August Thalheimer Was a Great Revolutionary Theorist

Jens Becker
Julia Damphouse

In the 1920s, August Thalheimer was the most important theorist of Germany’s Communist movement. He stood for an independent workers’ movement that forged a path beyond conservative social democracy and authoritarian Stalinism.

August Thalheimer in Havana, Cuba. (Wikimedia Commons)

This year marks 140 years since the birth of the Marxist theorist August Thalheimer. A first Social Democratic then Communist militant, he was a political intellectual whose life’s work revealed alternative ways of thinking to those of the fossilized official parties. More than that, he developed a coherent theory of fascism that went above merely propagandistic opposition to the looming Nazi threat.

Social Democratic Beginnings

Growing up in a Jewish home in Affaltrach, Württemberg, August and his sister Bertha (1883–1959) had come into contact with the Social Democratic labor movement at an early age through their father, Moritz. The siblings were both politically active first in the Social Democratic and then Communist movements, but forged independent paths and then lost contact with each other after the Nazi takeover in 1933. August’s intellectual and political inspiration came not only from his parents but also from Clara Zetkin, Friedrich Westmeyer, and other left-wing Social Democrats close to the family.

After completing his doctorate in linguistics in 1907 and spending some time studying in Munich, London, and Oxford, Thalheimer established contacts with Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Mehring, and other leading intellectuals of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). But the university was a conservative place in the German empire, and his SPD membership saw him denied a career as an academic. Instead, he became editor of the social democratic Göppinger Freie Volkszeitung newspaper. Meanwhile, his sister Bertha wrote for Zetkin’s socialist women’s paper Die Gleichheit and became a member of the SPD executive in Baden-Württemberg.

World War I and the resulting split in the labor movement into pro- and antiwar wings marked a major turning point in the Thalheimer siblings’ political biographies. The war could continue only thanks to the “social patriotism” (as Vladimir Lenin called it) of pro-war socialist parties, and initially only a small minority of activists around Europe organized unequivocally against the war. As a representative of the antiwar Spartacus Group, Bertha took part in the conferences of the opponents of the war in Zimmerwald and Kienthal in September 1915 and April 1916. Spurred on by their reports, August also became increasingly involved in the reorganization of an anti-imperialist revolutionary workers’ movement.

As a result of a deliberate denunciation to the military authorities, which took place almost at the same time as his marriage to Cläre Schmidt, Thalheimer was called up for military service in May 1916. After the end of the war, he became a member of the leadership of the Stuttgart Spartacus Group. After the bloodless democratic revolution on November 9, 1918, a provisional government made up of the SPD, the antiwar Independent Social Democrats (USPD), and trade unions appointed him as Württemberg’s finance minister — a decision that was much to his own surprise. Thalheimer was also elected to the leadership of the Spartacus League, from which the new German Communist Party (KPD) emerged at the turn of 1918–19. He also joined the editorial board of the party newspaper Rote Fahne.

Thalheimer initially focused on the councils created by workers and soldiers, a living form of working-class self-organization. But after the failure of the November Revolution and the murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, he shifted his attention to developing the party and its program.

A Theorist and Leader

Thalheimer left the role of the power-conscious, hands-on politician to the temporary party chairman, his friend Heinrich Brandler. Thalheimer was a theorist first and foremost, so it was natural that this “well-read Marxist and bold revolutionary” who was “never a man of daily politics” — as his party comrade Rosa Meyer-Leviné put it — became the KPD’s most important theoretician. However, his shared responsibility for erroneous decisions — such as the failed KPD-led uprising in 1921 known as the March Action — should not go unmentioned.

In order to relieve the Soviet Union, which had been weakened by civil war, famine, and domestic political crises, the KPD initiated a revolutionary “offensive” in central Germany. The party chairman of the time, Paul Levi, would later admit that this had failed as a doomed “Bakuninite putsch,” with reference to the famous anarchist leader. The harsh criticism of these events at the Comintern’s Third Congress led to the reorientation of the International, which Thalheimer strongly backed from then on.

This reorientation was linked to the policy of a “united front” of all workers and their class organizations, with a view to creating a joint workers’ government uniting the KPD and SPD. According to Thalheimer specialist Harald Jentsch, this approach was the “means and goal of the proletarian class struggle” in official KPD policy between mid-1921 and 1923. Until the KPD’s defeat in October 1923, the united-front policy was seen as a realistic counterstrategy to the rise of fascism. It promised an effective antidote to tendencies toward ultra-leftism (which would characterize the KPD itself from 1924 onward), but also the reformist course from which the SPD leadership refused to break away during the Weimar Republic.

Yet a further tragic disaster soon came. The “German October” of 1923 — a planned uprising cooked up in Moscow, modeled on the Russian October of 1917 but based on an unrealistic understanding of the balance of forces between the German state and the KPD — came to nothing. The fallout was especially dire for Thalheimer and Brandler, as it would spell the end of their political careers in the KPD. Both were caught up in the inner-Russian power struggle between Leon Trotsky on the one side and Lev Kamenev, Grigory Zinoviev, and Joseph Stalin on the other. They were eliminated in January 1924 by an “unofficial agreement” of the Extended Presidium of the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI).

