Trotsky on the united front against fascism in Germany

Submitted by martin on 16 December, 2009 - 5:34 Author: Martin Thomas

Discussion points for educationals on Trotsky's writings on Germany.

1. "People's Revolution", "national liberation", "struggle against Versailles", and workers' control

Reading: items 1 to 5 from the collection "The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany":

"The Turn in the Communist International and the Situation in Germany"

"Against National Communism! Lessons of the 'Red Referendum'"

and the shorter items:

"Thaelmann and the People's Revolution",
"Workers' Control of Production",
"Factory Councils and Workers' Control of Production".

Discussion points:

a) Surely communists were against the Social-Democratic government in Prussia? And they were certainly against the Versailles Treaty. Trotsky concedes that. So why not vote for the dissolution of the Prussian parliament in the referendum on 9 August 1931? And agitate heavily against the Versailles Treaty?

[Note: the results of the referendum were:
Eligible to vote - 26,587,672
Votes cast - 10,425,635
Valid votes - 10,182,185
Yes votes - 9,793,030
No votes - 389,155]

b) What are the implications of Trotsky's arguments here for "negative" agitational slogans in some other situations? ("No to the EU", or others of that sort).

c) What was wrong with the CP's slogans of "People's Revolution" and "National Liberation"? Trotsky's proposal for how Marxists should respond critically to those slogans is fairly complicated, and not easily summed up in a snappy slogan. What light does that cast on the common assumption that agitation is a matter of finding snappy slogans, and then arguments to back them up?

d) Why does Trotsky suggest the slogan of workers' control in Germany, and how does he deal with the response that revolutionaries should instead call for soviets? This is an example of how Trotsky argues for transitional demands. He will sum up his approach later, in an article on France, with the thought: "Agitation is a dialogue with the masses" (i.e. neither just saying what you think will "go down well", nor trumpeting out some "revolutionary" slogan irrespective of whether it has any purchase). How does all this compare with the common view that transitional demands are demands which seem moderate and reasonable, but in fact cannot be realised without overthrowing capitalism?

e) After the CP had gained votes in the 1930 election, and the SPD had lost votes, so Trotsky reports, "the official press of the Comintern [depicted] the results of the German elections as a prodigious victory of Communism, which places the slogan of a Soviet Germany on the order of the day". Trotsky argues that the assessment was false and that the "the tactics of the German Communist Party in the immediate period [should] follow a... defensive line". Why?

f) Trotsky reports that "the programmatic declaration of the German Communist Party before the [1930] elections was completely and exclusively devoted to fascism as the main enemy". How do you think the CP squared this with their general "third period" line? (Bearing in mind that the apparent CP swing away from general "third period" politics in 1930, mentioned by Trotsky in the first article, turned out to be a blip rather than a solid turn).

2. The united front: "What Next?"

Reading: "What Next?", January 1932

a) "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".

Different how? And, anyway, why are Marxists interested in the difference between different systems of the domination of the same ruling capitalist class?

b) "In the course of many decades, the workers have built up within the bourgeois democracy, by utilizing 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".

How can bureaucratic trade unions and reformist workers' parties be "strongholds of proletarian democracy"?

c) "When the newspapers of the new Socialist Workers Party (the SAP) criticize '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".

But isn't that the main point, the interests of the class come before the interests of the party? Or, if it isn't, why advocate the united front?

d) "On October 14, 1931, Remmele, one of the three official leaders of the Communist Party, said in the Reichstag, 'Herr Brüning has put it very plainly: once they [the fascists] are in power, then the united front of the proletariat will be established and it will make a clean sweep of everything. (Violent applause from the Communists)'..."

What's wrong with what Remmele said?

e) What does Trotsky argue are the lessons from Russia and from Italy on the question of the united front?

f) "The idea of nominating a candidate for president on the part of the united workers’ front is at its root a false one".


g) What are Trotsky's practical conclusions about what the German workers' movement should do, in January 1932?

