Leon Trotsky

Leon Trotsky Analyzes German Situation

First Article After Hitler’s Appointment as Chancellor

(February 1933)

Written: 5 February 1933
Source: The Militant, Vol. VI No. 12, 24 February 1933, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2015. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.

The Camp of Counter-Revolution

The shifts in government since Bruening’s time show how vapid and hollow is the universal philosophy of Fascism (cut and dried Fascism, national Fascism, social Fascism, Left social Fascism) which the Stalinists slap over everything and everybody, excepting themselves only. The upper crust of the possessors is much too small in numbers and much too hated by the people to be able to rule in their own name. They require a screen – the traditional-monarchic (“Will of God”); the liberal-parliamentarian (“Sovereignty of the People”); the Bonapartist (“The Impartial Arbiter”); or, finally, the Fascist (“The Anger of the People”). War and revolution have taken the monarchy from them. Thanks to the reformists, they have maintained themselves on the crutches of democracy, for fourteen years. When, under the pressure of class contradictions, the parliament split asunder, they attempted to hide behind the President’s back. There came the chapter of Bonapartism, i.e., the bureaucratic-police government which is raised over society and which maintains itself on the relative equilibrium between the two opposing camps.

Passing through the transitional governments of Bruening and Papen, Bonapartism assumed its purest form in the person of General Schleicher – but only in order to disclose in him its insolvency. Hostile, doubtful, or alarmed, all classes viewed this enigmatical political figure that resembled nothing so much as a question mark with the epaulettes of a general. But the chief cause for Schleicher’s failure, and, incidentally for his preceding successes as well, lay not within himself; Bonapartism cannot attain stability so long as the camp of revolution and the camp of counter-revolution have not measured their forces in battle. Concurrently, the frightful industrial and agrarian crisis that hangs over the country like a nightmare does not facilitate Bonapartist tight-rope balancing. True, at first sight, the passivity of the proletariat facilitated in the highest degree the tasks of “the Social General”. But, it turned out otherwise; precisely this passivity weakened the hoop of fear that binds together the possessing classes, bringing out into the open the antagonisms that tear them apart.

Economically, German rural economy leads a parasitic existence, and it is a heavy ball and chain on the feet of industry. But the constricted social basis of the industrial bourgeoisie turns into political necessity the preservation of “national” agriculture, i.e., the class of junkers and rich farmers along with all the strata that are dependent on them for this policy. Bismarck laid the foundation, firmly binding the agrarians and the industrialists together by military victories, gold indemnity, high profits and – the fear of the proletariat. But Bismarck’s time have passed into eternity. Present-day Germany speeds not from victories but from defeat. France pays her no indemnity but she pays France. Decaying capitalism supplies no profits opens up no perspectives. Nothing cements together the possessing classes except their fear of the workers. However, the German proletariat – for which its leadership is entirely to blame – remained paralyzed in the most critical period – and the antagonisms between the possessing classes broke out into the open. With the Left camp expectantly passive the “Social General” fell under the blows from the Right.

When this happened, the upper crust of the possessing class took its governmental balance: on the debit side – a split in their own ranks; among the assets – an octogenarian Field Marshall. What more remained? Nothing, except for Hugenberg. Whereas Schleicher personified the unadulterated idea of Bonapartism, Hugenberg personifies in himself the chemically pure idea of property. The General was coy, refusing to reply to the question which is better, Capitalism or Socialism; Hugenberg makes no bones about announcing that there is nothing better than an East Prussian junker on the throne. The most rooted, the most ponderous, and the most intrenched form of property is private ownership of land. If economically, German agriculture is the kept whore of industry, then it is most proper that no other than Hugenberg himself should be at the head of the political struggle of the possessors against the people. Thus the regime of the supremo judge of arbitration, who was raised above all classes and parties, has been brought smack up to the supremacy of the German Nationalist Party, the most self-seeking and greedy clique of proprietors. Hugenberg’s government represents the quintessence of social parasitism. But just because of this, when it became necessary, in its pure state, it became impossible. Hugenberg requires a screen. As yet today, he cannot hide behind the mantle of a Kaiser, and he is forced to resort to the brown shirt of the Nazi. If one cannot obtain the sanction of the highest heavenly powers through the monarchy for the property owners, there remains the sanction of the reactionary and unbridled rabble.

The investiture of Hitler with power served a two-fold purpose: first, to decorate the camarilla of property owners with the leaders of “a national movement”; and secondly, to place the fighting forces of Fascism at the direct disposal of the proprietors.

