Leon Trotsky

How Long Can Hitler Stay?

(June 1933)

Written in exile in Turkey, June 22, 1933.
Published in The American Mercury, Vol.31 No.1, January 1934, pp.1-17.
Different translation with the title German Perspectives in Class Struggle, September-October and November 1933.

After a fire, it is difficult to arrange things anew. It is even more difficult after a great political defeat to determine the road again. Reluctantly do parties admit that they have been beaten, especially if a great deal of the fault for the defeat lies with them. The greater the extent of the defeat the more difficult it is for political thought to pass over to new positions, to work out a new perspective and to subordinate to it the direction and tempo of further work.

The history of military science, like the history of the revolutionary struggle, records a great number of supplementary defeats that came as a result of the fact that the leadership, not having evaluated the extent of the basic defeat tried to cover it up by untimely attacks. In war, criminal attempts of this sort lead to a mass destruction of living forces, already morally undermined by previous setbacks. In the revolutionary struggle, the most militant elements, already torn away from the masses by previous defeats, fall victim to adventures.

The present catastrophe in Germany is undoubtedly the greatest defeat of the working class in history. All the more urgent therefore, does a complete strategic turn become, but all the more stubborn, on the other hand, is the resistance of the party bureaucracy. It labels as “defeatists” not those who brought on the defeat – it would be obliged to name itself – but those who draw the necessary political conclusions from the fact of the defeat. The struggle now unfolding around the question of the perspectives of political development in Germany has an exceptional significance for the fate of Europe and of the whole world.

In this connection we shall omit from consideration the Social Democracy: the revolting decomposition of this party leaves it no possibility even for maneuvers of bureaucratic prestige. The leaders do not even try to pretend that they have any ideas or plans. After completely losing their heads politically, their concern is directed towards saving their heads physically. These people have been preparing their dishonorable defeat by their whole policy since the beginning of the imperialist war.

Only the orientation of the Communist Party is now of political interest. As a mass organization, it is completely demolished. But the central apparatus is preserved, issuing illegal and emigrant literature, calling abroad antifascist congresses, and working out plans for the struggle against the dictatorship of the Nazis. All the vices of defeated staffs now find in this apparatus their unsurpassed expression.

“The fascists are Caliphs for an hour,” writes the official organ of the Comintern. “Their victory is not a lasting one, and after it will quickly follow the proletarian revolution ... The struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat stands on the order of the day in Germany.” Constantly giving ground, surrendering every position, losing its own adherents, the apparatus continues to reiterate that the antifascist wave is mounting, that its spirits are rising, that it is necessary to be prepared for an insurrection, if not tomorrow, then in a few months from now. Optimistic phraseology has become a means of political self-preservation for the beaten commanding staff. The danger of spurious optimism is all the greater the more deeply the inner life of the German proletariat is plunged into darkness: there are neither trade unions, parliamentary elections, membership dues, nor newspaper circulation – no data whatsoever can emerge to control the consequences of a false policy or disturb the equanimity of the leaders.

The main reason for the reassuring prognosis consists in the fact that Hitler “will not fulfill his promises.” As if Mussolini had to fulfill his fantastic program in order to maintain himself in power for more than ten years! A revolution is not an automatic punishment for swindlers, but a complex social phenomenon which arises only when a series of historical conditions are at hand. We shall recall them once more: the bewilderment and the division of the ruling classes; the indignation of the petty bourgeoisie and its loss of faith in the existing order; the growing militant activity of the working class; finally, a correct policy of the revolutionary party – such are the immediate prerequisites for a revolution. Are they at hand?

For the past couple of years the possessing classes of Germany have been in a state of the cruelest internecine war. Now all of them – even though with a heavy heart – submit to fascism. The antagonism between the agrarians and the industrialists, as well as between separate groups of industrialists, has not disappeared; but you may be sure that it will soon be regulated.

The petty bourgeoisie of Germany seethed like a boiling kettle in the last period. Even in its nationalistic raving, there was an element of social danger. Now it is united around a government which rose up upon its back and is disciplined by a purely military organization which emerged out of its midst The middle classes have become the main prop of Order. The conclusion is irrefutable: insofar as it is a question of the big and petty bourgeoisie, the prerequisites for a revolutionary outcome have slipped into the past or, what is the same thing, into the indefinite future.

