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

8. Through the United Front – To the Soviets as the Highest Organs of the United Front

Verbal genuflections before the soviets are equally as fashionable in the “left” circles as the misconception of their historical function. Most often the soviets are defined as the organs of struggle for power, as the organs of insurrection, and finally, as the organs of dictatorship. Formally these definitions are correct. But they do not at all exhaust the historical function of the soviets. First of all they do not explain why, in the struggle for power, precisely the soviets are necessary. The answer to this question is: just as the trade union is the rudimentary form of the united front in the economic struggle, so the soviet is the highest form of the united front under the conditions in which the proletariat enters the epoch of fighting for power. The soviet in itself possesses no miraculous powers. It is the class representation of the proletariat, with all of the latter’s strong and weak points. But precisely and only because of this does the soviet afford to the workers of divers political trends the organisational opportunity to unite their efforts in the revolutionary struggle for power. In the present pre-revolutionary environment it is the duty of the most advanced German workers to understand most clearly the historical function of the soviets as the organs of the united front.

Could the Communist Party succeed, during the preparatory epoch, in pushing all other parties out of the ranks of the workers by uniting under its banner the overwhelming majority of the workers, then there would be no need whatever for soviets. But historical experience bears witness to the fact that there is no basis whatever for the expectation that in any single country – in countries with an old capitalist culture even less than in the backward ones – the Communist Party can succeed in occupying such an undisputed and absolutely commanding position in the workers’ ranks, prior to the proletarian overturn.

Precisely in Germany today are we shown that the proletariat is faced with the task of a direct and immediate struggle for power, long before it has been completely united under the banner of the Communist Party. The revolutionary situation itself, if approached on the political plane, arises from the fact that all groups and layers of the proletariat, or at least their overwhelming majority, are seized with the urge to unite their efforts in changing the existing regime. This does not mean, however, that they all understand how to do it; and still less that they are ready at the very moment to break with their parties and to join the ranks of the Communists. The political conscience of the class does not mature so methodically and uniformly; deep inner divergences remain even in the revolutionary epoch, when all processes develop by leaps and bounds. But, at the same time, the need for an organisation above parties and embracing the entire class becomes extremely urgent. To crystallise this need into a form – that is the historic destiny of the soviets. That is their great function. Under the conditions of a revolutionary situation they arise as the highest organised expression of proletarian unity. Those who haven’t understood this, have understood nothing in matters relating to the problem of the soviets. Thälmann, Neumann, and Remmele may keep on writing articles and uttering speeches about the future “Soviet Germany” without end. By their present policies they are sabotaging the inception of the soviets in Germany.

Removed from the actual sphere of action, unable to gather direct impressions from the masses or to place a hand daily on the pulse of the working class, it is very difficult to forecast the transitional forms which will lead in Germany to the creation of soviets. In another connection I offered the hypothesis that the German soviets may arise as an expanded form of the factory committees: in this, I leaned chiefly on the experience in 1923. But of course that is not the only way. Under the pressure of want and unemployment on the one hand and the onset of the fascists on the other, the need for revolutionary unity may all at once come to the surface in the form of soviets, skipping the factory committees. But whichever way the soviets arise, they cannot become anything save the organisational expression of the strong and weak sides of the proletarian of its inner contradictions and the general urge to overcome them; in short, the organs of the united front

The Social Democracy and the Communist Party divide in Germany the influence over the working class. The Social Democratic leadership does its best to repel the workers from itself. The leadership of the Communist Party strives with all its might to counteract the influx of the workers. As a consequence we get the formation of a third party and a comparatively slow change in the correlation of forces in favour of the Communists. But even if Communist Party policies were entirely correct, the workers’ need for a revolutionary unification of the class would have grown incomparably faster than the preponderance of the Communist Party within the class. The need of creating soviets would thus remain in its full scope.

The creation of the soviets presupposes that the different parties and organisations within the working class, beginning with the factories, become agreed, both as regards the very necessity for the soviets and as regards the time and methods Of their formation. Which means: since the soviets, in themselves, represent the highest form of the united front in the revolutionary epoch, therefore their inception must be preceded by the policy of the united front in the preparatory period.

Is it necessary to recall once again that in the course of six months in 1917, the soviets in Russia had a conciliationist Social Revolutionary-Menshevik majority? Without renouncing for one moment its revolutionary independence as a party, the Bolshevik Party observed, within the framework of soviet activities, discipline in relation to the majority. There isn’t the slightest doubt that in Germany, from the very first day on which the first soviet is formed, the Communist Party will occupy in it a place much more important than that of the Bolsheviks in the soviets of March 1917. Nor is the possibility excluded that the Communists would very shortly receive the majority in the soviets. This would not in any way deprive the soviets of their significance as the apparatus of the united front, because the minority – the Social Democratic, non-party, Catholic workers, etc. – would at first still number millions; and any attempt to hurdle such a minority is the best conceivable method of breaking one’s neck under the most revolutionary conditions obtainable. But this is all the music of the future. Today, the Communist Party is in the minority. And that must serve as our point of departure.

What has been said above doesn’t mean, of course, that the infallible means of achieving the soviets lies in preliminary agreements with Wels, Hilferding, Breitscheid, etc. If in 1918 Hilferding cudgelled his brain for ways of including the soviets in the Weimar Constitution without injuring the latter, then one must assume that his brain is now at work over the problem of how to include fascist barracks in the Weimar Constitution without damaging the Social Democracy ... One must begin creating the soviets at the moment when the general condition of the proletariat permits soviets to be created, even against the will of the upper crust of the Social Democracy. But to do so, it is necessary to tear away the Social Democratic mass from the leading clique; and the way to do that is not by pretending it is already done. In order to separate the millions of Social Democratic workers from their reactionary leaders we must begin by showing these workers that we are ready to enter the soviets even with these “leaders.”

