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Irving Howe

Has Workers Party Position Been Confirmed by Events?

The Political Situation in Germany:
The National Question

(26 May 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 21, 26 May 1947, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Last week, General Clay, head of the U.S. Army of Occupation in Germany, declared that any German workers or labor leaders who persisted in “irresponsible” demonstrations for food, would be shot by the occupation authorities. This statement came after German labor leaders in industrial cities had declared that unless food Were soon forthcoming they could not be responsible for the actions of the workers. Clay’s statement was the answer of the ruling imperialist occupation to the German people who have been living on, less than 1,000 calories a day.

To understand the political situation in Germany today one needs primarily to understand the meaning of the few simple facts in the above paragraph. There in a nutshell is contained the relationship of forces in Germany. It is on the basis of these crucial facts that the Workers Party continues to adhere to its analysis of the political situation in Europe as developed in its International Resolution (printed in the April 1947 issue of The New International).

The German working class suffered the most terrible blows during the twelve-year rule of the Nazis. Its most militant and conscious elements were annihilated; its most vigorous Sections were destroyed in battle; its political consciousness debased and corrupted, by the Nazis first and then the Allied and Stalinist occupation. The German workers paid a terrible price for the treacherous Social Democratic reformism of the pre-Hitler days which time and again aborted the possibility of a successful socialist revolution; they paid, too, the price for the criminal policy of the Stalinists who refused to engage in united fronts with the Social Democracy and instead shouted the lunacy of “Social Fascism” – the theory that the Social Democrats were greater enemies of labor than the Nazis.

No social class in modern history has suffered such a persistent assault as has the German working class. The Nazi terror; the Allied bombings; the Stalinist slave labor camps – these were but a few of attacks to which it was subjected.

Effects on Organization of German Workers

What then could have been expected once the war was over and the imperialist occupation began? One theory advanced in the socialist movement had it that the German workers had gone through an experience which had further radicalized their political views and heightened their class consciousness. This theory saw the socialist revolution as a direct and immediate task after the destruction of the Nazi regime.

Nothing of the kind took place, of course. We say this not with glee nor with any “I told you so” attitude; we who said that the German workers' would have to undergo a series of intermediary experiences before they were again ready to attempt a direct struggle for power, would much rather that events had proven us wrong. But events did not prove us wrong.

The fact is that the German workers had to begin painfully to reassemble their forces. Trade union organizations arose quickly, but they did not really function as independent unions. Under the circumstances of the occupation, they couldn’t and still can’t. The Stalinists gained the support of a minority of the working class and even in their own zone, neither intimidation nor bribes could bring the masses into their camp. The bulk of the workers either, remained passive and concentrated on scrounging for enough food to exist or joined the Social Democracy, which .almost amounted to the same thing.

That the German workers could reassemble their forces even to the degree they did, was remarkable testimony to their great and still present tradition of labor militancy and socialism. But in their, way stood one major hindrance: the occupation armies. These armies cut the land into impossible economic divisions without rhyme or reason; they lived off the already impoverished land; they curtailed and prevented production at the same time that they took reparations. This situation is very well described in the Workers Party resolution mentioned above:

“The defeat in 1933, the twelve-year long rule of Nazi terror, the devastation of six years of war, the conquest and occupation by the victorious powers and the infamous partition of Germany by the four powers for purposes of scientifically bleeding it of its economic potency and political viability as a nation makes it necessary to begin the task of again collecting in class organizations the shattered and dispersed forces of the German proletariat at the most primitive level. Of all the obstacles this task must overcome, the first and greatest is the military occupation of Germany. Until this condition is ended, the scene will be dominated by the national struggle for liberation. The main slogan around which the German Marxists must orient the struggle in the coming period is ‘For a unified and independent Germany!’ This struggle begins as a struggle for democratic rights against the military authorities of the occupying powers and their quisling supporters. Freedom of speech, of press, of assembly, of movement, of organization, of communication and the right to vote and the demand for a free national assembly will constitute the issues around which the political struggles will revolve and the masses will rally. Unless the German proletarian organizations take upon themselves the lead in this struggle and conduct it in the spirit of socialism and internationalism, this task will fall to the reactionary nationalists. They will utilize it for the reconstruction of the Nazi movement ... Neither the Social Democrats nor the Stalinists can give the proletariat a lead on this struggle. The former plays the role of adjutant to the Anglo-American authorities and the latter is the creature of the Russian oppressors.”

