Leon Trotsky

The German Catastrophe:

The Responsibility of the Leadership

(May 1933)

Written in exile in Turkey, May 28, 1933.
Bulletin of the Opposition, No.35, July 1933.
The New Republic, July 5, 1933.
Translated by Max Shachtman.

The imperialist epoch, in Europe at least, has been one of sharp turns, in which politics has acquired an extremely mobile character. At each turn the stakes have been not some partial reform or other, but the fate of the regime. The exceptional role of the revolutionary party and of its leadership is based on this fact. If, in the good old days when the Social Democracy grew regularly and uninterruptedly, like the capitalism which nourished it, the leadership of Bebel resembled a general staff tranquilly elaborating plans for a war in the indefinite future (a war that perhaps might not come after all), under present conditions the Central Committee of a revolutionary party resembles the field headquarters of an army in action. The strategy of the study has been replaced by the strategy of the battlefield.

The struggle against a centralized enemy demands centralization. Trained in a spirit of strict discipline, the German workers assimilated this idea with renewed vigor during the war and the political convulsions which followed it. The workers are not blind to the defects of their leadership, but none of them as an individual is able to shake off the grip of the organization. The workers as a whole consider it better to have a strong leadership, even if a faulty one, than to pull in different directions or to resort to “freelance” activities. Never before in the history of humanity has a political staff played so important a role or borne such responsibility as in the present epoch.

The unparalleled defeat of the German proletariat is the most important event since the conquest of power by the Russian proletariat. The first task on the morrow of the defeat is to analyze the policy of the leadership. The most responsible leaders (who are, heaven be praised, safe and sound) point with pathos to the imprisoned rank-and-file executors of their policies in order to suppress all criticism. We can only meet such a spuriously sentimental argument with contempt. Our solidarity with those whom Hitler has imprisoned is unassailable, but this solidarity does not extend to accepting the mistakes of the leaders. The losses sustained will be justified only if the ideas of the vanquished are advanced. The preliminary condition for this is courageous criticism.

For a whole month not a single Communist organ, the Moscow Pravda not excepted, uttered a word on the catastrophe of March 5. They all waited to hear what the presidium of the Executive Committee of the Communist International would say. For its part the presidium oscillated between two contradictory variants: “The German Central Committee led us astray,” and “The German Central Committee pursued a correct policy.” The first variant was ruled out: the preparation of the catastrophe had taken place under the eyes of everybody, and the controversy with the Left Opposition that preceded the catastrophe had too clearly committed the leaders of the Communist International. At last, on April 7, the decision was announced: “The political line ... of the Central Committee, with Thaelmann at its head, was completely correct up to and during Hitler’s coup d’état.” It is only to be regretted that all those who were dispatched into the beyond by the fascists did not learn of this consoling affirmation before they died.

The resolution of the presidium does not attempt to analyze the policy of the German Communist Party – which might have been expected, above all else – but is another in the long series of indictments against the Social Democracy. It preferred, we are told, a coalition with the bourgeoisie to a coalition with the Communists; it evaded a real struggle against fascism; it fettered the initiative of the masses; and as it had in its hands the “leadership of the mass labor organizations,” it succeeded in preventing a general strike. All this is true. But it is nothing new. The Social Democracy, as the party of social reform, exhausted the progressiveness of its mission as capitalism was transforming itself into imperialism. During the war the Social Democracy functioned as a direct instrument of imperialism. After the war it hired itself out officially as the family doctor of capitalism. The Communist Party strove to be its gravedigger. On whose side was the whole course of development? The chaotic state of international relations, the collapse of pacifist illusions, the unparalleled crisis which is tantamount to a great war with its aftermath of epidemics – all this, it would seem, revealed the decadent character of European capitalism and the hopelessness of reformism.

