Leon Trotsky

Democracy and Fascism

(January 1932)

Written: 27 January 1932.
Source: The Militant, Vol. V No. 15 (Whole No. 111), 9 April 1932, p. 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 XIth Plenum of the E.C.C.I. came to the decision that it was imperative to put an end to those erroneous views which originate in “the liberal interpretation of the contradictions between Fascism and bourgeois democracy and the outright Fascist forms” ... The gist of this Stalinist philosophy is quite plain: from the Marxist denial of the absolute contradiction it deduces the general negation of the contradiction, even of the relative contradiction. This, error is typical of vulgar radicalism. For if there be no contradiction whatsoever between democracy and Fascism, – even in the sphere of the form of the rule of the bourgeoisie, – then these two regimes obviously enough must be equivalent. Whence the conclusion social democracy = Fascism. For some reason, however, social democracy is dubbed social Fascism. And the meaning of the term “social” in this connection has been left unexplained to this very moment. [1]

Nevertheless, the nature of things does not change in accordance with the decisions of the E.C.C.I. plenums. A contradiction does exist between democracy and Fascism. It is not at all “absolute”, or, putting it in the language of Marxism, it doesn’t at all denote the rule of two irreconcilable classes. But it does denote different systems of the domination of one and the same class. These two systems: the one, parliamentary-democratic; the other, Fascist, derive their support from different combinations of the oppressed and exploited classes; and they unavoidably come to a sharp clash with each other.

The social democracy, which is today the chief representative of the parliamentary-bourgeois regime, derives its support from the workers. Fascism is supported by the petty bourgeoisie. The social democracy without the mass organizations of the workers can have no influence. Fascism cannot intrench itself in power without annihilating the workers’ organizations. The parliament is the main arena of the social democracy. The system of Fascism is based upon the destruction of parliamentarism. For the monopolistic bourgeoisie, the parliamentary and Fascist regimes represent only different vehicles of dominion; it has recourse to one or the other, depending upon the historical conditions. But for both the social democracy and Fascism, the choice of one or the other vehicle has an independent significance, more than that, for them it is a question of political life or death.

At the moment that the “normal” police and military resources of the bourgeois dictatorship, together with their parliamentary screens, no longer suffice to hold society in a state of equilibrium – the turn of the Fascist regime arrives. Through the Fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie, and bands of the de-classed and demoralized lumpenproletariat; all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy. From Fascism the bourgeoisie demands a thorough job; once it has resorted to methods of civil war, it insists on having peace for a period of years. And the Fascist agency by utilizing the petty bourgeoisie as a battering ram, by overwhelming all obstacles in its path, does a thorough job. After Fascism is victorious, finance capital gathers into its hands, as in a vise of steel, directly and immediately, all the organs and institutions of sovereignty, the executive, administrative and educational powers of the state: the entire state apparatus together with the army, the municipalities, the universities, the schools, the press, the trade unions, and the co-operatives. When a state turns Fascist, it doesn’t only mean that the forms and methods of government are changed in accordance with the patterns set by Mussolini – the changes in this sphere ultimately play a minor role – but it means, first of all for the most part, that the workers organizations are annihilated; that the proletariat is reduced to an amorphous state; and that a system of administration is created which penetrates deeply into the masses and which serves to frustrate the independent crystallization of the proletariat. Therein precisely is the gist of Fascism.

The above is not at all contradicted by the fact that, during a given period, between the democratic and the Fascist systems, a transitional regime is established, which combines the features of both: such, in general, is the law that governs the displacement of one social system by another, even though they are irreconcilably inimical to each other. There are periods during which the bourgeoisie leans upon both the social democracy and Fascism, that is, during which it simultaneously manipulates its electoral and terroristic agencies. Such, in a certain sense, was the government of Kerensky during the last months of its existence, when it leaned partly on the Soviets and at the same time conspired with Kornilov. Such is the government of Bruening as it dances on a tightrope between two irreconcilable camps, balancing itself with the emergency decrees instead of a pole. But such a condition of the state and of the administration is temporary in character. It signalizes the transition period, during which the social democracy is on the verge of exhausting its mission, while, in that same period, neither Communism nor Fascism is ready as yet to seize power.

