This essay by Trotsky is short but of considerable interest, though empirically it deals with some not-very-well-known periods surrounding the rise (or threatened rise) of fascism in Europe: In Germany, France, Italy and Poland.
What it really is about is emphasizing Lenin’s point that in analysing apparently new social and economic developments, Marxists have to pay close attention to social developments in their full complexity, and not be content with abstract statements.
It deals concretely with situations where previously apparently stable bourgeois-parliamentary-dominated societies had been destabilized by economic and political crisis, and class struggle, that threatened to tear them apart.
The forms of government that emerged in those situations were transitional. As we noted in the last educational, a mass fascist movement only emerges when capitalist society has been plunged into a major social crisis, and the working class goes into revolt against the attacks on the standard of life that bourgeois society exacts against the oppressed classes: workers and petty-bourgeoisie alike, but the working class parties prove incapable to taking resolute action to solve the crisis.
I.e., when the working class has the opportunity to take power, but its leaderships abdicate and refuse to do so.
Then, fascism emerges as a new movement based around a particular bourgeois party that dedicates itself to ensuring that the petit-bourgeois masses blame the proletariat for the social crisis of capitalism itself. The fascists mobilise the petit-bourgeoisie and backward, lumpenised workers, to crush and atomise the organisations of the working class, by terror.
The bourgeoisie is afraid of the working class being mobilized in struggle. But it also fears the petit bourgeoisie being mobilized to a degree, even when it takes action against the working class in the first place. Not least because mobilized masses in struggle are capable of learing, of changing their minds about who the enemy is.
That danger makes the bourgeoisie uneasy. It fears such class conflict, and the job of the bourgeois state is to regulate class conflict, to keep it within certain bounds. So when parliament loses its authority in such a struggle, we see forms of Bonapartism emerge. A regime that bases itself more on the military and police, rather than the parliament.
Trotsky discussed the various permuations of this. Hugenburg, Schliecher and Von Papen in Germany in 1930-32. Bourgeois politicians from the parliamentary right and centre, who in the lead up to the Nazi victory, governed based on the support of the army rather than parliament, which became a rubber stamp.
Their aim was to ‘reconcile’ the warring camps: the labour movement led by the KPD and SPD, vs the petty bourgeois and lumpens led by the NSDAP. But such was the depth of the polarization and social crisis that this proved inadequate for the ruling class, and so Hitler was appointed chancellor in Jan 1933.
Trotsky pointed out that the fear of the ruling class of the plebian masses that brought the fascists to power inevitably meant that bourgeoisie would move to crush those masses also. Hence the attack on the SA, the night of the long knives, in 1934, pretty much concurrent with Trotsky’s essay being written.
Fascism in power thus sheds its mass base, which the ruling class fears, and becomes a more stable form of Bonapartism – military-police rule – more stable because the proletariat has been already atomized.
In France in the same capitalist crisis, the Great Depression – Gaston Doumergue (with two generals) was brought to power in February 1934, after the National Assembly was attacked by fascists and royalists. But in France, the working class responsed to the attack and mobilised.
By the summer of 1936 the Front Populaire was elected – a bloc of the Communist Party and the French Social Democrats (SFIO) led by Leon Blum, with the bourgeois Radicals, which triggered off a huge, near-revolutionary General Strike.
Even though it was betrayed and did not reach its full potential, this made it well nigh impossible for fascism to triumph in France in purely domestic class conflict.
The consequence of the French ruling class failure to crush the labour movement domestically led to most of the French ruling class welcoming Hitler’s invasion in 1940, and to the Vichy regime: based on the watchworld “Better Hitler than the Popular Front”.
What is also interesting in this essay is the use it makes of Marx’s concept of Bonapartism, from The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, about the false Napoleon (III). Who himself balanced between the classes, coming to power in 1852 after the 1848 June days in Paris, which was probably the first independent proletarian insurrection in history.
Bonapartism ‘balances’ between the contending classes, and produces a regime that appears independent of both, but in fact is dependent on a certain equilibrium between them. This was true in Germany in 1931-3, and in France in 1934-6.
And when the equilibrium broke down, bonarpartism collapsed, to the right in Germany 1933, fleetingly to the left in France in 1936.
With Louis Bonaparte vs the original Napoleon I, history repeated itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, as Marx noted. Napoleon I was an early example. Although he crowned himself, Napoleon could be said to be a Bonapartism partly of the left. Though based on Thermidor, the overthrow of the Jacobins by a more conservative bourgeois faction, he also exported the French revolution across Europe, and destabilised feudalism beyond repair on a continental scale.
Bonapartism of the left can exist. Not only in bourgeois states, but also in workers states. It vacillates between different social forces.
Examples in bourgeois states are Portugal 1974. Carnation Revolution – Carvalho overthrew Salazar’s chosen successor Caetano in a left-wing military coup, which was the starting point of the revolution.
We see the anti-colonial, anti-French military coups today in Niger, Mali, and Burkino Faso, within the Sahel region of Africa. These are clearly rebellions against neo-colonial rule by means of a popular military coup.
We see Stalinism as a new form of bonarpartism in a workers state – soviet bonapartism. a subject for future discussion.
Even Vladimir Putin, long after the destruction of the USSR, is a mild bonapartist figure in some ways. In an even more unique situation – a capitalist state that deviates massively from the norm of such states because of its productive forces being products of several decades of post-capitalist development.
Trotsky’s little essay is in embryo something of a treasure trove for Marxists to explore for useful aids to help with understanding today’s world.