Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

The New International, September 1946


Leon Trotsky

The Church Struggle Under Fascism

An Important Letter by Trotsky


From New International, Vol. 12 No. 7, September 1946, pp. 213–215.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


In 1935, the conflict between the Nazi regime and the Catholic and Protestant churches in Germany came sharply into the foreground. The position of the German section of the Fourth International (IKD) was to support the church movement as a fight for democratic rights and freedom of religion. And to make it very clear for all people concerned, the IKD demanded unconditional support and declared the defense of the democratic rights and freedom of religion as an integral part of the communist program.

As could be expected, the Committee Abroad of the IKD encountered strong opposition to its points of view, especially from other sections. The usual ultra-leftists were quick of hand to inform Leon Trotsky about the “false” and “disastrous” policy of the IKD. In short, this unfortunate Committee Abroad of the IKD had, in their opinion, “given up” the proletarian class standpoint and the whole of Marxism.

Leon Trotsky proposed to form an international commission in order to investigate the German situation and the policy of the IKD. The Committee Abroad accepted the proposal and the International Commission started its work with a “heavy” attack upon the attitude of the IKD toward the church struggle. The discussion itself was pitiful and ended after weeks in a complete deadlock. Leon Sedov (who was a member of the Commission) was practically the sole supporter of the IKD position. His only objection referred to the fact that the German members insisted “stubbornly” on unconditional support and would not compromise even on that word.

Finally the fight was decided by a letter from Leon Trotsky (who studied the discussion from the minutes), dated August 19, 1935. Trotsky wrote this letter as a “conciliator” between the two tendencies, but with all his politeness in refuting the “arguments” against the IKD position (they were in reality distortions with which the IKD had nothing to do), he disappointed the ultra-leftists to such a degree that the discussion ended abruptly and the Commission was dissolved. It is Point 3 of Trotsky’s letter that deal with the church struggle in Germany. The extract follows below and appears for the first time in English. It is of rare instructive value as an example on how to approach a political question in the Marxian sense and needs no further comment.


The Church Question. – I believe I come closest to the essence of the matter if I begin with the following quotation from the statements of Comrade D. in the Commission meeting of July 15:

“D. does not understand how in Nicole’s [1] head the terribly radical slogan ‘Down with the Radical ex-Ministers’ and the ‘Support of the Church in Germany’ can go together.” (Trotsky quotes this from the minutes. – A.A.)

Naturally, there can be no question of supporting the church. For us it can be only the question: do we or do we not support the political struggle of the Catholics and Protestants for their right to remain Catholics and Protestants and to act as such? This question is to be answered in the affirmative. That we thereby certainly do not commit ourselves for religion and church, but stress our opposition to religion and church as far as possible, is self-evident.

But it is not clear to me what that has to do with the slogan “Down with the Radical Scoundrels (not only with the ex-Ministers).” This slogan is nothing else than the demand to break the class collaboration. Because the Reformists and Stalinists refuse this break they will compromise themselves in the eyes of the workers. “Out with the radical bourgeois from the People’s Front” is therefore a perfectly right Marxian slogan in the given moment. But let us imagine, and it is not difficult, that the fascists tomorrow begin to storm Free Masons’ lodges or to destroy anti-clerical newspapers (episodically, they have already). It goes without saying that the workers will go into the street to help in the defense of the Free Mason lodges. But what is the Free Masonry? Also a kind of church, designed to make the liberal petty bourgeoisie docile to the interests of the haute finance. Can we support the Free Masonry? Never! But we can and must defend its right to exist against the fascists, if necessary with rifle in hand. To be able to do this the working class must be revolutionary and remain effective in struggle. The People’s Front makes this impossible. Therefore, to be able to defend eventually also the Free Masonry, the radical bourgeoisie must be driven out from the People’s Front. Herein exists not the slightest contradiction. If we clear up this misunderstanding for good we can also, I believe, come closer to the German church question.

