Leon Trotsky

Against National Communism!
(Lessons of the “Red Referendum”)

(August 1931)

Written in exile in Turkey, August 25, 1931.
Printed in the Bulletin of the Opposition, No. 24, September 1931.
Alternative translation published in The Militant, Vol. IV No. 24, 19 September 1931, p. 4, Vol. IV No. 25, 26 September 1931, p. 4 and Vol. IV No. 26, 10 October 1931, p. 4.

Alternative translation: The Militant, Vol. IV No. 24, 19 September 1931, p. 4.

When these lines reach the reader, they will, perhaps, in one section or another, be out of date. Through the efforts of the Stalinist apparatus and the friendly collaboration of all the bourgeois governments, the author of these lines is placed in such circumstances under which he can react to political events only after a delay of several weeks. To this must also be added that the author is obliged to rely on far from complete information. The reader should bear this in mind. But even from the extremely unfavorable circumstances, we must attempt to extract at least some advantage. Unable to react to events in all their concreteness, from day to day, the author is compelled to concentrate his attention on the basic points and the central questions. This is where the justification lies for this work.

How Everything is Turned Upon Its Head

The mistakes of the German Communist Party on the question of the plebiscite are among those which will become clearer as time passes, and will finally enter into the textbooks of revolutionary strategy as an example of what should not be done.

In the conduct of the Central Committee of the German Communist Party, everything is wrong: the evaluation of the situation is incorrect, the immediate aim incorrectly posed, the means to achieve it incorrectly chosen. Along the way, the leadership of the party succeeded in overthrowing all those “principles” which it advocated during recent years.

On July 21, the Central Committee addressed itself to the Prussian government with the demand for democratic and social concessions, threatening otherwise to come out for the referendum. Advancing its demands, the Stalinist bureaucracy actually addressed itself to the upper stratum of the Social Democratic Party with the proposal for a united front against the fascists under certain conditions. When the Social Democracy rejected the proposed conditions, the Stalinists formed a united front with the fascists against the Social Democracy. This means that the policy of the united front is conducted not only “from below” but also “from above.” It means that Thälmann is permitted to address himself to Braun and Severing I with an “open letter” on the joint defense of democracy and social legislation from Hitler’s bands. In this manner these people, without even noticing what they were doing, threw overboard their metaphysics on the united front “only from below,” by means of the most stupid and most scandalous experiment of the united front only from the top, unexpectedly for the masses and against their will.

If the Social Democracy is a variety of fascism, then how can one officially make a demand to social fascists for a joint defense of democracy? Once on the road of the referendum, the party bureaucracy did not put any conditions to the National Socialists. Why? If the Social Democrats and the National Socialists are only shades of fascism, then why can conditions be put to the Social Democracy and not to the National Socialists? Or perhaps between these two “varieties” there exist certain very important qualitative differences as regards the social base and the method of deceiving the masses? But then, do not call both of them fascists, because names in politics serve in order to differentiate and not in order to throw everything into the same heap.

Is it true, however, that Thälmann entered a united front with Hitler? The Communist bureaucracy called the referendum of Thälmann “red,” in contrast to the black or brown plebiscite of Hitler. That the matter is concerned with two mortally hostile parties is naturally beyond doubt, and all the falsehoods of the Social Democracy will not compel the workers to forget it. But a fact remains a fact: in a certain campaign, the Stalinist bureaucracy involved the revolutionary workers in a united front with the National Socialists against the Social Democracy. If one could designate his party adherence on the ballots, then the referendum would at least have the justification (in the given instance, absolutely insufficient politically) that it would have permitted a count of its forces and by that itself, separate them from the forces of fascism. But German “democracy” did not trouble in its time to provide for participants in referendums the right to designate their parties. All the voters are fused into one inseparable mass which, on a definite question, gives one and the same answer. Within the limits of this question, the united front with the fascists is an indubitable fact.

Thus, between midnight and dawn everything appeared to be turned on its head.

“United Front,” But With Whom?

What political aim did the leadership of the Communist Party pursue with its turn? The more you read the official documents and speeches of the leaders, the less you understand this aim. The Prussian government we are told, is paving the road for fascism. This is absolutely correct. The federal government of Brüning [2], the leaders of the Communist Party add, has actually been fascisizing the republic and has already accomplished a lot of work on this road. Absolutely correct, we reply to this. “But you see, without the Prussian Braun, the federal Brüning cannot maintain himself!” the Stalinists say. This, too, is correct, we reply. Up to this point we are in complete accord. But what political conclusions flow from this? We have not the slightest ground for supporting Braun’s government, for taking even a shadow of responsibility for it before the masses, or even for weakening by one iota our political struggle against the government of Brüning and its Prussian agency. But we have still less ground for helping the fascists to replace the government of Brüning-Braun. For, if we quite justly accuse the Social Democracy of paving the road for fascism, then our own task can least of all consist of shortening this road for fascism.

