A Letter to a German Communist Worker on the United Front Against Hitler
Written: 8 December 1931.
Source: The Militant, Vol. V No. 2 (Whole No. 98), 9 January 1932, pp. 1 & 4. A slightly different translation with title For a Workers’ United Front Against Fascism can be found here.
Transcription/HTML Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2012.
Marxist.com version: Edited, November 2019.
At the present moment Germany is going through one of those great historic hours upon which the fate of the German people, the fate of Europe and in an important measure, the fate of all of humanity will depend for decades. If you place a ball on top of a pyramid the slightest impact can cause it to roll down either to the Left or to the Right. That is the situation approaching with every hour in Germany today. There are forces who would like the ball to roll down towards the Right and break the back of the working class. There are forces who would like the ball to remain at the top. That is a utopia. The ball cannot remain at the top of the pyramid. The Communists want the ball to roll down toward the Left and to break the back of capitalism. But it is not enough to want, one must know how. Let us calmly reflect once more: Is the policy carried on at present by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Germany correct or incorrect?
What does Hitler want?
The Fascists are growing very rapidly. The Communists are also growing but much more slowly. The growth at the extreme poles shows that the ball cannot maintain itself at the top of the pyramid. The rapid growth of the Fascists signifies the danger that the ball may roll down toward the Right. Therein lies an enormous danger.
Hitler emphasizes that he is against a coup d’état. In order to strangle democracy once and for all, he is willing to achieve power no differently, so to speak, than by the democratic road. Can we seriously believe this?
Of course, if the Fascists could figure on obtaining an absolute majority of the votes at the next elections in a peaceful way, then they would perhaps even prefer this road. In reality, however, this road is unthinkable for them. It is stupid to believe that the Nazis would grow uninterruptedly, as they do now, for an unlimited period of time. Sooner or later they will drain their social reservoir. Fascism has introduced into its own ranks such dreadful contradictions, that the moment must come in which the flow will cease to replace the ebb. The moment can arrive long before the Fascists will have united about them even half of the votes. They will not be able to halt, for they will have nothing more to expect here. They will be forced to resort to an overthrow.
But even apart from all this, the Fascists are cut off from the democratic road. The immense growth of the political antagonisms in the country, the stark brigands’ agitation of the Fascists will inevitably lead to a situation in which the closer the Fascists come to get a majority, the more heated the atmosphere will become and the more extensive, the unfolding of the conflicts and struggles will be. From this perspective, civil war is absolutely inevitable. Consequently the question of the seizure of power by the Fascists will not be decided by vote, but by civil war, which the Fascists are preparing and provoking.
Can we assume even one minute that Hitler and his advisers do not realize and foresee this? That would mean to consider them blockheads. There is no greater crime in politics than that of hoping for stupidities on the part of a strong enemy. If Hitler cannot help being aware that the road to power leads through gruesome civil war, then that means that his speeches regarding the peaceful democratic road are only a cloak, that is, a strategem. In that case it is all the more necessary to keep one’s eyes open.
What is concealed behind Hitler’s strategem?
His calculations are altogether simple and obvious: He wants to lull his antagonists with the long-run perspective of the parliamentary growth of the Nazis in order to catch them napping and to deal them a death-blow at the right moment. It is entirely possible that Hitler’s courtesies to democratic parliamentarism may, moreover, help to set up some sort of coalition in the immediate future in which the Fascists will obtain the most important posts and employ them in turn for their coup d’état. For it is entirely clear that the coalition, let us assume, between the Center and the Fascists will not be a stage in the “democratic” solution of the question, but a step closer to the coup d’etat under conditions most favorable to the Fascists.
