Leon Trotsky

Before the Decision

(February 1933)

Written in exile in Turkey, February 5, 1933.
Bulletin of the Opposition, No.33, March 1933.
Translated for The Militant, February 24, 1933.
Postscript, dated February 6, translated by Frank Manning and George Saunders, for Pathfinder in 1971.

The Counter-Revolutionary Camp

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

Passing through the transitional governments of Brüning and Papen, Bonapartism assumed its purest form in the person of General Schleicher – but only in order to disclose in him its insolvency. Hostile, doubtful, or alarmed, all classes fixed their eyes upon this enigmatic political figure who resembled nothing so much as a question mark with the epaulettes of a general But the chief cause for Schleicher’s failure, and incidentally for his preceding success as well lay not within himself. Bonapartism cannot attain stability so long as the camp of revolution and the camp of counter-revolution have not measured their forces in battle. Concurrently the frightful industrial and agrarian crisis that hangs over the country like a nightmare does not facilitate Bonapartist tightrope-balancing. True, at first sight the passivity of the proletariat facilitated in the highest degree the tasks of the “social general.”

But it turned out otherwise; precisely this passivity weakened the hoop of fear that binds together the possessing classes, bringing out into the open the antagonisms that tear them apart.

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

When this happened, the upper crust of the possessing class took its governmental balance: on the debit side – a split in their own ranks; among the assets – an octogenarian field marshal. What more remained? Nothing, except for Hugenberg. Whereas Schleicher personified the unadulterated idea of Bonapartism, Hugenberg personifies in himself the chemically pure idea of property. The general was coy, refusing to reply to the question of which is better, capitalism or socialism; Hugenberg makes no bones about announcing that there is nothing better than an East Prussian Junker on the throne. The most rooted, the most ponderous, and the most entrenched form of property is private ownership of land. If economically German agriculture is maintained by industry, then it is most proper that no other than Hugenberg himself should be at the head of the political struggle of the possessors against the people.

Thus the regime of the supreme arbiter, raised above all classes and parties, has led straight to the supremacy of the German Nationalist Party, the most self-seeking and greedy clique of proprietors. Hugenberg’s government stands for the quintessence of social parasitism. But just because of this, when it became necessary, in its pure state it became impossible. Hugenberg requires a screen. As yet today, he cannot hide behind the mantle of a Kaiser, and he is forced to resort to the brown shirt of the Nazi. If one cannot obtain through the monarchy the sanction of the highest heavenly powers for the property owners, there remains the sanction of the reactionary and unbridled rabble.

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

It was not with a light heart that the high and mighty clique made a deal with the malodorous fascists. There are too many, all too many fists behind the unbridled upstarts; and therein lies the dangerous side of the brown-shirted allies; but in that very same thing is also their fundamental, more exactly, their only advantage. And this is the advantage that decides, for such are the times now that there is no guaranteeing property except with fists. There is no way of dispensing with the Nazis. But it is likewise impossible to give over to them the actual power; today, the threat on the part of the proletariat is not so acute that the higher-ups can consciously provoke a civil war with problematic outcome. It is to this new stage in the development of the social crisis in Germany that the new governmental combination corresponds, in which the military and economic posts remain in the hands of the masters, while the plebeians are assigned decorative or secondary posts. The unofficial but all the more real function of the fascist ministers is to bind the revolution with terror. However, the suppression and annihilation of the proletarian vanguard the fascists must achieve not otherwise than within the limits set by the representatives of the agrarians and the industrialists. Such is the plan. But how will its execution turn out?

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

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

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

The Proletarian Camp

When the official Communist Party states that the Social Democracy is the most important prop of bourgeois domination, it does no more than repeat that idea which served as the point of departure for the organization of the Third International. When the bourgeoisie invites it to power, the Social Democracy casts its vote for the capitalist regime. The Social Democracy tolerates (suffers) any bourgeois government that tolerates the Social Democracy. But even when completely evicted from power, the Social Democracy continues to support bourgeois society, recommending to the workers that they conserve their forces for battles to which it is prepared never to issue a call. By paralyzing the revolutionary energy of the proletariat the Social Democracy provides bourgeois society with an opportunity to remain alive under conditions when it is no longer capable of living, thus turning fascism into a political necessity. The very call of Hitler to power emanates from the Hohenzollern field marshal who had been elected by the votes of Social Democratic workers! The sequence of political figures from Wels to Hitler is quite apparent There can be no two views on this score among Marxists. But what is in question is not how to interpret a political situation but how to transform it in a revolutionary manner.

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

The history of the German working class from 1914 represents the most tragic page of modern history. What shocking betrayals by its historical party, the Social Democracy! What ineptitude and impotence on the part of its revolutionary wing! But there is no need to go so far back. For the past two or three years of the fascist upsurge, the policy of the Stalinist bureaucracy has been nothing else but a chain of crimes which literally saved reformism, and thereby prepared for the subsequent successes of fascism. At this moment when the enemy has already occupied important commanding posts, the question inevitably arises: Is it not too late to call for a regrouping of forces in order to repel the enemy? But first we must answer here another question, what does “too late” mean in the given instance? Must this be understood to mean that even the boldest about-face on the road of revolutionary policy is no longer capable of radically changing the relationship of forces? Or does it mean there is neither the possibility nor the hope of achieving the necessary turn? These are two different questions.

