Paul Mattick 1949
Review of Stalin and German Communism. A Study in the Origins of the State Party. By Ruth Fischer, Harvard University Press, 1948, 687 pp., $80;
Source: Western Socialist, Boston, USA, March-April, 1949;
Transcribed: by Adam Buick.
The post-war situation with the new imperialist rivalries brought forth an American boom in anti-bolshevik literature. The latest of several big volumes, starting with Trotsky’s Stalin biography is Ruth Fischer’s work on the relationship between Stalin and the German Communist Party. To deal with Stalinism in this manner us particularly apt, as the competition between America and Russia concerns control over other countries. The “rape” of smaller nations by greater powers is a modern rallying-cry for war; which is understandable, for what one’s rival swallows is lost to one’s own appetite. Interest in ways and means of Russian “aggression” is consequently great and this book hopes to keep it awake for the approaching new struggles against the expanding totalitarianism.
Introducing Ruth Fischer to the American readers, Professor Fay of Harvard points out that her exposition of Russian policy is of the greatest significance for the world today, because it shows that Communist parties work for their “Moscow masters, rather than as honest patriots for the good of their native land.” Russian efforts to manipulate German Communist policy regardless of Germany’s own interests, he says, was one important reason for Ruth Fischer’s break with Moscow. It was, moreover, a deep democratic concern with Lenin’s “right of national self-determination” that made her into a Communist in the first place. According to Fay, it was the refusal on the part of the social-democratic leaders to think in terms of real autonomy for the various nationalities in the Austro-Hungarian state that drove Ruth Fischer to the extreme left of her party and made her one of the founders of Austrian Communism. In this way Ruth Fischer is relegated into the ranks of the many patriotic martyrs and statesmen who fled the new Russian Empire to write books in the United States.
Professor Fay’s protective attitude towards his author and himself is rather superfluous. Sympathy with “German” Communists is bound to grow with the approaching war against Russia, just as sympathies for “Russian” Communists assumed forms of brotherly love in the second world war against the German totalitarians. Although there has been a period of ardent German nationalism in Ruth Fischer’s political life, her patriotism must not be taken too seriously. After all, she changed rather quickly from the “fight for self-determination” in Austria to the “genuinely international” German Communist Party. And within this party, in Fay’s words, “as a young woman in her early twenties, and not even a German citizen,” she rose quickly, “much to her own surprise,” to the position which enables her today to speak with authority about communism and German Communism in particular.
Of course it is not possible to make Ruth Fischer responsible for Professor Fay’s strange and ill-informed preface; it is she who works for Harvard and not vice versa. It is quite irritating, nevertheless, to see Professor Fay bewail the disunity of the German working class, which supposedly prevented the full democratic success of the Weimar Republic, as a “tragic misfortune for the world.” And this by way of introducing a book which makes it vividly clear that it was not the disunity in the ranks of the workers, but the unity between the bourgeoisie and the democratic labor movement, that hindered the unfolding of a “really democratic revolution.” The split between “socialists” and “communists” in 1918 did not cause the collapse of Weimar, but was an attempt to develop a revolutionary force in Germany able to prevent a capitalistic restoration and the return of German imperialism.
However, when Professor Fay speaks of a “really democratic revolution” he does not think in terms of socialism. He merely prefers Weimar to the Third Reich, and even at this late date he holds on to the convenient illusion that a united front between “socialists” and “communists” would have prevented the Hitler regime. But the Weimar Republic ended into the Third Reich because there has been no socialist revolution, because, to speak in Fay’s terms, the split in the working class had not been wide enough. Professor Fay seems to have missed the whole point of Ruth Fischer’s book, namely, that Stalinism represents a kind of red fascism. And not only since the conclusion of the second world war, but many years before the Hitler-Stalin pact. The division of the labor movement in 1933 represented something other than the split in 1918. With Hitler’s rise to power, the capitalistically minded social-democratic organizations and trade unions faced the Russian totalitarians in German clothes. Hitler could destroy the German labor movement so easily not because it was disunited, but because it was partly not a labor movement and partly not German.
