Monday, 28 October 2019

Book Review: A Jewish Communist in Weimar Germany

[From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter #68 (Autumn 2019)]

A Jewish Communist in Weimar Germany:
The Life of Werner Scholem (1895-1940)
Ralf Hoffroge
Chicago: Haymarket, 2018
667pp ISBN 978-1608469963

This book provides an in-depth picture of Scholem’s personal and political life from 1919 to 1926, a period crucial to understanding the long-term impact of the revolutionary days of 1918-19 in Munich and Berlin on both the left and hard right in Germany, the isolation of the Russian Revolution and the roots of the KPD’s (German Communist Party’s) later sectarian – and catastrophic – contortions, but the author does not aim to draw out these connections.

Scholem is a figure rarely heard of in the UK. (That he fell out with the KPD in the direction of Trotskyism has not helped!) But this biography richly illustrates the contortions of the German revolutionary left in the first half of the 1920s. Despite the book’s title, the ‘Jewish’ aspect is brief. Scholem was originally a part of a Zionist youth group, Jung Juda, but he soon fell out with Zionism, criticising its ‘war objectives’. But displays of anti-Semitism were a regular event in the Reichstag where Scholem became a KPD deputy and which Scholem, unlike most of the KPD deputies, railed against, bringing out its class roots. He highlighted that the especial prejudice against Eastern European Jews, including by Western European Jews, was a matter of class. The SPD deputies, on the other hand, although not explicitly anti-Semitic, talked in code: of the ‘foreigner problem’ and not allowing more Jews into Germany.

Scholem joined the SPD’s youth organisation: ‘Workers Youth’. In part radicalised by the war, critical of the SPD for their ‘defensive’ pro-war position, sympathetic to the October/November Russian revolution, and a witness to the mass strikes and widespread street battles in Berlin, he - and many other young people - in 1917-18 joined the USPD (the Independent Social Democratic Party, a far more rooted, left-wing and activist organisation, including around anti-Semitism, than the SPD). The USPD then split, the majority, ghfee hundred thousand, including Scholem, going over to the KPD (founded in January 1919) and forming much of the KPD’s ‘left’. Scholem became the editor of the KPD paper, Rote Fahne, and then a member of the Prussian assembly.

After the murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, Paul Levi briefly took over the KPD leadership. Against a background of the SPD getting more support and working class votes than the KPD, in early 1921, Levi favoured the ‘united front’ strategy, trying to attract Social Democratic workers, a position Scholem condemned, seeing it as opportunistic and likely to lapse into Social Democratic reformism.

The KPD, far from being rooted in the advanced working class, was already in historic convulsions. At the 1919 Party conference, Levi expelled the KPD’s left wing, whom Scholem strongly opposed for being ’anti-Bolshevik’, ‘anti-centralist’ and ‘syndicalist’. Heinrich Brandler, who had opposed Levi, became the new leader in February 1921. The crucial ‘March Action’ of 1921, a regional workers uprising, largely led by the KPD, was brutally crushed. This created a crisis in the KPD and the Communist International, encouraging a move away from ‘adventurism’ and towards the so called ‘united front’. Its main advocate was Ernst Meyer, the KPD’s parliamentary leader and one of the leaders of the ‘Conciliation’ faction. After this terrible defeat, what was needed, Meyer argued, was to raise workers’ daily grievances by making specific demands.

The KPD’s attempted and disastrous revolution of October 1923, the last throw of the dice to stop the USSR's isolation, was called off by Brandler (but not before Hamburg had ‘risen’). It was condemned by Scholem as ‘putschism’. Scholem then moved against Brandler.  Brandler, and 6,000 of his supporters, expelled in 1928/29, then set up the Communist Party Opposition, KPO, the Right Opposition.

In April 1924 Scholem became a KPD deputy in the Reichstag.  This is the point Scholem ‘joins’ the ‘Left Opposition’, along with Ruth Fischer (temporarily) and Arkadi Maslow, advocating a ‘revolutionary’ approach and action as opposed to a ‘united front’ with Social Democrats or trade unions.

