Hitler’s National Socialism

Leon Trotsky
Propaganda poster of Leon Trotsky
Leon Trotsky (left) pictured next to a depiction of him in a White movement propaganda poster from the Russian Civil War.

Naïve minds think that the office of kingship lodges in the king himself, in his ermine cloak and his crown, in his bones and veins. 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 male with a flabby underlip. He who was once called Alfonso the Thirteenth could discourse upon this, from fresh impressions.

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 individualistic supply to meet the collective demand. The controversy over Hitler’s personality becomes the sharper the more that 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 war by no means signified a simple destruction of the intermediate 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 intermediate 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 monopolies and cartels, and off the ideological sops of their traditional theorists and 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. It spent fourteen years in finding interminable excuses in its own existence for the Weimar democracy. 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, parliamentarianism, 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 turned out to be impaired.

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 post-war chaos hit the artisans, the pedlars, 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 parliamentarianism.

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 it. 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 non-commissioned officers could not believe that their heroism and sufferings had not only come to nothing for the Fatherland 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 school-teachers. Hence their “socialism.” At the Iser 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. Thus these people became leaders.

At the start of his political career, Hitler stood out perhaps only because of his big temperament, a voice much louder than others, and a circumscribed mentality much more self-assured. He did not bring into the movement any ready-made programme, 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 sounded now like commands and again like prayers addressed to inexorable fate. Doomed classes, like those fatally ill, never tire of making variations on their plaints or 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 around the beggar’s sack 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 personal 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 programme 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 Mussolini is much closer than the political algebra of Machiavelli. Mussolini is mentally bolder and more cynical. It may be said that the Romish 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. Even 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, wrote Mussolini 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 intermediate classes against the proletariat. Hitler accomplished the same feat, translating the methodology of Fascism into the language of German mysticism.

The bonfires in which flames 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 “regeneration” leaned wholly upon the intermediate 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 solid hostility to the proletariat. What must be done in order to improve things? First of all, throttle those who are underneath. Impotent before large capital, the petty bourgeoisie hopes in the future to regain its social dignity by overwhelming 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 the peasants’ soviets, was proletarian in its fundamental tendencies. But the party that stood at the head of the proletariat returned the power back 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, during the time when the bourgeoisie depended upon the Social Democracy, and consequently upon the workers, the régime retained elements of compromise. Concurrently, the international and the internal situation of German capitalism left no more room for concessions. The Social Democracy saved the bourgeoisie from the proletariat revolution; then came the turn of Fascism to liberate the bourgeoisie from the Social Democracy. Hitler’s overturn is only the final link in the chain of counter-revolutionary shifts.

The petty bourgeois is hostile to the idea of development, for development goes immutably against him; progress 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” not so much because they themselves possess second and third rate intellects but primarily because their historic rôle does not permit them to draw a single thought to its conclusion. The petty bourgeois takes refuge in the last resort, which stands above matter and above history, and which is safeguarded from competition, inflation, crisis, and the auction block. To evolution, economic thought, and rationalism—of the twentieth, nineteenth, and eighteenth centuries—is counterposed in his mind national idealism, as the source of the heroic beginning. Hitler’s nation is the mythological shadow of the petty bourgeoisie itself, its pathetic delirium of a millennium on earth.

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 zoölogical materialism.

The theory of race, specially created, it seems, for a pretentious self-educated individual who seeks for 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 the genuine German blood, Hitler was obliged to borrow at second hand the ideas of racialism from a Frenchman, Count Gobineau, a diplomat and a literary dilettante. Hitler found the political methodology ready-made in Italy. Mussolini utilized widely the Marxist theory of the class struggle. Marxism itself is the fruit of union between German philosophy, French history, and English economics. To investigate retrospectively the genealogy of ideas, even those most reactionary and muddle-headed, is to leave not a trace of racialism standing.

The immeasurable thinness of National Socialistic philosophy did not, of course, hinder the academic sciences from entering Hitler’s fairway, with all sails unfurled, once his victory was sufficiently established. For the majority of the professorial rabble the years of the Weimar régime were periods of riot and alarm. Historians, economists, jurists, and philosophers were lost in guesswork as to 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 had been obliged to pitch his tent outside the boundaries of Germany.

On the plane of politics, racialism 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 Tsar’s empire, like Rosenberg, and from colonial countries, like Hess, who is Hitler’s present alternate for the party leadership. A school of barbaric national pothering along the cultural frontiers was required in order to instil into the “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 appears as an interloper from a mediaeval 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 racialism returns to economic liberalism, freed from political liberties.

Nationalism in economy practically comes down 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 programme 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 traditions of the stability of class society; hopes for the regeneration of the colonial empire, and dreams of a closed economy; phrases about a reversion 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 neo-Germanic Messianism.

Fascism has opened up the depths of society for politics. To-day, not only in peasant homes but also in the 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. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance, and savagery! Despair has raised them to their feet, Fascism has given them the banner. Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the course of the unhindered development of society comes out to-day gushing from the throat; capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism. Such is the physiology of National Socialism.

German Fascism, like the Italian, raised itself to power on the backs of the petty bourgeoisie which it turned into a battering ram against 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 a most ruthless dictatorship of monopolist capital. Mussolini is right: the intermediate 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 placing them in 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. On the contrary, the particularism of German “lands” leaning upon the particularities of the petty bourgeoisie cleared the place for the capitalist-police centralism. Every success of the internal and foreign policies of National Socialism will inevitably mean the further crushing of small capital by the large.

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

Reducing the programme of petty bourgeois illusions to a naked bureaucratic masquerade, National Socialism raises itself over the nation as the purest form of imperialism. Absolutely false are hopes to the effect that Hitler’s government will fall to-morrow, if not to-day, a victim of its internal insolvency. The Nazis required the programme in order to assume the power; but power serves Hitler not all for the purpose of fulfilling the programme. His tasks are assigned him by monopolist 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 the preparation for war, and this task, in its turn, brooks no internal resistance and leads to 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?

The first anniversary of the Nazi dictatorship is approaching. All the tendencies of the régime have had time to take on a clear and distinctive 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 portions in two. The rest is the task of uniformed statistics. Planned autarchy is simply a new stage of economic disintegration.

The more impotent the police régime of the Nazi is in the field of national economy, the more it is forced to transfer its efforts to the field of foreign politics. 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 programme, 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.

Leon Trotsky (1879–1940) was a political theorist and leader of the communist revolution in Russia. He went into exile after Joseph Stalin's rise to power.
Originally published:
December 1, 1933


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