Leon Trotsky

Democracy and Fascism

(January 1932)

Written: 27 January 1932.
Source: The Militant, Vol. V No. 16 (Whole No. 112), 16 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.

(Continued from last issue)

As regards ‘the class content’ there are no distinctions between democracy and Fascism,” lectures Werner Hirsch echoing Stalin (Die Internationale, Jan. 1932). The transition from democracy to Fascism may take the character of “an organic process”, that is, it may occur “gradually” and “bloodlessly”. Such reasoning might dumbfound anyone, but the epigones have inured us from becoming dumbfounded.

There are no “class distinctions” between democracy and Fascism. Obviously this must mean that democracy as well as Fascism is bourgeois in character. We guessed as much even prior to January 1932. The ruling class, however, does not inhabit a vacuum. It stands in definite relations to other classes. In a developed capitalist society, during a “democratic” regime, the bourgeoisie leans for support primarily upon the working classes which are held in check by the reformists. In its most finished form, this system finds its expression in England during the administration of the Labor government as well as during that of the Conservatives. In a Fascist regime, at least during its first phase, capital leans on the petty bourgeoisie which destroys the organizations of the proletariat. Italy, for instance! Is there a difference in the “class content” of these two regimes? If the question is posed only as regards the ruling class, then there is no difference. If one takes into account the position and the inter-relations of all classes, from the angle of the proletariat, then the difference appears to be quite enormous.

In the course of many decades, the workers have built up within the bourgeois democracy, by utilizing it, by fighting against it, their own strongholds and bases of proletarian democracy: the trade unions, the political parties, the educational and sport clubs, the co-operatives, etc. The proletariat cannot attain power within the formal limits of bourgeois democracy. but can do so only by taking the road of revolution: this has been proved both by theory and experience. And these bulwarks of workers’ democracy within the bourgeois state are absolutely essential for the taking of the revolutionary road. The work of the Second International consisted in creating just such bulwarks during the epoch when it was still fulfilling its progressive historic labor.

Fascism has for its basic and only task, the razing to their foundation of all institutions of proletarian democracy. Has this any “class meaning” for the proletariat, or hasn’t it? The lofty theoreticians had better ponder over this. After pronouncing the regime to be bourgeois – which no one questions – Hirsch, together with his masters, overlooks a mere trifle: the position of the proletariat in this regime. In place of the historical process they substitute a bald sociological abstraction. But the class war takes place on the soil of history, and not in the stratosphere of sociology. The point of departure in the struggle against Fascism is not formed by the abstraction of the democratic state, but, by the living organisations of the proletariat, in which is concentrated all its past experience and which prepare it for the future.

The statement that the transition from democracy to Fascism may take on an “organic” and a “gradual” character can mean one thing and one thing only and that is: without any fuss, without a fight, the proletariat may be deprived not only of all its material conquests – not only of its given standard of living, of its social legislation, of its civil and political rights – but also even of the basic weapon whereby these were achieved, that is, its organizations. The “bloodless” transition to Fascism implies under this terminology, the most frightful capitulation of the proletariat that can be conceived.

Werner Hirsch’s theoretical discussions are not accidental; while they serve to develop still further the theoretical oracle of Stalin, they also serve to generalize the entire present agitation of the Communist party. The party’s chief resources are in fact being strained only to prove: that there is no difference between Bruening’s regime and Hitler’s regime. Thaelmann and Remmele see in this the quintessence of Bolshevist policy.

Nor is the matter restricted to Germany only. The notion that nothing new will be added by the victory of Fascists is being zealously propagated now in all sections of the Comintern. In the January issue of the French periodical Cahiers du Bolchévisme, we read, “The Trotskyists behave in practice like Breitscheid; they accept the famous social democratic theory of the ‘lesser evil’, according to which Bruening is not as bad as Hitler, according to which it is not so unpleasant to starve under Bruening as under Hitler, and infinitely more preferable to be shot down by Groener than by Frick.” This is not the most stupid passage, although – to give it due credit – stupid enough. Unfortunately, however, it expresses the gist of the political philosophy of the leaders of the Comintern.

The fact of the matter is that the Stalinists compare the two regimes from the point of view of vulgar democracy. And indeed, were one to consider Bruening’s regime from the criterion of “formal” democracy, one would arrive at a conclusion which is beyond argument: nothing is left of the proud Weimar constitution save the bones and the skin. But this does not settle the question so far as we are concerned. The question must be approached from the angle of proletarian democracy. This criterion is also the only reliable one on which to consider the question as to when and where the “normal” police methods of reaction under decay capitalism are replaced by the Fascist regime.

Whether Bruening is “better” than Hitler (better looking perhaps?) is a question which, we confess, doesn’t interest us at all. But one need only glance at the list of workers’ organizations to assert, Fascism has not conquered yet in Germany. In the way of its victory there still remain gigantic obstacles and forces.

