Karl Radek, Bolshevik revolutionary

Karl Bernardovich Radek (thirty-five years old) could, as we used to say, only speak his own language — the accent he used to express himself in all the others was so incredibly bad. A Galician Jew, he had grown up in the Socialist movements of Galicia, Poland, Germany, and Russia, all at the same time. He was a sparkling writer, with an equal flair for synthesis and for sarcasm. Thin, rather small, nervous, full of anecdotes that often had a savage side to them, realistic to the point of cruelty, he had a beard growing in a fringe around his clean-shaven face, just like an old-time pirate. His features were irregular, and thick tortoiseshell spectacles ringed his myopic eyes. His walk, staccato gestures, prominent lips, and screwed-up face, every part of which was continually expressive, all had something monkey-like and comical about them.

— Victor Serge, Memoirs of a
Revolutionary (1947). Pg. 159.

Radek was of a different mould. He was a pupil not of Lenin but of Rosa Luxemburg, which meant that he was not used to submission and — that he was used to close contact with the Western labour movement. It was his profound knowledge of the latter, especially of German socialism, which gave him prestige. Altogether Radek was a man of political qualities. Together with his wit, which has won him international fame, he had immense powers of application and a real thirst for detail. He was not the sort of man to be satisfied either with theoretical generalizations such as Bukharin loved, or with rhetoric in the vein of Zinoviev. He was clever and thoroughly undogmatic. Already in 1919 he had attempted to establish contacts between the Soviet Union and big German industrialists, a task which, at that time, almost every other member of the party would have regarded as a defilement. He was a cynic. The one thing this brilliant man lacked was character, that deep-rooted moral balance which draws an undefinable line between what is right and what is wrong. Radek was too clever to be either heroic or even consistent.

— Franz Borkenau, World
(1939). Pg. 164.

Karl Radek: The confusion of styles?

Pierre Broué [John Archer] 
The German Revolution,
1917-1923 (1971/2005)

Karl Radek was a unique character in the history of the Communist movement, and is a key figure for anyone wishing to study the first years of the Communist International. Despite being a prolific writer, today he is almost forgotten, but during the years following the Russian Revolution he was one of the most important leaders in the International, and was effectively its Secretary for some months between his release from prison in Germany and the Second Comintern Congress. Moreover, he was the mentor of the KPD until 1923, and was appointed by the ECCI to deal with “German questions” in the same way that Trotsky was assigned “French questions.” Recent studies by H. Schurer and Warren Lerner have perhaps opened the way for works devoted to him, and we must now hope that the numerous ‘Radek’ files in East Germany and the Soviet Union, access to which was refused to us, will be opened.

The best portrait of him is without doubt that from the brush of the German journalist Wilhelm Herzog in 1920:

Karl Radek…has been elected secretary of the Third Communist International. His lively and ever-active mind is feverishly at work. His brain, filled with German romanticism (and a touch of Polish Judaism), is rich in irony and energy. Every day he writes two editorials, one for Pravda and one for Izvestia, and often another text as well, which is transmitted by radio from Christiania. Every day, he is visited by a dozen delegates from other parts of the world. He advises and instructs. He presides at the meetings of the Third International, and takes part in the conferences of the Executive Committee, of the Central Committee of the Party and of numerous other bodies. He lectures at the Workers’ University and to the officers of the Red Army. He speaks at meetings and at congresses of the central and local Soviets. All this without ever being superficial or unreflective, but after solid preparation, as a very competent man, very serious but never lacking wit. He masters his problem, lays hold of it, explains it and analyses it. It is a feast to listen to him. He overflows with ideas and with a rare knowledge of men and things. He knows every date, every leader, and even every individual of any importance in the workers’ movement throughout the world. Hence an immense historical culture and a very clear knowledge of world political relations.

