Under the Shadow of the Revolution: Berlin-Warsaw-Ankara 1920 by Kemal Okuyan
Istanbul: Yazilama Yazinevi, 2020, 367 pp., paperback.
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Reviewed by Joseph Jamison
“The fate of the whole 20th century was decided between 1917 and 1923.”
This startling sentence opens Under the Shadow of the Revolution: Berlin-Warsaw-Ankara 1920 an admirable new book by Kemal Okuyan, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Turkey.
In his book Okuyan tackles the great question: Why did the German Revolution fail? The half-revolution in Germany was unlike the Russian Revolution which had ousted the Czar in March 1917 and proclaimed its socialist nature in November 1917. The possibility for a German socialist revolution was there, the author believes, in January 1919, or in 1920, or as late as October 1923. Why did it not happen? He declares:
“In this study we are seeking to answer the question which factors prevented the spread of world revolution in its most crucial years between 1918 and 1924, particularly in 1920. Which of these factors were inevitable? What mistakes did the communists make? A century has passed, and the time has come to take on these questions boldly. The field is teeming with openly anti-Communist bourgeois historians but also with intellectuals who presume to speak for Marxism but who display an attitude even more fanatical than bourgeois historians when it comes to anti-Sovietism.”
Kemal Okuyan, born in 1962, grew up in Ankara and Izmir, Turkey. A graduate of the Department of Political Science at Bosporus University, for many years he worked in the Communist youth movement . He was a founder of a number of left publications [Socialist Power and Tradition]. After the reconstitution of the Communist Party of Turkey (TKP) he assumed various roles in the party. His books include: The First Years of Soviet Foreign Policy; The Book For ‘What Is To Be Done’ Followers; Understanding Stalin; Socialism’s Search for Power in Turkey; Antitheses on the Dissolution of the Soviet Union, and others.
Okuyan’s thesis is: “The socialist revolution was undoubtedly possible in Germany. A combination of objective and subjective reasons protected the capitalist order, and humanity is still paying the price for things that could have happened otherwise in Berlin and Warsaw. In spite of everything, events could have turned out differently. On the other hand, in another capital city of the revolutionary period, in Ankara, the revolution remained within bourgeois limits since it had been impossible to say ‘a socialist revolution is possible’ at the time. This Turkish revolution was successful. Its success provided a far greater help to the one socialist country, the Soviets, than it is thought to have done and eventually what happens to all bourgeois revolutions happened to it . The bourgeoisie rapidly became reactionary and endowed the Turkish working class with the task of bringing down this reactionary class. This task, unfulfilled as of now, will surely be fulfilled in the future.”
In the early chapters, Okuyan recounts the heartbreaking tale of the German working class, seething with revolutionary fervor, missing repeated chances to capture state power. Matters could have gone the other way. If they had gone the other way, in the 21st century we would live in a different world. In the author’s view,
“… I am not among those who think the German Revolution was doomed to failure. Yes, Germany had some disadvantages that would affect a socialist revolution, but the reverse was also true. It also had considerable advantages compared to Russia…… The main problem in Germany in 1918 was the absence a revolutionary working-class party that had gone through the mill beforehand. There had always been a revolutionary wing in German social democracy, but this wing had never learned to fly by itself and to become an independent power.”
In November 1918 the German Revolution ousted Kaiser Wilhelm II but did not go to a second, socialist stage. The German generals in a “revolution” that forced Wilhelm’s abdication sent the Kaiser and his family to a comfortable manor in the Netherlands. They put tame social democratic leaders in power in Berlin. The SD leaders (Noske, Scheidemann, Ebert) were determined both to keep the existing capitalist order intact and to keep real revolutionaries like left-wing social democrats Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht out of power by whatever means necessary.
