Piłsudskism, Fascism, and the Character of Our Epoch

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Author(s) Leon Trotsky
Written 4 August 1932


[Writing of Leon Trotsky, Vol. 4, 1932, New York 1973, p. 156-165]

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Introduction

In May 1926 Piłsudski carried out his coup in Poland. The nature of this rescue operation seemed so enigmatic to the leadership of the Communist Party that, in the person of Warski and others, it called the proletariat out into the streets to support the marshal's uprising. Today this fact seems quite incredible. But it went to the very root of Comintern policy at that time. The struggle for the peasantry had been converted by the epigones into the policy of dissolving the proletariat into the petty bourgeoisie. In China the Communist Party entered the Kuomintang and humbly submitted to its discipline. For all the countries of the East, Stalin put up the slogan "the worker-peasant party." In the Soviet Union the struggle against the "super-industrializers" (the Left Opposition) was being waged in the name of preserving good relations with the kulak. In the leading circles of the Russian party, there was rather open discussion on the question whether the time had not come to return from the proletarian dictatorship to the formula of 1905: "the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry." Condemned by the whole course of development and discarded once for all by Lenin in 1917, this formula was converted by the epigones into the highest criterion. From the angle of the "democratic dictatorship," Kostrzewa reevaluated the legacy of Rosa Luxemburg. Warski, after a certain period of vacillation, began to step to the tune of Manuilsky's commands with redoubled diligence. It was in such circumstances that Piłsudski's coup broke out. The Central Committee of the Polish party had a deadly fear of showing any "underestimation of the peasantry." They had learned the lessons of the struggle against "Trotskyism" well, Lord knows! The Marxists of the Central Committee summoned the workers to support the almost "democratic dictatorship" of the reactionary martinet.

Piłsudski's practice very quickly brought corrections into the theory of the epigones. As early as the beginning of July the Comintern had to concern itself, in Moscow, with a review of the "mistake" of the Polish party. Warski gave the report in the special commission, under the point on information and "self-criticism": he had already been promised complete exoneration — on condition that he voluntarily assume the full responsibility for what had been done, thus shielding the Moscow chiefs! Warski did what he could. However, while confessing his "error" and promising to correct himself, he proved completely incapable of bringing out the matters of principle at the root of his misfortunes. The debate as a whole had an extremely chaotic, confused, and to a certain degree, dishonest character. The whole purpose after all was to wash the coat without getting the cloth wet.

Within the limits of the ten minutes allowed me, I tried to give an evaluation of the Piłsudski coup in connection with the historical function of fascism, and thereby reveal the roots of the "error" of the Polish party leadership. The proceedings of the commission were not published. This did not, of course, prevent a polemic being developed in all languages against my unpublished speech. The reverberations of this polemic have not died down to this day. Having found the stenogram of my speech in the archives, I came to the conclusion that its publication — especially in the light of the current events in Germany — might prove to be of some political interest even today. Political tendencies should be tested at various stages of historical development — only in that way can their real content and the degree of their internal consistency be properly evaluated.

Naturally, in the case of a speech given six years ago in a special commission, within a ten-minute time limit, you cannot expect of it more than it contains. If these lines reach the Polish comrades, for whom they are indeed intended, they, as more fully informed readers, will be able themselves to fill out whatever I have stated incompletely and to correct whatever is not accurate.

Piłsudski's coup is appraised in my speech as a "preventive" (precautionary) one. This characterization may be supported in a certain sense even today. Precisely because the revolutionary situation in Poland did not reach the same maturity as those in Italy in 1920 and, later, in Germany in 1923 and 1931-32, fascist reaction in Poland did not attain such depth and intensity. This explains why Piłsudski, over a period of six years, has still not carried his work to completion.

In connection with the "preventive" character of the coup, the speech expressed the hope that Piłsudski's reign would not be as protracted as that of Mussolini's. Unfortunately, both have been more protracted than any of us hoped in 1926. The cause of this lies not only in the objective circumstances but also in the policies of the Comintern. The basic defects in those policies, as the reader will see, are indicated in the speech — to be sure, in a very cautious manner: it must be recalled that I had to speak, as a member of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party, under discipline.

One cannot deny that the initial role of the PPS in regard to Piłsudskism rendered rather spectacular support to the theory of "social fascism." Later years, however, brought the necessary corrections here, too, bringing out the contradiction between the democratic and the fascist agencies of the bourgeoisie. Whoever regards this contradiction as absolute will inevitably turn onto the path of opportunism. Whoever ignores this contradiction will be doomed to ultraleft capriciousness and revolutionary impotence. Whoever still requires proof of this, need only cast his gaze toward Germany.

On the Polish Question (July 1926)

I wish to take up just two questions of general significance which have been raised repeatedly in the discussion, both at yesterday's session and today's.