He has a sparkling style. Although, to be sure, he does not command Russian as if it were his native language, we admire his articles for their clarity and their striking imagery. His quicksilver mind reacts to all the concerns of human life, political and intellectual. In short, he is an exceptionally talented man, a born propagandist and an agitator whom nothing can restrain or stop. He knows no compromise when the problem is to influence the hostile or the still-indifferent world, to infect it and to impregnate it with the idea of the world revolution. With Bukharin, Osinsky, and others, he belongs to the younger generation of the Bolsheviks (that is, of the revolutionary Marxists). This extraordinary strategist of the class war, this dreaded terrorist, loves German literature; he knows Goethe, Heine, Kleist, Friedrich von Gentz and the romantics, Büchner and Grabbe, he loves Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, and quotes verses from Stefan Georg and Hugo von Hofmannsthal.[1]

This is a flattering portrait, but no doubt a truthful one, though perhaps it should be slightly filled out with a reference to his physical ugliness and his neglect of his dress. Count Kessler describes him as “something between Puck and Wolf, a bit of a street Arab…Mephisto.” “A cross between a professor and a bandit,” wrote the British spy-cum-diplomat, Bruce Lockhart. The man was attractive for his wit, the liveliness of his repartee, the sharp sense of  humor which he never forgot to use at his own expense, the breadth of his culture and intellectual curiosity, and in short, despite the aggressiveness of his manner of speaking, his graciousness, sensitivity and an undeniable vulnerability.

Radek on tour through Germany, caricature in Pravda 1920

First and foremost, Radek was a freelancer. He had his own distinct personality when he appeared in the German Social-Democratic movement. In fact, he had had some revolutionary experience, in a period when the leaders of the German Party had nothing in this field but what they had read about the Paris Commune or the revolutions of 1848. But Radek had hardly emigrated before he returned to Poland at the beginning of the upheavals in 1905, and had replaced Leo Jogiches before he was twenty years old as chief editor of the newspaper of the Polish Social Democrats. He then had experience of prison. He later settled in Germany, and won a reputation as a polemicist and theoretician by his attacks on Kautsky at the Copenhagen Congress of the Second International and in Die Neue Zeit. He specialized in studies of imperialism, and devoted himself to demonstrating that inter-imperialist rivalries would lead to a world war. He based upon this perspective his theory of world revolution — a theme dear to the Bolsheviks, but not familiar to the members of the SPD. His talent won him fame as a journalist, but he remained isolated in Germany, and increased his isolation still more by supporting the opposition in the Warsaw committee of the SDKPiL against Luxemburg and Jogiches.

He paid for both his celebrity and his isolation in what became known as the “Radek affair.” He had committed the imprudence of attacking both the SPD’s apparatus and its Southern revisionists. In 1912, Bebel launched a ferocious attack on him at the Chemnitz Congress, and the support of the Poles made possible his expulsion from both the SPD and the Polish Party in the following year on charges concerning his personal behavior. He resisted courageously, did not hesitate to move to Berlin in order the better to defend himself, and published his defense with the help of a handful of friends. The international commission of enquiry, the so-called “Paris commission,” cleared him, and in the course of the affair he won the support of Lenin and Liebknecht as well as that of Trotsky. But the First World War prevented his trial from being properly reviewed, and, as Schurer notes, he remained “a marked man for the majority of the German socialists.”[2]

There was no place for him in 1914 in Germany, where the internationalist nucleus was made up of his worst adversaries. He emigrated to Switzerland, deeply discouraged, and disappointed Trotsky, who had great hopes for him:

I hoped to find in him one who shared my views…But I was surprised to learn from our conversations that he never conceded the possibility of a proletarian revolution in connection with the war, and, generally speaking, in the near future. “No,” he replied, “for this the productive forces of mankind, taken as a whole, are not sufficiently developed.”[3]

Radek soon, however, recovered his bearings in the milieu of the émigré internationalists, and attracted the attention of Lenin, who hoped to make contact with the German internationalists through him. He urged him to work on the international journal which he hoped would act as the focus for an international regroupment. At Zimmerwald, Radek sided with the minority; but the Germans refused to put their signature alongside his. At Berne, Zetkin became violently angry when she realized that he was there.[4] Without question, he was still in quarantine.


