In 1933 Trotsky dealt with the question of the relevance of democratic demands as the German working class was being crushed by the rise of Hitler. Here we publish an introduction to Trotsky’s article, Fascism and Democratic Slogans (July 1933) together with the original article. Written for an Iranian audience, it explains the need for Marxists to be in the forefront of the struggle for democratic demands, while at the same time explaining that the democratic aspirations of the masses can only be satisfied in the struggle for socialism.
Introduction to Fascism and Democratic Slogans
Written in 1933 this article is a testimony to Trotsky's deep insight into the nature of Fascism, which in Germany had only just come to power. In a disastrous turn the Comintern, which had by then completely degenerated from a genuine revolutionary Marxist international into a mere tool for the reactionary Stalinist Soviet bureaucracy, had developed the "theory" of the so-called “Third Period”, according to which the ultimate crisis and collapse of Capitalism was imminent. On the basis of this theory they claimed it was the duty of the Communist Parties to distance themselves from all "reactionary" elements, i.e. all reformist and social-democratic workers. In 1931, the Stalinists went so far as to form an unofficial de facto "united front" with the Nazis to bring down the Social Democratic government in Prussia! Similar ultra-left policies were adopted throughout the sections of the Comintern.
As Trotsky had correctly warned, this turn divided the mighty German workers' movement and effectively left the German working class paralyzed and unable to fight the Nazis who, as Hitler boasted, "came to power without breaking a window pane". This was a great setback for the German workers. Hitler launched an all-out assault on all working class organisations and thousands of workers were jailed or murdered. Having understood nothing from this disaster, the Stalinists underplayed the significance of Hitler coming to power. In September 1933, the Rote Fahne, organ of the German Communist Party proclaimed: "Last night was Herr Hitler's greatest day, but the so-called election victory of the Nazis is the beginning of the end." This disastrous line was summed up in the slogan "After Hitler, Our Turn!"
Trotsky waged a relentless struggle against the Stalinists and their ideas which were leading the working class from one defeat to another. In this article, which is only a small part of his many excellent writings on the development of Fascism, Trotsky explains how the victory of Fascism is a major defeat for the working class, whose consciousness would necessarily be thrown back. The dictatorship, the crushing of the workers’ organisations and the removal of democratic rights in Germany would not lead to the disappearance of illusions in Bourgeois Democracy amongst the German workers. On the contrary, it would strengthen these illusions. In fact, he explained, the democratic illusions during Fascism would be a basis for the revival of Reformism on a mass scale. This is exactly what happened after the Second World War.
"Doctrinaires think schematically," Trotsky said, while the "Masses think with facts. The working class perceives events not as experiments with this or that ‘thesis,’ but as living changes in the fate of the people. The victory of fascism adds a million times more to the scale of political development than the prognosis for the indefinite future which flows from it. Had a proletarian state grown out of the bankruptcy of democracy, the development of society, as well as the development of mass consciousness, would have taken a great leap forward. But inasmuch as it was actually the victory of fascism that grew out of the bankruptcy of democracy, the consciousness of the masses was set far back – of course, only temporarily."
On this basis, Trotsky argued, Marxists should not be afraid of utilising democratic slogans in order to connect with the rising revolutionary movement. In fact, he pointed out that anything else would remove the Marxists from any such movement. The tasks of the Marxists in such a situation is not to denounce the democratic demands of the people, but to show that we are the most consistent Democrats unlike the Reformists and the Bourgeois Democrats who will disappoint the workers again and again. This should by no means imply that we are abandoning the struggle for Socialism. On the contrary we see these two struggles as intrinsically intertwined. The struggle for Democracy in the age of capitalist decay will inevitably also grow into the struggle against capitalism.
Trotsky's article has many lessons for Iranian revolutionaries. The echoes of the Stalinist "Third Period" ideas are still heard amongst those who denounce the movements of the past 4-5 years on the grounds that they "are just about votes" or that they "are just about bourgeois democracy". But how could any revolutionary movement in Iran begin otherwise? The Iranian workers’ movement along with all its organisations were destroyed in the years after the revolution. There are no parties, no mass unions and no national workers' leaders who can act as a focal point for the struggle of the masses. At the same time the new generations growing up in Iran have only experienced a suffocating dictatorship which violently intrudes in every aspect of their lives. It is only natural that any movement, in order to reach a critical mass, will necessarily embark on its journey with Democratic demands. That being said, it is clear that each step forward will widen the distance between the democratic demands of the masses and the actual ability of the Bourgeois Democrats and Bourgeois Democracy as a whole to deliver what the masses are yearning for.
