A victorious debate

The 1920 Halle congress of the Independent Social Democrats of Germany (USPD) was a turning point for our movement. It was also a moment of triumph for Grigory Zinoviev. This is an excerpt from Ben Lewis's introduction to a new book, 'Zinoviev and Martov: head to head in Halle'

Between October 12 and 17 1920, the debates fought out at Halle shaped the entire future of the German workers’ movement. Two opposing motions were placed before the 392 mandated delegates. They dealt with two simple, yet profoundly controversial questions. Firstly, should the USPD affiliate to the Communist International, born in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution? Secondly, should the USPD fuse with the young Communist Party of Germany (Spartacus), or would this mean sacrificing its autonomy to an organisation that had just recently split away from it?

The German workers’ movement was enormously powerful. In 1920 the USPD had something close to 800,000 members and a press which included over 50 daily papers. This strength can be traced back to the success of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). Between the 1880s and 1914 the SPD had served as a model for the workers’ movement internationally. German social democracy was not so much a political party as another way of life, devoted to the political, cultural and social development and empowerment of the working class. It ran women’s groups, cycling clubs, party universities and schools, published hundreds of newspapers, weekly theoretical journals, special-interest magazines such as The Free Female Gymnast and much more. By 1912 it had become the biggest party in the Reichstag, polling over 28% of the popular vote.

But the SPD’s expansion had also planted the seeds of opportunism and revisionism that would later undermine it from within. As the party grew, so did the gulf between its revolutionary theory and the routine of putting out newspapers, organising in trade unions and contesting elections. The goal of human emancipation was increasingly relegated to Sunday speeches and annual festivals. An increasingly detached and largely unaccountable bureaucracy of over 15,000 specialist full-timers developed, in which many party trade union leaders and functionaries saw no further than the struggle for higher wages and better conditions. In other words, the practice of the labour bureaucracy was becoming the norm, finding theoretical expression in the writings of Eduard Bernstein. This former star pupil of Marx and Engels was now questioning the very basis of Marxism itself.

War and collapse

When on August 4 1914 the SPD Reichstag fraction treacherously voted for war credits, many in the international movement were catatonically shocked. But other parties in the Second International soon followed the German lead: with few exceptions, each party sided with its own government.

Even the great internationalist, Karl Liebknecht, had gone along with party discipline in voting for the war credits. But like the 13 other deputies who had expressed their opposition in a private fraction meeting the previous day, he had put the unity of the party first in the hope that it could be rapidly won back round. But the German war government’s politics of Burgfrieden (civil peace) necessitated the SPD right ruthlessly enforcing a crackdown on the party’s critical elements.

For its part, the SPD leadership proceeded with caution, attempting to drive a wedge between the radicals and the more moderate, pacifistic opponents of the war by washing its hands of the former. Thus in May 1916 Karl Liebknecht was sentenced and conscripted for his tireless opposition. Meanwhile Karl Kautsky, an inveterate peacemonger, was able to continue editing the SPD theoretical journal, Die Neue Zeit. Just a year later, however, he would be removed.

Yet these attempts to sever the different elements of the opposition only partially succeeded. With influential left lawyers like Hugo Haase deluged with cases in defence of anti-war activists and conscription objectors, the different shades of the anti-war socialists entered into much more of a dialogue with each other. And, the longer the war continued, the more instances there were of workers taking action against its deleterious effects. This inevitably found expression in the SPD itself. In December 1915, 20 SPD deputies refused to vote for further war credits. Staying within the remit of ‘self-defence’ by focussing their attacks more on the bellicose talk of annexations than the war itself, these deputies’ opposition was often a far cry from that of the internationalist wing of Liebknecht and Luxemburg, who had founded the Gruppe Internationale in 1915 - later known as the Spartakusbund.

But, when 20 rebellious deputies from the SPD parliamentary fraction refused to vote for further war credits in December 1915, the centrist oppositionists began to gain the ear of wider layers of the party. By March 1916, when Haase spoke out against the renewal of the state of siege he found some considerable support. Thirty-three deputies were expelled from the fraction. By January of the next year, they were out of the party as well. Three months later, in April 1917, the USPD was born.

Some 120,000 members defected to the new organisation. It was a veritable melange, including Luxemburg, Bernstein and Kautsky. Its main slogan was still “Peace without reparations and annexations”.

For their part, the Spartacists were clear that they were only in the USPD as a way of influencing those elements breaking with Burgfrieden and war socialism. Others, like Kautsky and Bernstein, were at first strongly opposed to the formation of the USPD. Their rather limited aims were to achieve peace and to uphold the values of the old SPD. They eventually agreed that the struggle for peace had to come first, even if this necessitated temporarily working alongside the Spartacists.


