Bilan no. 16, March 1935: The crushing defeat of the German proletariat and the rise of fascism

Printer-friendly version

The relevance of Bilan's method

Following the electoral successes of extreme right parties in France, Belgium, Germany and Austria, or during the violent pogroms carried out by more or less manipulated extreme right-wing gangs against immigrants and refugees in the one-time East Germany, the "democratic" bourgeoisie's propaganda, with the left and leftist parties in the forefront, have once again been brandishing the specter of the "fascist danger".

It is the same tune as at every outrage by the racist and xenophobic scum of the far right. The "forces of democracy", no matter what their political hue, are all unanimous in their condemnation. Everybody loudly condemns the far right's "popular" success at the polls, deplores the population's passivity, which is gladly depicted as sympathy for the thugs' disgusting behavior. The democratic state can then dress up its own repression as the guarantor of "freedom", the only force capable of halting the racist scourge, and or preventing a return to the horrors of fascism. All this is part of the propaganda of the ruling class, which today is calling for the defense of capitalist "democracy", in continuity with the ideological campaigns vaunting the "triumph of capitalism and the end of communism".

These "anti-fascist" campaigns are in fact largely based on two lies: the first claims that the institutions of bourgeois democracy and the political forces that defend it are in some way ramparts against "totalitarian dictatorship", while the second pretends that the emergence of fascist regimes is a real prospect in Western Europe today.

Against these lies, the lucidity of the revolutionaries of the 1930s allows to understand better the reality of today's historic course, as we can see from the article by Bilan, extracts of which are reproduced here.

This article was written almost sixty years ago, in the midst of the Nazi victory in Germany and one year before the arrival of the Popular Front in power in France. Its analysis of the attitude of the "democratic forces" to the rise of fascism in Germany, and of the historic preconditions for the triumph of such regimes, is still completely valid in the struggle against the supporters of "anti-fascism".

The Left Fraction of the Italian Communist Party, forced into exile (especially in France) by Mussolini's fascist regime, defended against the entire "workers' movement" of the day, the proletariat's independent struggle for the defense of its interests and its revolutionary perspective: the fight against capitalism in its entirety.

Against those who urge the workers to support the bourgeoisie's democratic forces to prevent an upsurge of fascism, Bilan demonstrated how in reality the "democratic" institutions and political forces, far from serving as a rampart against fascism in Germany, in fact prepared its arrival:

" ... there is a perfect, organic continuity in the process that leads from Weimar to Hitler". Bilan made it clear that the Hitler regime was not an aberration, but a form of capitalism made both possible and necessary by historic conditions: " ... fascism has thus been built on the dual foundation of proletarian defeats and the imperious demands of an economy driven to the wall by a profound economic crisis" .

Fascism in Germany, like the "emergency powers democracy" in France, expressed the acceleration during the 1930's of state control ("disciplinisation", as Bilan called it) over the whole of capitalist social and economic life, confronted with an unprecedented economic crisis which· sharpened inter-imperialist antagonisms. But the fact that this tendency was concretely expressed in fascism, rather than in "emergency powers democracy", was determined by the balance of forces between the main classes in society: the bourgeoisie and the working class. For Bilan, the establishment of fascism was based on the previous defeat of the proletariat, both physically and ideologically. Fascism's task in Germany and Italy was to finish off the crushing of the proletariat already begun by the "social-democracy".

Those who prattle today about 'the imminent threat of fascism, apart from the fact that they are copying the anti-proletarian policies of the "anti-fascists" of the 1930's, "forget" this historical condition highlighted by Bilan. Today's generations of workers, especially in Western Europe, have neither been defeated physically, nor subdued ideologically. In these conditions, the bourgeoisie cannot do without the weapons of "democratic order". Official propaganda waves the fascist scarecrow, the better to tie the exploited class to the established order, and its "democratic" capitalist dictatorship.