For the workers the question of Democracy and bread are completely bound together. Capitalism today, whether in the guise of Democracy or dictatorship, is in a crisis that will not allow it to solve this question. Therefore the demands for democracy will grow over ever more strongly into the demand for the expropriation of the power of the Bourgeoisie which is the source of all reaction in Iran.
For Marxists it is very important to understand this process. "A revolutionary party that would attempt to jump over this stage would break its neck" Trotsky says. In Iran this is of utmost importance. The task for Marxists at each step is to connect the struggle for Democracy with the struggle for Socialism. To the workers and youth of Iran who want to struggle for democratic demands we say: "If you want to fight for Democracy we will fight with you until the end. But the struggle for Democracy can only be truly successful if you take power into your own hands and expropriate the parasitic Bourgeoisie which is the root cause of all your problems." In this way, as class differentiation begins to assert itself within the movement, the workers and the best youth, through their own experiences, will come to the same conclusions as the Marxists. And seeing that we will have been the most consistent fighters for Democracy amongst them we can win them to the programme of revolutionary socialism. But to stand outside of this movement and denounce it will be as successful as attempting to stroll onto a train which is moving at full speed.
Of course there are issues in the writing of Trotsky which do not apply to Iran. In the article there are two main differences between the phenomenon that Trotsky is analysing and what we have before us in Iran. Firstly of course, from a scientific point of view, the Islamic Republic is not a Fascist regime, although it did at certain points in time have elements of Fascism within it. This does not change our conclusions, however, because the conditions of the workers and youth, in regards to oppression and lack of democratic rights – though in different degrees – are similar to those in Nazi Germany.
Secondly, and most importantly, whereas Hitler’s strength and his grip on power in 1933 was ascending, as he consolidated his position by destroying the workers' organisations, the Islamic Republic today is in a state of decline. Rotten to its core the regime has been stumbling from one crisis to another for the past few years. The regime is hanging by a thread and its base of support is shrinking. Even the government of Rouhani, which seems stable on the surface, will not be immune from these crises, which are in fact a reflection of the crisis of Iranian capitalism.
Had there been a leadership or an organisation worth the name, the masses could have overthrown the regime on many occasions. The lack of such a leadership has temporarily kept the mass movement back, but this has only increased the pressures under the surface of society, thereby preparing an even more explosive situation.
The question of Democracy will play a key role in these future events. For Marxists a correct approach to this question is essential. On the one hand, we have no illusions that Bourgeois Democracy can solve the problems of the workers. On the other hand, disregarding the Democratic question would decouple us from the train of revolution. The key is to march with the masses as the most determined fighters for even the smallest reforms, but at the same time to explain that the main problems can only be solved through a struggle against the economic and social system itself.
Big events are being prepared in Iran. For revolutionaries it is imperative to prepare for this scenario by studying the lessons of the past so as not to repeat them. For this purpose this article by Trotsky should be studied in full, as should also all the writings of Trotsky which contain precious lessons for the workers and youth of today.
1. Is It True That Hitler Has Destroyed “Democratic Prejudices”?
The April resolution of the Praesidium of the Executive Committee of the Communist International “on the present situation in Germany” will, we believe, go down in history as the final testimonial to the bankruptcy of the Comintern of the epigones. The resolution is crowned with a prognosis in which all the vices and prejudices of the Stalinist bureaucracy reach their culmination. “The establishment of an open fascist dictatorship,” the resolution proclaims in boldface type, “accelerates the tempo of the development of a proletarian revolution in Germany by destroying all democratic illusions of the masses and by freeing them from the influence of the Social-Democracy.”
Fascism, it seems, has unexpectedly become the locomotive of history: it destroys democratic illusions, it frees the masses from the influence of the Social-Democracy, it accelerates the development of the proletarian revolution. The Stalinist bureaucracy assigns to fascism the accomplishment of those basic tasks which it proved itself utterly incapable of solving.
