Leon Trotsky

The Tragedy of
the German Proletariat

(March 1933)

Written: 14 March 1933.
Source: The Militant, Vol. VI No. 22, 8 April, pp. 1 & 4. (Another version here.)
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 most powerful proletariat of Europe, by its place in production, its social weight, the strength of its organizations, has manifested no resistance since the arrival of Hitler to power and the first violent attacks against the workers’ organizations. This is the fact on which one must base all future strategical calculations.

It would be patently stupid to believe that the subsequent evolution of Germany will go the Italian road; that Hitler will strengthen his domination step by step without serious resistance; that German Fascism will enjoy long years of domination. No, the further fate of National Socialism will have to be drawn from the analysis of the German and international conditions, and not from purely historical analogies. But this much is already evident: If from September 1930 onwards we demanded of the Communist International a short range policy in Germany, it is now necessary to work out a long range policy. Before the decisive battle is possible, the proletarian vanguard will have to reorient itself, that is to say, it will have to understand what has happened, distribute the responsibilities for the great historic; defeat, trace out the new road, and in this manner regain confidence in itself.

The criminal role of the social democracy requires no commentary: the Communist International was created fourteen years ago precisely in order to snatch the proletariat from the demoralizing influence of the social democracy. If it has not succeeded up to the present time, if the German proletariat found itself impotent, disarmed and paralyzed at the moment of the greatest historical test, the direct and immediate blame falls upon the leadership of the post-Leninist Comintern. There is the first conclusion that must immediately be drawn.

Under the perfidious blows of the Stalinist bureaucracy, the Left Opposition maintained to the very end its fidelity to the official party. The Bolshevik-Leninists now share the fate of all the other Communist organizations: the militants of our cadres are arrested, our publications forbidden, our literature confiscated. Hitler even hurried to suspend the Bulletin of the Opposition appearing in the Russian language. But if, together with the whole proletarian vanguard, the Bolshevik-Leninists bear the consequences of the first serious victory of Fascism, they cannot and will not bear even a shadow of the responsibility for the official policy of the Comintern.

Since 1923, that is, since the beginning of the struggle against the Left Opposition, the Stalinist leadership, even if indirectly, assisted the social democracy with all its strength to derail, to befuddle, to enfeeble the German proletariat: it halted, it curbed the workers when the conditions dictated a courageous revolutionary offensive; it proclaimed the approach of the revolutionary situation when it had already passed it by; it worked up agreements with petty bourgeois phrasemonger’s and windbags; it limped impotently at the tail of the social democracy under cover of the policy of the united front; it proclaimed the “third period,” and the struggle for the conquest of the streets under conditions of a political ebb and of weakness of the Communist party; it replaced the serious struggle by leaps, adventures or parades; it isolated the Communists from the mass trade unions; it identified the social democracy with Fascism and rejected the united front with the mass workers’ organizations in face of the aggressive bands of the National Socialists; it sabotaged the slightest initiative for the united front for local defense, at the same time it systematically deceived the workers as to the real relationship of forces, distorted the facts, passed off friends as enemies and enemies as friends – and drew the noose tighter and tighter around the neck of the party, not permitting it to breathe freely any longer, nor to speak, nor to think. Out of the vast literature devoted to the question of Fascism it is enough to refer to the speech of Thaelmann, official leader of the German Communist Party, who, at the Plenum of the Executive of the Comintern in April 1931, denounced the “pessimists”, that is, those who knew how to foresee, in the following terms:

“We have not allowed the moods of panic to rout us ... We have soberly and firmly established the fact that September 14, 1930, was in a certain sense Hitler’s best day, and that afterwards will come not better days but worse. This evaluation which we have given to the development of this party is confirmed by the events ... Today, the Fascists have no more grounds for laughing.”

Referring to the creation by the social democracy of defense groups, Thaelmann demonstrated in the same speech that these groups differ in no respect from the shock troops of the National Socialists and that both of them are preparing in parallel formation to annihilate Communism.

