As we’ve been going through the always inspiring and illuminating writings of Bolshevik revolutionary and founder of the Red Army Leon Trotsky searching for works that can illustrate the need for multiracial union-based workers defense squads to beat back the rising tide of fascism in the US, we have been learning and re-learning so much that it is amazing. So many of the 1930s-era arguments against the creation of a workers militia to smash fascism are being repeated almost word-for-word every day on Twitter! We know that in the USA, thanks to advertising and television and its inducement of short-attention-spans in way too many workers here, the idea that something written about political events of 70 years ago could remain relevant in 2017 seems absurd. You want “NEW!” and “IMPROVED!” political science, right? But just as the works of Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein are still considered to be among the finest examples of scientific writing on their subjects to date, so it goes with political science. And as it is absolutely necessary for a doctor or a physicist to study the history of developments in her field of expertise in order to more fully understand the modern approaches and discoveries, in political science we can obtain a wealth of vitally important information from the writings of the top revolutionaries of the past two centuries and apply that information directly to today’s political challenges. It may come as a surprise, but the fundamental class structure of a capitalist state hasn’t changed much in the past 175 years or so: we still have the working class majority, a smaller petit-bourgeoisie (middle class small business owners) and a relatively tiny capitalist class to whom the majority of the national wealth is funneled year after year. The actors change but the roles do not; petit-bourgeois politicians and businesspeople have the same complaints and roles in 2017 as they had in 1917 – with relatively minor differences in scenery and plot. It’s like seeing a modern production of a Mozart opera, in which the clothing of the 1700s is replaced by hip-hop fashion: it looks very different but the music and lyrics remain the same. And we are sure that our very perceptive readers will find themselves surprised to hear Trotsky, writing in 1934 (in this case) making incisive comments which, if the names of the old politicians were replaced with current US politicians, you would imagine the article was written last week.
In political science, the famous warning that “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it” carries full force. We assure those of you who laugh at us for using the events of 1934 as a warning in 2017 that you ignore these works at your peril. The options for modern politicians – working class, petit-bourgeois and bourgeois – have NOT changed in the past century. If the working class does not overthrow capitalism in 2017, and the fascists are allowed to grow, the result will be largely the same as what occurred in Germany in 1933. The USA has a whole slew of would-be Hitlers jockeying to reprise his role in the 2017 production of “The Collapse of Bourgeois Democracy”. The working class has its own contingent of feckless, class-collaborationist fake-socialists and pro-capitalist trade union “leaders” eager to show what they can bring to the roles of Scheidemann and Noske. Today’s anarchists have their Bakunins, Berkmans, Makhnos and Goldmans; and the revolutionary socialists have their own up-and-coming Stalins, Kollontais, Lenins, Maos, Guevaras, and Trotskys. All of these actors will be vying for the hearts and minds of the masses of workers, without whom there will be no play.
“History repeats itself: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” We do not intend to fall into the same traps that our ancestors fell into; more than that – we do not intend to lead YOU into those same traps YOUR ancestors fell into! So that we do not do so, we must study the development of the various class forces in the past who were faced with essentially the same collapse of bourgeois democracy and essentially the same rise of fascism we are facing today around the capitalist world. In Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s the Communist Party refused to make a united front with the Social Democrats and form armed workers brigades capable of smashing Hitler’s gangs, paving the way for the rise of Nazi Germany. Fascism then rose in France as well, paving the political road to the wartime Nazi-collaborationist Vichy government. Why did bourgeois democracy fail throughout Europe in the 1930s? Was the rise of fascism inevitable? Is it inevitable now? By studying the historical record of the workers movement as it struggled to overcome the obstacles hurled into its path during the interwar period of 1918 -1939 we can answer these questions. These tragic errors of the 20th century need not – and must not be – repeated in the 21st century.
