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


Capitalism in Russia proved to be the weakest link in the chain of imperialism, because of its extreme backwardness. In the present crisis, German capitalism reveals itself as the weakest link for the diametrically opposite reason: precisely because it is the most advanced capitalist system in the conditions of the European impasse. As the productive forces of Germany become more and more highly geared, the more dynamic power they gather, the more they are strangled within the state system of Europe – a system that is akin to the “system” of cages within an impoverished provincial zoo. At every turn in the conjuncture of events German capitalism is thrown up against those problems which it had attempted to solve by means of war. Acting through the Hohenzollern government, the German bourgeoisie girded itself to “organise Europe.” Acting through the regime of Brüning-Curtius it attempted ... to form a customs union with Austria. It is to such a pathetic level that its problems, potentialities, and perspectives have been reduced! But even the customs union was not to be attained. Like the witch’s house in fairy-tales, the entire European system stands on a pair of hen’s legs. The great and salutary hegemony of France is in danger of toppling over, should a few million Austrians unite with Germany. For Europe in general and primarily for Germany no advance is possible along the capitalist road. The temporary resolution of the present crisis to be achieved by the automatic interplay of the forces of capitalism itself – on the bones of the workers – would signify only the resurrection of all the contradictions at the next stage, only in still more acute and concentrated form.

The specific weight of Europe in world economy can only diminish. Already the forehead of Europe is plastered beyond removal with American labels: the Dawes Plan, the Young Plan, Hoover’s moratorium. Europe is placed thoroughly on American rations.

The decay of capitalism results in social and cultural decomposition. The road is barred for further normal differentiation within nations, for the further growth of the proletariat at the expense of the diminution of intermediate classes. Further prolongation of the crisis can bring in its trail only the pauperisation of the petty bourgeoisie and the transformation of ever larger groups of workers into the lumpen-proletariat. In its most acute form, it is this threat that grips advanced capitalist Germany by the throat.

The rottenest portion of putrefying capitalist Europe is the Social Democratic bureaucracy. It entered upon its historical journey under the banner of Marx and Engels. It set for its goal the overthrow of the rule of the bourgeoisie. The powerful upsurge of capitalism caught it up and dragged it in its wake. In the name of reform, the Social Democracy betrayed the revolution, at first by its actions and later by its words. Kautsky, it is true, for a long time still defended the phraseology of revolution, making it serve as a handmaiden to the requirements of reformism. Bernstein, on the contrary, demanded the renunciation of revolution: for capitalism was entering the period of peaceful development without crises, and without wars. Exemplary prophecy! Apparently, between Kautsky and Bernstein there was an irreconcilable divergence. Actually, however, they symmetrically complemented one another as the right and left boots on the feet of reformism.

The war came. The Social Democracy supported the war in the name of future prosperity. Instead of prosperity, decay set in. Now the task no longer consisted in deducing from the inadequacy of capitalism the necessity for revolution, nor in reconciling the workers to capitalism by means of reforms. The new task of the Social Democracy now consisted in making society safe for the bourgeoisie at the cost of sacrificing reforms.

But even this was not the last stage of degeneracy. The present crisis that is convulsing capitalism obliged the Social Democracy to sacrifice the fruits achieved after protracted economic and political struggles and thus to reduce the German workers to the level of existence of their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers. There is no historical spectacle more tragic and at the same time more repulsive than the fetid disintegration of reformism amid the wreckage of all its conquests and hopes. The theatre is rabid in its straining for modernism. Let it stage more often Hauptmann’s The Weavers: this most modern of modern dramas. And let the director of the theatre also remember to reserve the front rows for the leaders of the Social Democracy.

However, these leaders are in no mood for drama: they have reached the utmost limits of their adaptability. There is a level beneath which the working class of Germany cannot drop willingly nor for any length of time. Moreover, the bourgeois regime, fighting for its existence, is in no mood to recognise this level. The emergency decrees of Brüning are only the beginning, only feelers to get the lay of the land. Brüning’s regime rests upon the cowardly and perfidious support of the Social Democratic bureaucracy which in its turn depends upon the sullen, halfhearted support of a section of the proletariat. The system based on bureaucratic decrees is unstable, unreliable, temporary. Capitalism requires another, more decisive policy. The support of the Social Democrats, keeping a suspicious watch on their own workers, is not only insufficient for its purposes, but has already become irksome. The period of halfway measures has passed. In order to try to find a way out, the bourgeoisie must absolutely rid itself of the pressure exerted by the workers’ organisations; these must be eliminated, destroyed, utterly crushed.

At this juncture, the historic role of fascism begins. It raises to their feet those classes that are immediately above the proletariat and that are ever in dread of being forced down into its ranks; it organises and militarises them at the expense of finance capital, under the cover of the official government, and it directs them to the extirpation of proletarian organisations, from the most revolutionary to the most conservative.