We must plan according to the shorter perspective
All this means that even regardless of the desires of the Fascist general staff, the solution can arrive in the course of the next few months, if not weeks. This circumstance is of tremendous importance in elaborating a correct policy. If we allow the Fascists to seize power in two or three months, then the struggle against them next year will be much harder than in this. All revolutionary plans laid out in advance for two, three or five years will prove to be only wretched and disgraceful twaddle, if the working class will allow the Fascists to achieve power in the course of the next two, three or five months. The calculation of time in the polity of revolutionary crises is, just as in war operations, of decisive importance.
Let us take another, more remote example for the clarification of our idea. Hugo Urbahns, who considers himself a “Left Communist”, declares the German Party bankrupt, politically done for, and proposes to create a new party. If Urbahns were right, that would mean that the victory of the Fascists is certain. For, in order to create a new party, years are needed (and at that it is not at all proved that the Party of Urbahns would in any sense be better than Thaelmann’s Party: When Urbahns was at the head of the Party there were in no ways fewer mistakes.)
Yes, should the Fascists really conquer power, that would mean not only the physical destruction of the Communist Party, but veritable political bankruptcy for it. An ignominious defeat in a struggle against bands of human rubbish – the many millions of the German proletariat would never forgive the Communist International and its German section. The seizure of power by the Fascists would therefore most probably signify the necessity of creating a new revolutionary party and in all probability also of a new International. That would be a frightful historical catastrophe. But to assume today that all this is unavoidable, only genuine Liquidationists are capable of. That is, those who under the mantle of their hollow phraseology are in actually capable only of capitulating in a cowardly manner in the face of struggle and without a struggle. With this conception we Bolshevik-Leninists who are called Trotskyites by the Stalinists have nothing in common.
We are unflinchingly convinced that the victory over the Fascists is possible not after their coming into power, not after five, ten or twenty years of their rule, but now, under the given conditions, in the coming months and weeks.
Thaelmann considers the victory of fascism inevitable
A correct policy is necessary in order to achieve victory. That is, we need a policy appropriate to the present situation, to the present relationship of forces and not to a situation that may develop in one, two or three years, when the question of power will have been decided for a long time.
The whole misfortune lies in the fact that the policy of the Central Committee of the German Communist Party, in part consciously and in part unconsciously, derives from the recognition of the inevitability of a Fascist victory. In fact, in the appeal for the “Red United Front” published on November 29, 1931, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Germany, starts out with the idea that it is impossible to vanquish Fascism without first defeating the social democracy. This same idea, Thaelmann repeats in all possible shades in his article. Is this idea correct? On the historical scale it is unconditionally correct. But that does not at all mean that with its aid, that is, by simple repetition, one can solve the questions of the day. An idea, correct from the point of view of revolutionary strategy as a whole, turns into a lie and at that into a reactionary lie, if it is not translated into the language of tactics. Is it correct that in order to destroy unemployment and misery it is first necessary to destroy capitalism? It is correct. But only a hopeless fool can draw the conclusions therefrom that we do not have to fight already today, with all of our forces, against these measures with the aid of which capitalism is increasing the misery of the workers.
Can we expect that the Communist Party will in the course of the next few months defeat both the social democracy and Fascism? No normally thinking person who can read and calculate would risk such a contention. Politically, the question is posed in the following manner: Can we successfully repel Fascism in the course of the next few months, that is, with the existence of a greatly reduced, but still (unfortunately) very strong social democracy? The Central Committee replies in the negative. In other words, Thaelmann considers the victory of Fascism inevitable.
