Leon Trotsky: What Is National Socialism? – a relevant text for today?

Leon Trotsky: What Is National Socialism? – a relevant text for today?

A very interesting text, which also has a number of parallels to the current situation and the emergence of right-wing extremist parties and politicians, is Leon Trotsky’s „Portrait of National Socialism/What is Nationalsocialism?“. Although Trotsky has a very rigid and coarse-carved class scheme in which the working class would automatically be immune to fascism and, moreover, could only have communism as its real goal and must thirst for a Bolshevik totalitarian one-party dictatorship, a communist economy of scarcity, red terror and show trials, the petty bourgeoisie and the middle class tended to be reactionary and the real basis of fascism, the text is a good counterbalance to the American middle-class ideology, which also spread in the West in the post-war period, according to which the middle classes per se or tended to be mainly liberal, cosmopolitan and democratic. Lipset already spoke of fascism as a radicalization of the middle class. Nevertheless, the tendency is correct, although one should look at the working class and the middle class in a more differentiated way, as there are not only losers due to technological progress, but also new professions, new workers and new middle classes,which Trotsky briefly conceded, but then ignored again as well as shifts within the big business and upper classes are coming and the petty bourgeoisie and the middle classes are by no means always afraid of the modern age. Trotsky is equally wrong in analyzing Hitler’s attitudes towards Christianity and Judaism. Since he primarily thinks in the traditional Marxist categories of wage labor / capital, despite all his other ideological criticism of National Socialism and fascism, despite his distinction between Mussolini and Hitler, he does not understand the transition from traditional to liquidatorial anti-Semitism of the NSDAP, which made the difference to Italian and Spanish Fascism. But at that time it was also hard to imagine that a Holocaust, an industrial genocide, would happen. At best, people expected some pogroms or the discrimination that had been common until then. Trotsky also warned against seeing Hitler as just another right-wing screamer, assessing the SPD as social fascists and the real main enemy of the KPD, and underestimating the immanent danger of fascism, as the KPD and the Communist International did at the time. The text is also a good counterbalance to the over-pathologizing of the personality of right-wing radical leaders without wanting to see the socio-political context and the historical and economic developments of the respective time, which try to explain everything primarily through the person, although this of course also plays a role and Trotsky sums up this dialectic between leader and mass base quite aptly: „Not every desperate petty bourgeoisie could become a Hitler, but a bit of Hitler is in each of them.“

Leon Trotsky What Is National Socialism?

(June 1933)

Written in exile in Turkey, June 10, 1933.
Translated from Russian and from German.
Appeared in several versions in various journals, first being The Modern Thinker, October 1933.
Last two paragraphs added as postscript November 2, 1933.

Naive minds think that the office of kingship lodges in the king himself, in his ermine cloak and his crown, in his flesh and bones. As a matter of fact, the office of kingship is an interrelation between people. The king is king only because the interests and prejudices of millions of people are refracted through his person. When the flood of development sweeps away these interrelations, then the king appears to be only a washed-out man with a flabby lower lip. He who was once called Alfonso XIII could discourse upon this from fresh impressions. [1]

The leader by will of the people differs from the leader by will of God in that the former is compelled to clear the road for himself or, at any rate, to assist the conjuncture of events in discovering him. Nevertheless, the leader is always a relation between people, the individual supply to meet the collective demand. The controversy over Hitler’s personality becomes the sharper the more the secret of his success is sought in himself. In the meantime, another political figure would be difficult to find that is in the same measure the focus of anonymous historic forces. Not every exasperated petty bourgeois could have become Hitler, but a particle of Hitler is lodged in every exasperated petty bourgeois.

The rapid growth of German capitalism prior to the First World War by no means signified a simple destruction of the middle classes. Although it ruined some layers of the petty bourgeoisie it created others anew: around the factories, artisans and shopkeepers; within the factories, technicians and executives. But while preserving themselves and even growing numerically – the old and the new petty bourgeoisie compose a little less than one-half of the German nation – the middle classes have lost the last shadow of independence. They live on the periphery of large-scale industry and the banking system, and they live off the crumbs from the table of the monopolies and cartels, and off the spiritual alms of their theorists and professional politicians.