In this text, Bilan still speaks of the USSR as a "workers' state", and of the Communist Parties as "centrist". It was not until World War II that the Italian Left adopted a final analysis of the capitalist nature of the USSR and the Stalinist parties. Nonetheless, this did not prevent these revolutionaries, by the 1930's, from denouncing the Stalinists, vigorously and without hesitation, as forces "working for the consolidation of the capitalist world as a whole", and as "an element in the fascist victory". Bilan was working in the midst of the rout of the proletariat's revolutionary struggle, and right at the beginning of an enormous theoretical task, of analyzing critically the greatest revolutionary experience in history: the Russian revolution. It was still full of confusions linked to revolutionaries' enormous devotion to this unique experience, but it was nonetheless a precious and irreplaceable moment in revolutionary political clarification. It was a crucial stage, whose method remains entirely valid today: the method of analyzing reality without any concessions, from the historic and worldwide viewpoint of the proletarian struggle.



The crushing defeat of the German proletariat and the rise of fascism

Bilan no. 16, March 1935


Only through the critical analysis of post-war events, of revolutionary victories and defeats, will we be able to a historical vision of the present period, a vision global enough to embrace all the fundamental phenomena that it expresses. While it is true to say that the Russian revolution lies at the centre of our critique, we must immediately add that Germany is the most important link in the chain that today is strangling the world proletariat.

In Russia, the structural weakness of capitalism, and the consciousness of the Russian proletariat represented by the Bolsheviks, prevented an immediate concentration of the world bourgeoisie's forces around one threatened sector. In Germany, by contrast, all the events since the war reveal this intervention, made easier by the strength of its democratic traditions and the speed with which the proletariat became aware of its tasks.

The events in Germany (from the crushing of the Spartakists to the arrival of fascism) already contain a critique of October 1917. They demonstrate capitalism's response to positions which were often less developed than those which made possible the Bolsheviks' victory. This is why a serious analysis of Germany should begin with an examination of the theses of the 3rd and 4th Congresses of the Communist International; these contain elements which, rather than going beyond the Russian revolution, are determined by their opposition to the ferocious assault by bourgeois forces against the world revolution. These Congresses put forward positions for the defense of the proletariat grouped around the Soviet state, when in fact the destruction of the capitalist world required a constantly growing offensive of workers in all countries, and at the same time an ideological advance by their international organization. The events of 1923 in Germany were stifled precisely thanks to these positions, which were directly against the workers' revolutionary efforts. These events were in themselves the most striking disavowal of the Congresses.

Germany has clearly proven the inadequacy of the ideological heritage bequeathed by the Bolsheviks; it is not just their efforts that were inadequate, but those of communists all over the world, and especially in Germany. So, when and where has any historical critique been made of the Spartakists ideological and political struggle? In our opinion, apart from a few stale repetitions of Lenin's general appreciations, nothing has been done. It is thought enough to castigate "Luxemburgism", and to denounce the crimes of Noske and Scheidemann, but there is not a trace of any serious analysis. And yet, if 1917 contains a categorical negation of bourgeois democracy, 1919 does so on a far more advanced level. While the Bolsheviks proved that the proletarian party can be a victorious guide only if it rejects, during its formation, any dilution by opportunist currents, the events of 1923 have proved that the fusion of the Spartakists with the Independents [ie, the USPD: translator's note] at Halle only injected greater confusion into the Communist Party [the KPD] before the decisive battle.

To sum up, instead of raising the level of the proletarian struggle above that of October, and of rejecting still more profoundly the forms of capitalist domination and any compromise with the forces of the enemy in preparation for an imminent revolutionary assault, lowering the proletariat's positions beneath those which had ensured the triumph of the Russian workers could only make the regroupment of the capitalist forces easier. In this sense, comrade Bordiga's position against parliamentarism at the 2nd Congress was an attempt to push forward the attacking positions of the world proletariat, while Lenin's position was an attempt to use in a revolutionary way a historically outmoded position in a situation which did not yet contain all the elements for an attack. Events proved Bordiga right, not on this point, but on a critical appreciation of the German events of 1919, which aimed to enlarge the proletariat's destructive effort before new battles which were to decide the fate of the proletarian state and the world revolution.