The USPD’s foundation was in many ways bound up with the Russian Revolution. The fall of the tsar in spring 1917 had electrified public opinion in Germany. During the negotiations to found the USPD, Haase spoke of the “light coming from the east”. But soon the October Revolution would demand an unambiguous stance, as would the disintegration of the kaiser regime.

By late September 1918 Germany’s defeat was obvious to the military top brass, the emperor’s court and leading industrialists alike. General von Ludendorff pressed for urgent action. They had to broaden the government to include the SPD in what admiral von Hintze dubbed a “revolution from above” in order to head off a “Russian October”.[1]

Initially hesitant, the SPD leadership eventually decided to join the new coalition of Progressives, National Liberals and the Centre on October 4 1918. But on October 16 there were mass demonstrations under the slogan: “Down with the government, long live Liebknecht!” Then, on November 3, a sailors’ mutiny in Kiel made toppling the government a real possibility. In response, on November 4 the SPD’s executive committee announced that the kaiser’s abdication was under discussion. Its supporters in the working class were urged “not to frustrate these negotiations through reckless intervention”.[2]

But the line could not be held. Bavaria was the first state to become a republic. Numerous petty princes and fiefs were swept from power. By November 8 most of Germany had fallen into the hands of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils.

On November 9 the revolution had reached Berlin. Prince von Baden sent in the Jägerbatallion (light infantry) to suppress it, but the soldiers refused to move against the crowd. Von Baden hoped that the regime could be salvaged if the kaiser abdicated. He himself resigned as chancellor in favour of Friedrich Ebert, general secretary of the SPD. While the workers’ and soldiers’ councils represented a burgeoning alternative power, the response of the two workers’ parties were to prove decisive at all levels.

The SPD’s behaviour can be explained by the fact that it essentially considered the revolution completed by November 1918. Germany had become a democratic republic[3] and peace had been restored. The right to vote for all men and women over 20 had been guaranteed, pre-war labour regulations reintroduced and an eight-hour day enforced.

With initial success, it sold itself to the population at large as a kind of caretaker government upholding ‘order’ before elections to a national assembly. This was conceived as the sole legitimate form of government, resting on the pillars of the old bureaucracy and the army supreme command. Their ‘socialism’ was framed firmly within the capitalist constitutional order.

The SPD was unsure whether the workers’ councils would cooperate with Scheidemann’s government or would themselves become an alternative centre of power. Thus it had to direct the councils into safe channels. Doing this required left cover from USPD supporters. The USPD was therefore pushed into joining a provisional government.

The USPD rank and file were in many ways the ‘men of the hour’ in November 1917. They had established strong roots, particularly with the militant shop stewards’ movement. But, given its divisions and its short existence, the USPD had no clear vision of what it wanted. For this reason, the SPD was confident that it could win the softer layers of the USPD - the ‘centrists’.

Eventually, the USPD leadership accepted an invitation to enter government on the condition that bourgeois politicians would be there merely as “technical assistants”. The new government consisted of three people’s commissars from each party: Ebert, Scheidemann and Otto Landsberg for the SPD; and Hugo Haase, Wilhelm Dittmann and Emil Barth for the USPD.

None of these commissars was a departmental minister. Trusted socialists were assigned to keep an eye on the bureaucrats, but the results were farcical. At a time when the new government was colluding with the Entente imperialist states to keep German troops in eastern Europe so as to contain the Russian Revolution, Kautsky - appointed as a USPD representative to watch over foreign policy - was sent away to investigate historical documents on the origins of World War I!

It was similar in other areas of government business. The ‘socialisation’ commission produced no real results at all. Controlling the army also proved impossible. Groups like the Freikorps were tolerated on the Polish border.

The mass of the USPD membership came to oppose their party’s participation in the provisional government. The three USPD people’s commissars found themselves increasingly isolated from their membership. This led to growing calls for a USPD party congress - all were ignored. And when, on December 24, the SPD commissars ordered an attack on the People’s Naval Division in Berlin without the knowledge, let alone the consent, of their fellow USPD commissars, Dittmann, Haase and Barth felt compelled to resign.

Despite this, the leadership still refused to heed calls for a party congress, claiming that the coming January elections took precedence. The Spartakusbund of Luxemburg and Liebknecht then decided split from the USPD and establish the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (Spartakus). This was clearly a premature move.


