Fascism in Germany. Robin Blick 1975

Appendix II: Social Democracy on the German Catastrophe

The two main tendencies that led the German working class to defeat in 1933 still dominate the international workers’ movement today. That is why a serious assessment of German fascism would be incomplete without a critical survey of the impact the German defeat has had on the politics of Stalinism and Social Democracy both in Britain and throughout the world. Especially important in this respect are the alibis which both tendencies have put forward at different times since Hitler’s victory to justify the policies which placed the Nazis in power. We begin with the reformists.

First it is necessary to relate briefly the events leading up to the demise of the SPD. After the opposition stand in the Reichstag on 23 March, when the entire party fraction voted against Hitler’s Enabling Act, the SPD bureaucracy attempted, like their trade union counterparts, to seek a modus vivendi with the Nazi regime. This involved, like the ADGB, severing relations with the International, and the disciplining of rank-and-file militants who still wanted to carry on the struggle against the fascists. The conflict between the bureaucracy and the ranks was particularly bitter in Berlin, where the SPD youth organisation had revolted openly against the capitulationist line of the adult leadership. The first move to repress the more militant youth leaders came early in April. As one of the participants in the struggle against the SPD bureaucracy, Eric Schmidt, later recounted:

... the District Committee of the Berlin Party decided to dismiss the Secretary and Chairman of the Berlin Socialist Young Workers [SAJ]. The grounds were the preparation and organisation of illegal youth groups. Franz Künstler, the party chairman, proposed that the resolution be published in the bourgeois press. The majority rejected his proposal. It seemed monstrous to them to expose their own youth organisation to fascist brutality by the SA and the SS. The attitude of Franz Künstler and his friends was not all that illogical. It corresponded to the whole policy of the party – retain legality at any price. [1]

Also early in April, the national SPD youth leader Eric Ollenhauer, who later became the SPD chairman in the postwar Federal Republic, demanded that all SAJ groups that had been banned by the Nazi regime should cease their illegal activities. This too was an attempt to curry favour with the Hitler government. Ollenhauer went even further. He insisted with the Berlin youth leadership that members of banned organisations ‘attach themselves to completely legal youth groups’. In other words, the bureaucracy not only held out the false hope of a perspective of continued legality for the movement, but invited the most militant youth cadres to court repressions. The Berlin SAJ chairman retorted that ‘fascism will not tolerate any organisation directly influenced by socialism’, and that therefore it was not possible to ‘build a legal youth organisation that is not 100 per cent fascist’. This elicited the cynical reply from another SPD bureaucrat, Wendt, that ‘apprehension and romanticism characterises the statement of the youth comrades’. The SPD, he warned, ‘will in no way countenance illegal work by the SAJ. Those who do not conform on this matter will be expelled.’ This meeting took place on 3 April. Two days later, Wendt ordered the Berlin organisation to hand over its funds. When the chairman refused, Wendt threatened ‘if you do not hand over the funds, we will expel you from the party and make public the reason for doing so’ (emphasis added). That same day, the youth chairman and secretary were expelled and a time limit fixed for the delivery of the SAJ funds. There then followed over the next week a purge of all youth militants who opposed the official line of working within the ever-narrowing limits established by the Nazi regime. The stage was thus being set for the party’s final act of abasement to Hitler, the Reichstag session of 17 May when the SPD voted en bloc approval of Hitler’s foreign policy speech.

Hitler’s main purpose in this speech was to create the impression abroad, where considerable unrest existed over the new regime’s militaristic orientation, that National Socialist Germany sought peace with the world, and that the various paramilitary formations – SA, SS, Stahlhelm – were for use only against the internal foe:

Their object was and is exclusively the removal of the Communist danger; their development took place without any connection with the army, purely for purposes of propaganda and national enlightenment, psychological mass effect and the breaking down of Communist terror.

There was much truth in this statement. The Nazi combat units were aimed primarily at the Communists, and in saying this Hitler hoped to win the approval and support of all capitalist governments. But in a strategic sense, the SA and SS did clear the road for German imperialism’s external expansion, since this could not be undertaken until proletarian revolution had been removed from the agenda for at least a decade.

