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The New International, April 1942


What Next in Europe?

A Discussion Article


From New International, Vol. VIII No. 3, April 1942, pp. 81–84.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The following considerations are prompted by reports we have received from the French Trotskyists with regard to their attitude toward Stalinism and by a document of a French Trotskyist organization which is contained in the March issue of the Fourth International. They have been prompted by the conviction that a continuation of its present attitude to Stalinism and the Soviet Union will doom the Trotskyist group of France.

We do not intend to discuss the question of the Soviet Union. What is to be said about it has been excellently stated in the pages of this magazine and the writer agrees with those views, especially with the position of Carter and Kent. We shall only treat with Stalinist policies in Europe, it aims and what I believe our attitude toward it should be.

After declaring that the policy of the Communist Party has lost all working class character, the French comrades in the above mentioned document proceed: “Under conditions of illegality, the apparatus of the Communist Party cannot directly control the rank and file groups. Thus great possibilities for united action are open to us. The common platform for them and for us is the defense of the SU. Our common goal is the proletarian revolution. The unity of action will enable us to exercise a friendly criticism and to detach the Communist workers from Stalinism” (emphasis mine – E.). These few lines contain an almost incredible amount of confusion and denote a political blindness of the most dangerous sort. First we have the time-worn explanation of the “sane” membership and the “bad” leaders; the leadership and policy of the CP has lost its working class character but the members fight for the “proletarian revolution.”

“Marxian Scholasticism”

This is an example of a scholastic approach, very typical of a certain kind of political thinking in a period of decadence in Marxian thought. No analysis is given of what are the real motives and reasons behind the attitude and thinking of members of the Communist Parties. No attempt is made to clarify the changes which have occurred in the political motives and the thinking of the rank and file members. This whole matter is dismissed by the formula: the good members and the bad leaders. It is, of course, obvious that the aims and ideas of the leadership and members of the CP may not coincide, but if it were true that the membership of the CP stands for the proletarian revolution I cannot see why the the founding of a separate party was held necessary, years ago. The policy of working from within would still be the only correct and workable one. But is this really true? For example, do the average rank and file members have the same ideas on the proletarian dictatorship that we do? We deny this most emphatically.

“Politics is the art of the concrete,” Lenin liked to say. But for many of the would-be “Leninists” politics has become the art of the abstract. Not the living reality is analyzed, but formulae are substituted for analysis. Webster defines scholasticism as “close adherence to traditional teachings and methods prescribed by schools and sects.” And, indeed, no better definition could be found for this type of scholasticism prevalent among many Marxists in our time. The “variable,” in their explanation, is constituted by the different turns of Stalinist policy, whereas the “constant” is furnished by a repetitious roundelay about the sanity of the rank and file. But, has it not occurred to them that in fifteen years of undisputed reign of Stalinist theory inside the Communist movement, the basic thinking of the rank and file members also must have been heavily influenced? Has it not occurred to them that such a phenomenon is often observed in history (e.g., church, etc.)?

Fifteen years of Stalinist theory and practice have profoundly influenced the mentality of the average members of the Stalinist party. His ideas about socialism have been completely distorted by the example of the Soviet Union, his conception of proletarian morals has been fundamentally influenced by what is going on there, above all, the concepts socialism and democracy have been completely disassociated in his mind in these years. He has been led to imagine that the proletarian revolution is a product of a concerted drive by some leaders who conquer power and hold it. His concept of revolution is not that of spontaneous revolutionary activity of the masses but that of a “revolutionary” shepherd driving his herd where he considers it best and most suitable.

