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

2. Democracy and Fascism

The eleventh plenum of the ECCI came to the decision that it was imperative to put an end to those erroneous views which originate in “the liberal interpretation of the contradictions between fascism and bourgeois democracy and the outright fascist forms ...” The gist of this Stalinist philosophy is quite plain: from the Marxist denial of the absolute contradiction it deduces the general negation of the contradiction, even of the relative contradiction. This error is typical of vulgar radicalism. For if there be no contradiction whatsoever between democracy and fascism – even in the sphere of the form of the rule of the bourgeoisie – then these two regimes obviously enough must be equivalent Whence the conclusion: Social Democracy equals fascism. For some reason, however, Social Democracy is dubbed social fascism. And the meaning of the term “social” in this connection has been left unexplained to this very moment. [1] Nevertheless, the nature of things does not change in accordance with the decisions of the ECCI plenums. A contradiction does exist between democracy and fascism. It is not at all “absolute,” or, putting it in the language of Marxism, it doesn’t at all denote the rule of two irreconcilable classes. But it does denote different systems of the domination of one and the same class. These two systems: the one parliamentary-democratic, the other fascist, derive their support from different combinations of the oppressed and exploited classes; and they unavoidably come to a sharp clash with each other.

The Social Democracy, which is today the chief representative of the parliamentary-bourgeois regime, derives its support from the workers. Fascism is supported by the petty bourgeoisie. The Social Democracy without the mass organisations of the workers can have no influence. Fascism cannot entrench itself in power without annihilating the workers’ organisations. Parliament is the main arena of the Social Democracy. The system of fascism is based upon the destruction of parliamentarism. For the monopolistic bourgeoisie, the parliamentary and fascist regimes represent only different vehicles of dominion; it has recourse to one or the other, depending upon the historical conditions. But for both the Social Democracy and fascism, the choice of one or the other vehicle has an independent significance; more than that, for them it is a question of political life or death.

At the moment that the “normal” police and military resources of the bourgeois dictatorship, together with their parliamentary screens, no longer suffice to hold society in a state of equilibrium – the turn of the fascist regime arrives. Through the fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie, and bands of the declassed and demoralised lumpen-proletariat; all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy. From fascism the bourgeoisie demands a thorough job; once it has resorted to methods of civil war, it insists on having peace for a period of years. And the fascist agency, by utilising the petty bourgeoisie as a battering ram, by overwhelming all obstacles in its path, does a thorough job. After fascism is victorious, finance capital gathers into its hands, as in a vise of steel, directly and immediately, all the organs and institutions of sovereignty, the executive, administrative, and educational powers of the state: the entire state apparatus together with the army, the municipalities, the universities, the schools, the press, the trade unions, and the cooperatives. When a state turns fascist, it doesn’t only mean that the forms and methods of government are changed in accordance with the patterns set by Mussolini – the changes in this sphere ultimately play a minor role – but it means, primarily and above all, that the workers’ organisations are annihilated; that the proletariat is reduced to an amorphous state; and that a system of administration is created which penetrates deeply into the masses and which serves to frustrate the independent crystallisation of the proletariat. Therein precisely is the gist of fascism.

The above is not at all contradicted by the fact that during a given period, between the democratic and the fascist systems, a transitional regime is established, which combines the features of both: such, in general, is the law that governs the displacement of one social system by another, even though they are irreconcilably inimical to each other. There are periods during which the bourgeoisie leans upon both the Social Democracy and fascism, that is, during which it simultaneously manipulates its electoral and terroristic agencies. Such, in a certain sense, was the government of Kerensky during the last months of its existence, when it leaned partly on the Soviets and at the same time conspired with Kornilov. Such is the government of Brüning as it dances on a tightrope between two irreconcilable camps, balancing itself with the emergency decrees instead of a pole. But such a condition of the state and of the administration is temporary in character. It signalises the transition period, during which the Social Democracy is on the verge of exhausting its mission, while, in that same period, neither Communism nor fascism is ready as yet to seize power.

