Leon Trotsky

The Tragedy of the German Proletariat:

The German Workers Will Rise Again – Stalinism, Never!

(March 1933)

Written in exile in Turkey, March 14, 1933.
Bulletin of the Opposition, No.34, May 1933.
Translated for The Militant, April 8, 1933.

The most powerful proletariat of Europe, measured by its place in production, its social weight, and the strength of its organizations, has manifested no resistance since Hitler’s coming to power and his first violent attacks against the workers’ organizations. This is the fact from which to proceed in subsequent strategic calculations.

It would be patently stupid to believe that the future evolution of Germany will follow the Italian road; that Hitler will strengthen his domination step by step without serious resistance; that German fascism will enjoy long years of domination. No, the further fate of National Socialism will have to be deduced from an analysis of the German and international conditions, and not from purely historical analogies. But this much is already evident: if from September 1930 onwards we demanded of the Communist International a short-range policy in Germany, then it is necessary now to work out a long-range policy. Before decisive battles will become possible, the proletarian vanguard will have to reorient itself; that is to say, it will have to understand what has happened, assign the responsibility for the great historical defeat, trace out the new road, and thus regain confidence in itself

The criminal role of the Social Democracy requires no commentary: the Comintern was created fourteen years ago precisely in order to snatch the proletariat from the demoralizing influence of the Social Democracy. If it has not succeeded up to now, if the German proletariat found itself impotent disarmed, and paralyzed at the moment of its greatest historic test the direct and immediate blame falls upon the leadership of the post-Leninist Comintern. That is the first conclusion which ought to be drawn immediately.

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

Since 1923, that is, since the beginning of the struggle against the Left Opposition, the Stalinist leadership, although indirectly, assisted the Social Democracy with all its strength to derail, to befuddle, to enfeeble the German proletariat: it restrained and hindered the workers when the conditions dictated a courageous revolutionary offensive; it proclaimed the approach of the revolutionary situation when it had already passed; it worked up agreements with petty-bourgeois phrasemongers and windbags; it limped impotently at the tail of the Social Democracy under cover of the policy of the united front; it proclaimed the “third period” and the struggle for the conquest of the streets under conditions of political ebb and the weakness of the Communist Party; it replaced the serious struggle by leaps, adventures or parades; it isolated the Communists from the mass trade unions; it identified the Social Democracy with fascism and rejected the united front with the mass workers’ organizations in face of the aggressive bands of the National Socialists; it sabotaged the slightest initiative for the united front for local defense, at the same time it systematically deceived the workers as to the real relationship of forces, distorted the facts, passed off friends as enemies and enemies as friends – and drew the noose tighter and tighter around the neck of the party, not permitting it to breathe freely any longer, nor to speak, nor to think.

Out of the vast literature devoted to the question of fascism it is enough to refer to the speech of Thälmann, official leader of the German Communist Party, who, at the plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International in April 1931, denounced the “pessimists,” that is, those who knew how to foresee, in the following terms: “We have not allowed the moods of panic to rout us ... We have soberly and firmly established the fact that September 14 [1930] was in a certain sense Hitler’s best day, and that afterwards will come not better days but worse. This evaluation which we made of the development of this party is confirmed by the events ... Today, the fascists have no reasons for laughing.” Referring to the creation of defense groups by the Social Democracy, Thälmann demonstrated in the same speech that these groups differ in no respect from the shock troops of the National Socialists and that both of them are likewise preparing to annihilate Communism.

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

Having surrendered to the enemy everything that could be surrendered in such a short space of time, the Stalinists are trying to rectify the past by means of convulsive acts, which only more brightly illuminate the whole chain of crimes committed by them. Now that the press of the Communist Party is stifled, now the apparatus is destroyed, now the bloody pennant of fascism waves with impunity over the Karl Liebknecht House [1], the Executive Committee of the Comintern is starting out on the road of the united front not only from below but also from above. The new zigzag, sharper than all that preceded it, has not, however, been effected on the impulse of the ECCI itself, the Stalinist bureaucracy has abandoned the initiative to the Second International. The latter has succeeded in taking hold of the weapon of the united front of which it has been in mortal dread until now. To the extent that it is possible to speak of political advantages under the conditions of a panicky retreat, they are to be found exclusively on the side of reformism. Forced to reply to a direct question, the Stalinist bureaucracy chose the worst way: it does not reject an entente of the two Internationals, but neither does it accept it; it plays hide and seek. It has come to such a lack of self-confidence, to such degradation, that it no longer dares to show itself to the world proletariat face to face with the leaders of the Second International, the branded agents of the bourgeoisie, the electors of Hindenburg who blazed the trail of fascism.

