Leon Trotsky

What Next?

Chapter 1: The Role of the German Social Democracy

(January 1932)

Written: 27 January 1932.
Source: The Militant, Vol. V No. 14 (Whole No. 110), 2 April 1932, pp. 1 & 4.
Extract from What Next – Vital Questions for the German Proletariat.
Transcription/HTML Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2012. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.

The “iron front” is essentially a bloc of numerically powerful social democratic trade unions with impotent groups of bourgeois “republicans” which have lost entirely the support of the people and all confidence in themselves. When it comes to fighting, cadavers are worthless, but they come in handy to keep the living from fighting. Their bourgeois allies serve the social democratic leaders as a bridle around the necks of the workers’ organizations. We must fight! We must fight! ... but that is only empty talk. With God’s help, everything will be settled ultimately without any bloodshed. Is it possible that the Fascists will really decide to stop talking and get down to business? They, the social democrats, never so much as ventured on such a course, and they, the social democrats, are no worse than other people.

In case of actual danger, the social democracy banks not on the “Iron Front” but on the Prussian police. It is reckoning without its host! The fact that the police was originally recruited in large numbers from among social democratic workers is absolutely meaningless. Consciousness is determined by environment even in this instance. The worker who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist state, is a bourgeois cop, not a worker. Of late years these policemen have had to do much more fighting with revolutionary workers than with Nazi students. Such training does not fail to leave its effects. And above all: every policeman knows that though governments may change, the police remains.

In its new-year’s issue, the theoretical organ of the social democracy, Das Freie Wort (what a wretched sheet!), prints an article in which the policy of “toleration”, is expounded in its highest sense. Hitler, it appears, can never come into power against the police and the Reichswehr. Now, according to the constitution, the Reichswehr is under the command of the president of the Republic. Therefore Fascism, it follows, is not dangerous so long as a president faithful to the constitution remains at the head of the government. Bruening’s regime must be supported until the presidential elections so that a constitutional president may then be elected, through an alliance with the parliamentary bourgeoisie; and thereby Hitler’s road to power will be blocked for another seven years. The above is, as given, the literal context of the article. [1] A mass party, leading millions (toward socialism!) holds that the question as to which class will come to power in present day Germany, which is shaken to its very foundations, depends not on the fighting strength of the German proletariat, not on the shock troops of Fascism, not even on the personnel of the Reichswehr; but on whether the pure spirit of the Weimar constitution (along with the required quantity of camphor and naphthalene) will be installed in the presidential palace. But suppose the spirit of Weimar, in a well-known situation, recognize, together with Bethmann-Hollweg, that “necessity knows no law”, what then? Or suppose the perishable substance of the spirit of Weimar falls asunder at the most untoward moment, despite the camphor and naphthalene, what then? And what if ... but there is no end to such questions.

The politicians of reformism, these dexterous wirepullers, artful intriguers and careerists, expert parliamentary and ministerial machinators are no sooner thrown out of their habitual sphere by the course of events; no sooner are they placed face to face with momentous contingencies than they reveal themselves to be – there is no milder expression for it – inept boobs.

To rely upon a president is only to rely upon “the government”. Faced with the impending clash between the proletariat and the Fascist petty bourgeoisie – two camps which together comprise the crushing majority of the German nation – these Marxists from the Vorwärts yelp for the night watchman to come to their aid, “Help! Government exert pressure!” (Staat, greif zu!). Which means, “Bruening, please don’t force us to defend ourselves with the might of workers’ organizations, for this will only arouse the entire proletariat; and then the movement will rise above the bald-pates or our party leadership: beginning as anti-Fascist, it will end Communist.

To this Bruening could reply, unless he preferred silence: “With the police force I could not handle Fascism even if I wanted to; but I wouldn’t even if I could. Setting the Reichswehr in motion means only splitting the Reichswehr, if not throwing it altogether against us. But what is most important is that the turning of the bureaucratic apparatus against the Fascists would mean untying the hands of the workers, restoring their full freedom of action: the consequence would be precisely those which you, social democrats, dread so much, and which I accordingly dread twice as much.”

The effect which the appeals of the social democracy produce on the state apparatus, on the judges, the Reichswehr and the police cannot fail to be just the opposite to the one desired. The most “loyal” functionary, the most “neutral”, the least bound to the social democracy can reason only thus: “Millions are behind the social democrats; enormous resources are in their hands: the press, the parliament, the municipalities; their own hides are at stake; in the struggle against the Fascists they are assured of the support of the Communists; and even so these mighty gentlemen beg me a functionary, to save them from the attack of another party comprising millions whose leaders may become my bosses tomorrow; things must be pretty bad for the gentlemen of the social democracy, pretty bad for the gentlemen of the social democracy, functionary, to think about my own hide.” And as a result, the “loyal”, “neutral” functionary who vacillated yesterday, re-insures himself without fail, i.e., ties up with the National Socialists, to safeguard his own future. In this manner the reformists who have outlived their own day, work for the Fascists along bureaucratic lines.