Once again: The Russian experiences
In order, to express my thought as clearly and as concretely as possible I will come back once more to the experience with the Kornilov uprising. On August 26 (old style) 1917, General Kornilov led his Cossack troops and one irregular division against Petrograd. At the helm of power there stood at that time: Kerensky, lackey of the bourgeoisie and three-quarters an ally of Kornilov. Lenin was still in hiding because of the accusation that he was in the service of the Hohenzollerns. On the same accusation, I was at that time incarcerated in solitary confinement in the Kresty Prison. How did the Bolsheviki proceed in this question? They also had a right to say: “In order to defeat the Korniloviade we must first defeat the Kerenskiade.” They said this more than once, for it was correct and necessary for the entire further propaganda. But that was entirely insufficient ground not to put up a resistance on August 26, and on the following days, against Kornilov and to prevent him from butchering the Petrograd proletariat. The Bolsheviki did not for that reason content themselves with a general appeal to the workers and soldiers to break with the conciliators and support the red united front of the Bolsheviki. No, the Bolsheviki proposed the united front struggle to the Mensheviks and the Social-Revolutionaries and created together with them common organizations of struggle. Was this correct or incorrect? Let Thaelmann give me an answer to this question. In order to show much more boldly how matters stood with the united front, I will cite the following incident: Immediately upon my release from solitary confinement, after the trade unions had put up bail for me, I went directly to the Committee for National Defence, where I discussed and voted decisions regarding the struggle against Kornilov with the Menshevik Dan and the Social-Revolutionary Gotz, the allies of Kerensky who had imprisoned me. Was this correct or was it wrong? Let Remmele answer this question for me.
Is Bruening the “lesser evil”?
The social democracy supports Bruening, votes for him, assumes the responsibility for him before the masses – on the basis that the Bruening Government is the “lesser evil”. The Rote Fahne attempts to ascribe the same view to me – on the basis that I expressed myself against the stupid and shameful participation of the Communists in the Hitler referendum. But have the German Left Opposition and myself in particular demanded that the Communists vote for and support Bruening? We Marxists regard Bruening and Hitler, together with Braun, as component parts of one and the same system. The question, which one of them is the “lesser evil”, has no sense, for the system against which we are fighting needs all these elements. But these elements are momentarily involved in conflicts with one another and the party of the proletariat must take advantage of these conflicts in the interest of the revolution.
There are seven keys in the musical scale. The question which of these keys is “better”: Do, Re or Sol is a senseless question. But the musician must know when to strike and what keys to strike. The abstract question as to who is the lesser evil: Bruening or Hitler – is just as senseless. It is necessary to know which of these keys to strike. Is that clear? For the weak-minded let us cite another example. When one of my enemies sets before me small daily portions of poison and the second, on the other hand, is about to shoot straight at me, then I will first knock the revolver out of the hand of my second enemy, for this gives me an opportunity to get rid of my first enemy. But that does not at all mean that the poison is a “lesser evil” in comparison to the revolver.
The misfortune consists precisely of the fact that the leaders of the German Communist Party have placed themselves on the same ground as the social democracy only with inverted prefixes: the Social democracy votes for Bruening, recognizing in him the lesser evil. The Communists on the other hand, who refuse to trust either Braun or Bruening in any way (and that is absolutely the correct way of acting), in the meantime go into the streets to support Hitler’s referendum, that is, the attempt of the Fascists to overthrow Bruening. But in this they themselves have recognized in Hitler the lesser evil, for the victory of the referendum would not have brought the proletariat into power but Hitler. To be sure, it is painful to have to argue such A.B.C. questions. It is sad, very sad indeed, when musicians like Remmele, instead of distinguishing between the keys, stamp with their boots on the key-board.
It is not a question of the workers who have already left the social democracy but of those who still remain with it
The thousands upon thousands of Noskes, Weiss, Hilferdings, prefer, in the last analysis, Fascism to Communism. But for that they must once and for all tear themselves loose from the workers. Today this is not yet the case. Today the social democracy as a whole, with all its internal antagonisms, is forced into sharp conflicts with the Fascists. Our task consists of taking advantage of these conflicts and not of uniting the antagonists against us.
The front must be directed against Fascism at the present time. And this common front of direct struggle against Fascism, involving the entire proletariat, must be utilized in the flank attacks against the social democracy, which are for all that no less effective.
