In the 1930s, when the Stalinised Communist movement responded to the rise of National Socialism in part by competing to out-do its nationalism, Leon Trotsky explained what was wrong with that “national communism” - developing themes he had written on earlier, during World War One. We publish extracts below.
Trotsky's explanations are relevant today, with such things on the left as the Socialist Party promoting the “left” nationalist “No2EU” project...
In response to the fascist slogan of the “people’s revolution” to win “national liberation” for Germany, the German Communists said that they too supported these things. In “Thaelmann and the People’s Revolution” (1931), Trotsky responded. His arguments are relevant to arguing against similar populist ideas put forward in a left-wing framework today.
It is understood that every great revolution is a people’s or a national revolution, in the sense that it unites around the revolutionary class all the virile and creative forces of the nation and reconstructs the nation around a new core.
But this is not a slogan; it is a sociological description of the revolution, which requires, moreover, precise and concrete definition. As a slogan, it is inane and charlatanism, market competition with the fascists, paid for at the price of injecting confusion into the minds of the workers…
Now the new turn: the people’s revolution instead of the proletarian revolution. The fascist Strasser [leader of the ‘left’ Nazis] says 95 percent of the people are interested in the revolution, consequently it is not a class revolution but a people’s revolution. Thaelmann [German Stalinist leader] sings in chorus. In reality, the worker-Communist should say to the fascist worker: of course, 95 percent of the population, if not 98 percent, is exploited by finance capital. But this exploitation is organized hierarchically: there are exploiters, there are subexploiters, sub-subexploiters, etc. Only thanks to this hierarchy do the superexploiters keep in subjection the majority of the nation.
In order that the nation should indeed be able to reconstruct itself around a new class core, it must be reconstructed ideologically and this can be achieved only if the proletariat does not dissolve itself into the “people,” into the “nation,” but on the contrary develops a program of its proletarian revolution and compels the petty bourgeoisie to choose between two regimes.
The slogan of the people’s revolution lulls the petty bourgeoisie as well as the broad masses of the workers, reconciles them to the bourgeois-hierarchical structure of the “people” and retards their liberation.
In “The Programme of Peace” (1915), Trotsky had argued that even a bourgeois united Europe achieved by militarism would be a partial step forward, and socialists should not want a return to more isolated national states.
Let us for a moment grant that German militarism succeeds in actually carrying out the compulsory half-union of Europe, just as Prussian militarism once achieved the half-union of Germany, what would then be the central slogan of the European proletariat?
Would it be the dissolution of the forced European coalition and the return of all peoples under the roof of isolated national states? Or the restoration of “autonomous” tariffs, “national” currencies, “national” social legislation, and so forth? Certainly not.
The programme of the European revolutionary movement would then be: the destruction of the compulsory antidemocratic form of the coalition, with the preservation and furtherance of its foundations, in the form of complete annihilation of tariff barriers, the unification of legislation, above all of labour laws, etc. In other words, the slogan of the United States of Europe – without monarchies and standing armies – would under the indicated circumstances become the unifying and guiding slogan of the European revolution...
Precisely in case of a stalemate in the [First World] War, [it could be argued from a bourgeois point of view], the indispensability of an economic and military agreement among the European great powers would come to the fore against weak and backward peoples, but above all, of course, against their own working masses. [This] would mean the establishment of an imperialist trust of European States, a predatory share-holding association. And this perspective is on occasion adduced unjustifiably as proof of the “danger” of the slogan of the United States of Europe, whereas in reality this is the most graphic proof of its realistic and revolutionary significance. If the capitalist states of Europe succeeded in merging into an imperialist trust, this would be a step forward as compared with the existing situation, for it would first of all create a unified, all-European material base for the working class movement.
The proletariat would in this case have to fight not for the return to “autonomous” national states, but for the conversion of the imperialist state trust into a European Republican Federation…
To view the perspectives of the social revolution within a national framework is to succumb to the same national narrowness that forms the content of social-patriotism… Generally speaking, it must not be forgotten that in social-patriotism there is active, in addition to the most vulgar reformism, a national revolutionary messianism, which regards its national state as chosen for introducing to humanity “socialism” or “democracy,” be it on the ground of its industrial development or of its democratic form and revolutionary conquests. (If a completely triumphant revolution were actually conceivable within the limits of a single, better prepared nation, this messianism, bound up with the program of national defence, would have its relative historical justification. But in reality, it does not have it.)