Scholem became the ‘org’ man, the ‘party executioner’, insistent on party discipline and ‘Bolshevisation’. USSR’s isolation, was called off by Brandler (but not before Hamburg had ‘risen’) and condemned by Scholem. It was ‘putschism’.

In April 1924, Scholem became a KPD deputy. After the French took over the Ruhr in January 1923, the Left Opposition disagreed with the KPD leadership’s exploiting of anti-French sentiment and pandering to the dominant right wing, nationalist and fascist rhetoric. The KPD leadership saw its task even then as to appeal to members of the ultraright, rather than to defeat them.

But the Left Opposition’s position was defeated at the national Leipzig KPD Conference in late January, 1923, indicating their declining influence. In February, Scholem stated that there was no difference between German workers killed by the henchmen of French imperialism and the German unemployed murdered by fascists. A draft resolution prepared by Scholem in May 1923 criticised the KPD’s line of warning Ruhr workers not to fight the fascists. Scholem also condemned the KPD’s subsequent parliamentary regional alliances with the SPD, especially in Saxony: a workers government, he argued, had to come from below, not above. By April 1924, the minority: the ‘Zentralle’ (Fischer, Maslow and Scholem) became the majority.

But, amongst ever shifting alliances, the left leadership were ousted in 1925. (One reason was the declining membership: almost 300,000 in September 1923, about 100,000 in 1924.) As the ‘left’ squabbled and disintegrated, Thaelman took over as leader, condemning Scholem as a sectarian. Scholem was then removed from the Central Committee. After initiating the ‘Declaration of 700’ in solidarity with the Left Opposition and demanding more party democracy in the Soviet Union, Scholem (and other signatories) were expelled from the KPD on 5th November 1926, despite an appeal to Moscow.

Unfortunately the book does not focus much on Scholem’s increasing support of ‘Trotskyism’. In 1925, in line with the KPD leadership’s position, Scholem still saw the Trotskyist current as an anti- Bolshevist, right wing threat, only distancing himself from Stalin in March 1926 and demanding a return to true Leninism. The Leninbund, founded in April 1928 by Scholem amongst others, questioned the ongoing proletarian character of the October Revolution, considering the Soviet state to be a form of state capitalism and was critical of the position of ‘Socialism in One Country’. But the faction-ridden Leninbund soon dissolved, largely because of splits over whether to stand candidates against the KPD, which Scholem opposed. Although Scholem did not publically distance himself from the Soviet Union, in late January 1928, he publically sided with Trotsky.

Although the book does not go into detail, from September 1930, Scholem wrote for Trotskyist publications such as Permanente Revolution and, according to Ruth Fischer, corresponded with Trotsky. As early as 1922, Scholem was warning both the SPD and the KPD about underestimating the threat of a fascist dictatorship and repeatedly called for united action against the Freikorps, other right wing groups and ‘German fascists’ and supported ‘workers’ self-defence units’.

 From early on, the Nazis used him as a stereotype in their propaganda. He was arrested on 22nd April 1933, soon after the Reichstag fire in 1933. He ended up in Buchenwald in September 1938. Haffrogge asks whether the strong KPD underground there contributed to Scholem’s murder. Assigned quarry duties, he was taken off to one side by the SS guards and shot in July 1940.

Merilyn Moos

Scholem’s Stolperstein (literally ‘stumbling stone’ in Berlin. These concrete cubes with brass plates are embedded in the streets to commemorate victims of the Nazis.

Merilyn Moos is the daughter of anti-Nazi parents who fled Germany in 1933. She is the author of three published books, a semi-autobiographical novel: The Language of Silence, a biography of her father:  Beaten But Not Defeated: Siegfried Moos - A German anti-Nazi who settled in Britain, and an academic study Breaking the Silence: Voices of the British Children of Refugees from Nazism, as well as of numerous other articles. Her next book, co-written with Steve Cushion: Enemies of the Nazi state from within the working class movement, is due out early in 2020.

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