The circular letter of the Central Committee of the German Communist Party to all units on July 27 most mercilessly lays bare the inconsistency of the leadership, because it is the product of a collective elaboration of the question. The essence of the letter, liberated from confusion and contradictions, is reduced to this, that in the final analysis, there is no difference between the Social Democrats and the fascists, that is, that there is no difference between the enemy who deceives and betrays the workers, taking advantage of their patience, and the enemy who simply wants to kill them off. Sensing the absurdity of such an identification, the authors of the circular letter suddenly make a turn and present the red referendum as the “decisive application of the policy of united front from below [!] with respect to the Social Democratic, the Christian, and the nonparty workers.” In what way the intervention in the plebiscite alongside of the fascists, against the Social Democracy and the party of the Center [3], is an application of the policy of the united front towards the Social Democratic and Christian workers, will not be understood by any proletarian mind. The reference is evidently to those Social Democratic workers who, breaking from their party, participated in the referendum. How many of them? By the policy of the united front, one should at least understand a common action, not with the workers who have left the Social Democracy, but with those who remain in its ranks. Unfortunately, there are still a great number of them.

The Question of the Relation of Forces

The only phrase in Thälmann’s speech of July 24 that resembles a serious motivation of the turn is as follows: “The red referendum, by utilizing the possibilities of legal, parliamentary mass action, represents a step forward in the direction of the extra-parliamentary mobilization of the masses.” If these words have any sense at all, it is only the following: we take the parliamentary vote as the point of departure for our general revolutionary offensive, in order to overthrow the government of the Social Democracy and the parties of the golden mean allied with it by legal means, and in order afterwards, by the pressure of the revolutionary masses, to overthrow fascism, which is attempting to become the heir to the Social Democracy. In other words: the Prussian referendum only plays the role of a springboard for the revolutionary leap. Yes, as a springboard, the plebiscite would have been fully justified. Whether the fascists vote together with the Communists or not would lose all significance at the moment when the proletariat, by its pressure, overthrows the fascists and takes the power into its own hands. For a springboard, one can make use of any planks, the plank of the referendum included. Only, the possibility of actually making the jump must be there, not in words but in deeds. The problem is consequently reduced to the relationship of forces. To come out into the streets with the slogan “Down with the Brüning-Braun government” at a time when, according to the relationship of forces, it can only be replaced by a government of Hitler-Hugenberg [4], is the sheerest adventurism. The same slogan, however, assumes an altogether different meaning if it becomes an introduction to the direct struggle of the proletariat itself for power. In the first instance, the Communists would appear in the eyes of the masses as the aids of reaction; but in the second instance, the question of how the fascists voted before they were crushed by the proletariat would have lost all political significance.

Consequently, we consider the coincidence of voting with the fascists not from the point of view of some abstract principle, but from the point of view of the actual struggle of the classes for power, and the relationship of forces at a given stage of this struggle.

Let Us Look Back at the Russian Experience

It may be regarded as incontestable that at the moment of the proletarian uprising, the difference between the Social Democratic bureaucracy and the fascists will actually be reduced to a minimum, if not to zero. In the October days, the Russian Mensheviks and SRs fought against the proletariat hand in hand with the Cadets, Kornilovists, and monarchists. [5] The Bolsheviks left the pre-parliament in October and went into the streets to call the masses to the armed uprising. If, simultaneously with the Bolsheviks, some kind of a monarchist group, let us say, had also left the pre-parliament in those days, this would not have had any political significance because the monarchists were overthrown together with the democracy.

The party came to the October uprising, however, through a series of stages. At the time of the April 1917 demonstration, a section of the Bolsheviks brought out the slogan: “Down with the provisional government” The Central Committee immediately straightened out the ultra-leftists. Of course, we should popularize the necessity of overthrowing the provisional government; but to call the workers into the streets under that slogan – this we cannot do, for we ourselves are a minority in the working class. If we overthrow the provisional government under these conditions, we will not be able to take its place, and consequently we will help the counter-revolution. We must patiently explain to the masses the anti-popular character of this government, before the hour for its overthrow has struck. Such was the position of the party.

During the next period, the slogan of the party ran: “Down with the capitalist ministers” This demanded of the Social Democracy that it break its coalition with the bourgeoisie. In July, we led a demonstration of workers and soldiers under the slogan “All power to the soviets!” which meant at that time: all power to the Mensheviks and SRs. The Mensheviks and the SRs together with the White Guards [6] crushed us.

Two months later, Kornilov rose against the provisional government. In the struggle against Kornilov, the Bolsheviks now occupied the frontline positions. Lenin was then in hiding. Thousands of Bolsheviks were in the jails. The workers, soldiers, and sailors demanded the liberation of their leaders and of the Bolsheviks in general. The provisional government refused. Should not the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks have addressed an ultimatum to the government of Kerensky [7] – free the Bolsheviks immediately and withdraw the disgraceful accusation of service to the Hohenzollerns [8] – and, in the event of Kerensky’s refusal, have refused to fight against Kornilov? This is probably how the Central Committee of Thälmann-Remmele-Neumann [9] would have acted. But this is not how the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks acted. Lenin wrote at the time: “It would have been the most profound error to think that the revolutionary proletariat is capable, so to speak, out of ‘revenge’ upon the SRs and Mensheviks for their support of the crushing of the Bolsheviks, the assassinations on the front, and the disarming of the workers, of ‘refusing’ to support them against the counterrevolution. Such a way of putting the question would have meant first of all, the carrying over of petty-bourgeois conceptions of morality into the proletariat (because for the good of the cause the proletariat will always support not only the vacillating petty bourgeoisie but also the big bourgeoisie); in the second place, it would have been – and this is most important – a petty-bourgeois attempt to cast a shadow, by ‘moralizing,’ over the political essence of the matter.”