Today, Thaelmann is arrested. Faced by the triumphant reaction, the Bolshevik-Leninists are in the same ranks as Thaelmann. But the policy of Thaelmann is the policy of Stalin, that is, the official policy of the Comintern. It is precisely this policy which is the cause of the complete demoralization of the party at the moment of danger, when the leaders lose their heads, when the party members, disaccustomed from thinking, fall prostrate, when the principal historic positions are surrendered without a fight. A false political theory bears within itself its own punishment. The strength and the obstinacy of the apparatus only augment the dimensions of the catastrophe.

Having surrendered to the enemy everything that could be surrendered in such a short space of time, the Stalinists are trying to rectify the past by means of convulsive acts which only increasingly clarify the whole chain of crimes committed by them. Now that the press of the Communist party is stifled, that the apparatus is destroyed, that the bloody pennant of Fascism waves with impunity over the Karl Liebknecht House, the Executive Committee of the Comintern is starting out on the road of the united front not only from below but also from above. The new zigzag, sharper than all that preceded it, has not, however, been effected under the impulsion of the Executive itself; the Stalinist bureaucracy has abandoned the initiative to the Second International. The latter has succeeded in taking hold of the weapon of the united front, of which it has been in mortal dread up to now. To the extent that it is possible to speak of political advantages under the conditions of a panicky retreat, they are to be found exclusively on the side of reformism. Forced to reply to a direct question, the Stalinist bureaucracy chose the worst way: it does not reject an entente of the two Internationals, but neither does it accept it; it plays hide and seek. It has come to such a lack of self-confidence, to such degradation, that it no longer dares to show itself to the world proletariat face to face with the leaders of the Second International, the branded agents of the bourgeoisie, the electors of Hindenburg who blazed the trail of Fascism.

In a special appeal of the Executive on March 5: To the Workers of All Countries, the Stalinists do not say a word about social-Fascism as the main enemy. They no longer speak about the great discovery of their leader: “The social democracy and Fascism are not antipodes but twins.” They no longer insist on saying that the struggle against Fascism demands as a preliminary the defeat of the social democracy. They do not breathe a word about the inadmissibility of the united front from above. On the contrary, they carefully enumerate those eases in the past where the Stalinist bureaucracy, unexpectedly for the workers and for itself, found itself forced to improvize proposals for the united front to the reformist summits. Thus do artificial, false and charlatanesque theories founder in the fury of the historical tempest.

“Taking into account the peculiarities of each country” and of the impossibility, which allegedly flows from them, of organizing the united front on an international scale (the struggle against “exceptionalism”, that is, the theory of the Right wingers on national peculiarities, is suddenly forgotten), the Stalinist bureaucracy recommends to the national Communist parties to address proposals for a united front to the “Central Committees of the social democratic parties”. Only yesterday this was proclaimed a capitulation to social-Fascism! Thus do all the great lessons of Stalinism for the last four years fly under the table into the wash-basket. This is a whole political system reduced to dust.

Matters do not rest there: having declared for the moment the impossibility of the conditions for a united front on the international arena, the Executive immediately forgets it and no more than twenty lines further on it formulates the conditions under which the united front is admissible and acceptable in all countries, in spite of the difference in national conditions. The retreat before Fascism is followed by a panic-stricken retreat from the theoretical commandments of Stalinism. Chips and fragments of ideas and principles are thrown out along the road like so much ballast.

The conditions for the united front put by the Comintern for all the countries (committees of action against Fascism, demonstrations and strikes against wage reductions) present nothing new, on the contrary, they are the schematicized and bureaucratized reproduction of the slogans that the Left Opposition formulated much more clearly and concretely two and a half years ago and for which it was registered in the camp of social-Fascism. The united front on such bases could yield decisive results in Germany; but for that end it should have been carried out in time. Time is an important factor in politics.

What is therefore the practical value now of the proposals of the Executive? For Germany, it is at a minimum. The policy of the united front assumes a “front”, that is, stable positions and a centralized leadership. The Left Opposition put forth the conditions for the united front as conditions for an active defense with the perspective of passing over to the offensive. Now, the German proletariat has reached the state of a disorderly retreat, without even rearguard battles. In this situation, voluntary unions of Communist and social democratic workers may and will be realized for various episodic tasks, but the systematic realization of the united front is inexorably thrust back for an indeterminate future. There must be no illusions on this score.

