Against "national communism": why anti-EUism is not left-wing

Submitted by Matthew on 26 October, 2011 - 1:07

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 ‚Äúnational communism‚ÄĚ - 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 ‚Äúleft‚ÄĚ nationalist ‚ÄúNo2EU‚ÄĚ project...

In response to the fascist slogan of the ‚Äúpeople‚Äôs revolution‚ÄĚ to win ‚Äúnational liberation‚ÄĚ for Germany, the German Communists said that they too supported these things. In ‚ÄúThaelmann and the People‚Äôs Revolution‚ÄĚ (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‚Äôs revolution instead of the proletarian revolution. The fascist Strasser [leader of the ‚Äėleft‚Äô Nazis] says 95 percent of the people are interested in the revolution, consequently it is not a class revolution but a people‚Äôs 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 ‚Äúpeople,‚ÄĚ into the ‚Äúnation,‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôs revolution lulls the petty bourgeoisie as well as the broad masses of the workers, reconciles them to the bourgeois-hierarchical structure of the ‚Äúpeople‚ÄĚ and retards their liberation.

In ‚ÄúThe Programme of Peace‚ÄĚ (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 ‚Äúautonomous‚ÄĚ tariffs, ‚Äúnational‚ÄĚ currencies, ‚Äúnational‚ÄĚ 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 ‚Äď without monarchies and standing armies ‚Äď 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 ‚Äúdanger‚ÄĚ 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 ‚Äúautonomous‚ÄĚ national states, but for the conversion of the imperialist state trust into a European Republican Federation‚Ķ

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‚Ķ 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 ‚Äúsocialism‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúdemocracy,‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôs largest state. Trotsky wrote ‚ÄúAgainst ‚Äėnational communism‚Äô!‚ÄĚ in response.

Ideas have their own logic. The [so called] people‚Äôs revolution is put forth [by the Stalinists] as a subordinate method of ‚Äúnational liberation.‚ÄĚ

Such a statement of the question cleared a way to the party for purely chauvinistic tendencies‚Ķ you [the Nazis] have a people‚Äôs 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 ‚Äúred‚ÄĚ one through and through.

[Stalinist leader] Thaelmann put the idea that ‚ÄúGermany is today a ball in the hands of the Entente.‚ÄĚ It is in consequence primarily a matter of national liberation. But in a certain sense, France and Italy also, and even England, are ‚Äúballs‚ÄĚ in the hands of the United States. The dependence of Europe upon America‚Ķ has a far deeper significance for the development of the European revolution than the dependence of Germany upon the Entente. This is why ‚Äď by the way ‚Äď the slogan of the Soviet United States of Europe, and not the single bare slogan, ‚ÄúDown with the Versailles Peace,‚ÄĚ 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 ‚Äúball‚ÄĚ 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. ‚ÄúThe main enemy is at home!‚ÄĚ 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 ‚Äúrevolutionary‚ÄĚ war. They agree to accept ‚Äď for the time being, in words ‚Äď the ‚Äúpeople‚Äôs revolution,‚ÄĚ if it can serve as a means of mobilizing the workers for their ‚Äúrevolutionary‚ÄĚ 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.

‚ÄúThis means that you recommend to us to imitate the pacifism of the Social Democracy‚ÄĚ‚Äô 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 ‚Äúpeople‚Äôs‚ÄĚ revolution, as a means for revolutionary war, is something altogether different even directly opposite‚Ķ

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 ‚Äúnational liberation‚ÄĚ 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.


Submitted by guenter on Thu, 27/10/2011 - 02:35

u guys know very well, that this article from trotsky 1915 is not good 2 use 2 argue for ur support of an nowadys united capitalist/moreover imperialist europe. u know that trotsky later raised the slogan for the "united socialist states of europe"

Submitted by AWL on Thu, 27/10/2011 - 09:24


But our point is not European Union = Socialist United States of Europe. It's that our response to the capitalist/imperialist EU needs to be linking up workers across Europe to fight the bosses, for the levelling up of democratic and social rights and for the Socialist United States. Agitation which is anti-EU as such, rather than anti-capitalist, cuts against that by diverting workers into nationalism.

It's the same point Trotsky is making when he argues that if the Kaiser's Germany had united Europe, socialists would not necessarily demand to go back to independent states; and that the answer to the Versailles Treaty was not simply "down with it" (which is what the Nazis said) but "Soviet United States".


Submitted by guenter on Sun, 30/10/2011 - 00:25

a united capitalist europe under german domination will make germany such a strong power, that its naive to argue, let capitalism first unite europe, and later we can simply change it into an socialist one!
the way 2 use a united europe and dominate it, is the 3rd time in history, german imperialism tries 2 rule the world. the last 2 times was ww1 and ww2.
socialists who support capitalism uniting europe, whether hold a counter-rev. position or are blind enough, 2 admit political suicide.
i think, trotski¬īs book about "europe and USA" is more helpful here than the texts u consider.
of course we have 2 argue 4 the united socialist states of europe.

Submitted by AWL on Tue, 01/11/2011 - 11:38


In "The Program of Peace", Trotsky argues that even if the Kaiser had united Europe, it would not necessarily make sense to argue to go back to separate nation states. And isn't that much more the case with today's EU, which is not being united by German military force but by (bourgeois, bureaucratic) mutual agreement? Of course, you can argue Trotsky was wrong. But at least register what he argued.

What are the substantive issues?