With regard to the working class, the situation is no less clear. If a few months ago it found itself, through the fault of its leadership, incapable of defending its powerful legal positions from the assault of the counterrevolution, now, on the second day after the rout, it is immeasurably less prepared for an assault upon the powerful legal positions of fascism. The material and moral factors have sharply and deeply changed the relationship of forces to the disadvantage of the proletariat Or is it still necessary to prove this? No more favorable is the state of affairs in the domain of leadership: the Communist Party does not exist; its apparatus, deprived of the fresh air of criticism, is choking in a deep internal struggle. In what sense then can it be said that “the struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat in Germany stands on the order of the day? What is meant here by “day”?

It is not difficult to foresee exposures, sincere and hypocritical, of our pessimism, our disbelief in the creative forces of the revolution, etc. Cheap reproaches! We know, no less than others, that fascism is defending a historically lost cause. Its methods may yield imposing but unstable results. Only those classes that have outlived themselves can be put down by violence. But the proletariat has always been the main productive force of society. It can be routed for a time, but to enslave it forever is impossible. Hitler promises to “reeducate the workers,” but he is obliged to use pedagogic methods which are not even suited for the training of dogs. Fascism will inevitably break its neck against the irreconcilable hostility of the workers. But how and when? General historical foresight does not eliminate the burning question of policy: what must be done now, and especially, what must not be done, in order to prepare and hasten the smashing of National Socialism?

To count upon the immediate revolutionizing effect of fascist repressions and material want is to display a vulgar materialism. Of course, “being determines consciousness.” But that does not at all mean a mechanical and direct dependence of consciousness upon external circumstances. Existence refracts itself in consciousness according to the laws of consciousness. One and the same objective fact may have a different, sometimes an opposite, political effect, depending upon the general situation and preceding events. Thus, in the march of development of humanity, repressions frequently call forth revolutionary indignation. But after the triumph of counterrevolution, repressions have more than once snuffed out the last flare of protest The economic crisis can hasten the revolutionary explosion, and that has happened more than once in history; but crashing down upon the proletariat after a heavy political defeat, the crisis can only aggravate the process of decomposition. Let us put it more concretely. We do not expect immediate revolutionary consequences for Germany from the further deepening of the industrial crisis.

To be sure, history records that a long-lasting industrial revival has frequently given the upper hand to opportunistic currents within the proletariat. But after a lengthy period of crisis and reaction, the rising conjuncture may, on the contrary, raise the level of activity of the workers and impel them towards the road of struggle. We regard this variant as in many respects the more likely one.

However, the center of gravity does not lie at present in the conjunctural prognosis. Weighty psychological turns of many- millioned masses demand lengthy intervals: this should be the point of departure. The break in the conjuncture, collisions in the ranks of the possessing classes, international complications, may and will have their effects upon the workers.

But external events cannot simply annul the inner laws of mass consciousness, cannot permit the proletariat to erase the consequences of the defeat all at once and thereby open up a new page in the book of the revolutionary struggle. Even it due to an especially favorable conjuncture of internal and external conditions, the beginning of the turn were to reveal itself after an exceptionally short interval, let us say in a year or two, the question of what our policy should be would stay the same for the next twelve or twenty-four months, while the counter-revolution was still making further conquests. Realistic tactics cannot be developed without a correct perspective. There can be no correct perspective without understanding that it is not a maturing of the proletarian revolution which is taking place now in Germany but a deepening of the fascist counter-revolution. And that is not one and the same thing!