About fifteen months ago, we wrote that the key to the situation is in the hands of the German Communist Party. The Stalinist bureaucracy has now lost this key out of its hands. Great events outside of the will of the party will be necessary to give the workers the possibility of drawing up short, of fortifying themselves, of rebuilding their ranks and of passing over to an active defensive. When this will occur, we have no way of knowing with precision. Perhaps much quicker than the triumphant counter-revolution hopes. But in any case, it is not those who issued the manifesto of the Executive who will direct the policy of the united front in Germany.

If the central position has surrendered, one must fortify oneself In the approaches, one must prepare points of support for the future offensive. This preparation signifies, inside of Germany, the critical clarification of the past, support to the vigorous spirit of the vanguard of the militants, their reassembly, the organization of rearguard combats wherever it is possible waiting meanwhile for the moment when the various fighting groups will draw together into a great army. This preparation signifies at the same time the defense of the proletarian positions in the countries closely connected with Germany, or located right near it: in Austria, in Czechoslovakia, in Poland, in the Baltic countries, in Scandinavia, in Belgium, in Holland, in France and in Switzerland. Fascist Germany must be surrounded by a powerful circle of proletarian fortifications. Without for an instant ceasing the attempts to halt the disorderly retreat of the German workers, it is necessary forthwith to create fortified proletarian positions around the frontiers of Germany for the struggle against Fascism.

In the first rank comes Austria, which is immediately threatened by the Fascist cataclysm. One can say with certitude that if the Austrian proletariat were to seize power now and transform its country into a revolutionary battleground, Austria would become for the revolution of the German proletariat what Piedmont was for the revolution of the Italian bourgeoisie. It cannot be predicted how far the Austrian proletariat, pushed forward by the events but paralyzed by the reformist bureaucracy, will advance along this road. The task of Communism is to help the events against Austro-Marxism. The policy of the united front is one of the means. The conditions which the manifesto of the Executive takes over so tardily from the Left Opposition thus retain all their force.

However, the policy of the united front embraces within itself not only advantages but also dangers. It easily gives birth to combinations between leaders behind the back of the masses, to a passive adaptation to the ally, to opportunist vacillations. This danger cannot be warded off save under the condition of two express guarantees: the maintenance of full freedom of criticism of the ally and the re-establishment of the full freedom of criticism within the ranks of one’s own party. To refuse to criticize one’s allies leads directly and immediately to capitulation to reformism. The policy of the united front without party democracy, that is, without the control of the apparatus by the party, leaves the leaders a free hand for the opportunist experience which supplement the adventurist experiences.

How has the Executive acted in this case? Dozens of times the Left Opposition predicted that under the blows of events, the Stalinists will be compelled to recoil from their ultra-Leftism and that, placing themselves on the road of the united front, they will commence to commit all the opportunist treason which they attributed to us only yesterday. This time too the prediction has been realized literally.

In making a dizzying swing towards the positions of the united front, the Executive tramples upon the fundamental guarantees which alone can assure a revolutionary content to the policy of the united front. The Stalinists take into consideration and accept the hypocritical and diplomatic claims of the reformists to a so-called “mutual non-aggression”. Breaking with all the traditions of Marxism and of Bolshevism, they recommend to the Communist parties, in case the united front is realized, to “abandon all attacks against the social democratic organizations during the joint action.” That’s just what it says: To abandon all attacks (!) upon the social democracy (what a shameful formula!) means to abandon the freedom of political criticism, that is, the principal function of the revolutionary party.

The capitulation is engendered not by practical necessity but by the panicky state of mind. The reformists come and will come to an agreement to the extent that the pressure of events and the pressure of the masses force them to. The demand for “non-aggression” is blackmail, that is, an attempt of the reformist leaders to extort an auxiliary advantage. To submit to blackmail means to build up the united front upon rotten foundations and to give the reformist business men the possibility of blowing it up under some arbitrary pretext or another.