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

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

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

The conditions for the united front put forward by the Comintern for all the countries committees of action against fascism, demonstrations and strikes against wage reductions) present nothing new. On the contrary, they are the schematized and bureaucratized reproduction of the slogans that the Left Opposition formulated much more clearly and concretely two and a half years ago, for which it was registered in the camp of social fascism. The united front on such a basis could have yielded decisive results in Germany; but for that, it would have had to be carried out in time. Time is an important factor in politics.

What is therefore the practical value now of the proposals of the ECCI? For Germany, it is minimal. The policy of the united front assumes a ␄front,” that is, stabilized positions and a centralized leadership. The Left Opposition put forward the conditions for the united front back then as conditions for an active defense, with the perspective of passing over to the offensive. Now, the German proletariat has been reduced to a state of disorderly retreat, without even rearguard battles. In this situation, voluntary unions of Communist and Social Democratic workers can and will be realized for various episodic tasks, but the systematic construction of the united front is inevitably thrust back for the indefinite future. There must be no illusions on this score.

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

If the central position has been surrendered, one must fortify the approaches; one must prepare bases for a future assault from all sides. In Germany, this preparation implies the critical elucidation of the past, maintaining the spirits of the vanguard fighters, rallying them, and organizing rearguard combats wherever possible – in anticipation of the moment when the various fighting groups will draw together into a great army. This preparation implies at the same time defending the proletarian positions in the countries closely connected with Germany or located near it: in Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Baltic countries, Scandinavia, Belgium, Holland, France, and Switzerland. Fascist Germany must be surrounded by a powerful circle of proletarian fortifications. Without ceasing for an instant the attempts to halt the disorderly retreat of the German workers, it is necessary to create fortified proletarian positions around the frontiers of Germany for the struggle against fascism.

In the first place comes Austria, which is immediately threatened by the fascist cataclysm. One can say with confidence that if the Austrian proletariat were to seize power now and transform its country into a revolutionary battleground, Austria would become for the revolution of the German proletariat what Piedmont [2] was for the revolution of the Italian bourgeoisie. It cannot be predicted how far the Austrian proletarian pushed forward by the events but paralyzed by the reformist bureaucracy, will advance along this road. The task of Communism is to help the events, overcoming Austro-Marxism. The policy of the united front is one of the means. The conditions which the manifesto of the ECCI takes over so tardily from the Left Opposition thus retain all their force.

However, the policy of the united front contains not only advantages but also dangers. It easily gives birth to combinations between leaders behind the back of the masses, to a passive adaptation to the ally, to opportunist vacillations. It is possible to ward off these dangers only if there exist two express guarantees: the maintenance of full freedom of criticism of the ally and the reestablishment of full freedom of criticism within the ranks of one’s own party. To refuse to criticize one’s allies leads directly and immediately to capitulation to reformism. The policy of the united front in the absence of party democracy, that is, without control of the apparatus by the party, leaves the leaders a free hand for opportunist experiments, the inevitable complements of adventurist experiments.

How has the ECCI acted in this case? Dozens of times the Left Opposition predicted that under the blows of events, the Stalinists would be forced to repudiate their ultraleftism and that, placing themselves on the road of the united front they would begin to commit all the opportunist treasons which they attributed to us only yesterday. This time, too, the prediction has been realized literally.

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

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

Criticism in general, all the more so under the conditions of a united front should of course correspond to the real relations and observe the necessary proportions. The absurdities about “social fascism” must be refuted. That is a concession not to the Social Democracy, but to Marxism. It is not for the treachery of 1918 but for its evil work in 1933 that the ally must be criticized. But criticism, like political life itself, of which criticism is the voice, cannot be halted for an hour. If the Communists’ disclosures correspond to reality, they serve the purposes of the united front pushing forward the temporary ally and, what is more important giving a revolutionary education to the whole proletariat. To abandon this fundamental duty is the first stage in that shameful and criminal policy which Stalin foisted upon the Chinese Communists with regard to the Kuomintang.

Matters stand no better with regard to the second guarantee. Having renounced criticism of the Social Democracy, the Stalinist apparatus does not even think of giving the right of criticism to the members of its own party. The turn itself is accomplished, as usual, by way of a bureaucratic revelation. Not a single national congress, no international congress, nor even a plenum of the ECCI; no preparation in the press of the party, no analysis of the policy of the past. And there is nothing astounding in this. At the very first steps in the discussion in the party, each thinking worker would ask the functionaries: Why have the Bolshevik-Leninists been expelled from all the sections and why are they subjected in the Soviet Union to arrests, to deportation, and to firing squads? Is it only because they dig deeper and see further? The Stalinist bureaucracy cannot permit such a conclusion. It is capable of any flip-flops or somersaults, but to present itself honestly before the workers face to face with the Bolshevik-Leninists – that’s something it cannot and does not dare to do. Thus in the struggle for self-preservation, the Stalinist apparatus vitiates its new turn by making it suspect beforehand in the view not only of the Social Democratic workers but also of the Communists.

