Leon Trotsky

German Bonapartism

(October 1932)

Written in exile in Turkey, October 30 1932.
Bulletin of the Opposition, No.32, December 1932.
Translated for The Militant, December 24, 1932.

The elections to the Reichstag put the “presidential government to a new critical test.” [1] It is useful, therefore, to remind ourselves of its social and political nature. It is precisely through the analysis of such concrete and, at first glance, “sudden” political phenomena as the government of Papen-Schleicher, that the Marxist method reveals its invaluable advantages.

At one time we defined the “presidential” government as a species of Bonapartism. It would be incorrect to see in this definition the chance outcome of a desire to find a familiar name for an unfamiliar phenomenon. The decline of capitalist society places Bonapartism – side by side with fascism and coupled with it – again on the order of the day. Previously we have characterized the government of Brüning as a Bonapartist one. Then, in retrospect, we narrowed the definition to a half, or pre-Bonapartist one.

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

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

The Stuttgart Arbeitertribüne teaches us that Bonapartism, raising the military-police apparatus over the bourgeoisie in order to defend its class domination against its own political parties, must be supported by the peasantry and must use methods of Social Democracy. Papen is not supported by the peasantry and does not introduce a pseudo-radical program. Therefore, our attempt to define the government of Papen as Bonapartism “does not fit at all.” This is severe but superficial.

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

Such terms as liberalism, Bonapartism, fascism have the character of generalizations. Historical phenomena never repeat themselves completely. It would not have been difficult to prove that even the government of Napoleon III, compared with the regime of Napoleon I, was not “Bonapartist” – not only because Napoleon himself was a doubtful Bonaparte by blood, but also because his relations to the classes, especially to the peasantry and to the lumpenproletariat were not at all the same as those of Napoleon I. Moreover, classical Bonapartism grew out of the epoch of gigantic war victories, which the Second Empire [2] did not know at all. But if we should look for the repetition of all the traits of Bonapartism, we will find that Bonapartism is a one-time, unique occurrence, i.e., that Bonapartism in general does not exist but that there once was a general named Bonaparte born in Corsica. The case is no different with liberalism and with all other generalized terms of history. When one speaks by analogy of Bonapartism, it is necessary to state precisely which of its traits found their fullest expression under present historical conditions.

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

The Social Democracy asserts that fascism is the product of Communism. This is correct insofar as there would have been no necessity at all for fascism without the sharpening of the class struggle, without the revolutionary proletariat without the crisis of capitalist society. The flunkeyish theory of Wels-Hilferding-Otto Bauer has no other meaning. Yes, fascism is a reaction of bourgeois society to the threat of proletarian revolution. But precisely because this threat is not an imminent one today, the ruling classes make an attempt to get along without a civil war through the medium of a Bonapartist dictatorship.

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

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

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

To quote The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte in reference to the “July 20 of Papen” is of course very risky, since Marx characterized the regime of Napoleon in the most acid terms as the regime of adventurists, crooks, and pimps. As a matter of fact, the DAZ could be liable to punishment for a malicious slander of the government. But if we should leave aside this incidental inconvenience, there remains nevertheless the indubitable fact that historic instinct brought the DAZ to the proper place. Unfortunately one cannot say the same of the theoretical wisdom of Thalheimer.

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

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

Under the conditions of present-day capitalism, a government which would not be the agency of finance capital is in general impossible. But of all possible agencies, the government of Papen is the least stable one. If the ruling classes could rule directly, they would have no need either of parliamentarism, or of Social Democracy, or of fascism. The government of Papen exposes finance capital too clearly, leaving it without even the sacred figleaf ordered by the Prussian Commissioner Bracht. Just because the extra-party “national” government is in fact able to speak only in the name of the social heights, capital is ever more careful not to identify itself with the government of Papen. The DAZ wants to find support for the presidential government in the National Socialist masses, and in the language of ultimatums demands of Papen a bloc with Hitler, which means capitulation to him.

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

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

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