It is necessary in fact, to show complete readiness to make a block with the social democrats against the Fascists in all cases in which they will accept a block. To say to the social democratic workers: “Throw your leaders aside and join our ‘non-party’ united front”, means to add just one more hollow phrase to a thousand others. It is necessary to be able to tear the workers away from their leaders in reality. But reality today is – the struggle against Fascism. There are and doubtless will be social democratic workers who are prepared to fight hand in hand with the Communist workers against the Fascists, regardless of the desires or even against the desires of the social democratic organizations. With such progressive elements it is obviously necessary to establish the closest possible contact. At the present time, however, they are not great in number. The German worker has been raised in the spirit of organization and of discipline. This has its strong as well as its weak sides. The overwhelming majority of the social democratic workers will fight against the Fascists, but – for the present at least – only together with their organizations. This stage cannot be skipped. We must aid the social democratic workers by deeds – In his new and extraordinary situation – in testing the value of their organizations and leaders at this time, when it is a matter of life and death for the working class.
We must force the social democracy into a block against the fascists
The misfortune is, that in the Central Committee of the Communist Party there are many frightened opportunists They have heard that opportunism consists of a love for blocks, and that is why they are against blocks. They do not understand the difference between, let us say, a parliamentary agreement and an ever-so modest agreement for a struggle in a strike or in the defense of workers’ printshops against Fascist bands.
Election agreements, parliamentary, compromises concluded between the revolutionary party and the social democracy serve, as a rule, to the advantage of the social democracy. Practical agreements for mass action, for purposes of struggle are always of use to the revolutionary party. The Anglo-Russian Committee was an impermissible type of block of two leaderships on one common political platform, vague, deceptive, binding no one to any sort of action. The maintenance of this block at the time of the General Strike, when the General Council assumed the role of strike-breaker, signified on the part of the Stalinists, a policy pf betrayal.
No common platform with the social democracy, or with the leaders of the German trade unions, no common publications, banners, placards! March separately, but strike unitedly! Agree only how to strike, whom to strike, and when to strike! Such an agreement can be concluded even with the devil himself, with his grandmother and even with Noske and Grzezinsky. On one condition: not to bind one’s own hands.
It is necessary, without any delay finally to elaborate a practical system of measures – not with the aim of merely “exposing” the social democracy (before the Communists), but with the aim of actual struggle against Fascism. The question of factory defense organizations, of unhampered activity on the part of the factory councils, the inviolability of the workers organizations and institutions, the question of arsenals that may be seized by the Fascists, the question of measures in the case of an emergency, that is, of the coordination of the actions of the Communist and the social democratic divisions in the struggle, etc., etc., must be dealt with in this program.
In the struggle against Fascism, the factory councils occupy an enormously important position. Here a particularly precise program of action is necessary. Every factory must become an anti-fascist bulwark, with its own commandants and its own battalions. It is necessary to have a map of the Fascist armories and all other Fascist strong-holds, ‘in every city and in every district. The Fascists are attempting to encircle the revolutionary strong-holds. The encirclers must be encircled! On this basis, a pact with the social democratic and trade union organizations is not only permissible, but a duty. To reject this for reasons of “principle” (in reality because of bureaucratic stupidity, or what is still worse, because of cowardice) is to give direct and immediate aid to Fascism.
A practical program of agreements with the social democratic workers, we proposed as far back as September 1930 (The Turn in the Comintern and the Situation in Germany, published by the Militant), that is, a year and a quarter ago. What has the leadership undertaken in this direction? Next to nothing. The Central Committee of the Communist Party has taken up everything except that which forms its direct tasks. How much valuable, irrevocable time has been lost. Truly, there is not much time left. The program of action must be strictly practical, strictly objective, to the point, without any of those artificial “claims” without any after-thoughts, so that every average social democratic worker can say to himself: What the Communists propose is completely indispensable in the struggle against Fascism. On this basic condition it is possible to pull the social democratic workers along with us by our example and to criticize their leaders who will inevitably serve as a check and a brake. Only in this way is victory possible.