Disregarding the preface, Ruth Fischer’s first two-hundred pages give an interestingly written and objective account of the political changes in Germany after the first world war. They deal with the development of the German left-wing movement during the war, with the Spartakusbund and similar organizations, their consolidation into the Communist Party, the frictions within this party, its early use as an instrument of Russian foreign policy, the position and relations of the workers and soldiers councils to the established political organizations and trade unions, the defeat of all revolutionary aspirations, and the return of German militarism.
The bulk of the book, however, remains interesting mainly as an example of the professional revolutionist’s view of history. With Ruth Fischer’s entrance into the political picture her book describes, much of the objectivity that characterizes the first part of the work makes way to the subjective wrath of the defeated politician. History is now almost exclusively seen in the distorted form of inter-and-intra-party struggles; the party-faction and the party-leader replace the traditional “hero” or “villain” in explaining historical change. She speaks now of “the sure instinct of the born power-politician,” who appeals to “the vanity of the unprocessed raw material of society,” that is, the workers, and defeats those less favorably endowed for the struggle for power. This way of writing history requires a large amount of “inside information” and turns her book into a real “Who’s Who of Communism” as her publisher happily points out. That much of this information appears in footnotes does not reduce its importance. It is thus easily available to those who like to match Stalin’s famous Kremlin files with similar but democratic office appliances in this country.
Even the quality of the first parts of the book is somewhat impaired by an attempt to make the Stalinist betrayal of “German” Communism the more abhorrent by granting to the German Left a larger credit than its due. Even if in the wake of the first world war a minority of the German labor movement went farther in its revolutionary aspirations than other minority groups in other countries, their inability to overcome their social-democratic past transcended their subjective readiness to take the revolution seriously. The lack of definite ideas of procedure, the substitution of slogans for concrete plans, the incapacity to adjudge the world situation realistically, accounted for both the demand for leadership, and the indecisiveness of the leaders heading the movement. All the efforts made, all the heroism shown, all the sacrifices suffered, amounted in the end to no more than a feeble gesture in the right direction, unable to affect the bulk of the labor movement, busy as it was with the restoration of the war-torn world by way of capitalistic reforms.
There was not very much to be “betrayed.” Furthermore, if the radical wing of the German labor movement could be brought under Russian domination within the span of a few years, there must have been tendencies within this movement itself favoring bolshevik rule. In fact, it was again a minority within a minority which seriously tried to break with the tradition of reform to which both the socialists and the bolsheviks adhered. The differences between these latter groups were merely of a tactical nature, or rather related to tactical issues at a particular historical moment. On the question as to what constitutes socialism both agreed on the nationalization of capitalist property and its administration by the state. One party was out to capture governmental power by revolution, the other by reform. Most of the German Communists accepted the bolshevik leadership so readily because it corresponded to their own ideas of revolutionary rule.
There were, however, groups of communists who tried to actualize the propaganda slogan “All Power to the Soviets.” They advocated actions and proposed goals beyond the understanding and interests of revolutionists out for governmental positions in a state-controlled society. They, too, had their day in the political convulsions between 1918 ad 1921. Against them, however, there always operated an informal united front of “socialists” and bolsheviks. Russian intervention set in with Lenin’s attack upon the so-called “ultra-left” in Germany. Against their “infantile radicalism,” hr urged the return to parliamentarism, to trade-union activity, to opportunism in general. His German disciples did not hesitate to split the young Communist Party to suit the great Russian leader’s tastes and needs. At this time Ruth Fischer was not yet in leading position, but supported Zinoviev and Radek, the executors of the Moscow program.
Russian domination of German Communism did not have to avail of Stalin’s coming to power; it was instituted quite early by Lenin himself with the artificial creation of the Third International, the twenty-one points of admission subordinating the international movement to the decisions of the Russian leaders, the splitting of the originally anti-reformist Communist Party and the merging of its Leninist right wing with the reformist Independent Socialists. If Ruth Fischer speaks persistently of herself as representing a “left” opposition, it must be pointed out, that this left factionalism had nothing whatever to do with the actual attempts of the German radicals to oppose the totalitarian rule of bolshevism. Her work went on within the bolshevik party and relates merely to the manipulatory needs of the Russian overseers in the early stages of their developing totalitarianism. With a “left” and a “right” faction, manoeuvring was made easy. Now they could blow hot and cold, move in one direction or another, or not move at all. They could advance and retreat, take in reformism or revolution, be national or international, just as the shifting needs of the Russian state required. Neither the “left” nor the “right” had an independent policy, but represented different sets of politicians, emphasizing one or another aspect of bolshevism, in order to make secure at all times the control of the Russian manipulators.