The defeat in 1918 raised a wall in the path of German imperialism. External dynamics changed to internal. The war passed over into revolution. Social Democracy, which aided the Hohenzollerns in bringing the war to its tragic conclusion, did not permit the proletariat to bring the revolution to its conclusion. The Weimar democracy spent fourteen years finding interminable excuses for its own existence. The Communist Party called the workers to a new revolution but proved incapable of leading it. The German proletariat passed through the rise and collapse of war, revolution, parliamentarism, and pseudo-Bolshevism. At the time when the old parties of the bourgeoisie had drained themselves to the dregs, the dynamic power of the working class also found itself sapped.

The postwar chaos hit the artisans, the peddlers, and the civil employees no less cruelly than the workers. The economic crisis in agriculture was ruining the peasantry. The decay of the middle strata did not mean that they were made into proletarians, inasmuch as the proletariat itself was casting out a gigantic army of chronically unemployed. The pauperization of the petty bourgeoisie, barely covered by ties and socks of artificial silk, eroded all official creeds and first of all the doctrine of democratic parliamentarism.

The multiplicity of parties, the icy fever of elections, the interminable changes of ministries aggravated the social crisis by creating a kaleidoscope of barren political combinations. In the atmosphere brought to white heat by war, defeat, reparations, inflation, occupation of the Ruhr, crisis, need, and despair, the petty bourgeoisie rose up against all the old parties that had bamboozled i.e. The sharp grievances of small proprietors never out of bankruptcy, of their university sons without posts and clients, of their daughters without dowries and suitors, demanded order and an iron hand.

The banner of National Socialism was raised by upstarts from the lower and middle commanding ranks of the old army. Decorated with medals for distinguished service, commissioned and noncommissioned officers could not believe that their heroism and sufferings for the Fatherland had not only come to naught, but also gave them no special claims to gratitude. Hence their hatred of the revolution and the proletariat. At the same time, they did not want to reconcile themselves to being sent by the bankers, industrialists, and ministers back to the modest posts of bookkeepers, engineers, postal clerks, and schoolteachers. Hence their “socialism.” At the Yser and under Verdun they had learned to risk themselves and others, and to speak the language of command, which powerfully overawed the petty bourgeois behind the lines. [2] Thus these people became leaders.

At the start of his political career, Hitler stood out only because of his big temperament a voice much louder than others, and an intellectual mediocrity much more self-assured. He did not bring into the movement any ready-made program, if one disregards the insulted soldier’s thirst for vengeance. Hitler began with grievances and complaints about the Versailles terms, the high cost of living, the lack of respect for a meritorious non-commissioned officer, and the plots of bankers and journalists of the Mosaic persuasion. There were in the country plenty of ruined and drowning people with scars and fresh bruises. They all wanted to thump with their fists on the table. This Hitler could do better than others. True, he knew not how to cure the evil. But his harangues resounded, now like commands and now like prayers addressed to inexorable fate. Doomed classes, like those fatally ill, never tire of making variations on their plaints nor of listening to consolations. Hitler’s speeches were all attuned to this pitch. Sentimental formlessness, absence of disciplined thought ignorance along with gaudy erudition – all these minuses turned into pluses. They supplied him with the possibility of uniting all types of dissatisfaction in the beggar’s bowl of National Socialism, and of leading the mass in the direction in which it pushed him. In the mind of the agitator was preserved, from among his early improvisations, whatever had met with approbation. His political thoughts were the fruits of oratorical acoustics. That is how the selection of slogans went on. That is how the program was consolidated. That is how the “leader” took shape out of the raw material.

