Max Shachtman


Trotsky on Democracy and Fascism

(July 1943)

From New International, Vol. IX No. 7 (Whole No. 74), July 1943, pp. 216–217.
Transcribed & Marked up by Damon Maxwell for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Time is a great corrosive, but it has left intact the two articles on fascism, democracy and democratic slogans that we reprint below. Indeed, recent political developments recommend them to the special attention of the revolutionary movement. They are instructive, appropriate to the problems of the day, a wise guide to action.

The articles were written, and first appeared, after the catastrophe in Germany in 1933. In the two preceding, decisive years of preparation for the showdown, the Stalinists had carried on a noisy and extremely muddled agitation which covered up an impotence that was revealed to all when they capitulated to fascism without a struggle. Declamations for the “national liberation of Germany,” plagiarized from the Nazis, were mingled with the cry “For a Soviet Germany.” They demanded and advocated and did everything except the one, simple indicated thing that Trotsky tirelessly urged in a running series of brilliant political works, namely, a united front between the communist and social-democratic organizations to crush the fascist hordes before they became steeled by state power.

After the capitulation by both the Stalinist and reformist bureaucracies, unprecedented in modern history, the former resumed its bluster in new words. “After fascism, we come,” they said. “Fascism will not last long in power. Bourgeois democracy and social democracy have been proved bankrupt in the eyes of the whole working class, and fascism is destroying the last of labor’s democratic illusions. Now it is ready to march to power under the banner of the Communist Party.”

Trotsky found it necessary, after the advent of fascism to power, to try teaching a few more elementary lessons in working-class politics, a few of the ABCs of Marxism. These two articles were part of the attempt. So far as the Stalinists were concerned, they might just as well have not been written. They even denied that the German proletariat had been defeated, and continued to yawp about the imminence of the proletarian struggle for power and of socialism in Germany, just as they did for a time after the defeat of the German revolution in 1923. It should not be hard to imagine what they wrote in those days about Trotsky’s criticism of their position. Two years later, with the signing of the Stalin-Laval pact, they made a violent turn-about-face, and adopted the position, not of struggle for democracy in the name of socialism, but of struggle for imperialism in the name of democracy.

The present appropriateness of Trotsky’s articles is clear to every thinking revolutionist for whom Marxian politic does not consist in uttering universally and perennially valid formulas (then are none) or in substituting the abstract for the concrete, the wish for the reality the experience of the vanguard for the experience of the masses.

The victory of fascism in Germany has become the victory of German fascism throughout Europe. Whole nations, viable nations, have been reduced to colonies or half-colonies of German imperialism. The working class and revolutionary movements have either beer crushed, dispersed or atomized. Class oppression has fused with national oppression. Events have shown that Europe can no longer live economically or politically in conditions where it is chopped up into a score of tiny national parts – not even on a capitalist basis. But precisely because the “unification” of Europe took place under a totalitarian and reactionary tyranny, not only have none of the old problems been solved but new ones have been added which seemed to have been solved long ago Fascist reaction has not advanced Europe toward a rational union, but hurled back the old continent and forced it to deal with historically, outlived problems. One of these is now: the national independence of the nations under the German imperialist heel.

Modern society is so organized, however, that no matter how far it is thrown back by reaction, it is never thrown back to its starting point. No matter what old problems it is compelled to solve again, they never appear in quite the old way and, consequently, cannot be and need not be solved in the old way. The struggle for national liberation may once more have been forced to the top of the agenda for Europe, but it is not the Robespierres, Napoleons, Bismarcks, Cavours, Garibaldi, Kosciuszkos and other leaders of the young bourgeoisie that will lead it. As a progressive – in contrast to a reactionary and imperialist – struggle; it can only be led by the socialist proletariat. In taking over the leadership of the struggle, the proletariat cannot halt at the boundaries of a restored bourgeois nation. Here, too, it must make the revolution in permanence. The victory of genuine national freedom, of the untrammelled right to cultural development, of economic abundance and of peace, can be assured only with the organization of a Socialist United States of Europe.