If we had not repulsed Kornilov in August, and had thereby facilitated his victory, he would first have annihilated the flower of the working class and consequently would have hindered our winning victory two months later over the conciliators and punishing them – not in words but in deeds – for their historic crimes.

It is precisely “petty-bourgeois moralizing” which Thälmann & Co. engage in when, in justification of their own turn, they begin to enumerate the countless infamies committed by the leaders of the Social Democracy.

With Blown-Out Lantern

Historical analogies are only analogies. It is not possible to speak of identical conditions and tasks. But in the relative language of analogies, we may ask: at the time of the referendum in Germany, was the question that of defense against the Kornilov danger or, indeed, of the overthrow of the whole bourgeois order by the proletariat? This question is not decided by bare principles, nor by polemical formulas, but by the relation of forces. With what care and conscientiousness the Bolsheviks studied, counted, and measured the relation of forces at every new stage of the revolution! Did the leadership of the German Communist Party attempt, when it entered into the struggle, to draw the preliminary balance of the struggling forces? Neither in articles nor in speeches do we find such a balance. Like their teacher Stalin, the Berlin pupils conduct politics with blown-out lanterns.

His considerations on the decisive question of the relation of forces are reduced by Thälmann to two or three general phrases. “We no longer live in 1923,” he said in his report; “the Communist Party is at present the party of many millions, which grows at a furious pace.” And this is all! Thälmann could not show more clearly the extent to which an understanding of the difference between the situations of 1923 and 1931 is foreign to him! Then, the Social Democracy was breaking up into bits. The workers who had not successfully broken away from the ranks of the Social Democracy turned their eyes hopefully in the direction of the Communist Party. Then, fascism represented to a far greater degree a scarecrow in the garden of the bourgeoisie, rather than a serious political reality. The influence of the Communist Party on the trade unions and the factory committees was incomparably greater in 1923 than it is today. The factory committees were then actually carrying out the basic functions of soviets. The Social Democratic bureaucracy in the trade unions was losing ground from under its feet every day.

The fact that the situation in 1923 was not utilized by the opportunist leadership of the Comintern and the German Communist Party still lives in the consciousness of the classes and the parties, and in the mutual relationships between them. The Communist Party, Thälmann says, is the party of millions. We are very glad of that; we are very proud of it But we do not forget that the Social Democracy still remains the party of millions. We do not forget that thanks to the horrible chain of epigone mistakes of 1923-1931, the present Social Democracy displays far greater powers of resistance than the Social Democracy of 1923. We do not forget that present-day fascism, nursed and reared by the betrayals of the Social Democracy and the mistakes of the Stalinist bureaucracy, presents a tremendous obstacle on the road to the seizure of power by the proletariat The Communist Party is the party of millions. But thanks to the former strategy of the “third period,” the period of concentrated bureaucratic stupidity, the Communist Party is still extremely weak today in the trade unions and in the factory committees. The struggle for power cannot be led by merely leaning on the votes of a referendum. One must have support in the factories, in the shops, in the trade unions, and in the factory committees. AR this is forgotten by Thälmann, who substitutes strong words for an analysis of the situation.

To contend that in July-August 1931 the German Communist Party was so powerful that it could enter into an open struggle with bourgeois society, as embodied in both its flanks, the Social Democracy and fascism, could be done only by a man who has fallen from the moon. The party bureaucracy itself does not think so. If it resorts to such an argument it is only because the plebiscite failed and consequently it was not put to the further test It is precisely in this irresponsibility, in this blindness, in this unscrupulous pursuit of effects, that the adventurist half of the soul of Stalinist centrism finds its expression!

The Militant, Vol. IV No. 25, 26 September 1931, p. 4.

“The People’s Revolution” Instead of the Proletarian Revolution

Such a “sudden,” at first sight, zigzag (of July 21) did not at all fall like a thunderbolt from the clear sky, but was prepared by the whole course of the past period. That the German Communist Party is governed by a sincere and burning aspiration to conquer the fascists, to break the masses away from their influence, to overthrow fascism and to crush it – of this, it is understood, there can be no doubt. But the trouble is that as time goes on, the Stalinist bureaucracy strives more and more to act against fascism with its own weapon, borrowing the colors of its political palette, and trying to outshout it at the auction of patriotism. These are not the methods of principled class politics but the methods of petty-bourgeois competition.

It is difficult for one to imagine a more shameful capitulation in principle than the fact that the Stalinist bureaucracy has substituted for the slogan of the proletarian revolution the slogan of the people’s revolution. No cunning stratagems, no play on quotations, no historical falsifications, will alter the fact that this is a betrayal in principle of Marxism, with the object of the very best imitation of fascist charlatanism. I am compelled here to repeat what I wrote on this question several months ago: “It is understood that every great revolution is a people’s or a national revolution, in the sense that it unites around the revolutionary class all the virile and creative forces of the nation and reconstructs the nation around a new core. But this is not a slogan, it is a sociological description of the revolution, which requires, moreover, precise and concrete definition. As a slogan, it is inane and charlatanism, market competition with the fascists, paid for at the price of injecting confusion into the minds of the workers ... The fascist Strasser says 95 percent of the people are interested in the revolution, consequently it is not a class revolution but a people’s revolution. Thälmann sings in chorus. In reality, the worker-Communist should say to the fascist worker: of course, 95 percent of the population, if not 98 percent is exploited by finance capital. But this exploitation is organized hierarchically: there are exploiters, there are subexploiters, sub-subexploiters, etc. Only thanks to this hierarchy do the superexploiters keep in subjection the majority of the nation. In order that the nation should indeed be able to reconstruct itself around a new class core, it must be reconstructed ideologically and this can be achieved only if the proletariat does not dissolve itself into the “people,” into the “nation,” but on the contrary develops a program of its proletarian revolution and compels the petty bourgeoisie to choose between two regimes. The slogan of the people’s revolution lulls the petty bourgeoisie as well as the broad masses of the workers, reconciles them to the bourgeois-hierarchical structure of the “people” and retards their liberation. But under present conditions in Germany, the slogan of a “people’s revolution” wipes away the ideological demarcation between Marxism and fascism and reconciles part of the workers and the petty bourgeoisie to the ideology of fascism, allowing them to think that they are not compelled to make a choice, because in both camps it is all a matter of a “people’s revolution.”