Fascism is not merely a system of reprisals, of brutal force, and of police terror. Fascism is a particular governmental system based on the uprooting of all elements of proletarian democracy within bourgeois society. The task of fascism lies not only in destroying the Communist vanguard but in holding the entire class in a state of forced disunity. To this end the physical annihilation of the most revolutionary section of the workers does not suffice. It is also necessary to smash all independent and voluntary organisations, to demolish all the defensive bulwarks of the proletariat, and to uproot whatever has been achieved during three-quarters of a century by the Social Democracy and the trade unions. For, in the last analysis, the Communist Party also bases itself on these achievements.

The Social Democracy has prepared all the conditions necessary for the triumph of fascism. But by this fact it has also prepared the stage for its own political liquidation. It is absolutely correct to place on the Social Democrats the responsibility for the emergency legislation of Brüning as well as for the impending danger of fascist savagery. It is absolute balderdash to identify Social Democracy with fascism.

By its policies during the revolution of 1848, the liberal bourgeoisie prepared the stage for the triumph of counterrevolution, which in turn emasculated liberalism. Marx and Engels lashed the German liberal bourgeoisie no less sharply than Lassalle did, and their criticism was more profound than his. But when the Lassalleans lumped the liberal bourgeoisie together with the feudal counterrevolution into “one reactionary mass,” Marx and Engels were justly outraged by this false ultra-radicalism. The erroneous position of the Lassalleans turned them on several occasions into involuntary aides of the monarchy, despite the general progressive nature of their work, which was infinitely more important and consequential than the achievements of liberalism.

The theory of “social fascism” reproduces the basic error of the Lassalleans on a new historical background. After dumping National Socialists and Social Democrats into one fascist pile, the Stalinist bureaucracy flies headlong into such activities as backing the Hitler referendum, which in its own fashion is in no way superior to Lassalle’s alliances with Bismarck.

In the present phase, German Communism in its struggle against the Social Democracy must lean on two separate facts: (a) the political responsibility of the Social Democracy for the strength of fascism; (b) the absolute irreconcilability between fascism and those workers’ organisations on which the Social Democracy itself depends.

The contradictions within German capitalism have at present reached such a state of tension that an explosion is inevitable. The adaptability of the Social Democracy has reached that limit beyond which lies self-annihilation. The mistakes of the Stalinist bureaucracy have reached that limit beyond which lies catastrophe. Such is the threefold formula that characterises the situation in Germany. Everything is now poised on the razor edge of a knife.

When of necessity one must follow conditions in Germany through newspapers that arrive almost a week late; when one must allow another week before manuscripts may bridge the gap between Constantinople and Berlin, after which additional weeks must pass before the pamphlet reaches its public, involuntarily the question arises: “Won’t it be altogether too late?” And each time one answers oneself: No! The armies that are drawn up for battle are so colossal that one need not fear a lightning-quick settlement of the issue. The strength of the German proletariat has not been drained. Its powers have not as yet been brought into play. The logic of facts will make itself heard more imperiously with every passing day. And this justifies the author’s attempt to add what he has to say even if it is delayed a few weeks, i.e., an entire historical period.

The Stalinist bureaucracy came to the conclusion that it would be able to complete its labours more peacefully were the author of these pages confined in Prinkipo. It obtained from the government of Hermann Müller, the Social Democrat, a refusal of a visa for the ... “Menshevik”: in this instance the united front was established without any wavering or delay. Today, in official Soviet publications, the Stalinists are broadcasting the news that I am “defending” Brüning’s government in accordance with an agreement made with the Social Democracy, which in return is pulling strings to allow me the right of entry into Germany. Instead of becoming indignant over such viciousness, I permit myself to laugh at its stupidity. But I must cut short my laughter, for time is pressing.

There cannot be the slightest doubt that the course of events will demonstrate the correctness of our position. But in what manner will history demonstrate its proof: through the catastrophe of the Stalinist faction, or through the victory of Marxist policies?

Therein lies at present the crux of the entire question. This question is the question of the fate of the German nation, and not of its fate alone.

The problems that are analysed in this pamphlet did not originate yesterday. For nine years now the leadership of the Comintern has busied itself with the revaluation of values and with disorganising the vanguard of the international proletariat by means of tactical convulsions which in their totality fall under the label of “the general line.” The Russian Left Opposition (Bolshevik-Leninists) was formed not only because of Russian problems but also because of international ones. Among these, the problems of the revolutionary development in Germany occupied by no means the last place. Sharp divergences on this subject date back to 1923. During the succeeding years the author of these pages spoke more than once on these controversial questions. A considerable portion of my critical works has been published in German. The present pamphlet is in its turn a contribution to the theoretical and political work of the Left Opposition. Much that is mentioned hereafter only in passing was in its time submitted to detailed analysis. Therefore I must refer my readers for particulars to my books, The Third International After LeninThe Permanent Revolution, etc. Now, when these differences confront everyone in the form of a great historical problem, it is possible to estimate their origins much better and more profoundly. For the serious revolutionary, for the true Marxist, such a study is absolutely essential. Eclectics live by means of episodic thoughts and improvisations that originate under the impact of events. Marxist cadres capable of leading the proletarian revolution are trained only by the continual and successive working out of problems and disputes. 

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