Mussolini from the very beginning reacted more consciously to social materials than Hitler, to whom the police mysticism of a Metternich [3] is much closer than the political algebra of Machiavelli. Mussolini is mentally bolder and more cynical. It may be said that the Roman atheist only utilizes religion as he does the police and the courts, while his Berlin colleague really believes in the infallibility of the Church of Rome. During the time when the future Italian dictator considered Marx as “our common immortal teacher,” he defended not unskillfully the theory which sees in the life of contemporary society first of all the reciprocal action of two classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. True, Mussolini wrote in 1914, there lie between them very numerous intermediate layers which seemingly form “a joining web of the human collective”; but “during periods of crisis, the intermediate classes gravitate, depending upon their interests and ideas, to one or the other of the basic classes.” A very important generalization! Just as scientific medicine equips one with the possibility not only of curing the sick but of sending the healthy to meet their forefathers by the shortest route, so the scientific analysis of class relations, predestined by its creator for the mobilization of the proletariat, enabled Mussolini, after he had jumped into the opposing camp, to mobilize the middle classes against the proletariat. Hitler accomplished the same feat in translating the methodology of fascism into the language of German mysticism.

The bonfires which burn the impious literature of Marxism light up brilliantly the class nature of National Socialism. While the Nazis acted as a party and not as a state power, they did not quite find an approach to the working class. On the other side, the big bourgeoisie, even those who supported Hitler with money, did not consider his party theirs. The national “renaissance” leaned wholly upon the middle classes, the most backward part of the nation, the heavy ballast of history. Political art consisted in fusing the petty bourgeoisie into oneness through its common hostility to the proletariat What must be done in order to improve things? First of all, throttle those who are underneath. Impotent before big capital, the petty bourgeoisie hopes in the future to regain its social dignity through the ruin of the workers.

The Nazis call their overturn by the usurped title of revolution. As a matter of fact, in Germany as well as in Italy, fascism leaves the social system untouched. Taken by itself, Hitler’s overturn has no right even to the name counter-revolution. But it cannot be viewed as an isolated event; it is the conclusion of a cycle of shocks which began in Germany in 1918. The November Revolution, which gave the power to the workers’ and peasants’ soviets, was proletarian in its fundamental tendencies. But the party that stood at the head of the proletariat returned the power to the bourgeoisie. In this sense the Social Democracy opened the era of counter-revolution before the revolution could bring its work to completion. However, so long as the bourgeoisie depended upon the Social Democracy, and consequently upon the workers, the regime retained elements of compromise. All the same, the international and the internal situation of German capitalism left no more room for concessions. As Social Democracy saved the bourgeoisie from the proletarian revolution, fascism came in its turn to liberate the bourgeoisie from the Social Democracy. Hitler’s coup is only the final link in the chain of counterrevolutionary shifts.

The petty bourgeois is hostile to the idea of development, for development goes immutably against him; progress has brought him nothing except irredeemable debts. National Socialism rejects not only Marxism but Darwinism. The Nazis curse materialism because the victories of technology over nature have signified the triumph of large capital over small. The leaders of the movement are liquidating “intellectualism” because they themselves possess second- and third-rate intellects, and above all because their historic role does not permit them to pursue a single thought to its conclusion. The petty bourgeois needs a higher authority, which stands above matter and above history, and which is safeguarded from competition, inflation, crisis, and the auction block. To evolution, materialist thought, and rationalism – of the twentieth, nineteenth, and eighteenth centuries – is counterposed in his mind national idealism as the source of heroic inspiration. Hitler’s nation is the mythological shadow of the petty bourgeoisie itself, a pathetic delirium of a thousand-year Reich.

In order to raise it above history, the nation is given the support of the race. History is viewed as the emanation of the race. The qualities of the race are construed without relation to changing social conditions. Rejecting “economic thought” as base, National Socialism descends a stage lower: from economic materialism it appeals to zoologic materialism.

