Trotsky’s understanding of how to fight fascism in Germany provides important lessons for us today, argues Carl Taylor
The Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, understood better than most the danger of fascism. He first analysed its emergence in Italy in the years following the First World War. Fascism, he asserted, was a distinctly anti-working class political movement built to annihilate all forms of democratic organisation. Its genesis was in economic crisis. Trotsky explained that in periods where the capitalist state finds itself incapable of suppressing a working class challenge to its rule, the historic role of fascism begins.
The late 1920s in Germany was such a period. Millions of workers looked for radical alternatives to the capitalist system that had caused the Great Depression and to the bourgeois parliament that was incapable of resolving it. The rising class-consciousness of an increasingly militant working class led millions of workers to the German Communist Party.
By the 1930s Germany’s fearful rulers looked to Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party to rescue them from the anger surging below. Fascism’s value to the ruling class lay in the very thing that set it apart from other forms of conservatism—its ability to mobilise on the streets.
Since the formation of the party in 1920, Nazi gangs, largely made up of ex-army thugs, coordinated attacks against unionists and Communist Party members. Hundreds were killed, undermining the confidence of many workers to fight. By the year 1930 the Nazis, because of the combination of street violence and capitalist political support, gained the second-largest vote in the German elections.
Trotsky, though exiled to Turkey because of his opposition to Stalin in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, nonetheless recognised the menace facing the German working class. He likened fascism to “a razor in the hands of the class enemy”, and stressed the urgency of stopping it at all costs. The German Communist Party, alone, lacked the strength to confront the Nazis head-on. However, Trotsky argued, a united front of Communist workers and those who supported the reformist German Social Democratic Party (SPD) could make short work of the Nazis.
The SPD and the Communist Party claimed a combined 40 per cent of the overall German vote—the bulk of the working class. The majority of the 18 million industrial workers employed were also unionised, making the German trade union movement the strongest in Europe. Trotsky was adamant that the fragmented and largely middle-class Nazi support base was no match for the industrial might of the proletariat.
The working class divided
Despite the potential, however, the two mass parties, representing millions of German workers, rejected calls for a united front against Hitler.
The SPD instead looked to the institutions of the German state to stop the fascists. As Hitler’s brownshirts rampaged through the streets, the SPD leadership sought to form a coalition with the Centre Party of Chancellor Heinrich Bruning. Rather than mobilising the German workers, the SPD put their faith in a parliamentary coalition with ruling class figures like Bruning. They thought this could, through force of law, halt Hitler’s march to power. Trotsky denounced their fetish with parliament, warning that the ruling class needed Hitler and “necessity knows no law.”
In truth, the SPD sought parliamentary solutions because they feared mobilising the working class. Conversely, the Communist Party did not fear an uprising from below—they were simply incapable of mobilising one. Though the party had collected over four million votes in the 1930 general election, they gained only 4 per cent in the elections for the workers’ factory committees, while 84 per cent went to the Social Democrats. The Communist Party, led by Ernst Thalmann, nonetheless, stridently refused to form a defensive bloc with the SPD.
Tragically, the German and other European communist parties, following Stalin, considered the Nazis and Social Democrats to be similar “fascist” threats. In 1928, under Stalin’s influence, the international Communist movement had proclaimed social democracy to be the main enemy of the communists. Stalin’s “Third Period” politics ludicrously declared social democracy and fascism to be “twin brothers”, branding reformist parties, such as the SPD “social fascists.”
Consequently, the German Communist Party regarded the Nazi phenomenon as nothing more than a form of bourgeois reaction. In fact, they considered “social fascism” to be a greater threat than fascism itself.
But Trotsky maintained that fascism was a distinct political movement drawing the bulk of its support from the middle class. Unified through nationalist and racial rhetoric, it was advancing with the single aim of smashing all working class organisation. In the Bulletin of the Opposition (March 1932), Trotsky again implored the Communist Party to seek unity with the SPD. “Should fascism come to power, it will ride over your skulls and spines like a terrific tank. Your salvation lies in merciless struggle. And only a fighting unity with the Social Democratic workers can bring victory.”
Trotsky’s appeals fell on deaf ears. The Communist leaders maintained their ultra-left position. They demanded only a “Red United Front” from below. But this call for the entire working class to simply unite behind the Communist banner was empty rhetoric. It looked more like a cynical ploy to win members than a genuine proposal to actually unite the class.
The United Front
Uniting the militant working class by using the factory committees to organise active resistance to the Nazis could have defeated them.
And there was resistance. As the fascists grew in strength workers in Communist strongholds, such as Neukolln, organised isolated factory strikes and even fought sporadic street battles with Nazi gangs. In 1931, a united communist and social democratic demonstration routed a Nazi mobilisation to invade the “totally Red nest” of Ockershausen.
In a tragic irony of history, after the Nazis took power in 1933, Communist Party and SPD members actually combined to form underground groups in over 16 cities.
The thousands of factory councils, if coordinated, could have mapped out and encircled the fascist barracks and disarmed them with organised battalions of workers. Likewise general strikes, rather than isolated ones, could have crippled any economic or material means of support for Hitler.
More than just stopping the Nazis, a genuine united front also represented a real opportunity to extend the influence of the Communist Party within the working class. As Trotsky saw it, rigorous debate within the united front would have exposed the SPD leaders’ parliamentary strategies and their unwillingness to mobilise the unions and factory councils to confront the fascists. Through exposure to revolutionary ideas and the struggle against fascism, reformist workers could have been convinced that the Communist Party, not the Social Democrats, were best placed to lead the class in struggle.
For this reason, then and now, political differences between revolutionaries and reformists should not be set aside within the united front. While there could have been unity in action in the single agreed aim of defeating the Nazis, Trotsky urged that the Communists must retain their political independence. They must remain free to criticise reformist policies, produce their own propaganda and march under their own banners.
Communist slogans and demands should, however, be restricted to immediate aims that both revolutionary and reformist workers were willing to fight for (such as strikes in defense of workers’ print-shops). Trotsky explained that Communists must “March separately, but strike together”—this was and is the means by which revolutionaries could reach the widest layers of workers with their ideas.
The Communist Party’s ultra-left demands (e.g. “for a Red United Front”) politically isolated them from reformist workers who were not yet in agreement with the their ideas.
Under the influence of Stalin’s Third Period politics, the Communist Party even encouraged their members to join “revolutionary” trade unions which stood in competition with reformist ones. Trotsky berated the Communist leadership for their sectarian behavior. The 300,000 revolutionary workers in the “red” unions could have been fighting within the old unions alongside reformist workers, appealing, through activity and propaganda, for unorganised workers to join them.
In spite of the potentially overwhelming strength of the German proletariat, Hitler took power in January 1933. Communist Party meetings were banned and its press shut down. Thousands of SPD and Communist officials were arrested. On 2 May, police and Nazis smashed their way into every trade union office in Germany, bashing officials and dragging many off to concentration camps.
Tragically, the lessons of 80 years ago remain relevant today.
Fascism is again on the rise in Europe. Hungary and Holland are just two European countries that have fascists in their national parliaments. In the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression the European left faces what may be its greatest challenge for decades.
Groups like the British National Party (BNP) and Holland’s People’s Party of Freedom are using the language of Islamophobia and racial nationalism to spread their backward ideology. Two BNP members have seats in the European parliament.
But every strike for better pay, every demonstration against government cutbacks, every protest in support of asylum seekers helps to counter the despair that fascism feeds off.
History shows that the rise of fascism is not inevitable and that the Nazis can—and must—be stopped.