[Classics] What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat

15. Is the Situation Hopeless?

It is a difficult task to arouse all at once the majority of the German working class for an offensive. As a consequence of the defeats of 1919, 1921, and 1923, and of the adventures of the “third period,” the German workers, who on top of that are bound by powerful conservative organisations, have developed strong centres of inhibition. But, on the other hand, the organisational solidarity of the German workers, which has almost altogether prevented until now the penetration of fascism into their ranks, opens the very greatest possibilities of defensive struggle. One must bear in mind that the policy of the united front is in general much more effective for the defensive than the offensive. The more conservative or backward strata of the proletariat are more easily drawn into a struggle to fight for what they already have than for new conquests.

Brüning’s emergency decrees and the threat on the part of Hitler are, in this sense, an “ideal” signal of alarm for the policy of the united front It is a matter of defence in the most elementary and obvious meaning of that word. Under such conditions the united front can encompass the widest mass of the working class. And moreover, the goals of the struggle cannot but evoke the sympathy of the lowest layers of the petty bourgeoisie, right down to the street vendors in the workers’ sections and districts.

With all its difficulties and dangers the present situation in Germany bears in itself also tremendous advantages for a revolutionary party; it imperiously dictates a clear strategic plan, beginning on the defensive, then assuming the offensive. Without for an instant renouncing its basic goal—the conquest of power—the Communist Party may occupy a defensive position for the sake of immediate and urgent actions. “Class against class!” It is high time to restore to this formula its real significance!

The repulsion by the workers of the offensive of capital and the government will inevitably call forth a redoubled offensive on the part of fascism. No matter how modest the first steps of the defence, the reaction from the enemy would immediately weld together the ranks of the united front, extend the tasks, compel the utilisation of more decisive measures, throw out the reactionary layers of the bureaucracy from the united front, extend the influence of Communism by weakening the barriers between the workers, and thus prepare for the transition from the defensive to the offensive.

If the Communist Party conquers the leading position in defensive battles—and it is assured of this under a correct policy—then it will in no way require the assent of the reformist and centrist upper crust when the transition to the offensive is reached. The masses are the ones who decide; the moment that the masses are separated from the reformist leadership, any agreement with the latter loses all meaning. To perpetuate the united front would be to misunderstand the dialectic of revolutionary struggle, and to transform the united front from a springboard into a barrier.

The most difficult political situations are in a certain sense the easiest; they allow only of one solution. Once the task is lucidly stated then it is in principle already solved: from the united front in the name of defence to the conquest of power under the banner of Communism.

Can this be done? The situation is difficult. Reformism is backed by ultra-left ultimatism. The bureaucratic dictatorship of the bourgeoisie is supported by reformism. Brüning’s bureaucratic dictatorship intensifies the economic agony of the nation and nourishes fascism.

The situation is very onerous, very dangerous, but far from hopeless. No matter how powerful the Stalinist apparatus may be, armed as it is with the usurped authority and the material resources of the October Revolution, it is not omnipotent. The dialectic of the class war is more powerful. One need only give it timely assistance.

At this moment many “lefts” are making a display of pessimism as regards the fate of Germany. In 1923, they say, when fascism was yet very weak, while the Communist Party had a serious influence in the trade unions and factory committees, the proletariat failed of victory; how then may one expect victory now when the party has become weaker and fascism incomparably stronger?

Imposing as this argument may seem at first glance, it is nevertheless false. In 1923 matters did not reach the stage of battle; the party shunned battle before the phantom of fascism. Where there is no fight, there can be no victory. It is precisely the strength of fascism and its thrust that eliminate this time the possibility of avoiding battle. Battle will have to be given. And if the German working class begins to fight it may conquer. It must conquer.

Even yesterday the supreme leaders said, “Let fascism assume power, we are not afraid, they will quickly shoot their bolt, etc.” This idea ruled the summits of the Communist Party several months at a stretch. Had it become absolutely entrenched, it would have signified that the Communist Party had undertaken to chloroform the proletariat prior to Hitler’s lopping off its head. Herein lay the greatest danger. At this moment no one repeats it any longer. The first positions have been won by us. The working masses are becoming imbued with the idea that fascism must be crushed before they can come to power. That is a very valuable victory. One must lean upon it in all subsequent agitation.

The mood of the working class is deeply troubled. They are tormented by unemployment and need. But they are goaded even more by the confusion of their leadership and the general mess. The workers understand that Hitler must not be allowed to come to power. But how? No way is visible. From above there comes not assistance but interference. Yet the workers want to fight.

