Leon Trotsky

Against National Communism!

Lessons of the ‘Red’ Referendum

(August 1931)

Source: The Militant, Vol. IV No. 24 (Whole No. 83), 19 September 1931, p. 4.
Transcription/HTML Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2013. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.

When these lines reach the reader, they will, perhaps, In one section or another, be out of date. Through the efforts of the Stalinist apparatus and the friendly collaboration of all the bourgeois governments, the author of these lines is placed in such circumstances under which he can react to political events only after a delay of several weeks. To this must also be added that the author is obliged to rely on far from complete information. The reader should bear this in mind. But even from the extremely unfavorable circumstances, we must attempt to extract at least some advantage Not having the possibility to react to events in all their concreteness, from day to day, the author is compelled to concentrate his attention on the basic points and the central questions. This is where the justification lies for this work.

How Everything Is Turned Upon Its Head

The mistakes of the German Communist Party in the question of the plebiscite is among those which will become clearer as time passes, and will finally enter into the textbooks of revolutionary strategy as an example of what should not be done. In the conduct of the Central Committee of the G.C.P., everything is wrong: the evaluation of the situation is incorrect, the immediate aim is posed incorrectly, the means for its achievement was selected incorrectly. In passing, the leadership of the party succeeded in overthrowing all those “principles” which it advocated within recent years.

On July 21, the Central Committee addressed itself to the Prussian government with the demand for democratic and social concessions, threatening otherwise to come out for the referendum. Advancing its demands, the Stalinist bureaucracy in actuality addressed itself to the upper stratum of the social democratic party with the proposal for a united front against the Fascists under certain conditions. When the Social Democracy rejected the proposed conditions, the Stalinists formed a united front with the Fascists against the Social Democracy. This means that the policy of the united front is conducted not only from “below” but also from “above”. It means that Thaelmann is permitted to address himself to Braun and Severing with an “open letter” on the joint defense of democracy and social legislation from the Hitlerite bands. In this manner, these people, without even noticing what they are doing, threw overboard their metaphysics on the united front “only from below”, by means of the most stupid and the most scandalous experiment of the united front only from the top, unexpectedly for the masses and against their will.

If the social democracy is a variety of Fascism, then how can one propose to social Fascists a demand for the joint defense of democracy? Having entered upon the road of the referendum, the party bureaucracy did not put any conditions to the National Socialists. Why? If the Social Democrats and the National Socialists are only shades of Fascism, then why can conditions be put to the Social Democracy and not to the National Socialists? Or perhaps between these two “varieties” there exist certain very important qualitative differences in regards to the social base and the methods of deceiving the masses? But then, do not call both of them Fascists, because names in politics serve in order to differentiate and not in order to throw everything into the same heap.

Is it true, however, that Thaelmann entered a united front with Hitler? The Communist bureaucracy called the referendum of Thaelmann “red”, in distinction from the black or brown plebiscite of Hitler. That the matter is concerned with two mortally hostile parties, is naturally beyond doubt, and all the falsehoods of the social democracy will not compel the workers to forget it. But a fact remains a fact: in a certain campaign, the Stalinist bureaucracy drew the revolutionary workers into a united front with the National Socialists against the Social Democracy. At least if one could designate his party adherence on the ballots, then the referendum would at least have the justification (in the given instance, absolutely insufficient from a political standpoint) that it would have permitted the count of its forces and by that itself, separate them from the forces of Fascism. But German “democracy” was not solicitous enough in its time to provide for participants in referendums the right of designating their parties. All the voters are fused into one inseparable mass which, on the given question, gives one and the same answer. Within the limit of this question, the unity of front with the Fascists is an indubitable fact.

Thus, between midnight and dawn everything appeared to be turned on its head.

The “United Front”, But With Whom?

What political aim did the leadership of the Communist party pursue with its turn? The more you read the official documents and speeches of the leaders, the less you understand this aim. The Prussian government, we are told, is paving the road for Fascism. This is perfectly correct. The federal government of Bruening, the leaders of the Communist party add, have actually been fascising the republic and have already accomplished a lot of work on this road. Perfectly correct, we reply to this. But without the Prussian Braun, the federal Bruening cannot maintain himself the Stalinists say. This too is correct, we reply to them. Up to this point, we are in complete accord. But what political conclusions flow from this? We have not the slightest ground for supporting Braun’s government, for taking even a shadow of responsibility for it before the masses, or even for weakening by one iota our political struggle against the government of Bruening and its Prussian agency. But we have still less ground for helping the Fascists to replace the government of Bruening-Braun. Because if we accuse the Social Democracy, with sufficient grounds, of paving the road for Fascism, then our own task can least of all consist of shortening this road for Fascism.

