Leon Trotsky

Fascism and Democratic Slogans

(July 1933)

Written: July 1933.
Published: in New International [New York], Vol. 9 No. 7, July 1943, pp.217-220.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Damon Maxwell, September 2008.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2002. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

1. Is It True That Hitler Has Destroyed “Democratic Prejudices”?

The April resolution of the Praesidium of the Executive Committee of the Communist International “on the present situation in Germany” will, we believe, go down in history as the final testimonial to the bankruptcy of the Comintern of the epigones. The resolution is crowned with a prognosis in which all the vices and prejudices of the Stalinist bureaucracy reach their culmination. “The establishment of an open fascist dictatorship,” the resolution proclaims in boldface type, “accelerates the tempo of the development of a proletarian revolution in Germany by destroying all democratic illusions of the masses and by freeing them from the influence of the Social-Democracy.”

Fascism, it seems, has unexpectedly become the locomotive of history: it destroys democratic illusions, it trees the masses from the influence of the Social-Democracy, it accelerates the development of the proletarian revolution. The Stalinist bureaucracy assigns to fascism the accomplishment of those basic tasks which it proved itself utterly incapable of solving.

Theoretically, the victory of fascism is undoubtedly an evidence of the fact that democracy has exhausted itself; but politically, the fascist regime preserves democratic prejudices, recreates them, inculcates them into the youth, and is even capable of imparting to them, for a short time, the greatest strength. Precisely in this consists one of the most important manifestations of the reactionary historic role of fascism.

Doctrinaires think schematically. Masses think with facts. The working class perceives events not as experiments with this or that “thesis,” but as living changes in the fate of the people. The victory of fascism adds a million times more to the scale of political development than the prognosis for the indefinite future which flows from it. Had a proletarian state grown out of the bankruptcy of democracy, the development of society, as well as the development of mass consciousness, would have taken a great leap forward. But inasmuch as it was actually the victory of fascism that grew out of the bankruptcy of democracy, the consciousness of the masses was set far back – of course, only temporarily. The smashing of the Weimar democracy by Hitler can no more put an end to the democratic illusions of the masses than Goring’s setting the Reichstag on fire can burn out parliamentary cretinism.

2. The Example of Spain and Italy

For four years in succession we heard that democracy and fascism do not exclude but supplement each other. How then can the victory of fascism liquidate democracy once and for all? We would like to have some explanations on this score by Bukharin, Zinoviev, or by Manuilsky “himself.”

The military-police dictatorship of Primo de Rivera was declared by the Comintern to be fascism. But if the victory of fascism signifies the final liquidation of democratic prejudices, how can it be explained that the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera gave way to a bourgeois republic? It is true that the regime of Rivera was far from being fascism. But it had, at all events, this much in common with fascism: it arose as a result of the bankruptcy of the parliamentary regime. This did not prevent it, however, after its own bankruptcy was revealed, from giving way to democratic parliamentarism.

One may attempt to say that the Spanish revolution is proletarian in its tendencies, and that the Social-Democracy in alliance with other republicans, has succeeded in arresting its development at the stage of bourgeois parliamentarism. But this objection, correct in itself, proves only more clearly our idea that if bourgeois democracy succeeded in paralyzing the revolution of the proletariat, this was only due to the fact that under the yoke of the “fascist” dictatorship, the democratic illusions were not weakened but became stronger.

Have “democratic illusions” disappeared in Italy during the ten years of Mussolini’s despotism? This is how the fascists themselves are inclined to picture the state of affairs. In reality, however, democratic illusions are acquiring a new force. During this period a new generation has been raised up. Politically, it has not lived in the conditions of freedom, but it knows full well what fascism is: this is the raw material for vulgar democracy. The organization Justizia e Liberia (Justice and Freedom) is distributing illegal democratic literature in Italy, and not without success. The ideas of democracy are therefore finding adherents, who are ready to sacrifice themselves. Even the flabby generalizations of the liberal monarchist, Count Sforza, are spread in the form of illegal pamphlets. That’s how far back Italy has been thrown during these years!

Why fascism in Germany is called upon to play a role entirely opposite to that which it played in Italy remains incomprehensible. Because “Germany is not Italy”? Victorious fascism is in reality not a locomotive of history but its gigantic brake. Just as the policy of the social-democracy prepared the triumph of Hitler, so the regime of National Socialism inevitably leads to the warming up of democratic illusions.