The Italian Communists, who have had to study the problems of fascism for a long time, have protested time and again against the widespread abuse of these concepts. Formerly, at the Sixth Congress of the Comintern, Ercoli was still formulating views on the question of fascism which are now credited as “Trotskyist.” Ercoli at that time defined fascism as being the most thorough and uncompromising system of reaction, and he explained: “This administration supports itself not by the cruelty of its terroristic acts, not by murdering large numbers of workers and peasants, not by applying on a large scale varied methods of brutal torture, not by the severity of its law courts; but it depends upon the systematic annihilation of each and every form of the independent organisation of the masses.” In this Ercoli is absolutely correct: the gist of fascism and its task consist in a complete suppression of all workers’ organisations and in the prevention of their revival. In a developed capitalist society this goal cannot be achieved by police methods alone. There is only one method for it, and that is directly opposing the pressure of the proletariat – the moment it weakens – by the pressure of the desperate masses of the petty bourgeoisie. It is this particular system of capitalist reaction that has entered history under the name of fascism.

“All questions as to the relation between fascism and Social Democracy,” wrote Ercoli, “belong to the same sphere [the irreconcilability of fascism with the existence of the workers’ organisations]. It is in this relation that fascism clearly differentiates itself from all other reactionary regimes established hitherto in the contemporary capitalist world. It rejects all compromise with the Social Democracy; it persecutes it relentlessly; it deprives it of all legal means of existence; it forces it to emigrate.–

So reads an article published in the leading organs of the Comintern! Subsequently, Manuilsky buzzed in Molotov’s ear the great idea of the “third period,” France, Germany, and Poland were assigned to “the front rank of the revolutionary offensive.” The seizure of power was proclaimed to be the immediate task. And since, in the face of the uprising of the proletariat, all parties, except the Communist, are counter-revolutionary, it was no longer necessary to distinguish between fascism and Social Democracy. The theory of social fascism was ordained. And the functionaries of the Comintern lost no time in realigning themselves. Ercoli made haste to prove that, precious as truth was to him, Molotov was more precious, and ... he wrote a report in defence of the theory of social fascism. “The Italian Social Democracy,” he announced in February 1930, “turns fascist with the greatest readiness.” Alas, the functionaries of official Communism turn flunkies even more readily.

As was to be expected, our criticism of the theory and application of the “third period” was decreed counterrevolutionary. Nevertheless, the cruel experiences that cost the proletarian vanguard dearly, forced an about-face in this sphere also. The “third period” was pensioned off, and so was Molotov himself from the Comintern. But the theory of social fascism remained behind as the lone ripe fruit of the third period. No changes could take place here: only Molotov was tied up with the third period; but Stalin himself was enmeshed in social fascism.

Die Rote Fahne begins its researches into social fascism with Stalin’s words, “Fascism is the military organisation of the bourgeoisie which leans upon the Social Democracy for active support. The Social Democracy, objectively speaking, is the moderate wing of fascism.” Objectively speaking, it is a habit with Stalin, when he attempts to generalise, to contradict the first phrase by the second and to conclude in the second what doesn’t at all follow from the first There is no debating that the bourgeoisie leans on the Social Democracy, and that fascism is a military organisation of the bourgeoisie; and this has been remarked upon a long time ago. The only conclusion which follows from this is that the Social Democracy as well as fascism are the tools of the big bourgeoisie. How the Social Democracy becomes thereby also a “wing” of fascism is incomprehensible. Equally profound is another observation by the same author: fascism and Social Democracy are not enemies, they are twins. Now twins may be the bitterest enemies; while on the other hand, allies need not be born necessarily on one and the same day and from identical parents. Stalin’s constructions lack even formal logic, to say nothing of dialectics. Their strength lies in the fact that none dares challenge them.

“As regards ‘the class content’ there are no distinctions between democracy and fascism,” lectures Werner Hirsch, echoing Stalin (Die Internationale, January 1932). The transition from democracy to fascism may take the character of “an organic process,” that is, it may occur “gradually” and “bloodlessly.” Such reasoning might dumbfound anyone, but the epigones have inured us to becoming dumbfounded.

There are no “class distinctions” between democracy and fascism. Obviously this must mean that democracy as well as fascism is bourgeois in character. We guessed as much even prior to January 1932. The ruling class, however, does not inhabit a vacuum. It stands in definite relations to other classes. In a developed capitalist society, during a “democratic regime, the bourgeoisie leans for support primarily upon the working classes, which are held in check by the reformists. In its most finished form, this system finds its expression in Britain during the administration of the Labour government as well as during that of the Conservatives. In a fascist regime, at least during its first phase, capital leans on the petty bourgeoisie, which destroys the organisations of the proletariat. Italy, for instance! Is there a difference in the “class content” of these two regimes? If the question is posed only as regards the ruling class, then there is no difference. If one takes into account the position and the interrelations of all classes, from the angle of the proletariat, then the difference appears to be quite enormous.