The first question is, What is Piłsudskism and how is it connected with fascism?

The second question is, What are the roots of the mistake made by the Central Committee of the Polish Communist Party? By "roots" I have in mind not matters relating to individuals or groups, but objective ones, built into the conditions of the epoch; but I do not thereby minimize the responsibility of individuals in any way.

The first question: Piłsudskism and fascism.

These two currents undoubtedly have features in common: their shock troops are recruited, above all, among the petty bourgeoisie; both Piłsudski and Mussolini operated by extra-parliamentary, nakedly violent means, by the methods of civil war; both of them aimed not at overthrowing bourgeois society, but at saving it. Having raised the petty-bourgeois masses to their feet, they both clashed openly with the big bourgeoisie after coming to power. Here a historical generalization involuntarily comes to mind: one is forced to recall Marx's definition of Jacobinism as a plebeian means of dealing with the feudal enemies of the bourgeoisie. That was in the epoch of the rise of the bourgeoisie. It must be said that now, in the epoch of the decline of bourgeois society, the bourgeoisie once again has need of a "plebeian" means of solving its problems — which are no longer progressive but, rather, thoroughly reactionary. In this sense, then, fascism contains a reactionary caricature of Jacobinism.

When it was on the rise, the bourgeoisie could not establish a basis for its growth and predominance within the confines of the feudal-bureaucratic state. There was need for the Jacobin way of dealing with the old society in order to ensure the flowering of the new bourgeois society. The bourgeoisie in decline is incapable of maintaining itself in power with the methods and means of its own creation — the parliamentary state. It needs fascism as a weapon of self-defense, at least at the most critical moments. The bourgeoisie does not like the "plebeian" means of solving its problems. It had an extremely hostile attitude toward Jacobinism, which cleared a path in blood for the development of bourgeois society. The fascists are immeasurably closer to the bourgeoisie in decline than the Jacobins were to the bourgeoisie on the rise But the established bourgeoisie does not like the fascist means of solving its problems either, for the shocks and disturbances, although in the interests of bourgeois society, involve dangers for it as well. This is the source of the antagonism between fascism and the traditional parties of the bourgeoisie.

It is beyond dispute that Piłsudskism, in its roots, in its impulses, and in the slogans it raises, is a petty-bourgeois movement. That Piłsudski knew beforehand what path he would follow may well be doubted. It is not as though he were particularly brainy. His actions bear the stamp of mediocrity. (Walecki: You're mistaken!) But my aim is not to characterize Piłsudski in any way; I don't know, perhaps he did see somewhat farther ahead than others. At any rate, even if he did not know what he wanted to do, he certainly — to all appearances — knew rather well what he wanted to avoid, which was, above all, a revolutionary movement of the working masses. Whatever he did not understand, others thought through for him, perhaps even the English ambassador. At any rate, Piłsudski quickly found common ground with big capital, despite the fact that in its roots, impulses, and slogans the movement he headed was petty bourgeois, a "plebeian" means of solving the pressing problems of capitalist society in process of decline and destruction. Here there is a direct parallel with Italian fascism.

It was said here (by Warski) that parliamentary democracy is the arena upon which the petty bourgeoisie performs most brilliantly. Not always, however, and not under all conditions. It may also lose its brilliance, fade, and show its weakness more and more And since the big bourgeoisie itself is at a dead end, the parliamentary arena becomes a mirror of the situation of impasse and decline of bourgeois society as a whole. The petty bourgeoisie, which attributed such importance to parliamentarism, itself begins to feel it as a burden and to seek a way out upon extra-parliamentary paths. In its basic impulse Piłsudskism is an attempt at an extra-parliamentary solution of the problems of the petty bourgeoisie. But in this very fact lies the inevitability of capitulation to the big bourgeoisie For if in parliament the petty bourgeoisie shows its impotence before landlord, capitalist, and banker in one instance after another, on a "retail" basis, then, in the attempt at an extra-parliamentary solution of its problems, at the moment when it snatches up power, its social impotence is revealed wholesale and altogether. At first one gets the impression that the petty bourgeoisie with sword in hand is turning upon the bourgeois regime, but its revolt ends with it handing over to the big bourgeoisie, through its own chiefs, the power it had seized by traveling the road of bloodshed. That is precisely what happened in Poland. And that the Central Committee did not understand.

The big bourgeoisie dislikes this method, much as a man with a swollen jaw dislikes having his teeth pulled. The respectable circles of bourgeois society viewed with hatred the services of the dentist Piłsudski, but in the end they gave in to the inevitable, to be sure, with threats of resistance and much haggling and wrangling over the price. And lo, the petty bourgeoisie's idol of yesterday has been transformed into the gendarme of capital! The cinematic tempo of the course of events is surprising, the appallingly rapid transition from outwardly "revolutionary" slogans and techniques to a counterrevolutionary policy of protecting the property holders from the onslaught of the workers and peasants. But the evolution of Piłsudskism is wholly according to law. As for the tempo, that is the result of a civil war that has skipped stages and thus reduced the time requirements.