In this article, we will try to examine the evolution of the German proletariat's class positions, in order to highlight the principals which can complete the contributions of the Bolsheviks, criticize the latter's mechanical application to new situations, and contribute to a general critique of events since the war.


In Article 165 of the Weimar Republic's constitution, we find the following passage: "Workers and employees collaborate [in the workers' councils] on an equal footing with the employers, in the regulation of questions relating to wages and working conditions, and to the general economic development of the productive forces". We could not better characterize a period where the German bourgeoisie had understood that not only did it have to widen its political organization to the most extreme democracy, even to the point of recognizing the "Rate" [workers' councils], it also had to give the workers the illusion of economic power. From 1919 to 1923, the proletariat felt that it was the dominant political force in the Reich. Since the war, the trades unions incorporated into the state apparatus had become pillars supporting the whole capitalist edifice, and the only elements capable of directing the proletariat's efforts towards the reconstruction of the German economy and a stable apparatus of capitalist domination. The bourgeois democracy demanded by the social-democracy proved here to be the only means of preventing the development of the workers' struggle towards revolution, spurring it instead towards a political power that was in reality led by the bourgeoisie with the support of the trades unions, and aimed at setting industry back on its feet. This period saw the blooming of the "the world's first social legislation": labor contracts, the enterprise cells which sometimes tended to oppose the reformist trades unions, or even concentrate the workers' revolutionary efforts as for example in the Ruhr during 1921-22. In Germany, reconstruction carried out in the midst of such an upsurge of workers' liberties and rights led, as we now know, to the inflation of 1923, where there appeared at the same time the difficulty for a defeated and terribly impoverished capitalism to set its productive apparatus in motion again, and the reaction of a proletariat seeing its real wages, its "kolossal" social legislation, and its apparent political power, all reduced to nothing. If the German proletariat was beaten in 1923, despite the "workers' governments" of Saxony and Thuringia, despite an influential Communist Party, that was not yet gangrened by opportunism and moreover was still led by veteran Spartakists, and despite the favorable conditions created by the difficult position of German imperialism, then the reasons for this defeat must be sought in Moscow, in the theses of the 3rd and 4th Congresses, which were accepted by the Spartakists, but which far from completing the 1919 "Spartakus Program" did not come up to the same level as the latter. Despite occasional ambiguities, Rosa Luxemburg's speech contains a ferocious negation of capitalism's democratic forces, a real economic and political perspective and not just vague "workers governments" and united fronts with counter-revolutionary parties.

In our opinion, the defeat of 1923 is the revenge of events for the stagnation of communism's critical thought; it was prepared to apply theories mechanically, refusing to extract from real life new programmatic rules, while world capitalism, by occupying the Ruhr at the same time came objectively to the aid of the German bourgeoisie by determining a wave of nationalism capable of channeling, or at least obscuring the consciousness of the workers, and even of the leaders of the Communist Party.

Once this dangerous moment had been passed, German capitalism benefited at last from the financial help of countries like the USA, which were now convinced that any danger revolutionary had for the moment disappeared. There followed an unprecedented movement of industrial and financial concentration and centralization, on the basis of a frantic rationalization, while Stresemann headed a series of socialist or "socialistic" governments. The social-democracy supported this structural consolidation of a capitalism which was trying, by imposing a tighter discipline on the workers, to gather the strength to confront its Versailles opponents, and distracted the workers with the myths of economic democracy, the preservation of national industry, the advantages of negotiating with fewer bosses, and the first steps to socialism that this represented.

During 1925-26, until the first symptoms of the world crisis appeared, the organization of the German economy grew apace. We might almost say that German capitalism, which had been able to stand against the entire world thanks to its industrial strength and the militarization of a fabulously powerful economic apparatus, continued, once the post-war social upheaval was over, with the ultra-centralized economic organization indispensable in the phase of inter-imperialist war, and that it did so thanks to a continued organization of a war economy, under the pressure of the difficulties in the world economy as a whole. Already, 1926 saw the formation of the great Konzerns: the Stahlwerein, IG Farben-industrie, the Siemens electricity Konzern, the Allgemeine Electrizitat Gesellschaft whose formation was made easier by inflation and the resulting rise in industrial shares.