There is an astounding fact, insofar as one may judge from afar, which has been insufficiently appraised, to wit: the Hirsch-Duncker coal miners have resolved that the capitalist system must be supplanted by the socialist! Why, this means that tomorrow they will be ready to create soviets as the organs of the entire class. Perhaps they are ready for it even today; one must only know enough to ask them! This symptom alone is a thousand times more important and convincing than all the impressionistic appraisals of literary gentlemen and orators, who are haughtily displeased with the masses.

Within the ranks of the Communist Party there seems to be passivity, factually and demonstrably, despite the proddings of the apparatus. But why? The rank and file of the Communists attend more and more rarely the meetings of the cells, where they are fed dry chaff. The ideas, which are supplied to them from above, can be applied neither in the factory nor on the street. The worker feels the irreconcilable contradiction between that which he needs when he stands face to face with the mass and that which is dished out to him during the official meetings of the party. The false atmosphere that is created by the shrill and boastful apparatus that brooks no contradiction is becoming insufferable for the rank and rile of the party. Hence we get emptiness and frigidity at party meetings. But this is not an unwillingness to fight, only political confusion as well as a dumb protest against the all powerful but brainless leadership.

The perplexity in the ranks of the proletariat raises the spirits of the fascists. Their offensive is extended. The danger grows. But precisely the nearness of the fascist danger will sharpen extremely the sight and hearing of the leading workers and will create an advantageous atmosphere for lucid and simple propositions that lead to action.

Citing Brunswick as an example, Münzenberg wrote in November of last year, “As regards the fact that this united front will spring up all at once, elementally, under the pressure of the increased fascist terror and fascist attacks—as regards this fact, there can be no doubt even today.” Münzenberg does not explain to us why the Central Executive Committee, of which he is a member, has not made the Brunswick events a point of departure for a bold policy of the united front. But just the same, without ceasing thereby to be an admission of his own insufficiency, Münzenberg’s prognosis is correct.

The imminence of the fascist danger cannot but lead to the radicalisation of the Social Democratic workers and even of considerable sections of the reformist apparatus. The revolutionary wing of the SAP will indubitably take a step forward. So much the more inevitable, under these conditions, does the about-face of the Communist apparatus become, even at the cost of inner rifts and splits. One must orient oneself precisely towards this direction of developments.

A turn by the Stalinists is inevitable. Symptoms here and there, measuring the force of pressure from below, are to be observed already; some arguments are supplanted by others, the phraseology becomes more and more obscure, the slogans more equivocal; at the same time all those are being excluded from the party who were careless enough to comprehend the task before the CEC. All these are unmistakable symptoms of the approaching about-face; but they are only symptoms.

More than once in the past it has happened that the Stalinist bureaucracy, having spoiled paper in hundreds of tons in polemics against counterrevolutionary “Trotskyism,” thereafter made an abrupt turn and tried to fulfil the program of the Left Opposition—in truth, sometimes after hopeless delays.

In China the turnabout came too late and in such form as to finish off the revolution (the Canton insurrection!). In Britain the “turnabout” was made by the adversaries, i.e., the General Council, which broke off with the Stalinists when it no longer needed them. But in the USSR the 1928 turnabout came just in time to save the dictatorship from the impending catastrophe. It is not hard to find the reasons for the differences in these three important examples. In China, the young and inexperienced Communist Party believed blindly in the Moscow leadership; the voice of the Russian Opposition did not generally, succeed in even getting there. Approximately the same thing happened in Britain. In the USSR, the Left Opposition was on the spot and ceaselessly continued its campaign against the kulak policies. In China [9] and Britain, Stalin & Co. took risks at a distance; in the USSR the matter concerned their own heads directly.

The political advantages of the German working class consist in the fact that all questions are posed openly and in good time; that the authority of the leadership of the Comintern has been greatly weakened; that the Marxist Opposition operates on the scene, in Germany itself; and that in the composition of the proletarian vanguard there are to be found thousands of experienced and critical individuals, who are capable of making themselves heard, and who are beginning to make themselves heard.

Numerically the Left Opposition in Germany is weak. But its political influence may prove decisive on the given, sharp, historical turn. As the switch-man, by the timely turn of the switch, shifts a heavily laden train onto different tracks, so the small Opposition, by a strong and sure turn of the ideological switch, can compel the train of the German Communist Party, and the still heavier train of the German proletariat, to go on in a different direction.