Thalheimer, who was wanted for arrest in Germany because of the events of 1923, fled to Moscow at the beginning of 1924. He joined the Soviet Communist Party (CPSU) there while working at the Marx-Engels Institute and as a lecturer at Sun Yat-sen University. He remained isolated from KPD party life until his return to Germany in 1928.

The struggle waged by the ECCI — now purged of “right-wingers” and other critics — against the supposed “opportunist dirty tricks” of “Brandlerism” was taken to extremes by the new KPD leadership. Statements by former Brandler supporter Josef Eisenberger and other “evidence” were used to further discredit Thalheimer and other nonconformist KPD and CPSU members by means of a party tribunal in 1925. Although Brandler and Thalheimer were partially rehabilitated by the ECCI in 1927, this did little to alleviate the political and psychological pressure resulting from censorship and systematic spying — including surveillance of their correspondence.

A letter from Thalheimer to Zetkin from 1928 reported these attacks:

In the meantime [mid-1928], I have started working on a series of articles for the Rote Fahne. . . . On one occasion, only a part was printed, and with others a procedure was adopted that I have never seen occur in my years of practice as an editor. They were suppressed, then the content was plundered and distorted by the editors. . . . These are the crooked methods that are revealed here. If I were only following my instincts, I would break off all contact with this editorial office. You understand the reasons why I am nevertheless trying to have my say in the central organ and will fight for it with all the means at my disposal.

Organizing Alongside the KPD

It was only due to his wife Cläre’s serious illness and his own heart problems that the Soviet authorities allowed the couple to leave for Germany in 1928. There, the so-called Wittorf affair — an embezzlement scandal that was really about accusations of corruption against the party chairman Ernst Thälmann — shook the KPD.

Strengthened by the resolutions of the Sixth World Congress of the Comintern, the party bureaucracy succeeded in sweeping the affair under the rug and expelling critics like Thalheimer and Brandler from the party. The increasing hierarchy, bureaucratization, and centralization of international communism over the years 1924–29 was thus completed for the time being. Democracy within the party degenerated into “democratic centralism,” a system of control that cemented the power of the Soviet party leadership around Stalin over the Comintern’s parties.

For many supporters of Brandler and Thalheimer, the founding of a new organization, the Communist Party (Opposition), or KPO, in 1928–29 was the logical consequence of these developments. The KPO found support among loyal party cadres with long-standing trade union, SPD, and Spartacus League experience in Thuringia, Saxony, Hesse, Württemberg, and northern Germany — among them Bertha. The KPO saw itself as an “organized communist current” that wanted to save and strengthen the KPD. The starting point in 1929 was Thalheimer’s public reply to the ECCI’s “Open Letter to the KPD on the right-wing danger in the Communist Party of Germany.” Its main points of contention were the united front, the framing of social democracy as “social fascism,” fascism, inner-party democracy, and the relationship between the national parties and the Comintern.

However, the KPO neither succeeded in mediating between the various sides of the divided workers’ movement nor in preventing the rise of Nazism. The fact that Thalheimer presented profound analyses of fascism and formulated a tight strategy of flexible united front politics did nothing to change this. Thalheimer’s understanding of fascism was characterized by a recourse to the analysis of Bonapartism that Karl Marx had developed in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Unlike the party’s official “social fascism” thesis, which equated bourgeois democracy and fascism, Thalheimer differentiated between different — historically possible — variants of fascism. The fascist form of bourgeois rule is closely linked to the class antagonisms characteristic of late capitalist societies. In order to save its social base, the bourgeoisie sacrificed the political form of democracy and was prepared to submit to a pro-capitalist dictatorship, which could be embodied either by a party or a person.

Thalheimer wrote that fascism had unmistakable

essential traits in common with the Bonapartist form of dictatorship: once again the independence of executive power, the political subjugation of all the masses, including the bourgeoisie itself, under fascist state power with the social rule of the big bourgeoisie and the large landowners. At the same time, fascism, like Bonapartism, wants to be the general beneficiary.

Central was the idea of the “independence of executive power,” which Thalheimer used to characterize the crisis-ridden presidential governments of the late Weimar Republic. This reading still appears relevant in contemporary Germany, with its overbearing government fighting against dissenters, and the creeping disempowerment of parliaments.

Resistance From Abroad

After the Nazis seized power, Thalheimer, Leo Borochowicz, and Brandler formed the Foreign Committee (AK) from Paris, which coordinated the resistance of the KPO together with the Berlin Committee (BK). Until 1937, they managed to put up effective resistance to the Nazi terror regime, in line with the possibilities of a small political organization. Thalheimer’s everyday life was occupied with political and journalistic activities. His intellectual focus was on developments in Nazi Germany and the relationship between the Comintern and the Soviet Union.

