National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), Argentina
Mario Kessler, (2020) A Political Biography of Arkadij Maslow, 1891–1941: Dissident Against His Will, London: Palgrave Macmillan.
This scholarly and well-written biography can be read both as an independent book and as a companion volume to Mario Kessler’s massive biography of Maslow’s life-long companion, Ruth Fischer: Ein Leben mit und gegen Kommunisten (1895–1961).1 Both books are the result of many years of research on the early history of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), particularly of the ultra-left wing led by Fischer and Maslow, which also included prominent intellectual and political figures such as Arthur Rosenberg, Werner Scholem, Karl Korsch, Hugo Urbahns and Josef Winternitz.
Both Arkadij Maslow and Ruth Fischer belonged to a generation that awoke to political life amid the butchery of the First World War, the collapse of the Second International and its national sections (first and foremost, the Social Democratic Party of Germany, SPD) and the way out of the relapse into barbarism offered by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. In other words, none of them had roots in the traditions of the Second International such as Rosa Luxemburg, Paul Levi, or Lenin and Trotsky did, and therefore they were unable to grasp what Lenin meant when he wrote that Karl Kautsky (its main theoretician) was a renegade: namely that he, and the party and union bureaucracy, whose spokesman he had become, had betrayed the legacy of the Second International and the SPD. Maslow and Fischer’s political project, along with the rest of the ultra-left wing, was thus one of throwing the baby out with the bathwater: unable to separate the Marxist wheat from the parliamentarist chaff, they embarked on a one-sided crusade against Social Democracy which helped pave the way for the rise of Stalinism as well as for their own elimination by Stalin and his minion Ernst Thälmann.
Arkadij Maslow was the party name of Isaak Yefimovich Chemerinsky. Born in 1891 in Yelisavetgrad, Ukraine (then part of the Russian empire), in 1889 he moved with his family to Germany, where the gifted Isaak studied music. As a young man, he performed in piano concerts throughout Europe, Japan, and Latin America. At age twenty-three, however, he abandoned his career as a musician and enrolled in mathematics and physics at the University of Berlin in 1914, where he studied with exceptional figures like Max Planck and Albert Einstein. But war and revolution radicalised Chemerinsky, shifting his interest from art and music to politics. He began working illegally for the SPD in 1916, and he established contacts with the Spartacus League, especially with August Thalheimer, at the beginning of 1918. He joined the Spartakusbund on 5 December 1918, in order to agitate among Russian prisoners of war, and also worked as a translator for the newly established KPD, of which he was a founding member, where he adopted the party name Arkadij Maslow. He cooperated closely with Max Levien, one of the leaders of the Bavarian Soviet Republic that emerged in the wake of the German November Revolution of 1918, and stayed a close friend until Levien was executed in the Soviet Union on Stalin’s orders in 1937, in the framework of the Great Purge.
In 1919, Maslow met his life partner, the young Austrian Elfriede Friedländer, who became known under her party name Ruth Fischer. The couple never married, but their relationship lasted until Maslow’s death in 1941. If Fischer was the best-known public figure, Maslow was the polyglot intellectual of the couple. During the critical years of their political activity, public attention focused on Fischer, not least because, from May 1924 to July 1926, Maslow was imprisoned by the German state on fabricated charges.
Kessler’s book recounts many fascinating anecdotes, some not directly related to Maslow’s life. For instance, we learn ‘that the SPD daily Vorwärts printed a hate “poem” by Arthur Zickler on January 13, 1919 that called for the murder of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and Karl Radek’, and that ‘In 1933 Zickler joined the Nazi Party’ (p. 16, n. 27). Since the entire run of the Vorwärts from 1891 to 1933 has been digitised by the Bibliothek der Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, the ‘poem’ in question can be read online; it was entitled Das Leichenhaus: ‘The Morgue’.2
Describing the German revolution that broke out in November 1918, from the Spartacist Uprising and the subsequent murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in January 1919, to the Kapp Putsch in March 1920, Kessler recalls that ‘The counter-revolution was forced to assume a democratic form until the putsch’ (p. 23).
Maslow and Fischer were united in their opposition to Rosa Luxemburg’s political heir Paul Levi, particularly to the united-front policy that Levi outlined in his ‘Open Letter’ of 8 January 1921, and they joined hands with Zinoviev’s envoy Mátyás Rákosi to depose Levi as leader of the KPD in February 1921. Maslow even called Levi the ‘German Serrati’ (p. 28). Kessler points out that ‘Levi’s fall strengthened the ultra-leftists, among them Fischer and Maslow’ (p. 35).