The correctness of our position will become apparent in action with each passing day. When the ceiling overhead bursts into flame, the most stubborn bureaucrats must forget about prestige. Even genuine privy councillors, in such situations, jump out of windows in their underwear. The pedagogy of facts will come to the assistance of our criticism.

Will the German Communist Party succeed in making the turn in time? At present one may speak of timeliness only conventionally. Had it not been for the frenzy of the “third period,” the German proletariat would today be in power. Had the Communist Party, after the last elections to the Reichstag, taken the program of action proposed by the Left Opposition, victory would have been assured. One cannot now speak of an assured victory. It is necessary now to call that turn timely which will enable the German workers to give battle before fascism takes over the state apparatus.

To accomplish such a turn, it is necessary to exert every effort. It is necessary for the leading elements of Communism, within the party and without, not to shy away from action. It is necessary to fight openly against the dumb ultimatism of the bureaucracy both within the party and in the face of the working masses.

“But that is a breach of discipline,” the wavering Communist will say. Of course, it is a breach of Stalinist discipline. No serious revolutionary will commit a breach of discipline, even formally, if there are no imperative reasons for it. Yet they are no revolutionists but rags and irresolute riffraff who under the cover of discipline tolerate policies the balefulness of which is quite obvious to them.

It would be a criminal act on the part of the Opposition Communists to take, like Urbahns & Co., to the road of creating a new Communist Party, before making some serious efforts to change the course of the old party. It is not difficult to create a small independent organisation. To create a new Communist Party is a gigantic task. Are there cadres for such a task? If there are, what have they done to influence tens of thousands of workers that are enrolled in the official party? If these cadres consider themselves capable of explaining to the workers the need for a new party, they should first of all test themselves in the work of reviving the existing party.

To pose now the question of a third party is to counterpose oneself on the eve of a great historical solution to the millions of Communist workers who are dissatisfied with the leadership but who, from a feeling of self-preservation, hold on to the party. One must find a common tongue with these millions of Communist workers. One must find access to the consciousness of these workers, ignoring curses, calumny, and the persecutions of functionaries; one must show them that we want the same things as they do, that we have no interests other than the interests of Communism, that the road we point out is the only correct road.

We must mercilessly expose ultra-radical capitulators and demand from the “leaders” clear answers to the question what to do; and we must offer our answer, for the entire country, for every section, every city, every district, every factory.

Within the party, nuclei of Bolshevik-Leninists must be created. On their banner they must inscribe: change the course and reform the party regime. Wherever they can assure themselves of serious support they must proceed to the actual application of the policy of the united front, even within a small local scope. The party bureaucracy will resort to expulsions? Certainly. But under the present conditions its omnipotence will not long endure.

Within the ranks of Communism and the entire proletariat there must be free discussion, without breaking up meetings, without falsified citations, without venomous vilification—but an honest interchange of opinions on the basis of proletarian democracy. It was thus that we conducted debates with all parties and within our own party throughout the entire year of 1917. Through a widespread discussion the extraordinary session of the party must be prepared for, with the sole question on the order of the day: “What next?”

Left Oppositionists are not intermediaries between the Communist Party and the Social Democracy. They are the soldiers of Communism, its agitators, its propagandists and its organisers. All eyes to the Communist Party! We must explain to it, we must convince it!

Should the Communist Party be compelled to apply the policy of the united front, this will almost certainly make it possible to beat off the fascist attack. In its own turn, a serious victory over fascism will clear the road for the dictatorship of the proletariat.

But even at the helm of revolution, the Communist Party will still bear within itself many contradictions. The mission of the Left Opposition will not at all be completed. In a certain sense it will only begin. In the first place, the victory of proletarian revolution in Germany would signify the liquidation of the bureaucratic dependence of the Communist Party upon the Stalinist apparatus.

On the very next day after the victory of the German proletariat, even before, while yet in the process of its struggle for power, the hoops that bind the Comintern will burst. The barrenness of the ideas of bureaucratic centrism, the national limitations of its outlook, the anti-proletarian character of its regime—all these will at once be revealed in the light of the German Revolution, which will be immeasurably more brilliant than the light of the October Revolution. The ideas of Marx and Lenin will gain their inevitable hegemony within the German proletariat.


Notes

[9] Let it be borne in mind that in China, the Stalinists worked against the creation of Soviets during the period of revolutionary upsurge; whereas, when they decided upon an uprising in Canton during the wave of recession, they appealed to the masses to create Soviets on the very day of the insurrection!