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

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

Hitler needs time. A revival of trade and industry, should such become a fact would not at all signify the strengthening of fascism against the proletariat At the smallest sign of an upturn, capital, which has been famished for profits, will feel the acute need for peace in the factories, and this will at once shift the correlation of forces in favor of the workers. For the economic struggle to merge from the first with the political struggle, it is urgent that the Communists be at their posts, i.e., in the factories and within the trade unions. The Social Democratic leaders have announced that they desire an accord with Communist workers. Very well. Let the 300,000 workers who belong to the RGO take the reformists at their word and turn to the ADGB with the proposal to enter immediately into the Free Trade Unions, as a fraction. One such step will bring about a change in the self-esteem of the workers, and therefore in the entire political situation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[In the light of recent events and against the background of the tragic mistakes of the Stalinists, the story of the capitulation of Wels & Co. resembles a clown’s interlude in Shakespearean tragedy. These gentlemen declared yesterday that the danger of fascism is liquidated, thanks to the correct policy of the [KPD] party; and that the policy of the united front, permitted in the recent past is henceforth counterrevolutionary. On the day after these avowals, Hitler came to power and Stalin declared that the united-front policy, but lately counterrevolutionary, is henceforth necessary.]

* * *

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

The program of action is clear and simple:

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


What are the possible plans of the Hitler-Hugenberg government in connection with the elections to the Reichstag? It is perfectly obvious that the present government cannot tolerate a Reichstag with the opposition in the majority. In view of this, the campaign and the elections are bound to lead in one way or another to a denouément. The government understands that even its total electoral victory, i.e., if they receive a 51 percent mandate in the parliament, not only will not mean a peaceful solution of the crisis, but on the contrary may be the signal for a decisive move against fascism. This is why the government cannot but be prepared for decisive action when the election results become known.

The necessary preliminary mobilization of forces for this will not prove less applicable in the event the governing parties wind up in the minority and consequently must finally abandon the ground of Weimar legality. Thus, in both cases, in the event of the parliamentary defeat of the government (less than 50 percent) and in the event of its victory (more than 50 percent), it is equally to be expected that the new elections will be the occasion for a decisive struggle.

A third variant is not excluded: under the cover of preparation for the elections the National Socialists will carry out a coup d’état without waiting for the elections. Tactically, a step of this kind would be, if you please, a more correct one – from the Nazis’ point of view. But taking into account the petty-bourgeois character of the party, its incapacity for independent initiative, and its dependence on distrustful allies, it is necessary to conclude that Hitler would hardly decide on this step. That such a coup would be planned by Hitler jointly with his allies would hardly be very likely, since the second task of the elections is precisely to modify the extent of participation of his allies in the government.

Nevertheless, it is necessary in agitational work to bring this third possibility to the fore. If feelings were to run too high in the pre-election period, a coup d’état might be a necessity for the government, even if its practical plans today do not go that far.

In any case, it is perfectly clear that in its tactical estimates the proletariat must proceed in terms of very little time. Obviously, neither a governing majority in the Reichstag, the dismissal of the new Reichstag for an indefinite period, nor a fascist coup before the elections will signify the final solution of the question to the advantage of fascism. But each of these three variants would signify a new, very important stage in the struggle of revolution and counterrevolution.

The task of the Left Opposition during the election campaign is to give the workers an analysis of the three possible variants within the overall perspective of an inevitable struggle between the proletariat and fascism, not for a lifetime, but to the death. Putting the question this way gives agitation for the policy of a united front the necessary concreteness.

The Communist Party has cried incessantly: “The proletariat is increasingly on the offensive.” To this the SAP replies: “No, the proletariat is on the defensive; we are only calling it to the offensive.” Both formulas demonstrate that these people do not know what is meant by the offensive and the defensive, i.e., offense and defense. The unhappy fact of the matter is that the proletariat is not on the defensive, but in a retreat which tomorrow may be turned into a panicky rout.

We summon the proletariat not to the offensive but to an active defense. Precisely the defensive character of the operations (defense of proletarian organizations, newspapers, meetings, etc.) constitutes the starting point for a united front in relation to Social Democracy. To leap over the formula of active defense means to deal in loud but empty phrases. Obviously, in the event of success, active defense would turn into offense. But this would be a later stage; the road to that lies through the united front in the name of defense.

To expose more clearly the historical significance of the Communist Party’s actions and decisions in these days and weeks, it is necessary, in my opinion, to pose the issue before the Communists without the least mitigation; on the contrary, with all sharpness and implacability: the party’s renunciation of the united front and of the creation of local defense committees, i.e., future soviets, signifies the capitulation of the party before fascism, an historic crime which is tantamount to the liquidation of the party and the Communist International. In the event of such a disaster, the proletariat through mounds of corpses, through years of unbearable sufferings and calamities, will come to the Fourth International.

February 6, 1933

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