Then what happened to the Communist Party? In reality the Communist International is ignoring one of its own sections, even though that section rallied some six million votes in the election. That is no longer a mere vanguard; it is a great independent army. Why, then, did it take part in the events only as a victim of repression and pogroms? Why, at the decisive hour, did it prove to be stricken with paralysis? There are circumstances under which one cannot withdraw without giving battle. A defeat may result from the superiority of the enemy forces; after defeat one may recover. The passive surrender of all the decisive positions reveals an organic incapacity to fight which does not go unpunished.

The presidium tells us that the policy of the Communist Party was correct “before as well as during the coup d’état.” A correct policy, however, begins with a correct appraisal of the situation. Yet, for the last four years, in fact up to March 5, 1933, we heard day in and day out that a mighty anti-fascist front was growing uninterruptedly in Germany, that National Socialism was retreating and disintegrating, and that the whole situation was under the aegis of the revolutionary offensive. How could a policy have been correct when the whole analysis on which it was based was knocked over like a house of cards?

The presidium justifies the passive retreat by the fact that the Communist Party, “lacking the support of the majority of the working class,” could not engage in a decisive battle without committing a crime. Nevertheless, the same resolution considers the July 20 [1932] call for a general political strike as deserving special praise, though for some unknown reason it neglects to mention an identical call of March 5 [1933]. Is not the general strike a “decisive struggle’? The two strike calls wholly corresponded to the obligations of a “leading role” in the “anti-fascist united front” under the conditions of the “revolutionary offensive.” Unfortunately, the strike calls fell on deaf ears; nobody came out and answered them. But if, between the official interpretation of events and the strike calls on the one hand, and the facts and deeds on the other, there arises such a crying contradiction, it is hard to understand wherein a correct policy can be distinguished from a disastrous one. In any case, the presidium has forgotten to explain which was correct – the two strike calls or the indifference of the workers to them.

But perhaps the division in the ranks of the proletariat was the cause of the defeat? Such an explanation is created especially for lazy minds. The unity of the proletariat, as a universal slogan, is a myth. The proletariat is not homogeneous. The split begins with the political awakening of the proletariat, and constitutes the mechanics of its growth. Only under the conditions of a ripened social crisis, when it is faced with the seizure of power as an immediate task, can the vanguard of the proletariat, provided with a correct policy, rally around itself the overwhelming majority of its class. But the rise to this revolutionary peak is accomplished on the steps of successive splits.

It was not Lenin who invented the policy of the united front; like the split within the proletariat it is imposed by the dialectics of the class struggle. No successes would be possible without temporary agreements, for the sake of fulfilling immediate tasks, among various sections, organizations, and groups of the proletariat Strikes, trade unions, journals, parliamentary elections, street demonstrations, demand that the split be bridged in practice from time to time as the need arises; that is, they demand an ad hoc united front, even if it does not always take on the form of one. In the first stages of a movement, unity arises episodically and spontaneously from below, but when the masses are accustomed to fighting through their organizations, unity must also be established at the top. Under the conditions existing in advanced capitalist countries, the slogan of “only from below” is a gross anachronism, fostered by memories of the first stages of the revolutionary movement, especially in Czarist Russia.

At a certain level, the struggle for unity of action is converted from an elementary fact into a tactical task. The simple formula of the united front solves nothing. It is not only Communists who appeal for unity, but also reformists, and even fascists. The tactical application of the united front is subordinated, in every given period, to a definite strategic conception. In preparing the revolutionary unification of the workers, without and against reformism, a long, persistent, and patient experience in applying the united front with the reformists is necessary; always, of course, from the point of view of the final revolutionary goal. It is precisely in this field that Lenin gave us incomparable examples.

The strategic conception of the Communist International was false from beginning to end. The point of departure of the German Communist Party was that there is nothing but a mere division of labor between the Social Democracy and fascism; that their interests are similar, if not identical. Instead of helping to aggravate the discord between Communism’s principal political adversary and its mortal foe – for which it would have been sufficient to proclaim the truth aloud instead of violating it – the Communist International convinced the reformists and the fascists that they were twins; it predicted their conciliation, embittered and repulsed the Social Democratic workers, and consolidated their reformist leaders. Worse yet: in every case where, despite the obstacles presented by the leadership, local unity committees for workers’ defense were created, the bureaucracy forced its representatives to withdraw under threat of expulsion. It displayed persistency and perseverance only in sabotaging the united front, from above as well as from below. All this it did, to be sure, with the best of intentions.

