L. Trotsky

Bonapartism in Germany

(October 1932)

Written: 30 October 1932.
Source: The Militant, Vol. V No. 50, 17 December 1932, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2014. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.

The elections to the Reichstag put the “presidential” government to a new critical test. It is useful, therefore to remind of its social and political nature. It is precisely through the analysis of such concrete, and at first glance “sudden” political phenomena, as the government of Papen-Schleicher, that the Marxian method, reveals its invaluable advantages.

At one time we defined the “presidential” government as a species of bonapartism. It would be incorrect to see in this definition the chance outcome of a desire to find a familiar name for an unfamiliar phenomena. The decline of capitalist society places again bonapartism together with Fascism and in connection with it on the order of the day. Previously we have characterized the government of Bruning as a bonapartist one. Then, in retrospect we narrowed its definition to a half, or pre-bonapartist one.

What did other Communists and in general left groups say in this connection? To await an attempt at a scientific definition of a new political phenomena from the present leadership of the Comintern would, of course, be naive, not to say foolish. The Stalinists simply place Papen in the Fascist camp. If Wells and Hitler are “twins” then such a trifle as Papen is altogether not worth breaking ones head about. This is the same political literature which Marx called vulgarian and which he taught us to despise. In reality Fascism represents one of the two main camps of civil war. Stretching his arm to power, Hitler first of all demanded the relinquishing of the street to him for 72 hours. Hindenburg refused this. The task of Papen-Schleicher – to avoid civil war by disciplining amicably the national-socialists and chaining the proletariat to police fetters. The very possibility of such a regime is determined by the relative weakness of the proletariat.

The SAP rids itself of the question of the Papen government as well as of other question by means of general phrases. The Brandlerists preserved silence on our definition as long as the matter concerned Bruning, that means the incubation period of bonapartism. When, however, the Marxian characteristic of Bonapartism confirmed itself fully by theory and practice of the presidential government the Brandlerites came out with their criticism: the wise owl of Thalheimer takes flight in the late hours of the night.

The Stuttgart Workers Tribune teaches us that bonapartism raising the military-police apparatus over the bourgeoisie in order to defend its class domination against its own political parties, must be supported by the peasantry and must use methods of social democracy. Papen is not supported by the peasantry and does not introduce a pseudo-radical program. Therefore, our attempt to define the government of Papen as bonapartism “does not fit at all”. This is severe but carries no weight.

How do the Brandlerites themselves define the government of Papen? In the same issue of the Tribune there are very timely announcements of the lecture of Brandler on the subject: Junker-monarchical, Fascist or proletarian dictatorship? In this triad the regime of Papen is presented as a Junker-monarchist dictatorship. This is most worthy of the Forward and of vulgar democrats in general. That titled German bonapartists make some sort of little presents to the Junker is obvious. That these gentlemen are inclined to a monarchistic trend of thoughts is also known. But it is purest liberal nonsense that the essence of the presidential regime is Junker monarchism.

Such terms as liberalism, bonapartism, fascism have the character of generalizations. Historical phenomena never repeat themselves completely. It would not have been difficult to prove that even the government of Napoleon the Third, compared with the regime of Napoleon the First, was not a “bonapartist” one, not only because Napoleon himself was a doubtful Buonapart by blood, but also because his relations to classes, especially to the peasantry and to the lumpen-proletariat was not at all the same as that of Napoleon the First. Moreover, classical bonapartism grew out of the epoch of gigantic war victories, which the second Empire did not know at all. But if we should look for the repitition of all the traits of bonapartism, we will find that bonapartism is a one-time unrepetative occurrence, that means that in general bonapartism does not exist but that there once was a general Bonapart, born in Corsica. The matter stands no different with liberalism and with all other generalized terms of history. When one speaks by analogy of bonapartism, it is necessary to state precisely which of its traits found their fullest expression under present historical conditions.

Present-day German bonapartism has a very complex and so to say combined character. The government of Papen would have been impossible without Fascism. But Fascism is not in power. And the government of Papen is not Fascism. On the other hand, the government of Papen, at any rate in its present form, would have been impossible without Hindenburg, who in spite of the final prostration of Germany in the war, signifies in the memory of wide masses great victories of Germany and symbolizes the army. The second election of Hindenburg had all the characteristics of a “plebiscite”. Many millions of workers, petty bourgeois and peasants (Social-democracy and Centre) voted for Hindenburg. They did not see in him any one political program. They wanted first of all to avoid civil war and raised Hindenburg on their shoulders as a super-arbiter, as an arbitration judge of the nation. But precisely this is the most important function of bonapartism: raising itself over the two struggling camps in order to preserve property and order, it suppresses civil war, or precedes it, or does not allow it to rekindle. Speaking of Papen we cannot forget Hindenburg on whom rests the sanction of the social democracy. The combined character of German bonapartism expressed itself in the fact that the demagogic work of catching the masses for Hindenburg was performed by two big independent parties: the social democracy and national socialism. If they are both astonished at the results of their work this does not change the matter one whit.

