Karl Berngardovich Radek was a Marxist active in the Polish and German social democratic movements before World War I and an international Communist leader in the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution.
Radek was born in Lemberg, Austria-Hungary, as Karol Sobelsohn, to a Jewish Litvak family; his father, Bernhard, worked in the post office and died whilst Karl was young. He took the name Radek from a favorite character, Andrzej Radek, in Syzyfowe prace ('The Labor of Sisyphus', 1897) by Stefan Żeromski.
Radek joined the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL) in 1904 and participated in the 1905 Revolution in Warsaw, where he had responsibility for the party's newspaper Czerwony Sztandar.
In 1907, after his arrest in Poland and his escape from custody, Radek moved to Leipzig in Germany and joined the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), working on the Party's Leipziger Volkszeitung. He re-located to Bremen, where he worked for Bremer Bürgerzeitung, in 1911, and was one of several who attacked Karl Kautsky's analysis of imperialism in Die Neue Zeit in May 1912.
In September 1910, Radek was accused by members of the Polish Socialist Party of stealing books, clothes and money from party comrades, as part of an anti-semitic campaign against the SDKPiL. On this occasion, he was vigorously defended by the SDKPiL leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches. The following year, however, the SDKPiL changed course, partly because of a personality clash between Jogiches and Vladimir Lenin, during which younger members of the party, led by Yakov Hanecki, and including Radek, had sided with Lenin. Wanting to make an example of Radek, Jogiches revived the charges of theft, and convened a party commission in December 1911 to investigate. He dissolved the commission in July 1912, after it had failed to come to any conclusion, and in August pushed a decision through the party court expelling Radek. In their written finding, they broke his alias, making it - he claimed - dangerous for him to stay in Russian occupied Poland.
In 1912 August Thalheimer invited Radek to go to Goppingen (near Stuttgart) to temporarily replace him in control of the local SPD party newspaper Freie Volkszeitung, which had financial difficulties. Radek accused the local party leadership in Württemberg of assisting the revisionists to strangle the newspaper due to the paper's hostility to them. The 1913 SPD Congress noted Radek's expulsion and then went on to decide in principle that no-one who had been expelled from a sister-party could join another party within the Second International and retrospectively applied this rule to Radek. Within the SPD Anton Pannekoek and Karl Liebknecht opposed this move, as did others in the International such as Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin, some of whom participated in the "Paris Commission" set up by the International.
After the outbreak of World War I Radek moved to Switzerland where he worked as a liaison between Lenin and the Bremen Left, with which he had close links from his time in Germany, introducing him to Paul Levi at this time. He took part in the Zimmerwald Conference in 1915, siding with the left.
In 1917 Radek was one of the passengers on the sealed train that carried Lenin and other Russian revolutionaries through Germany after the February Revolution in Russia. However, he was refused entry to Russia and went on to Stockholm and produced the journals Russische Korrespondenz-Pravda and Bote der Russischen Revolution to publish Bolshevik documents and Russian information in German.
After the October Revolution, Radek arrived in Petrograd and became Vice-Commissar for Foreign Affairs, taking part in the Brest-Litovsk treaty negotiations, as well as being responsible for the distribution of Bolshevik propaganda amongst German troops and prisoners of war.
After being refused recognition as official representative of the Bolshevik regime, Radek and other delegates - Adolph Joffe, Nikolai Bukharin, Christian Rakovsky and Ignatov - traveled to the German Congress of Soviets. After they were turned back at the border, Radek alone crossed the German border illegally in December 1918, arriving in Berlin on 19 or 20 December, where he participated in the discussions and conferences leading to the foundation of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). Radek was arrested after the Spartacist uprising on 12 February 1919 and held in Moabit prison until his release in January 1920. While he was in Moabit, the attitude of the German authorities towards the Bolsheviks changed. The idea of creating an alliance of nations that had suffered from the Versailles treaty - principally Germany, Russia and Turkey - gained currency in Berlin, as a result of which Radek was allowed to receive a stream of visitors in his prison cell, including Walter Rathenau, Enver Pasha, and Ruth Fischer.
On his return to Russia Radek became the Secretary of the Comintern, taking the main responsibility for German issues. He was removed from this position after he supported the KPD in opposing inviting representatives of the Communist Workers' Party of Germany to attend the 2nd Congress of the Comintern, pitting him against the Comintern's executive and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. It was Radek who took up the slogan of Stuttgart communists of fighting for a United Front with other working class organisations, that later formed the basis for the strategy developed by the Comintern.
In mid-1923, Radek made his controversial speech 'Leo Schlageter: The Wanderer into the Void' at an open session of the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI). In the speech he praised the actions of the German Freikorps officer and Nazi collaborator Leo Schlageter who had been shot whilst engaging in sabotage against French troops occupying the Ruhr area; in doing so Radek sought to explain the reasons why men like Schlageter were drawn towards the far right, and attempted to channel national grievances away from chauvinism and towards the support of the working movement and the Communists.
Although Radek was not at Chemnitz when the decision to cancel the uprising in November 1923 took place at the KPD Zentrale, he subsequently approved the decision and defended it. At subsequent congresses of the Russian Communist Party and meetings of the ECCI, Radek and Brandler were made the scapegoats for the defeat of the revolution by Zinoviev, with Radek being removed from the ECCI at the Fifth Congress of the Comintern.
Radek was part of the Left Opposition from 1923, writing his famed article 'Leon Trotsky: Organizer of Victory' shortly after Lenin's stroke in January of that year. Later in the year at the Thirteenth Party Congress Radek was removed from the Central Committee.
In the summer of 1925, Radek was appointed Provost of the newly established Sun Yat-Sen University in Moscow, where Radek collected information for the opposition from students about the situation in China and cautiously began to challenge the official Comintern policy. However, the terminal illness of Radek's lover, Larisa Reisner, saw Radek lose his inhibitions and he began publicly criticising Stalin, in particular debating Stalin's doctrine of Socialism in One Country at the Communist Academy. Radek was sacked from his post at Sun Yat-Sen University in May 1927.
Radek was expelled from the Party in 1927 after helping to organise an independent demonstration on the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution with Grigory Zinoviev in Leningrad. In early 1928, when prominent oppositionists were deported to various remote locations within the Soviet Union, Radek was sent to Tobolsk and a few months later moved on to Tomsk.
On 10 July 1929, Radek, alongside other oppositionists Ivar Smilga and Yevgeni Preobrazhensky, signed a document capitulating to Stalin, with Radek being held in particular disdain by oppositionist circles for his betrayal of Yakov Blumkin, who had been carrying a secret letter from Trotsky, in exile in Turkey, to Radek. However, he was re-admitted in 1930 and was one of the few former oppositionists to retain a prominent place within the party, heading the International Information Bureau of the Russian Communist Party Central Committee as well as giving the address on foreign literature at the First Soviet Writer's Conference in 1934. In that speech, he denounced Marcel Proust and James Joyce. He said that "in the pages of Proust, the old world, like a mangy dog no longer capable of any action whatever, lies basking in the sun and endlessly licks its sores" and compared Joyce's Ulysses to "a heap of dung, crawling with worms, photographed by a cinema apparatus through a microscope." He helped to write the 1936 Soviet Constitution but, during the Great Purge of the 1930s, he was accused of treason and confessed, after two and a half months of interrogation, at the Trial of the Seventeen (1937, also called the Second Moscow Trial). He was sentenced to 10 years of penal labor.
He was reportedly killed in a labor camp in a fight with another inmate. However, during an investigation in the Khrushchev Thaw it was established that he was killed by an NKVD operative under direct orders from Lavrentiy Beria.