The social democracy, the hanger-on of the bourgeoisie, is doomed to wretched ideological parasitism. One moment it catches up ideas of bourgeois economists, and the next, it tries to utilize bits of Marxism. After citing from my pamphlet the reasons against the participation of the Communist party in Hitler’s referendum, Hilferding concludes: “Truly, there is nothing to add to these lines in order to explain the tactics of the social democracy as regards the Bruening government.” Remmele and Thalheimer step forward, “Please take note, Hilferding relies on Trotsky.” A Fascist yellow sheet steps forward in turn, “Trotsky is paid for this job by the promise of a visa.” Next a Stalinist journalist comes to the fore and wires the communication of a Fascist paper to Moscow. The editorial board of the Izvestia, which includes the unfortunate Radek, prints the telegram. This chain deserves only to be mentioned and passed by.

Let us return to more serious questions. If Hitler can afford himself the luxury of fighting against Bruening, it is only because the bourgeois regime as a whole leans for its support on the back of that half of the working class which is led by Hilferding and Company. If the social democracy had not put through its policy of class betrayal, then Hitler, not to mention the fact that he would have never attained his present power, would have been clutching at Bruening’s government as a life saving anchor. If the Communists together with the social democracy had overthrown Bruening, that would have been a fact of the greatest political significance. The consequence, in any case, would have risen over the heads of the leaders of the social democracy. Hilferding attempts to find justification for his betrayal in our criticism, which demands that the Communists take Hilferding’s betrayal into account as an accomplished fact.

Although Hilferding has “nothing to add” to Trotsky’s words, he nevertheless does add something: The correlation of forces, he says, is such that even in the event of the united action of social democratic and Communist workers, there would be no possibility “by forcing the fight, to overthrow the enemy and to seize power.” In this remark, glossed over in passing without any evidence, lies the very crux of the question. According to Hilferding in Germany today, where the proletariat composes the majority of the population and the deciding productive force of society, the united front of the social democracy and the Communist party could not place the power in the hands of the proletariat! When is the precise moment, then, that the power can pass into the hands of the proletariat? Prior to the war there was the prospective of the automatic growth of capitalism, of the growth of the proletariat, and of the equal growth of the social democracy. This process was cut short by the war, and no power in the world will restore it. The decay of capitalism means that the question of power must be decided on the basis of the now existing productive forces. By prolonging the agony of the capitalist regime, the social democracy leads only to the further decline of economic culture, to the disorganization of the proletariat, to social gangrene. No other perspectives lie ahead ; tomorrow will be worse than today; the day after tomorrow worse than tomorrow. But the leaders of the social democracy no longer dare to look into the future. Theirs are all the vices of the ruling class doomed to destruction; they are light-minded, their will is paralyzed, they are given to blubbering over events and hoping for miracles. Come to think of it, Tarnow’s economic researches fulfill now the same function as did once the consoling revelations of a Rasputin ...

The social democrats together with the Communists would not be able to seize power. There he stands, the snobbish, educated (gebildet), petty bourgeois, an utter coward, soaked from head to foot with distrust and contempt for the masses. The social democracy and the Communist party together hold about 40 per cent of the votes, despite the fact that the betrayals of the social democracy and the mistakes of the C.P. drive millions into the camp of indifferentism and even National Socialism. Once a fact, the joint action of these two parties alone, by opening before the masses new perspectives, would incommensurably increase the strength of the proletariat. But let us limit ourselves to 40 per cent. Has Bruening perhaps more, or Hitler? But there are only these three groups that can rule Germany: the proletariat, the center party or the Fascists. But a notion is firmly implanted in the heads of the educated petty bourgeois: for the representatives of capital to rule, 20 per cent of the votes suffice, because the bourgeoisie, you see, has the banks, the trusts, the syndicates, the railroads. True, our educated petty bourgeois made ready to “socialize” all these twelve years ago. But enough is too much! A program of socialization – yes ; the expropriation of the expropriators – no, that is already Bolshevism.

We have taken the correlation of forces in their parliamentary cross section. But that’s a trick mirror. In parliamentary representation the strength of an oppressed class is way below its actual strength and contrariwise: the representation of the bourgeoisie even the day before its downfall will still be a masquerade of its supposed strength. Only revolutionary struggle tears away all the covers from the actual relation of forces. During a direct and immediate struggle for power, the proletariat, unless paralyzed by sabotage from within, by Austro-Marxism and by all other forms of betrayal, develops a force incommensurably superior to its parliamentary expression. Let us recall once again the invaluable lessons of history. Even after the Bolsheviks had seized power, and firmly seized it, they had less than one third of the votes in the Constituent Assembly; together with the Left S.R.’s – less than 40 per cent. Yet despite a fearful economic collapse, despite the war, despite the betrayal of the European, and first of all of the German, social democracy, despite the post-war reaction of weariness, despite the growth of Thermidorian tendencies, the first workers’ government stands on its feet fourteen years. And what can be said of Germany? At the moment the social democratic worker together with the Communist arises to seize power, the task will be nine-tenths completed.