It was not with a light heart that the high and mighty clique made a deal with the malodorous Fascists. There are too many, fill too many fists behind the unbridled upstarts; and therein lies the dangerous side of the brown allies; but in that very same thing is also their fundamental, more exactly, their only advantage. And this is the advantage that decides, for such are the times now that there is no guaranteeing property except with fists. There is no way of getting around without the Nazis. But it is likewise impossible to give over to them the actual power; today, the threat on the part of the proletariat is not so acute that

the higher-ups should consciously provoke a civil war with problematic outcome. It is to this new stage in the development of the social crisis in Germany that the new governmental combination corresponds, in which the military and economic posts remain in the hands of the masters, while the plebeians are assigned decorative or second rate posts. The unofficial but all the more actual function of the Fascist ministers is to bind the revolution with terror. However, the suppression and annihilation of the proletarian vanguard the Fascists must achieve not otherwise than within the limits set by the representatives of the agrarians and the industrialists. Such is the plan. But how will its execution turn out?

The government of Hugenberg-Hitler includes within itself a complex system of contradictions; between the traditional representatives of the agrarians, on the one side, and the patented representatives of large capital, on the other; between these and the others, on the one side, and the oracles of the reactionary petty bourgeoisie, on the other. The combination is extremely unstable. In its present form it will not long endure. What will come in its place in the event of its collapse? In view of the fact that the chief instruments of power are not in Hitler’s hands, and since the latter has amply demonstrated that Alongside with the hatred to the proletariat there is deeply ingrained in his bone the awe before the possessing classes and their institutions, it is impossible to exclude absolutely the possibility that the social tops, in case of a break with the Nazis, will attempt once again to take to the road of presidential Bonapartism. However, the probability of such a variation, which, thereto, could have only an episodic character, is extremely slight. Incommensurably much more probable is the further development of the crisis to the side of Fascism. Hitler, in the character of Chancellor, is such a direct and open challenge addressed to the proletariat that a mass reaction, in the worst instance, a series of disparate reactions, is absolutely inevitable. And this will suffice to push the Fascists into the foremost places, displacing their much too corpulent mentors. But on one condition: if the Fascists themselves remain on their feet.

The assumption of power by Hitler is indubitably a fearful blow for the working class. But this is still not a decisive or an irrevocable defeat. The enemy, who might have been crushed while he was only striving upwards, has occupied today an entire series of commanding posts. This allows his side a great advantage, but there has been no battle as yet. The occupation of advantageous positions decides nothing by itself, what do decide are the living forces.

The Reichswehr and the police, the Steel Helmets, and the storm troops of the Nazis represent in themselves three independent armies in the service of the possessing classes. But from the very meaning of the present governmental combination these armies are not united within a single hand. The Reichswehr, to say nothing of the Steel Helmets, is not in Hitler’s hands. His own armed forces represent a problematic quantity which is still to be verified. His millions of reserves are human rubbish. In order to conquer complete power Hitler must provoke a semblance of civil war (he, himself, Is afraid of an out and out civil war). His substantial colleagues in the ministry at whose disposal are the Reichswehr and the Steel Helmets would prefer to strangle the proletariat by “peaceful” measures. They are much less inclined to provoke a minor civil war for fear of a big one. In this manner there remains no short distance from the ministry headed by the Fascist Chancellor to the complete victory of Fascism. This means that there is still time at the disposal of the revolutionary camp. How much? It cannot be computed beforehand. Battles alone can measure its duration.

The Camp of the Proletariat

When the official Communist party states that the social democracy is the most important prop of bourgeois domination, it repeats only that idea which served as the point of departure for the organization of the Third International. When the bourgeoisie invites it to power, the social democracy casts its vote for the capitalist regime. The social democracy tolerates (suffers) any bourgeois government that tolerates the social democracy. But even when completely discarded from power, the social democracy continues to support bourgeois society, recommending to the workers that they conserve their forces for battles, for which it is prepared never to issue a call. By paralyzing the revolutionary energy of the proletariat, the social democracy provide bourgeois society with an opportunity to remain alive under conditions when it is no longer capable of living, thus turning Fascism into a political necessity. The very call of Hitler to power emanates from the Hohenzollern Field Marshall who had been elected by the votes of social democratic workers! The political chain that leads from Wels to Hitler has quite a personal character which can be gathered from inspection. There can be no two views upon this score among Marxists. But what’s in question is not how to expound a political situation but how to transform it in a revolutionary manner.