Theoretically, the victory of fascism is undoubtedly an evidence of the fact that democracy has exhausted itself; but politically, the fascist regime preserves democratic prejudices, recreates them, inculcates them into the youth, and is even capable of imparting to them, for a short time, the greatest strength. Precisely in this consists one of the most important manifestations of the reactionary historic role of fascism.
Doctrinaires think schematically. Masses think with facts. The working class perceives events not as experiments with this or that “thesis,” but as living changes in the fate of the people. The victory of fascism adds a million times more to the scale of political development than the prognosis for the indefinite future which flows from it. Had a proletarian state grown out of the bankruptcy of democracy, the development of society, as well as the development of mass consciousness, would have taken a great leap forward. But inasmuch as it was actually the victory of fascism that grew out of the bankruptcy of democracy, the consciousness of the masses was set far back – of course, only temporarily. The smashing of the Weimar democracy by Hitler can no more put an end to the democratic illusions of the masses than Goring’s setting the Reichstag on fire can burn out parliamentary cretinism.
2. The Example of Spain and Italy
For four years in succession we heard that democracy and fascism do not exclude but supplement each other. How then can the victory of fascism liquidate democracy once and for all? We would like to have some explanations on this score by Bukharin, Zinoviev, or by Manuilsky “himself.”
The military-police dictatorship of Primo de Rivera was declared by the Comintern to be fascism. But if the victory of fascism signifies the final liquidation of democratic prejudices, how can it be explained that the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera gave way to a bourgeois republic? It is true that the regime of Rivera was far from being fascism. But it had, at all events, this much in common with fascism: it arose as a result of the bankruptcy of the parliamentary regime. This did not prevent it, however, after its own bankruptcy was revealed, from giving way to democratic parliamentarism.
One may attempt to say that the Spanish revolution is proletarian in its tendencies, and that the Social-Democracy in alliance with other republicans, has succeeded in arresting its development at the stage of bourgeois parliamentarism. But this objection, correct in itself, proves only more clearly our idea that if bourgeois democracy succeeded in paralyzing the revolution of the proletariat, this was only due to the fact that under the yoke of the “fascist” dictatorship, the democratic illusions were not weakened but became stronger.
Have “democratic illusions” disappeared in Italy during the ten years of Mussolini’s despotism? This is how the fascists themselves are inclined to picture the state of affairs. In reality, however, democratic illusions are acquiring a new force. During this period a new generation has been raised up. Politically, it has not lived in the conditions of freedom, but it knows full well what fascism is: this is the raw material for vulgar democracy. The organization Justizia e Liberia (Justice and Freedom) is distributing illegal democratic literature in Italy, and not without success. The ideas of democracy are therefore finding adherents, who are ready to sacrifice themselves. Even the flabby generalizations of the liberal monarchist, Count Sforza, are spread in the form of illegal pamphlets. That’s how far back Italy has been thrown during these years!
Why fascism in Germany is called upon to play a role entirely opposite to that which it played in Italy remains incomprehensible. Because “Germany is not Italy”? Victorious fascism is in reality not a locomotive of history but its gigantic brake. Just as the policy of the social-democracy prepared the triumph of Hitler, so the regime of National Socialism inevitably leads to the warming up of democratic illusions.
3. Can the Social-Democracy Regenerate Itself?
German comrades testify that the social-democratic workers and even many of the social-democratic bureaucrats are “disillusioned” with democracy. We must extract all we can out of the critical moods of the reformist workers, in the interests of their revolutionary education. But at the same time the extent of the reformists’ “disillusionment” must be clearly understood. The social-democratic high priests scold democracy so as to justify themselves. Unwilling to admit that they showed themselves as contemptible cowards, incapable of fighting for the democracy which they created and for their soft berths in it, these gentlemen shift the blame from themselves to intangible democracy. As we see, this radicalism is not only cheap but also spurious through and through! Let the bourgeoisie only beckon these “disillusioned” ones with its little finger and they will come running on all fours to a new coalition with it. It is true, in the masses of social-democratic workers a real disgust with the betrayals and mirages of democracy is being born. But to what extent? The larger half of seven to eight million social-democratic workers is in a state of the greatest confusion, glum passivity, and capitulation to the victors. At the same time, a new generation will be forming under the heel of fascism, a generation to which the Weimar Constitution will be an historic legend. What line then will the political crystallization within the working class follow? This depends upon many conditions, among them, of course, also upon our policy.