The present Bruening regime is the regime of bureaucratic dictatorship, or more definitely, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie enforced by means of the army and the police. The Fascist petty bourgeoisie and the proletarian organizations seem to counterbalance one another. Were the workers united by Soviets; were factory committees fighting for the control of production, then one could speak of dual power. Because of the split within the proletariat, because of the tactical helplessness of its vanguard, dual power does not exist as yet. But the very fact that mighty organizations of workers do exist, which under certain conditions are capable of repelling Fascism with crushing force, that is what keeps Hitler from seizing power and imparts a certain “independence” to the bureaucratic apparatus.

Bruening’s dictatorship is a caricature of Bonapartism. His dictatorship is unstable, unreliable, shortlived. It signalizes not the initiation of a new social equilibrium but the early crash of the old one. Supported directly only by a small minority of the bourgeoisie, tolerated by the social democracy against the will of the workers, threatened by Fascism, Bruening can bring down the thunder of paper decrees but not real thunderbolts. Bruening is fit for dissolving parliament with its own assent; he’ll do to promulgate a few decrees against the workers, to proclaim a Christmas truce and to make a few deals under its cover; to break up a hundred meetings, close down a dozen papers, exchange letters with Hitler worthy of a village druggist – that is all. But for greater things his hands are too short.

Bruening is compelled to tolerate the existence of workers’ organizations because he hasn’t decided to this very day, to hand over the power to Hitler, and inasmuch as he himself has no independent means of liquidating them. Bruening is compelled to tolerate the Fascists and to patronize them inasmuch as he mortally fears the victory of the workers. Bruening’s regime is a transitional, shortlived regime, preceding the catastrophe. The present administration holds on, only because the chief camps have not as yet pitted their strength. The real battle hasn’t begun. It is still to come. The dictatorship of bureaucratic impotence fills in the lull before the battle, before the forces are openly matched.

The wiseacres who boast that they do not recognize any difference “between Bruening and Hitler”, are saying in reality: it makes no difference whether our organizations exist, or whether they are already destroyed. Beneath this pseudo-radical phraseology there hides the most sordid passivity; we can’t escape defeat anyway! Read over carefully the quotation from the French Stalinist periodical. They reduce the question to whether it is better to starve under Hitler or Bruening. To them it is a question of under whom to starve. To us, on the contrary, it is not a question of under which conditions it is better to die. We raise the question of how to fight and win. And we conclude thus, the major offensive must be begun before the bureaucratic dictatorship is replaced by the Fascist regime, that is, before the workers’ organizations are crushed. The general offensive should be prepared for by deploying, extending, and sharpening the sectional clashes. But for this one must have a correct perspective; and first of all, one should not proclaim victorious the enemy who is still a long way from victory.

Herein is the crux of the problem; herein is the strategical key to the background; herein is the operating base from which the battle must be waged. Every thinking worker, the more so every Communist, must give himself an accounting and plumb to the bottom the empty and rotten talk of the Stalinist bureaucracy about Bruening and Hitler being one and the same thing. You are muddling!, we say in answer. You muddle disgracefully because you are afraid of the difficulties that lie ahead, because you are terrified by the great problems that lie ahead; you throw up the sponge before the fighting is begun, you proclaim that we have already suffered defeat. You are lying! The working class is split; it is weakened by the reformists and disoriented by the vacillations of its own vanguard, but it is not annihilated yet, forces are not yet exhausted. No. The proletariat of Germany is powerful. The most optimistic estimates will be infinitely surpassed once its revolutionary energy will clear the way for it to the arena of action.

Bruening’s regime is the preparatory regime. Preparatory to what? Either to the victory of Fascism, or to the victory of the proletariat. This regime is preparatory because both camps are only preparing for the decisive battle. If you identify Bruening with Hitler, you identify the conditions before the battle with the conditions after the defeat; it means that you admit defeat beforehand; it means that you appeal for surrender without a battle.

The overwhelming majority of the workers, particularly the Communists, does not want this. The Stalinist bureaucracy of course, does not want it either. But one must take into account not one’s good intentions, with which Hitler will pave the road to his Hell, but the objective meaning of one’s policies, of their direction, and their tendencies. We must disclose in its entirety the passive, timidly hesitant, capitulating and declamatory character of the politics of Stalin-Manuilsky-Thaelmann-Remmele. We must teach the revolutionary workers to understand that the key to the situation is in the hands of the Communist party; but the Stalinist bureaucracy attempts to use this key to lock the gates to revolutionary action. [1]



1. The article Democracy and Fascism is an extract from comrade Trotsky’s larger work What Next? – Vital Questions for the German Proletariat. Others will follow in coming issues. – Ed.

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