“People’s Revolution” as a Method of “National Liberation”

Ideas have their own logic. The people’s revolution is put forth as a subordinate method of “national liberation.” Such a statement of the question cleared a way to the party for purely chauvinistic tendencies. It is understood that there is nothing bad about the fact that despairing patriots approach the party of the proletariat from the camp of petty-bourgeois chauvinism: different elements come to Communism along different roads and paths. Sincere and honest elements – along with inveterate careerists and unscrupulous failures – are undoubtedly to be found in the ranks of those officers of the White Guard and Black Hundreds [10] who in recent months apparently began to turn their faces toward Communism. The party, of course, could utilize even such individual metamorphoses as a subsidiary method for the demoralization of the fascist camp. The crime of the Stalinist bureaucracy – yes, an outright crime – consists, however, of the fact that it solidarizes itself with these elements, identifies their voice with the voice of the party, refuses to expose their nationalistic and militaristic tendencies, transforming the thoroughly petty-bourgeois, reactionary-utopian, and chauvinist pamphlet by Scheringer [11] into a new testament of the revolutionary proletariat. From this base competition with fascism there suddenly arose, on the face of it, the July 21 decision: you have a people’s revolution and we have one, too; you have national liberation as the highest criterion, and we have the same; you have a war against Western capitalism and we promise the same; you have a plebiscite, and we have a plebiscite, still better, a “red” one through and through.

The fact is that the former revolutionary worker Thälmann today strives with all his strength not to disgrace himself in front of Count Stenbock-Fermor. [12] The report of the meeting of party workers at which Thälmann proclaimed the turn towards the plebiscite is printed in Die Rote Fahne under the pretentious title, Under the Banner of Marxism. Nevertheless, at the most important place in his conclusion, Thälmann put the idea that “Germany is today a ball in the hands of the Entente.” It is in consequence primarily a matter of national liberation. But in a certain sense, France and Italy also, and even England, are “balls” in the hands of the United States. The dependence of Europe upon America, which has once more been revealed so clearly in connection with Hoover’s proposal [13] (tomorrow this dependence will be revealed still more sharply and brutally), has a far deeper significance for the development of the European revolution than the dependence of Germany upon the Entente. [14] This is why – by the way – the slogan of the Soviet United States of Europe, and not the single bare slogan, “Down with the Versailles Peace,” is the proletarian answer to the convulsions of the European continent.

But all these questions nevertheless occupy second place. Our policy is determined not by the fact that Germany is a “ball” in the hands of the Entente, but primarily by the fact that the German proletariat which is split up, powerless, and oppressed, is a ball in the hands of the German bourgeoisie. “The main enemy is at home!” Karl Liebknecht [15] taught at one time. Or perhaps you have forgotten this, friends? Or perhaps this teaching is no longer any good? For Thälmann, it is very obviously antiquated; Scheringer is substituted for Liebknecht. This is why the title “Under the Banner of Marxism” rings with such bitter irony!

The School of Bureaucratic Centrism as the School of Capitulation

Several years ago, the Left Opposition warned that the “truly Russian” theory of socialism in one country would inevitably lead to the development of social-patriotic tendencies in other sections of the Comintern. At that time, it seemed to be a fantasy, a malicious fiction, a “slander.” But ideas have not only their own logic, but also their explosive force. The German Communist Party, in a brief period, has been drawn into the sphere of social patriotism before our very eyes, that is, into those moods and slogans on the mortal hostility towards which the Comintern was founded. Is it not startling? No, it is only a natural consequence!

The method of ideological imitation of the opponent and of the class enemy – a method which is thoroughly contradictory to the theory and the psychology of Bolshevism – flows quite organically from the essence of centrism, from its unprincipledness, inconsistency, ideological hollowness. Thus, for several years the Stalinist bureaucracy carried out a Thermidorean policy in order to cut the ground from under the Thermidoreans. [16] Having been frightened by the Left Opposition, the Stalinist bureaucracy started to imitate the left platform bit by bit In order to tear the English workers from the domination of trade unionism, the Stalinists conducted a trade-unionist instead of a Marxist policy. In order to help the Chinese workers and peasants to take an independent road, the Stalinists drove them into the bourgeois Kuomintang. This list can be continued endlessly. In big as well as in small questions, we see one and the same spirit of mimicry, constant imitation of the opponent, a striving to utilize not their own weapons – which, alas! they do not possess – but weapons stolen from the arsenal of the enemy.

