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

3. Bureaucratic Ultimatism

When the newspapers of the new Socialist Workers Party (the SAP) criticise “the party egoism” of the Social Democracy and of the Communist Party; when Seydewitz assures us that so far as he is concerned, “the interests of the class come before the interests of the party,” they only fall into political sentimentalism or, what is worse, behind this sentimental phraseology they screen the interests of their own party. This method is no good. Whenever reaction demands that the interests of the nation” be placed before class interests, we Marxists take pains to explain that under the guise of “the whole,” the reaction puts through the interests of the exploiting class. The interests of the nation cannot be formulated otherwise than from the point of view of the ruling class, or of the class pretending to sovereignty. The interests of the class cannot be formulated otherwise than in the shape of a program; the program cannot be defended otherwise than by creating the party. The class, taken by itself, is only material for exploitation. The proletariat assumes an independent role only at that moment when from a social class in itself it becomes a political class for itself This cannot take place otherwise than through the medium of a party. The party is that historical organ by means of which the class becomes class conscious. To say that “the class stands higher than the party,” is to assert that the class in the raw stands higher than the class which is on the road to class consciousness. Not only is this incorrect; it is reactionary. There isn’t the slightest need for this smug and shallow theory in order to establish the necessity for a united front.

The progress of a class toward class consciousness, that is, the building of a revolutionary party which leads the proletariat, is a complex and a contradictory process. The class itself is not homogeneous. Its different sections arrive at class consciousness by different paths and at different times. The bourgeoisie participates actively in this process. Within the working class, it creates its own institutions, or utilises those already existing, in order to oppose certain strata of workers to others. Within the proletariat several parties are active at the same time. Therefore, for the greater part of its historical journey, it remains split politically. The problem of the united front – which arises during certain periods most sharply originates therein.

The historical interests of the proletariat find their expression in the Communist Party – when its policies are correct. The task of the Communist Party consists in winning over the majority of the proletariat; and only thus is the socialist revolution made possible. The Communist Party cannot fulfil its mission except by preserving, completely and unconditionally, its political and organisational independence apart from all other parties and organisations within and without the working class. To transgress this basic principle of Marxist policy is to commit the most heinous of crimes against the interests of the proletariat as a class. The Chinese Revolution of 1925-1927 was wrecked precisely because the Comintern, under the leadership of Stalin and Bukharin, forced the Chinese Communist Party to enter into the party of the Chinese bourgeoisie, the Kuomintang, and to obey its discipline. The experience resulting from the application of Stalinist policies as regards the Kuomintang will enter forever into history as an example of how the revolution was ruinously sabotaged by its leaders. The Stalinist theory of “two-class workers’ and peasants’ parties” for the Orient is the generalisation and authorisation of the practice employed with the Kuomintang; the application of this theory in Japan, India, Indonesia, and Korea has undermined the authority of the Comintern and has set back their revolutionary development for a number of years. This same policy – perfidious in its essence – was applied, though not quite so cynically, in the United States, in Britain, and in all countries of Europe up to 1928.

The struggle of the Left Opposition for the maintenance of the complete and unconditional independence of the Communist Party and of its policies, under each and every historical condition, and on all stages of the development of the proletariat, strained the relations between the Opposition and the Stalinist faction to the breaking point during the period of Stalin’s bloc with Chiang Kai-shek, Wang Chin-wei, Purcell, Radich, LaFollette, etc. It is quite unnecessary to recall that both Thälmann and Remmele as well as Brandler and Thalheimer, during this struggle, were completely on Stalin’s side against the Bolshevik-Leninists. It is not we, therefore, who have to go to school and learn from Stalin and Thälmann about the independent policies of the Communist Party!