Bureaucracy, the revolutionary included, forgets too easily that the proletariat is not only an object but also a subject of politics. By means of blows on the head, the Nazis aim to turn the workers into homunculi of racism. The leadership of the Comintern, on the contrary, reckons that the blows of Hitler will make the workers obedient Communists. Both calculations are wrong. Workers are not clay in the hands of a potter. They do not each time begin history all over again. Hating and despising the Nazis, they are least of all inclined, however, to return to that policy which led them into the noose of Hitler. The workers feel themselves cheated and betrayed by their own leadership. They do not know what must be done, but they know what must not be done. They are unspeakably tortured, and they want to break away from the vicious circle of confusion, threats, lies, and braggadocio, to step aside, to duck, to wait for the storm to blow over, to rest up from the necessity of deciding questions that are beyond them. They need time for the wounds of disillusionment to heal The generalized name for this state is political indifference. The masses fall into an irascible passivity. A number, and no small one, finds cover in fascist organizations. It is not permissible, of course, to put demonstrative passage to the side of fascism by individual politicians on the same plane as the anonymous entrance of workers into the compulsory organizations of the dictatorship. The first is a question of careerism; the second of protective coloration, of submission to the boss. Nevertheless, the fact of the mass shifting of workers under the banner of the swastika is irrefutable evidence of the feeling of helplessness which has gripped the proletariat The reaction has plainly penetrated into the very bones of the working class. This is not for a single day.

In this general situation, the clamorous party bureaucracy, which has forgotten nothing and learned nothing, represents an obvious political anachronism. The workers are nauseated by the official infallibility. A void grows around the apparatus. The worker does not want, in addition to the knout of Hitler, to be whipped by the knout of spurious optimism. He wants the truth. The crying discord between the official perspective and the real state of affairs only introduces an additional element of demoralization into the ranks of the advanced workers.

What is called the radicalization of the masses is a complex molecular process of collective consciousness. In order to get back to the road, the workers must first of all understand what has happened. Radicalization is unthinkable if the mass has not assimilated its own defeat – if its vanguard, at any rate, has not critically reevaluated the past and risen above the defeat to a new stage.

This process has not yet begun. The apparatus press itself is forced to admit between two optimistic outcries, that not only do the Nazis continue to strengthen their position in the villages, driving out Communists and fanning to a white heat the peasants’ hatred of the workers, but that in industry also the elimination of the last remaining worker-Communists continues, moreover without any resistance being offered. In all this there is nothing unexpected. The side that is defeated bears the consequences of the defeat.

In the face of these facts, the bureaucracy, in search of a prop for its optimistic perspective, flings itself from its innate subjectivism into accomplished fatalism. Even if the spirits of the masses do decline, they assure us, Hitlerism will soon blow up anyway as a result of its own contradictions. Only yesterday it was considered that all the parties in Germany – from the Nazis to the Social Democrats – were only varieties of fascism and were carrying out the same program. Now all hopes are directed to the contradictions within the ruling camp.

The new mistakes in political calculation are no less crude than the old ones. The “opposition” of the old capitalist parties to the Nazis is nothing more than the instinctive resistance of a sick person whose rotten tooth is being extracted by an army barber-surgeon. The police, for example, have occupied all the quarters of the German Nationalist Party. Events are moving according to schedule. The conflict between Hugenberg and Hitler will only be an episode along the road of concentrating the whole power in the hands of Hitler. To fulfill its assignment, fascism must merge with the state apparatus.

It is very likely that many of the fascist troopers are already discontented: they were not even allowed to plunder to their hearts’ content. But no matter what sharp forms this discontent may assume, it cannot become a serious political factor. The government apparatus will crush the refractory Praetorians one after the other, reconstitute the untrustworthy detachments, bribe the summits. The sobering up of the broad masses of the petty bourgeoisie is, generally speaking, absolutely inevitable. But it will take place at different times and in different forms. Flares of discontent may in some cases precede the return to the lower depths of the nether strata betrayed by fascism. To expect an independent revolutionary initiative from this source is at all events out of the question.

The National Socialist factory committees depend immeasurably less upon the workers than did the reformist factory committees in their day. True, in the atmosphere of incipient revival, even the fascist factory committees might become points of support for the advance of the working class. On January 9, 1905, the workers’ organizations created by the Czarist Okhrana became for a day a lever of revolutions. But right now, when the German workers are passing through painful disappointment and degradation, it is absurd to expect that they will engage in a serious struggle under the leadership of fascist bureaucrats. The factory committees will be chosen from the top and trained as agencies for the betrayal and suppression of the workers.

