Portrait of a Revolution

Charles Donnelly, Left Review, Vol. 2 No. 1 October 1935

In the limpness of the light-coloured hair and the shrunkenness of the head of the German refugee, one saw the shadow of the concentration camp. But one noticed his illness only when the eyes were averted. The intensity of intelligence in his blue eyes made the face magnificent, eyes now contracting frowningly as he sought for words, now full of laughter as he conveyed his meaning. He explained that his English was only a month old.

But in that month-old English, so bare that it required eking out with physical gestures, one became acquainted with a mind which three years of underground fighting had so matured that against its realism the clever, eager voices in the room sounded blatantly young and far-fetched. It did not take long to discover that there was a not a grain of sentimentality posturing or illusion left to obscure the vision of this man. He was perfectly in touch with life. Listening to him one knew how Fascism is chiselling to perfection the German revolutionary movement, grinding away illusion, sectarianism, dogma, so that the revolution emerges, armed and equipped, in the true lineaments of the German people.

“If you want to get stronger, do not begin with an exaggeration of your forces,” wrote a great revolutionary.(1) There is no place in Germany today for illusions of strength. “One has to fight against pessimism.” But in his outlook there is no trace of pessimism. He was convinced that a leadership and a fighting organisation could be created only in struggle. The revolution must go to school. And no revolution before, not even the Russian revolution, went to so Spartan a school as that of Hitlerism. No revolutionaries before – his face tightened in the effort to enforce the impression – had experience of the conditions of activity which exists in Germany today, of so complete an illegality, such a derivation of ordinary methods or organization and struggle. The greatest working class movement in the world can harness its power only to the shifts which characterized the birth of the labour movement. In the great reserves of resourcefulness and militancy which these conditions must develop in the working class he saw the pledge of a fighting power which, complementing the immense theoretical traditions of the German labour movement, grappling theory to practice, will make the German revolution alter the face of history.

The forces of revolution are growing, but the revolution is blindfolded. There is no legal press, no means of communication, no possibility of centralized leadership or even of gauging eh extent of discontent. “We have strikes. Some big ones. But outside the factory no one hears of the,…When you win a strike in Britain, the workers go on the streets to celebrate the victory. But when we win a strike in Germany,” he smiled significantly, “then we must keep very, very silent about it.”

In the Nazi brown shirt one meets dozens of old communists and social democrats, and though one talks in the Nazi language well, “just a way of looking, a turn of phrase”, and both know “we’re still comrades.” He told of the conventions of language which are silently being built, understandings among the workers. Sometimes an old party member is actually a Nazi functionary. There is discontent in the factory, and the authorities call him in. “You’ve got influence with the workers. Go and speak with them”. And in the fascist glance the worker reads perfectly right. “You’re an old communist. You know that. So do we.” He goes to the workers. He speaks, speaks in the true Nazi strain. But the workers understand, their silent language passing over the heads of the bosses.

The very phrases of Nazidom are filled with the content of class feeling which is denied open expression. “I don’t think the boss is a good Nazi. He forgets to give the salute. He’s not carrying out Hitler’s programme.” The hands of the working class rise, slowly, in the name of the programme, but what a ghastly joke that defensive ruse will become when the hands reach the throat of the Nazi regime!

The revolution accommodates itself to Nazi conditions and patiently prepares its weapons, this movement which produced most of the great literature of socialism employing all the inventiveness and cunning of the working class. “We have a card game in Germany at which you do a lot of talking. I have seen a strike organized over a game of cards. To listen you couldn’t say a strike was mentioned. But next day work slowed down in the factory.”

From this primitive form of the strike, without any open stoppage or open demands, just a slowing of the wheels and silence and frowning faces in the factory, understood by the boss as plainly as a visit of a trade union official, to the downing of tools, ranges the struggle. And in a state which has made strikes illegal, every strike is a political strike.

On the dead walls ominous slogans appear: “Hitler’s a Liar,” “Thaelman’s way is the only way.”(2) And in the brownshirts they have a joke, “Ah, things are bad in our district. Our troop leaders a Nazi.”

The schooling of the German revolution is nearly over.


  1. It’s interesting to see that I can source this quote to Leon Trotsky writing in The Spanish Revolution and the Dangers Threatening it: the Leadership of the Comintern in Face of the Spanish Events, 1931., accessed July 13th 2007
  2. Ernst Thälmann (April 16, 1886—August 18, 1944) was the leader of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) during much of the Weimar Republic. He was arrested by the Gestapo in 1933 and held in solitary confinement for eleven years, before being shot in Buchenwald on Adolf Hitler's orders in 1944. In 1936, the Thälmann Battalion of the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War was named in his honour. [taken from Wikipedia, 13/7/7]
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