The betrayal of the revolution by right-wing social democracy was conscious and explicit. On November 7, 1918, in Germany according to Okuyan,
“The revolution was rising without a vanguard and had struck its first blow. German capital and the military command sensed what was coming and acted fast. They had realized months beforehand that the empire might collapse around their ears, and now what they had feared was coming true. They immediately sacrificed the Kaiser. The strongest representatives of the capitalist class were at the door of social democratic leaders, telling them that they were ‘ready for concessions that no considerable body of German employers ever granted before in return for help in fighting Bolshevism.’ Their pleas were answered. Ebert, the most prominent character of social democracy, had assured Prince Max von Baden who was the head of the government: Order would be restored.“
Socialism in One Country
Okuyan is candid about the contradiction between defending the infant Soviet state and spreading the world revolution, that is, between Comintern activity and the pursuit of the goal of preserving a besieged socialism in the one country, Soviet Russia, where working-class power had survived civil war and imperialist interventions.
”Spreading the revolution relied first and foremost on creating parties that had sufficient muscle and qualities to lead the revolution . To this end a many-faceted struggle had to be given against social democracy which was the main stream in the workers’ movement. Besides, the aspects of the Russian experience that could be generalized had to be crystalized politically, theoretically, and organizationally. However, not even all these were enough to deliver the fatal blow to capitalism. The communist parties had to be coordinated — even directed — from a single center. On the other hand, the defense of Soviet Russia relied both on finding countries with which political relations could be established and repelling the direct and indirect military interventions of imperialism.”
Socialism in one country was a policy, he argues, imposed by necessity not choice. Recognition of its necessity goes back to Lenin, not Stalin , though Trotskyism and most bourgeois historiography likes to frame it as Stalin’s policy. According to Okuyan,
“We have already said that the notion of Trotsky being ‘the unerring and unconditional advocate of world revolution’ was an urban legend . On the other hand, claiming that it had been Stalin who devised the policy of protecting Soviet Russia and doing whatever was necessary in order to establish socialism in one country would be bestowing an honor too great on Josef Vissarionovich Stalin. He grasped and excelled in doing whatever was needed. But from 1920 onwards it had been Lenin who insisted that, as the revolutionary wave died down, Soviet Russia should stay away from adventures and focus on her own problems.”
Short chapters — 28 in all — make for readability. The first part of the book contains a useful timeline of key dates in the span 1917-1923 , and a handy guide to the seemingly endless list of abbreviations and acronyms for the political parties and movements of the era. The footnotes are copious and interesting . The translation is generally satisfactory and idiomatic. The meaning of each sentence is always clear. Okuyan’s style — lively, forceful, popular, almost journalistic — comes through well in English. The translator can be complimented on that. But the awkward absence of the definite article “the” where a speaker of English would normally expect it (Turkish has no definite article, no “the”) is an irritant. If this valuable and important book goes to a second edition in English translation– and one hopes it will — this and a few other blemishes in the translation should be corrected
Part the book’s appeal is that it is full of striking comments and interesting new, independent interpretations. For example:
- The treatment of Stalin and Trotsky is fresh and original. The author is not reluctant to cite Trotskyist historians when they have written important scholarly works on the era. ( for example, Chris Harman) For example, Okuyan claims Trotsky really damaged the Soviet military in his seven years as Soviet Military Commissar 1918-1925. This had implications years later . On Trotsky’s watch , for example, the number of Czarist former officers in the Red Army, went from 30,000 in 1919 to an astonishing 314,000. The repression of 1937 — including the purge of the Red Army – can be seen as the final stage of putting an end to this distortion. Tukachevsky, one of the most prominent victims of the purge of the Soviet armed forces, had been a Czarist officer. Okuyan tries to be fair: “Trotsky had made a great contribution to the effort of creating a real army out of a confused mass but had also made some unnecessary even harmful arrangements alongside necessary ones . While doing so…. he was acting irresponsibly since he did not think that Soviet Russia was important in itself on the road to socialism.”
- While honoring the heroism of revolutionary martyrs Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the author is no hagiographer. He notes that Karl Liebknecht had an individualistic streak and a phobia about organization. Rosa Luxemburg was never fond of Bolshevik organizational culture.
Why “Warsaw, Ankara, 1920”?
In the book’s title, it is clear enough why Berlin, the capital of Germany is “in the shadow” cast by the Bolshevik revolution. All the early chapters of the book are devoted to the multiple missed opportunities for the German working class to transform a democratic revolution against an autocratic Kaiser into a socialist revolution. But why does the title contain Warsaw, Ankara, 1920 ?