This paved the way for the disastrous putsch known as the ‘March Action’ of 1921. Kessler points out that the unification of the KPD with the left wing of the USPD, engineered by Levi, had resulted in a significant gain for the Berlin district organisation: ‘membership rose to 45,000 by the end of 1920, only to fall back to roughly 2,300 after the fiasco of the March Action’ (pp. 36–7). KPD membership as a whole shrank from 359,000 in December 1920 to around 157,000 in August 1921 (p. 40, n. 40).
Since the ultra-left gathered around Fischer and Maslow rejected the united front – i.e., it ‘opposed the idea of joint action with other forces of the labor movement’ (p. 46) – they also rejected the slogan of a ‘workers’ government’ with the Social Democrats raised in 1922 by the KPD under the leadership of Ernst Meyer. The same polemics continued when Heinrich Brandler was elected new party chair and his supporters August Thalheimer and Walter Stoecker became members of the new KPD Zentrale at the beginning of 1923. Brandler was the main proponent of the Guidelines on the Tactics of the United Front and of the Workers’ Government (Leitsätze zur Taktik der Einheitsfront und der Arbeiterregierung) adopted at the third KPD congress convened in Leipzig from 28 January until 1 February 1923, also rejected by Fischer and Maslow.
In ‘A Letter to the German Communists’ dated 14 August 1921, Lenin wrote that ‘Maslow, who is playing at Leftism and wishes to exercise himself “hunting Centrists”’ had ‘more zeal than sense’.3 Within the KPD, Clara Zetkin was one of Fischer and Maslow’s harshest critics. In a letter dated 23 February 1923, she wrote to the Executive Committee of the Communist International [ECCI]: ‘The [ultra-left] opposition does not recruit its followers from the party’s mass constituency but rather from some circles of sophisticated functionaries possessing mere smatterings of knowledge.’ Their supporters were ‘clueless politically’ and exhibited ‘a mere “emotional” revolutionary sentiment’. Such comrades, Zetkin argued, ‘are strongly impressed by Maslow’s cynical brashness, Ruth Fischer’s booming rhetoric and [Werner] Scholem’s muddleheaded impudence’ (pp. 56–7).
After the Ruhr crisis and the fiasco of the ‘German October’ in 1923, which was the last chapter in the German revolution that had begun in November 1918, a bitter controversy ensued within the KPD between ‘the “rightist” party leadership around Brandler and Thalheimer on the one hand, and Fischer, Maslow, Arthur Rosenberg and Werner Scholem, as well as Ernst Thälmann, the Hamburg party leader of the left opposition, on the other’ (p. 83). For Zinoviev, as Chairman of the Communist International, ‘The easiest way to escape responsibility for the failed policy was to blame Brandler, Thalheimer as well as Radek’ (p. 82). As a result, the ultra-left in the KPD once again received considerable support from Zinoviev and the Comintern apparatus. As early as January 1924, Zinoviev denounced ‘the leaders of German Social Democracy’ as ‘fascists through and through’ and concluded that only the ‘slogan “unity from below”’ – which excluded the leaders of the SPD – ‘must become a living reality’ (p. 85).
At Zinoviev’s initiative, control of the KPD passed into the hands of Fischer, Maslow and their followers (which included the jurist Karl Korsch) in April 1924. Zinoviev’s backing of the KPD ultra-lefts made all the more sense since they were ardent supporters of the new policy of ‘Bolshevisation’. As a letter from Zinoviev to the KPD Zentrale of 26 February 1924 attests, the term ‘Bolshevisation’ was ‘most likely coined at a session of the KPD leadership on 19 February 1924. In the letter he considered the term to be a “wonderful expression”’ (p. 85).
The policy of ‘Bolshevisation’ was officially adopted by the Fifth Congress of the Communist International, held in Moscow during June and July 1924. There, Zinoviev described it as follows: ‘Bolshevisation is the creation of a firmly established, centralised organisation as if carved out of a stone that harmoniously and fraternally dispenses with the differences in their ranks, as Lenin has taught’.4 In actual fact, ‘Bolshevisation’ meant
that the promotion or expulsion of party functionaries was no longer determined by internal factors but instead by the demands of Soviet party leaders. It soon became obvious that the term also implied that any criticism of Soviet policy could be denounced as anti-Bolshevist deviation and therefore as essentially anti-communist. The result was a dramatic curtailment of freedom of discussion inside every party. (p. 94.)