But the proletariat moves toward revolutionary consciousness not by passing grades in school but by passing through the class struggle, which abhors interruptions. To fight, the proletariat must have unity in its ranks. This holds true for partial economic conflicts, within the walls of a single factory, as well as for such “national” political battles as the one to repel fascism. Consequently the tactic of the united front is not something accidental and artificial – a cunning manoeuvre – not at all; it originates, entirely and wholly, in the objective conditions governing the development of the proletariat. The words in the Communist Manifesto which state that the Communists are not to be opposed to the proletariat, that they have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole, carry with them the meaning that the struggle of the party to win over the majority of the class must in no instance come into opposition with the need of the workers to keep unity within their fighting ranks.

Die Rote Fahne is completely justified in condemning all discussions concerning the contention that “the class interests must be placed above party interests.” In reality, the correctly understood interests of the class are identical with the correctly formulated problems of the party. So long as the discussion is limited to this historico-philosophical assertion, the position of Die Rote Fahne is unassailable. But the political conclusions which it deduces therefrom are nothing short of a mockery of Marxism.

The identity, in principle, of the interests of the proletariat and of the aims of the Communist Party does not mean either that the proletariat as a whole is, even today, conscious of its class interests, or that the party under all conditions formulates them correctly. The very need for the party originates in the plain fact that the proletariat is not born with the innate understanding of its historical interests. The task of the party consists in learning, from experience derived from the struggle, how to demonstrate to the proletariat its right to leadership. And yet the Stalinist bureaucracy, on the contrary, holds to the opinion that it can demand outright obedience from the proletariat, simply on the strength of a party passport, stamped with the seal of the Comintern.

Every united front that doesn’t first place itself under the leadership of the Communist Party, reiterates Die Rote Fahne, is directed against the interests of the proletariat. Whoever doesn’t recognise the leadership of the Communist Party is himself a “counterrevolutionary.” The worker is obliged to trust the Communist organisation in advance, on its word of honour. From the identity, in principle, of the aims of the party and of the class, the functionary deduces his right to lay down the law to the class. The very historical problem which the Communist Party is yet to solve – that of uniting the overwhelming majority of the workers under its banner – is turned by the bureaucrat into an ultimatum, into a pistol which he holds against the temple of the working class. Formalistic, administrative, and bureaucratic thinking supplants the dialectic.

The historical problem that must be solved is decreed as solved already. The confidence yet to be won is announced as won already. That, it goes without saying, is the easiest way out. But very little is achieved that way. In politics one must proceed from facts as they are, and not as one would like them to be, or as they will be eventually. The position of the Stalinist bureaucracy drawn to its conclusion leads, in fact, to the negation of the party. For what is the net result of all its historical labour, if the proletariat is obliged beforehand to accept the leadership of Thälmann and Remmele?

From the worker desirous of joining the ranks of the Communists, the party has a right to demand: you must accept our program and obey our regulations and the authority of our electoral institutions. But it is absurd and criminal to present the same a priori demand, or even a part of it, to the working masses of workers’ organisations when the matter of joint action for the sake of definite aims of struggle is broached. Thereby the very foundations of the party are undermined; for the party can fulfil its task only by maintaining correct relations with the class. Instead of issuing such a one-sided ultimatum, which irritates and insults the workers, the party should submit a definite program for joint action: that is the surest way of achieving leadership in reality.

Ultimatism is an attempt to rape the working class after failing to convince it: workers, unless you accept the leadership of Thälmann-Remmele-Neumann, we will not permit you to establish the united front The bitterest foe could not devise a more unsound position than the one in which the leaders of the party place themselves. That is the surest way to ruin.

The leadership of the German Communist Party stresses its ultimatism all the more sharply by the casuistic circumlocution in its proclamations, “We make no demands that you accept our Communist view beforehand.” This rings like an apology for policies for which there is no apology. When the party proclaims its refusal to enter into any kind of negotiations with other organisations but offers to take in under the party leadership those Social Democratic workers who want to break with their organisations without their being obliged to call themselves Communists, then the party is using the language of pure ultimatism. The reservation as regards “our Communist views” is absolutely ludicrous; the worker who is at this very moment ready to break with his party and to participate in the struggle under Communist leadership, would not be deterred by the fact that he must call himself a Communist. Jugglery with labels and subtleties of diplomacy are foreign to the worker. He takes politics and organisations as they are. He remains with the Social Democracy so long as he does not trust the Communist leadership. We can say with assurance that the majority of Social Democratic workers remain in their party to this day not because they trust the reformist leadership but because they do not as yet trust that of the Communists. But they do want to fight against fascism even now. Were they shown the first step to take in a common struggle, they would insist upon their organisations taking that step. If their organisations balked, they might reach the point of breaking with them.

