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

6. Lessons of the Russian Experience

In one of our earlier pamphlets, we made reference to the Bolshevik experience in the struggle against Kornilov; the official leaders answered with bellows of disapproval. We shall recapitulate here once again the gist of the matter, in order to show more clearly and in greater detail how the Stalinist school draws lessons from the past. During July and August 1917, Kerensky, then head of the government, was in fact fulfilling the program of Kornilov, the commander-in-chief of the army. He reinstated at the front military court-martials and the death penalty. He deprived the duly elected soviets of all influence upon government matters; he repressed the peasants; he doubled the price of bread (under the state trade monopoly of the foodstuffs); he prepared for the evacuation of revolutionary Petrograd; with Kornilov’s consent, he moved up counter-revolutionary troops towards the capital; he promised the Allies to initiate a new attack at the front, etc. Such was the general political background.

On August 26, Kornilov broke with Kerensky because of the latter’s vacillation, and threw his army against Petrograd. The status of the Bolshevik Party was semi-legal. Its leaders from Lenin down were either hiding underground or committed to prison, being indicted for affiliation with the General Staff of the Hohenzollerns. The Bolshevik papers were being suppressed. These persecutions emanated from Kerensky’s government, which was supported from the left by the coalition of Social Revolutionary and Menshevik deputies.

What course did the Bolshevik Party take? Not for an instant did it hesitate to conclude a practical alliance to fight against Kornilov with its jailers – Kerensky, Tseretelli, Dan, etc. Everywhere committees for revolutionary defence were organised, into which the Bolsheviks entered as a minority. This did not hinder the Bolsheviks from assuming the leading role: in agreements projected for revolutionary mass action, the most thoroughgoing and the boldest revolutionary party stands to gain always. The Bolsheviks were in the front ranks; they smashed down the barriers blocking them from the Menshevik workers and especially from the Social Revolutionary soldiers, and carried them along in their wake.

Perhaps the Bolsheviks took this course of action only because they were caught unawares? No. During the preceding months, the Bolsheviks tens and hundreds of times demanded that the Mensheviks join them in a common struggle against the mobilising forces of the counterrevolution. Even on May 27, while Tseretelli was clamouring for repressions against Bolshevik sailors, Trotsky declared during the session of the Petrograd Soviet, “When the time comes and the counterrevolutionary general will try to slip the noose around the neck of the revolution, the Cadets will be busy soaping the rope, but the sailors of Kronstadt will come to fight and to die side by side with us.” These words were fully confirmed. In the midst of Kornilov’s campaign, Kerensky appealed to the sailors of the cruiser Aurora, begging them to assume the defence of the Winter Palace. These sailors were, without exception, Bolsheviks. They hated Kerensky. Their hatred did not hinder them from vigilantly guarding the Winter Palace. Their representatives came to the Kresty Prison for an interview with Trotsky, who was jailed there, and they asked, “Why not arrest Kerensky?” But they put the query half in jest: the sailors understood that it was necessary first to smash Kornilov and after that to attend to Kerensky. Thanks to a correct political leadership, the sailors of the Aurora understood more than Thälmann’s Central Committee.

Die Rote Fahne refers to our historical review as “fraudulent.” Why? Vain question. How can one expect reasoned refutations from these people? They are under orders from Moscow, on the pain of losing their jobs, to set up a howl at the mention of Trotsky’s name. They fulfil the command, as best they can. Trotsky produced, in their words, “a fraudulent comparison” between the struggle of the Bolsheviks during Kornilov’s reactionary mutiny, at the beginning of September 1917 at the time when the Bolsheviks were fighting with the Mensheviks for a majority within the soviets, immediately before an acutely revolutionary situation; at the time when the Bolsheviks, armed in the struggle against Kornilov, were simultaneously carrying on a flank attack on Kerensky – with the present “struggle” of Brüning “against” Hitler. “In this manner, Trotsky paints the support of Brüning and of the Prussian government as ‘the lesser evil’.” (Die Rote Fahne, December 22, 1931) It is quite a task to refute this barrage of words. A pretence is made that I compare the Bolshevik struggle against Kornilov with Brüning’s struggle against Hitler. I don’t overestimate the mental capacities of the editors of Die Rote Fahne – but these gentlemen could not be so stupid as not to understand what I meant. Brüning’s struggle against Hitler I compared with Kerensky’s struggle against Kornilov; the struggle of the Bolsheviks against Kornilov I compared with the struggle of the German Communist Party against Hitler. Wherein is this comparison “fraudulent”? The Bolsheviks, says Die Rote Fahne, were fighting at the time with the Mensheviks for the majority in the soviets. But the German Communist Party, too, is righting against the Social Democracy for the majority of the working class. In Russia they were faced with “an acute revolutionary situation.” Quite true! If, however, the Bolsheviks had adopted Thälmann’s position in August 1917, then instead of a revolutionary situation a counterrevolutionary situation could have ensued.

During the last days of August, Kornilov was crushed, in reality not by force of arms but by the singleness of purpose with which the masses were imbued. Then and there, after September 3, Lenin offered through the press to compromise with the Social Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks: you compose the majority in the soviets, he said to them. Take over the state; we shall support you against the bourgeoisie. Guarantee us complete freedom of agitation and we shall assure you of a peaceful struggle for the majority in the soviets. Such an opportunist was Lenin! The Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries rejected the compromise, i.e., the new offer of a united front against the bourgeoisie. In the hands of the Bolsheviks, this rejection became a mighty weapon in preparation for the armed uprising, which within seven weeks swept away the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries.