The guilt of the Stalinist bureaucracy is not in that it is “irreconcilable” is politically impotent. From the fact that Bolshevism under the leadership of Lenin proved victorious in Russia, the Stalinist bureaucracy deduces that it is the “duty” of the German proletariat to rally around Thaelmann. Its ultimatum reads, – unless the German workers accept beforehand, a priori, and without reservations, the Communist leadership they must not so much as dare think of serious battles. The Stalinists express it differently. But all circumlocutions, restrictions, and oratorical tricks change nothing in the fundamental character of bureaucratic ultimatism, which helped the social democracy to bring Germany to Hitler.

The history of the German working class from 1914 represents the most tragic page of modern history. What shocking betrayals by its historical party, the social democracy! What ineptitude and what impotence of its revolutionary wing! But there is no need for going so far back. For the past two or three years of the Fascist upsurge, the policy of the Stalinist bureaucracy represented in itself nothing else but a chain of crimes which literally saved reformism, and thereby prepared for the subsequent successes of Fascism. At this moment, when the enemy has already occupied important commanding posts, the question inevitably arises. Is it not too late to call for a regrouping of forces in order to repel the enemy? But first we must answer here another question, what does “too late” mean in the given instance? Must this be understood to mean that even the boldest turn about face on the road of revolutionary policy is no longer capable of radically changing the correlation or hope of achieving the necessary turn? These are two different questions.

Is It Too Late to Act?

We have in effect given an answer to the first already in what was said above. Even under the most favorable conditions for Hitler, he requires a long number of months – and what critical months! – in order to establish the hegemony of Fascism. If one takes into consideration the sharpness of the economic and political situation, the ominous character of the danger the proletariat is right up against, the frightful alarm of the workers, their numerousness, their exasperation, the presence of experienced fighting elements in their ranks, and the incomparable capacity of the German workers for organization and discipline, then the answer is clear: during those months which are needed by the Fascists in order to break down internal and external barrier’s and to intrench their dictatorship, the proletariat under correct leadership can come to power two and three times over again.

Two and a half years ago the Left Opposition insistently proposed that all the institutions and organizations of the Communist party from the Central Executive Committee to the smallest provincial nucleus should immediately turn to the parallel social democratic organizations with the concrete proposal for mutual action against the impending suppression of proletarian democracy. Had a struggle against the Nazis been built on this basis Hitler would not be Chancellor today and the Communist party would be occupying the leading place within the working class. But there is no return to the past. The consequences of the mistakes that have been perpetrated have succeeded in becoming political facts and compose at present a part of the objective background. The situation must be taken as it has been composed. It never need have been as bad as it is. But it is not hopeless. A political turn about face – but a real one, a bold one, an open one, one that is thought out from all sides – can completely save the situation and open up the road to victory.

Hitler needs time. A revival of trade and industry, should such become a fact, would not at all signify the strengthening of Fascism against the proletariat. Under the least betterment of the conjuncture, capital, which has been famished for profits, will feel the acute need for peace in the factories, and this will at once shift the correlation of forces in favor of the workers. In order that the economic struggle should from the very first steps merge with the political struggle, it is urgent that the Communists be at their posts, i.e., in the factories and within the trade unions. The social democratic leaders have announced that they desire an accord with Communist workers. Very well. Let the 300,000 workers who belong to the Red Trade Union Organization catch up the reformists on their own words and turn to the General German Trade Union Federation with the proposal to enter immediately into the free trade unions, as a fraction. One such step will bring a change into the self-esteem of the workers, and therefore into the entire political background.

Turn Depends On Party

However, is the turn itself possible? That is what the task reduces itself to at the present moment. The vulgarizers of Marx, gravitating towards fatalism, observe as a rule nothing on the political arena save objective causes. But, in effect, the more acute the class struggle becomes, the closer it draws to a catastrophe, the more often the key to the entire situation is entrusted to a given party and its leadership. At this moment the question is posed in this manner: If in its time the Stalinist bureaucracy has kept hard fast on the road of dull-witted ultimatism, despite the pressure of, say, ten political atmospheres, will it be capable of withstanding a pressure ten times greater, of one hundred atmospheres?