3. The united front, again

"The Only Road"

"A Letter to a Social Democratic Worker"

a) Why does Trotsky consider special explanation needed of why the SPD remains the majority party of the German working class? What is the explanation he gives? Why does he consider the idea of calling for the creation of a new party unrealistic?

b) In the second section of "The Only Road", Trotsky essentially analyses different ways in which a political hegemony can be constructed to formulate bourgeois social rule. What are the different ways? What determines which will emerge in which circumstances?

c) Trotsky argues that the united front policy which he now proposes is quite different from the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee which he denounced in 1926. Different how?

d) Why does Trotsky consider the theory of fascism "by the cold method" unsound?

e) How are soviets "the highest form of the united front"?

f) The situation appears hopeless. The SPD and the KPD are what they are. Trotsky has argued that calling for a new party is unrealistic. The Trotskyist group is small. Where does Trotsky see the possibility of the Trotskyists achieving anything?

g) After 30 January, the SPD leaders proposed a "non-aggression pact" to the KPD. Trotsky takes up this proposal in his "Letter to a Social Democratic Worker". What does he say is wrong with it?

4. Drawing the lessons from the German catastrophe

"The German Workers Will Rise Again - Stalinism, Never!"

"Germany and the USSR"; and "Hitler and the Red Army"

"The German Catastrophe"

"It is Necessary to Build Communist Parties and an International Anew"

"It is Impossible to Remain in the Same International with the Stalins..."


1933 January 30: Hindenburg appoints Hitler as Chancellor, at first with only three of 11 cabinet posts for the Nazis.

1933 February 28: Hindenburg suspends constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression, press, assembly, association. Thousands of KPD and SPD officials are arrested.

1933 March 5: Hitler gets Hindenburg to dissolve parliament. In the run-up to new election, KPD meetings are banned, and the KPD press is shut down.

1933 February 27: Reichstag fire, used by Nazis as excuse to further suppress the KPD.

1933 March 23: Hitler asks new Reichstag to grant him dictatorial power. Only the remaing Social Democrats vote against it.

1933 May 1: May Day. The SPD encourages workers to march in the Nazi “National Day of Labour” parade.

1933 May 2: Nazis take over the trade-union movement and send union leaders to concentration camps.

Discussion points:

a) Why does Trotsky believe that Stalinism in Germany will never "rise again"? In the event, the Stalinists would rule over half of Germany for 44 years. How did Trotsky's prediction come to be falsified?

b) The articles on "Germany and the USSR" and "Hitler and the Red Army" refer to a debate among the US Trotskyists, some of whom wanted to call for the Russian Army to intervene against Hitler's coup, and some of whom strongly rejected that call. What does Trotsky say about it? In the light of later events, what dimensions are missing from Trotsky's discussion?

c) In "The German Catastrophe", Trotsky argues against the idea of "the united front" as a cure-all. He states: "It was not Lenin who invented the policy of the united front; like the split within the proletariat, it is imposed by the dialectics of the class struggle... The simple formula of the united front solves nothing". What more is necessary?

d) Trotsky also indicates that the particular forms of the united front he has been proposing for Germany are those appropriate for "advanced capitalist countries". "The slogan of 'only from below'" he describes as not just a mistake, but "a gross anachronism, fostered by memories of the first stages of the revolutionary movement, especially in Tsarist Russia". What is the connection here between different forms of united-front policy and different political and social conditions?

e) Why does Trotsky raise the idea of a new International in July 1933? How does he outline the possibility of such a thing developing? How does he square this position with his earlier argument about calls for a new party being unrealistic?

f) In "It is Impossible...." Trotsky outlines his policy of "reform of the USSR", now beginning to shade over towards his later formulation of "political revolution". How does he envisage such "reform" occurring? In "The Fate of the Russian Revolution", we comment that there are strands of "revolution" in the earlier "reform" policy, and traces of "reform" in the later "revolution" policy. Is that right?