The need for this largely indirect form of control ceased to exist with the stabilization of world capitalism and the completion of the authoritarian rule in Russia. Factionalism became first an unnecessary luxury and soon an annoyance, as it slowed down the execution of orders from above. When it became clear that neither the mood of the masses, nor the opinions of the party-members carried weight any longer, immobilized as they were by the relatively settled world conditions, more direct methods of control were introduced. The “purge” displaced the empty chatter about “right” and “left” turns, and all decisions made by the Central Committee represented as unquestionable the “correct line.” Those who did not grasp the change of situation fell quickly by the wayside.
Ruth Fischer’s rise and fall, too, is not explained by any kind of anti-totalitarianism on her part, but by some tactical changes forced upon the Russian leadership and by a struggle for control raging within the Russian party. Comintern policy, shifting back and forth from reformism to putschism, in a steady search for a greater support of Russian state policies, led to the defeat of the abortive October uprising in 1923. In an attempt to shift responsibility from the higher to the lower levels of the Comintern hierarchy, the Russian-sponsored leadership of the German Communist Party was forced to make room for their untried “left” competitors, Maslow and Fischer. Within the Russian party the fight for Lenin’s place was already in full swing. Trotsky, too, played a “left” tune. However, Maslow and Fischer thought of a different melody, and by supporting Stalin and Zinoviev in Russia, secured to themselves the German leadership. Once in power, the “left” orientation proved to mean a further decline in party-democracy, more discipline, more authoritarianism. But if the support of Stalin and Zinoviev gained Maslow and Fischer the German leadership, it was soon lost again on account of Stalin’s fight against Zinoviev for the control of the Russian party. A general turn to the “right” discredited Zinoviev and supported Stalin. It forced the former to denounce and destroy his own “left” following to strengthen his position vis-à-vis the Stalin clique. But Stalin won the fight and with the question of leadership thus definitely settled, all anti-Stalinists, Maslow and Fischer included, were thrown out of the party.
If the intra-party struggles forced Ruth Fischer into an actual oppositional position, her “leftist” orientation became now merely an anti-Stalinist point of view. Like all the other expelled opposition groups, her own persisted in regarding itself as the only “true” bolshevist movement as against the Stalinist “counter-revolution.” They set up new organizations that did not differ in form or spirit from those of the Stalinists, and spent the rest of their pseudo-political existence in the illusory hope of regaining their “rightful” place in the international bolshevik movement.
However, their lips were no longer sealed as far as Stalin was concerned. They could now criticize, defame, and ridicule to their heart’s content. Ruth Fischer holds nothing back, not even her own weird imagination, to prove the utter debasement of her political enemies and friends of yesterday. Even the failings, mistakes, and shady deals of pre-Stalin bolshevism are now exposed, though partly excused. They were of course known to her while still in power, but as long as silence was golden, she kept silent, as becomes a good bolshevik.
To speak of a Stalinist counter-revolution, Ruth Fischer must defend Lenin’s policies, thereby simultaneously justifying her own political past. Almost masochistically she tries to exonerate Lenin of his own interventions in German politics. It was not really Lenin, she says, but others, who “got Lenin to recommend Maslow’s elimination from the German Party.” This is, no doubt, the extreme in self-denial, as Maslow is the real hero of her book; an all-round genius, as if sprung from the cover of Time magazine. At all crucial points, she writes, “Lenin’s intervention in German Communist affairs, presents an attitude directly opposed to that of Stalin.” And this because of “a contrast in character” and a “different political climate.” Although “Lenin fought for the centralized power of the party,” she says, it was “always with a full consciousness of the dangers to the original concept of soviet democracy in the use of compulsory measures"!