Two Kinds of United Front

Does all this mean that we are in principle against a united front, with local organizations of the Stalinists? Not at all. Just as we were for a united front policy with the social democracy in Germany before the Nazis came to power, so we are for united front actions in principle with Stalinist workers. It is impossible to decide from here whether or not this is warranted in the given concrete situation. But the decisive point is: do we make a united front with organizations, whose leadership we characterize as counter-revolutionary, on the basis of defending principles or in a general defense of the working class. There is a gulf between the two. Of course, we can make united front against the rising cost of life, for better pay, for a common defense against the Nazified French police, against the Gestapo and for many other practical objectives. The contacts established in these common actions can then be utilized to make clear what is, and to fight for Marxian socialism as opposed to Stalinism. But what the French comrades propose is a quite different form o£ united front based presumably on common principles. Such a united front can only lead to self-destruction of the group itself, because its raison de vivre is to preserve certain principles of socialism which are or should be the exact opposite of principles fostered by the Stalintern.

The struggle inside the workers’ movement should be confined to a dispute over “totalitarian” or “democratic” concepts of the proletarian revolution: are you for a workers’ state which is based on democratic Soviets as the basis of the proletarian power, or are you for a one-party system, with a bureaucratic apparatus controlling the destiny of the country in the name of the proletariat. Are you for a dictatorship from above, or from below? Hic Rhodos hic Salta. This is the crucial question of the times to come. The crime of Stalin is not that he failed to do this or that; his crime is anti-socialism. The systematic deformation of the fundamental ideas of socialism, above all, is why we reproach Stalinism. What has to be restated as the root of revolutionary theory is the fact that there can be no socialism without democracy, that five-year plans of themselves have nothing in common with socialism. This is the message the young socialist revolutionaries must bring to the workers of Europe. Can this be achieved by “friendly criticism,” by stating that, in fact, there is the common ground of the “proletarian dictatorship” upon which we both stand?

Only two explanations can be found for such an unprincipled attitude. One, either these comrades themselves do not clearly visualize the foregoing fundamental difference and still think in the manner of the by-gone days on the “right” or “left” deviations of Stalin. Or, two, while realizing this, they believe they are making a very “clever” strategical move. But strategical moves which abandon the very principles of our existence are criminal, especially when they are for the sake of “not hurting feelings.” There are certainly many communists, especially among the younger generation, who are not by any meant lost to the cause of the socialist revolution, but they can be won only by a clear-cut criticism, by a merciless pounding at the very heart of the counter-revolutionary theories of Stalinism. In periods of decline and defeat like the present, what is needed most is a clear vision of principles and a relentless fight for the preservation of the idea of democratic socialism. With the mounting tide of alien and hostile ideologies, it is urgently needed to state and restate them, not to regard them as matters which are to be taken for granted.

What is further required today is the understanding that Stalinism is not an ideological trend within the working class movement itself, but is really an ideology of an oppressor. To make this clear among the most advanced sections of the proletariat is one of the main tasks of the revolutionaries in Europe. It is a tragic misconception of their rôle if these revolutionaries think that they must concentrate on the CP, on gaining influence among this or that isolated group of communists. They continue to act as though there were still a powerfully established workers’ movement, of which they are one tendency. They overlook the consequences of the great defeats of the European working class in the last ten years. It is necessary to understand first that what is needed in this dark hour is a constant restatement of the ideas of the Communist Manifesto, a restatement of the principles of socialism as the autonomous movement of the proletariat. Once that is understood the tactical question can be resolved.

Most of the theoretical material which is now produced by these people might come under the heading: the policy of “if.” If there were a class-conscious proletarian movement, it must take this or that stand on concrete questions. They put the end at the beginning and try to write an April Thesis for a Bolshevik Party which does not exist. Such theories are bound to be entirely without value for the very simple reason that if there existed a movement of the kind they speak about, then the objective situation would be altered and the tactical problems would again be different. A small revolutionary socialist group which does not represent a real mass movement should not split hairs about this or that hypothetical turn in their tactical approach to a movement which is absolutely outside their reach. They ought to concentrate on the restatement and elaboration of the broad lines of socialist thought, on the propaganda for the socialist aim among the most advanced layers of the proletariat.