Historically, the direct replacement of the fascist regime by a workers’ state is not excluded. But for the realization of this possibility it is necessary that a powerful illegal Community Party form itself in the process of struggle against fascism, under the leadership of which the proletariat could seize power. However, it must be said that the creation of a revolutionary party of this sort in illegality, is not very probable; at any rate, it is not assured by anything in advance. The discontentment, indignation, fermentation of the masses will, from a certain moment onward, grow much faster than the illegal formation of the party vanguard. And every lack of clarity in the consciousness of the masses will inevitably help democracy.
This does not at all mean that after the fall of fascism, Germany will again have to go through a long school of parliamentarism. Fascism will not eradicate the past political experience; it is even less capable of changing the social structure of the nation. It would be the greatest mistake to expect a new lengthy democratic epoch in the development of Germany. But in the revolutionary awakening of the masses, democratic slogans will inevitably constitute the first chapter. Even if the further progress of the struggle should in general not permit, even for a single day, the regeneration of a democratic state – and this is very possible – the struggle itself cannot develop by the circumvention of democratic slogans! A revolutionary party that would attempt to jump over this stage would break its neck.
The question of the social-democracy is closely connected with this general perspective. Will it reappear on the stage?
The old organization is irrevocably lost. But this does not at all mean that social-democracy cannot be regenerated under a new historic mask. Opportunist parties which fall and decompose so easily under the blows of reaction, come back to life just as easily at the first political revival. We observed this in Russia in the example of the Mensheviks and the Social-Revolutionists. German Social-Democracy can not only regenerate itself, but even acquire great influence, if the revolutionary proletarian party should set up a doctrinaire “negation” of the slogans of democracy against a dialectical attitude toward them. The Presidium of the Comintern in this field, as in so many others, remains the gratuitous assistant of reformism.
4. The Brandlerites Improve on the Stalinists
The confusion in the question of democratic slogans has revealed itself most profoundly in the programmatic theses of the opportunist group of Brandler-Thalheimer on the question of the struggle against fascism. The Communist Party, the theses read, “should unite the manifestations of discontentment of all [!] classes against the fascist dictatorship” (Gegen den Strom, page 7. The word “all” is underlined in the original). At the same time, the theses insistently warn: “The partial slogan cannot be of a bourgeois-democratic nature.” Between these two statements, each of which is erroneous, there is an irreconcilable contradiction. In the first place, the formula of the unification of the discontentment of “all classes” sounds absolutely incredible. The Russian Marxists did at one time abuse such a formulation in the struggle against Czarism. Out of this abuse grew the Menshevik conception of the revolution, later on adopted by Stalin for China. But in Russia, at least, it was a question of the collision of the bourgeois nation with the privileged monarchy. In what sense can one speak, in a bourgeois nation, of the struggle of “all classes” against fascism, which is the tool of the big bourgeoisie against the proletariat? It would be instructive to see how Thalheimer, the manufacturer of theoretic vulgarities, would unite the discontentment of Hugenberg – and he is also discontented – with the discontentment of the unemployed worker. How else can one unite a movement of “all classes” if not by putting oneself on the basis of bourgeois democracy? Verily, a classic combination of opportunism with an ultra-radicalism in words!
The movement of the proletariat against the fascist regime will acquire an ever greater mass character to the extent that the petty bourgeoisie becomes disappointed with fascism, isolating the possessing summits and the government apparatus. The task of a proletarian party would consist in utilizing the weakening of the yoke on the part of the petty bourgeois reaction for the purpose of arousing the activity of the proletariat onto the road of the conquest of the lower strata of the petty bourgeoisie.
It is true, the growth of the discontentment of the intermediary strata and the growth of the resistance of the workers will create a crack in the bloc of the possessing classes and will spur their “left flank” to seek contact with the petty bourgeoisie. The task of the proletarian party with relation to the “liberal” flank of the possessors will consist, however, not in including them both in a bloc of “all classes” against fascism, but, on the contrary, in immediately declaring a decisive struggle against it for influence on the lower strata of the petty bourgeoisie.