In modern society the church goes along with the interests of finance capital, i.e., with the ruling power. But its sphere of influence remains predominantly the petty bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie-influenced worker, his wife and so on. As for the proletariat, the Social-Democracy has long ago overtaken the function of the conciliatory and consoling church-it has replaced the church to a considerable degree. The ever more weighted down petty bourgeoisie cannot, insofar as it remains petty bourgeois, do without the church, and the essence of the present conflict in Germany consists precisely in this. By the tremendous inner antagonisms (which are immeasurably sharper than in Italy and grow steadily) the state power is driven to ever higher concentration. The fascist state-idol will not and cannot tolerate any competition. National-socialism intends to absorb the religion and to deify its state. But because the frantically rearming fascist state oppresses the petty bourgeoisie more and more, the latter cannot give up the mystic compensations of the church for the sufferings by the state. Socially speaking, it is only a division of labor between church and state. But every devout philistine is now inwardly torn by this division of labor, which has developed into a political conflict. Two souls, alas, dwell in his bosom. It is necessary to stoke up this conflict and to direct it in the first place against the state.

It goes without saying that the leading sections of the bourgeoisie do not stand aside during this. They had to let the Hitler gang take the power, but the adventurist politics of the latter keeps them constantly worried. The vacillating conduct of Hindenburg at Hitler’s nomination always remains as a symbol of the attitude of these sections. They regard the church as an external institution – according to Lloyd George’s maxim, as a power station serving all (ruling) political parties – while the Nazis are regarded only as an expedient makeshift. It is for this reason that the Nazis, on their part, add fuel to the church struggle. At the same time they seek, together with the princes of the church, not to exceed its “reasonable” limits. When we speak of “support” of the struggle, we mean in the first instance supporting the struggle against the Nazi state. In the second instance, we support the struggle against those sections of the ruling classes, who at one and the same moment both encourage and retard this struggle, in order to preserve Hitler’s respect for them through these means.

Solutions, such as separation of church and state, school and church, are, of course, correct in themselves, and must be advocated whenever the opportunity presents itself. But these solutions don’t quite hit the nail on the head in actuality. For it is a question of the right of Catholics and Protestants – without consideration of the fact whether the church as such as separated from the state or not – to consume their religious opium as Catholics and Protestants without thereby endangering or impairing their existence. It is a question in the first place of freedom of conscience, then of equal rights regardless of creed (pagan, Catholic, Protestant, etc.), then the right of forming organizations (the Catholic Youth organizations, etc.).

The argument over the word unconditional support seems to be more of a terminological dispute. Nobody will propose, of course, that we give unconditional support to every demand made by the church opposition, as, for example, increasing religious instruction in the schools, increasing state subsidies to the church, etc. I have understood the word unconditionally in such a manner, that we must fulfill our duty toward the opposition movement, without imposing any kind of conditions on the participating organizations. That must be considered self-evident. What conditions could we demand in the present situation and which opposition party would accept them? It is only necessary to find real and effective methods to intervene in the struggle, to stir up the religious-democratic opposition, to broaden it and to assist the young Catholics, especially the workers, in their struggle (and not, of course, the Nazi police, which wants to “destroy” these religious organizations). Thus, in Russia we always defended the struggle of the Armenian church for its autonomy. We did the same in the struggle of the different peasant and petty bourgeoisie sects against the governmental Orthodox church. And at times we did it with great success.

It is highly probable that the slumbering powers of the proletariat may receive a saving impetus from this opposition movement against the fascist state, which, according to its social basis, is petty bourgeois. It is, of course, not certain. It would become certain with the existence of a strong and wise revolutionary party. But, one does not exist. We are only beginning. But we must do everything that is in our power. The question is, in the first place, of great educational significance for our cadres, which have maintained for, perhaps, too long a purely propagandistic orientation. It seems to me that a turn is absolutely necessary. The church struggle can provide them not only with a starting out point, but also with more favorable conditions.

Leon Trotsky


1. Nicole: Erwin Wolff, later murdered by the Stalinists in Spain. (A.A.)

Top of page

Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 5.4.2013