Up to now there has been only one victorious proletarian revolution in the world. I do not at all hold that we committed no errors on our road to victory; but nevertheless, I maintain that our experience has some value for the German Communist Party. I cite the closest and the most pertinent historical analogy. How do the leaders of the German Communist Party reply? With profanity.

Only the ultra-left group, Der Rote Kaempfer, attempted to refute our comparison “seriously,” accoutred in the complete armour of erudition. It holds that the Bolsheviks behaved correctly in August, “because Kornilov was the standard-bearer of the Czarist counter-revolution, which means that he was waging the battle of the feudal reaction against the bourgeois revolution. Under these conditions the tactical coalition of the workers with the bourgeoisie and its Social Revolutionary Menshevik appendage was not only correct but necessary and unavoidable as well, because the interests of both classes coincided in the matter of repelling the feudal counter-revolution.” But since Hitler represents not the feudal but the bourgeois counter-revolution, the Social Democracy which supports the bourgeoisie cannot take the field against Hitler. That’s why the united front does not exist in Germany, and that’s why Trotsky’s comparison is erroneous.

All this has a very imposing sound. But coming down to actual facts, not a word of it is true. In August 1917, the Russian bourgeoisie was not at all opposed to the feudal reaction; all the landowners supported the Cadet Party, which fought against the expropriation of the landowners. Kornilov proclaimed himself a Republican, “the son of a peasant” and the supporter of agrarian reform and of the constitutional assembly. The entire bourgeoisie supported Kornilov. The alliance of the Bolsheviks with the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks was made possible only because the conciliationists broke with the bourgeoisie temporarily: they were compelled to, from fear of Kornilov. The representatives of these parties knew that the moment Kornilov was victorious the bourgeoisie would no longer need them, and would allow Kornilov to strangle them. Within these limits there is, as we see, a complete analogy with the interrelations between the Social Democracy and fascism.

The distinctions begin not at all where the theoreticians of Der Rote Kaempfer see them. In Russia, the masses of the petty bourgeoisie, above all the peasants, gravitated to the left and not to the right. Kornilov did not lean upon the petty bourgeoisie. And just because of this, his movement was not fascist. The counter-revolution was bourgeois – not at all feudal – in conspiracy with the generals. Therein lay its weakness. Kornilov leaned upon the moral support of the entire bourgeoisie and the military support of the officers and Junkers, i.e., the younger generation of the same bourgeoisie. This proved to be insufficient. But had Bolshevik policies been false, the victory of Kornilov was by no means excluded.

As we see, the arguments in Der Rote Kaempfer against the united front in Germany are based on the fact that its theoreticians understand neither the Russian nor the German situation. [3]

Since Die Rote Fahne doesn’t feel secure on the slippery ice of Russian history, it attempts to tackle the question from the opposite direction. “To Trotsky, only the National Socialists are fascists. The declaration of the state of emergency, the dictatorial wage reductions, the effective prohibition of strikes ... all this is not fascism to Trotsky. All this our party must put up with.” These people almost disarm one with the impotence of their spleen. When and where did I suggest anyone’s “putting up with” Brüning’s government? And just what does this “putting up with” mean? If it’s a matter of parliamentary or extra-parliamentary support of the Brüning regime, then you should be ashamed of even bringing up such a topic for discussion among Communists. But in another and a wider historical sense you, raucously bleating gentlemen, are nevertheless compelled to “put up with” Brüning’s government, because you lack the thews and sinews to overthrow it

All the arguments which Die Rote Fahne musters against me in relation to the German situation might have been used with equal justification against the Bolsheviks in 1917. One might have said, “For Bolsheviks, Kornilovism begins only with Kornilov. But isn’t Kerensky a Kornilovite? Aren’t his policies aimed toward strangling the revolution? Isn’t he crushing the peasants by means of punitive expeditions? Doesn’t he organise lockouts? Doesn’t Lenin have to hide underground? And all this we must put up with?”

So far as I recall, I can’t think of a single Bolshevik rash enough to have advanced such arguments. But were he to be found, he would have been answered something after this fashion. “We accuse Kerensky of preparing for and facilitating the coming of Kornilov to power. But does this relieve us of the duty of rushing to repel Kornilov’s attack? We accuse the gatekeeper of leaving the gates ajar for the bandit. But must we therefore shrug our shoulders and let the gates go hang?” Since, thanks to the toleration of the Social Democracy, Brüning’s government has been able to push the proletariat up to its knees in capitulation to fascism, you arrive at the conclusion that up to the knees, up to the waist, or over the head isn’t it all one thing? No, there is some difference. Whoever is up to his knees in a quagmire can still drag himself out Whoever is in over his head, for him there is no returning.

Lenin wrote about the ultra-lefts: “They say many flattering things about us Bolsheviks. At times one feels like saying, ‘Please, praise us a little less, and try your hand a little more at investigating the tactics of the Bolsheviks, and become a little better acquainted with them.’”


[3] The French periodical Cahiers du Bolchevisme, the most preposterous and illiterate of all Stalinist publications, pounced greedily upon this reference to the devil’s grandmother, never suspecting, of course, that she has a long history in the Marxist press. The hour is not distant, we hope, when the revolutionary workers will send their ignorant and unscrupulous teachers to serve their apprenticeship with the above-mentioned grandmother.