The SPD bureaucrats saw the vote on Hitler’s speech as a god-sent opportunity to prove themselves men of peace and good patriots at the same time. The shameful scene at the voting was described by the Danish paper Politiken:

Every deputy sprang from his seat – the Social Democrats with the others. A sensation! ... a glaring spotlight is turned on them... Balconies and galleries thunder applause in which the honourables on the dais and at the Ministers’ table join. Hitler applauds and with him the ex-Crown Prince. The Social Democrats are the recipients of all this vociferous approval.

The official Nazi daily, the Völkischer Beobachter, for the first – and last – time waxed enthusiastic on the patriotism of the Social Democrats:

The whole of the deputies rise from their seats. Spontaneously they sing ‘Deutschland Uber Alles’. The whole of the SPD fraction also rise from their seats. For the first time in its history, the Reichstag stands firmly and unanimously behind its government. Never since the days of August 1914 had the Reichstag and the world witnessed such a picture of the unity of the German people, as in this historical hour, which concluded with the singing of the immortal ‘Horst-Wessel Song’.

But the Social Democrats were not to be elevated to the status of ‘racial comrades’. On 22 June, Hitler outlawed their party, the last legal outpost of a movement that had once embraced and organised the most politically advanced and disciplined proletariat in the world. Over the next months and years, the exiled SPD leadership, together with their co-thinkers in the parties of the Second International, tried to assemble a credible explanation of the disaster that had overwhelmed their party. Karl Kautsky, the doyen of German centrism, and after the reunification of the USPD rump with the parent party in 1922, the most sophisticated apologist for the class-collaborationist policies of the SPD leadership, blamed Hitler’s victory on the Stalinists – and on the working class. (At the same time, the Stalinists were placing the responsibility on the Social Democrats and the working class!)

How did it happen that 13 million workers permitted themselves to be disenfranchised without offering violent resistance? This attitude of the workers appears all the more strange when one contrasts it with the fighting spirit they displayed in a previous attempt to impose a dictatorship upon the German nation, namely the Kapp Putsch of 1920. [2]

Kautsky conveniently neglects to mention that if the workers failed to resist Hitler on a mass scale in 1933, it was because their leaders instructed them not to do so. Kautsky finds no grounds on which the SPD can be criticised. Hitler’s victory was inevitable (as inevitable as the ‘collapse of capitalism’ in the hey-day of the pre-1914 International):

The remarkable thing is that this triumph came only after 15 years of struggle... There were but two roads open for the Social Democrats, the road of either the lesser evil, or that of the Communists, which would have led inevitably to the greater evil. The Social Democratic policy at least made possible the averting for a time of the greater evil, the Hitler dictatorship. Had the socialists followed the policy of the Communists, the socialists themselves would have put Hitler in the saddle. [3]

The observations of Albert Grzesinski, the former Prussian Police Chief and SPD leader, were no more illuminating. He directed his only criticism of the German reformist leadership at the ADGB bureaucracy, which ‘hoped that their organisations could continue to function in the Third Reich. Their childlike faith proved unfounded.’ Even here, he finds kind words for those who sought to serve as Hitler’s labour lieutenants:

It may be said in their behalf that they were prompted by a deep sense of responsibility towards the membership and a desire to save whatever could be saved. It was with these thoughts in mind that they decided to cooperate with the new regime and to participate in the Nazi May Day celebration. [4]

The conduct of the ADGB leaders caused such a scandal in the international trade union movement that a discussion on their capitulation to fascism could not be avoided at the August 1933 IFTU Congress. In the debate on Germany and the struggle against fascism, it was revealed for the first time by the Belgian delegate Schevenels that some leaders of the IFTU had hesitated to transfer the headquarters of the federation to Berlin in the summer of 1930 for fear of the growth of fascism in Germany:

We considered in the Executive whether it would be wise to carry out the Stockholm [IFTU Congress of 1930] decision: but we were then formally assured [by the ADGB Executive] that no danger could possibly threaten the work of the IFTU in Germany... I may say that in July 1932, when the situation became so critical I asked the advice and intentions of the German comrades. But the German comrades, judging the situation from their own specific points of view, did not consider it necessary to take the measures which we discussed with them for the organisation of resistance. In January 1933, Hindenburg yielded to the influence of those around him and placed Hitler in power. From that moment the wave of terrorism and oppression was started which reached its climax on 5 March, in the election. Again we urged the German comrades to act, to risk everything, in the hope that they might yet perhaps change the course of events. They replied that they were taking the necessary steps. Realising the gravity of the situation, we called an Executive meeting in Berlin about three weeks after Hitler’s accession to power. During the executive meeting very definite questions were put and were definitely answered... Our German comrades told us that, when the prospects were at all favourable, they would all take responsibility upon themselves... We know all the attempts made to soften the heart of the enemy by concessions, through which certain comrades hoped to save a remnant of trade unionism. But these concessions failed to prevent the seizure by the Nazis of the whole trade union movement. [5]

