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How Socialists Resist Rightist Coups

January 7, 2021

Lessons from the Early Communist International

Part One: The Kornilov and Kapp Putsches

(See also Part 2: “Toward a United Front Against Fascismand 
Part 3: “1920: German Workers Foil a Rightist Putsch)

By John Riddell: Parliaments and elections are no guarantee of democratic rights and fair treatment for working people. Capitalist forces displeased with an electoral outcome are all too likely to take direct action to impose their will, whether by financial manipulations, economic blockades, or military coups.

Even apparently stable parliamentary regimes in dominant countries can be challenged in this way. So it was that a military revolt brought down the French Fourth Republic in 1958 and, in 2020-21, Donald Trump mounted a campaign including an apparent coup attempt aiming to overturn the outcome of the U.S. presidential election.

Socialists are challenged to actively oppose rightist coup attempts without lending support to any wing of the ruling capitalist class.

This challenge has come up repeatedly during the history of socialism. Let us survey a portion of the record: the Russian revolution of 1917 and the experience in Europe during the next six years. During this period, the workers’ movement in Europe faced four major rightist coup attempts:

    1. Attempted Kornilov coup in Russia, September 1917.
    2. Kapp Putsch in Germany, March 1920.
    3. Fascist seizure of power in Italy, 1920–22.
    4. Military coup in Bulgaria, 1923.

The outcome was mixed: a historic victory, a standoff, and two stinging defeats.

1917: Uniting Against the Kornilov Coup

In the first days of September 1917 (new style), during the seventh month of the Russian revolution, General Lavr Kornilov, the head of the Russian army, sent army divisions to occupy Petrograd (St. Petersburg) in order to depose the Provisional Government, disperse the workers’ and soldiers’ soviets, hang Lenin and other soviet leaders, and assume power.[i] The government, headed by Alexander Kerensky, had been installed by the Soviets and represented an alliance of bourgeois and pro-coalition workers’ parties. Resisting Bolshevik calls to grant “all power to the Soviets,” this government had jailed Bolshevik leaders such as Leon Trotsky and driven V.I. Lenin into hiding.

When Kerensky dismissed Kornilov on September 10, the general shifted his coup into high gear. On September 11, the Petrograd Soviet, composed of delegates from workers’ and soldiers’ councils, set up a Committee for Struggle Against the Counterrevolution. Its 18 members included representatives of all major currents in the soviets, ranging from pro-government forces to Bolshevik representatives. The Committee for Struggle mobilized workers, formed armed detachments, rallied soldiers , and boldly infiltrated the ranks of Kornilov’s divisions. Two days later the coup collapsed without a shot being fired.

Red Guard of the Vulkan Factory, Petrograd, September 1917

By confronting Kornilov, the Bolsheviks, the driving force in the Committee for Struggle, were defending the very government that was throwing its leaders in jail. The anti-Kornilov alliance defeated Kornilov quickly and efficiently, while maintaining its independence from Kerensky’s regime. On the shoulders of this victory, a month later the forces that joined to defeat Kornilov led in the transfer of formal political authority to the Soviets, brushing aside the Provisional Government in the process.

The Kornilov episode provided a textbook example of how to unite working-class and allied forces in action against a rightist coup. Even so, it was rarely mentioned in subsequent debates in the Communist International (Comintern). In 4,500 printed pages of Comintern world congress and Executive Committee (ECCI) plenum proceedings up to the end of 1922, resistance to Kornilov is mentioned only once, without explanation.[ii] Another passing reference is found in Lenin’s celebrated pamphlet written in 1920, “Left-Wing” Communism, an Infantile Disorder. Only at the 1923 ECCI plenum, a few days after a disastrous rightist coup in Bulgaria, did the Kornilov experience receive several mentions.[iii]

Founding the Third International

The Russian Soviet Republic was established in November 1917 with an internationalist mission: to end the disastrous imperialist world war and to spread the message of socialist revolution across Europe. A year later, the emperors of Germany and Austria-Hungary were ousted by uprisings of workers and soldiers, whose revolutionary councils initially exercised wide authority. Their rebellion brought the war to a rapid end. Workers’ struggles swept all of Europe. The time was ripe to reknit unity among internationalist socialists across the continent.

In December 1918, the Russian Communist Party sent a radio message to revolutionary socialist groups abroad calling for formation of a revolutionary Third International. This appeal was repeated in a further statement, sent by courier later that month and signed by Lenin and Trotsky, on behalf of Russian Communists, and by representatives in Moscow of socialist parties in seven other countries.[iv]

During the three months before the conference convened, the workers’ councils in Germany came under fierce attack. The SPD-led government summoned monarchist and proto-fascist militias to attack the councils. Thousands of workers were killed, including Communist leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.[v] The bourgeois “Weimar Republic” that now ruled Germany was parliamentary in form, but its structures were dominated by partisans of the fallen imperial order.