THE WORKERS’ MILITIA AND ITS OPPONENTS
From Whither France?, 1934
To struggle, it is necessary to conserve and strengthen the instrument and the means of struggle — organizations, the press, meetings, etc. Fascism [in France] threatens all of that directly and immediately. It is still too weak for the direct struggle for power, but it is strong enough to attempt to beat down the working-class organizations bit by bit, to temper its bands in its attacks, and to spread dismay and lack of confidence in their forces in the ranks of the workers.
Fascism finds unconscious helpers in all those who say that the “physical struggle” is impermissible or hopeless, and demand of Doumergue the disarmament of his fascist guard. Nothing is so dangerous for the proletariat, especially in the present situation, as the sugared poison of false hopes. Nothing increases the insolence of the fascists so much as “flabby pacificism” on the part of the workers’ organizations. Nothing so destroys the confidence of the middle classes in the working-class as temporizing, passivity, and the absence of the will to struggle.
Le Populaire [the Socialist Party paper] and especially l’Humanite [the Communist Party newspaper] write every day:
“the united front will not permit…”;
“the fascists will not dare”, etc.
These are phrases. It is necessary to say squarely to the workers, Socialists, and Communists: do not allow yourselves to be lulled by the phrases of superficial and irresponsible journalists and orators. It is a question of our heads and the future of socialism. It is not that we deny the importance of the united front. We demanded it when the leaders of both parties were against it. The united front opens up numerous possibilities, but nothing more. In itself, the united front decides nothing. Only the struggle of the masses decides. The united front will reveal its value when Communist detachments will come to the help of Socialist detachments and vice versa in the case of an attack by the fascist bands against Le Populaire or l’Humanite. But for that, proletarian combat detachments must exist and be educated, trained, and armed. And if there is not an organization of defense, i.e., a workers’ militia, Le Populaire or l’Humanite will be able to write as many articles as they like on the omnipotence of the united front, but the two papers will find themselves defenseless before the first well-prepared attack of the fascists.
We propose to make a critical study of the “arguments” and the “theories” of the opponents of the workers’ militia who are very numerous and influential in the two working-class parties.
But what is this “mass self-defense” without combat organizations, without specialized cadres, without arms? To give over the defense against fascism to unorganized and unprepared masses left to themselves would be to play a role incomparably lower than the role of Pontius Pilate. To deny the role of the militia is to deny the role of the vanguard. Then why a party? Without the support of the masses, the militia is nothing. But without organized combat detachments, the most heroic masses will be smashed bit by bit by the fascist gangs. It is nonsense to counterpose the militia to self-defense. The militia is an organ of self-defense.
This is not an argument but an insult. If the necessity for the defense of the workers’ organizations flows from the whole situation, how then can one not call for the creation of the militia? Perhaps they mean to say that the creation of a militia “provokes” fascist attacks and government repression. In that case, this is an absolutely reactionary argument. Liberalism has always said to the workers that by their class struggle they “provoke” the reaction.
The reformists repeated this accusation against the Marxists, the Mensheviks against the Bolsheviks. These accusations reduced themselves, in the final analysis, to the profound thought that if the oppressed do not balk, the oppressors will not be obliged to beat them. This is the philosophy of Tolstoy and Gandhi but never that of Marx and Lenin. If l’Humanite wants hereafter to develop the doctrine of “non-resistance to evil by violence”, it should take for its symbol not the hammer and sickle, emblem of the October Revolution, but the pious goat, which provides Gandhi with his milk.
This profound argument means that the workers must permit themselves to be slaughtered until the situation becomes revolutionary. Those who yesterday preached the “third period” do not want to see what is going on before their eyes. The question of arms itself has come forward only because the “peaceful”, “normal”, “democratic” situation has given way to a stormy, critical, and unstable situation which can transform itself into a revolutionary, as well as a counter-revolutionary, situation. This alternative depends above all on whether the advanced workers will allow themselves to be attacked with impunity and defeated bit by bit or will reply to every blow by two of their own, arousing the courage of the oppressed and uniting them around their banner. A revolutionary situation does not fall from the skies. It takes form with the active participation of the revolutionary class and its party.