Nor did the IFTU Executive come out of the Congress unscathed. Kupers of Holland complained bitterly of the passive attitude of the Executive towards the crisis in Germany and the growing threat to its labour movement:

When the terrorism directed against the German labour movement first set in, then both the IFTU and the LSI [Second International] should have spoken, even if it was against the will of the German comrades... The General Council did not meet till 9 April, at Zurich, but by that time the die was cast and all that the General Council could do was to pass a resolution... As early as February the Dutch labour movement had proposed, but without success, that the IFTU and the LSI should convene a world congress against National Socialism. The General Council meeting held in Zurich could not even bring itself to adopt the boycott of German goods demanded by many delegates... [6]

This refusal to organise a workers’ boycott of Nazi Germany dovetailed with the policy of the Stalinists, who in line with Stalin’s pro-German policy, were also opposing it under the guise of calls for ‘real class solidarity’.

The record of the British reformists was no better in the period of Hitler’s rise to power. The Labour Party and TUC-supported Daily Herald time and again dismissed the possibility that the Nazis might take power, completely disorienting the millions of British workers who read the paper and would, in the event of an imminent Nazi takeover in Germany, be called upon to come to the aid of the German workers with all the strength at their disposal. Commenting on the panic that ensued in Germany after the Nazi election success of 14 September 1930, the Daily Herald said smugly:

... the panic is, to say the least, a little premature. Wild stories of coming pogroms and the rest of it are being circulated by sensation mongers... They are for the most part just wild stories. Germany is not yet at Hitler’s feet... and the fighting power of his ‘army’, if he were to be mad enough to put it to the test, would probably be negligible... Herr Hitler is much more likely to prove, in the issue, a Boulanger rather than a Mussolini. [7]

In the run-up to the Presidential elections of 1932, Raymond Postgate said:

Everyone is leaving him [Hitler]. His speeches are more and more violent; but the end is coming nearer and nearer... Hitler was foolish in making a trial of strength against the Field Marshal... [8]

The paper was jubilant at Hindenburg’s victory:

The Social Democrats have been presented with a valuable electoral asset of which they will make full use... If they repeat that achievement in the Prussia elections they will have saved Germany. [9]

Joy gave way to chagrin, however, when the Herald’s Field Marshal hero dismissed Brüning, and with Nazi support, installed von Papen: ‘Hindenburg Dictator of Germany’, bewailed the Herald:That is bad: a tragic and wretched ending to the high democratic hopes of a dozen years.’ [10] By 30 June, the Herald had recovered its composure:

... the would-be dictators of Germany will find the path of suppression strewn with far greater obstacles than their counterparts have found in certain other countries. Bismarck set himself to smash Social Democracy in Germany and failed. Where he could not succeed, his nickel-plated imitators of today are unlikely to make much headway. [11]

A note of realism intruded, however, in the wake of the von Papen coup in Prussia. Commenting on the split in the ranks of the working class, the Herald said:

It is not too late to repair the breach. A united front against Hitler and his associates by the German workers would thrill the world, and immediately fortify the spirit of support evinced for them by labour in Great Britain and elsewhere. [12]

The oscillations continued throughout the summer months. On the eve of the 31 July Reichstag elections, the Herald’s German correspondent, HN Ewer, predicted that:

... unless he [Hitler] takes some decisive action in the next few days, he is done for. He may have a future as a useful mob agitator – as a sort of glorified boy scout leader – ... but the dreams of a ‘Third Reich’ with ‘our Adolf’ as its leader and dictator, of ‘heads rolling in the sand’ are going to vanish rapidly. Not Hitler, but Schleicher, is going to be the leader of the German reaction. [13]