The year 1920, the author believes, was the most decisive year of the decisive six years 1918-1923. It was the year of greatest opportunity for German revolutionary success. It was also the year in which the Soviet counteroffensive against the Polish invasion of April 1920 failed at the gates of Warsaw, foreclosing the chance to overthrow the bourgeois-nationalist regime of Pilsudski working in cahoots with British and French imperialism. Had the Red Army counteroffensive not faltered, Moscow could have installed in Warsaw a Soviet-friendly workers’ government on the borders of a Germany still gripped by revolutionary moods.
With respect to the little-studied Polish-Soviet War of 1920, Okuyan reveals the confusion within the Bolshevik leadership — Lenin not excepted — eager to preserve its principle of not “exporting” revolution, but seemingly also calculating that toppling the reactionary regime in Warsaw could accelerate the German Revolution, on which so many revolutionary hopes depended.
Okuyan argues that the evolving Bolshevik policy toward the new Turkey of Kemal Ataturk typified the Bolshevik policy toward the larger East. As the revolutionary hopes in the West faded, the Bolsheviks turned their eyes eastward, where anti-imperialist national independence movements of a bourgeois democratic nature in Turkey, Iran, India and China, for example, were on the rise. The pragmatic necessity of a Bolshevik alliance with Ataturk’s bourgeois democratic Turkey willing to challenge British imperialism and to forego the allure of a pan-Turkic nationalism which could have destabilized Soviet Central Asia, ensured that a Soviet-Turkish alliance would emerge.
Why Did the German Revolution Fail?
The last chapter , Chapter 28, “Why…Why Did It Fail?” is perhaps the book’s most interesting. In it Okuyan states that the failure of the German Revolution had more than one cause but fundamentally at the crucial moments between 1918 and 1923 , Germany lacked a revolutionary, experienced vanguard party. The KPD [Communist Party of Germany] founded in December 1918 was not up to the task. That party’s finest leaders, Luxemburg and Liebknecht, had been assassinated by the Freikorps, the paramilitary nucleus of German fascism. Its remaining leaders were often indecisive and inexperienced.
Okuyan offers other reasons for the revolution’s failure: the experience and cunning of the German capitalist class were far greater than that of its Russian counterpart. The Bolsheviks, unlike the KPD, were successful in transforming the mass yearning for peace in 1917-1918 into revolutionary momentum. The German capitalists, whose top circles benefitted from hyperinflation, somehow managed to get the credit for ending the hyperinflation of 1923-24, which had inflicted agony on the working class and middle strata. The traitorous role of the German SDs was a constant. Germany lacked a single proletarian center comparable to Petrograd. German worker revolts (Berlin, Bavaria, Kiel) were uncoordinated . Bolshevik political advice to the KPD often reflected Bolshevik divisions. Comintern leadership — Zinoviev was the main leader in this period — had serious shortcomings. Finally, Lenin was desperately ill after the beginning of 1923. He was to die in January 1924.
If there was to be a continent-wide revolution in Europe, opening the path to revolution in the rest of the world, Germany was key. So much of 20th century history, it would often seem to this reviewer in 21st century hindsight, amounts to what didn’t happen in Germany, the strongest state in continental Europe, the most populous (save Russia), the country with the best-organized, ostensibly Marxist working-class movement. First, there was the socialist revolution that didn’t occur in 1917-23. Then in May 1945 at the price of oceans of Soviet blood came the defeat of Nazi Germany, but a defeat leaving two-thirds of the country in Western capitalist hands, affording German capitalism a chance to recover. Finally, in 1990, thanks to imperialist pressure and the connivance of the Gorbachev clique, the capitalist Federal Republic of Germany destabilized and absorbed the German Democratic Republic, the greatest achievement of anti-fascist Germans. For the German people the 20th century was a tragic history of might-have-beens.
This book, then, is an honest and searching re-evaluation of these crucial revolutionary years by a political leader who has sifted through an impressive amount of primary and secondary literature and who brings to bear on his material many decades of Communist political experience.