The theory of race, specially created, it seems, for some pretentious self-educated individual seeking a universal key to all the secrets of life, appears particularly melancholy in the light of the history of ideas. In order to create the religion of pure German blood, Hitler was obliged to borrow at second hand the ideas of racism from a Frenchman, Count Gobineau [4], a diplomat and a literary dilettante. Hitler found the political methodology ready-made in Italy, where Mussolini had borrowed largely from the Marxist theory of the class struggle. Marxism itself is the fruit of union among German philosophy, French history, and British economics. To investigate retrospectively the genealogy of ideas, even those most reactionary and muddleheaded, is to leave not a trace of racism standing.

The immense poverty of National Socialist philosophy did not, of course, hinder the academic sciences from entering Hitler’s wake with all sails unfurled, once his victory was sufficiently plain. For the majority of the professorial rabble, the years of the Weimar regime were periods of riot and alarm. Historians, economists, jurists, and philosophers were lost in guesswork as to which of the contending criteria of truth was right that is, which of the camps would turn out in the end the master of the situation. The fascist dictatorship eliminates the doubts of the Fausts and the vacillations of the Hamlets of the university rostrums. Coming out of the twilight of parliamentary relativity, knowledge once again enters into the kingdom of absolutes. Einstein has been obliged to pitch his tent outside the boundaries of Germany.

On the plane of politics, racism is a vapid and bombastic variety of chauvinism in alliance with phrenology. As the ruined nobility sought solace in the gentility of its blood, so the pauperized petty bourgeoisie befuddles itself with fairy tales concerning the special superiorities of its race. Worthy of attention is the fact that the leaders of National Socialism are not native Germans but interlopers from Austria, like Hitler himself, from the former Baltic provinces of the Czar’s empire, like Rosenberg; and from colonial countries, like Hess, who is Hitler’s present alternate for the party leadership. [5] A barbarous din of nationalisms on the frontiers of civilization was required in order to instill into its “leaders” those ideas which later found response in the hearts of the most barbarous classes in Germany.

Personality and class – liberalism and Marxism – are evil. The nation – is good. But at the threshold of private property this philosophy is turned inside out. Salvation lies only in personal private property. The idea of national property is the spawn of Bolshevism. Deifying the nation, the petty bourgeois does not want to give it anything. On the contrary, he expects the nation to endow him with property and to safeguard him from the worker and the process-server. Unfortunately, the Third Reich will bestow nothing upon the petty bourgeois except new taxes.

In the sphere of modern economy, international in its ties and anonymous in its methods, the principle of race seems unearthed from a medieval graveyard. The Nazis set out with concessions beforehand; the purity of race, which must be certified in the kingdom of the spirit by a passport must be demonstrated in the sphere of economy chiefly by efficiency. Under contemporary conditions this means competitive capacity. Through the back door, racism returns to economic liberalism, freed from political liberties.

Nationalism in economy comes down in practice to impotent though savage outbursts of anti-Semitism. The Nazis abstract the usurious or banking capital from the modern economic system because it is of the spirit of evil; and, as is well known, it is precisely in this sphere that the Jewish bourgeoisie occupies an important position. Bowing down before capitalism as a whole, the petty bourgeois declares war against the evil spirit of gain in the guise of the Polish Jew in a long-skirted caftan and usually without a cent in his pocket. The pogrom becomes the supreme evidence of racial superiority.

The program with which National Socialism came to power reminds one very much – alas – of a Jewish department store in an obscure province. What won’t you find here – cheap in price and in quality still lower! Recollections of the “happy” days of free competition, and hazy evocations of the stability of class society; hopes for the regeneration of the colonial empire, and dreams of a shut-in economy; phrases about a return from Roman law back to the Germanic, and pleas for an American moratorium; an envious hostility to inequality in the person of a proprietor in an automobile, and animal fear of equality in the person of a worker in a cap and without a collar; the frenzy of nationalism, and the fear of world creditors … all the refuse of international political thought has gone to fill up the spiritual treasury of the new Germanic Messianism.