Which was, of course, also the mistaken view of the Stalinists. Parliamentary cretinism reigned supreme on the morrow of the election, with the headline: ‘Voters Crush Hitler’s Bid for Power’, [14] and on 7 November, when the decline in the Nazi vote at the second Reichstag election of the year was greeted with the comment ‘Twilight Falls On Nazi Party’. [15] The nadir in this orgy of reformism was, however, attained by Harold Laski on 19 November, when he wrote, in an article that deserves to be preserved forever as a monument to Social Democratic treachery:

It is a safe probability that the Hitlerite movement has passed its apogee and that it is unlikely to retain much longer the appearance of solidity it had a few months ago... Hitler has no sense of strategy, just as he has no philosophy. He has let himself be out-manoeuvred, first by the President, then by General Schleicher. He hates the constitution, yet does not dare overthrow it. He lives by force and shirks from appealing to it. Because he has no real philosophy of life or action, he dare not risk bringing himself to the test... It looks as though big business and the monarchists think that they have squeezed most of the juice out of this particular orange and are [turning] towards von Schleicher... All that remains of his movement is a threat he dare not fulfil... He reveals himself as a myth without permanent foundation... Accident apart it is not unlikely that Hitler will end his career as an old man in some Bavarian village, who, in the Biergarten in the evening, tells his intimates how he nearly overturned the German Reich. Strange battle cries will struggle to his lips, and he will mention names who trembled at his name. But his neighbours will have heard the tale so often that they will shrug their shoulders and bury their faces in their mugs of Pilsener to hide their smiles. The old man, they think, is entitled to his pipe dreams. It is comforting to live on the memory of an illusion. [16]

Comforting, too, for Laski, the foremost ‘theoretician’ of British Social Democracy. But not for the German workers, who when Laski penned this infamous article, stood only weeks away from the catastrophe of 30 January 1933.

Meanwhile, Schleicher, who had in the summer been portrayed as the main leader of the German reaction, now figured as the saviour of the German working class. On 6 December, the Herald considered the formation of the ‘social general’s’ cabinet four days previously an omen of ‘new hope for Germany’. It was noteworthy, the paper commented that:

... the ministers of the old cabinet directly responsible for the repressive labour and social service regulations do not figure in the new. There is reason to hope that their successors will follow a more enlightened domestic policy. [17]

The first reaction of the Herald to the assumption of power by Hitler on 30 January 1933 was very similar to that of the Stalinists. His tenure of office would be a short one. Gordon Beckles described Hitler as ‘the clown who wants to play statesman’, and following Laski, added: ‘Nothing that I can find in the public career of little Adolf Hitler, highly strung as a girl, and vain as a matinee idol, indicates that he can escape the fate of his immediate predecessors.’ [18] The brutal march of events compelled the reformists to change their tune. With Social Democratic leaders being hounded by SA terror squads and reports coming in daily of the murder of top-ranking party and trade union officials, the Herald carried an editorial on 1 March which, for the first time, took the Nazi threat seriously. But even then, hopes were pinned on the rapid internal decomposition of the Hitler – Papen – Hugenberg bloc:

There is one thing sure. The present welter of madness in authority cannot endure... a country like Germany... cannot be ruled by a mere frenzied outburst of anger and savagery. The German people cannot be fed on revolver shots... [19]

Again we note the similarity with the Stalinists, who were saying precisely the same things about the Hitler regime, even to the extent, we should recall, of dubbing its dictator a ‘clown’.

Right up to the final destruction of the German labour movement, the British reformists echoed uncritically – with some rare exceptions – the policy of their German opposite numbers. The Herald called upon President Hindenburg – ‘a gallant soldier’, respected universally ‘for his service to Germany’ – to listen to ‘the voice of the civilised world demanding an end to this racial and political persecution’. [20] The old pacifist George Lansbury told an anti-fascist rally called by the TUC and Labour Party in the Albert Hall on 12 April that if he could have a heart to heart talk with Hitler, he would tell him:

... there is a power stronger than armies, stronger than guns. That is the power of the terribly meek – the power of those who stand still, knowing that though they are destroyed, cannot lose the spirit for which they stand.

Another point of view was expressed by JG Horrabin at a Wimbledon Labour Party meeting the same evening, even though it was couched in the language of reformism:

It is true that the only answer to fascism was constitutionalism. But it must be a constitutional struggle on a class policy. The SPD leaders have brought the German movement to disaster, not because of their constitutionalism but because of their class collaborationist policy.