3. Can the Social-Democracy Regenerate Itself?

German comrades testify that the social-democratic workers and even many of the social-democratic bureaucrats are “disillusioned” with democracy. We must extract all we can out of the critical moods of the reformist workers, in the interests of their revolutionary education. But at the same time the extent of the reformists’ “disillusionment” must be clearly understood. The social-democratic high priests scold democracy so as to justify themselves. Unwilling to admit that they showed themselves as contemptible cowards, incapable of fighting for the democracy which they created and for their soft berths in it, these gentlemen shift the blame from themselves to intangible democracy. As we see, this radicalism is not only cheap but also spurious through and through! Let the bourgeoisie only beckon these “disillusioned” ones with its little finger and they will come running on all fours to a new coalition with it. It is true, in the masses of social-democratic workers a real disgust with the betrayals and mirages of democracy is being born. But to what extent? The larger half of seven to eight million social-democratic workers is in a state of the greatest confusion, glum passivity, and capitulation to the victors. At the same time, a new generation will be forming under the heel of fascism, a generation to which the Weimar Constitution will be an historic legend. What line then will the political crystallization within the working class follow? This depends upon many conditions, among them, of course, also upon our policy.

Historically, the direct replacement of the fascist regime by a workers’ state is not excluded. But for the realization of this possibility it is necessary that a powerful illegal Community Party form itself in the process of struggle against fascism, under the leadership of which the proletariat could seize power. However, it must be said that the creation of a revolutionary party of this sort in illegality, is not very probable; at any rate, it is not assured by anything in advance. The discontentment, indignation, fermentation of the masses will, from a certain moment onward, grow much faster than the illegal formation of the party vanguard. And every lack of clarity in the consciousness of the masses will inevitably help democracy.

This does not at all mean that after the fall of fascism, Germany will again have to go through a long school of parliamentarism. Fascism will not eradicate the past political experience; it is even less capable of changing the social structure of the nation. It would be the greatest mistake to expect a new lengthy democratic epoch in the development of Germany. But in the revolutionary awakening of the masses, democratic slogans will inevitably constitute the first chapter. Even if the further progress of the struggle should in general not permit, even for a single day, the regeneration of a democratic state – and this is very possible – the struggle itself cannot develop by the circumvention of democratic slogans! A revolutionary party that would attempt to jump over this stage would break its neck.

The question of the social-democracy is closely connected with this general perspective. Will it reappear on the stage?

The old organization is irrevocably lost. But this does not at all mean that social-democracy cannot be regenerated under a new historic mask. Opportunist parties which fall and decompose so easily under the blows of reaction, come back to life just as easily at the first political revival. We observed this in Russia in the example of the Mensheviks and the Social-Revolutionists. German Social-Democracy can not only regenerate itself, but even acquire great influence, if the revolutionary proletarian party should set up a doctrinaire “negation” of the slogans of democracy against a dialectical attitude toward them. The Presidium of the Comintern in this field, as in so many others, remains the gratuitous assistant of reformism.

4. The Brandlerites Improve on the Stalinists

The confusion in the question of democratic slogans has revealed itself most profoundly in the programmatic theses of the opportunist group of Brandler-Thalheimer on the question of the struggle against fascism. The Communist Party, the theses read, “should unite the manifestations of discontentment of all [!] classes against the fascist dictatorship” (Gegen den Strom, page 7. The word “all” is underlined in the original). At the same time, the theses insistently warn: “The partial slogan cannot be of a bourgeois-democratic nature.” Between these two statements, each of which is erroneous, there is an irreconcilable contradiction. In the first place, the formula of the unification of the discontentment of “all classes” sounds absolutely incredible. The Russian Marxists did at one time abuse such a formulation in the struggle against Czarism. Out of this abuse grew the Menshevik conception of the revolution, later on adopted by Stalin for China. But in Russia, at least, it was a question of the collision of the bourgeois nation with the privileged monarchy. In what sense can one speak, in a bourgeois nation, of the struggle of “all classes” against fascism, which is the tool of the big bourgeoisie against the proletariat? It would be instructive to see how Thalheimer, the manufacturer of theoretic vulgarities, would unite the discontentment of Hugenberg – and he is also discontented – with the discontentment of the unemployed worker. How else can one unite a movement of “all classes” if not by putting oneself on the basis of bourgeois democracy? Verily, a classic combination of opportunism with an ultra-radicalism in words!

The movement of the proletariat against the fascist regime will acquire an ever greater mass character to the extent that the petty bourgeoisie becomes disappointed with fascism, isolating the possessing summits and the government apparatus. The task of a proletarian party would consist in utilizing the weakening of the yoke on the part of the petty bourgeois reaction for the purpose of arousing the activity of the proletariat onto the road of the conquest of the lower strata of the petty bourgeoisie.