With or Against the Stream

The French Trotskyists report that they have established close contacts with certain local Stalinist organizations and that they even issue a common newspaper. What is this other than a simple capitulation. This newspaper cannot even accuse Stalin of the crimes committed against socialism in the Soviet Union; it can say nothing about the class character of the USSR. Instead it will “defend the SU” and state their “common belief in proletarian dictatorship.” This means that it can only contribute to retarding the political consciousness of its readers. It can only make them believe that “after all, there are tactical differences between us; we agree on the principles.”

In the French movement there are people who raised the question of the character of the SU long ago and these same people now approve not only the the defense of the Soviet Union but also the unprincipled deal with the local Stalinists. The only explanation for this is to be found in the fact that it is very difficult to go “against the current.” Isolation from political events is depressing; a revolutionary seeks always to be in the midst of the struggle. But the chief virtue of the revolutionary in these times is to have the courage to stand alone in the fight to uphold socialist principles precisely because he is firmly convinced of their future.

The Stalinists have a clear and logical program in their defense of the Soviet Union. They sabotage the German war machine wherever they can and they support the Allied imperialists wherever and whenever the occasion presents itself. What concrete steps do the French Trotskyists propose in the defense of the Soviet Union. The answer which states that the continuation of the class struggle is the best defense of Russia is no answer at all. Continuation of the class struggle is a primary consideration of revolutionaries quite apart from defense or no defense of the Soviet Union. Scholastic distinctions between the “good” socialist base (the Soviet Union) and the “bad” Stalinist leadership does not give any answer to the concrete problem. How shall we aid the Soviet Union? the Stalinists will ask, and the French Trotskyists can only answer by an abstraction or they must more or less adopt Stalinist propositions.

One of the most important traditions of the Trotskyist movement has been its internationalism, Trotsky never analyzed a question without considering its international consequences. But this sound internationalist basis is also endangered by the French comrades. If you propose a united front with Stalinists for the defense of the Soviet Union this must also have repercussions on your general political policies. It is absurd to say: “We are for revolutionary methods in France.” The Stalinists are actually in cooperation with British imperialism and stand for a new Versailles. If you are for a peace brought, about by fraternization with the soldiers and workers of Germany, if you are for the closest cooperation with a German revolutionary movement, how can you be in a united front with the Stalinists, whose aim is to behead a mass revolution as quickly as it springs up. The only logical defense of the SU, under the circumstances, is the one which the Stalinists propagate and it is a course which is completely devoid of internationalism. Any other course is impossible. The pitiful scholastic distinctions in the above mentioned document are proof of this.

The Issues at Stake

We already imagine our critics saying: You propose to remain in splendid isolation, not to engage in the real struggles which are now going on. You abandon the thousands of sincere workers who are inside the communist movement. You advocate a policy of complete isolation for the proletarian vanguard. Our answer is twofold. First, the present isolation of the revolutionaries is a fact not caused by this or that policy; it is the outcome of political events of the last fifteen years. It is the product of objective circumstances and it cannot be changed by this or that clever move but only by objective conditions.

The question is not if we are to try to influence and to gain communist workers, but how we are to achieve this. One proposition is to exercise “friendly criticism,” i.e., to blur the real issues at stake for the sake of gaining some momentary influence. This, in its very essence, is an opportunistic proposition. The other proposition is to state, very bluntly, things as they are.

The Menace to the Coming European Revolution

Some weeks ago in a Labor Action article, I attempted to outline roughly some of the reasons which explain the continued dominant position of the Stalinist organizations in France and among the workers of many other European countries. The most important seem to be: (1) the traditional linking, in the minds of advanced workers, or revolutionary action with Moscow, the capital of the first successful proletarian revolution, and (2) the absence of self-reliance by large layers of the proletariat which, as a result of continuous defeats, unemployment and starvation, has lost confidence in its own strength and craves for leadership and direction from the outside. I should now like to stress another more concrete aspect of the same problem: What the role of Stalinism will be in the coming European revolution.