Polling just under 38% in the January elections, the SPD opted to join a bourgeois coalition government with the Centre Party and the German Democrats. But this coalition dismally failed to deliver on many of the SPD’s promises. For example, the eight-hour day had been a great achievement, but it had been introduced without a corresponding wage increase - the average weekly wage of a worker fell to levels not seen since 1913.

Now in opposition, the USPD benefited from the resulting discontent. Between November 1918 and March 1919 200,000 new members swelled its ranks. Governmental unity with the SPD had proved a disaster. So what next?

The USPD’s prospects of unity ‘to the left’ were beset with problems. The KPD(S) was viewed with suspicion. Following the turmoil of the so-called ‘Spartacist’ uprising of January 1919, its membership was scattered and subject to repression. Within months three of its best leaders - Luxemburg, Liebknecht and Leo Jogiches - were murdered by those with whom they had cooperated in the same organisation just a few years prior. It is thus unsurprising that many rank and file KPD(S) members drew understandable, yet erroneous conclusions: reject working alongside the SPD supporters of the butcher Noske in the unions and the factory councils, boycott the national assembly elections, and so on. But this did not win them much of a hearing with the USPD rank and file or the working class more generally.

By the USPD’s second congress in May 1919, a definite shift to the left occurred around the question of international organisation. A motion was passed, calling for the “reconstruction of the workers’ international on the basis of a revolutionary socialist policy in the spirit of the international conferences in Zimmerwald and Kienthal”.[4] However, the guarded wording of the motion was insufficient to clearly break with the plans of Kautsky and others to reconstruct the Second International at the Berne conference in February 1919. Revealingly, the motion did not mention the newly formed Communist International, established in March 1919 by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Many in the USPD considered this move premature. Yet, having seen Kautsky’s conception of ‘socialist’ foreign policy in the November government, and having heard of plans to revive the Second International, USPD members increasingly changed their minds.

Come the USPD’s Leipzig congress of September 1919, international issues were to dominate the agenda. Unity prevailed on domestic questions, and a new ‘Action programme’ was decided upon. Although making nods in the direction of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, the new programme was framed in a typically centrist way so as to smooth over differences and placate both of the USPD’s wings. KPD(S) leader Paul Levi likened the new programme to a “lump of clay that one can make into a face or a gargoyle at will”.[5]

Unity evaporated when discussion turned to the international situation. Three positions were represented. For the left, Curt Geyer and Walter Stöcker in particular were clear: the USPD should immediately and unconditionally affiliate to the Communist International. The USPD was moving towards Comintern, and affiliation was the next logical step.

Hilferding proposed a resolution which criticised Comintern and called for the formation of a new international alongside what he deemed the revolutionary parties of the Second International. For him, Bolshevism needed “action” and thus unconditional affiliation would render the USPD “the whipping boy” of the Bolsheviks.

A middling position was represented by Georg Ledebour, who feared further splits in the movement. He wanted to work with the communists in the hope of overcoming the schism in the workers’ movement by creating an international of all ‘social revolutionary’ parties to resolve this matter alongside Comintern.

The debate was fierce. But, following a whole day of negotiations behind the scenes, Ledebour won the day. Both Hilferding and Ledebour had withdrawn their resolutions to propose a new, joint one which incorporated substantial aspects of Ledebour’s viewpoint. It called for a break with the Second International, naming Comintern as the only international the USPD wished to join. However, it called for “negotiations” between the parties of the Second International and Comintern, not immediate affiliation. This delaying procedure was clearly aimed at undermining Stöcker, who adamantly refused to withdraw his resolution for immediate affiliation. The tactic worked. Immediate affiliation was defeated by 170 votes to 111, and the ‘compromise’ motion passed by 227 votes to 54.

In the immediate aftermath of the congress, some members of the USPD right initiated rumours of secret meetings between the USPD and the KPD(S), and decried the influence of ‘putschist agents’. Now, Comintern had to intervene from Moscow against the leftists in the KPD(S): ultra-leftist and syndicalist illusions had become an obstacle to unification in a much bigger revolutionary organisation. The USPD left and the KPD(S) still seemed a long way apart.

2nd congress

Yet the USPD continued to grow at the SPD’s expense. The latter’s record in government, combined with its willingness to use the army and forces like the Freikorps to suppress the council movement - both before and after the attempted March 1920 coup d’etat led by Wolfgang Kapp and General Walther von Lüttwitz - resulted in a rapid decline in its support base. Between the January 1919 and June 1920 elections the SPD’s share of the vote fell from 37.9% to 21.6%. The USPD’s increased from 7.6% to 18.8%. Once again, the SPD asked the USPD whether it would form a joint ‘workers’ government’. However, the USPD refused. The Centre Party, the national-liberal German People’s Party and the liberal German Democratic Party proceeded to form an unambiguously bourgeois government.