The French Stalinists now argue that the militia did not safeguard the German proletariat from defeat. Only yesterday they completely denied any defeat in Germany and asserted that the policy of the German Stalinists was correct from beginning to end. Today, they see the entire evil in the German workers’ militia (Roter Frontkampferbund) [i.e., Red Front Fighters: Communist-led militia banned by the social- democratic government after the Berlin May Day riots of 1929]. Thus, from one error they fall into a diametrically opposite one, no less monstrous. The militia, in itself, does not settle the question. A correct policy is necessary. Meanwhile,the policy of Stalinism in Germany (“social fascism is the chief enemy”, the split in the trade unions, the flirtation with nationalism, putschism) fatally led to the isolation of the proletarian vanguard and to its shipwreck. With an utterly worthless strategy, no militia could have saved the situation.
It is nonsense to say that, in itself, the organization of the militia leads to adventures, provokes the enemy, replaces the political struggle by physical struggle, etc. In all these phrases, there is nothing but political cowardice.
The militia, as the strong organization of the vanguard, is in fact the surest defense against adventures, against individual terrorism, against bloody spontaneous explosions.
The militia is at the same time the only serious way of reducing to a minimum the civil war that fascism imposes upon the proletariat. Let the workers, despite the absence of a “revolutionary situation”, occasionally correct the “papa’s son” patriots in their own way, and the recruitment of new fascist bands will become incomparably more difficult.
But here the strategists, tangled in their own reasoning, bring forward against us still more stupefying arguments. We quote textually:
It is difficult to accumulate in a few lines greater confusion or more errors. It is impossible to defend oneself against the fascists because they are — “a product of the capitalist regime”. That means, we have to renounce the whole struggle, for all contemporary social evils are “products of the capitalist system”.
When the fascists kill a revolutionist, or burn down the building of a proletarian newspaper, the workers are to sigh philosophically: “Alas! Murders and arson are products of the capitalist system”, and go home with easy consciences. Fatalist prostration is substituted for the militant theory of Marx, to the sole advantage of the class enemy. The ruin of the petty bourgeoisie is, of course, the product of capitalism. The growth of the fascist bands is, in turn, a product of the ruin of the petty bourgeoisie. But on the other hand, the increase in the misery and the revolt of the proletariat are also products of capitalism, and the militia, in its turn, is the product of the sharpening of the class struggle. Why, then, for the “Marxists” of l’Humanite, are the fascist bands the legitimate product of capitalism and the workers’ militia the illegitimate product of — the Trotskyists? It is impossible to make head or tail of this.
How? Over the heads of human beings? The fascists in the different countries began with their revolvers and ended by destroying the whole “system” of workers’ organizations. How else to check the armed offensive of the enemy if not by an armed defense in order, in our turn, to go over to the offensive.
L’Humanite now admits defense in words, but only in the form of “mass self-defense”. The militia is harmful because, you see, it divides the combat detachments from the masses. But why then are there independent armed detachments among the fascists who are not cut off from the reactionary masses but who, on the contrary, arouse the courage and embolden those masses by their well-organized attacks? Or perhaps the proletarian mass is inferior in combative quality to the declassed petty bourgeoisie?