William Mellor articulated the growing dissatisfaction with current reformist policies when he declared to a rally on 1 May:

Because of its blind worship of formal democracy, its acceptance of traditions established by its opponents, its policy of class collaboration and its failure to act decisively for socialism when it had the power, the SPD crumbled before Hitler and his gangsters. The story of the trade unions has been ever more bitter, for it would seem that their leaders were willing to become an actively operable part of a fascist state. Is labour in this country really free from these or similar dangers? Is it really the rank-and-file view that a ruthless capitalist dictatorship under Hitler and the Communist control of Russia stand alike to be condemned?

For this was the official view of the TUC and Labour Party alike. Ernest Bevin of the TUC General Council told a meeting in Crewe on 26 March, only three days after the Reichstag had approved Hitler’s Enabling Act, that:

... the world is full of talk of dictatorship. We in the Labour Party believe in democracy. I am not going to be tempted by all the blandishments of dictatorship to depart from my faith in the ultimate victory of Social Democracy.

On 31 March, Bevin’s close colleague Walter Citrine, who had recently returned from a visit to Germany where he had witnessed at first hand the destructive work of the Nazi terror gangs, wrote in the Daily Herald:

It is with the conviction that reaction cannot be fought by the methods of dictatorship that the National Joint Council [of the TUC and Labour Party] has declined to assent to the proposal of the Communist Party and the Independent Labour Party for the formation of a ‘United Front’ against fascism. [21]

The arch-reformists of the TUC and Labour Party were assisted in their refusal of the united front offer by the ultimatism of the Stalinists, who in the words of Citrine, ‘insisted on the adoption of their full programme’. A united front for struggle against the common class enemy becomes impossible once the revolutionary, or left-wing, flank of the bloc stipulates in advance that its own programme becomes the programme of the bloc. For what is involved in the united front tactic is not an agreed programme between reformists, centrists and Communists (an impossibility, unless one or other of the partners surrenders its principles), but a limited and temporary agreement to fight for certain objectives that defend and strengthen the working-class movement as a whole against the attacks of the class enemies. Neither Citrine nor the leaders of the CPGB genuinely sought such an agreement, though the prime responsibility for the political confusion in the working class concerning the defeat in Germany rested with the reformists. Some of their attacks on the Stalinists were scurrilous, no better than the use of the term ‘social fascism’ to denote the politics of the reformists. Herbert Morrison told a meeting in East Ham on 24 April that there could be no question of a united front with the Communists, ‘whose views on political action and government bear material resemblance to those of fascism’. Yet on 2 May, in an Editorial on the Nazi ‘May Day’ in Berlin, the Herald (like Sedgwick 37 years on) detected a genuine socialist content in Hitler’s policies. Communists might resemble Nazis, but Nazis could also be socialists:

The celebration of May Day by Hitler and the Nazis is very significant thing. It marks the definite opening of the second phase of the ‘National Socialist’ revolution; the phase which must lead very rapidly to an open breach between the ‘Nazi’ and the ‘nationalist’. The ‘National Socialists'... call themselves ‘Socialist’ as well as ‘Nationalist’. Their ‘Socialism’ is not the socialism of the Labour Party or that of any recognised socialist party in other countries. But in many ways it is a creed that is anathema to the big landlords, the big industrialists, and the big financiers, and the Nazi leaders are bound to be forward with the ‘socialist’ side of their programme. For it is this which has, largely, won them the support on which their law is based... But that is the last thing that the Hindenburgs and von Papens, landowners of the East, industrialists of the West, desire, the alliance cannot endure once the second phase begins. The victorious allies must fight it out between themselves... The odds are pretty clearly on Hitler. [22]

On the very day that this article appeared, Hitler’s SA and NSBO ‘socialists’ occupied the headquarters and branch offices of the German trade union movement, an event which elicited the Daily Herald’s first editorial criticism of reformist policy in Germany: ‘... among the trade union leaders there remained many who believed that if they trimmed their sails to the new wind, they could carry on as though nothing much had happened.’ [23] The next day, the Herald returned to the same theme, drawing the correct conclusion that ‘fascism cannot be disarmed by concessions, which only make it more brutal and greedy. There can be no compromise with it.’ [24] Yet what did the same paper say when the SPD voted unanimously in the Reichstag on 17 May in support of Nazi foreign policy?