Criticism in general, all the more so under the conditions of the united front, should obviously correspond, to the real relationships and preserve the necessary proportions. The absurdities about “social-Fascism” must be refuted: It is a concession not to the social democracy but to Marxism. It is not for the treachery of 1918 but for its evil work in 1933 that the ally must be criticized. But criticism, like political life itself, of which criticism is the voice, cannot be halted for an hour. If what the Communists disclose corresponds to the reality, they serve the purposes of the united front, pushing forward the provisional ally and, what is more important, giving a revolutionary education to the whole proletariat. To abandon this fundamental duty is the first stage in that criminal and shameful policy which Stalin foisted upon the Chinese Communists with regard to the Kuo Min Tang.

Matters stand no better with regard to the second guarantee. Having denounced criticism of the social democracy, the Stalinist apparatus does not even think of giving the right of criticism to the members of its own party. The turn itself is effected, as is the custom, after the manner of a bureaucratic revelation. Not a single national congress, no international congress, nor even a plenum of the Executive, no preparation in the press of the party, no analysis of the policy of the past. And there is nothing astounding in this: at the very first steps in a discussion in the party, each thinking worker would ask the functionaries: why have the Bolshevik-Leninists been expelled from all the sections and why are they subjected in the USSR to arrests, to deportation and to firing squads? Is it only because they dig deeper and see further? The Stalinist bureaucracy cannot permit such a conclusion. It is capable of no matter what flop or turn, but to present itself honestly before the workers, to face the Bolshevik-Leninists – that’s something it cannot and does not dare to do. Thus, in the struggle for its own preservation, the apparatus depreciates its new turn by undermining in advance the confidence in it not only of the social democratic workers but also of the Communists.

The publication of the manifesto of the Executive is accompanied by yet another circumstance, extraneous to the question we are examining, but which throws an exceedingly glaring light on the present position of the C.I. and on the attitude of the leading Stalinist group towards it. In Pravda of March 6, the manifesto is published not as a direct and open appeal of the Executive of the Comintern situated in Moscow – as was always the case – but as the translation of a document from l’Humanité, transmitted from Paris by the telegraphic agency Tass. What a stupid and humiliating ruse! After all the successes, after the realization of the first Five Year Plan, after the “disappearance of the classes”, after “the entry into socialism”, the Stalinist bureaucracy no longer dares to publish in its own name the manifesto of the Executive of the Communist International – that’s how it feels itself on the international arena.

The manifesto is not the sole reply to the initiative of the Second International. Through the intermediary of paper organizations – the revolutionary trade union oppositions (R.G.O.) of Germany and Poland, the Anti-Fascist alliance and the so-called Italian General Confederation of Labor, the Communist International is convening for the mouth of April a “Pan-European Workers’ Anti-Fascist Congress”. The list of those invited, as is proper, is confused and vast: factories (they say “factories”, although by the efforts of Stalin-Losovsky the Communists have been ousted from practically all the factories in the world), local labor organizations, revolutionary, reformist, Catholic, belonging to a party or not, sports, anti-Fascist and peasant organizations. And more: “We wish also to invite all those individuals who are really fighting for the cause of the workers.” Having compromised for a long time the cause of the masses, the strategists appeal to the “individuals”, to those hermits who have found no place in the ranks of the masses but who, just the same, “are really fighting for the cause of the workers – Barbusse and General Schoenaich will once more be mobilized to save Europe from Hitler.

Here we have a ready-made libretto for one of those charlatanesque presentations with which the Stalinists are in the habit of masking their impotence. What has the Amsterdam bloc of the Centrists and the pacifists accomplished in the struggle against the aggression of the Japanese bandits China? Nothing. Out of respect for Stalinist “neutrality”, the pacifists have not even issued a manifesto of protest. Now a new edition of the Amsterdam Congress is being prepared, not against war but against Fascism. What will the anti-Fascist bloc of vacated “factories” and impotent “individuals” do? Nothing. It will issue a hollow manifesto, if, as a matter of fact, things go this time as far as the holding of a Congress. The tendency towards individuals has two faces: opportunistic and adventurist. The Russian Social Revolutionists in the old days extended the Right hand to the liberals and held a bomb in the Left hand. The experience of the last ten years attests that after every great tragic defeat provoked or at least aggravated by the policy of the Comintern, the Stalinist bureaucracy sought implacably to refurbish its reputation with the aid of some grandiose adventure or another (Esthonia, Bulgaria, Canton). Doesn’t this danger exist now too? In any case, we deem it necessary to raise a voice of warning. Adventures which aim to replace the action of the paralyzed masses, disorganize the masses still more and aggravate the catastrophe.