One must not, however, discount entirely beforehand the possibility that top layers of the Social Democracy will be once again compelled to venture into the red-hot atmosphere of the soviets in order to try to repeat the manoeuvre of Ebert, Scheidemann, Haase, etc., in 1918-1919: here the outcome will depend not so much on the bad faith of these gentlemen as upon the degree and manner in which history will seize them in its vise.

The formation of the first important local soviet in which the Communist and Social Democratic workers would represent not individuals but organisations, would have an enormous effect upon the entire German working class. Not only Social Democratic and non-party workers but also the Catholic and liberal workers would be unable long to resist the pull of the centripetal force. All the sections of the German proletariat most adapted to and capable of organisation would be drawn to the soviets, as are iron filings to the poles of a magnet. Within the soviets, the Communist Party would obtain a new and exceptionally favourable arena for fighting for the leading role in the proletarian revolution. One may hold absolutely incontrovertible the statement that even today the overwhelming majority of the Social Democratic workers and even a considerable part of the Social Democratic apparatus would be participating within the framework of soviets, had not the leadership of the Communist Party so zealously aided the Social Democratic leaders in paralysing the pressure of the masses.

If the Communist Party holds inadmissible any agreement on a program of definite practical tasks with Social Democratic, trade-union and other organisations, then this means nothing else but that it holds inadmissible the joint creation of the soviets together with the Social Democracy. And since there cannot be purely Communist soviets, and since, indeed, there wouldn’t be any need of them in that case, then the refusal by the Communist Party to make agreements and take joint action with other parties within the working class means nothing else but the refusal to create soviets.

Die Rote Fahne will doubtless answer this deduction with a volley of curses, and proceed to prove that just as two times two are four, so am I surely Brüning’s campaign agent, Wels’s secret ally, etc. I am ready to stand indicted under all these charges, but under one condition: that Die Rote Fahne on its part undertakes to explain to the German workers when and in what manner the soviets may be organised in Germany without accepting the policies of the united front in relation to other workers’ organisations.

Just to clarify the question of the soviets as the organs of the united front, the opinions expressed on this subject by one of the provincial Communist papers, Der Klassenkampf of Halle-Merseburg, are extremely instructive. “All workers’ organisations,” says this paper ironically, “in their present form, with all their faults and weaknesses, must be combined into great anti-fascist defensive unions. What does this mean? We may dispense with lengthy theoretic explanations; history itself proved a severe teacher in these questions to the German working class: the formless hodge-podge united front of all workers, organisations was paid for by the German working class at the price of the lost revolution in 1918-1919.” In truth, an unsurpassable sample of superficial verbiage!

In 1918-1919, the united front was realised primarily through the soviets. Should the Spartacists have entered the soviets or shouldn’t they? According to the exact meaning of the passage cited, they should have remained apart from the soviets. But since the Spartacists represented only a small minority of the working class, and since they could in no way substitute for the Social Democratic soviets their own, then their isolation from the soviets would have meant simply their isolation from the revolution. If the united front was “formless” and a “hodge-podge,” the fault lay not with the soviets, as the organs of the united front, but with the political condition of the working class itself; with the weakness of the Spartakusbund; and with the extreme power of the Social Democracy. The united front, in general, is never a substitute for a strong revolutionary party; it can only aid the latter to become stronger. This applies fully to the soviets. The weak Spartakusbund, by its fear to let slip the extraordinary occasion, was pushed into taking ultra-left courses and premature demonstrations. Had the Spartacists kept apart from the united front, that is, the soviets, these negative traits would undoubtedly have been yet more sharply pronounced.

Can it be possible that these people have gathered nothing at all from the experience of the German revolution in 1918-1919? Have they at least read “Left-Wing” Communism? Truly, the Stalinist regime has caused a mental havoc that is horrifying! After bureaucratising the soviets in the USSR, the epigones look upon them as a technical weapon in the hands of the party apparatus. Forgotten is the fact that the soviets were founded as workers’ parliaments and that they drew the masses because they offered the possibility of welding together all sections of the proletariat, independently of party distinctions; forgotten is the fact that therein precisely lay the great educational and revolutionary power of the soviets. Everything is forgotten; everything is jumbled and distorted. O, thrice-cursed epigonism!

The question of the interrelationship between the party and the soviets is of decisive importance for revolutionary policy. While the present course of the party is in fact directed towards supplanting the soviets by the party, Hugo Urbahns, loath to miss the opportunity to add to the confusion, is preparing to supplant the party by the soviets. According to a Sozialistische Arbeiter Zeitung dispatch, Urbahns, in refuting the pretension of the Communist Party to the leadership of the working class, said at a meeting in Berlin, in January, “The leadership will be kept in the hands of the soviets, elected by the masses themselves and not in accordance with the desires or at the discretion of the one and only party. (Violent applause)” One can easily understand that by its ultimatism the Communist Party irritates the workers, who are ready to applaud every protest against bureaucratic presumption. But this does not alter the fact that Urbahns in this question as well has nothing in common with Marxism. No one will gainsay that the workers will elect the soviets “themselves.” But the whole question lies in whom they will elect. We must enter the soviets together with all other organisations such as they are, “with all their faults and weaknesses.” But to avow that the soviets “by themselves” are capable of leading the struggle of the proletariat for power – is only to sow abroad vulgar soviet fetishism. Everything depends upon the party that leads the soviets. Therefore, in contradistinction to Urbahns, the Bolshevik-Leninists do not at all deny the Communist Party the right to lead the soviets; on the contrary, they say, “Only on the basis of the united front, only through the mass organisations, can the KPD conquer the leading position within the future soviets and lead the proletariat to the conquest of power.”