It is true, the growth of the discontentment of the intermediary strata and the growth of the resistance of the workers will create a crack in the bloc of the possessing classes and will spur their “left flank” to seek contact with the petty bourgeoisie. The task of the proletarian party with relation to the “liberal” flank of the possessors will consist, however, not in including them both in a bloc of “all classes” against fascism, but, on the contrary, in immediately declaring a decisive struggle against it for influence on the lower strata of the petty bourgeoisie.

Under what political slogans will this struggle take place? The dictatorship of Hitler grew directly out of the Weimar Constitution. The representatives of the petty bourgeoisie have, with their own hands, presented Hitler with the mandate for a dictatorship. If we should assume a very favorable and quick development of the fascist crisis, then the demand for the convocation of the Reichstag with the inclusion of all the banished deputies may, at a certain moment, unite the workers with the widest strata of the petty bourgeoisie. If the crisis should break out later and the memory of the Reichstag should have had time to obliterate itself, the slogan of new elections may acquire great popularity. It is sufficient that such a road is possible. To tie one’s hands with relation to temporary democratic slogans which may be forced upon us by our petty-bourgeois allies and by the backward strata of the proletariat itself, would be fatal doctrinairism.

Brandler-Thalheimer believe, however, that we should only advocate “democratic rights for the laboring masses: the right of assembly, trade unions, freedom of the press, organization and strikes.” In order to emphasize their radicalism more, they add: “these demands should be strictly [!] distinguished from bourgeois-democratic demands of universal democratic rights.” There is no person more wretched than the opportunist who takes the knife of ultra-radicalism between his teeth!

Freedom of assembly and the press only for the laboring masses is conceivable solely under the dictatorship of the proletariat, that is, under the nationalization of buildings, printing establishments, etc. It is possible that the dictatorship of the proletariat in Germany will also have to employ exceptional laws against exploiters: that depends upon the historic moment, upon international conditions, upon the relation of internal forces. But it is not at all excluded that, having conquered power, the workers of Germany will find themselves sufficiently powerful to allow freedom of assembly and the press also to the exploiters of yesterday, of course, in accordance with their actual political influence, and not with the extent of their treasury; the treasury will have been expropriated. Thus, even for the period of the dictatorship there is in principle no basis for limiting beforehand the freedom of assembly and the press only to the laboring masses. The proletariat may be forced to such a limitation; but this is not a question of principle. It is doubly absurd to advocate such a demand under the conditions of present-day Germany, when freedom of the press and assembly exists for all but the proletariat. The arousing of the proletarian struggle against the fascist inferno will take place, at least in the first stages, under the slogans: give also to us, workers, the right of assembly and the press. The communists, of course, will at this stage also carry on a propaganda in favor of the Soviet regime, but they will at the same time support every real mass movement under democratic slogans, and wherever possible will take the initiative in such a movement.

Between the regime of bourgeois democracy and the regime of proletarian democracy there is no third regime, “the democracy of the laboring masses.” True, the Spanish republic calls itself the “republic of the laboring classes,” even in the text of its constitution. But this is a formula of political charlatanism. The Brandlerian formula of democracy “only for the laboring masses,” particularly in combination with the “unity of all classes,” seems to be especially designed to confuse and mislead the revolutionary vanguard in the most important question: “When and to what extent to adapt ourselves to the movement of the petty bourgeoisie and the backward strata of the working masses, what concessions to make to them in the question of the tempo of the movement and the slogans on the order of the day, so as more successfully to rally the proletariat under the banner of its own revolutionary dictatorship?”

At the Seventh Congress of the Russian Communist Party, in March, 1918, during the discussion of the party program, Lenin carried on a decisive struggle against Bukharin, who considered that parliamentarism is done for, once and for all, that it is historically “exhausted.” “We must,” Lenin retorted, “write a new program of the Soviet power, without renouncing the use of bourgeois parliamentarism. To believe that we will not be thrown back is Utopian ... After every setback, if class forces inimical to us should push us to this old position, we shall proceed to what has been conquered by experience – to the Soviet power. ...”

Lenin objected to a doctrinaire anti-parliamentarism with regard to a country which had already gained the Soviet regime: We must not tie our hands beforehand, he taught Bukharin, for we may be pushed back to the once-abandoned positions. In Germany, there has not been and there is no proletarian dictatorship, but there is a dictatorship of fascism; Germany has been thrown back even from bourgeois democracy. Under these conditions, to renounce beforehand the use of democratic slogans and of bourgeois parliamentarism means to clear the field for a social-democracy of a new formation.

Prinkipo, July 14, 1933

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Last updated on: 17.9.2008