It should, of course, be realized that such discussions are bound to be hypothetical. They are based on possible trends. It may be that history will take an entirely different course, but awareness of the implications of all possible trends is essential to any attempt to play an active role in the future course of history. Our aim is not to prophesy but to attempt to make clear, by way of one possible tendency of development, what are the dangers stemming from the Stalinist movement.

Quite naturally, our attention must be directed toward the German movement, since we are convinced that, whereas the first great popular movements against fascist domination may well come from the occupied countries, it is more than probable that the fate of the European revolution as a whole will be decisively determined by what happens in Germany. There are numerous reasons for this. Germany has the greatest productive capacity of any European nation; it is today, and unless consciously weakened, will be tomorrow the most powerful country on the Continent. Even in terms of numerical strength, not to speak of cultural level, its working class, compared to the working classes of other countries, is more advanced. On the other hand, it should be remembered (especially by certain neo-nationalists in the proletarian movement) that a revolt in the occupied countries is not possible before a decided weakening of the German war machine and German morale. Furthermore, the national question in the occupied countries complicates the picture of the whole struggle to come there and for this practical reason we also prefer to take the Germans as our example.

Let us assume as one possibility a complete Nazi defeat on the Russian front. The beaten army retreats to Germany; its discipline is broken; revolutionary propaganda eats its way into the army; councils of revolutionary soldiers spontaneously arise everywhere. The generals try to stop this by an attempt at staging a palace coup against Hitler, but things have already gone too far; the officers have lost their hold on the army; they cannot stop the outbursts of passion and hatred against them and the system as a whole. At the same time the workers have begun to seize power in Germany itself. A series of demonstrations spread throughout Germany; mass strikes, armed clashes occur between the workers and the elite guard of the regime; the Nazi apparatus disintegrates; the revolutionary process develops beyond its control.

In such a situation the crucial question of the German revolution arises: Will a new state machine of oppression replace Hitler, or will the workers be able to control their destiny and that of society through their own democratically constituted councils? Here the degree of class-consciousness and political clarity of the German workers will be of tremendous importance, will, indeed, be the crucial question.

Britain and America undoubtedly will try to utilize those social-democratic and “liberal” politicians whom they are keeping in stock for such an occasion, in order to build some sort of puppet government. These tools of the “democratic” nations will try to find mass support among the former social-democratic and Catholic workers, seeking to lure them with promises of big Allied help and promising a return of “law and order.” But we do not consider this the paramount danger to the German proletarian revolution. A repetition of “Weimar” is a prospect which cannot possibly attract the German worker. “Weimar” is too much linked to “Versailles.” German labor has been fooled once before into handing over its power to the Eberts and Noskes, and we are convinced that the class as a whole has thereby acquired experiences which will be remembered tomorrow. Furthermore, we think that the “morale” inside the Allied armies will in any case make it impossible, after a long military conflict, to employ English and American soldiers as a tool to crush a German socialist revolution.

Thus, once again, we are drawn to the conclusion that the greatest danger will come from Stalinism. Here is a counter-revolutionary force, still clad in the attractive, if usurped, cloak of the October Revolution (at least in the eyes of many German workers) and here is an apparatus which knows the mentality of the German worker far better than do the Allies. Here is a force which appears to be opposed to a new Versailles. Above all, whereas counter-revolutionary movements sponsored by the Allies will have to come from outside the workers movement, the Stalinist counter-revolution will arise from within. A victorious Red Army advancing to the German borders would most probably, in the beginning, meet with considerable enthusiasm from large sections of the German working class.