Although he was close to the Bolsheviks, Radek nonetheless distanced himself from Lenin, who attacked him in strong terms for his “spirit of intrigue,” and even for his “vileness.” He polemicized with Lenin on the question of the right of nations to self-determination, and condemned the Easter Rising of 1916 in Ireland. At the same time, on German issues, he defended the necessity for a split in Social Democracy, and for the revolutionaries to be independently organized. Through Radek’s articles in Arbeiterpolitik, Lenin’s themes on the treachery of the labor aristocracy, the necessity for a split in Social Democracy, and the transformation of the imperialist conflict into a civil war, made their way into the German far Left. A Spartacist delegate quoted from him at the Foundation Congress of the USPD, and provoked a lively response from the gathering. Radek was still in a certain sense an outlaw in the German movement, but his isolation was gradually breaking down.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 sharply changed his standing. He left on the same train as Lenin, but was refused admission into Russia. He settled in Stockholm, organizing the Bolsheviks’ international links, and directing propaganda into Germany. He arrived at Petrograd on the day following the uprising, and was at once recognized as an authentic Bolshevik. As Vice-Commissar for Foreign Affairs, he was at Brest-Litovsk confronting the German diplomats and generals, and organized both the distribution of Bolshevik propaganda amongst the prisoners of war and fraternization at the front. His attention was always turned towards Germany, and when he was refused recognition as the official representative of the Soviet régime, he crossed the frontier illegally and arrived in Berlin in early December 1918 as the representative of the Bolshevik Party.

We have seen how Radek’s reactions were strongly influenced by the Russian experience, and noted the positions which he adopted in the first phase of the German Revolution. A powerless spectator in the course of it, he was convinced that the Bolshevik school was superior. He was arrested and could have feared for his life for a few weeks, but he stood his ground throughout his interrogation. Then his situation changed; he became a prisoner of distinction, his cell became a political salon, and he received political figures, generals and business chiefs, everyone who saw him as a semi-official representative of the Russian government, and who wanted to seek information or to influence him. The bohemian outlaw showed himself to be an able diplomat, able to charm or impress the people with whom he talked, and who was beginning to think in terms of high foreign policy, to see the possibilities of alliances, and to impose himself as an éminence grise.

For all that, Radek did not for a moment lose sight of the problems of the KPD, which he had seen being born and then losing its leadership role within a few days. It was especially Levi whom he attempted to convince of the need to win the masses, to turn away from infantile leftism, to work in the trade unions, and to use the opportunities provided by electoral and parliamentary platforms. His writings from 1919 brought together the arguments of a polemic against the “infantile disorder” of leftism, and Lenin was to add nothing essential to it. Radek agreed with Levi on general perspectives and on the line of the Heidelberg theses, which perhaps he helped to draft, but nonetheless distrusted him, and criticized him sharply for having organized a split in the new Party, and also for attacking the Communists in Hungary and Bavaria from a standpoint which he believed to be opportunist.

Karl Radek Lady Astor and Karl Radek Joking

When he returned to Russia, he became the Secretary of the International, and took principal responsibility for German issues. He demonstrated his independence at the Second Comintern Congress when he supported the KPD(S) against the ECCI and the Russian Party on the matter of the invitation to the KAPD to attend. This show of independence — he regarded himself as responsible to the International, and not to his own party — caused the Russians to remove him from his post as Secretary. At the same time, the summer of 1920, he was one of the rare Communist leaders who did not share Lenin’s optimism about the revolutionary perspectives in Poland and Germany. Lenin later said: “Radek predicted how it would turn out. He warned us. I was very angry with him, and accused him of ‘defeatism.’ But he was right in his main contention.”[5]