You argue from an anti-German imperialist point of view. That does you credit. But what about us here in Britain? Should we fight for the "independence" of "our" imperialist state? Isn't this a blind alley from a working-class point of view?

And where there is not an issue like national self-determination (which clearly there isn't for the EU member states, even the weaker ones), why would we oppose capitalist integration, any more than we respond to two companies merging by saying "No, don't merge, this will make the capitalists stronger". In the case of the merger we respond by saying "Unite workers across the new company to fight". Same approach here.

Equally, we don't "support" mergers! And we don't support the EU. We express no confidence in it, we wouldn't vote for it and so on. But why would we want to advocate going back to separate nation states?


Submitted by guenter on Tue, 01/11/2011 - 22:55

ok, what u say has some logic. but still iam not sure if u are right, cause i think u underrate how the weaker EU-states are dominated by germany. my prob is once again, that within such complicated subjects i cant express what i mean as well as i could in my language.
let me say, i read an interesting book about "europe"strategies -and worldpower strategies of the german capital since the kaiser¬īs time, and i wished i could explain that now in english, but i cant. but iam convinced that germany will try 2 grasp worldpower again by dominating europe.
and perhaps the british conservatives, who strongly opposed a united germany, had been smarter than some trot groups, who didnt saw what a catastrophy that was. i think u guys didnt see that either, cause u go so far -we had that controverse b4- to equate the eastgerman stalinism 100% with fascism, what is dangerous nonsense. and such stalinist states, how worse ever, have been invisible proceeding-partners between the westgerman workingclass &"their" capitalists, cause they had 2 proof all the time 2 be much better than "socialism" and so they made more conceedings as they usually do. immediately after the breakdown of eastgermany, the salleries in westgermany did go down, the prices 4 anything increased, rascism increased,neonazism increased, the social cut-offs took place, the jobless got terrorised, the houses of asylum-searchin¬īpeople burned and so on.
u shall see the difference, if capitalism or socialism does unite europe or just 2 countries!
taking over eastgermany was a mighty step forward 4 german capital. a united germany did argue for a military role in the world, what a divided germany never could.
next step is europe, than the world.
once there is a capitalist united europe, a rev. in a united europe will be much more difficult than now, where its not impossible 2 happen in greece next.

Submitted by guenter on Thu, 03/11/2011 - 03:26

Should we fight for the "independence" of "our" imperialist state?

-usually not.
can there be exceptions from that rule? in the past i said a clear no, but just now iam thinking it over.
cause in greece, which might go back to the drachma and out of the eurozone, the people now say: "better poor with the old weak currency &our own decisions, than poor with the euro and getting anything dictated from germany or the EU". Dont that make sense?

Submitted by AWL on Fri, 18/11/2011 - 11:30

Hi Guenter,

Sorry about the delay in replying. If it's true that the EU = German domination of weaker nations in Europe, then I ask again, where does that leave imperialist states like Britain and France? Would you theorise the EU as a *joint* imperialist cartel of the stronger nations to dominate the weaker ones? In terms of the EU's relationship to countries outside its borders, eg in Africa, I can see some logic in that. But then why would we favour the cartel breaking up to create rival European imperialisms clashing over who will dominate? In terms of the weaker nations within the EU, the idea of domination seems less convincing. Even in the capitalist/bureaucratic EU there has been some tendency towards levelling up, eg Spanish wages have risen towards German wages. It's not clear that any nation in Europe is "dominated" by Germany in such a sense that you could raise the question of national liberation struggle.

Yes, the unification of Germany was followed by a right-wing offensive, because of Stalinism's discrediting of socialism and bourgeois triumphalism all along the line. But it's hard to see on what basis you could oppose reunification if the mass of the East German people wanted it. I suppose you could argue it was something like the Czech Germans voting to secede to Nazi Germany in the 30s, but that doesn't seem like a very plausible analogy to me.

In terms of Greece, the assumption you are making is that a Greek government outside the Eurozone would have qualitatively more room to manoeuvre. But that is almost certainly not true. Outside the Eurozone is not a calm harbour, but the stormy ocean of the world market! And certainly in terms of class struggle, the Greek working class has a better chance of extracting concessions from within the Eurozone than from a very poor, very under-pressure Greek government outside it. Which isn't to say we should give into the blackmail "Do not struggle, or we'll have to leave the Eurozone". Of course not. The workers should take no responsibility for the Euro; we should fight whatever the consequences for the EU. But that's a different point from *advocating* Greece leaves as one of your demands.

Of course it's true that a workers' government in Greece would almost certainly be thrown out of the Eurozone - but surely it would pose it as "The European bourgeoisies are throwing us out; we call on the workers of other European countries to take power and rebuild a different, socialist Europe together with us" not "We are leaving". You wouldn't hesitate to take any measure even if that leads to being thrown out of the Eurozone, but it doesn't follow leaving is your demand. And again anyway the other way round doesn't work: Greece leaving the Eurozone under capitalism would not provided any improvement for the Greek workers.


Submitted by guenter on Fri, 18/11/2011 - 20:36

let me think it over; its an multifaced subject. ur arguments make sense. perhaps i was infected by a strong campaign of the greek CP 4 leavin¬īthe eurozone (there is an stalinist website in germany, where i daily can read the latest statements of the KKE.)
but about german domination... wasnt it clearly to see right now: when papandreu talked about an referendum -with what blackmailin¬īintentions ever-, then merkel &sarkozy quickly made it clear, that this dont has to happen and that papandreu has to go now. this was an german-french decision via EU;, the greek parliament here only functioning as their pupett on a string.

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