Herr Hitler’s speech yesterday was... a gesture, not of defiance, but of conciliation. It was of such a character that it inevitably received the applause of the whole Reichstag, including the Social Democrats, and it is of such a character that it must provide, if not a basis for immediate agreement, at least a basis for continued and even hopeful discussion at Geneva... All sensible folk – though loathing the brutalities of Nazi policy at home – will feel a sense of relief that there is a possibility of escaping from the deadlock and of achieving that success which is the only alternative to almost certain catastrophe... Hitler should be taken at his word. [25]

Thus ended a disgraceful chapter in the history of British Social Democracy, one concluded, like its German counterpart, by the endorsement of Hitler’s imperialist foreign policy.

In passing, we should record that the centrist-dominated Independent Labour Party displayed little more perspicacity with the onset of the crisis in Germany. In December 1931 the ILP journal stated:

It is impossible to imagine a Nazi government in power. And it is only the KPD that envisages such a possibility... The Communists not only contemplate, but desire it, and are ready indeed to be midwives to its birth... But I resolutely maintain that so sinister a contingency need not be contemplated. There is not the remotest chance of the emergence of an independent Nazi government. Political necessity – to say nothing of the safety of the Reich – will act as an irresistible stimulus to a coalition between the centre and the right. And the coalition, in its turn, should help to consolidate the divided ranks of the Left. [26]

At one of the most fateful moments in the evolution of the German crisis – the SPD’s decision to endorse Hindenburg’s Presidential candidature – the ILP fell in behind the reformists from whom they were to split later the same year. The historian HN Brailsford declared that the SPD’s ‘popular front’ with the pro-Weimar bourgeoisie under the Hindenburg umbrella ‘was a painful necessity’. [27] Only after Hitler’s victory did the ILP make a turn to the left – and then, in the case of most of its leaders, such as Fenner Brockway, it was towards a rapprochement with the Stalinists, who had been, with the reformists, directly responsible for the German catastrophe.

Only a small minority of the ILP turned in the direction of Trotskyism, and considered seriously the task of constructing a new, Fourth, International, grounded theoretically on the understanding of the forces and polices that had led to the destruction of the Third. After proclaiming, in the New Leader of 16 June 1933, ‘the bankruptcy of the Internationals’, the centrist ILP leadership worked with their co-thinkers in Europe (Norwegian Labour Party, the French renegade Communist ‘Pupist’ group, the Italian Socialist Party of Nenni, the right wing of the exiled SAP, etc) to block the formation of the new International that the defeat in Germany, and the Kremlin’s refusal to change its course, now made imperative.

Present-day Social Democracy, especially in Britain, displays little or no interest in the historic defeat inflicted on the German working class in 1933. Perhaps the only serious treatment of the question is to be found in GDH Cole’s A History of Socialist Thought, where in the final two volumes he discusses at some length what he considers to be the main political causes of Hitler’s victory. Like the Fabians Bernard Shaw and Sidney Webb, Cole was irresistibly attracted by the apparent strength of the Stalinist bureaucracy, and drew back from any sharp criticisms of its policies, even when, as in Germany, they contributed directly to the victory of the Nazis. He was bemused by Stalin’s insistence that the KPD align itself with the fascists against the Social Democrats, as in the case of the Prussian referendum of 1931. He dismissed the possibility that the Kremlin’s German policy could have been based on the desire to aid a Hitler triumph over the working class. Instead he suggested, with a pathetic credulity in the revolutionary sincerity of Stalin and the bureaucracy he represented, that Stalin:

... appears to have held as a dogma of Marxism that, whenever a revolutionary situation seemed to be approaching, the task of Communists was to accelerate it by every means in their power, regardless of the character of the threatening revolution... It may have helped him towards this illusion that Stalin, like Lenin before him, was above all else a professional revolutionary and instinctively disposed to sympathise with revolution for its own sake. [28]

Stalin erred only in an excess of revolutionary zeal! In fact, what Stalin feared and worked might and main to prevent was precisely a proletarian revolution in Germany. And in carrying through the great betrayal of the German working class, he was reflecting, albeit in the guise of an extreme leftist, adventurist policy, the profound social and political conservatism of the burgeoning Soviet bureaucracy, wide layers of which had just ‘arrived’ out of the turmoil of the economic upheavals in the early period of forced collectivisation and industrialisation. Cole, the English empiricist and opponent of Marxism, thus sees in Stalin’s superficial leftism the hallmarks of a genuine revolutionary on the same plane as Lenin, just as in German fascism, he detected elements of a genuine anti-capitalism.