But this organization now lies over the road of struggle for national liberation of the oppressed and disfranchised countries. The revolutionary movement in Europe can take shape again and advance to the leadership of the working-class movement, only if it becomes the champion, in word and deed, of national freedom. On the side of the puppets or puppeteers of Allied imperialism? Of de Gaulle, Churchill, Roosevelt, Giraud, Wilhelmina, Mikhailovich, Stalin and their cohorts? Not for a moment! The revolutionist leading the fight for national liberation in Europe is irreconcilably distinguished from all these exploiters of the anguish of Nazi-held Europe by the simple fact that he is even more insistent in fighting for national liberation of those peoples and nations oppressed by his own bourgeoisie – the Negroes, the Arabs, the Indians, the Puerto Ricans, etc. – than he is in fighting for the freedom of the peoples under Hitler. There is the position against which democratic imperialism breaks its hypocritical neck!

The struggle for national liberation, which is summed up in the demand for the unrestricted right of self-determination, is a struggle for democracy. The demand is a democratic demand, part of the principles of formal, or bourgeois, democracy. Is not such a struggle, such a demand, incompatible with the struggle for socialism? The very question betrays a misunderstanding of revolutionary Marxism, that is, of proletarian politics. The struggle for consistent democracy is indispensable and not alien to the struggle for socialism. The victory of fascism in Europe makes the struggle for the democratic right of national freedom one of highest importance for Marxists. The fact that whatever popular mass movement of action there is on the continent today centers around this struggle, only underlines its importance for us.

Sectarians and phraselovers who cannot understand this today, and even see a species of backsliding or opportunism in our position today, were really answered adequately by Trotsky’s criticism of the Stalinists in 1933. His articles had an ironical sequel, which is not without interest even today. The then Lovestonites, notoriously radical when it cost nothing, raised their hands in almost speechless horror. In the Workers Age (September 15, 1933), their specialist in “Marxism” and in Trotsky-baiting, Will Herberg, took Trotsky most severely to task:

Whatever opposition to fascism there is [in Germany], is certainly not taking the channels of traditional bourgeois democracy ...

That the fascist regime preserves democratic prejudices is a contention for which Trotsky cannot give the slightest theoretical argument or practical evidence ...

The triumph of fascism in Germany marked the end of one epoch and the beginning of another; for one thing, it indicated the exhaustion of the Weimar Republic and of the whole ideological system built upon it, not only “theoretically” but in the social consciousness of the various classes ...

What has driven Trotsky to take so completely a non-Marxian attitude, an attitude to a great degree indistinguishable from vulgar democracy? The answer is clear enough: Trotsky’s “new” position on Germany (the demand for a “new” party, the advocacy of a return to the Weimar Republic as a “transition” program, etc.) is the political basis for his rapprochement with centrism, with Left Socialism, for the merging of the “Fourth International” and the “Second-and-a-Half International” tendencies ...

It is really a pity that the whole article cannot be quoted, but enough is enough. Herberg challengingly chided Trotsky to give some practical evidence “that the fascist regime preserves democratic prejudices.” There was ample evidence then; more has accumulated since. Included in the accumulation is the “practical evidence” of Herberg himself. Along with the other Lovestoneites, he committed suicide in public when the United States entered the war, and announced that the “war against fascism” had renewed his faith in ... democracy. If he did not start with democratic prejudices for fascism to “preserve,” it at least generated them within him. His corpse now seeks to impart these prejudices to others, from the modest but not uncomfortable bureaucratic chair he occupies in a corner of a chauvinistic trade union. Trotsky, who was not superhuman, would have relished the revenge of events upon his so ruthless critic. We can learn from it.

Leon Trotsky: Fascism and Democratic Slogans
(July 1933)

Leon Trotsky: Our Present Tasks
(November 1933)

Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’;;

Last updated on 12 June 2015