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How revolutionaries of Lenin’s time resisted austerity

April 26, 2012

Economic collapse drives workers into hunger and destitution. Foreign powers extort huge payments, forcing the national economy toward bankruptcy. The government forces workers to pay the costs of capitalist crisis.

This description of Greece in 2012 applies equally to Germany in 1921.

How should a workers’ party respond to such a breakdown? The proposals of the German Communist Party (KPD) included a simple approach to fiscal policy: tax those who own the country’s productive wealth.

The KPD was then a member of the Communist International, whose leadership included V.I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Gregory Zinoviev.

The KPD’s tax proposal received lip service from the country’s two Social Democratic parties and trade union leaders. The Communists, however, called on all workers’ organizations to unite in concerted action to win this demand. Since Germany’s currency was undermined by galloping inflation, the Communists proposed taxing wealth and material assets.

The KPD’s approach to taxation is explained in the following article by German historian Florian Wilde. — John Riddell

Not the poor, but the rich should pay!
German Communists’ taxation proposals 90 years ago
By Florian Wilde

The story is always the same: the state’s coffers are empty. In Germany, 90 years ago, that raised the question of who should pay for the burgeoning public debt, which had been caused by the reparations payments to the victors of the First World War stipulated by the Treaty of Versailles.

Towards the end of 1921, an attempt was made to shift the burden of debt to the working class through higher sales taxes. The German Communist Party opposed this, demanding instead an increase in the tax on wealth and the seizure of assets. To realize these demands, the KPD employed their United Front strategy, which had been adopted at the Jena Party Congress in August 1921.

Ernst Meyer

The guiding principle behind the Communist’s tax policy, wrote KPD chairperson Ernst Meyer in Rote Fahne, the party newspaper, was the “to prevent the deterioration of the living standards of the broad masses,” and “to shift the entire tax burden to the owning class.” For that reason, the KPD’s parliamentary deputies would “resist all taxes that worsen the living standards of the proletariat.” In contrast to the other parties, they would primarily try to “pressure the government and the bourgeoisie to prevent the [sales] taxes by all extraparliamentary means.”

If the Communists were unable to prevent the new taxes, they would intensify the struggle for higher wages, Meyer said. The principal task of the KPD was to “harness all proletarian forces for this extraparliamentary struggle.” To that end, the party would even be prepared to support the inadequate proposals of other workers’ parties “if these proposals provide a basis to initiate struggles and thus accelerate the establishment of a United Front of the entire proletariat against the capitalists.” For Meyer, the struggle for “partial goals” was therefore linked to the Communists’ “final goal,” as he underscored at the party conference in November: “We fight taxes,” he said, “in order to shift the balance of power.”

What the KPD intended by their demand to seize assets in 1921 was for the state to expropriate a proportion of stocks, bonds, landholdings, factories and mines. This is how the debts should be paid off and how higher wages and an active social policy should be financed. This demand, it was hoped, would make it possible for all workers to join in common defensive actions, especially given that the trade unions and the Social-Democratic Party (SPD) were on record for similar proposals.

The KPD proposed to the union and SPD executive committees a coordinated mobilization of the working class in order to implement the asset seizure as well as to defend the eight-hour workday and the right to strike.

In its national newsletter, the KPD central leadership explained that the asset seizure was “a spark to ignite revolutionary struggles with limited goals, and to expand these struggles from the fight over taxes to general confrontations with the bourgeoisie.” This explanation was all the more necessary because the campaign for asset seizure was far from uncontroversial even in the KPD. The left flank of the party characterized it as inadequate and reformist, and thus sharply criticized the central leadership.

In an article for Inprekorr, the Comintern newspaper, Meyer countered that the demands for asset seizure were admittedly not “purely communist or, in themselves, revolutionary. They can be supported and are put forward by all workers’ organizations. But the attempt to implement them means the intensification of the class struggle against all the bourgeois parties, who will oppose the realization of these demands with all their power…. The attempt to implement them also means the rejection of any coalition with the bourgeoisie, and further, it presages the replacement of the bourgeois parliamentary government with a purely socialist one.”

Thus, United Front policy was propagated as revolutionary realpolitik. The goal was to raise demands that were in the interests of the entire working class, that were also shared with other workers’ organizations, and that necessitated an intensified confrontation with capital. These demands were to be achieved above all by extraparliamentary action, going beyond the scope of parliament-centred, Social Democratic politics.