At the Fifth Congress of the Communist International, ‘Ruth Fischer called for a monolithic Comintern along the lines of the Russian party model, from which all dissent should be banished.’ She also endorsed the position taken by the Congress that declared: ‘Fascism and Social Democracy are the left and right hand of modern capitalism.’ Fischer and Maslow were elected as ECCI members with a consultative vote. From prison, Maslow praised the ‘Bolshevised’ party (pp. 95–6). The new KPD leadership under Fischer immediately set out to expel opponents of the ultra-leftist course and to appoint functionaries who enforced the Bolshevisation line. ‘Ruth Fischer was much more involved in this trajectory than the imprisoned Maslow. It was her personal contribution to transform the KPD from a relatively independent organization into a tool for the powers in Moscow’ (p. 100).
The ‘Theses on the Bolshevisation of the Parties of the Comintern’ adopted at the Fifth ECCI Plenum, held in March 1925,5 ‘redefined the role of the party as a quasi-military unit’ (p. 105). The results for the KPD were disastrous:
The Bolshevization of the KPD provided the precondition for its Stalinization, even though the party officially rejected this term. Bolshevization meant suppression of non-conformist views within the party; Stalinization meant exclusion, stigmatization, and the merciless persecution of the bearers of such views. Deviators or dissidents were no longer simply regarded as erring comrades but as agents of the class enemy. The class struggle was replaced by conspiracy theory. This was accompanied by a dramatic decline in a culture of discussion inside the Party. (pp. 100–1.)
Soon, however, the days of Fischer and Maslow riding roughshod over the KPD were over. During their time as leaders, the party lost contact with significant parts of the working class and experienced a dramatic decline in both public support and membership. Fischer held Karl Korsch and Werner Scholem responsible for the political failures, and, as a consequence, they were dismissed from their posts as, respectively, editor of the party theoretical organ Die Internationale and head of the organisational directorate. Arthur Rosenberg was also forced out of his leadership post in the KPD.
This scapegoating only split the ultra-left wing, however. It did not save Fischer and Maslow from the coming purge, when Zinoviev was defeated by Stalin in mid-1925. As an ‘explanatory’ note in Stalin’s Works put it: ‘In the autumn of 1925, Ruth Fischer and Maslow and their supporters were removed from the leading posts in the Communist Party of Germany and in 1926 they were expelled from the Party as agents of the class enemy. After that the leadership of the Communist Party of Germany was headed by E. Thälmann’.6
During the purge, ‘Ruth Fischer was de facto under arrest in Moscow for several months under all kinds of pretexts. Comintern authorities held back her passport’ (p. 123). She was only able to return to Germany on 12 June 1926, shortly before Maslow was released from prison on 10 July 1926. Fischer and Maslow were expelled from the KPD on 20 August 1926 as opponents of Stalin and Thälmann, and they joined an organisation of approximately six thousand members led by Hugo Urbahns known as the Leninbund.
On 1 September 1926, Maslow and Fischer added their signatures to the ‘Declaration on the Russian Question’ that became known as the ‘Letter of the Seven Hundred’. Its signatories publicly sided with the new United Opposition in the Soviet Union around Trotsky, Kamenev and Zinoviev (Erklärung von 700 KPD-Mitgliedern zur russischen Frage und gegen die Verfolgung der Linken Opposition in der Sowjetunion [„Brief der 700“]). The signatories called for an open discussion on the ‘Russian question’ among the KPD rank and file and accused the party leadership of conducting ‘irresponsible secret diplomacy’ by using means and methods ‘all too familiar to us that have been used in the past by the German trade union bureaucracy as a method for combating their communist mortal enemies’. The party press was no longer available to the opposition and the ‘real antagonisms inside our Russian fraternal party’ were only reported in a distorted fashion. Among the signatories of the ‘Letter of the 700’ were the Reichstag deputies Paul Schlecht, Werner Scholem, Max Schütz, Wilhelm Schwan, and Hugo Urbahns, the Prussian Landtag deputies Eugen Eppstein and Anton Grylewicz, as well as Central Committee member Hans Weber and Central Committee candidate Fritz Schimanski (pp. 130–1).
On 8 May 1928 the ECCI presidium offered to pardon all Leninbund members if they ‘immediately condemned activities of the Maslow–Fischer–Urbahns group as anti-proletarian and counterrevolutionary’ (p. 135). Fischer and Maslow filed for readmission into the KPD, but their application was rejected. During the madness of the ‘Third Period’ (1928–34), when Stalinism paved the way for the rise of Hitler by proclaiming that the Social Democrats were ‘social-fascists’, the Leninbund strongly warned against underestimating the Nazi movement and called for a united front of all workers’ parties against the Nazis.