Defending the national basis of the revolution with such methods as undermine the international connections of the proletariat, really amounts to undermining the revolution, which cannot begin otherwise than on the national basis, but which cannot be completed on that basis in view of the present economic and military-political interdependence of the European states, which has never been so forcefully revealed as in this war.
The slogan, the United States of Europe, gives expression to this interdependence, which will directly and immediately set the conditions for the concerted action of the European proletariat in the revolution.
In 1931, the German Stalinists supported the Nazi-initiated referendum to overthrow the Social Democratic government of Prussia, Germany’s largest state. Trotsky wrote “Against ‘national communism’!” in response.
Ideas have their own logic. The [so called] people’s revolution is put forth [by the Stalinists] as a subordinate method of “national liberation.”
Such a statement of the question cleared a way to the party for purely chauvinistic tendencies… you [the Nazis] have a people’s revolution and we have one, too; you have national liberation as the highest criterion, and we have the same; you have a war against Western capitalism and we promise the same; you have a plebiscite [the Prussian referendum], and we have a plebiscite, still better, a “red” one through and through.
[Stalinist leader] Thaelmann put the idea that “Germany is today a ball in the hands of the Entente.” It is in consequence primarily a matter of national liberation. But in a certain sense, France and Italy also, and even England, are “balls” in the hands of the United States. The dependence of Europe upon America… has a far deeper significance for the development of the European revolution than the dependence of Germany upon the Entente. This is why – by the way – the slogan of the Soviet United States of Europe, and not the single bare slogan, “Down with the Versailles Peace,” is the proletarian answer to the convulsions of the European continent.
But all these questions nevertheless occupy second place. Our policy is determined not by the fact that Germany is a “ball” in the hands of the Entente, but primarily by the fact that the German proletariat which is split up, powerless, and oppressed, is a ball in the hands of the German bourgeoisie. “The main enemy is at home!” Karl Liebknecht [founder of the German Communist Party] taught at one time. Or perhaps you have forgotten this, friends? Or perhaps this teaching is no longer any good?...
[Nationalists attracted to the Communist Party] look favourably upon the cause of the Communist Party as the direct continuation of the Hohenzollern war [World War 1]. To them, the victims of the hideous imperialist slaughter remain heroes who have fallen for the freedom of the German people. They are ready to call a new war for Alsace-Lorraine and Eastern Prussia a “revolutionary” war. They agree to accept – for the time being, in words – the “people’s revolution,” if it can serve as a means of mobilizing the workers for their “revolutionary” war.
Their whole program lies in the idea of revanche [revenge]: if tomorrow it will seem to them that the same aim can be achieved by another road, they will shoot the revolutionary proletariat in the back… By the cheap phrase of revolutionary war, the Stalinist bureaucracy attracts dozens of adventurists, but repulses hundreds of thousands, and millions of Social Democratic, Christian, and non-party workers.
“This means that you recommend to us to imitate the pacifism of the Social Democracy”’ some particularly profound theoretician of the new course will object. No, we are least of all inclined to imitation, even of the moods of the working class; but we must take them into consideration.
Only by correctly estimating the moods of the broad masses of the proletariat can they be brought to the revolution. But the bureaucracy, imitating the phraseology of petty-bourgeois nationalism, ignores the actual moods of the workers who do not want war, who cannot want it, and who are repelled by the military fanfaronades of [Stalinism].
Marxism, of course, cannot fail to take into consideration the possibility of revolutionary war in the event that the proletariat seizes power. But this is far removed from converting a historical probability, which may be forced upon us by the course of events after the seizure of power, into a fighting political slogan prior to the seizure of power. A revolutionary war, as something forced upon us under certain conditions, as a consequence of the proletarian victory, is one thing. A “people’s” revolution, as a means for revolutionary war, is something altogether different even directly opposite…
The revolution, to us, is not a subordinate means for war against the West but on the contrary a means for avoiding wars, in order to end them once and for all. We fight the Social Democracy not by ridiculing its striving for peace, which is inherent in every toiler, but by revealing the falsity of its pacifism, because capitalist society, which is rescued every day by the Social Democracy, is inconceivable without war.
The “national liberation” of Germany lies, to our mind, not in a war with the West, but in a proletarian revolution embracing Central as well as Western Europe, and uniting it with Eastern Europe in the form of a Soviet United States. Only such a statement of the question can unite the working class and make it a center of attraction for the despairing petty-bourgeois masses.
In order for the proletariat to be able to dictate its will to modern society, its party must not be ashamed of being a proletarian party and of speaking its own language, not the language of national revanche, but the language of international revolution.