No policy of the Communist Party could, of course, have transformed the Social Democracy into a party of the revolution. But neither was that the aim. It was necessary to exploit to the limit the contradiction between reformism and fascism – in order to weaken fascism, at the same time weakening reformism by exposing to the workers the incapacity of the Social Democratic leadership. These two tasks fused naturally into one. The policy of the Comintern bureaucracy led to the opposite result: the capitulation of the reformists served the interests of fascism and not of Communism; the Social Democratic workers remained with their leaders; the Communist workers lost faith in themselves and in the leadership.

The masses wanted to fight, but they were obstinately prevented from doing so by the leaders. Tension, uneasiness, and finally disorientation disrupted the proletariat from within. It is dangerous to keep molten metal too long on the fire; it is still more dangerous to keep society too long in a state of revolutionary crisis. The petty bourgeoisie swung over in its overwhelming majority to the side of National Socialism only because the proletariat, paralyzed from above, proved powerless to lead it along a different road. The absence of resistance on the part of the workers heightened the self-assurance of fascism and diminished the fear of the big bourgeoisie confronted by the risk of civil war. The inevitable demoralization of the Communist detachment, increasingly isolated from the proletarian rendered impossible even a partial resistance. Thus the triumphal procession of Hitler over the bones of the proletarian organizations was assured.

The false strategic conception of the Communist International collided with reality at every stage, thereby leading to a course of incomprehensible and inexplicable zigzags. The fundamental principle of the Communist International was: a united front with the reformist leaders cannot be permitted! Then, at the most critical hour, the Central Committee of the German Communist Party, without explanation or preparation, appealed to the leaders of the Social Democracy, proposing the united front as an ultimatum: today or never! Both leaders and workers in the reformist camp interpreted this step, not as the product of fear, but, on the contrary, as a diabolical trap. After the inevitable failure of an attempt at compromise, the Communist International ordered that the appeal be ignored and the very idea of a united front was once more proclaimed counterrevolutionary. Such an insult to the political consciousness of the masses could not pass with impunity. If up to March 5 one could, with some difficulty, still image that the Communist International, in its fear of the enemy, might possibly call upon the Social Democracy, at the last moment under the club of the enemy-then the appeal of the presidium on March 5 proposing joint action to the Social Democratic parties of the entire world, independent of the internal conditions of each country, made even this explanation impossible. In this belated and worldwide proposal for a united front, when Germany was revealed by the flames of the Reichstag fire [1], there was no longer a word about social fascism. The Communist International was even prepared – it is hard to believe this, but it was printed in black and white! – to refrain from criticism of the Social Democracy during the whole period of the joint struggle.

The waves of this panic-stricken capitulation to reformism had hardly had time to subside when Weis swore fealty to Hitler, and Leipart offered fascism his assistance and support. “The Communists,” the presidium of the Communist International immediately declared, “were right in calling the Social Democrats social fascists.” These people are always right Then why did they themselves abandon the theory of social fascism a few days before this unmistakable confirmation of it? Luckily, nobody dares to put embarrassing questions to the leaders. But the misfortunes do not stop there: the bureaucracy thinks too slowly to keep pace with the present tempo of events. Hardly had the presidium fallen back upon the famous revelation: “Fascism and Social Democracy are twins,” than Hitler accomplished the complete destruction of the Free Trade Unions and, incidentally, arrested Leipart & Co. The relations between the twin brothers are not entirely brotherly.