Not all left reformists and centrists reacted as Cole did to the betrayals of Stalinism in Germany. There was also a tendency to exploit the ultra-leftism of the Third Period Comintern to justify, either in whole or in part, the counter-revolutionary role performed by Social Democracy. The most sophisticated of these apologists for reformism even sank so low as to combine eclectically their own opportunism with Trotsky’s Leninist-based critique of the Stalinist course in the Comintern and Germany. How sincere they were in invoking the name and prestige of Trotsky soon became evident when the Stalinists swung over from Third Period adventurism to the Popular Front, a somersault which these same reformists and centrists hailed as a return to ‘realism’. Now there was no question of quoting from Trotsky, since Stalin had finally revealed himself as the guardian of peace and democracy, the leader of ‘all men of good will’. Trotskyism became anathema in reformist and centrist circles, since it stood out against the counter-revolutionary ‘People’s Front’, a class-collaborationist bloc between the parties of the proletariat and those of the liberal (and often not-so-liberal) bourgeoisie. In Spain and France, where People’s Fronts were formed in 1935, Trotskyists were denounced as ‘wreckers’ of anti-fascist unity not only by the Stalinists, but the reformist leaders and the liberal bourgeoisie. What the Trotskyist movement was in fact really opposing was the unity of the workers’ leaders with their own imperialist bourgeoisie.

Two instances of this opportunist, unprincipled adaptation to one side of Trotsky’s critique of Stalinism are to be found in the writings of the British Labour MP Michael Foot, and the veteran ‘Austro-Marxist’ centrist Julius Braunthal. In his biography of Aneurin Bevan, Foot quite correctly says that neither the Second nor the Third Internationals responded to the danger of fascism in the early 1930s:

... in 1930 a voice from the wilderness, and certainly one that Bevan respected, had given warning to Communists and Socialists alike: ‘Should Fascism come to power in Germany’, it said, ‘it will ride over your skulls and spines like a terrific tank. Your salvation lies in merciless struggle. And only a fighting unity with Social Democratic workers can bring victory. Make haste, you have very little time left.’ But that was Trotsky, not Stalin. [29]

Thus far, all seems in order. But then Foot continues:

Only after the damage had been done in Germany did Communist strategy start to change and give birth to a new hope – the hope that, in the face of the common enemy, the ancient savage feud between Communists and Socialists might be ended. [30]

Thus Trotsky by implication is accorded the role of an unheeded apostle of peace between the two wings of the workers’ movement, between Communism and Social Democracy. Lenin’s break from the Second International in August 1914 Foot depicts as an ‘ancient savage feud’.

David Caute, the historian and novelist, who has tried to develop a Marxist approach to literature, and is highly critical of Stalinist practices in certain spheres, slips into a similar error. In his The Fellow Travellers, Caute treats the KPD’s swing from the Third Period to the Popular Front in the following way:

Gone were the days when Johannes Becher and his comrades blasted the social fascists, social pacifists and class collaborators through the columns of Linkskurve [a KPD literary journal – RB]. Though the Communist (and Comintern) leadership took their time in recognising the full extent of their error in pursuing sectarian, pseudo-revolutionary tactics, by 1934-35 the KPD was working hard alongside its French and British counterparts to form effective united and popular fronts. [31]

Caute makes two fundamental mistakes here. First he regards the KPD’s line as an ‘error’ whereas in fact its ultra-leftist policy was deliberately foisted on the party by the Stalinist leadership of the Comintern and the Soviet Communist Party. Secondly, Caute jumbles together the United and Popular Fronts as if they were both Comintern policy after 1934-35. In fact the Comintern, spearheaded by the French party, moved on very rapidly from a united front of the workers’ parties (based on an unprincipled agreement to refrain from mutual criticism – a violation of the Leninist united front) to the Popular Front with the radical bourgeoisie. At no time did the Stalinists pursue a genuine united front tactic as prescribed and practised by the Comintern between 1921 and 1923. In the case of David Caute, we can be sure that this mistake is made with the best of intentions. In the case of Monty Johnstone, one of the most sophisticated apologists for Stalinism in the CPGB, distortion would be a more fitting word. His lumping together of the United and Popular Front, and his demagogic use of Trotsky’s critique of the Third Period, are discussed in the next appendix.

