The Third International after Lenin

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Leon Trotsky on presidential government

Some excerpts from Leon Trotsky's October 1932 article "German Bonapartism."

....Bonapartism, raising the military-police apparatus over the bourgeoisie in order to defend its class domination against its own political parties

....Such terms as liberalism, Bonapartism, fascism have the character of generalizations. Historical phenomena never repeat themselves completely. It would not have been difficult to prove that even the government of Napoleon III, compared with the regime of Napoleon I, was not “Bonapartist” – not only because Napoleon himself was a doubtful Bonaparte by blood, but also because his relations to the classes, especially to the peasantry and to the lumpenproletariat were not at all the same as those of Napoleon I. Moreover, classical Bonapartism grew out of the epoch of gigantic war victories, which the Second Empire [2] did not know at all. But if we should look for the repetition of all the traits of Bonapartism, we will find that Bonapartism is a one-time, unique occurrence, i.e., that Bonapartism in general does not exist but that there once was a general named Bonaparte born in Corsica. The case is no different with liberalism and with all other generalized terms of history. When one speaks by analogy of Bonapartism, it is necessary to state precisely which of its traits found their fullest expression under present historical conditions.

Present-day German Bonapartism has a very complex and, so to speak, combined character. The government of Papen would have been impossible without fascism. But fascism is not in power. And the government of Papen is not fascism. On the other hand, the government of Papen, at any rate in its present form, would have been impossible without Hindenburg who, in spite of the final prostration of Germany in the war, stands for the great victories of Germany and symbolizes the army in the memory of the popular masses. The second election of Hindenburg had all the characteristics of a plebiscite. Many millions of workers, petty bourgeois, and peasants (Social Democracy and Center) voted for Hindenburg. They did not see in him any one political program. They wanted first of all to avoid civil war, and raised Hindenburg on their shoulders as a superarbiter, as an arbitration judge of the nation. But precisely this is the most important function of Bonapartism: raising itself over the two struggling camps in order to preserve property and order. It suppresses civil war, or precedes it or does not allow it to rekindle. Speaking of Papen, we cannot forget Hindenburg, on whom rests the sanction of the Social Democracy. The combined character of German Bonapartism expressed itself in the fact that the demagogic work of catching the masses for Hindenburg was performed by two big, independent parties: the Social Democracy and National Socialism. If they are both astonished at the results of their work, that does not change the matter one whit.

....Yes, fascism is a reaction of bourgeois society to the threat of proletarian revolution. But precisely because this threat is not an imminent one today, the ruling classes make an attempt to get along without a civil war through the medium of a Bonapartist dictatorship.

....The fact is that Marx and Engels wrote not only of the Bonapartism of the two Bonapartes, but also of other species. Beginning, it seems, with the year 1864, they more than once likened the “national” regime of Bismarck to French Bonapartism. And this in spite of the fact that Bismarck was not a pseudoradical demagogue and, so far as we know, was not supported by the peasantry. The Iron Chancellor was not raised to power as the result of a plebiscite, but was duly appointed by his legitimate and hereditary king. And nevertheless Marx and Engels are right. Bismarck made use in a Bonapartist fashion of the antagonism between the propertied classes and the rising proletariat overcoming in this way the antagonism within the two propertied classes, between the Junkerdom and the bourgeoisie, and raised a military-police apparatus over the nation.

....Marx characterized the regime of Napoleon in the most acid terms as the regime of adventurists, crooks, and pimps.

....The Bonapartism of the era of the decline of capitalism differs utterly from the Bonapartism of the era of the ascension of bourgeois society. German Bonapartism is not supported directly by the petty bourgeoisie of the country and village, and this is not accidental. Precisely therefore, we wrote at one time of the weakness of the government of Papen, which holds on only by the neutralization of two camps: the proletariat and the fascists.

But behind Papen stand the great landowners, finance capitalists, generals – so rejoin other “Marxists.” Do not the propertied classes in themselves represent a great force? This argument proves once more that it is much easier to understand class relations in their general sociological outline than in a concrete historical form. Yes, immediately behind Papen stand the propertied heights and they only: precisely therein is contained the cause of his weakness.

Under the conditions of present-day capitalism, a government which would not be the agency of finance capital is in general impossible. But of all possible agencies, the government of Papen is the least stable one. If the ruling classes could rule directly, they would have no need either of parliamentarism, or of Social Democracy, or of fascism. The government of Papen exposes finance capital too clearly, leaving it without even the sacred figleaf ordered by the Prussian Commissioner Bracht. Just because the extra-party “national” government is in fact able to speak only in the name of the social heights, capital is ever more careful not to identify itself with the government of Papen. The DAZ wants to find support for the presidential government in the National Socialist masses, and in the language of ultimatums demands of Papen a bloc with Hitler, which means capitulation to him.

In evaluating the “strength” of the presidential government we must not forget the fact that if finance capital stands behind Papen, this does not at all mean that it falls together with him. Finance capital has innumerably more possibilities than Hindenburg-Papen-Schleicher. In case of the sharpening of contradictions there remains the reserve of pure fascism. In case of the softening of contradictions, they will maneuver until the time when the proletariat puts its knee on their chests. For how long Papen will maneuver, the near future will show.

These lines will appear in the press when the new elections to the Reichstag shall already have gone by. The Bonapartist nature of the “anti-French” government of Papen will inevitably reveal itself with a new force, but also its weakness....



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