First published in German in Neues Deutschland: Sozialistische Tageszeitung, December 31, 2011. This translation by Daniel Tucker-Simmons first appeared in the hardcopy version of Socialist Review (April 2012). Florian Wilde is a Berlin-based historian and member of Die Linke. The translation is published here with permission of Socialist Review and the author.

  1. Nelson Rubio permalink

    Proposals from 90 years ago that did not work is a suggestion for today?

  2. Anthony Brain permalink

    It is good that Florian Wilde is arguing for the correct application in 1921 of United Front and Transitional Demands (is what in practice is arguing on how to fight for tax seizures against the Ultra-Lefts within the KPD who opposed the tax seizure tactic! This is a very interesting development and represents a re-composition within working class and left politics. It could lead to re-establishment of Revolutionary Marxism on a mass scale (which I call Leninism-Trotskyism). Due to the degeneration and collapse of ex-Trotskyists tendencies’ moving in the direction of Leninism-Trotskyism could come from diverse currents in the left and wider workers’ movement. This is why Trotskyists have to be most tactically flexible to any such currents!

    Trotskyists should relate to this development in the Left Party by Florian Wilde and any sectarianism would be fatal! What is Wilde’s overall politics, does he have any ism ideology?

    Do you still consider yourself a Trotskyist? What do you think of Permanent Revolution? I

    I saw on Russia Today Wednesday morning that the riot police were using tear gas and water cannons against in La Paz (Bolivian Capital) miners who are fighting for a 6/7% pay increase and improvement in working conditions.

    Big developments in Canada with the mass student upheaval in Quebec; massive strikes; and possibility of NDP winning the next Canadian general election!

    Anthony Brain

  3. Hans Modlich, Toronto permalink

    Skeptic Nelson asks a legitimate question. It deserves an answer:

    I’m just reading a history of Berlin by my fave German historian-journalist Bernt Engelmann; “Berlin – Eine Stadt wie Keine Andere” and in it he refers to the efforts of pioneer aviator Otto Lilienthal. He died trying out one of his pioneering glider flights — having flown distances up to 450 metres — in 1896.

    Humanity builds on the experiences of our predecessors — including the failures. But until we analyze and learn from the errors of the past — we are doomed to repeat the failures.

    Ernst Meter’s role stands out in stark contrast to the other [still alive] leaders of the German left at one of those rare moments in history when genuine revolutionary change was definitely on the agenda.

    Thanks John Ridell for bringing this to our attention.

    PS: Tomorrow I’m on my umpteenth trans-atlantic flight back to Toronto – not least because of Otto Lilienthal!….and the treacherous betrayals of the SPD leadership of Ebert and Noske.

  4. Nelson Rubio says that the German Communists’ proposal to tax the capitalist class did not work in 1921 and is therefore a poor model for today. In fact the proposal was not tried; the Social Democrats refused the Communists’ overtures for a united front to fight for its implementation.

    Taxation of the rich is not a particularly radical proposal and is often proposed, and even occasionally implemented to some degree, by Social Democratic parties. What was novel in the Communists’ approach was the notion that workers should unite across ideological lines in a mass campaign to force through a radical version of this proposal.

    In Ontario, where I live, the Social Democrats (NDP) have just secured adoption of a 2% special tax on the very rich. A big-business newspaper (Globe and Mail) comments that, in the past, such measures have not produced any additional revenue. The very rich simply escalate their tax evasion by reorganizing their holdings and faking their tax returns, the Globe tells us. If this should actually happen, Ernst Meyer’s proposal of a campaign for confiscatory taxation of capitalist material assets could be a relevant response.

    Anthony Brain raises many interesting questions; I’ll limit myself to a couple of them.

    He writes that “re-establishment of Revolutionary Marxism on a mass scale … could come from diverse currents in the left and wider workers’ movement.” This strikes me as correct, and I agree with his appeal for “tactical flexibility” in pursuing that goal.

    Anthony asks me what I think of “permanent revolution”. This is a concept that has been used in many different ways over a period of more than 160 years. It is best to discuss it with references to specific situations and challenges. For example, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has invoked the concept of “permanent revolution,” even as many Marxists denounced him in the name of “permanent revolution.” You will find some related comments by me in the Venezuela section of this website.

  5. This excellent article does leave us with the question: What happened? I would like to know more about the refusal of the social democrats to support the idea and the consequences of that refusal.

    Two years later, in the great crisis of 1923 the majority of German workers were supporting the KPD. Is it possible to show that the call to make the rich pay back in 1921 helped towards this?

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