Leon Trotsky

Bureaucratic Ultimatism

(January 1932)

Written: 27 January 1932.
Extract from What Next – Vital Questions for the German Proletariat.
Source: The Militant, Vol. V No. 17 (Whole No. 113), 23 April 1932, p. 4.
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.

When the newspapers of the new Socialist Labor Party (the S.A.P.) criticize “the party egoism” of the social democracy and of the Communist party; when Seydewitz assures us that so far as he is concerned, “the interests of the class come before the interests of the party,” they only fall into political sentimentalism, or, what is worse, behind this sentimental phraseology, they screen the interests of their own party. This method is no good. Whenever reaction demands that the interests of “the nation” be placed before class interests, we, Marxists, take pains to explain that under the guise of “the whole”, the reaction puts through the interests of the exploiting class. The interests of the nation cannot be formulated otherwise than from the point of view of the ruling class, or of the class pretending to sovereignty. The interests of the class cannot be formulated otherwise than in the shape of a program; the program cannot be defended otherwise than by creating the party.

Relation of Party to Class

The class, taken by itself, is only material for exploitation. The proletariat assumes an independent role only at that moment when from a social class in itself it becomes a political class for itself. This cannot take place otherwise than through the medium of a party. The party is that historical organ by means of which the class becomes class conscious. To say that “the class stands higher than the party,” is to assert that the class in the raw stands higher than the class which is on the road to class consciousness. Not only is this incorrect but it is reactionary. There isn’t the slightest need for this smug and shallow theory in order to establish the necessity for a united front.

The progress of a class toward class consciousness, that is, the building of a revolutionary party which leads the proletariat, is a complex and a contradictory process. The class itself is not homogeneous. Its different sections arrive at class consciousness by different paths and at different times. The bourgeoisie participates actively in this process. Within the working class, it creates its own institutions, or utilizes those already existing, in order to oppose certain strata of workers to others. Within the proletariat several parties are active at the same time. Therefore, for the greater part of its historical journey, it remains split politically. The problem of the United Front – which arises during certain periods most sharply – originates therein.

The historical interests of the proletariat find their expression in the Communist party – when its policies are correct. The task of the Communist party consists in winning over the majority of the proletariat; and only thus is the socialist revolution made possible. The Communist party cannot fulfill its mission except by preserving, completely and unconditionally, its political and organizational independence apart from all other parties and organizations within and without the working class. To transgress this basic principle of Marxist policy is to commit the most heinous of crimes against the interests of the proletariat, as a class. The Chinese revolution of 1925–1927 was wrecked precisely because the Comintern, under the leadership of Stalin and Bucharin, forced the Chinese Communist Party to enter into the party of the Chinese bourgeoisie, the Kuo Min Tang, and to obey its discipline. The experience resulting from the application of Stalinist policies as regards the Kuo Min Tang will enter forever into history as’an example of how the revolution was ruinously sabotaged by its leaders. The Stalinist theory of “two-class workers’ and peasants’ parties” for the Orient is the generalization and authorization of the practice employed with the Kuo Min Tang; the application of this theory in Japan, India, Indonesia, and Korea has undermined the authority of the Comintern and has set back their revolutionary development for a number of years. This same policy – perfidious in its essence – was applied, though not quite so cynically, in the United States, in England, and in all countries of Europe up to 1928.

Unconditional Independence of C.P. Under All Historical Conditions

The struggle of the Left Opposition for the maintenance of the complete and unconditional independence of the Communist party and of its policies, under each and every historical condition, and on all stages of the development of the proletariat, strained the relations between the Opposition and the Stalinist faction to the breaking point during the period of Stalin’s bloc with Chiang Kai-Shek, Wang Chin Wei Purcell, Radich, La Follette, etc. It is quite unnecessary to recall that both Thaelmann and Remmele as well as Brandler and Thalheimer, during this struggle, were completely on Stalin’s side against the Bolshevik-Leninists. It is not we, therefore, who have to go to school and learn from Stalin and Thaelmann about the independent policies of the Communist party!

But the proletariat moves toward revolutionary consciousness not by passing grades in school but by passing through the class struggle, which abhors interruptions. To fight, the proletariat must have unity in its ranks. This holds true for partial economic conflicts, within the walls of a single factory, as well as for such “national” political battles as the one to repel Fascism. Consequently the tactic of the United Front is not something accidental and artificial – a cunning maneuver – not at all; it originates, entirely and wholly, in the objective conditions, governing the development of the proletariat. The words in the Communist Manifesto which state that the Communists are not opposed to the proletariat, that they have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole, carry with them the meaning that the struggle of the party to win over the majority of the class must in no instance come into opposition with the need of the workers to keep unity within their fighting ranks.