Even before the war, Germany's economic organization - the Cartels, the Konzerns, the fusion of financial and industrial capital - had reached a very high level. But from 1926 onwards, the movement accelerated and Konzerns like Thyssen, the Rheinelbe-Union, Phoenix, Rheinische Stahlwerke, came together to form the Stahwerein which controlled the coal industry and all its subsidiary products, as well as everything to do with the steel industry. The Thomas smelters requiring iron ore (which Germany had lost with the Lorraine and Upper Silesia) were replaced by Siemens-Martin smelters capable of using scrap iron.

These Konzerns soon gained a tight control over the entire German economy, and set themselves up as a dam, against which the proletariat's strength was broken. Their development was accelerated by the investment of American capital and partly by orders from Russia. But from this moment on, the proletariat, which in 1923 had lost any illusions in its real political power, was drawn into a decisive struggle. The social-democracy supported German capitalism, demonstrated that the Konzerns were socialism in embryonic form, and advocated conciliatory labor contracts as the road towards economic democracy. The CP underwent its "Bolshevization", which led to the idea of "social fascism" and was to coincide with the five year plans in Russia, but which led it to play a role similar - though not identical - to that of the social-democracy.

Nonetheless, it was during this epoch of rationalization, and of the formation of the gigantic Konzerns, that there appeared in Germany the economic bases and the social necessity for the arrival of fascism in 1933. The increased concentration of masses of proletarians as a result of the tendencies of capitalism, a costly social legislation offered as bait to avoid dangerous revolutionary movements, permanent unemployment unsettling social relations, heavy cost abroad (Reparations), all demanded continued attacks on wages already forced down by inflation. Above all, what brought on the domination of fascism was the threat from the proletariat after the war, and which it still represented. Thanks to the social-democracy, capitalism had managed to survive this threat, but it still needed a political structure which corresponded to the discipline required on the economic terrain. Just as the unification of the Reich was preceded by the industrial concentration and centralization of 1865-70, so the revival of fascism was preceded by a highly imperialist reorganization of the German economy, which was necessary to save the whole ruling class from the effects of Versailles. When people today talk about fascist economic interventionism, about "its" managed economy, "its" autarchy, they deform reality. Fascism is merely the social structure which proved necessary to capitalism at the end of a whole social and economic evolution. German capitalism could hardly bring fascism to power in 1919, in its then lamentable state of decomposition, especially faced with the proletarian menace. This is why the Kapp putsch was fully conscious of its own weakness, which made it withdraw during the factory occupations, and put its fate in the hands of the socialists, only to react quickly once the storm was past, and bring in the fascist regime.

In short, all the fascist economic "innovations" are nothing but an accentuation of the increase in economic discipline and of the links between the state and the great Konzerns (the nomination of commissars to various branches of industry): a consecration of the war economy.

Democracy cannot be the banner of capitalist domination in an economy shattered by war, shaken by the proletariat, and whose centralization is a position of resistance in preparation for a new slaughter, a way of transposing onto the world level its own internal contrasts; this is all the more true in that democracy supposes a certain mobility in economic and political relationships, which although it revolves around the maintenance of class privileges nonetheless gives every class a feeling that it can raise itself up. In the German economy's post-war development, the Konzerns link to the state, and requiring of the latter that it repay the concessions which had been wrung out of them by the struggle of the working class, removed any possibility of democracy's survival, since the perspective was no longer one of juicy colonial exploitation, but of a bitter struggle against the Versailles treaty and its reparations rather than for a right to a place in the world market. This path was one of a brutal and violent struggle against the proletariat, and here, as well as from the economic viewpoint. German capital showed the way which other countries were to take by other means. It is obvious that without the aid of world capital, German capitalism would never have been able to carry out its objectives. For the workers to be crushed, it was necessary to remove all the American labels preventing the exclusive exploitation of the workers by the German bourgeoisie; consent to moratoria on debt repayments; and in the end, abandon the payment of Reparations. It was also necessary that the Soviet state intervene, abandoning the German workers for its five year plans, and confusing their struggle, to become in the end an element of the fascist victory.