As far as Germany was concerned, Radek was very reserved in his opinion of the KPD’s leaders. He was one of the sharpest critics of the attitude of the Zentrale after the Kapp Putsch, violently condemned the declaration of “loyal opposition,” and polemicized directly or via Frölich against Levi throughout the year. He was at first hostile to establishing closer relations with the left Independents, but came around clearly to the idea, and supported Levi on this issue. At the same time, he seems to have intrigued in order to find amongst the leaders of the left Independents, if not in the Zentrale itself, supporters or counterweights to what he regarded as Levi’s harmful influence. He opposed Levi at the Unification Conference, but joined with him in drafting the Open Letter, which caused him to be attacked by Zinoviev, Bukharin, and Kun, and he developed his critique of leftism by elaborating the theory of the proletarian united front.

It becomes difficult to understand Radek’s political aims after February 1921. He was sharply opposed to the leftist and divisive initiatives of the delegates of the ECCI to Livorno, but was appalled by the behavior of Levi, when he allowed himself to be removed from the Party leadership, opening the way for his worst leftist opponents. On the eve of the March Action, he engaged himself from Moscow in “activating” the Party, but cautiously criticized the form which “activation” took — the March Action inspired by Kun — as soon as he heard about it.

In the confusion which prevailed for some months in the leadership of the Russian Communist Party and the International, Radek seemed rather to take the side of the Russian leftists — for which Lenin was to reproach him — but a little to the right of Zinoviev, who was to reproach him for having sold out in the compromise which was concluded on the eve of the Third Comintern Congress with Lenin and Trotsky — whereas Lenin then reproached him for having leaned “too far to the left.” His hesitations can be observed between the Conference of the Russian Party and the Third Comintern Congress itself, at which, finally, it was his behavior that facilitated the leftist counteroffensive in the amendments presented by Thalheimer and Terracini.


After the Third Comintern Congress, Radek seemed to be one of those in Moscow who wanted to restart the war against the centrists, and Lenin reproached him for a public attack on Zetkin. He furiously attacked Levi and then Friesland in terms akin to those used by the Berlin Left. In fact, from February 1921, his attitude was to be in contradiction with his recognized political temperament, his appreciation of the international situation, and his pessimism about the tempo of the world revolution. He was a resolute opponent of the leftists, but seems suddenly to have joined them, though only to support them half-way. Can we explain this turn by the anxieties which the explosive international situation caused, the threatening danger of war which he perceived, as his letters to the Zentrale suggest? Did he only want to avoid a conflict with Zinoviev, who clearly was strengthened by the unlimited support of Lenin? Did he merely think it possible and convenient to take advantage of the circumstance to get rid of Levi, whom he regarded as unreliable, without rejecting his line? For the present, we must accept that we cannot clear up the mystery of this period, which indeed shows him open to the charge of being erratic, if not opportunist. In any case, it is hard to agree with Schurer when he sees a “new Radek” emerge at the end of 1921. It was only the resurgence of the old Radek, after six months’ confusion, faithful to his earlier analyses about the slow revolutionary tempo in the West, the need to construct a party patiently by winning the masses, and to struggle unceasingly to build the workers’ united front by fighting around economic demands and “transitional” slogans.