Comintern sought to turn up the heat on the USPD. The Executive Committee of the CI wrote several letters and articles to establish just what was actually going to be done about affiliation. The USPD right’s prevarication soon became apparent. One ‘open letter’ from the ECCI went unpublished on rather spurious grounds: running such articles in the run-up to the elections could only assist the KPD. On another occasion a “lack of paper”(!) was blamed for the failure to print ECCI correspondence.[6] Meanwhile, from Norway to Italy the impulse towards genuine Communist Party unity initiated by the Russian Revolution ensured that more and more sizeable parties were pledging support for the new international. The USPD leadership felt it had no other choice: it had to go to Moscow for Comintern’s 2nd congress in July 1920.

Twenty-one communist parties across the world were officially present there. To much fanfare, ECCI chair Grigory Zinoviev opened proceedings by proclaiming the death of the Second International and celebrating Comintern’s transformation from the “propaganda society” of its founding congress of 1919, into a “fighting organisation of the international proletariat”.[7] Further progress required “clarity, clarity and once more clarity”.

Drafted by Zinoviev, the conditions for affiliation to Comintern were stringent. Leaders like Kautsky and Hilferding were named as traitors, from whom the workers’ movement should decisively break. The necessity of maintaining an illegal party apparatus alongside a legal one was uncompromisingly insisted upon.

Published for the first time on August 24, the 21 conditions eventually agreed upon initiated much debate, particularly among the German, French and Italian parties. Historian Robert Wheeler has, it should be pointed out, usefully distinguished between a “first and second wave”[8] of responses in the USPD.

The first came from the party press, which almost entirely came out negatively. The same can be said of the USPD Reichskonferenz of September 1920, attended by the USPD central committee, Beirat (advisory committee), representatives of local party organisations, newspaper editors, Reichstag fraction members and representatives from the local state parliaments. The debate polarised between those ‘for’ and ‘against’ Comintern and the Russian Revolution. Amidst talk of ‘you’ and ‘us’, this conference of party officials rejected the conditions.

With the Halle congress only six weeks away, the USPD right was confident that its majority amongst the functionaries would be reflected in the party as a whole.

Then came the “second wave”. Leading representatives of both tendencies addressed hundreds of mass assemblies, with members thirsting for the arguments. Pamphlets, bulletins and flyers were hastily produced. Local party organisations called congresses to debate and adopt resolutions on the 21 conditions. Most supported the conditions. The gulf between the party functionaries and the membership was most evident in Berlin. While all eight editors of Freiheit - naturally including its editor, Hilferding - opposed affiliation, 16 out of 18 USPD organisations voted in favour of the 21 conditions. This pattern was repeated nationally. In the referendum which selected the delegates to the Halle congress, 57.8% voted in favour of Comintern affiliation, 42.2% against.


In such circumstances, it is hardly a surprise that there was such a charged atmosphere in Halle, where “two parties” were present, divided by a walkway in the middle of the hall “as if a knife has cut them sharply in two”.

While the left had won a clear majority of delegates in the party referendum, the next five days of proceedings were not so much about those present at the congress as about those outside. Militants from across the whole world looked on. Two speakers, both from the Russian movement, were particularly anticipated.

The first was Julius Martov, the intellectually rigorous, if politically indecisive, leader of the Menshevik Internationalists. A co-founder of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, he cut his teeth alongside Lenin in the St Petersburg League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class and then on the editorial board of the underground newspaper Iskra (Spark). Breaking with Lenin and his supporters at the 1903 congress, Martov became one of the main leaders of Menshevism, renowned for his love-hate relationship with the Bolsheviks. Martov’s sophistication of argument and cutting polemics make him stand out from other Menshevik leaders like Fyodor Dan, Pavel Axelrod or Georgi Plekhanov.

Martov’s approach in Halle is best summarised as ‘Neither Moscow (Bolshevism) nor Berlin (SPD), but international socialism’ - a split in the USPD would condemn it to the wilderness of groups and sectlets, as opposed to real parties. The Bolsheviks were perilously basing themselves on the spontaneous, visceral anger of a population suffering from the privations of the war and the economic crisis. (This hostility to Bolshevik ‘spontaneity’ was a common feature of Martov’s perspectives throughout his career.)

The second eagerly awaited speaker had come to fight the corner of the USPD left - Grigory Zinoviev. History, to put it mildly, has not been very kind to him. From historical character sketches to Hollywood movies, he is mainly remembered for his opposition to the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917, his ruthless ‘Bolshevisation’ of Comintern and his capitulation to his eventual killer, Joseph Stalin. As with other key Bolshevik figures who fell victim to the Stalinist counterrevolution, it would appear that Zinoviev was not only physically liquidated by Stalinism, but historically too.