An examination of the situation from March 1923 to March 1933 allows us to understand that there is a perfect, organic continuity in the process that leads from Weimar to Hitler. The defeat of the workers came in the midst of the full flowering of the Weimar "socialistic" bourgeois democracy, and allowed capitalism to reconstitute its forces. And so, little by little the vice was tightened. Soon it was Hindendurg, in 1925, who became the defender of the Constitution, and as capitalism rebuilt its armor, so democracy became more and more restricted. Although it might widen in moment of social tension, even to the point of allowing socialist coalition governments (H. Muller), the more socialists and centrists increased the workers' confusion, the more it tended to disappear (the Bruning government and its rule by decree), to give way, in the end to a fascism which encountered no resistance from the working class. No opposition appeared between democracy's finest flower - Weimar - and fascism: one made it possible to crush the threat of revolution, dispersed the proletariat and befuddled its consciousness; the other, once the job was done, finished it off as capitalism's iron heel, bringing about the rigid unity of capitalist society on the basis of a complete suffocation of any proletarian threat.

We are not going to imitate all the scribblers and pedants who try to "correct" history with hindsight, and try to find an explanation of some formula or other. It is obvious that the German proletariat could not conquer unless it could liberate the Communist International (through its left fractions) from the disintegrating influence of centrism, and regroup around slogans which rejected any form of democracy or "proletarian nationalism", in defense of its own interests and conquests. From this point of view, the position of "social-fascism" did not go beyond the democratic swamp, since it did not explain the unfolding of events but only confused them, although it was an explanation of the trade union split carried out in the name of RUO[1]. No struggle for a united democratic front could save the proletariat, only a struggle that rejected it; but such a struggle was bound to be dissipated once it was attached to a proletarian state working for the consolidation of the capitalist world as a whole.

If today we can speak of the "nazification" of "democratic" capitalist states with "emergency powers", then it would have been correct to use this description of capitalist evolution in Germany, if by that we mean the gradual contraction of democracy until it got to March 1933. Democracy played a vital part in this historic course, and disappeared under the blows of fascism when it proved impossible to stifle the fermentation of the masses without another mass movement. Germany, more than Italy, already shows us a legal transition from Von Papen to Schleicher, and from the latter to Hitler, all under the aegis of the defender of the Weimar constitution, Hinderburg. But, as in Italy, the fermentation of the masses required other masses to demolish the workers' organizations and decimate the workers' movement. It is possible that the development of the situation in our countries still marks a certain progression relative to these experiences, and that the "emergency powers democracies", which do not confront proletariats which have carried out large-scale revolutionary assaults, and which moreover enjoy a privileged (colonial) situation relative to Germany and Italy, may succeed both in disciplining the economy and stifling the proletariat without being forced to sweep away entirely the traditional democratic forces, which will moreover make an appreciable effort to adapt (the CGT plan in France, the de Man plan in Belgium).