In the course of many decades, the workers have built up within the bourgeois democracy, by utilising it, by fighting against it, their own strongholds and bases of proletarian democracy: the trade unions, the political parties, the educational and sport clubs, the cooperatives, etc. The proletariat cannot attain power within the formal limits of bourgeois democracy, but can do so only by taking the road of revolution: this has been proved both by theory and experience. And these bulwarks of workers” democracy within the bourgeois state are absolutely essential for taking the revolutionary road. The work of the Second International consisted in creating just such bulwarks during the epoch when it was still fulfilling its progressive historic labour.

Fascism has for its basic and only task the razing to their foundations of all institutions of proletarian democracy. Has this any “class meaning” for the proletariat, or hasn’t it? The lofty theoreticians had better ponder over this. After pronouncing the regime to be bourgeois – which no one questions Hirsch, together with his masters, overlooks a mere trifle: the position of the proletariat in this regime. In place of the historical process they substitute a bald sociological abstraction. But the class war takes place on the soil of history, and not in the stratosphere of sociology. The point of departure in the struggle against fascism is not the abstraction of the democratic state, but the living organisations of the proletariat, in which is concentrated all its past experience and which prepare it for the future.

The statement that the transition from democracy to fascism may take on an “organic” and a “gradual” character can mean one thing and one thing only and that is: without any fuss, without a fight, the proletariat may be deprived not only of all its material conquests – not only of its given standard of living, of its social legislation, of its civil and political rights but also even of the basic weapon whereby these were achieved, that is, its organisations. The “bloodless” transition to fascism implies under this terminology, the most frightful capitulation of the proletariat that can be conceived.

Werner Hirsch’s theoretical discussions are not accidental; while they serve to develop still further the theoretical soothsayings of Stalin, they also serve to generalise the entire present agitation of the Communist Party. The party’s chief resources are in fact being strained only to prove that there is no difference between Brüning’s regime and Hitler’s regime. Thälmann and Remmele see in this the quintessence of Bolshevik policy.

Nor is the matter restricted to Germany only. The notion that nothing new will be added by the victory of fascists is being zealously propagated now in all sections of the Comintern. In the January issue of the French periodical Cahiers du Bolchevisme we read, “The Trotskyists behave in practice like Breitscheid; they accept the famous Social Democratic theory of the ‘lesser evil,’ according to which Brüning is not as bad as Hitler, according to which it is not so unpleasant to starve under Brüning as under Hitler, and infinitely more preferable to be shot down by Groener than by Frick.” This is not the most stupid passage, although – to give it due credit – stupid enough. Unfortunately, however, it expresses the gist of the political philosophy of the leaders of the Comintern.

The fact of the matter is that the Stalinists compare the two regimes from the point of view of vulgar democracy. And indeed, were one to consider Brüning’s regime from the criterion of “formal” democracy, one would arrive at a conclusion which is beyond argument: nothing is left of the proud Weimar Constitution save the bones and the skin. But this does not settle the question so far as we are concerned. The question must be approached from the angle of proletarian democracy. This criterion is also the only reliable one on which to consider the question as to when and where the “normal” police methods of reaction under decaying capitalism are replaced by the fascist regime.

Whether Brüning is “better” than Hitler (better looking perhaps?) is a question which, we confess, doesn’t interest us at all. But one need only glance at the list of workers’ organisations to assert, fascism has not conquered yet in Germany. In the way of its victory there still remain gigantic obstacles and forces.

The present Brüning regime is the regime of bureaucratic dictatorship or, more definitely, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie enforced by means of the army and the police. The fascist petty bourgeoisie and the proletarian organisations seem to counterbalance one another. Were the workers united by soviets, were factory committees fighting for the control of production, then one could speak of dual power. Because of the split within the proletariat, because of the tactical helplessness of its vanguard, dual power does not exist as yet. But the very fact that mighty organisations of workers do exist, which under certain conditions are capable of repelling fascism with crushing force, that is what keeps Hitler from seising power and imparts a certain “independence” to the bureaucratic apparatus.