In a word, the WP resolution declared that the road to a restoration of the class confidence and power of the German workers was the struggle for national liberation – concretely, to drive out the imperialist occupation. The resolution stressed the need – a need which is invariable and constant – for persistent propaganda and education for the idea of socialism, of a Socialist United States of Europe. But it posed the central tactical concept of bringing the masses to a struggle for a Socialist United States of Europe by taking the leadership in the immediate and burning struggle to rid the country of its imperialist oppressors and thereby make possible a free play of its inner political forces.

Events Confirm WP Analysis

Has this analysis been vindicated by recent events?

We believe it has, overwhelmingly. Let us take as our test case the recent demonstrations of the German workers for food. These demonstrations represent a surge of desperation: the cry of a people demanding food lest it perish. The demonstrations have been large and promise much for the renewed vitality of the German workers.

One key incident took place in Hamburg. The demonstrators some few days back carried placards denouncing the occupation authorities and holding them responsible for the food crisis, as they rightly are. The British tried to back out of their shameful role by placing the responsibility on the puppet German government. But everyone knows that this so-called regional German government is a figment of British imperialist imagination; it has no real power whatever.

The Hamburg workers were absolutely correct in placing responsibility on the occupation powers. It is they, by their criminal restrictions on production, their large-scale looting of industrial wealth, their absurd division into four zones, who are responsible for the famine.

The American occupation was even more crude: It simply threatened arrests if demonstrations continued. It was clear that the German workers, so soon as they began to move into demonstrative action, ran smack up against their most powerful and immediate enemy: the military occupation.

The development oh the class consciousness and class militancy of the German workers thereby means an increasing conflict with the imperialist occupation. The German workers demonstrate for bread? They are restricted by the occupation. They plan a strike in the factories? They are threatened by the occupation. In this situation the German capitalist class, or what is left of it, functions as the subaltern of the imperialist occupation, quite pleased to allow the armies of the victors do the dirty work for them.

National Liberation and Socialist Perspective

It may be said: “But the German workers do not care about such abstractions as national independence or democratic rights. They want bread.” Of course, that is partly true. The fact is, however, that even most timid struggle for bread involves immediately a clash with the occupation. On this, score, the WP resolution very succinctly states:

The masses quite correctly did not identify, their desire for democracy with the restoration of the status quo ante helium (situation before the war), of the power of the old bourgeoisie ... There is no democracy in the abstract, and democracy was not an abstraction in the minds of the masses. They wanted and want democracy – democratic rights, democratic institutions, political democracy in general – not for its sake as an abstract, ideal, but as the only means, in their eyes, of organizing or reorganizing the economic and Social life of the country in the interests of the masses and for their benefit!”

This, then, we believe to be the means by which the masses of Germany can be propelled into genuine socialist action. For if they struggle for the removal of the occupation, the very process of that struggle helps break the hold of the Social Democracy and the Stalinists. Dare the Social Democrats join a genuine struggle to drive out the British? Dare the Stalinists join a genuine struggle to drive out the Russians?


There are some signs in Germany that are disturbing. Reports to the New York press indicate that there has been a resurgence of underground Nazi propaganda in highly nationalist terms. That is to be expected and so long as the Social Democrats and Stalinists hold sway and play into the hands of the occupation, Nazi or neo-Nazi nationalism will take root. There is the danger. It can be coped with not by ignoring the struggle for driving out the occupation – for that is a burning and visible need in Germany today – but rather by giving it proletarian and socialist leadership and direction.

The fight for socialism never proceeds along abstract pedagogic lines, necessary as those are. It must be rooted in the most pressing needs of the masses; it must point a road to the struggle for such needs; and it must constantly seek to elevate that struggle into broader social paths which challenge the very existence of capitalist society itself. That, we believe, is indicated by the position of the Workers Party on the current situation in Germany.


Note: Those readers interested in the ideas discussed in this article are urged to read the International Resolution of the Workers Party printed in the April 1947 issue of The New International.

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