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

7. Lessons Of The Italian Experience

Italian fascism was the immediate outgrowth of the betrayal by the reformists of the uprising of the Italian proletariat From the time the war ended, there was an upward trend in the revolutionary movement in Italy, and in September 1920, it resulted in the seizure of factories and industries by the workers. The dictatorship of the proletariat was an actual fact; all that was lacking was to organise it, and to draw from it all the necessary conclusions. The Social Democracy took fright and sprang back. After its bold and heroic exertions, the proletariat was left facing the void. The disruption of the revolutionary movement became the most important factor in the growth of fascism. In September, the revolutionary advance came to a standstill; and November already witnessed the firs major demonstration of the fascists (the seizure of Bologna). True, the proletariat even after the September catastrophe, was capable of waging defensive battles. But the Social Democracy was concerned with only one thing: to withdraw the workers from under fire at the cost of one concession after the other. The Social Democracy hoped that the docile conduct of the workers would restore the “public opinion” of the bourgeoisie against the fascists. Moreover, the reformists even banked strongly upon the help of Victor Emmanuel. To the last hour, they restrained the workers with might and main from giving battle to Mussolini’s bands. It availed them nothing. The Crown, along with the upper crust of the bourgeoisie swung over to the side of fascism. Convinced at the last moment that fascism was not to be checked by obedience, the Social Democrats issued a call to the workers for a general strike. But their proclamation suffered a fiasco. The reformists had dampened the powder so long, in their fear lest it should explode, that when they finally and with a trembling hand applied a burning fuse to it, the powder did not catch.

Two years after its inception, fascism was in power. It entrenched itself thanks to the fact that the first period of its overlordship coincided with a favourable economic conjuncture, which followed the depression of 1921-1922. The fascists crushed the retreating proletariat beneath the offensive power of the petty bourgeoisie. But this was not achieved at a single blow. Even after he assumed power, Mussolini proceeded on his course with due caution: he lacked as yet ready-made models. During the first two years, not even the constitution was altered. The fascist government took on the character of a coalition. In the meantime the fascist bands were busy at work with clubs, knives, and pistols. Thus, slowly, the fascist government was created that meant the complete strangulation of all independent mass organisations.

Mussolini attained this at the cost of bureaucratising the fascist party itself. After utilising the onrushing forces of the petty bourgeoisie, fascism strangled it within the vise of the bourgeois state. He couldn’t have done otherwise, for the disillusionment of the masses he had united was transforming itself into the most immediate danger ahead. Fascism, become bureaucratic, approaches very closely to other forms of military and police dictatorship. It no longer possesses its former social support. The chief reserve of fascism – the petty bourgeoisie – has been spent. Only historical inertia enables the fascist government to keep the proletariat in a state of dispersion and helplessness. The correlation of forces is changing automatically in favour of the proletariat. This change must lead to a revolution. The downfall of fascism will be one of the most catastrophic events in European history. But all these processes, as the facts bear out, need time. The fascist government has maintained itself for ten years already. How much longer will it hold on? Without venturing into the risky business of setting dates, one can still say with assurance that Hitler’s victory in Germany would mean a new and a long lease of life for Mussolini. Hitler’s crash will mean the beginning of the end for Mussolini.

In its politics as regards Hitler, the German Social Democracy has not been able to add a single word: all it does is repeat more ponderously whatever the Italian reformists in their own time performed with greater flights of temperament The latter explained fascism as a post war psychosis; the German Social Democracy sees in it a “Versailles” or crisis psychosis. In both instances, the reformists shut their eyes to the organic character of fascism as a mass movement growing out of the collapse of capitalism.

Fearful of the revolutionary mobilisation of the workers, the Italian reformists banked all their hopes on “the state. “ Their slogan was, “Victor Emmanuel! Help! Intervene!” The German Social Democracy lacks such a democratic bulwark as a monarch loyal to the constitution. So they must be content with a president. “Hindenburg! Help! Intervene!”

While waging battle against Mussolini, that is, while retreating before him, Turati let loose his dazzling motto, “One must have the manhood to be a coward.” The German reformists are less frisky with their slogans. They demand, “Courage under unpopularity (Mut zur Unpopularität).” Which amounts to the same thing. One must not be afraid of the unpopularity which has been aroused by one’s own cowardly temporising with the enemy.

Identical causes produce identical effects. Were the march of events dependent upon the Social Democratic Party leadership, Hitler’s career would be assured.

One must admit, however, that the German Communist Party has also learned little from the Italian experience.