Is Piłsudskism "left fascism" or is it "non-left"? I do not think this distinction has anything to offer. The "leftism" in fascism flows from the necessity to arouse and nourish the illusions of the enraged petty proprietor. In various countries, under various conditions, this is done in different ways, with the use of different doses of "leftism." But in essence Piłsudskism, like fascism in general, performs a counterrevolutionary role. This is an anti-parliamentary and, above all, anti-proletarian counterrevolution, with whose help the declining bourgeoisie attempts — and not without success, at least for a time — to protect and preserve its fundamental positions.

I have called fascism a caricature of Jacobinism. Fascism is related to Jacobinism in the same way that modern capitalism, which is destroying the productive forces and lowering the cultural level of society, relates to youthful capitalism, which increased the power of mankind in all spheres. Of course, the comparison of fascism and Jacobinism, like any broad historical analogy in general, is legitimate only within certain limits and from a certain point of view. The attempt to stretch this analogy beyond its justified limits would carry the danger of false conclusions. But within limits it does explain something. The summits of bourgeois society were not able to clear society of feudalism. For this it was necessary to mobilize the interests, passions, and illusions of the petty bourgeoisie. The latter carried out this work in struggle against the summits of bourgeois society, although in the last analysis it served none other than them. Likewise, the fascists mobilize petty-bourgeois public opinion and their own armed units in struggle or partial struggle with the ruling circles and the official state apparatus. The more threatening the immediate revolutionary danger is to bourgeois society, or the sharper the disillusionment of the petty bourgeoisie, temporarily hoping for revolution, the easier it is for fascism to carry out its mobilization.

In Poland the conditions for this mobilization were unique and complex; they were created by the economic and political impasse, the dim prospects for revolution, and the "Muscovite" danger connected with this. One of the Polish comrades here — I think it was Leszczyński — expressed himself to the effect that the real fascists were hiding not in the camp of Piłsudski but in the camp of the National Democrats, i. e., the big capitalist party, which has at its disposal chauvinist bands that have carried out pogroms more than once. Is this the case? The auxiliary bands of the National Democrats would suffice, so to speak, only for everyday affairs. But to arouse the broad masses of the nation to strike a blow against parliamentarism, democracy, and above all the proletariat — and to weld the state power into a military fist — for that the party of the capitalists and landlords would not suffice. In order to mobilize the petty bourgeoisie of the city and countryside, as well as the backward section of the workers, it is necessary to have in one's hands such political resources as the traditions of petty-bourgeois socialism and the revolutionary national-liberation struggle. The National Democrats had not even a trace of this. That is why the mobilization of the petty bourgeoisie of Poland could only have been accomplished by Marshal Piłsudski — with the PPS in tow for a certain period. But having won power, the petty bourgeoisie is incapable of wielding it independently. It is forced either to let go of it under the pressure of the proletariat or, if the latter does not have the strength to seize it, to hand power over to the big bourgeoisie, no longer in the previous dispersed but in the new concentrated form.

The deeper had been the illusions of petty-bourgeois socialism and patriotism in Poland and the more impetuously they had been mobilized in conditions of economic and parliamentary impasse, the more brazenly, cynically, and "suddenly" would the victorious chief of this movement fall down on his knees before the big bourgeoisie with the request that they "crown" him. This is the key to the cinematic tempo of the Polish events.

The big and lasting success of Mussolini turned out to be possible only because the revolution of September 1920, having shaken loose all the buttresses and braces of bourgeois society, was not carried through to the end. On the basis of the ebb of the revolution, the disappointment of the petty bourgeoisie, and the exhaustion of the workers, Mussolini drew up, and put into practice, his plan.

In Poland matters did not get that far. The impasse of the regime was at hand, but a direct revolutionary situation, in the sense of the readiness of the masses to go into combat, did not yet exist A revolutionary situation was only on the way. Piłsudski's coup, like all of his "fascism," appears then as a preventive, Le., precautionary, counterrevolution. That is why it seems to me that Piłsudski's regime has less chance of a lengthy existence than does Italian fascism. Mussolini took advantage of a revolution already broken from within, with the inevitable decline in activity among the proletariat thereafter. Piłsudski, on the other hand, intercepted an oncoming revolution, raised himself to a certain degree with its fresh yeast, and cynically deceived the masses following him. This provides ground for hope that Piłsudskism will be an episode on the wave of revolutionary upsurge, not decline.