Following Luxemburg’s line of thought, Thalheimer emphasized the unique conditions faced by Communists in individual countries. For the industrial countries of Western Europe, he points to the strong position of the established (reformist) workers’ organizations and cultures, which retain a large proportion of the “qualified political and trade union forces, organizers, agitators and propagandists,” while most communist parties “start out with very few people.” For this reason, a certain maneuverability of the individual communist parties independent of the CPSU was unavoidable, because the proletarian revolution only seemed possible if it involved a willing majority of the working class.

In particular, the

parties in the highly capitalist countries of Western and Central Europe and North America should use the Russian experience of freedom and independence, as the Prussian military historian [Carl von] Clausewitz demanded of commanders when exploiting the experience of war history. They should critically assimilate all these experiences . . . draw general points of view from them and in all this keep their minds free and elastic.

But this call for flexibility could not be reconciled with the Stalinized Communist Parties’ claim to infallibility. Thalheimer and Brandler’s efforts to return to the KPD while in exile in Paris in the 1930s also failed due to this contradiction. The world communist movement showed itself to be beyond reform at that time.

The same also applied to the development of socialism in the Soviet Union, which Thalheimer and other KPO members were reluctant to comment on until 1937. Trying to work with incomplete information, a “clear distinction was made between German communist policy, which one understood and wanted to determine independently, and Soviet domestic policy, of which one knew little,” as fellow KPO man Theodor Bergmann put it. This resulted in a rather positive image of the Soviet Union, which was based on official statements and can appear indulgent from today’s perspective.

However, Thalheimer also emphasized that in the course of socioeconomic modernization from above (forced collectivization and industrialization) and the bloody Moscow Trials, socialist state power had been transformed into authoritarian state power: a police and bureaucratic state. The consequence was an atomization of all classes of society, in which all organizations were controlled from above and from outside:

[T]he caste-based organization of the government machine itself, titles and medals . . . the omnipresent secret police, the all-pervading invective and mutual denunciation, the permanent terror, the deification of the leader and sub-leaders, undignified groveling to superiors, barbaric disregard and abuse of inferiors, Great Russian chauvinism with the glorification and justification of all the barbarism of the past, Pan-Slavism. . . . The contrast between the original principles and goals of the socialist revolution and reality is expressed in a general official hypocrisy.


After the outbreak of World War II, the Thalheimer and his wife were interned. However, they were able to leave for Cuba together with Brandler in 1941. There, the Thalheimer family lived mainly from August’s translations and from the support of Jewish communities from the United States. His sister Bertha survived internment in Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1943 and, after liberation in 1945 and until her death in 1959, was involved in the Gruppe Arbeiterpolitik (GAP), the successor organization to the KPO, in which Brandler also worked for a time. She was never to see her brother again, as his efforts to return to Germany after the end of the war were delayed.

Seriously ill, he succumbed to a heart attack in Havana on September 19, 1948. Cläre emigrated to Australia with her son Roy, where she worked as a teacher and died in 1990.

Thalheimer’s analyses of world and German politics from the years 1945–48, which were last published in 1992 in the volume Westblock-Ostblock, remain worth reading. They severely criticized the policies of the four Allied powers that had occupied Germany in 1945. His texts moreover anticipated the “Cold War” and the failure of a new socialist beginning in a destroyed Europe.

Thalheimer’s 1945 pamphlet The Potsdam Decisions castigated the hypocrisy of the victorious powers. According to Thalheimer, the Allied war was “a war against imperialism in Germany and against the socialist revolution in Germany. . . . After the crushing defeat of German imperialism, the war against the socialist revolution in Germany now came to the fore.” Thalheimer criticized the Allied (especially the Soviet) policy of plundering and deindustrialization “by foreign force of arms” in a country that, he insisted, was ripe for revolution.

He answered the question “Is there a Soviet imperialism?” by referring to the Soviet Union’s historical “efforts to expand.” Geographical, pseudopatriotic, and strategic determinants of tsarist foreign policy continued to play a role. He wrote of the dangers of Soviet intervention in Eastern and Central Europe — arguing that the enthronement of Communist ruling elites through outside pressure was “undermining socialist internationalism as the collective cooperation of free and independent nations.”

Almost prophetically, Thalheimer anticipated the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellite states. The failure of the Stalinist “method of socialist expansion” not only endangered the existence of the Soviet state itself, but brought much wider ills

in the working classes of the countries subjected to these methods, it stirred up against itself the trampled national sense of self and the habits of proletarian democracy. In this way, it plays into the hands of internal and external counter-revolutionary forces. It is sowing the wind of counter-revolutionary intervention, of a counter-revolutionary war against itself, and if these methods are not changed in time, it will bring the storm of the third world war down on its own head.

We can only hope that on this final point, the great Marxist thinker August Thalheimer was mistaken.