, and where the SPD managed to reassert some control over events, using its organisational muscle to insist on ‘parity’ between the SPD and USPD. The SDP also urged the USDP to re-cement workers’ unity. Frölich insists that he was correct to speak against this ploy. The contradictions between the left and right were simply too great and approaches towards practical tasks too divergent. They obviously were. But was it advisable to speak against unity per se? Some of his closest comrades later told him that it was not.

However, as the early revolutionary days played out, the question of unity became ever more prominent. Frölich was present at the founding congress of the Communist Party of Germany, the KPD, which saw Frölich’s Bremen left come together with the Spartacus League, despite some remaining animosity on both sides. One of the controversies at the founding congress was taking part in the elections to the new national assembly in January 1919 (another was joining the official trade unions - successfully kicked into touch by the organisers).

The main speaker on the question of elections was Paul Levi, an extremely gifted lawyer, who, in Frölich’s view, nonetheless possessed a certain “aristocratic” attitude towards party organisation and his fellow comrades, treating them more like “secretaries in his Frankfurt lawyer’s office” than comrades. Anyway, Frölich is convinced that Levi did not actually agree with the position he represented on the national assembly elections. Meaning his speech lacked conviction.2 Frölich contextualises Luxemburg’s comments on the “liquidation” of the trade unions, highlighting the utterly compromised role that they had played in the revolution and recalling that many of his comrades expected the unions to be simply pushed aside by the burgeoning factory council movement and so on. Once again, a clear error: trade union membership was to almost quadruple in the following year or so.

Frölich is ready to admit this - and to highlight the lack of political education of many in the movement. When it came to the question of electoral tactics, next to nobody had a real understanding of the Bolsheviks’ tactics (the struggle against ‘Oztovism’, etc). They were all convinced that Germany in 1919 was some kind of “Kerensky period”, which would soon come to an end. It is perhaps here that we can see how his insistence on being constantly close to the masses - arguably one of his greatest merits - fed into one of the bigger weaknesses of the early KDP: a tendency to overestimate both the party’s strength and the objective situation. Thus its failure, on occasion, to draw sharp lines against the movement of the masses, and therefore the inability to counter illusions in the ‘uninterrupted progress’ of the revolution. The KDP did not know how to organise principled retreats. This came out in the argument between Frölich and Lenin at the Comintern’s Third Congress, which he recounts in some detail.

The source of the dispute lay in the ‘March action’ of 1921 - a botched uprising, which saw KPD members killed and jailed, and the party marginalised. It had misjudged the mood of the masses and had responded to a state provocation by falling into the adventurist, putschist methods of those like the influential anarchist, Max Hölz (who, Frölich says, always promised to be bound by collective decisions, but then just went off and did his own thing). This, argues Frölich, made the KPD itself appear responsible for the grave situation in the minds of the masses, whereas in fact the state had provoked it. Frölich flatly rejected putschist methods, but recognises that at this point he had fallen under the sway of “Blanquist” ideas (p273). He thought that “action” alone could move the masses further and further towards the final goal. One particular nadir was the use of unemployed KPD supporters to physically intimidate workers in the factories into coming out on strike.

Theory of the offensive

Frölich explains the March action with reference to “objective political events” and “psychology” (p260). Not only had there been a tendency to overestimate the strength and influence of the party, but the party had committed the error of thinking that, since it had merged with substantial forces from the Independent Social Democrats (‘the USPD left’) in Halle in October 1920, it believed that its influence had grown much more than it actually had. In addition, since Halle the former USPD leaders had been rather keen on proving their revolutionary credentials. In such an environment, all were agreed not just on the need for propaganda for workers’ councils, but action to set them up: once again, Frölich includes Levi here - somebody who later described the March action as the “greatest Bakuninist putsch in history”.

Unsurprisingly, the March action itself and the factors underlying it have been the source of much disagreement between historians. Was “the theory of the offensive” which gave rise to such folly inspired and incited by a Russian Soviet republic in crisis - a desperate attempt to ‘hold on’ following the Kronstadt rebellion? Karl Radek’s famous letter to German communists calling for help of any kind would imply so. Yet what was the exact role of the Comintern leadership in developing the ‘theory of the offensive’ behind the March action and enforcing it, not least by sending the Hungarian communist and known adventurist, Béla Kun, to work in the German party itself?