Hopelessly tangled, l’Humanite finally begins to hesitate: it appears that mass self-defense requires the creation of special “self-defense groups”. In place of the rejected militia, special groups or detachments are proposed. It would seem at first sight that there is a difference only in the name. Certainly, the name proposed by l’Humanite means nothing. One can speak of “mass self-defense” but it is impossible to speak of “self-defense groups” since the purpose of the groups is not to defend themselves but the workers’ organizations. However, it is not, of course, a question of the name. The “self-defense groups”, according to l’Humanite , must renounce the use of arms in order not to fall into “putschism”. These sages treat the working-class like an infant who must not be allowed to hold a razor in his hands. Razors, moreover, are the monopoly, as we know, of the Camelots du Roi [French monarchists grouped around Charles Maurras’ newspaper, Action Francaise, which was violently anti-democratic], who are a legitimate “product of capitalism” and who, with the aid of razors, have overthrown the “system” of democracy. In any case, how are the “self-defense groups” going to defend themselves against the fascist revolvers? “Ideologically”, of course. In other words: they can hide themselves. Not having what they require in their hands, they will have to seek “self-defense” in their feet. And the fascists will in the meanwhile sack the workers’ organizations with impunity. But if the proletariat suffers a terrible defeat, it will at any rate not have been guilty of “putschism”. This fraudulent chatter, parading under the banner of “Bolshevism”, arouses only disgust and loathing.
[NOTE: “The Third Period”: According to the Stalinist schema, this was the “final period of capitalism”, the period of its immediately impending demise and replacement by soviets. The period is notable for the Communists’ ultra-left and adventurist tactics, notably the concept of social-fascism.]
During the “third period” of happy memory — when the strategists of l’Humanite were afflicted with barricade delirium, “conquered” the streets every day and stamped as “social fascist” everyone who did not share their extravagances — we predicted: “The moment these gentlemen burn the tips of their fingers, they will become the worst opportunists.” That prediction has now been completely confirmed. At a time when within the Socialist Party the movement in favor of the militia is growing and strengthening, the leaders of the so-called Communist Party run for the hose to cool down the desire of the advanced workers to organize themselves in fighting columns. Could one imagine a more demoralizing or more damning work than this?
One can only congratulate comrades who wish to protect the practical side of the business from inquisitive eyes and ears. But it would be much too naive to think that a militia could be created unseen and secretly within four walls. We need tens, and later hundreds, of thousands of fighters. They will come only if millions of men and women workers, and behind them the peasants, understand the necessity for the militia and create around the volunteers an atmosphere of ardent sympathy and active support. Conspiratorial care can and must envelop only the technical aspect of the matter. The political campaign must be openly developed, in meetings, factories, in the streets and on the public squares.
The fundamental cadres of the militia must be the factory workers grouped according to their place of work, known to each other and able to protect their combat detachments against the provocations of enemy agents far more easily and more surely than the most elevated bureaucrats. Conspirative general staffs without an open mobilization of the masses will at the moment of danger remain impotently suspended in midair. Every working-class organization has to plunge into the job. In this question, there can be no line of demarcation between the working-class parties and the trade unions. Hand in hand, they must mobilize the masses. The success of the workers’ militia will then be fully assured.
In this objection, everything is piled up to frighten the workers. On the one hand, our sages identify the arms of the fascists with the armament of the state. On the other hand, they turn towards the state and demand that it disarm the fascists. Remarkable logic! In fact, their position is false in both cases. In France, the fascists are still far from controlling the state. On February 6, they entered in armed conflict with the state police. That is why it is false to speak of cannon and tanks when it is a matter of the immediate armed struggle against the fascists. The fascists, of course, are richer than we. It is easier for them to buy arms. But the workers are more numerous, more determined, more devoted, when they are conscious of a firm revolutionary leadership.
In addition to other sources, the workers can arm themselves at the expense of the fascists by systematically disarming them.
This is now one of the most serious forms of the struggle against fascism. When workers’ arsenals will begin to stock up at the expense of the fascist arms depots, the banks and trusts will be more prudent in financing the armament of their murderous guards. It would even be possible in this case — but in this case only — that the alarmed authorities would really begin to prevent the arming of the fascists in order not to provide an additional sources of arms for the workers. We have known for a long time that only a revolutionary tactic engenders, as a by-product, “reforms” or concessions from the government.
But how to disarm the fascists? Naturally, it is impossible to do so with newspaper articles alone. Fighting squads must be created. An intelligence service must be established. Thousands of informers and friendly helpers will volunteer from all sides when they realize that the business has been seriously undertaken by us. It requires a will to proletarian action.