The conditions of the present world situation, as well as the conditions of each country in particular, are just as deadly for the social democracy as they are favorable to the revolutionary party. But the Stalinist bureaucracy has succeeded in converting the crisis of capitalism and of reformism into a crisis of Communism. Such is the balance sheet of the uncontrolled command of the epigones for the last ten years.

Hypocrites will be found to say: The Opposition is criticizing the party which has fallen into the hands of the executioner. Blackguards will add: The Opposition is helping the executioner. By combining a specious sentimentalism with venomous falsehood, the Stalinists will endeavor to hide the Central Committee behind the apparatus, the apparatus behind the party, to eliminate the question of responsibility for the catastrophe, for the false strategy, for the disastrous regime, for the criminal leadership: that means helping the executioners of yesterday and today.

The policy of the Stalinist bureaucracy in China was no less disastrous than it is at the present time in Germany. But there the affair took place behind the back of the world proletariat, under conditions which were incomprehensible to it. The critical voice of the Opposition hardly reached beyond the USSR to the workers of the other countries. The Chinese experience went practically unpunished for the Stalinist apparatus. In Germany, it is entirely different. All the stages of the drama developed before the eyes of the world proletariat. At each stage, the Opposition raised its voice. The whole course of development was announced in advance. The Stalinist bureaucracy calumniated the Opposition, imputed to it ideas and plans alien to it, expelled all those who dared to speak of the united front, helped the social democratic bureaucracy demolish the united local defense committees, cut the workers off from the slightest possibility of emerging upon the road of the mass struggle, disorganized the vanguard, paralyzed the proletariat. In this way, opposing the united front of defense with the social democracy, the Stalinists found themselves with the latter in a united front of panic and of capitulation.

And now, finding itself right in front of ruin, the leadership of the Comintern fears light and criticism more than anything else. Let the world revolution go lost, provided that vain prestige may live: the bankrupts sow confusion and smear up the traces. The fact that the Communist Party of Germany lost “only” 1,200,000 votes at the first blow, with a general rise in the number of voters of from three to four millions, is proclaimed by Pravda as an “enormous political victory”. In the same way, in 1924, Stalin proclaimed as an “enormous victory” the fact that the workers in Germany, who were withdrawing without battle, had still given the Communist party 3,000,000 votes. If the proletariat, deceived and disarmed by both apparatuses, has this time given the Communist party almost five million votes, this signifies only that it would have given it twice or three times that number if it had been able to show that it is capable of taking and holding the power. But it gave the proletariat nothing save confusion, zigzags, defeats and distress.

Yes, five million Communists still succeeded in reaching the ballot box, one by one. But in the factories and on the streets, there aren’t any. They are disconcerted, dispersed, demoralized. Under the yoke of the apparatus, they have lost the habit of independence. The bureaucratic terror of Stalinism has paralyzed their will-power before the turn came for the terror of the Fascist bands.

It must be said clearly, plainly, openly: Stalinism in Germany has had its August 4th. From today on, the advanced workers of this country will speak of the period of the domination of the Stalinist bureaucracy only with a burning sense of shame, only with words of hatred and curses. The official German Communist Party is doomed. From now on it will only decompose, crumble and melt into the void. German Communism can be reborn only on a new basis and with a new leadership.

The law of unequal development acts also upon the fate of Stalinism. In the various countries, it finds itself in different stages of decomposition. To what degree the tragic experience of Germany will serve as an impulsion to the rebirth of the other sections of the Comintern – the future will show. In Germany in any case the swan song of the Stalinist bureaucracy has been sung. The German proletariat will rise again, Stalinism never. Under the terrible blows of the enemy, the advanced German workers will have to build up a new party. The Bolshevik-Leninists will give all their forces to this work.

Prinkipo, March 14, 1933

Leon Trotsky

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