Fascism has opened up the depths of society for politics. Today, not only in peasant homes but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside of the twentieth century the tenth or the thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcisms. The Pope of Rome broadcasts over the radio about the miraculous transformation of water into wine. Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man’s genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance, and savagery! Despair has raised them to their feet fascism has given them a banner. Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of the normal development of society has now come gushing out from the throat; capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism. Such is the physiology of National Socialism.

German fascism, like Italian fascism, raised itself to power on the backs of the petty bourgeoisie, which it turned into a battering ram against the organizations of the working class and the institutions of democracy. But fascism in power is least of all the rule of the petty bourgeoisie. On the contrary, it is the most ruthless dictatorship of monopoly capital. Mussolini is right: the middle classes are incapable of independent policies. During periods of great crisis they are called upon to reduce to absurdity the policies of one of the two basic classes. Fascism succeeded in putting them at the service of capital Such slogans as state control of trusts and the elimination of unearned income were thrown overboard immediately upon the assumption of power. Instead, the particularism of German “lands” leaning upon the peculiarities of the petty bourgeoisie gave way to capitalist-police centralism. Every success of the internal and foreign policies of National Socialism will inevitably mean the further crushing of small capital by large.

The program of petty-bourgeois illusions is not discarded; it is simply torn away from reality, and dissolved in ritualistic acts. The unification of all classes reduces itself to semisymbolic compulsory labor and to the confiscation of the labor holiday of May Day for the “benefit of the people.” The preservation of the Gothic script as opposed to the Latin is a symbolic revenge for the yoke of the world market The dependence upon the international bankers, Jews among their number, is not eased an iota, wherefore it is forbidden to slaughter animals according to the Talmudic ritual. If the road to heaven is paved with good intentions, then the avenues of the Third Reich are paved with symbols.

Reducing the program of petty-bourgeois illusions to a naked bureaucratic masquerade, National Socialism raises itself over the nation as the worst form of imperialism. Absolutely vain are hopes that Hitler’s government will fail today or tomorrow, a victim of its internal inconsistency. The Nazis required the program in order to assume power; but power serves Hitler not at all for the purpose of fuming the program. His tasks are assigned him by monopoly capital. The compulsory concentration of all forces and resources of the people in the interests of imperialism – the true historic mission of the fascist dictatorship – means preparation for war; and this task, in its turn, brooks no internal resistance and leads to a further mechanical concentration of power. Fascism cannot be reformed or retired from service. It can only be overthrown. The political orbit of the regime leans upon the alternative, war or revolution.


P.S.: The first anniversary of the Nazi dictatorship is approaching. All the tendencies of the regime have had time to take on a clear and distinct character. The “socialist” revolution pictured by the petty-bourgeois masses as a necessary supplement to the national revolution is officially liquidated and condemned. The brotherhood of classes found its culmination in the fact that on a day especially appointed by the government the haves renounced the hors d’oeuvre and dessert in favor of the have-nots. The struggle against unemployment is reduced to the cutting of semi-starvation doles in two. The rest is the task of uniformed statistics. “Planned” autarky is simply a new stage of economic disintegration.

The more impotent the police regime of the Nazi is in the field of national economy, the more it is forced to transfer its efforts to the field of foreign policy. This corresponds fully to the inner dynamics of German capitalism, aggressive through and through. The sudden turn of the Nazi leaders to peaceful declarations could deceive only utter simpletons. What other method remains at Hitler’s disposal to transfer the responsibility for internal distresses to external enemies and to accumulate under the press of the dictatorship the explosive force of nationalism? This part of the program, outlined openly even prior to the Nazis” assumption of power, is now being fulfilled with iron logic before the eyes of the world. The date of the new European catastrophe will be determined by the time necessary for the arming of Germany. It is not a question of months, but neither is it a question of decades. It will be but a few years before Europe is again plunged into a war, unless Hitler is forestalled in time by the inner forces of Germany.

November 2, 1933


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