But the arms of the fascists are, of course, not the only source. In France, there are more than one million organized workers. Generally speaking, this number is small. But it is entirely sufficient to make a beginning in the organization of a workers’ militia. If the parties and unions armed only a tenth of their members, that would already be a force of 100,000 men. There is no doubt whatever that the number of volunteers who would come forward on the morrow of a “united front” appeal for a workers’ militia would far exceed that number. The contributions of the parties and unions, collections and voluntary subscriptions, would within a month or two make it possible to assure the arming of 100,000 to 200,000 working-class fighters. The fascist rabble would immediately sink its tail between its legs. The whole perspective of development would become incomparably more favorable.
To invoke the absence of arms or other objective reasons to explain why no attempt has been made up to now to create a militia, is to fool oneself and others. The principle obstacle — one can say the only obstacle — has its roots in the conservative and passive character of the leaders of the workers’ organizations. The skeptics who are the leaders do not believe in the strength of the proletariat. They put their hope in all sorts of miracles from above instead of giving a revolutionary outlet to the energies pulsing below. The socialist workers must compel their leaders to pass over immediately to the creation of the workers’ militia or else give way to younger, fresher forces.
A strike is inconceivable without propaganda and without agitation. It is also inconceivable without pickets who, when they can, use persuasion, but when obliged, use force. The strike is the most elementary form of the class struggle which always combines, in varying proportions, “ideological” methods with physical methods. The struggle against fascism is basically a political struggle which needs a militia just as the strike needs pickets. Basically, the picket is the embryo of the workers’ militia. He who thinks of renouncing “physical” struggle must renounce all struggle, for the spirit does not live without flesh.
Following the splendid phrase of the great military theoretician Clausewitz, war is the continuation of politics by other means. This definition also fully applies to civil war. It is impermissable to oppose one to the other since it is impossible to check at will the political struggle when it transforms itself, by force of inner necessity, into a political struggle.
The duty of a revolutionary party is to foresee in time the inescapability of the transformation of politics into open armed conflict, and with all its forces to prepare for that moment just as the ruling classes are preparing.
The militia detachments for defense against fascism are the first step on the road to the arming of the proletariat, not the last. Our slogan is:
The workers’ militia must, in the final analysis, embrace all the toilers. To fulfill this program completely would be possible only in a workers’ state into whose hands would pass all the means of production and, consequently, also all the means of destruction — i.e., all the arms and the factories which produce them.
However, it is impossible to arrive at a workers’ state with empty hands. Only political invalids like Renaudel can speak of a peaceful, constitutional road to socialism. The constitutional road is cut by trenches held by the fascist bands. There are not a few trenches before us. The bourgeoisie will not hesitate to resort to a dozen coups d’etat aided by the police and the army, to prevent proletariat from coming to power.
[NOTE: Pierre Renaudel (1871-1935): Prior to WWI, socialist leader Jean Jaures’ righthand man and editor of l’Humanite. During the war, a right-wing social patriot. In the 1930s, he and Marcel Deat led revisionist “neo-socialist” tendency. Voted down at the July 1933 convention, this tendency split from the Socialist Party. After the fascist riots of February 6, 1934, most of the “neos” joined the Radical Party, the main party of French capitalism.]
A workers’ socialist state can be created only by a victorious revolution.
Every revolution is prepared by the march of economic and political development, but it is always decided by open armed conflicts between hostile classes. A revolutionary victory can become possible only as a result of long political agitation, a lengthy period of education and organization of the masses.
But the armed conflict itself must likewise be prepared long in advance.
The advanced workers must know that they will have to fight and win a struggle to the death. They must reach out for arms, as a guarantee of their emancipation.
[Source: https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/1944/1944-fas.htm#p1 Corrected and emphasis added in bold type by IWPCHI]