Frölich offers a perspective on all of this which may serve to challenge much that has been written on the subject. He goes out of his way to show that the March action, in the form that it assumed, was not initiated by the Soviet republic or Comintern: the KPD leadership alone was responsible. He also describes how those like Zinoviev and Bukharin who assigned Béla Kun to the German leadership were fully aware of his weaknesses, but hoped that “German deliberation” would keep him in check. As such Frölich implies that it was not a deliberately factional move to use Kun as some kind of enforcer to get a change of direction in Germany. For Frölich, at that point the Russian party was simply in no position to “impose” on their German comrades. He nonetheless admits that “German deliberation” was largely lacking: Kun’s outlooks and theories rapidly caught on in the KPD leadership - particularly with August Thalheimer.

He then deals with the fate of the “theory of the offensive” at Comintern’s Third Congress. Frölich and other KPD leaders had gone to Moscow believing that they were on the right track despite the defeat of the March action. However, Lenin, in particular, was very worried. Following Frölich’s extensive, warts-and-all verbal report of what had happened in March, he was handed a private note from Radek which ran along the lines of: ‘Why did you speak so openly and critically? Everything depends on winning Lenin over!’

Lenin tried to convince Frölich - unsuccessfully at the time - that it is not always advisable to attack, no matter what the circumstances are. In short the March action was mistaken. It seems clear to me that the kind of tactical retreat conducted by the Bolsheviks following the July days in 1917 would certainly have served as a lesson to the German communists, both in early 1919 and in March 1921. What emerged from the Comintern was a kind of “compromise” - the March action was criticised, but still described as a “heroic struggle”. It is at this critical juncture that the memoirs break off.

In his review Reiner Tosstorff correctly notes that “not even the most meticulous historical work can reproduce personal experiences, as these memoirs do”. This is without doubt the enduring strength of the volume.

On the other hand, he also notes that the veracity of such memoirs “should not always be trusted” - especially when they are composed by somebody whose sincerity and seriousness shines through on almost every page. This is particularly true when we think about Frölich’s relationship with the likes of Thalheimer, Levi and Jogiches. All were comrades of his, but sparks often flew between them.

Nonetheless, Tosttorff argues with good reason that Frölich “had no reason to prettify” his life, in that, “for all the necessary changes” he had to make, his development had actually been fairly straightforward. On the one hand, this is undoubtedly true: there is a marked ‘leftist’ consistency in his entire career - a red thread that leads from his Leipzig days right through to the clash with Lenin (that he was later expelled from the KPD for “rightism” says more about the madness of ‘social fascism’ than it does about Frölich).

Although Frölich is more than willing to admit that he was wrong on several occasions (his idea of a unity of party and union or aspects of his ‘Blanquist’ ideas in March 1921 are just two examples of this), he largely avoids setting out his “radical camp” alternative to the various errors to which he confesses. This limitation might well flow from the nature of the project itself, as agreed with Nicolaevsky, and, as far as I can see, is the only real drawback in an otherwise fascinating read.

It is undeniable that the publication of these so nearly forgotten memoirs represents a major service to our movement. Readers of German should definitely get hold of it. Hopefully in time the text will be translated into English, making it available to a much wider audience. The questions it poses need to become the property of the whole left, not just historians and specialists l

Ben Lewis



1. Thus we do not get an impression of some of his later activity as a member of the KPD leadership until 1924 - not least his assessment of the so-called ‘German October’ of 1923. He was later expelled from the party in 1928, whereupon he became an influential figure in the Communist Party (opposition) split and then in the Socialist Workers Party of Germany, which was founded in 1931 and mainly based on a large split from the SPD. It is well known for including in its ranks the later SPD German president, Willy Brandt. Tosstdorrff’s overview of Frölich’s life usefully goes into these lesser known events in more detail.

2. I nonetheless think that the speech is a pretty good one. It is translated by David Fernbach in D Fernbach (ed) In the steps of Rosa Luxemburg: selected writings of Paul Levi Leiden 2011, pp35-43.