Though conscious of the dangers involved, Lenin decided nevertheless to live dangerously. It must be a great comfort to the massacred Krondstadt revolutionists to know, if they could, that Lenin worried about democracy while applying martial law. And also for the dead hostages, democratically butchered at the ratio of two-hundred to one. Who knows, the ratio might have been less favorable to the victims had it not been for Lenin’s original concept of soviet-democracy? However, the Dzerzhinsky-pattern was evolved not only as a weapon against the white-guardists, but also for the struggle against soviet democracy. The latter was the revolution itself, not yet brought under party control. It was the enemy, which Lenin fought, and over which Stalin finally triumphed.
The whole of Lenin’s theory and practice speaks against Ruth Fischer’s interpretation. All she has to offer in support of her thesis is the promise behind the power. Of course, all rulers and ruling groups, declare their dictatorship a necessary, if unpleasant medium to a better life for all. If they are still struggling for power, their promises are quite specific; as soon as they are in power, the promises become rather vague and their fulfilment is relegated into the distant future. Lenin’s promises are still on Stalin’s lips. And what Lenin intended to do in Russia has been fulfilled in her state-economy. The Russian state does not differ from Lenin’s party concept, developed long before the revolution. If his principles of organization and control appear to differ from the Russian reality, it is because it involves no longer a few thousand people, but more than 160 millions, no longer a selected group of revolutionists, but all the social layers of Russia and beyond.
What, in any case, is all this talk about the leader’s character structure anyway? What sort of “social” movement is represented by organizations depending in their destination on the character of the leader? Certainly not a communist movement trying to break the monopolization of power and to end the social class structure. In Ruth Fischer’s story the whole of Stalinism and modern Russian imperialism seems to result from Lenin’s untimely death. “After Lenin’s second stroke,” she writes, “Stalin tightened the screws.” And as “Lenin became weaker, Stalin became bolder.” Zinoviev’s position “became more and more difficult between Lenin’s second and third stroke,” and so forth, until all is lost with Lenin’s last breath.
Ruth Fischer’s attempt to reveal the “origins of the State party,” succeeds only In showing some of its manifestations, as she is unable to escape her own bolshevik ideology. She writes about the revolutionary movement as Eisenhower writes about the war. It is all a question of leadership and strategy, and the rest is just logistics. Apparently, the “origin” of the State Party coincides with Stalin’s becoming General Secretary in 1921, for, from page 232 of her book onward, she decides “to capitalize the word Party when referring to the Russian institution, in order to indicate that it has become the sole instrument of power in the state.” As the capitalizing of a word cannot serve as explanation, the whole of her book must serve to explain the capitalizing. In that case, the history of bolshevism is the story of the coming of the State Party, and against this there stood nothing but Lenin’s character qualities and, of course, the revolutionary sincerity of Maslow, Fischer, and their unnamed following. How it is possible, however, to fight for absolute state power and yet not become the State Party, remains unexplained.
The origins of the State Party, Russian or otherwise, are not secret; they are identical with those that gave impetus to the accumulation and expansion of world capitalism. Russian state-capitalism, like German fascism, is a national reaction to the shifts in international power constellations brought on by large-scale competition. There is nothing specifically Russian, Bolshevistic or Stalinistic in the development of state-capitalism, which implies the State Party. To single out the Stalinist Party as originator and carrier of totalitarianism is to obscure the nature of present-day capitalism, whose general trend is towards totalitarian rule. An anti-totalitarianism that is merely anti-Stalinism can lead to no other end than did the anti-totalitarian “crusade” against Hitler.
To be sure, the refusal to see in Russian totalitarianism the only — the present, — or the main enemy, is not to excuse any of the bolshevik actions, nor any of their leaders. The evil machinations of Stalin and the Stalinists in Russia, Germany, and elsewhere, as related by Ruth Fischer and by a growing host of displaced Communists, are just as much a requirement for understanding political trends as literature devoted to “socialist reconstruction” in England, or to the power and capital concentration in the United States. In this respect, however, Ruth Fischer relates only in greater detail what has been said before by other confessors, more or less afflicted by amnesia as regards their own past. It is no more than the struggle for power within the bolshevik regime and its repercussions within the German branch, both interwoven with the past and current imperialistic power games. The story ends with Ruth Fischer’s declaration that “she is no longer able to identify herself with any of the groups” once involved in the fights her book relates.