The year of 1922 saw him playing a particularly important role on the diplomatic scene on behalf of the Soviet government, in discussions with General von Seeckt and the diplomat von Malzan, which led to the Rapallo Treaty being concluded. Radek was the real if unofficial representative of the Kremlin in Germany, and in certain respects he identified himself with a foreign policy with which the International did not concur. Within the International, he was one of those who devoted themselves, within the framework of the strategy of the workers’ united front, to discovering revolutionary “new roads,” transitional slogans such as the workers’ government, of which he was, if not the father, at least the godfather. Unlike Zinoviev, he attached great importance to the victory of fascism in Italy, and drew from it conclusions, which were to emerge openly in 1923, about how the proletariat should act when it was confronted concretely for a whole historical period with the alternative of socialism or fascism, the modern translation of Marx’s alternative of socialism or barbarism. Contrary to what Schurer thinks, the perspectives which Radek developed in 1923 were in no way an abandonment of his analyses of the role of the labour aristocracy as an agency of the bourgeoisie in the workers’ movement. In Radek’s opinion, it was precisely in that year and in Germany that the economic crisis destroyed the very foundation of the labour aristocracy and equalized the workers’ living conditions by driving them down, making it possible for the class to be reunified under the banner of Communism.

We have also pointed out the erroneous nature of the traditional interpretation of Radek’s “Schlageter line.” This has been interpreted as an attempt to revive “national Bolshevism,” or even, as Schurer writes, as proof of “the new interest in nationalism as a potential revolutionary factor.”[6] The concern of Radek, who believed that the majority of the working class had been virtually won over to Communism, was to deprive counter-revolutionary nationalism, Nazism, of its mass base in the petty-bourgeoisie, who had been driven mad by the economic and social crisis and national humiliation. Schlageter, who was fighting on the side of the counterrevolution, deserved the admiration of the revolutionaries for his courage and spirit of sacrifice, but he was only, as Radek said, ‘the wanderer into the void’, whilst the Communists held the keys to the future.

Radek caricature

However, a new contradiction in Radek’s political behavior appeared in the course of 1923. Right up to the unofficial strike which swept away the Cuno government, he firmly opposed all the impatience and the leftist impulses within the KPD, and assumed almost alone the responsibility for refusing to defy the ban on street demonstrations on 29 July. He then appears to have moved without discussion to supporting Trotsky’s opinion that the uprising had to be prepared, and himself put forward the proposal at the Political Bureau on 23 August. On this point, however, in the present state of the documentation, we must decline to give a precise answer. Was Trotsky’s personal influence sufficient to convince him of the need to make a turn because the situation had changed? Did he agree, in the light of his earlier experiences, to change an opinion which had not been formed on the spot? Did he, as perhaps in 1921, keep silent about his real convictions and suppress his own impulses, for lack of assurance or confidence in his own judgement, or, on the contrary, through opportunism, in order to follow the dominant current at the top? Did he really, as Schurer suggests, act and speak against his own convictions which he knew to be sound?

This problem cannot be tackled if we do not take into account the fact that the German leaders — especially Brandler — shared the same attitude, remaining silent about their reservations, and sometimes even obligingly feeding the illusions of their comrades. This is what Radek suggested when he said at the ECCI that the fundamental problem was that the KPD was “an excellent workers’ party,” but was not yet a Communist Party, that the turn in August had been made too late, and that the German Communists had not grasped the depth of passivity into which the collapse of Social Democracy had dragged the mass of the working class.

Radek was not at Chemnitz when they decided to cancel the uprising. But he subsequently approved the decision, accepting his full responsibilities, as Brandler demanded from him. This time, he did not try to evade the clash with his comrades on the ECCI and with the leaders of the Russian Party, but, on the contrary, deliberately provoked it. He defended himself step by step, with great firmness, before the enlarged ECCI at which he featured as the accused. It was only at the last moment and, as he said, out of respect for tradition, that he gave way and supported the resolution which made Brandler and himself the scapegoats for the defeats in 1923.

Radek’s intellectual gifts cannot be denied, nor can his courage in the face of the ruling class, in prison or in illegality, be questioned. But his political courage within his own party is more debatable. He was brilliant, effective and resolute when the political line was clear, when he knew that his position was secure, whether through general agreement or the soundness of the views of those for whom he was speaking, but he revealed very sharp vacillations, in the form of striking twists and turns, as soon as the ground no longer felt solid under his feet, when conflicts were raging at the head of the International or the Russian Party, or as soon as something new had to be created in a hard political battle. He was a brilliant interpreter — popularizer if you like — and scintillating commentator on someone else’s political thought, but he showed uncertainty when the responsibility for directing — and especially for reorienting — depended on his own initiative. He could ensure that a political line determined by the International would be intelligently applied, and was successful in leading the German Party “by proxy,” in times when there were no sharp political problems, but not in a period of crisis, when a fully rounded political leader must accept all his responsibilities, including that of fighting within his own party for what he believes to be the correct line.