Instead of aiding the Social Democratic workers to find their way through experience, the CEC (Central Executive Committee) of the Communist Party abets the leaders of the Social Democracy against the workers. The Welses and the Hilferdings are enabled to mask successfully their own unwillingness to fight, their dread of fighting, their inability to fight by citing the aversion of the Communist Party to participation in a common struggle. The stubborn, doltish, and insensate rejection by the Communist Party of the policies of the united front provides the Social Democracy, under the present conditions, with its most important political weapon. This is just the reason why the Social Democracy – with the parasitism inherent in its nature – snaps up our criticism of the ultimatistic policies of Stalin-Thälmann.

The official leaders of the Comintern are now expatiating with an air of profundity upon the need to elevate the theoretical level of the party and to study “the history of Bolshevism.” Actually “the level” is falling constantly, the lessons of Bolshevism are forgotten, distorted, and trampled underfoot. In the meantime, it is by no means difficult to find in the history of the Russian party the precursor of the present policy of the German CEC: he is none other than the deceased Bogdanov, the founder of ultimatism. As far back as 1905 he deemed it impossible for the Bolsheviks to participate in the Petrograd Soviet, unless the Soviet recognised beforehand the leadership of the Social Democrats. Under Bogdanov’s influence, the Petrograd Bureau of the CEC (Bolsheviks) passed a resolution in October 1905: to submit before the Petrograd Soviet the demand that it recognise the leadership of the party; and in the event of refusal – to walk out of the Soviet. Krassikov, a young lawyer, in those days a member of the CEC (Bolsheviks), read this ultimatum at the plenary session of the Soviet The worker deputies, among them Bolsheviks also, exchanged surprised looks and then passed on to the business on the order of the day. Not a man walked out of the Soviet. Shortly after that Lenin arrived from abroad, and he raked the ultimatists over the coals mercilessly. “You can’t,” he lectured them, “nor can anyone else by means of ultimatums force the masses to skip the necessary phases of their own political development.”

Bogdanov, however, did not discard his methodology, and he subsequently founded an entire faction of “ultimatists” or “up and outers,” called Otzovists. They received the latter nickname because of their tendency to call upon the Bolsheviks to get up and get out from all those organisations that refused to accept the ultimatum laid down from above: “you must first accept our leadership.” The ultimatists attempted to apply their policy not only to the Soviets but also to the parliamentary sphere and to the trade unions, in short, to all legal and semi-legal organisations of the working class.

Lenin’s fight against ultimatism was a fight for the correct interrelation between the party and the class. The ultimatists in the old Bolshevik Party never played a role of the slightest importance, otherwise the victory of Bolshevism would not have been possible. The strength of Bolshevism lay in its wide awake and sensitive relation to the class. Lenin continued his fight against ultimatism even when he was in supreme command, in particular and especially as regards the attitude to the trade unions. “Indeed, if now in Russia,” he wrote, “after two and a half years of unheard-of victories over the bourgeoisie of Russia and of the Entente, we were to place before the trade unions as a condition for their joining us that they ‘recognise the dictatorship’ we would be guilty of stupidity, we would impair our influence over the masses, we would aid the Mensheviks. For the task of the Communists consists in being able to convince the backward; to know how to work among them and not to fence ourselves off from them by a barrier of fictitious and puerile ‘left’ slogans” (“Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder). This holds all the more for the Communist Parties of the West, which represent only a minority of the working class.