Brüning’s dictatorship is a caricature of Bonapartism. His dictatorship is unstable, unreliable, short-lived. It signalises not the initiation of a new social equilibrium but the early crash of the old one. Supported directly only by a small minority of the bourgeoisie, tolerated by the Social Democracy against the will of the workers, threatened by fascism, Brüning can bring down the thunder of paper decrees but not real thunderbolts. Brüning is fit for dissolving parliament with its own assent; he’ll do to promulgate a few decrees against the workers; to proclaim a Christmas truce and to make a few deals under its cover; to break up a hundred meetings, close down a dozen papers, exchange letters with Hitler worthy of a village druggist – that is all. But for greater things his arms are too short.

Brüning is compelled to tolerate the existence of workers’ organisations because he hasn’t decided to this very day to hand the power over to Hitler, and inasmuch as he himself has no independent means of liquidating them. Brüning is compelled to tolerate the fascists and to patronise them inasmuch as he mortally fears the victory of the workers. Brüning’s regime is a transitional, short-lived regime, preceding the catastrophe. The present administration holds on only because the chief camps have not as yet pitted their strength. The real battle has not begun. It is still to come. The dictatorship of bureaucratic impotence fills in the lull before the battle, before the forces are openly matched.

The wiseacres who boast that they do not recognise any difference ‘between Brüning and Hitler,’ are saying in reality; it makes no difference whether our organisations exist, or whether they are already destroyed. Beneath this pseudo-radical phraseology there hides the most sordid passivity; we can’t escape defeat anyway! Read over carefully the quotation from the French Stalinist periodical. They reduce the question to whether it is better to starve under Hitler or Brüning. To them it is a question of under whom to starve. To us, on the contrary, it is not a question of under which conditions it is better to die. We raise the question of how to fight and win. And we conclude thus: the major offensive must be begun before the bureaucratic dictatorship is replaced by the fascist regime, that is, before the workers’ organisations are crushed. The general offensive should be prepared for by deploying, extending, and sharpening the sectional clashes. But for this one must have a correct perspective and, first of all, one should not proclaim victorious the enemy who is still a long way from victory.

Herein is the crux of the problem; herein is the strategical key to the background; herein is the operating base from which the battle must be waged. Every thinking worker, the more so every Communist, must give himself an accounting and plumb to the bottom the empty and rotten talk of the Stalinist bureaucracy about Brüning and Hitler being one and the same thing. You are muddling! we say in answer. You muddle disgracefully because you are afraid of the difficulties that lie ahead, because you are terrified by the great problems that lie ahead; you throw in the sponge before the fighting is begun, you proclaim that we have already suffered defeat. You are lying! The working class is split; it is weakened by the reformists and disoriented by the vacillations of its own vanguard, but it is not annihilated yet, its forces are not yet exhausted. No. The proletariat of Germany is powerful. The most optimistic estimates will be infinitely surpassed once its revolutionary energy clears the way for it to the arena of action.

Brüning’s regime is the preparatory regime. Preparatory to what? Either to the victory of fascism, or to the victory of the proletariat. This regime is preparatory because both camps are only preparing for the decisive battle. If you identify Brüning with Hitler, you identify the conditions before the battle with the conditions after defeat; it means that you admit defeat beforehand; it means that you appeal for surrender without a battle.

The overwhelming majority of the workers, particularly the Communists, does not want this. The Stalinist bureaucracy, of course, does not want it either. But one must take into account not one’s good intentions, with which Hitler will pave the road to his Hell, but the objective meaning of one’s policies, of their direction, and their tendencies. We must disclose in its entirety the passive, timidly hesitant capitulating and declamatory character of the politics of Stalin-Manuilsky-Thälmann-Remmele. We must teach the revolutionary workers to understand that the key to the situation is in the hands of the Communist Party; but the Stalinist bureaucracy attempts to use this key to lock the gates to revolutionary action.


[1] The article is signed with the modest initials E.H. They should be engraved for posterity. Generations of workers have not laboured in vain. Great revolutionary thinkers and fighters did not journey over this earth without leaving their mark. E.H. exists, stays on his job, and points the way to the German proletariat.

Evil tongues would have it that E.H. is closely related to E. Heilmann, who so besmirched himself during the war by the most sordid kind of chauvinism. Impossible! What, such a lucid head ...?