The present party regime acts in the same direction. We have written and spoken more than once that the absolutism of the apparatus, demoralizing the leading stratum of the Comintern, humiliating the advanced workers and depriving them of individuality, crushing and distorting revolutionary character, inevitably weakens the proletarian vanguard in the face of the enemy. Whoever bows his head submissively before every command from above, is good for nothing as a revolutionary fighter!

The centrist functionaries were Zinovievists under Zinoviev, Bukharinists under Bukharin, Stalinists and Molotovists when Stalin’s and Molotov’s time came. They even bowed their heads before Manuilsky, Kuusinen, and Lozovsky. [17] At each stage that passed, they repeated the words, the intonations, and the gestures of the next “leader”; according to command, they rejected today what they swore by yesterday and, putting two fingers in the mouth, whistled at the retired chief whom they had borne on their arms only yesterday. Under this disastrous regime, revolutionary courage Is emasculated, theoretical consciousness is laid waste, the backbone is softened. Only bureaucrats who have gone through the Zinovievist-Stalinist school could so easily substitute the people’s revolution for the proletarian and, having proclaimed the Bolshevik-Leninists as renegades, raise upon their shoulders chauvinists of the Scheringer type.

“Revolutionary War” and Pacifism

The Scheringers and the Stenbock-Fermors look favorably upon the cause of the Communist Party as the direct continuation of the Hohenzollern war. To them, the victims of the hideous imperialist slaughter remain heroes who have fallen for the freedom of the German people. They are ready to call a new war for Alsace-Lorraine and Eastern Prussia [18] a “revolutionary” war. They agree to accept – for the time being, in words – the “people’s revolution,” if it can serve as a means of mobilizing the workers for their “revolutionary” war. Their whole program lies in the idea of revanche (revenge]: If tomorrow it will seem to them that the same aim can be achieved by another road, they will shoot the revolutionary proletariat in the back. This should not be slurred over, but exposed. The vigilance of the workers should not be lulled. but aroused. How does the party act?

In the Communist Fanfare of August 1, in the very heat of the agitation for the red referendum, along with the picture of Scheringer, is printed one of his new apostolic messages. Here is what is said there verbatim: “The cause of the dead of the world war, who have given their lives for a free Germany, is betrayed by everyone who comes out today against the people’s revolution, against the revolutionary war of liberation.” You do not believe your own eyes, reading these revelations in the pages of a press calling itself Communist. And all this is covered up with the names of Liebknecht and Lenin! What a long whip Lenin would have taken into his hands for the polemical castigation of such Communism. And he would not stop at polemical articles. He would press for the convocation of a special international congress, in order mercilessly to purge the ranks of the proletarian vanguard of the gangrene of chauvinism.

“We are not pacifists,” the Thälmanns, Remmeles, and others retort proudly. “We are for revolutionary war in principle.” As proof, they are prepared to produce some quotations from Marx and Lenin, selected for them in Moscow by some ignorant “Red Professor.” One might really think that Marx and Lenin were the spokesmen of national wars and not of proletarian revolutions! As if the conception of revolutionary war of Marx and Lenin has anything in common with the nationalist ideology of the fascist officers and the centrist corporals. By the cheap phrase of revolutionary war, the Stalinist bureaucracy attracts dozens of adventurists, but repulses hundreds of thousands, and millions of Social Democratic, Christian, and non-party workers.

“This means that you recommend to us to imitate the pacifism of the Social Democracy?” some particularly profound theoretician of the new course will object. No, we are least of all inclined to imitation, even of the moods of the working class; but we must take them into consideration. Only by correctly estimating the moods of the broad masses of the proletariat can they be brought to the revolution. But the bureaucracy, imitating the phraseology of petty-bourgeois nationalism, ignores the actual moods of the workers who do not want war, who cannot want it, and who are repelled by the military fanfaronades of the new firm: Thälmann, Scheringer, Count Stenbock-Fermor, Heinz Neumann & Co.

Marxism, of course, cannot fail to take into consideration the possibility of revolutionary war in the event that the proletariat seizes power. But this is far removed from converting a historical probability, which may be forced upon us by the course of events after the seizure of power, into a fighting political slogan prior to the seizure of power. A revolutionary war, as something forced upon us under certain conditions, as a consequence of the proletarian victory, is one thing. A “people’s” revolution, as a means for revolutionary war, is something altogether different even directly opposite.

In spite of the recognition in principle of revolutionary war, the government of Soviet Russia signed, as is known, the most onerous Brest-Litovsk peace. [19] Why? Because the peasants and the workers, with the exception of a small advanced section, did not want war. Later, the same peasants and workers heroically defended the Soviet revolution from innumerable enemies. But when we attempted to transform the harsh defensive war forced upon us by Pilsudski [20] into an offensive war, we suffered a defeat and this mistake, which arose from an incorrect estimation of the forces, struck very heavily at the development of the revolution.

The Red Army has been in existence for fourteen years. “We are not pacifists.” But why does the Soviet government declare on every occasion its peaceful policy? Why does it propose disarmament and conclude nonaggression pacts? Why doesn’t it set the Red Army into motion as a weapon of the world proletarian revolution? Obviously, it is not enough to be for revolutionary war in principle. One must have a head on one’s shoulders besides. One must take into consideration the circumstances, the relationship of forces, and the moods of the masses.