Under what political slogans will this struggle take place? The dictatorship of Hitler grew directly out of the Weimar Constitution. The representatives of the petty bourgeoisie have, with their own hands, presented Hitler with the mandate for a dictatorship. If we should assume a very favorable and quick development of the fascist crisis, then the demand for the convocation of the Reichstag with the inclusion of all the banished deputies may, at a certain moment, unite the workers with the widest strata of the petty bourgeoisie. If the crisis should break out later and the memory of the Reichstag should have had time to obliterate itself, the slogan of new elections may acquire great popularity. It is sufficient that such a road is possible. To tie one’s hands with relation to temporary democratic slogans which may be forced upon us by our petty-bourgeois allies and by the backward strata of the proletariat itself, would be fatal doctrinairism.
Brandler-Thalheimer believe, however, that we should only advocate “democratic rights for the laboring masses: the right of assembly, trade unions, freedom of the press, organization and strikes.” In order to emphasize their radicalism more, they add: “these demands should be strictly [!] distinguished from bourgeois-democratic demands of universal democratic rights.” There is no person more wretched than the opportunist who takes the knife of ultra-radicalism between his teeth!
Freedom of assembly and the press only for the laboring masses is conceivable solely under the dictatorship of the proletariat, that is, under the nationalization of buildings, printing establishments, etc. It is possible that the dictatorship of the proletariat in Germany will also have to employ exceptional laws against exploiters: that depends upon the historic moment, upon international conditions, upon the relation of internal forces. But it is not at all excluded that, having conquered power, the workers of Germany will find themselves sufficiently powerful to allow freedom of assembly and the press also to the exploiters of yesterday, of course, in accordance with their actual political influence, and not with the extent of their treasury; the treasury will have been expropriated. Thus, even for the period of the dictatorship there is in principle no basis for limiting beforehand the freedom of assembly and the press only to the laboring masses. The proletariat may be forced to such a limitation; but this is not a question of principle. It is doubly absurd to advocate such a demand under the conditions of present-day Germany, when freedom of the press and assembly exists for all but the proletariat. The arousing of the proletarian struggle against the fascist inferno will take place, at least in the first stages, under the slogans: give also to us, workers, the right of assembly and the press. The communists, of course, will at this stage also carry on a propaganda in favor of the Soviet regime, but they will at the same time support every real mass movement under democratic slogans, and wherever possible will take the initiative in such a movement.
Between the regime of bourgeois democracy and the regime of proletarian democracy there is no third regime, “the democracy of the laboring masses.” True, the Spanish republic calls itself the “republic of the laboring classes,” even in the text of its constitution. But this is a formula of political charlatanism. The Brandlerian formula of democracy “only for the laboring masses,” particularly in combination with the “unity of all classes,” seems to be especially designed to confuse and mislead the revolutionary vanguard in the most important question: “When and to what extent to adapt ourselves to the movement of the petty bourgeoisie and the backward strata of the working masses, what concessions to make to them in the question of the tempo of the movement and the slogans on the order of the day, so as more successfully to rally the proletariat under the banner of its own revolutionary dictatorship?”
At the Seventh Congress of the Russian Communist Party, in March, 1918, during the discussion of the party program, Lenin carried on a decisive struggle against Bukharin, who considered that parliamentarism is done for, once and for all, that it is historically “exhausted.” “We must,” Lenin retorted, “write a new program of the Soviet power, without renouncing the use of bourgeois parliamentarism. To believe that we will not be thrown back is Utopian ... After every setback, if class forces inimical to us should push us to this old position, we shall proceed to what has been conquered by experience – to the Soviet power. ...”
Lenin objected to a doctrinaire anti-parliamentarism with regard to a country which had already gained the Soviet regime: We must not tie our hands beforehand, he taught Bukharin, for we may be pushed back to the once-abandoned positions. In Germany, there has not been and there is no proletarian dictatorship, but there is a dictatorship of fascism; Germany has been thrown back even from bourgeois democracy. Under these conditions, to renounce beforehand the use of democratic slogans and of bourgeois parliamentarism means to clear the field for a social-democracy of a new formation.
Prinkipo, July 14, 1933