The social democracy asserts that Fascism is the product of communism. This is correct in so far as there would have been no necessity at all in Fascism without the sharpening of the class struggle, without the revolutionary proletariat, without the crisis of capitalist society. The flunkeyish theory of Wels-Hilferding-Otto Bauer has no other meaning. Yes, Fascism is a reaction of bourgeois society to the threat of proletarian revolution. But precisely because this threat is not an imminent one today, that the ruling classes make an attempt to get along without a civil war by the medium of a bonapartist dictatorship.

Objecting to our characterization of the government of Hindenburg-Papen-Schleicher, the Brandlerites refer to Marx and express thereby an ironic hope that his authority may also have weight with us. It is difficult to be made fools of in a more flagrant manner (?). The fact is that Marx and Engels wrote not only of bonapartism of the two Bonaparts but also of other species thereof. Beginning, it seems, with the year 1864, they have likened hot once the “national” regime of Bismarck to French bonapartism. And this in spite of the fact that Bismarck was not a pseudo-radical demagogue and so far as we know, was not supported by the peasantry. The Iron Chancellor was not raised to power as a result of a plebiscite, but was duly appointed by his legitimate and hereditary king. And nevertheless Marx and Engels are right. Bismarck made use in a bonapartist fashion of the antagonism between the propertied classes, and the rising proletariat, overcoming in this way the antagonism within the two propertied classes, between the Junkerdom and the bourgeoisie, and raised a military-police apparatus over the nation. The policy of Bismarck is that very tradition to which the “theoreticians” of present German bonapartism refer. True, Bismarck solved in his fashion the problem of German unity, of the external greatness of Germany. Papen however so far only promises to obtain for Germany “equality” on the international arena. Not a small difference! But we were not trying to prove that the bonapartism of Papen is of the same calibre as the bonapartism of Bismarck. Napoleon the Third was also only a parody of his pretended uncle.

The reference to Marx as seen has a slovenly character. That Thalheimer does not understand the dialectics of Marxism we suspected long ago. But, we must admit, we thought that at least he knew the texts of Marx and Engels. We take this opportunity to correct our mistake.

Our characteristic of the presidential government rejected by the Brandlerites received a very brilliant confirmation from a very unexpected and in its way “authoritative” source. With regard to the dissolution, of the “five-day” Reichstag DAZ (Deutsche Allegemeine Zeitung – organ of heavy industry) quoted on August 28th in a long article the work of Marx The 18th Brumaire – for what purpose? No more and no less than in support of the historical and political rights of the president to put his boot on the neck of people’s representation. The organ of heavy industry risked at a difficult moment drinking from the poisoned wells of Marxism. With a remarkable adroitness the paper takes from the immortal pamphlet a long quotation explaining how and why the French president as the incarnation of the “nation” obtained a preponderance over the split up parliament. The same article of the DAZ reminds very apropos how in the spring of 1890 Bismarck developed a plan for a most suitable governmental change. Napoleon the Third and Bismarck as forerunners of presidential government are called by the right name by the Berlin newspaper which in August at least played the role of an official organ.

To quote The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon in reference to the “July 20th of von Papen’’ is of course very risky since Marx characterized the regime of Napoleon in the most acid terms as the regime of adventurists, crooks and pimps. Actually DAZ could be brought to punishment for a malicious slander of the government. But if we should leave aside this indirect inconvenience, there remains nevertheless the doubtless fact that the historic instinct brought DAZ to the proper place. Unfortunately one can not say the same of the theoretical wisdom of Thalheimer.

Bonapartism of the era of the decline of capitalism differs widely from bonapartism of the era of ascension of bourgeois society. German bonapartism to not supported directly by the petty bourgeoisie of the country and village, and this is not accidental. Precisely therefore we wrote at one time of the weakness of the government of Papen which holds on only by the neutralization of two camps: the proletariat and the fascists.

But behind Papen stand the great landowners, finance capital, generals – so rejoin other “Marxists”. Do not the propertied classes in itself present a great force? This argument proves once more that it is much easier to understand class relations in their general sociological outline than in a concrete historical form. Yes, immediately behind Papen stand the propertied heights and they only: precisely therein is contained the cause of his weakness.

Under the conditions of present-day capitalism a government which would not be the agency of finance capital is in general impossible. But of all possible agencies the government of Papen is the least stable one. If the ruling classes could rule directly, they would have no need either of parliamentarism, or of social democracy, or of Fascism. The government of Papen reveals too clearly finance capital, leaving it even without the sanctified [word missing] ordered by the Prussian commissar Brakht. Just because the extra-party, “national” government is in fact able to speak only in the name of the social heights, capital is over more careful not to identify itself with the government of Papen. DAZ wants to find for the presidential government support in the national-socialist masses and in the language of ultimatums demands of Papen a bloc with Hitler which means capitulation to him.

In evaluating the “strength” of the presidential government we must not forget the circumstance, that if finance capital stand behind Papen, this does not at all mean that it falls together with him. Finance capital has innumerably more possibilities than Hindenburg-Papen-Schleicher. In case of the sharpening of contradictions there remains the reserve of pure Fascism. In case of the lowering of contradictions one will maneuver until the time when the proletariat puts its knee on its chest. For how long Papen will maneuver the near future will show.

These lines will appear in the press when the new elections to the Reichstag will have already passed. The bonapartist nature of the “anti-French” government of Papen will inevitably reveal itself with a new force, but also its weakness. We will take this up again in due time.

Prinkipo, October 30, 1932


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