This is a problem. Both the far left and the academy have tended to base their interpretation of the Russian Revolution and its degeneration almost exclusively on the decisions and actions of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. This downplays the role of the masses and reduces the Bolshevik Party to mere minions of the ‘great leader’, Lenin. Understandable for cold war warriors or those in thrall to the ‘cult of the personality’, but utterly insufficient in terms of historical analysis.

As an organisation determined to turn the world on its head, the Bolsheviks sought to ‘bring the revolutionary message’ to the people. Zinoviev particularly excelled in this. Most of his writings remain closed off from an English-speaking audience, but it can certainly be agreed that he lacks the depth, nuance and sophistication of a Trotsky or a Lenin. It is his strengths as an agitator and orator, his ability to respond to real people’s concerns and to tell compelling narratives, that distinguish him. His intervention as ECCI chair at the Halle congress is perhaps his greatest, often overlooked accomplishment. Readers can judge for themselves, but surely even his most determined detractor must admit that his speech sparkles with passion, wit and intelligence. Speaking for over four hours in his second language, his speech both shocked and impressed the German bourgeois press, which described him as “the first orator of our century”. Much of the speech was off the cuff. Time and again Zinoviev responds to questions and interjections, including from some of European social democracy’s leading figures.

This is precisely what makes the Halle congress so extraordinary. The intensity of debate is striking. The delegates were fully acquainted with every nuance and shade of opinion in the movement. Every alleged opportunist act of the past was dragged up, every catch-all platitude seized on from the floor. Heckling aside, the congress record makes for incredibly inspiring reading - a painful reminder of how far today’s left has moved away from the healthiest parts of its history in terms of organising congresses which allow time and space for discussion and polemic. Nowadays we get three- or four-minute contributions.

After two more days of impassioned debate, 234 delegates voted for affiliation to Comintern and fusion with the KPD(S), soundly defeating the 158 votes against. Once the result was announced, the right wing walked out.

Despite the split, this was an enormous victory. In December, around 400,000 USPD members joined the KPD(S) to form the United Communist Party of Germany (VKPD). Hundreds of thousands of class-conscious workers were united behind the banner of an openly communist organisation with an openly communist programme. The German workers’ movement had returned to the revolutionary traditions of its past on a higher level.


  1. E Waldman The Spartacist uprising of 1919 Marquette 1958, p70.
  2. J Riddell (ed) The German revolution and the debate on soviet power New York 1986, p38.
  3. In Marxist terms, of course, Germany in 1918 was a long way from a ‘democratic republic’ in the sense of Engels’s understanding of popular rule embodied in the Paris Commune of 1871.
  4. P Broué The German revolution 1917-1923 Chicago 2006, p337.
  5. RA Archer (trans) The Second Congress of the Communist International Vol  I, London 1977, pp282-83.
  6. Quoted in ‘An alle Mitglieder der USPD’ in Die Kommunistische Internationale No12, summer 1920, p325. The letter appealed to the USPD rank and file to send its own delegates to Comintern’s Second Congress.
  7. RA Archer (trans) The Second Congress of the Communist International Vol 1, London 1977, p187.
  8. RF Wheeler USPD und Internationale: Sozialistischer Internationalismus in der Zeit der Revolution Frankfurt am Main 1975, p233.

Head to head in Halle

“We are on the field of battle. The audience in the hall is divided in two sections; it is as if a knife has cut them sharply in two. Two parties are present” - Grigory Zinoviev’s description of the Halle congress of the Independent Social Democrats (USPD) in October 1920.

Would the USPD and its 800,000 members opt for the Third International or attempt to stay a halfway house, floating uneasily between communism and official social democracy? The Halle congress would decide.

In the debate Zinoviev, Comintern’s president and a Bolshevik since 1903, was pitted against not only the heavyweights of German Social Democracy. He also had to reckon with his Russian contemporary, Julius Martov, the intellectually rigorous and polemically steeled leader of the Menshevik Internationalists.

In publishing Zinoviev’s largely forgotten four-hour speech and Martov’s counterblast for the first time in English, this book helps to deepen our understanding of a crucial chapter in the history of the European working class movement.

The text includes introductory essays by Ben Lewis and Lars T Lih, alongside Zinoviev’s fascinating diary entries made during his stay in Germany.

Now available: pp228, £15, including p&p, from November Publications, BCM Box 928, London WC1 3XX.