Fifteen years later, immediately after the great public trial in Moscow, where the accused Radek put on an amazing performance, as accuser and accomplice, before the prosecutor Vyshinsky, Trotsky was to deliver a severe judgment on him. It does, however, provide the necessary corrective to Herzog’s panegyric:

Radek…is merely a journalist. He possesses the brilliant traits of this category, and all its faults as well. Radek’s education may perhaps best be characterized as extremely erudite. His definitive knowledge of the Polish movement, his long participation in the German social democracy, his attentive study of the world press, especially English and American, broadened his mental horizon, invested his mind with greater mobility and armed it with an innumerable variety of examples, comparisons, and, in the last analysis, anecdotes. Radek, however, lacks that quality which Ferdinand Lassalle called “the physical force of the mind.” Radek was always more of a guest than a fundamental participant among different sorts of political groupings. His mind is too impulsive and mobile for systematized work. From his articles one may gather a great deal of information; his paradoxes are likely to illuminate a question from an unexpected angle; but Radek was never an independent politician.[7]

In short, the man whom the Communist International could offer during 1919-1923 as a political mentor to the KPD, the man upon whom rested the historic mission of forging in Germany a revolutionary leadership composed of people capable of finding the right direction amid problems of revolutionary strategy and tactics, lacked the necessary qualities. He could not give to the cadres of the KPD what he did not possess himself, namely, deep political self-confidence, based on an analysis constantly tested against a changing situation, continuity in activity, firmness in defense of his ideas, attachment to principles, and rejection of dogmatism. Under the aegis of this man, and in spite of his conscious efforts, the German Communist leaders could not attain maturity.


[1] W. Herzog, ‘Russisches Notizbuch’, Das Forum, no. 11, August 1920, pp. 805–7.
[2] H. Schurer, ‘Radek and the German Revolution’, Part 1, Survey, no. 53, October 1964, p. 62.
[3] Trotsky, My Life, op. cit., p. 246.
[4] Schurer, op. cit., p. 63.
[5] Zetkin, op. cit., p. 18.
[6] H. Schurer, ‘Radek and the German Revolution’, Part 2, Survey, no. 55, April 1965, p. 135.

One thought on “Karl Radek, Bolshevik revolutionary

  1. A disgraceful whitewash: “In 1912, Bebel launched a ferocious attack on him at the Chemnitz Congress, and the support of the Poles made possible his expulsion from both the SPD and the Polish Party in the following year on charges concerning his personal behavior. ”

    Personal behavior? Rosa L. and others accused him of working with the German police (among other things). As it turned out she was right in the sense that he was connected to Karl Moor, Ganetsky/Hanecki etc.

    The behavior of Radek and Lenin vis-a-vis the German Revolution is a absolute scandal. Radek is advising workers not to revolt and Lenin is writing LWCAID, essentially arguing the same thing. It is not for nothing that it was the only book penned by Lenin which the Nazis didn’t ban.

    There is all kinds of dark stuff going on in Radek’s German “salon”. Theodor Liebknecht, Karl’s brother, insisted that he met his brother the night before the latter’s murder and was told by him that he had information that Radek had betrayed the German Revoution and was part of a “monstrous conspiracy.” Theodor believed that Radek colluded with the counterrevolution and was the one who betrayed Karl and Rosa.

    This is all I could find on this online:

    Melograni, Feltshinsky, Ruehle and others have written about this as well.

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