Yet the defeat suffered by German workers was not definitive. The German workers’ councils, though weakened, still existed. Across Europe, the revolutionary upsurge continued to advance amid conditions of postwar economic and social disintegration.

The founding congress of the Communist International met in Moscow on 2 March 1919. The 51 delegates, representing 22 countries, were confident that the movement for workers’ power, based on the newly formed workers’ councils, was sweeping toward continent-wide victory. Lenin expressed this hope in an article published on March 5:

The German revolution has provided the test…. [N]ot only the same principal revolutionary forces and principal directions of the revolution, but also the same principal form of the new, proletarian democracy – the soviets….

The ice has been broken.

The soviets have triumphed throughout the world….

The new movement is heading for Soviet government with the torrential might of millions and tens of millions of workers sweeping everything from their path.[vi]

The Moscow congress concluded March 6 by launching the Communist International (Comintern) as a new world movement of world socialist revolution. Its main resolution counterposed “bourgeois democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat,” seeking to rally forces to achieve a revolutionary government based on workers’ councils. Another congress statement, after denouncing the rise of “white terror” across Europe, called on workers “to abolish this system of murder and robbery by overthrowing the power of the capitalist regime.”[vii]

The congress was preliminary in character; it did not attempt to elaborate a program. Luxemburg had expressed the outlook of many Communists three months previously to delegates at the founding congress of the German Communist Party (KPD) in terms of a break from  the programmatic approach of the pre-1914 German Social Democratic Party (SPD):

In deliberate contrast to [the SPD’s 1891 Erfurt program], we are settling the accounts of the last seventy years of development, and of the immediate results of the World War in particular, that we no longer have a minimum and maximum program. Socialism is both at the same time – it is the minimum that we have to accomplish today.[viii]

The Comintern swiftly moved beyond this conception. During the years after its foundation, the Second, Third, and Fourth congresses sought to craft a single, integrated system of immediate, democratic, and transitional demands. (See “The Comintern as a School of Socialist Strategy”)

Repelling a Rightist Coup: The Kapp Putsch of 1920

Shortly after the Comintern’s founding congress, revolutionary Communist-led governments, based on local workers’ councils, took power in Hungary (late March) and the German state of Bavaria (April). Both governments were overwhelmed by fierce capitalist military attacks. The newly born Comintern tried to rally active solidarity with these regimes but with only limited success. The workers’ governments were overthrown in May (Bavaria) and August (Hungary).

In both cases, the triumphant rightists carried out murderous reprisals. Hungary was subjected to a reactionary military dictatorship; Bavaria became a stronghold of proto-fascist forces hostile to the German Weimar Republic.

In Germany, many monarchist and proto-fascist currents sought to replace the Social Democratic-led parliamentary regime with a direct rightist tyranny. On 12 March 1920, German army detachments aligned with the Bavarian rightists seized the capital, Berlin, and proclaimed a new military-led government, led by Wolfgang Kapp. The elected regime was forced to flee. At dawn the following day, the SPD-led unions called for a general strike against Kapp’s putsch. The strike was massively successful, shutting down the country and isolating the coup regime, which collapsed on March 17. For more on resistance to the Kapp Putsch, see “1920: German Workers Foil a Rightist Putsch.”

‘Stop or you will be shot!’ — Kapp Putsch in Berlin, 1920

Although not unexpected, the rightist eruption caught the German Communist Party (KPD) leadership off balance. The party’s statement, published March 14, refused to take sides in the struggle. In view of the violent attacks on workers by the constitutional regime, the KPD stated, there was no point in defending it against the military putsch. The real struggle was for workers’ power, and that lay in the future.[ix]

For a more detailed account of anti-Kapp general strike and its outcome, see “1920: German Workers Foil a Rightist Putsch”.

Yet despite the KPD leaders’ initial misgivings, the general strike quickly rallied 12 million German workers, shutting down the country and isolating the coup’s leaders. The KPD quickly corrected its error, rallied in support of the strike, and thereafter played a constructive role in the Kapp struggle and its aftermath.

In two of Germany’s industrial heartlands, workers resisting the coup took up arms and gained effective regional control. When Kapp and his cohorts fled (March 17), workers refused to end the strike and demanded decisive action against rightist militias. The head of Germany’s main union federations called for replacement of the Weimar regime with a “workers’ government” formed by all major working-class organizations.

Workers’ resistance to extreme-right violence was beginning to grow over into a bid for workers’ power. The capitalist government and its army responded brutally and soon regained control. Nonetheless, the struggle against Kapp confirmed the lesson of the 1917 Kornilov episode, showing the power and potential of united resistance to rightist bids to replace parliamentary rule with naked tyranny.

The KPD’s initially favourable reaction to the “workers’ government” proposal sparked a controversy among Communist leaders in both Germany and Moscow. Less attention was devoted to the alliance of working-class forces, including the SPD, that had so readily defeated the coup.