If taking into consideration the moods of the workers and toilers in general is imperative for a workers’ government that has a powerful state apparatus of compulsion in its hands, then a revolutionary party must be all the more attentive, since it can act only by convincing and not by compelling. The revolution, to us, is not a subordinate means for war against the West but on the contrary a means for avoiding wars, in order to end them once and for all. We fight the Social Democracy not by ridiculing its striving for peace, which is inherent in every toiler, but by revealing the falsity of its pacifism, because capitalist society, which is rescued every day by the Social Democracy, is inconceivable without war. The “national liberation” of Germany lies, to our mind, not in a war with the West, but in a proletarian revolution embracing Central as well as Western Europe, and uniting it with Eastern Europe in the form of a Soviet United States. Only such a statement of the question can unite the working class and make it a center of attraction for the despairing petty-bourgeois masses. In order for the proletariat to be able to dictate its will to modern society, its party must not be ashamed of being a proletarian party and of speaking its own language, not the language of national revanche, but the language of international revolution.

How Marxists Ought to Think

The red referendum did not fall from the skies: it grew out of an advanced ideological degeneration of the party. But because of this it does not cease to be the most malicious adventure imaginable. The referendum did not at all become the point of departure for a revolutionary struggle for power. It remained fully within the framework of a subsidiary parliamentary maneuver. With its aid, the party succeeded in inflicting upon itself a multiple defeat. Having strengthened the Social Democracy and consequently the Brüning government, having covered up the defeat of the fascists, and having repelled the Social Democratic workers and a considerable portion of its own electorate, the party became, on the day after the referendum, considerably weaker than it had been on the eve of it. It was impossible to render better service to German and world capitalism.

Capitalist society, particularly in Germany, has been on the eve of collapse several times in the last decade and a half; but each time it emerged from the catastrophe. Economic and social prerequisites for the revolution are insufficient by themselves. The political prerequisites are needed, that is, a relation of forces that, if it does not assure victory in advance – there are no such situations in history – at least makes it possible and probable. Strategic calculation, boldness, resolution, later transform the probable into the reality. But no strategy can turn the impossible into the possible.

Instead of general phrases about the deepening of the crisis and the “changing situation,” the Central Committee was duty-bound to point out precisely what the relation of forces is at the present time in the German proletariat, in the trade unions, in the factory committees what connections the party has with the agricultural workers, etc. These data are open to precise investigation and are not a secret. If Thälmann had the courage openly to enumerate and weigh all the elements of the political situation, he would be compelled to come to the conclusion: in spite of the monstrous crisis of the capitalist system and the considerable growth of Communism in the past period, the party is still too weak to seek to force the revolutionary solution. On the contrary, it is the fascists who strive towards this aim. All the bourgeois parties are ready to assist them in this, the Social Democracy included. For they all fear the Communists more than they do the fascists. With the aid of the Prussian plebiscite, the National Socialists want to provoke the collapse of the extremely unstable state balance, so as to force the vacillating strata of the bourgeoisie to support them in the cause of a bloody judgment over the workers. For us to assist the fascists would be the greatest stupidity. This is why we are against the fascist plebiscite. This is how Thälmann should have concluded his report, if he had a grain of Marxist conscience left.

The Militant, Vol. IV No. 26, 10 October 1931, p. 4.

After this, it would have been in order to start as broad and open a discussion as possible, because it is necessary for the leaders, even for such infallible ones as Heinz Neumann and Remmele, to listen attentively at every turn to the voice of the masses. It is necessary to listen not only to the official words which a Communist says sometimes, but also to those deeper, more popular thoughts which are hidden beneath his words. It is necessary not to command workers, but to be able to learn from them.

If the discussion had been an open one, then probably one of the participants would have made a speech something like this: “Thälmann is right when he demands that regardless of the undoubted changes in the situation, we must not because of the relation of forces, try to impose a revolutionary solution. But precisely for that reason the most resolute extreme enemies are pushing for the outbreak, as we see. Are we able, in such a situation, to gain the time we need to effect preliminary changes in the relation of forces, that is, to snatch the main proletarian masses from the influence of the Social Democracy and so compel the despairing lower strata of the petty bourgeoisie to turn their faces to the proletariat and their backs to fascism? Very well, if it turns out this way. But what if the fascists, against our will, drive things to an uprising in the near future? Will the proletarian revolution then be condemned again to a grave defeat?”

Then Thälmann, if he were a Marxist would have answered roughly thus: “Of course the choice of the moment of decisive struggle depends not only on us, but also on our enemies. We are in complete agreement that the task of our strategy at the present moment is to make it difficult, not easy, for our enemies to force an outbreak. But if our enemies nevertheless declare war on us, we must of course accept, because there is not and there cannot be a heavier, more destructive, more annihilating, more demoralizing defeat than the surrender of great historical positions without a struggle. If the fascists take the initiative for an outbreak on themselves – if it is clear to the popular masses – under present conditions, they will push to our side the broad layers of the toiling masses. In that case, we would have a much greater chance of winning victory the more clearly we show and prove today to the working millions that we do not at all intend to accomplish revolutions without them and against them. We must therefore talk openly to the Social Democratic, Christian, and non-party workers: “The fascists, a small minority, wish to overthrow the present government in order to seize power. We Communists think the present government is the enemy of the proletariat, but this government supports itself on your confidence and your votes; we wish to overthrow this government by means of an alliance with you, not by means of an alliance with the fascists against you. If the fascists attempt to organize an uprising, then we Communists will fight with you until the last drop of blood – not in order to defend the government of Braun-Brüning, but in order to save the flower of the proletariat from being strangled and annihilated, to save the workers’ organizations and the workers’ press, not only our Communist press, but also your Social Democratic press. We are ready together with you to defend any workers’ home whatsoever, any printing plant of a workers’ press, from the attacks of the fascists. And we call on you to pledge yourselves to come to our aid in case of a threat to our organizations. We propose a united front of the working class against the fascists. The more firmly and persistently we carry out this policy, applying it to all questions, the more difficult it will be for the fascists to catch us unawares, and the smaller will be their chances of defeating us in open struggle.” Thus would have answered our hypothetical Thälmann.