Die Rote Fahne is completely justified in condemning all discussions concerning the contention that “the class interests must be placed above party interests.” In reality, the correctly understood interests of the class are identical with the correctly formulated problems of the party. So long as the discussion is limited to this historico-philosophical assertion, the position of Die Rote Fahne is unassailable. But the political conclusions which it deduces therefrom are nothing short of mockery of Marxism.

The identity, in principle, of the interests of the proletariat and of the aims of the Communist party does not mean either that the proletariat as a whole is, even today, conscious of its class interests, or that the party under all conditions formulates them correctly. The very need of the party originates in the very fact that the proletariat is not born with the innate understanding of its historical interests. The task of the party consists in learning, from experience derived from the struggle, how to demonstrate to the proletariat its right to leadership. While, the Stalinist bureaucracy, on the contrary, holds to the opinion that it can demand point blank obedience from the proletariat, simply on the strength of a party passport, stamped with the seal of the Comintern.

Correct Conception of the United Front

Every United Front, which doesn’t first place itself under the leadership of the Communist party, reiterates Die Rote Fahne, is directed against the interests of the proletariat. Whoever doesn’t recognize the leadership of the Communist party is none other than the “counter-revolutionary” himself. The worker is obliged to trust the Communist organization in advance, on its word of honor. From the identity, in principle, of the aims of the party and of the class, the functionary deduces his right to lay down the law to the class. The very historical problem which the Communist party is yet to solve – that of uniting the overwhelming majority of the workers under its banner – is turned by the bureaucrat into an ultimatum, into a pistol which he holds against the temple of the working class. Formalistic, administrative and bureaucratic thinking supplants the dialectic.

The historical problem that must be solved is decreed as solved already. The confidence yet to be won, is announced as won already. That, it goes without saying, is the easiest way out. But very little is achieved that way. In politics one must proceed from facts as they are, and not as one would like them to be, or as they will be eventually. The position of the Stalinist bureaucracy drawn to its conclusion leads, in fact, to the negation of the party. For what is the net result of all its historical labor, if the proletariat is obliged beforehand to accept the leadership of Thaelmann and Remmele?

From the worker desirous of joining the ranks of the Communists, the party has a right to demand: You must accept our program and obey our regulations and the authority of our electoral institutions. But it is absurd and criminal to present the same a priori demand, or even a part of it, to the working masses or workers’ organizations when the matter is broached of joint action for the sake of definite aims of struggle. Thereby the very foundations of the party are undermined; for the party can fulfill its task only by maintaining correct relations with the class. Instead of issuing such a one sided ultimatum, which irritates and insults the workers, the party should submit a definite program for joint action: that is the surest way of achieving leadership in reality.

Bureaucratic Ultimatism Leads to Negation of the Party

Ultimatism is an attempt to rape the working class after failing to convince it: Workers, unless you accept the leadership of Thaelmann-Remmele-Neumann, we will not permit you to establish the United Front. The bitterest foe could not devise a more unsound position than the one in which the leaders of the party place themselves. That is the surest way to ruin.

The leadership of the German Communist Party stresses its ultimatism all the more sharply by the casuistical circumlocution in its proclamations, “We make no demands that you accept our Communist view beforehand.” This rings like an apology for policies for which there is no apology. When the party proclaims its refusal to enfer into any kind of negotiations with other organizations but offers to take in under the party leadership those social democratic workers who want to break with their organizations without their being obliged to call themselves Communists, then the party is using the language of pure ultimatism. The reservation as regards “our Communist views” is absolutely ludicrous: the worker who is at this very moment ready to break with his party and to participate in the struggle under Communist leadership, would not be deterred by the fact that he must call himself a Communist. Jugglery with labels and subtleties of diplomacy are foreign to the workers. He takes politics and organizations as they are. He remains with the social democracy as long as he does not trust Communist leadership. We can say with assurance that the majority of social democratic workers remain in their party to this day not because they trust the reformist leadership but because they do not as yet trust that of the Communists. But they do want to fight against Fascism even now. Were they shown the first step to take in a concurrent struggle, they would insist upon their organizations taking that step. If their organizations balked, they might reach the point of breaking with them,


(To be Continued)

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Last updated on: 2.6.2013