The Hazards of ‘Left-Wing’ Communism

The German Communists’ initial blunder regarding the 1920 Kapp Putsch reflected a mood of revolutionary impatience widespread in the International at that time. Communists termed this outlook “left-wing communism”; today it is known as “ultraleftism.”

This danger was addressed by the Comintern’s Second World Congress, which convened in July 1920 four months after the Kapp Putsch. Lenin contributed a celebrated pamphlet, “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, which was distributed to all delegates on their arrival in Moscow.

Lenin’s pamphlet and the Congress agenda focused on several major errors of the ultraleft currents, including abstention from contesting elections in capitalist states, abstention from reformist-led trade unions, and the failure to support national and colonial liberation movements. In each case, the Congress adopted policies aimed at assembling and educating forces over time to build a mass revolutionary party deeply rooted in the working class. The Second Congress also took major steps toward integrating immediate demands into the Communist program.

A passing reference in Lenin’s pamphlet compared the Kapp experience to Kornilov’s failed anti-soviet putsch in Russia in September 1917. The similarity between the two experiences was truly striking: in both cases united action by revolutionary and reformist currents in the workers’ movement defeated the rightist coup and also created conditions where workers could make a bid for power. However, the parallel was not explained either by Lenin or by any other speaker at the Second Congress.[x]

All in all, the Second Congress devoted surprisingly little attention to the Kapp Putsch struggles. The main Congress report, given by Comintern President Grigorii Zinoviev, touched on it only briefly. He criticized the KPD for having supported the proposal made during the Kapp struggle for a government of all workers’ organizations but failed to note Lenin’s qualified support for this concept. Neither Zinoviev nor any other congress speaker mentioned the KPD’s initial ultraleft opposition to the general strike or the role of workers’ unity in defeating the Kapp coup. (For more on the congress debates, see “The Comintern’s Second Congress: A Centennial Introduction.”)[xi]

Rethinking the Path to Power

The Second World Congress decisions reflected hopes of an imminent workers’ breakthrough in Central Europe, inspired by the Soviet Red Army’s success in repelling an invasion by Poland. A year later, Trotsky spoke of the mood of those days: “{B]ecause of the revolutionary situation in Germany, Italy, and others, the military impulse … might bring on the landslide of revolution, then temporarily at a dead point. That did not happen. We were beaten back.”[xii] The defeat of the Red Army in Poland in late August 1920 added to the evidence that capitalism in Europe had restabilized, at least temporarily.

Meanwhile, the rightist dictatorship established in Hungary in 1919 after the fall of the Communist-led regime had shattered working-class resistance and dispersed the Communist movement. In Germany, rightist enemies of the Weimar Republic and reactionary militias remained strong. In Italy, toward the end of 1920, workers’ and peasants’ organizations began to come under violent attack by anti-labour squads, who called themselves “Fascists.”

See also Part 2: “Toward a United Front Against Fascism and Part 3: “1920: German Workers Foil a Rightist Putsch


[i]. Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution,  New York: Pathfinder, 1980, vol. 2, p, 206.

[ii]. See “Theses on the Conditions Under Which Workers’ Councils May be Formed,” drafted by Grigorii Zinoviev, in John Riddell, ed., Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite: Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920, New York: Pathfinder, 1991, vol. 2, p. 707.

[iii]. See Mike Taber, ed., The Communist Movement at a Crossroads: Plenums of the Communist International Executive Committee, 1922–23, Leiden/Chicago: Brill/Haymarket Books, 2018, pp. 179 (quoting Lenin), 479–80 (Radek), and 642 (Zinoviev).

[iv]. John Riddell, ed., The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power,. New York: Pathfinder, 1986, pp. 443–52.

[v]. Pierre Broué, The German Revolution 1917–1923, London: Merlin, 2006, p. 277.

[vi]. V.I. Lenin, “Won and Recorded,” in Riddell, ed., Founding the Communist International: Proceedings and Documents of the First Congress, March 1919, New York:Pathfinder, 1987, pp. 301–2.

[vii]. Riddell, ed., Founding the Communist International: Proceedings and Documents of the First Congress, March 1919, New York: Pathfinder, 1987, pp. 149–64 and 240.

[viii]. Ibid., p. 194.

[ix]. See Broué, German Revolution,p. 355.

[x]. Zinoviev read the relevant passage of Lenin’s pamphlet into the record of the 1923 Third Enlarged Plenum of the Comintern Executive Committee without commenting on its significance. See Mike Taber, ed., The Communist Movement at a Crossroads: Plenums of the Communist International Executive Committee, 1922–23, Leiden/Chicago: Brill/Haymarket Books, 2018, p. 179.

[xi]. See Riddell, ed., Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite: Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920, New York: Pathfinder, 1991, 2 vols., pp. 19–21, 81–82.

[xii]. Riddell, ed., To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congresses of the Communist International, 1921,Leiden/Chicago: Brill/Haymarket Books, 2015, p. 6.

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