The circular letter of the Central Committee of the German Communist Party to all the nuclei, on July 27, most mercilessly lays bare the inconsistency of the leadership, because it is the product of a collective elaboration of the question. The essence of the letter, liberated from confusion and contradictions, is reduced to the idea that, in the final analysis, there is no difference between the Social Democrats and the Fascists, that is, that there is no difference between the enemy who deceives and betrays the workers, taking advantage of their patience, and the enemy who simply wants to kill them off. Feeling the senselessness of such an identification, the authors of the circular letter unexpectedly make a turn and present the red referendum as the “decisive application of the policy of united front from below (!) towards the Social Democratic, the Christian and the non-party workers”. In whit way the intervention in the plebiscite alongside of the Fascists, against the Social Democracy and the party of the Center, is an application of the policy of the united front towards the Social Democratic and Christian workers – will not be understood by any proletarian mind. The reference is evidently to those Social Democratic workers who, having broken away from their party, participated in the referendum. How many of them? By the policy of the united front, one should at least understand a common action, not with the workers who have left the Social Democracy, but with those who remain in its ranks. Unfortunately, there are still a great number of them.

The Question of the Relation of Forces

The only phrase in Thaelmann’s speech of July 24, which resembles a serious motivation of the question is as follows: “The red referendum, by utilizing the possibilities of legal, parliamentary mass action, represents a step forward in the direction of the extra-parliamentary mobilization of the masses.” If these words have any sense at all, it is only the following: We take the parliamentary vote as the point of departure for our general revolutionary offensive, in order to overthrow the government of the Social Democracy and the parties of the golden mean allied with it, by legal means, and in order afterwards, by the pressure of the revolutionary masses, to overthrow Fascism which is attempting to become the heir to the Social Democracy. In other words: the Prussian referendum only plays the role of a spring-board for the revolutionary leap. Yes, as a spring-board, the plebiscite would have been fully justified. Whether the Fascists vote together with the Communists or not, would lose all significance, beginning with the moment when the proletariat, by its pressure, overthrows the Fascists and take& the power into its own hands. For a spring-board, one can make use of any planks, the plank of the referendum included. Only, the possibility of actually taking the jump must be there, not in words but in deeds. The problem is consequently reduced to the relation of forces. To come out into the streets with the slogan “Down with the Bruening-Braun government!” at a time when according to the relation of forces, it can only be replaced by a government of Hitler-Hugenburg, is the sheerest adventurism. The same slogan, however, assumes an altogether different sense if it becomes an introduction to the immediate struggle of the proletariat itself for power. In the first instance, the Communists would appear in the eyes of the masses as the aids of reaction; but in the second instance, the question of how the Fascists voted before they were crushed by the proletariat would have lost all political significance.

The question of the coincidence of the voting with the Fascists is consequently viewed by us not from the point of view of some abstract principle, but from the point of view of the actual struggle of the classes for power, and the relationship of forces at a given stage of this struggle.

Let Us Look Back at the Russian Experience

It may be regarded as incontestable that at the moment of the proletarian uprising, the difference between the Social Democratic bureaucracy and the Fascists will actually be reduced to a minimum, if not to zero. In the October days, the Russian Mensheviks and S.R.s fought against the proletariat hand in hand with the Cadets, Kornilovists and monarchists. The Bolsheviks left the pre-parliament in October and went into the streets, in order to call upon the masses for an armed uprising. If, simultaneously with the Bolsheviks, some kind of a monarchist group, let us say, had also left the pre-parliament in those days, this would not have had any political significance because the monarchists were overthrown together with the democracy.

The party arrived at the October uprising, however, through a series of stages. At the time of the April 1917 demonstration, a section of the Bolsheviks advanced the slogan: “Down with the provisional government!” But the Central Committee immediately rejected the ultra-Leftists. Of course, we should propagate the necessity of overthrowing the provisional government; but to call the workers into the streets under this slogan, cannot yet be done, because we ourselves are still a minority in the working class. If we overthrow the provisional government under these conditions, we will not be able to replace it, and consequently we will help the counter-revolution. We must patiently explain to the masses the anti-popular character of this government, before the hour for its overthrow has struck. Such was the position of the party.

During the subsequent period, the slogan of the party was: “Down with the capitalist ministers!” This was a demand directed at the social democracy to break its coalition with the bourgeoisie. In July, we led a demonstration of workers and soldiers under the slogan “All power to the Soviets!”, which meant at that time: all power to the Mensheviks and S.R.s. The Mensheviks and the S.R.s, together with the White Guardists, crushed us.