Fascism cannot be explained either as a distinct class under capitalism, nor as an emanation of the exasperated middle class. It is the form of domination that capitalism adopts when it is no longer able, through democracy, to rally all the classes in society around the defense of its own privileges. It does not bring it with it a new form of social organization, but a superstructure appropriate to a highly developed economy compelled to destroy the proletariat politically in order to annihilate any correspondence between the ever-sharper contrasts rending capitalism apart, and the workers' revolutionary consciousness. Statisticians may talk about the substantial number of petty-bourgeois in Germany (five million, including state employees), to try to represent fascism as "their" movement. The fact remains that the petty bourgeoisie is caught in a situation where it is crushed by the productive forces and thereby made to understand its own impotence. With social antagonisms polarized around the two main classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the petty bourgeoisie cannot even waver from one to the other, but instinctively gravitates towards whichever class guarantees his hierarchical position in the social scale. Rather than standing up to capitalism, the petty bourgeois, whether he be a starched-collar employee or shopkeeper, is naturally drawn to the social armor which he thinks solid enough to maintain "law and order", and respect for his own dignity, in opposition to workers' struggles without any perspective, and which only confuse the situation. But if the proletariat stands up and goes on the attack, the petty bourgeois can only keep his head down and accept the inevitable. To present fascism as the movement of the petty bourgeoisie is therefore to deny historical reality, by hiding its real breeding ground. Fascism channels all the contrasts that endanger capitalism, towards its consolidation. It contains the petty bourgeois' desire for calm, the exasperation of the starving unemployed, the blind hatred of the disoriented worker, and above all the capitalist's determination to eliminate any element that might disturb a militarized economy, and to reduce to the minimum the cost of maintaining a permanent army of unemployed.

In Germany, fascism has thus been built on the dual foundation of proletarian defeats and the imperious demands of an economy driven to the wall by a profound economic crisis. It grew especially under Bruning, while the workers' proved incapable of defending their wages from ferocious attacks, and the unemployed their dole from the blows of government decrees. The Nazis build their own cells in the factories and the construction sites, and did not even hesitate to make use of strikes for economic demands, convinced that these would not go too far thanks to the socialists and centrists; and just as the proletariat was half defeated, in November 1932 when Von Papen had just dismissed the socialist government of Prussia and was about to call elections, there broke out the public transport strike in Berlin, led by Nazis and communists. This strike divided the Berlin proletariat, because the communists proved incapable of expelling the fascists and widening the strike to make it a signal for revolutionary struggle. The disintegration of the German proletariat was accompanied on the by a development of fascism, turning the workers own weapons against them, and on the other by economic measures in favor of capitalism. (We should remember here that it was Von Papen who adopted the measures of support of industries which took on the unemployed, giving them the right to lower wages).

In short, Hitler's victory in 1933 did not need any violence: it was brought to fruition by the socialists and centrists, a normal result of the outmoded democratic form. Violence was only useful after the arrival of the fascists in power, not in response to a proletarian attack, but to prevent it forever. Disintegrated and dispersed by force, the proletariat was to become an active element in the consolidation of a society oriented towards war. This is why the fascists could not simply tolerate the class antagonisms, even though they were led by traitors, but on the contrary had to wipe out the slightest trace of the class struggle, in order to pulverize the workers and transform them into the blind instruments of German capitalism's imperialist ambitions.

We can consider 1933 as marking the phase of systematic fascist domination. The trade unions were wiped out, and replaced with the enterprise councils controlled by the government. In January 1934, this work was given the final juridical seal of approval: the Labor Charter, which regulates wages, forbids strikes, institutionalizes the omnipotence of the bosses and Nazi commissars, and completes the fusion of the centralized economy with the state.

In fact, whereas Italian capitalism took several years to give birth to its "corporatist state", the more developed German capitalism did so more rapidly. The backward state of the Italian economy, in comparison with the Reich, made it difficult to build a social structure capable of repressing automatically any workers' resistance: by contrast, Germany's economy is of a much higher type, and it was able immediately to discipline the social relations closely linked to the branches of production controlled by the state commissars.

In these conditions, the German proletariat - like the Italian - no longer has an independent existence. To recover its class consciousness, it will have to wait until new situations rip apart the straitjacket that capitalism has forced on it. In the meantime, this is certainly not the moment to sound off about utopian possibilities of carrying out illegal mass work in the fascist countries, which has already delivered many heroic comrades into the hands of the executioners of Rome and Berlin. We must consider the old organizations which claim to be proletarian dissolved by the grip of capitalism, and go on to a theoretical work of historical analysis. This is the precondition for the reconstruction of new organisms which will be able to lead the proletariat towards victory, through the living critique of the past.      

[1] The Revolutionary Union Organization was part of the Comintern

History of the workers' movement: 

Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: 

General and theoretical questions: