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George Stern

Collapse of Bourgeois Democracy

(January 1941)

From Fourth International, Vol. 2 No. 1, January 1941, pp. 5–9.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Scores of thousands died in the first year of the Second World War. Nations fell. Frontiers were obliterated. But these were only the opening phases of cataclysms yet to come. The major casualty of the war in 1940 was the political system of bourgeois democracy. It has been wiped off the continent of Europe. Its remnants elsewhere in the world must soon in their turn also disappear.

Bourgeois democracy was the supreme political expression of an expanding capitalist order. With the decline of capitalism it became an intolerable overhead charge for the reactionary bourgeoisie. For a generation now humanity has been confronted with the questions: By whom is it to be displaced? By what is it to be replaced? The first world war exposed the rotting core of a social and political system that no longer corresponded to the productive capacities and human needs of the modern world. That conflict ushered in a great epoch of social transformation, of revolution and counter-revolution.

The initial surge of proletarian revolution which arose out of the war of 1914–18 expressed the desire of millions of the exploited to put an end to capitalism and its pseudo democratic trappings and to replace them with a socialist order based upon a world-wide proletarian democracy. This revolutionary upsurge was stemmed everywhere but in Russia. Out of the isolation of the workers’ state in Russia came the grotesque deformities of the Stalin regime. Out of the defeats of the revolution elsewhere came the prolongation of the capitalist crisis. Fresh revolutionary opportunities were presented in the two decades following the war, in Germany, in China, in Austria, in Belgium, in France, and in Spain. Thanks to the Second International of Wels-Bauer-Vandervelde-Blum-Prieto and the Third International of Stalin-Thaelmann-Thorez, these historic opportunities were transformed, one after another, into fresh and even more crushing defeats for the world proletariat.

The crisis of German capitalism – the most intolerably acute in Europe during the post-war decades – was thus “solved” not by the proletarian revolution but by the victory of Fascism. Hitler destroyed the workers’ organizations, liquidated all democratic institutions, and embarked systematically upon the task of converting German economy into a coordinated war machine based upon the complete enslavement of the people. In the rest of Western Europe the crisis was little less acute in the ’thirties. The effort of the working class to impose its solution was successfully thwarted by the Second and Third Internationals. The bourgeois democratic regimes passed into varying degrees of Bonapartism – government by decree and by military-police dictatorship. The new imperialist war overtook them before indigenous Fascist movements could complete the demolition of the outlived democratic states. The unloosed hordes of German Fascism assumed this task and quickly carried it out, for the weakened, semi-Bonapartist bourgeois democracies proved totally incapable of withstanding the totalitarian onslaught.

Europe fell to Hitler. The rotten military dictatorship of Poland crumbled before him. Then Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, France, and most recently Rumania, went down in turn. German imperialism undertook itself to “solve” the crisis of capitalism in Europe by transforming the continent into German domain. But in his very conquests, Hitler personifies the crisis of world capitalism. He represents the effort of the system to preserve its profits by basing them upon the total enslavement of the masses. The capitalist system as we have known it is threshing about in a suicidal agony of which Hitler is the prime manifestation. “Through Hitler,” wrote Trotsky in the Manifesto of the Fourth International (May 1940), “world capitalism, driven to desperation by its own impasse, has begun to press a razor-sharp dagger into its own bowels.”

The Fall of France

“The bourgeoisie never defends the fatherland for the sake of the fatherland,” said the same Manifesto. “They defend private property, privileges, profits. Whenever these sacred values are threatened, the bourgeoisie immediately takes the road of defeatism. That was the way of the Russian bourgeoisie, whose sons after the October revolution fought and are once again ready to fight in every army in the world against their own former fatherland. In order to save their capital, the Spanish bourgeoisie turned to Mussolini and Hitler for military aid against their own people. The Norwegian bourgeoisie aided Hitler’s invasion of Norway. Thus it always was and always will be.”

While Trotsky was writing those lines, the Nazi military machine was pounding its way through Denmark and across Holland and Belgium into France. In the Scandinavian and the Low Countries the ruling bourgeoisie quickly adapted itself to the new master of Europe, helping to further his conquests and contenting itself with crumbs from his tables. The “democracy” of which they had so long boasted shrivelled up and disappeared. Norway was under a “labor” government. Belgium was ruled by a coalition of labor and bourgeois “liberals.” But form quickly gave way to substance at the orders of capital. The real rulers, the owners of land and industry, unhesitatingly grasped the small place offered them in the new Nazi “order.” Their minions in the army general staffs quickly punctured whatever resistance was offered. The world was startled by the revelation that the ruling regimes – especially the police and the military – of these much-admired “little democracies” were shot through with agents of Hitler and so-called Fifth Columnists. King Haakon of Norway and Wilhelmina of Holland fled for their lives with little coteries of jobless politicians. Leopold, at the behest of Belgian high finance, quickly laid down arms and handed himself, a prisoner, over to the new masters.

But these, it might be said, were small states, existing by sufferance in the orbits of the greater powers surrounding them. Their disappearance into the fissures opened in a continent at war was inevitable. But France – France was the great power of Europe, placed on that summit by the peace of Versailles. Its quick collapse at the first impact of the Nazi assault showed that far more was involved here than mere military preponderance. The fall of the French Republic was the fall of a political system no longer capable of survival.

French capitalism, backward in its best days, proved incapable of exploiting the victory that produced the system of Versailles. As events proved, the “settlement” of Versailles sapped the power of France and created the power of ... Hitler. The French workers, chief victims of the permanent crisis, understood the lesson of Fascism’s victory in Germany. By 1936 they were ready to take power into their own hands. The great wave of strikes that year, culminating in the occupation of factories throughout the land in the general strike of June, placed them upon the threshold of a victorious proletarian revolution.

The French bourgeoisie was frightened and powerless. Its Fascist gangs crawled into their hiding places. The police and army were shaken, irresolute. The General Staff did not dare impose the military rule they so ardently desired. Political power in France – and indeed, the fate of the world – remained suspended in those critical days.

Stalin, whose capitulation in Germany had given Hitler a bloodless victory, was angling for an Anglo-French alliance against the Nazi Reich. The powerful French Communist Party had bound itself into the People’s Front, with the Leon Blum Socialists and the bourgeois party of Daladier. The People’s Front of Stalin-Blum-Daladier dispersed the revolutionary forces with the dire warning: “Revolution will open the road to Hitler.” With the silent and frightened acquiescence of the bourgeoisie, the Blum government put on paper sweeping concessions to the workers and dissipated the strike movement. They cut it into segments which the succeeding decree-governments of Chautemps and Daladier were able to destroy.

The Anglo-French bourgeoisie preferred the victory of Fascism in Spain to the victory of the revolution, hopeful, as the English and Americans are still hopeful of seducing France out of the camp of Hitler and Mussolini. The People’s Front regime of Blum and the French Stalinists helped strangle the cause of the Spanish workers’ revolution from without, just as Stalin, intent upon proving his worth to his prospective Anglo-French allies, helped strangle it from within.

A Soviet France would have ensured the victory of the workers in Spain, and in Belgium. It would have given impetus and leadership to the proletarian groundswell felt that year from Western Europe to the Balkans to Egypt and the Middle East. The Hitlerite regime could never have withstood this pressure, inevitably refracted through the German working class. Doubtless there would have been war in Europe. But how different a war! The working class in arms for socialism against their capitalist masters! But Stalin above all feared such a war and the Comintern and the GPU forced the rising proletariat back to its knees.

The French workers were deceived into giving the factories back to the capitalists. The bloodless defeat in France promoted the bloody defeat in Spain. These defeats are the foundations of Hitler’s military power, for they ensured the isolation of the German masses and closed the gates upon the prospects of an effective anti-Fascist mobilization within Germany itself. These defeats set the stage for the outbreak of the new imperialist war.

The French bourgeoisie had no lackeys, no means of deception, no magic wand of dispersal with which to ward off the blows of its deadly German rival. The regime of Daladier could not command or inspire the ferocious struggle of the masses needed to defeat the Fascist invasion on the field of battle and behind the fighting lines where German workers awaited – and still await – the call and the chance for action on their own account. For only a workers’ France could have reached into the heart of the German proletariat and revived and nourished its struggle against Hitlerism. Only the Red Army of a workers’ France could have pulverized the iron discipline of the Nazi hordes. Such is the incomparable advantage of a revolutionary workers’ regime in war! The Russia of Lenin and Trotsky in 1918 and afterwards showed how such a regime can command the total devotion of the workers at home and successfully appeal to the workers of all other nations, especially the workers under the bourgeois enemy.

But bourgeois France, the France of Blum, Daladier, and Reynaud, could do neither. It barely managed to keep its own masses in chains at home. It could not dispute Hitler’s mastery within the Reich. Nor, as the military impact quickly proved, could it dispute Hitler’s mastery in Western Europe. The French bourgeoisie and its military high command entered the war still more fearful of the French workers than of the enemy. When French resistance crumpled before the first German drive, Weygand was rushed in to rescue the ... general staff. Weygand, arch-reactionary and fascist, felt even more strongly than most the profound hatred and mistrust of the French masses. He went to the faltering politicians at the head of the government. He warned them the reverses were creating a situation in France comparable to that of Russia in 1917. “It must not come to that!” he warned. Capitulation was preferable to the menace of upheaval at home.

“Democratic” France still had its navy, its vast colonial forces, its still undefeated British ally. Even on ordinary bourgeois terms there was ample basis for continuing the struggle. But the rulers of France were convinced of Hitler’s invincibility and even of the desirability of embracing his methods. They were not interested in defending the fatherland “for the sake of the fatherland.” The emoluments of vassalage to Hitler were preferable to the uncertain stakes of continuing the war. Within a few days the aged reactionary Petain and a miserable clique of politicians bred in the bone of French bourgeois “democracy” were brought forward to carry out the necessary tasks of the transition. They signed an armistice. At their behest the French parliament voted itself out of existence. Even Paul (“fight-to-the-death”) Reynaud came to Vichy to vote too. By simple decree, the watchwords of French democracy – liberty, equality, fraternity – were erased from the national structure. Petain assumed the powers and the pose of a senile and impotent Bonaparte.

France, the cradle of modern bourgeois democracy, has today become its tomb. But the workers of France remember that their grandfathers also gave the world its first introduction to the proletarian dictatorship – and did so also amid the clatter of a German army of occupation. When the people of France raise their heads again – as they surely will – it will be not under the banner of 1789 but under the red flag of the Commune.

Anglo-American Democracy

In France and in Western Europe declining bourgeois democracy was finished off by the armed might of German imperialism, already distilled into its Fascist form. In Britain and the United States the outlived system is being shed as rapidly as possible in preparation for the further battles of the war.

The British ruling class commands an empire which has been steadily declining for decades but which is still of enormous specific gravity. Moreover, behind it stands the power of American capitalism, the real contestant with Germany for the legacy of British world domination. Because of its great wealth and predominant world position, the British ruling class has always effectively commanded the services of a docile labor aristocracy. With the help of Bevin, Morrison, Attlee & Co., the masters of England are seeking desperately to convert their sprawling economic strength into a totalitarian instrument capable of withstanding the approaching German onslaught. Democratic institutions are the first impediments to be shed. Parliament still meets to listen dutifully to the ministers of government. The press continues to exercise, within strictly demarcated limits, the privilege of mild criticism. But the power of total compulsion already stands thinly disguised by these pretenses.

In the United States preparation for the inevitable future collision with Germany has required first of all the rapid conversion of American economy into a weapon of total war. This means, of course, a totalitarian economy. The old “liberal” capitalist economy was based upon the principle of unbridled competition. The political system of bourgeois democracy served adequately for nearly three centuries to cloak the essential anarchy of capitalist economic relations. But now this anarchy has reached its ultimate expression in the form of “total” imperialist war, a war of unified and coordinated and militarized economic plants hurled as national entities against each other. Individual capitalists have to throw in their lot with a national pool of their class interests and turn over their administration to a super-state power. But the cardinal principle of totalitarianism is the total subjugation of labor and its maintenance upon the barest subsistence level. This is to be achieved as far as possible by deception and persuasion, then beyond that by force. This is the road we have already travelled for a far greater distance than most people realize.

The peoples of England and the United States are being told that rights enjoyed under bourgeois democracy have to be surrendered in the present crisis in the interests of the “national defense.” This argument is part of the process of persuasion. It is also an admission that bourgeois democracy, as such, is incapable of defending itself. The people are told their “rights” have to be surrendered now to be returned at some indefinite future time. The democratic princess is to be placed in a coma-like sleep, to be awakened by the magical kiss of some Prince Charming in a distant tomorrow. Unfortunately, life is not a fairy tale, despite its fantastic features. The war of 1940 has already given ample proof that bourgeois democracy cannot merely play at being dead. Where its form remains, as in the United States, its substance is steadily being drained away. No Prince Charming known to man can boast enough potency in his kiss to bring it to life again.

The struggle of the British and American working class to defend its democratic rights – its organizations, its strike weapon, its press, etc. – prevents a speedier development of totalitarianism in Britain and the United States. This process leads liberals to identify the labor movement with bourgeois democracy and to say that the stronger the labor movement is, the more virile is bourgeois democracy. In reality, however, the observation of the liberals is only a partial truth – true for the moment but false to the unfolding character of this process. A qualitative change must take place tomorrow. If today it still appears that the workers are merely demanding certain rights within the confines of bourgeois democracy, tomorrow the sharpening of the struggle for those rights will transform it into a struggle for power. The resurgence of the labor movement will result, not in increased virility of bourgeois democracy, but in nakedly posing as the only alternatives either the dictatorship of the proletariat or the totalitarian dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. The revolutionist naturally supports every limited demand of a workers’ organization but while doing so he knows where the logic of the struggle is carrying the organized proletariat: to power or to fascist dismemberment.

The Soviet Union and the Imperialists

Together with the old “liberal” capitalist institutions, the old world structure of multiple national states is also being hammered into a new shape on the anvil of totalitarianism. Fascism represents the ultimate concentration of capital on a national scale. The total imperialist war it engenders likewise implies an effort to concentrate imperialist strength on a continental and a world-wide scale. Totalitarian capitalism is trying by its own methods and in its own interests to level the national barriers which impede the operations of the profit system. In the war at its present stage it is possible to discern the outlines of three emerging imperialist blocs between and among whom the still greater collisions of tomorrow are destined to take place.

Germany has already established an uncertain mastery over Western Europe. US imperialism seeks a firm war bloc of the Americas and is prepared to absorb into its camp the surviving sections of the British Empire, regardless of the fate of insular England. Finally Japan, weakest of the imperialist antagonists, is straining madly to spread its wings over the vast spaces of Asia.

Between two of these blocs and standing in uncertain relations to all of them is the Soviet Union. Isolated in a hostile capitalist world, the Russian Workers’ State extruded the reactionary dictatorship of Stalin, which substituted the narrowing interests of the Soviet bureaucracy for the international basis of the proletarian revolution. It replaced the strategy of world revolution by the Utopian and reactionary doctrine of socialism in one country. It substituted over-cunning maneuvers among imperialist groupings for reliance upon the world working class. At home it deformed and crippled Soviet economy and by ruthless terror exterminated the Bolshevik party. Its mass purges reflected its instability, its total cynicism, its utter bankruptcy. It became apostle-in-chief of the status quo.

Nothing is more unsettling to the status quo than revolution and through the domesticated Comintern and the dread apparatus of the GPU, Stalin broke the back of the proletarian revolution in China, in Germany, Austria, France, and Spain. Having helped bring Hitler to power, Stalin sought help against him in other bourgeois chancelleries. His courtship of Britain and France produced the People’s Fronts of 1935–39. Then, as war approached, Stalin abruptly switched his bets. With characteristic contempt for the world proletariat, he entered upon his compact with Hitler, shared in the enslavement of the Polish people. He greedily snatched slops from Hitler’s tables, acquiring by his permission extended outposts in the Baltic, in Finland, and Rumania.

Hitler knew as well as Stalin that the Kremlin regarded these as essential for defense against eventual and inevitable German attack. But Hitler also acquired a common frontier with the USSR from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Moreover, in his Finnish adventure, Stalin exposed the fatal weakness of his army and his regime. As the war year of 1940 draws to a close, the Kremlin oligarchy pursues a policy of fearful waiting, more isolated than ever before, and more than ever before deprived of the support and sympathy of the world working class. Stalinist “realism” – the glory of the petty-bourgeois “friends” of yesteryear – has led the Soviet Union to the edge of the precipice where today it still hovers.

Nevertheless the Soviet Union – despite its Stalinist deformation – remains an unconquered bastion of the world proletarian revolution. As such it is to be defended by class conscious workers – against and despite Stalin – against imperialist attack. This defense rests solely in the effective preparation of the world workers’ revolution which can alone save the Workers’ State from extinction and rescue it from the Stalinist bureaucracy.

Can There Be a Capitalist Peace?

Can there be a capitalist “peace”? Few, even among capitalist spokesmen, dare answer this question affirmatively. Instead we are treated to the spectacle of the Churchills, the Mussolinis, and the Hitlers competing in presenting to their peoples the mirage of a new kind of world to follow the war, a world in which present inequalities and miseries would be forever abolished. Churchill recently promised the people of Britain that after the war “the advantages and privileges which hitherto have been enjoyed only by the few shall be far more widely shared.” The Rome radio quickly retorted: “Italy has been preaching the same thing for years. (Churchill) is beginning to agree with us and adhere to our fascist ideas.” (NY Times, Dec. 21) Hitler represents himself as the savior of the proletariat from the plutocratic capitalists and speaks of his war as a “war against the capitalist nations.”

These rulers know that the peoples they have driven into war are filled with hatred – hatred not so much of the alien enemy as of the whole order of things which has condemned them to this holocaust. These rulers know that this hatred, today dull and passive, will tomorrow grow angry and active. A radio reporter back from England tells us that the British people he has been observing at close quarters for a year “have two obsessions: to fight on until Hitler is smashed and their wives and children are safe again; and to end England’s fatal rule by a privileged class.” (Look, Dec. 31)

The official propaganda of all the powers is compelled to speak in terms of a socialist future in order to make the barbaric present more palatable. They speak of the future, to be sure, as though it were a vaguely imagined gleam on a distant, unseen horizon. Still the necessity lies hard upon them to depict it in equalitarian terms, in socialist terms. But the memory of the peoples is not quite so short as their rulers would like.

The imperialists presented similar panaceas to brighten the gloom of 1914–18. The promised future turned out in 1940 to be the black shadows of renewed world war. The peoples, of the earth will not allow the war-makers to impose their “peace” once more. When peace comes out of today’s maelstrom, it will be a peace dictated by the exploited of the world. The war of totalitarian capitalism is plunging the world into an era of barbarism. Out of it, we are certain, the forces of the proletarian revolution will re-emerge, hardened as never before, and put humanity back on the road to the socialist society of the future.

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