Two months later, Kornilov rose against the provisional government. In the struggle against Kornilov, [line missing] occupied the frontline positions. Lenin was at that time in hiding. Thousands of Bolsheviks were in the jails. The workers, soldiers and sailors demanded the liberation of their leaders and of the Bolsheviks in general. The provisional Government did not come to terms. Should not the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks have addressed an ultimatum to the government of Kerensky: Free the Bolsheviks immediately and remove from them the disgraceful accusation of service to the Hohenzollerns – and, in the event of Kerensky’s refusal, have refused to fight against Kornilov? This is probably how the Central Committee of Thaelmann, Remmele, Neumann would have acted. But this is not how the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks, acted. Lenin wrote at the time:

“It would have been the profoundest error to think that the revolutionary proletariat is capable, so to say, out of ‘revenge’ upon the S.R.s and Mensheviks – for their support of the crushing of the Bolsheviks, the assassinations on the front and the disarming of the workers – of ‘refusing’ to support them against the counter-revolution. Such a way of putting the question would have meant, first of all, the carrying over of petty bourgeois conceptions of morals into the proletariat (because for the good of the cause the proletariat will always support not only the vacillating petty bourgeoisie, but also the big bourgeoisie); in the second place, it would have been – and this is most important – a petty bourgeois attempt to cast a shadow, by ‘moralising’, over the political essence of the matter.”

If we had not repulsed Kornilov in August, and had thereby facilitated his coming to victory, he would, in the first place, have destroyed the flower of the working class, and consequently, would have interfered with our victory, two months later, over the conciliators when they were overtaken by their Nemesis – not in words but in deeds – for their historic crime.

It is precisely “petty bourgeois moralizing” which Thaelmann and Co. engage in when, in justification of their own turn, they begin to enumerate the endless infamies committed by the social democracy.

With Blown-Out Lanterns

Historical analogies are only analogies. There can be no talk about the identity of conditions and tasks. But in the figurative language of analogies, we may ask: At the time of the referendum in Germany, was the question posed of the defense against the Korniloviad, or in reality, of the overthrow of the whole bourgeois order by the proletariat? This question is not decided by bare principles, nor by polemical formulae, but by the relation of forces. With what care and sincerity the Bolsheviks studied, counted and measured the relation of forces at every new stage of the revolution! Did the leadership of the German Communist Party attempt, when it entered into the struggle, to draw the preliminary balance of the struggling forces? Neither in articles, nor in speeches, do we find such a balance. Like their teacher Stalin, the Berlin pupils conduct politics with blown-out lanterns.

His considerations on the decisive question of the relation of forces, are reduced by Thaelmann to two or three general phrases. “We no longer live in 1923,” he said in his report, “the Communist party is at present the party of many millions, which grows at a furious pace.” And this is all! Thaelmann could not show more clearly the extent to which an understanding of the difference between the situation in 1923 and 1931 is foreign to him! Then, the social democracy was breaking up into bits. The workers who did not yet succeed in breaking away from the ranks of the Social Democracy, turned their eyes hopefully in the direction of the Communist party. Then, Fascism represented to a far greater degree, a scarecrow in the garden of the bourgeoisie, rather than a serious political reality. The influence of the Communist party on the trade unions and the factory committees was incomparably greater in 1923 than it is today. The factory committees were actually carrying out at that time the basic functions of Soviets. The Social Democratic bureaucracy in the trade unions was losing ground from under its feet every day.

The fact that the situation in 1923 was not utilized by the opportunist leadership of the Comintern and the German Communist Party is still alive in the consciousness of the classes and the parties, and in the mutual relationships between them. The Communist party, Thaelmann says, is the party of millions. We are very glad of that. We are very proud of it. But we do not forget that the Social Democracy still remains the party of millions. We do not forget that, thanks to the horrible chain of the epigone mistakes of 1923–1931, the present Social Democracy reveals far greater powers of resistance than the Social Democracy of 1923. We do not forget that present-day Fascism, nursed and reared by the betrayals of the Social Democracy and the mistakes of the Stalinist bureaucracy, represents a tremendous obstacle on the road to the seizure of power by the proletariat. The Communist party is the party of millions. But thanks to the preceding strategy of the “third period”, the period of concentrated bureaucratic stupidity, the Communist party is still extremely weak today in the trade unions and in the factory committees. The struggle for power cannot be led by basing oneself only on the votes of a referendum. One must have support in the factories, in the trades, in the trade unions and in the factory committees. All this is forgotten by Thaelmann who substitutes strong words for an analysis of the situation.

To contend that in July–August 1931, the German Communist Party was so powerful that it could enter into an open struggle with bourgeois society, as embodied in both its flanks, the Social Democracy and Fascism, could be done only by a man who has fallen from the moon. The party bureaucracy itself does not think so. If it resorts to such an argument, it is only because the plebiscite failed and consequently it was not put. to the further test. It is precisely in this irresponsibility, in this blindness, in this unscrupulous pursuit of effects, that the adventurist half of the soul of Stalinist Centrism find its expression!

(To Be Continued)

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Last updated on: 27.1.2013