But maybe the masses will go into action of themselves, overturning the barriers of the apparatus after the manner in which the transport strike broke out in Berlin in November 1932? There is no ground, of course, for considering the spontaneous movement of the masses as being excluded. In order to become effective it must on this occasion surpass the Berlin strike, a hundred or two hundredfold in scope. The German proletariat is sufficiently powerful in order to sweep into such a movement even if hindered from above. But spontaneous movements are precisely so called because they originate without leadership. Whereas, our question touches the problem of what the party should do in order to give impetus to the mass movement, in order to help it attain its sweep, in order to take its place at the head and guarantee it victory ...

Today’s telegrams have brought news of a general strike in Luebeck in answer to the arrest of a social democratic official. This fact, if true, does not in the least rehabilitate the social democratic bureaucracy. But it inevitably condemns the Stalinists along with their theory of social Fascism. Only the development and the sharpening of the antagonism between the National Socialists and the social democrats can bring the Communists, after all the mistakes that were made, from out of isolation and open the road to revolution. But one must not hinder but assist this process which is ingrained in the logic of the relations themselves. The road to this lies through the bold policy of a united front.

Elections Can Decide Nothing

The March elections, at which the social democracy will clutch in order to paralyze the energy of the workers will in themselves resolve nothing, of course. If no major events occur up to the elections, which will transfer the question to another plane, then the Communist party should automatically receive an increase in votes. It will be incommensurably greater if the Communist party will this very day take upon itself the initative for a defensive united front. Yes, today the matters deal with defense! But the Communist party can ruin itself, if, in the wake of the social democracy, even though in different terms, it turns its electioneering agitation into a purely parliamentary hullabaloo, into a means of distracting the attention of the masses from their present impotence and from their preparing for the defense. The bold policy of the united front is at this moment the only correct basis for the election campaign as well.

Again, are there enough forces in the Communist party for the turn? Will the Communist workers have enough energy and resolution to help the pressure of one hundred atmospheres beat its way into bureaucratic skulls? No matter how offensive such an acknowledgment may be, that is precisely how the question is posed at present ...

The above lines were written when we learned, after the inevitable delay, from the German newspapers, that Moscow at last has given the signal for alarm to the C.E.C. of the German Communist Party: the time has come for an accord with the social democracy No confirmation of this news is at hand but it smacks of the truth ever, the Stalinist bureaucracy commands a turn about face only after the events deal the working class (in the U.S.S.R. in China in England, in Germany) a blow on the head. When the Fascist Chancellor trains his machine guns at the temples of the proletariat bound hand and foot, then and only then is the presidium of the Comintern struck with an inspiration: the time has come to untie the ropes.

Party Democracy and the Turn

It goes without saying that the Left Opposition will take its stand with both feet on the ground of this belated acknowledgment and will try to squeeze from it everything that is possible for the victory of the proletariat. But while so doing, the Left Opposition will not for a moment forget that the turn of the Comintern is a purely empirical zigzag, performed in the due course of panic. The individuals who equated social democracy with Fascism are capable, in the process of struggle with Fascism, of going over into idealisation of the social democracy. We must vigilantly keep watch to preserve the complete political independence of Communism; to coordinate the blows organizationally, but not to mix the banners; to maintain absolute loyalty in our relations with our ally but to keep an eye on him, as our enemy of tomorrow. [1]

* * * *

Should the Stalinist faction really put in effect the turn that is dictated by every phase of the situation, the Left Opposition, of course, will take its place in the common ranks of battle. But the confidence of the masses in this turn will be all the greater the more democratically it is achieved. Thaelmann’s speeches or manifestos of the Central Executive Committee are much too little for the present sweep of events. What is needed is the voice of the party. There is no other way of returning the confluence of the party in itself, and of deepening the confidence of the workers in the party! The Congress must take place within two or three weeks, not later than the opening of the Reichstag (if the Reichstag will be convened at all).

The program of action is clear and simple:

What is at stake is the head of the working class, the head of the Communist International and – let us not forget it – the head of the Soviet Republic!

Prinkipo, February 5, 1933

L. Trotsky


1. In the light, of recent events and against the background of the tragic mistakes of the Stalinists, the anecdote of the capitulation of Wels and others is comparable to the appearance of clowns in Shakespeare’s tragedies. These gentleman announced yesterday that (a) the danger of Fascism is liquidated, thanks to the correct policy of the party; (b) the policy of the united front, permissible in the past, from now on is become counter-revolutionary. On the day after these confessions Hitler assumed power and Stalin announced that the policy of the united front, counter-revolutionary in the past, from now on becomes necessary.

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Last updated on: 3 September 2015