The Italian Communists, who have had to study the problems of Fascism for a long time, have protested time and again against the widespread abuse of these concepts. Formerly, at the VIth Congress of the Comintern, Ercoli was still formulating views on the question of Fascism which are now credited as “Trotskyist”. Ercoli at that time defined Fascism as being the most thorough and uncompromising system of reaction, and he explained: “this administration supports itself not by the cruelty of its terroristic acts, not by murdering large numbers of workers and peasants, not by applying on a large scale varied methods of brutal torture, not by the severity of its law courts; but it depends upon the systematic annihilation of each and every form of the independent organization of the masses.” In this Ercoli is absolutely correct: the gist of Fascism and its task consist in a complete suppression of all workers’ organizations and in the prevention of their revival. In a developed capitalist society this goal cannot be achieved by police methods alone. There is only one method for it and that is by directly opposing the pressure of the proletariat – the moment it weakens – by the pressure of the desperate masses of the petty bourgeoisie. It is this particular system of capitalist reaction that has entered history under the name of Fascism.

“All questions as to the relation between Fascism and social democracy,” wrote Ercoli, “belong to the same sphere (the irreconcilability of Fascism with the existence of workers’ organizations). It is in this relation that Fascism clearly differentiates itself from all other reactionary regimes established hitherto in the contemporary capitalist world. It rejects all compromise with the social democracy; it persecutes it relentlessly; it deprives it of all legal means of existence; it forces it to emigrate.”

So reads an article published in the leading organs of the Comintern! Subsequently, Manuilsky buzzed in Molotov’s ear the great idea of “the third period”. France, Germany and Poland were assigned to “the front rank of the revolutionary offensive.” The seizure of power was proclaimed to be the immediate task. And since, in the face of the uprising of the proletariat, all parties, except the Communist, are counterrevolutionary, it was no longer necessary to distinguish between Fascism and social democracy. The theory of social Fascism was ordained. And the functionaries of the Comintern lost no time in re-aligning themselves. Ercoli made haste to prove that precious as truth was to him, Molotov was more precious, and he ... wrote a report in defense of the theory of social Fascism. “The Italian social democracy”, he announced in February 1930, “turns Fascist with the greatest readiness.” Alas, the functionaries of official Communism turn flunkies even more readily.

As was to be expected, our criticism of the theory and application of “the third period” was decreed counter-revolutionary. Nevertheless, the cruel experiences that cost the proletarian vanguard dearly, forced an about face in this sphere also. “The third period” was pensioned off, and so was Molotov himself – from the Comintern. But the theory of social Fascism remained behind as the lone ripe fruit of the third period. No changes could take place here: only Molotov was tied up with the third period; but Stalin himself was enmeshed in social Fascism.

Die Rote Fahne begins its researches into social Fascism with Stalin’s words, “Fascism is the military organization of the bourgeoisie which leans upon the social democracy for active support. The social democracy, objectively speaking, is the moderate wing of Fascism.” Objectively speaking, it is a habit with Stalin, when he attempts to generalize, to contradict the first phrase by the second and to conclude in the second what doesn’t at all follow from the first. There is no debating that the bourgeoisie leans on the social democracy, and that Fascism is a military organization of the bourgeoisie; and this has been remarked upon a long time ago. The only conclusion which follows from this is that the social democracy as well as Fascism are the tools of the big bourgeoisie. How the social democracy becomes thereby also a “wing” of Fascism is incomprehensible. Equally profound is another observation by the same author: Fascism and social democracy are not enemies, they are twins. Now twins may be the bitterest enemies: while on the other hand allies need not be born necessarily on one and the same day and from identical parents. Stalin’s constructions lack even formal logic, to say nothing of dialectics. Their strength lies in the fact that none dares challenge them.

(Continued in next issue)



1. Metaphysicians (people who do not reason dialectically) assign to one and the same abstraction two, three or more designations, often directly contradictory. “Democracy” in general and “Fascism” in general, so we are told, are in no way distinguished from one another. But in addition there must also exist in the world, on this account, “the dictatorship of workers and peasants” (for China, India, Spain). Proletarian dictatorship? No! Capitalist dictatorship, perhaps? No! What then? A democratic one! Somewhere in the universe, it appears, there exists a pure classless democracy. Yet according to the XIth plenum of the E.C.C.I., democracy differs in no wise from Fascism. That being so, wherein does “the democratic dictatorship” differ from ... the Fascist dictatorship?

Only a person utterly naive will expect to get a serious and an honest answer to this fundamental question from the Stalinists: they’ll let loose a few more choice epithets – and that’s all. And meanwhile the fate of the revolutions in the Orient is tied up with this question.

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Last updated on: 2.6.2013