The second question that I would like to take up has to do with the objective roots of the error committed by the leaders of the Polish party. Undoubtedly the pressure of the petty bourgeoisie, with its hopes and illusions, was very strong in the days of the May coup. This explains why the party at that stage was unable to win the masses and guide the whole movement onto a truly revolutionary path. But this in no way excuses the leadership of the party, which meekly submitted to the petty-bourgeois chaos, floating upon it without rudder or sails. As for the basic causes of the mistake, they are rooted in the character of our epoch, which we call revolutionary but which we have not gotten to know by a long shot in all its sharp twists and turns — and without this knowledge it is impossible to master each particular concrete situation. Our period differs from the prewar period the way a crisis-filled, explosive period differs from one that is organic, developing in comparative regularity. In the prewar period, we had in Europe the growth of the productive forces, a sharpening class differentiation, the growth of imperialism at one pole and the growth of the Social Democracy at the other. The conquest of power by the proletariat was pictured as the inevitable but distant crowning of this process. More precisely, for the opportunists and centrists of the Social Democracy the social revolution was a phrase without content; for the left wing of the European Social Democracy it was a distant goal for which it was necessary to prepare gradually and systematically. The war cut short this epoch, thoroughly revealing its contradictions; and with the war began a new epoch. One can no longer speak of the regular growth of the productive forces, the steady growth in numbers of the industrial proletariat, and so on. In the economy there is either stagnation or decline. Unemployment has become chronic. If we take the fluctuations in the economic cycle of the European countries, or the changes in the political situation, and put them on paper in the form of a graph, we get not a regularly rising curve with periodic fluctuations but a feverish curve with frantic zigzags up and down. The economic cycle changes abruptly within the framework of an essentially constant fixed capital. The political cycle changes abruptly in the grip of the economic impasse. The petty-bourgeois masses, involving wide circles of workers as well, charge now to the right, now to the left.

Here we can no longer speak of the organic process of development unceasingly strengthening the proletariat as a productive class and, thereby, its revolutionary party. The interrelations between party and class are subject, under current conditions, to much sharper fluctuations than before. The tactics of the party, while preserving their principled basis, are endowed — and should be endowed! — with a far more maneuverable and creative character, foreign to any routinism whatsoever. In these tactics sharp and daring turns are inevitable, depending above all on whether we are entering a zone of revolutionary upsurge or, on the contrary, a rapid downturn. The whole of our epoch consists of such distinctly marked-off sections of the curve, some rising, some falling. These steep, sometimes sudden, changes must be caught in time. The difference between the role of the Central Committee of a Social Democratic party in prewar conditions and that of the Central Committee of a Communist party in current conditions is to a certain degree like the difference between a general staff, which organizes and trains military forces, and a field headquarters, which is called upon to lead those forces under battle conditions (although there may indeed be long pauses between battles).

The struggle for the masses remains, of course, the basic task, but the conditions of this struggle are different now. Any turn in the domestic or international situation may, at the very next step, transform the struggle for the masses into a direct struggle for power. Today you cannot measure strategy by decades. In the course of a year, or two, or three, the whole situation in a country changes radically. This we have seen especially clearly in the case of Germany. After the attempt to summon up a revolution in the absence of the necessary preconditions (March 1921), we observe in the German party a strong rightward deviation (Brandlerism), and this deviation is subsequently wrecked on the sharp leftward shift in the whole situation (1923). In place of the opportunist deviation comes an ultraleft one, whose ascendancy coincides, however, with the ebb of the revolution; out of this contradiction between conditions and policies grow mistakes that weaken the revolutionary movement still further. The result is a kind of division of labor between rightist and ultraleftist groupings according to which each one, at a sharp upward or downward turn of the political curve, suffers defeat and gives way to the rival grouping. At the same time, the method now in practice — of changing the leadership with every shift in the situation — gives the leading cadre no chance to acquire a broader experience that would include both rise and fall, both ebb and flow. And without this generalizing, synthesized understanding of the character of our epoch of rapid shifts and abrupt turns, a truly Bolshevik leadership cannot be educated. That is why, in spite of the profoundly revolutionary character of the epoch, the party and its leadership have not succeeded in rising to the heights of the demands that the situation has placed before them.

Piłsudski's regime in Poland will be a regime of fascist struggle for stabilization, which means an extreme sharpening of the class struggle. Stabilization is not a condition granted to society from without, but a problem for bourgeois politics. This problem is no sooner partly settled than it erupts again. The fascist struggle for stabilization will arouse the resistance of the proletariat On the soil of mass disillusionment in Piłsudski's coup a favorable situation for our party will be created, on the condition, of course, that the leadership is not one-sidedly adapted to a temporary rise or temporary decline in the political curve, but embraces the basic line of development as a whole To the fascist struggle for stabilization must be counterposed, above all, the internal stabilization of the Communist Party. Then victory will be assured!