A Good Quotation from Lenin
The present day epigones, that is, the thoroughly bad disciples of Lenin, like to fill up their gaps on every occasion that offers itself with – often entirely irrelevant – quotations. For the Marxists, the question is not decided by a quotation but by means of a correct method. If one is guided by correct methods, it is not hard to also find the fitting quotations. After I had drawn the above analogy with the Kornilov insurrection, I said to myself: We can probably find a theoretical explanation for our block with the conciliators in the struggle against Kornilov, in Lenin. And actually, here is what I found in the second part of volume XIV of the Russian edition, in a letter of Lenin to the Central Committee, written at the beginning of September 1917:
“Even at the present it is not our duty to support the Kerensky Government. That would be unprincipled. Someone asked: then we are not to fight against Kornilov? Naturally, we are. But that is not one and the same thing. There is a limit to this. It is being transgressed by many Bolsheviks who fall into ‘conciliationism’ and allow themselves to be driven by the current of events.
“We shall fight, we do fight against Kornilov but we do not support Kerensky, we are uncovering his weaknesses. The distinction is very delicate, but highly important, and must not be forgotten.
“Wherein does the change of our tactics, after the Kornilov insurrection, consist?
“In this, that the forms of struggle against Kerensky vary. Without diminishing our hostility against him even by one note, without taking back one word from what we have said against, him, without rejecting the task of overthrowing Kerensky, we say: We must calculate the moment, we will not overthrow Kerensky at present. We approach the question of the struggle against him differently and namely: by explaining the weaknesses and vacillations of Kerensky before the people (who are fighting against Kornilov).”
We are proposing nothing different from this: complete independence of the Communist organizations and press, complete freedom of Communist criticism, the same for the social democracy and the trade unions. To allow the freedom of the Communist Party to be limited (for example, in the manner of the entrance into the Kuo Min Tang) only despicable opportunists are capable of. Our place is not among them.
There is nothing to take back from our criticism of the social democracy. Nothing to forget of all that has been. The entire historical account, including the account for Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg will be presented in time, as we Russian Bolsheviks also presented it finally to the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries as a general accounting for the baiting, slander, imprisonment and murder carried on against workers, soldiers and peasants.
But we presented our general account to them months after we had utilized the partial accounting between Kerensky and Kornilov, between the “democrats” and the Fascists – and at that in order to repel the Fascists with all the more certainty. Only thanks to this circumstance, were we able to be victorious.
* * *
When the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Germany adopts the position expressed in the lines of Lenin quoted above, the entire approach to the social democratic masses and the trade union organizations will change with one blow: Instead of the articles and speeches which are convincing only to those people who are already convinced without them, the agitators will find a common language with new hundreds of thousands and millions of workers. The differentiation within the social democracy will proceed in rapid tempo. The Fascists will soon begin to feel that their tasks consist not only of defeating Bruening, Braun and Wels, but in taking up the open struggle against the entire working class. On this plane, a deep differentiation will inevitably begin within Fascism. Only by this road is victory possible.
But it is necessary to desire this victory. In the meantime, there are among the Communist functionaries many cowardly careerists and bureaucrats who hold on to their little posts, to their income and more than that, – in their skins, very dearly. These creatures are inclined to sprout ultra-radical phrases underneath which is concealed a wretched and despicable fatalism. “Without a victory over the social democracy it is impossible to strike against Fascism!”, say such terrible revolutionaries, and for this reason ... they are getting ready their passports.
Worker-Communists, you are hundreds of thousands, millions, you cannot leave for anywhere; there are not enough passports for you. Should Fascism achieve power it will ride over your skulls and spines like a frightful tank. Your salvation lies in merciless struggle. And only unity in struggle with the social democratic workers can bring victory. Make haste, worker-Communists, you have very little time left.
Kadikoy, December 8, 1931