The publication of the manifesto of the ECCI is accompanied by yet another circumstance, extraneous to the question we are examining, but which throws an exceedingly glaring light on the present position of the Comintern and on the attitude of the leading Stalinist groups towards it. In Pravda of March 6, the manifesto is published not as a direct and open appeal of the ECCI situated in Moscow – as was always the case – but as the translation of a document from l’Humanité, transmitted from Paris by the telegraphic agency TASS.

What a stupid and humiliating ruse! After all the successes, after the realization of the first Five Year Plan, after the “disappearance of the classes,” after the “entry into socialism,” the Stalinist bureaucracy no longer dares to publish in its own name the manifesto of the Executive Committee of the Communist International. That is its real relationship to the Comintern and that is how confident it is on the international arena.

The manifesto is not the sole reply to the initiative of the Second International. Through the intermediary of paper organizations – the revolutionary trade union oppositions (RGOs) of Germany and Poland, the Anti-fascist Alliance, and the so- called Italian General Confederation of Labor – the Comintern is convening for the month of April a “Pan-European Workers’ Anti-fascist Congress.” The list of those invited, as is proper, is confused and vast: factories (they say “factories,” although by the efforts of Stalin-Lozovsky the Communists have been ousted from practically all the factories in the world), local labor organizations, revolutionary, reformist, Catholic, belonging to a party or not, sports, anti-fascist, and peasant organizations. And more: “We wish also to invite all those individuals who are really [!] fighting for the cause of the workers.” Having compromised for a long time the cause of the masses, the strategists appeal to the “individuals,” to those hermits who have found no place in the ranks of the masses but who, just the same, “are really fighting for the cause of the workers.” Barbusse and General Schönaich [3] will once more be mobilized to save Europe from Hitler.

Here we have a ready-made libretto for one of those charlatan presentations with which the Stalinists are in the habit of masking their impotence. What has the Amsterdam bloc of centrists and the pacifists accomplished in the struggle against the aggression of the Japanese bandits in China? Nothing. Out of respect for Stalinist “neutrality,” the pacifists have not even issued a manifesto of protest. Now a new edition of the Amsterdam Congress is being prepared, not against war but against fascism. What will the anti-fascist bloc of vacated “factories” and impotent “individuals” do? Nothing. It will issue a hollow manifesto, if, as a matter of fact things go as far this time as the holding of a congress.

The propensity for individuals has two faces: opportunistic and adventurist. The Russian Social Revolutionaries in the old days extended the right hand to the liberals and held a bomb in the left hand. The experience of the last ten years attests that after every great defeat provoked or at least aggravated by the policy of the Comintern, the Stalinist bureaucracy invariably sought to refurbish its reputation with the aid of some grandiose adventure or other (Estonia, Bulgaria, Canton). Doesn’t this danger exist now too? In any case, we deem it necessary to raise a voice of warning. Adventures that aim to replace the action of the paralyzed masses disorganize the masses still more and aggravate the catastrophe.

The conditions of the present world situation, as well as the conditions of each country in particular, are just as deadly for the Social Democracy as they are favorable for the revolutionary party. But the Stalinist bureaucracy has succeeded in converting the crisis of capitalism and of reformism into a crisis of Communism. That is the sum total of ten years of uncontrolled command by the epigones.

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

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

And now, already standing just short of ruin, the leadership of the Comintern fears light and criticism more than anything else. Let the world revolution perish, but long live vain prestige! The bankrupts sow confusion, bury the evidence, and cover their tracks. The fact that the Communist Party of Germany lost “only” 1,200,000 votes at the first blow – with a general rise in the number of voters of three to four millions – is proclaimed by Pravda as an “enormous political victory.” In the same way, in 1924, Stalin proclaimed as an “enormous victory” the fact that the workers in Germany, who were retreating without battle, had still given the Communist Party 3,600,000 votes. If the proletariat deceived and disarmed by both apparatuses, has this time given the Communist Party almost five million votes, this signifies only that they would have given it twice or three times that number had they trusted its leadership. They would have raised it to power had it shown itself capable of taking and holding power. But it gave the proletariat nothing save confusion, zigzags, defeats, and calamities.

Yes, five million Communists still succeeded in reaching the ballot box, one by one. But in the factories and on the streets, there are none. They are disconcerted, dispersed, demoralized. They have been broken away from independence under the yoke of the apparatus. The bureaucratic terror of Stalinism paralyzed their willpower before the turn came for the terror of the fascist bands.

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

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

The Rise of Fascism in Germany Index

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Last updated on: 25.4.2007