Instead of taking reformism as a historic reality, with its interests and its contradictions, with all its oscillations to the right and left the bureaucracy operates with mechanical models. Leipart’s readiness to crawl on all fours after the defeat is offered as an argument against the united front before the defeat for the purpose of avoiding the defeat. As if the policy of making fighting agreements with the reformists were based upon the valor of the reformist leaders and not upon the incompatibility of the organs of the proletarian democracy and the fascist bands.

In August 1932, when Germany was still ruled by the “social general Schleicher, who was supposed to assure the union of Hitler with Wels, announced by the Communist International, I wrote:

“All signs point to the break-up of the Wels-Schleicher-Hitler triangle even before it had begun to take shape.

“But perhaps it will be replaced by a Hitler-Wels combination? ... Let us assume that the Social Democracy would, without fearing its own workers, want to sell its toleration to Hitler. But Hitler does not need this commodity: he needs not the toleration but the abolition of the Social Democracy. The Hitler government can only accomplish its task by breaking the resistance of the proletariat and by removing all the possible organs of its resistance. Therein lies the historical role of fascism.” (p.287)

That the reformists, after the defeat, would be happy if Hitler were to permit them to vegetate legally until better times return, cannot be doubted. But unfortunately for them, Hitler – the experience of Italy has not been in vain for him – realizes that the labor organizations, even if their leaders accept a muzzle, would inevitably become a threatening danger at the first political crisis.

Doctor Ley [2], the corporal of the present “labor front,” has determined, with much more logic than the presidium of the Communist International, the relationship between the so-called twins. “Marxism is playing dead,” he said on May 2, “in order to rise again at a more favorable opportunity ... The sly fox does not deceive us! It is better for us to deal him the final blow rather than to tolerate him until he recovers. The Leiparts and the Grassmanns [3] may feign all sorts of devotion to Hitler – but it is better to keep them under lock and key. That is why we are striking out of the hands of the Marxist rabble its principal weapon [the trade unions] and are thus depriving it of the last possibility of arming itself again.” If the bureaucracy of the Communist International were not so infallible and if it listened to criticism, it would not have made additional mistakes between March 22, when Leipart swore fealty to Hitler, and May 2, when Hitler, in spite of the oath, arrested him.

Essentially, the theory of “social fascism” could have been refuted even if the fascists had not done such a thorough job of forcing themselves into the trade unions. Even if Hitler had found it necessary, as a result of the relationship of forces, to leave Leipart temporarily and nominally at the head of the trade unions, the agreement would not have eliminated the incompatibility of the fundamental interests. Even though tolerated by fascism, the reformists would remember the fleshpots of the Weimar democracy and that alone would make them concealed enemies. How can one fail to see that the interests of the Social Democracy and of fascism are incompatible when even the independent existence of the Stahlhelm is impossible in the Third Reich? Mussolini tolerated the Social Democracy and even the Communist Party for some time, only to destroy them all the more mercilessly later on. The vote of the Social Democratic deputies in the Reichstag for the foreign policy of Hitler, covering this party with fresh dishonor, will not ameliorate its fate by one iota.

As one of the main causes for the victory of fascism, the luckless leaders refer – in secret, to be sure – to the “genius” of Hitler, who foresaw everything and neglected nothing. It would be fruitless now to submit the fascist policy to a retrospective criticism. One need only remember that Hitler, during the summer of last year, allowed the high peak of the fascist tide to escape him. But even the gross loss of rhythm – a colossal mistake – did not have fatal results. The burning of the Reichstag by Göring, even if this act of provocation was crudely executed, did, however, yield the necessary result The same must be said of the fascist policy as a whole, for it led to victory. One cannot, unfortunately, deny the superiority of the fascist over the proletarian leadership. But it is only out of an unbecoming modesty that the beaten chiefs keep silent about their own part in the victory of Hitler. There is the game of checkers and there is also the game of losers-win. The game that was played in Germany has this singular feature, that Hitler played checkers and his opponents played to lose. As for political genius, Hitler has no need for it. The strategy of his enemy compensated largely for anything his own strategy lacked.

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Last updated on: 25.4.2007