During the last few years, however, the situation in the USSR has changed radically. The arming of the Communist Party with sovereignty means the introduction of a new element into the interrelation between the vanguard and the class: into this relation there enters the element of force. Lenin’s struggle against party and Soviet bureaucracy was in its essence a struggle not against the faulty organisation of departments, nor against departmental red tape and inefficiency but against the apparatus laying down the law to the class, against the transformation of the party bureaucracy into a new “ruling” clique. Lenin’s counsel, from his deathbed, that a proletarian Control Commission be created, independent of the CEC, and that Stalin and his faction be removed from the party apparatus, was aimed against the bureaucratic degeneration of the party. For various reasons, which cannot be dealt with here, the party ignored this counsel. Of recent years the bureaucratic degeneration of the party has reached the extreme limit. Stalin’s apparatus simply lays down the law. The language of command is the language of ultimatism. Every worker must perforce and forthwith accept as infallible all the past, present, and future decisions of the CEC. The more erroneous the policies become, the greater are the pretensions to infallibility.

After gathering into its hands the apparatus of the Comintern, the Stalinist faction naturally transferred its methods to the foreign sections also, i.e., to the Communist Parties in the capitalist nations. The policy of the German leaders has for its counterpart the policy of the Moscow leadership. Thälmann observes how Stalin’s bureaucracy rules the roost, by condemning as counterrevolutionary all those who do not recognise its infallibility. Wherein is Thälmann worse than Stalin? If the working class does not willingly place itself under his leadership, that is only because the working class is counterrevolutionary. Double-dyed counterrevolutionaries are those who point out the balefulness of ultimatism. The collected works of Lenin are among the most counterrevolutionary publications. There is sufficient reason why Stalin should – as he does – submit them to such rigid censorship, particularly on their publication in foreign languages. As baleful as ultimatism. is under all conditions, if in the USSR it dissipates the moral capital of the party – it breeds double disaster for the Western parties, which must yet begin accumulating their moral capital. Within the Soviet Union, at least, the victorious revolution has created the material grounds for bureaucratic ultimatism in the shape of an apparatus for repression, whereas in capitalist countries, including Germany, ultimatism becomes converted into an impotent caricature, and interferes with the movement of the Communist Party to power. Above all, the ultimatism of Thälmann-Remmele is ridiculous. And whatever is ridiculous is fatal, particularly in matters concerning a revolutionary party.

Let us for a moment transfer the problem to Great Britain, where the Communist Party (as a consequence of the ruinous mistakes of Stalinist bureaucracy) still comprises an insignificant portion of the proletariat. If one accepts the theory that every type of the united front, except the Communist, is “counter-revolutionary,” then obviously the British proletariat must put off its revolutionary struggle until that time when the Communist Party is able to come to the fore. But the Communist Party cannot come to the front of the class except on the basis of its own revolutionary experience. However, its experience cannot take on a revolutionary character in any other way than by drawing mass millions into the struggle. Yet non-Communist masses, the more so if organised, cannot be drawn into the struggle except through the policy of the united front. We fall into a vicious circle, from which there is no way out by means of bureaucratic ultimatism. But the revolutionary dialectic has long since pointed the way out and has demonstrated it by countless examples in the most diverse spheres: by correlating the struggle for power with the struggle for reforms; by maintaining complete independence of the party while preserving the unity of the trade unions; by fighting against the bourgeois regime and at the same time utilising its institutions; by relentlessly criticising parliamentarism – from the parliamentary tribunal; by waging war mercilessly against reformism, and at the same time making practical agreements with the reformists in partial struggles.

In Britain, the incompetence of ultimatism hits one in the eye because of the extreme weakness of the party. In Germany the balefulness of ultimatism is masked somewhat by the considerable numerical strength of the party and by its growth. But the German party is growing on account of the pressure of events and not thanks to the policies of the leadership; not because of ultimatism, but despite it. Moreover, the numerical growth of the party does not play the decisive role; what does decide is the political interrelation between the party and the class. Along this line, which is fundamental, the situation is not improving, because the German party has placed between itself and the class the thorny hedge of ultimatism.