Braunthal is hardly more principled than Foot. In the second of his two-volume study of the international workers’ movement, he too cites Trotsky’s writings on Germany, even to the extent of using the same quotation selected by Foot. However, Trotsky also bitterly attacked the criminal policies pursued by the German Social Democrats, who happened to belong to the same international as Braunthal. Again therefore we see the one-sidedness of the centrist appraisal of Trotsky, eagerly seizing on his polemics against the leftist errors of the Comintern, but either rejecting or ignoring Trotsky’s no less rigorous critique of right opportunism, whether practised by the reformists, the centrists (Austro-Marxists included, as in the February 1934 uprising of the Vienna workers) or the Stalinists, both in the 1925-27 period of blocs with the TUC and the Kuomintang, and the counter-revolutionary strategy of the Popular Front between 1935 and the summer of 1939. Like Foot, Braunthal traces the ‘original sin’ of Communism back to the split of 1914, and this he uses to excuse the betrayals of Social Democracy in Germany in 1930-33:

The Social Democrats had often made mistakes, even fatal mistakes. But the heaviest responsibility for the tragedy of German Socialism lay with the Communist International, as no unbiased historical analysis can possibly deny. It was its historic error to perpetuate and deepen the split in the German labour movement for which, since the end of the war, and certainly since the end of the revolutionary period, there had been no possible further justification. [32]

For reasons that are deeply rooted both in its ideology and the bourgeois class interests that it serves, Social Democracy was and remains incapable of assimilating and assessing the defeats for which it itself has been in part responsible. This is nowhere better demonstrated than in the crushing of the German working class by fascism. It is the task of the vanguard, those Trotskyist forces which in Britain are grouped in and around the Workers Revolutionary Party, to burn the lessons of Germany into the consciousness of the new generations of workers that will inevitably, even though under different circumstances, have to meet and defeat the threat of fascism in Britain.


1. E Schmidt, The Berlin Youth Conflict of April 1933, manuscript.

2. K Kautsky, Social Democracy Versus Communism (New York, 1946), pp 109-10.

3. Kautsky, Social Democracy Versus Communism, p 105.

4. A Grzesinski, Inside Germany (New York, 1939), p 184.

5. The Activities of the IFTU 1930-1932 (Paris, 1934), pp 356-57.

6. The Activities of the IFTU 1930-1932, p 358.

7. Daily Herald, 23 September 1930.

8. Daily Herald, 7 March 1932.

9. Daily Herald, 11 April 1932.

10. Daily Herald, 31 May 1932.

11. Daily Herald, 30 June 1932.

12. Daily Herald, 21 July 1932.

13. Daily Herald, 28 July 1932.

14. Daily Herald, 1 August 1932.

15. Daily Herald, 7 November 1932.

16. Daily Herald, 19 November 1932.

17. Daily Herald, 6 December 1932.

18. Daily Herald, 31 January 1933.

19. Daily Herald, 4 March 1933.

20. Daily Herald, 27 March 1933.

21. Daily Herald, 31 March 1933.

22. Daily Herald, 2 May 1933, emphasis added.

23. Daily Herald, 3 May 1933.

24. Daily Herald, 4 May 1933.

25. Daily Herald, 18 May 1933.

26. New Leader, 13 December 1931.

27. New Leader, 18 March 1932.

28. GDH Cole, Communism and Social Democracy, 1914-1931, Part 2 (being Volume 4 of A History of Socialist Thought, London, 1961), pp 660-61.

29. M Foot, Aneurin Bevan, Volume 1 (London, 1963), p 208.

30. Foot, Aneurin Bevan, Volume 1, p 208.

31. D Caute, The Fellow Travellers (London, 1973), p 149.

32. J Braunthal, The History of the International, Volume 2 (London, 1968), p 389.