Nevertheless, says Hilferding, had the social democracy voted against Bruening’s government and thereby overthrown it, the consequence would have been the coming of the Fascists to power. That is the way, perhaps, the matter may appear on a parliamentary plane; but the matter itself does not rest on a parliamentary plane. The social democracy could refuse to support Bruening only in the event that it decided to enter upon the road of revolutionary struggle. Either support Bruening, or fight for the dictatorship of the proletariat. No third course is given. The social democracy, by voting against Bruening, would change at once the correlation of forces – not on the parliamentary chess board, whose chess-pieces might surprisingly enough be found underneath the table – but on the arena of the revolutionary struggle of the classes. After such an about-face, the forces of the working class would increase not twofold but tenfold, for in the class struggle, the moral factor holds by no means the last place, particularly during great historical upheavals. Under the impact of this moral force, the masses of the people, one stratum after another, would be charged to the point of highest intensity. The proletariat would say to itself with assurance, that it alone was called to give a different and a higher direction to the life of this great nation. Disintegration and decomposition in Hitler’s army would set in before the decisive battles. Battles of course could not be avoided; but with a firm resolution to fight to victory, by attacking boldly, victory might be achieved infinitely more easily than the most extreme revolutionary optimist now imagines.

Only a trifle is lacking for this: the about-face of the social democracy, its taking the road of revolution. To hope for a voluntary shift on the part of the leaders after the experiences of 1914–1922 would be the most ludicrous of all illusions. But the majority of social democratic workers – that is something else again; they can make the turn, and they will make it – it is only necessary to help them. And this turn will be not only against the bourgeois government, but against the upper layers of their own party.

At this point, our Austro-Marxist, who has “nothing to add” to our words, will try once more to bring against us citations from our own books: didn’t we write point blank that the policies of the Stalinist bureaucracy represent a chain of errors; didn’t we stigmatize the participation of the Communist party in the Hitler referendum? We did write, we did stigmatize. But we wage battle with the Stalinist leadership in the Comintern precisely because it is incapable of breaking up the social democracy, of tearing the masses from under its influence, of freeing the locomotive of history from its rusty chain-brake. By its convulsions, its mistakes, its bureaucratic ultimatism, the Stalinist bureaucracy preserves the social democracy, permits it again and again to regain its foothold.

The Communist party is a proletarian, anti-bourgeois party, even if erroneously. The social democracy, though composed of workers, is entirely a bourgeois party, which under “normal conditions” is led quite expertly from the point of view of bourgeois aims, but, which is good for nothing at all under the conditions of a social crisis. The leaders of the social democracy are themselves forced to recognize, though unwillingly, the bourgeois character of the party. Referring to the crisis and the unemployment situation, Tarnow mouths moth-eaten phrases about the “disgrace of capitalist civilization”, quite in the manner of a protestant minister preaching on the sinfulness of wealth; referring to socialism, Tarnow talks after the manner of this same minister when the latter preaches about regards beyond the grave; but when it comes to concrete questions, he assumes another tone: “If on September 14th, this spectre (unemployment) had not hovered over the ballot box, this day would have been written differently into the pages of German history.” (Report, at the Leipzig Congress) The social democracy lost votes and seats because capitalism, on account of the crisis, had revealed its authentic visage. The crisis did not strengthen the party of “socialism”, on the contrary, it weakened it, just as it depressed the trade turn-over, the resources of banks, the self-assurance of Hoover and Ford, the profits of the Prince of Monaco, etc. Today, one is obliged to look, not in bourgeois papers, but in social democratic press for the most optimistic evaluations of the conjuncture. Can more undebatable proofs of the bourgeois character of this party be produced? If the atrophy of capitalism produces the atrophy of the social democracy, then the approaching death of capitalism cannot but denote the early death of the social democracy. The party that leans upon the workers but serves the bourgeoisie, in the period of the greatest sharpening of the class struggle, cannot but sense the smells wafted from the waiting grave.



1. The article is signed with the modest initials E.H. They should be engraved for posterity. Generations of workers have not labored in vain. Great revolutionary thinkers and fighters did not journey over this earth without leaving their mark. E.H. exists, stays on his job, and points the way to the German proletariat.

Evil tongues would have it that E.H. is closely related to E. Heilmann, who so besmirched himself during the war by the most sordid kind of chauvinism. Impossible! What, such a lucid head ...?

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Last updated on: 2.6.2013