But here Heinz Neumann, the orator permeated through and through with great ideas, takes the floor. “Nothing will come of such a policy anyway,” he says. “The Social Democratic leaders will say to the workers, ‘Do not believe the Communists, they are not at all concerned about saving the workers’ organizations, but wish only to seize power; they consider us to be social fascists and they do not make any distinction between us and the Nationalists.’ That is why the policy that Thälmann proposes would simply make us look ridiculous in the eyes of the Social Democratic workers.”

To this Thälmann should have had to answer: “Calling the Social Democrats fascists is certainly a stupidity which confuses us at every critical moment and which prevents us from finding a way to the Social Democratic workers. To renounce this stupidity is the best thing we can do. As to the accusation that under the pretense of defense of the working class and its organizations, we desire simply to seize power, we will say to the Social Democratic workers: yes, we Communists strive to conquer power, but for that we require the unconditional majority of the working class. The attempt to seize power supporting oneself on a minority is a contemptible adventure with which we have nothing in common. We are not able to force the majority of the workers to follow us; we can only try to convince them. If the fascists should defeat the working class, then it would be impossible even to speak of the conquest of power by the Communists. To protect the working class and its organizations from the fascists means we must assure ourselves of the possibility of convincing the working class and leading it behind us. We are unable, therefore, to come to power otherwise than by protecting, if necessary with arms in hand, all the elements of workers’ democracy in the capitalist state.”

To that Thälmann might have added: “In order to win the firm, indestructible confidence of the majority of the workers, we must above all beware of throwing dust in their eyes, exaggerating our forces, closing our eyes to facts, or, still worse, distorting them. It is necessary to state what is. We shall not deceive our enemies, who have thousands of agencies for testing. By deceiving the workers, we deceive ourselves. By pretending to be very strong, we only weaken ourselves. Therein, friends, lies no ‘bad faith,’ no ‘pessimism.’ Why should we be pessimists? Before us there are gigantic possibilities. For us there is an unlimited future. The fate of Germany, the fate of Europe, the fate of the whole world depends on us. But precisely he who firmly believes in the revolutionary future has no need of illusions. Marxist realism is a prerequisite of revolutionary optimism.”

Thus would Thälmann have answered if he were a Marxist. But, unfortunately, he is not a Marxist.

Why Was the Party Silent?

But how then could the party have remained silent? The report of Thälmann, signifying a turn of 180 degrees on the question of the referendum, was accepted without discussion. Thus it was proposed from above; but proposed means ordered. All the accounts of Die Rote Fahne report that at all meetings of the party, the referendum was adopted “unanimously.” This unanimity is represented as a sign of the particular strength of the party. When and where has there yet been in the history of the revolutionary movement such dumb “monolithism”? The Thälmanns and the Remmeles swear by Bolshevism. But the whole history of Bolshevism is the history of intense internal struggle through which the party gained its viewpoints and hammered out its methods. The chronicle of the year 1917, the greatest year in the history of the party, is fun of intense internal struggles, as is also the history of the first five years after the conquest of power; despite this – not one split, not one major expulsion for political motives. But you see, after all, at the head of the Bolshevik Party there stood leaders of another stature, another stamp, and another authority than the Thälmanns, Remmeles, and Neumanns. Whence then this terrible “monolithism” of today, this destructive unanimity, which transforms each turn of the unfortunate leaders into absolute law for a gigantic party?

“No discussions!” Because, as Die Rote Fahne explains, “in this situation we need deeds, not speeches.” Repulsive hypocrisy! The party must accomplish “deeds,” but renounce participating in discussing them beforehand. And with what deed are we concerned at present? With the question of placing a little cross in a square on an official paper; and in a count of little proletarian crosses, moreover, there is not even the possibility of ascertaining whether they are not fascist crosses. Without doubts, without consideration, without questions, without even anxiety in your eyes, accept the new wild jump of the leaders designated by Providence, otherwise you are – a renegade, a counter-revolutionary! This is the ultimatum that the international Stalinist bureaucracy holds as a revolver against the temple of each militant.

Outwardly, it appears that the masses are reconciled to this regime, and that everything is going beautifully. But no! The masses are not at all clay from which one can model whatever one wishes. They respond, in their own way, slowly, but very impressively, to the blunders and absurdities of the leadership. They resist the “third period” theory in their own way when they boycott “red days” without number. They abandon the red trade unions in France when they cannot oppose the experiments of Lozovsky-Monmousseau [21] in a normal way. Not accepting the “idea” of the red referendum, hundreds of thousands and millions of workers avoid participation in it. This is retribution for the crimes of the centrist bureaucracy, which abjectly imitates the class enemy, but makes up for it by gripping its own party firmly by the throat.