But even in the Nazi apparatus itself, in its lower ranks as well as in the lower ranks of the army and state machine, a movement of instinctive sympathy for the Stalinists will appear. After all, many will feel, this is also a totalitarian régime and it might be possible to worm one’s way into the more privileged strata of it. (Similar developments have taken place in Spain and in the occupied Baltic states.) This might furthermore be linked with vague sentiments of a “socialism from above” which has always existed among certain ideologists of the left-wing Nazis (Niekisch, Juenger, etc.) The Stalinists will exploit these sentiments to the utmost. In the Baltic countries, after the Russian occupation, a great distrust toward the communist workers went together with a pronounced friendliness toward the government bureaucracy, provided they accepted the “accomplished facts” of the invasion.

The policy of the Stalinists will be (while talking of socialism and the revolution) to restrict as much as possible the spontaneous initiative of the workers seeking to establish their new proletarian democratically constituted councils. There may be agreement between revolutionaries and Stalinists with regard to expropriating the capitalists and destroying the power of the old ruling classes. It is of decisive importance to understand very clearly what Stalinism really is. If the German workers as a whole, and the revolutionary vanguard in particular will adhere to the belief that there are no fundamental differences between socialism and Stalinism because both are for the overthrow of the exploiting class, then the German revolution is inevitably lost. It is, therefore, essential to establish in the most outspoken manner that expropriation of the bourgeois and planned economy does not necessarily mean that the revolution is victorious or that socialism is approaching. Counter-revolution is not something peculiar to capitalism or fascism. Counter-revolution and oppression of the workers are possible on the basis of a nationalized and planned economy. Therefore, when Stalinists fight to smash private capitalism they do not necessarily fight for socialism. They are not our allies but our most deadly enemies, because they want to build a totalitarian bureaucratic state which shall oppress the workers as much as the bourgeoisie oppresses them. This means that the decisive question of the revolution is bound to be political and not economic. Where is the real power in society to be vested, in the Soviets or in the state machine? Are the workers to have a free determination of their destiny through the channel of their democratically elected councils in which all working class tendencies can be represented, or shall power be vested in a new state apparatus governing ostensibly in the name of the proletariat but in reality over the proletariat.

Even if the workers have no clear understanding of the danger of Stalinism, they will spontaneously form their own councils, occupy the factories and organize their armed guards. A race for time will take place between the Stalinist attempt to “reorganize” the country and the workers’ councils of action. In such a situation, a revolutionary socialist movement with a clear conception of the issues at stake, will have great importance. It will be able to clarify the instinctive feeling of the masses, help to organize and coordinate the action of the different regional Soviets into a national representative body, fight every attempt to take power out of the hands of the workers and to vest it in the hands of a bureaucratic apparatus. But such a gigantic task can only be performed by those who have the most acute insight into the real situation, who know from where the danger comes. The education of such elements of a future vanguard is what is necessary to do today. The elaboration of a clarified political program with regard to these fundamental questions, is the burning need of the hour. What is required are not people who want to play the “game” of politics according to long-established rules, but revolutionaries who are able to grasp and cope with the fundamental problems of our time.

An analogous situation will also arise in the occupied countries. While immediate circumstances might take a different shape, the essential questions discussed above will be the same. Therefore, we can only say to our French friends: the road which you propose to travel can only lead to failure and defeat. If you abandon a principled attitude on decisive questions today in order not to be out of tune with existing mass sentiments, you will be thoroughly incapable of coping with the immense possibilities of tomorrow. Because of a sterile desire not to lose contact with today you will have surrendered your right to take a leading place with the vanguard of tomorrow.

These brief and incomplete remarks can find no better conclusion than the words which Rosa Luxemburg wrote many years ago but which hold as true today as then:

“If we detect a stagnation in our movement as far as these theoretical matters are concerned, this is not because the Marxian theory upon which we are nourished is incapable of development or has become out of date. On the contrary, it is because we have not yet learned how to make an adequate use of the most important mental weapons which we had taken out of the Marxian arsenal ... The scrupulous endeavor to keep within the bounds of Marxism may at times have been just as disastrous to the integrity of the thought process as has been the other extreme ...”

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