After Hitler’s appointment as chancellor of Germany on 30 January 1933, Maslow and Fischer had to go into exile in Paris, and, for a while, entertained good relations with the Left Opposition. At Trotsky’s urging, Ruth Fischer became an advisory member of the International Secretariat of the Left Opposition, that defined itself as the coordinating body for a forthcoming Fourth International, and, in March 1935, she became a member of that body (pp. 148–50). Trotsky’s efforts to win over people with such a questionable political record as Fischer and Maslow’s can perhaps be explained by the absence of prominent political figures in the Left Opposition, with the exception of Trotsky himself. His desire to incorporate them into the organisation, however, encountered the opposition of the Internationale Kommunisten Deutschlands (IKD), the organisation of the German Trotskyists in exile. As a result, ‘Fischer and Maslow largely withdrew from the work of the International Secretariat in 1936 and formally broke with the IKD in April 1937, thus leaving the Trotskyite movement’ (p. 152).
When Germany invaded France in June 1940, the couple had to flee first to Marseilles and then to Lisbon. Fischer eventually ended up in New York and Maslow in Havana, where he was, in all probability, murdered by Stalinist agents on 20 November 1941. Fischer lived on for twenty more years after Maslow’s death. The final chapter of Kessler’s book traces Fischer’s attempt to ‘avenge Maslow’ by denouncing the Stalinist agents operating in the United States, in fact turning into a fervent anticommunist. From that period dates her book Stalin and German Communism: A Study in the Origins of the Party State, originally published by Harvard University Press in 1948, which in Kessler’s words ‘skipped over her own role in the process of Bolshevization’ (p. 200).
According to Kessler, the tone of Fischer’s speeches and writings became much more moderate after Stalin’s death in 1953, and she finally distanced herself from anticommunism, as testified by her book Von Lenin zu Mao: Kommunismus in der Bandung-Ära (From Lenin to Mao: Communism in the Bandung Era), published in 1956. There she even stated that ‘McCarthyism represents a specific American variant of Stalinism’, but ‘without mentioning her own role in the anti-communist campaign of the late 1940s’ (p. 204). Fischer deluded herself into thinking that Nikita Khrushchev’s ‘de-Stalinisation’ might be anything other than an attempt by the bureaucracy to stabilise its own rule, and reported to Karl Korsch her belief that the continued political expropriation of the working class by Stalin’s epigones would not lead to ‘the disappearance of communism in Russia and in China, that is, to a complete counterrevolution’ (p. 206). As so often in the past, she proved to be spectacularly wrong in her final political analysis.
In the afterword to his book, Kessler summarises his main argument. He states that ‘Maslow and Fischer were Zinoviev’s main agents in the Bolshevization campaign that curtailed freedom of discussion in favor of creating a centralized KPD.’ Their core problem was that they ‘were responsible for eliminating inner-party democracy before they themselves were forced to succumb to the new centralism.’ While this counterposing of party democracy to centralism in abstracto is rather misleading, Kessler elucidates what he means by it in concrete terms: he argues that ‘the Comintern and the KPD became instruments of Soviet policy’ and that this subordination to the whims of the bureaucracy ‘prevented a united front against Fascism and led to the ultimate defeat of the German workers’ movement’ (pp. 210–11).
While the defeat of the German workers’ movement as a result of Stalin’s suicidal policy against ‘social fascism’ during the ‘Third Period’ was indeed one of the greatest tragedies in the history of mankind, the lessons to be learned from the experience of German communism during the Weimar republic go well beyond that, and Kessler’s biography of Maslow is a useful guide to their analysis. It is our hope that this review will persuade readers to acquaint themselves with this conscientious and erudite study.
Fischer, Ruth 1948, Stalin and German Communism: A Study in the Origins of the Party State, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Fischer, Ruth 1956, Von Lenin zu Mao: Kommunismus in der Bandung-Ära, Düsseldorf: Eugen Diederichs.
Fünfter Kongress der Kommunistischen Internationale 1924, Fünfter Kongress der Kommunistischen Internationale (17. Juni bis 8. Juli 1924), Volume 2, Hamburg: Verlag Carl Hoym Nachfolger; <https://archive.org/details/funfter-kongress-der-kommunistischen-internationale-17.-juni-bis-8.-juli-1924-ha>.
International Press Correspondence 1925, ‘Theses on the Bolshevisation of the Parties of the Comintern’, International Press Correspondence, Volume 5, Nº 47, 4 June, pp. 614–22, available at: <https://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/1925/Bolshevisation-Comintern.pdf>.
Kessler, Mario 2013, Ruth Fischer: Ein Leben mit und gegen Kommunisten (1895–1961), Cologne: Böhlau Verlag.
Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich 1973, ‘A Letter to the German Communists’, in Collected Works, Volume 32, pp. 519–20, Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Stalin, Joseph Vissarionovich 1954, Works, Volume 7, Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.