No self-deception! A defeat covered up by illusions means ruin. Salvation lies in clarity. Only a merciless criticism of all failures and errors can prepare the great revenge.

It may be considered established by experience that German fascism operates at a speedier tempo than Italian fascism – not only because Hitler can take advantage of the experience of Mussolini, but primarily because of the higher-level social structure of Germany and the greater acuteness of its contradictions. It is permissible to conclude from this that National Socialism in power will wear itself out sooner than its Italian precursor. But even while degenerating and decomposing, National Socialism cannot fall of itself. It must be overthrown. The changing of the political regime in present-day Germany cannot be realized without an insurrection. True, for such an insurrection there is at present no direct and immediate prospect; but no matter what devious path developments should take, they must inevitably break through to insurrection.

As is known, the petty bourgeoisie is incapable of an independent revolutionary policy. But the policy and moods of the petty bourgeoisie are not at all a matter of indifference for the fate of the regime created with its assistance. The disappointment and discontent of the intermediary classes will turn National Socialism, as they have already turned Italian fascism, from a people’s movement into a police apparatus. No matter how strong it may be in itself, the apparatus cannot substitute for the living current of counterrevolution penetrating into all the pores of society. The bureaucratic degeneration of fascism therefore means the beginning of its end.

At this stage, however, a new difficulty must reveal itself Under the influence of defeat, the inhibitory centers of the proletariat are hypertrophied. The workers become cautious, distrustful, and expectant. Even if the volcanic eruption of the reaction has ceased, the hardened lava of the fascist state recalls too threateningly what has been lived through. Such is the political situation in present-day Italy. To borrow from the terminology of economics, it may be said that the disappointment and dissatisfaction of petty-bourgeois reaction prepares the moment when the sharp crisis of the workers’ movement will pass over into a depression which will then, at a certain stage, give way to revival To attempt to foretell now how and when and under what slogans this revival will begin would be a merely futile occupation: even the stages of an economic cycle always have an unexpected character; all the more so the stages of political development.

For an organism which has just passed through a grave illness, correct treatment is especially important. As for the workers over whom the roller of fascism has passed, adventuristic tactics will inevitably produce a relapse into apathy. Thus, a premature speculation in stocks frequently carries with it a recurrence of the crisis. The example of Italy shows that a state of political depression, especially with a false political leadership, may drag out for years. A correct policy demands not that artificial lines of march be imposed upon the proletariat, but that the perspectives and slogans of struggle be drawn from the living dialectics of the movement. Favorable external stimuli may greatly shorten the separate stages of the process: it is not at all necessary that the depression should last for years as in Italy. It is, however, impossible to jump over the organic stages of the rise of the masses. To accelerate, without trying to jump over – therein lies the whole art of revolutionary leadership! Once having torn itself from under the leaden weight of fascism, the working class movement may, in a comparatively short time, take on a wide scope. Only after that, and only under the leadership of the proletariat, can the discontent of the petty bourgeoisie acquire a progressive political character and reestablish a favorable situation for the revolutionary struggle.

The ruling classes will have to confront the other side of this process. Having lost support in the petty bourgeoisie, the fascist state will become a very untrustworthy apparatus of subjection. The politicians of capital will have to orient themselves anew. The contradictions in the midst of the possessing classes will break through to the surface.

Facing masses which go over to an offensive, Hitler will find that he has an unreliable rear. The immediate revolutionary situation will thus come into being, heralding the last hour of National Socialism.

But before the proletariat is able to set itself great tasks, it must draw up the balance of the past. Its most general formula: [the old parties are lost. A small nucleus of workers already understands: a new party must be formed. The characterless Social Democracy and the irresponsible Stalinist bureaucracy will be burnt to ashes in the fire of struggle. The gentlemen Nazis never cease to boast about the “Race of Fighter.” The day is coming when Fascism will join issue with the unexterminable race of revolutionary fighters.] [1]

Note by TIA

1. The final section within the square parentheses comes from the translation published in The Class Struggle under the title German Perspectives. This translation differs in a number of ways from translation used for the rest of the article.

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Last updated on: 25.4.2007