Clara Zetkin’s Spicy Letter on Party History (1932)
Clara Zetkin’s Spicy Letter on Party History (1932)

Clara Zetkin’s Spicy Letter on Party History (1932)

Below you will find excerpts from a quite remarkable letter of Zetkin’s written from Moscow to the KPD activist Maria Reese (1889-1958) in Germany. The background is slightly complicated and requires more explanation than I am able to provide now, but one of the reasons for Zetkin penning the letter in the first place is to express her opposition to Reese’s proposal that the Hungarian Communist, and editor of the Communist International’s publication International Press Correspondence (Inprecor), Gyulá Alpari (1882-1944), would be best-placed to write a history of the revolutionary movement that could serve as education and orientation for Communist party members.

The letter is remarkable for a number of reasons – not least because she is clearly upset by what she views as a rewriting of the history of the Communist movement by some of its leading representatives. And even though she felt that her correspondence was being read by the Stalinist regime, she does not shy away from naming names where she deems it to be necessary.

What stands out to me in particular is that Zetkin implicitly criticises the notion of the Bolsheviks as a ‘party of a new type’, as well as the associated idea that the SPD left should have split from the SPD before World War I and – or so the story goes – thereby successfully conducted a revolution by becoming a qualitatively different party. As widespread as this highly schematic and simplistic idea is today, it is clear that the notion of ‘the party of the new type’ is not actually found in the writings of somebody like Lenin (as Zetkin herself makes clear, and as I pointed out at a Debate in Chicago over a decade ago), but is actually a kind of foundation myth subsequently created by a bureaucratised and authoritarian Stalinist regime that was replacing historical inquiry with ‘hero worship’ and quote-culling … what she deems ‘obsequious cowardice’.

For her part, there are some claims by Zetkin that I do not think quite stand up to full historical inquiry, and she too argues largely within the framework of the ‘Lenin cult’ (Lenin said this, not this …). But as one of the few people who was a leading representative of the revolutionary movement from the early days of the German Socialist Party in the 1870s right through to the German Communist Party in the early 1930s, she was obviously an authoritative voice who could directly observe the difference between the history as it was and as it came to be presented in line with the dictates of the factional interests and imperatives within the Communist movement of her time.

In a slight rush, but hope you enjoy the read! And please welcome our new Patron, Anthony C. Many thanks for your help!



Alpari’s expletives against the grave errors, mistakes, etc made by Rosa [Luxemburg] and the ‘German left’ are in flagrant contradiction to the facts that the young radical Alpari himself witnessed, and that the now old political official that which now is would be able to, and ought to, find within the political and trade-union press, the minutes of party and trade-union congresses and those of the Second International.

These expletives, which express the official view of the editor of Inprecorr, contradict Lenin’s assessment of the situation in Germany at that time, although the latter was well aware of the differences of opinion in the movement then. In the pre-war period, the Left did not prepare a split within social democracy because it was committed to the course of winning over the party and the trade unions. Agreeing with this perspective, before 1914 Lenin did not call for a split in social democracy either in public or in private discussions. At that time, he unequivocally expressed the view that the Bolshevik example in Russia should not be applied mechanically to the rather different historical conditions of the working-class movement in Germany and other countries.

When, in the imperialist epoch, our opposition to Kautsky and to the Centre of the party on questions of disarmament, the mass strike and other extra-parliamentary mass actions to fight for the right to vote became increasingly intense, Lenin advised us in correspondence, and in other ways, to avoid a break with Kautsky, and thus with the Centre.

Given Kautsky’s authority internationally, said Lenin, we should not drive him towards becoming an open, official adherent of revisionism, but should rather keep hold of him. For Lenin, Kautsky’s defection to the revisionist camp would impede the struggle of revolutionary Marxists in Germany and other countries and would also have an unfavourable impact on the development of the movement in Russia.

Another fact. When [Bolshevik leader Grigory]Zinoviev was at the height of his influence, a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Communist International was presented with theses that denounced Luxemburg’s ‘theory of spontaneity’. I argued, however, that Rosa had never advocated a theory of mass spontaneity in the form that had been foisted on her. It was eventually admitted that this was correct. The theory was then rejected with reference to the fact that several supporters of R.L. had incorrectly put forward the theory of spontaneity in her name.

But when Alpari dares to claim that Rosa failed to recognise the role played by the peasantry and of the other classes and strata between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie in the social revolution, then this amounts not to ignorance, but falsification. At the London Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party [in London in 1907], she stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Bolsheviks against the Mensheviks by underlining the great significance of this factor for the outbreak and the development of the revolution.

So when, at the Founding Congress of the German Communist Party [in January 1919], she underscored winning over, or neutralising, the strata between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie – especially the peasantry – as an essential precondition of the victory of the revolution in Germany and in the world more generally, then this was not a transformation in her thought but rather a mere consequence of her whole revolutionary Marxist understanding and activity.

The fact that the Left did not carry out a split in social democracy before World War I remains a real point of difference with today’s doctrine [of party history], but it is not a point of difference with Lenin’s view of things at the time. I will explain the motivations for this approach in a subsequent letter.

Even today, I consider those motivations to be correct in the situation back then and think that they have been vindicated by developments since [i.e., the split in socia democracy and the emergence of the German Communist Party]. Today, I will merely repeat that our course was to win over the party, not to split it.

Now a few comments on Alpari’s critique of Kurt Sauerland’s book [Dialectical Materialism], which also apply to his debate with Rosenberg. Many a detail is on point, but others are superficial and lack an exhaustive, solid and clear presentation of the essence of Marxist dialectics, of historical materialism. Purely formal sophistry, and even Talmudic pedantry often take the place of scientific proof resulting from dialectical-materialist research. Alpari’s repeated references to cmd. Stalin is typical for his kind of reasoning. Sauerland can easily knock down this line of reasoning with other statements by Stalin, which have the same meaning, and sometimes even have almost the same wording. Alpari might well declare his method to be tactically or strategically ‘clever’; I call it contemptible, obsequious cowardice.

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