The Italian Communist Party came into being almost simultaneously with fascism. But the same conditions of revolutionary ebb tide which carried the fascists to power served to deter the development of the Communist Party. It did not take account of the full sweep of the fascist danger; it lulled itself with revolutionary illusions; it was irreconcilably antagonistic to the policy of the united front; in short, it called from all the infantile diseases. Small wonder! It was only two years old. In its eyes fascism appeared to be only “capitalist reaction.” The particular traits of fascism which spring from the mobilisation of the petty bourgeoisie against the proletariat, the Communist Party was unable to discern. Italian comrades inform me that with the sole exception of Gramsci, the Communist Party wouldn’t even allow of the possibility of the fascists’ seizing power. Once the proletarian revolution had suffered defeat and capitalism had kept its ground, and the counter-revolution had triumphed, how could there be any further kind of counter-revolutionary upheaval? The bourgeoisie cannot rise up against itself! Such was the gist of the political orientation of the Italian Communist Party. Moreover, one must not let out of sight the fact that Italian fascism was then a new phenomenon, and only in the process of formation; it wouldn’t have been an easy task even for a more experienced party to distinguish its specific traits.

The leadership of the German Communist Party reproduces today almost literally the position from which the Italian Communists took their point of departure: fascism is nothing else but capitalist reaction; from the point of view of the proletariat the differences between divers types of capitalist reaction are meaningless. This vulgar radicalism is the less excusable because the German party is much older than the Italian was at a corresponding period; and in addition, Marxism has been enriched now by the tragic experience in Italy. To insist that fascism is already here, or to deny the very possibility of its coming to power – amounts politically to one and the same thing. By ignoring the specific nature of fascism, the will to fight against it becomes inevitably paralysed,

The brunt of the blame must be borne, of course, by the leadership of the Comintern. Italian Communists above all others were duty-bound to raise their voices in alarm. But Stalin, with Manuilsky, compelled them to disavow the most important lessons of their own annihilation. We have already observed with what diligent alacrity Ercoli switched over to the position of social fascism, i.e., to the position of passively waiting for the fascist victory in Germany.

For a long time, the international Social Democracy solaced itself with the notion that Bolshevism was conceivable only in a backward country. It found refuge in the same solace afterwards as regards fascism. The German Social Democracy is now compelled to experience on its own back the falseness of this comforting notion: its fellow travellers from the petty bourgeoisie have gone and are going over to the fascist camp; the workers are leaving it for the Communist Party. Only these two groups are growing in Germany: fascism and Bolshevism. Even though Russia on the one hand and Italy on the other are countries incomparably more backward than Germany, nevertheless they have both served as arenas for the development of political movements which are inherent in imperialist capitalism as such. Advanced Germany must recapitulate the processes which reached their fulfillment in Russia and Italy. The fundamental problem of German development may be at present formulated thus: which way out the way of Russia, or the way of Italy?

Obviously this does not mean that the highly developed social structure is of no significance from the point of view of the development of the destinies of Bolshevism and fascism. Italy is a petty-bourgeois and peasant country to a much greater degree than Germany. One need only recall that to 9.8 million engaged in farming and forestry in Germany there are 18.5 million employed in industry and trade; that is, almost twice as many. Whereas, in Italy, to 10.3 million engaged in farming and forestry there are 6.4 million employed in industry and trade. These bare totals do not by far give an adequate representation of the preponderant relative weight of the proletariat in the life of the German nation. Even the tremendous number of the unemployed is only a proof, turned inside out, of the social might of the German proletariat. The whole question consists in how to translate this might into the language of revolutionary politics.

The last major defeat of the German party, which can be placed on the same historical board with the September days in Italy, dates back to 1923. During the more than eight years that have elapsed since, many wounds have been healed, and a new generation has risen to its feet. The German party represents an incomparably greater force than did the Italian Communists in 1922. The relative weight of the proletariat; the considerable time elapsed since its last defeat; the considerable strength of the Communist Party – these are the three advantages, which bear a great significance for the general summation of the background and of the perspectives.

But to make the best of one’s advantages, one must understand them. That is lacking. Thälmann’s position in 1932 reproduces Bordiga’s in 1922. In this direction, the danger takes on a particularly acute character. But here too there exists one supplementary advantage which was nonexistent ten years ago. Within the revolutionary ranks in Germany there is a Marxist opposition, which leans upon the experience of the preceding decade. This opposition is weak numerically, but the march of events adds extraordinary strength to its voice. Under certain conditions a slight shock may bring down an avalanche. The critical shock of the Left Opposition can aid in bringing about a timely change in the politics of the proletarian vanguard. In this lies our task at present