What Does Stalin Say?

Did Stalin actually sanction the new zigzag in advance? No one knows that, just as no one knows Stalin’s opinions on the Spanish revolution. Stalin remains silent. When more modest leaders, beginning with Lenin, wished to exert influence on the policy of a brother party, they made speeches or wrote articles. The point was that they had something to say. Stalin has nothing to say. He uses cunning with the historical process just as he uses cunning with individual people. He does not consider how to help the German or Spanish proletariat take a step forward, but how to guarantee for himself in advance a political retreat.

An unsurpassed example of the duality of Stalin on the basic questions of the world revolution, is his attitude towards the German events in the year 1923. Let us recall what he wrote to Zinoviev and Bukharin in August of the same year. “Ought the Communists to strive (at the present stage) to seize power without the Social Democrats? Are they ripe yet for that? In my opinion, that is the question. At the time of taking power in Russia we had such reserves as (1) peace, (2) land to the peasants, (3) the support of the enormous majority of the working class, (4) sympathy of the peasantry. At present, the German Communists possess no such thing. It is true that they have as their neighbor the Soviet country, which we had not, but what can we do for them at the present moment? If, at present, the power of Germany would fall, so to speak, and the Communists were to seize it, they would collapse with a crash. That is ‘in the best case.’ But in the worst case – they would smash into smithereens and be thrust backwards. In my estimation, we must hold back the Germans, and not encourage them.” Stalin stood, this way, to the right of Brandler who, in August-September 1923, considered on the contrary that the conquest of power in Germany would not present any difficulties, but that the difficulties would begin on the day after the conquest of power. The official opinion of the Comintern at present is that the Brandlerites in the fall of 1923 let pass an exceedingly revolutionary situation. The leading accuser of the Brandlerites is ... Stalin. Has he, however, explained to the Comintern the question of his own position in that year? No, for that there is not the least necessity: it is sufficient to forbid the sections of the Comintern to raise the question.

Stalin will doubtless try in the same way also to play with the question of the referendum. Thälmann could not expose that even if he dared. [The question of whether Thälmann was against the turn and only subordinated himself to Remmele and Neumann, who found support in Moscow, does not occupy us here, being entirely personal and episodic: the question is that of the system. Thälmann did not dare to appeal to the party, and consequently bears the entire responsibility.] Stalin worked through his agents in the German Central Committee and himself retired ambiguously to the rear. In the case of a victory for the new line, all the Manuilskys and Remmeles would proclaim that the initiative was Stalin’s. In case of a defeat, Stalin kept the full possibility of finding someone guilty. In precisely this lies the quintessence of his strategy. In this field he is powerful.

What Does Pravda Say?

And what then does Pravda, the leading journal of the leading party in the Communist International, say? Pravda was unable to present one serious article, nor one attempt to analyze the situation in Germany. From the long programmatic speech of Thälmann, it shyly brings out half a dozen empty phrases. And indeed what can the present headless, spineless Pravda, servile to the bureaucracy and tangled in contradictions, say? What can Pravda speak about when Stalin remains silent?

Pravda on July 24 explained the Berlin turn in the following fashion: “Failure to participate in the referendum would signify that the Communists support the present reactionary Landtag.” The whole matter is here reduced to a simple vote of no confidence. But why, then, in such a case, did not the Communists take the initiative in the referendum; why did they struggle for several months against this initiative; and why on July 21 did they suddenly kneel down before it? The argument of Pravda is a belated argument of parliamentary cretinism, and nothing else.

On August 11, after the referendum, Pravda changed its argumentation: “The purpose of participation in the referendum consisted for the party in the extra-parliamentary mobilization of the masses.” But was it not for precisely that reason, for the extra-parliamentary mobilization of the masses, that the day of August 1 was assigned? [22] We shall not now stop for a criticism of calendar “red days.” But on the first of August, the Communist Party mobilized the masses under its own slogans and under its own leadership. For what reason, then, was a new mobilization needed a week later, such that the mobilized do not see one another, that no one of them is able to calculate their numbers, that neither they themselves, nor their friends, nor their enemies, are able to distinguish them from their deadly enemies?

On the following day, in the issue of August 12, Pravda declares no more, no less, that “the results of the voting signified ... the greatest blow of all that the working class has yet dealt the Social Democracy.” We will not produce the statistics of the referendum. They are known to all (except to the readers of Pravda), and they strike the idiotic and shameful boasting of Pravda in the face. To lie to the workers, to throw dust in their eyes, these people consider to be in the order of things.

Official Leninism is crushed and trampled under the heels of bureaucratic epigonism. But unofficial Leninism lives. Let not the unbridled functionaries think that all will pass over for them with impunity. The scientifically founded ideas of the proletarian revolution are stronger than the apparatus, stronger than any amount of money, stronger than the fiercest repression. In the matter of apparatus, money, and repression, our class enemies are incomparably stronger than the present Stalinist bureaucracy. But nevertheless, on the territory of Russia, we conquered them. We demonstrated that it was possible to conquer them. The revolutionary proletariat shall conquer them everywhere. For that it needs a correct policy. In the struggle against the Stalinist apparatus, the proletarian vanguard will win its right to carry on the policy of Marx and Lenin.

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Last updated on: 21 January 2016