Circulating an illegal paper

Leon Trotsky, April 18, 1933

Hitler’s fascist regime took power in Germany on 30 January 1933, and rapidly proceeded to crush all workers’ organisations, political parties, and any independent forums for the working class to organise. This was the most terrible defeat of the workers’ movement ever. Trotsky had warned that fascism was a special type of capitalist reaction, based on terroristic attacks by fascist bands to crush the working class politically and organisationally. Hitler’s victory was made possible only because of the paralysis of the powerful workers’ organisations in Germany, and this was due to the mistaken, sectarian politics of their leaders. The German Stalinist leaders of the KPD completely underestimated the deadly threat, believing Hitler would be just another unstable and short-lived right-wing regime, and after Hitler, “it will be our turn!”

This letter is to Jan Frankel, a former secretary of Trotsky’s, who went to help organise underground work against the Nazis. Trotsky advises his comrades, members of the International Left Opposition, on how to make their fortnightly newspaper Unser Wort (Our Word) the centrepiece of their illegal organizational activity. Not everything that Trotsky faced in the 1930s – whether technological or political – is fully applicable to the situation today, but some valuable points are expressed in this short letter.

First of all I want to say something about the German newspaper. In my opinion this question has decisive importance and I ask you to translate my thoughts on the subject for colleagues.

Lenin’s famous work What Is to Be Done? has been indiscriminately cited by the Stalinists hundreds of times, with Lenin’s arguments on the role of the newspaper being applied to completely inappropriate circumstances. In fact, the apparatus of contributors, correspondents, and distributors of the paper becomes the most important component of an illegal party apparatus.

Precisely today in Germany conditions have arisen in which the émigré revolutionary paper takes on the role of organizer. I strongly urge the leading German comrades to carefully reread the relevant pages of What Is to Be Done?

The newspaper must insure, above all, the continuity and uninterrupted development of the political thinking of the Left Opposition. It should, for that purpose, come out regularly regardless of the state of affairs regarding distribution. We began putting out the Russian Biulleten without having any communications with Russia. The ideas of the Biulleten penetrated into the country by various routes. Even now the situation in regard to the circulation of the Biulleten is very poor (this task requires a great deal of attention and great efforts). Nevertheless the Biulleten plays a very big role in the political life of the USSR. The same was true of Iskra in the old days. Many issues have piled up here outside the country owing to breakdowns in our distribution system. Nevertheless the paper has continued to come out punctually.

You cannot arrange distribution for an illegal paper. Only the illegal paper itself, by winning the interest of readers and gathering supporters, can ultimately create its own distribution system. To this must be added the question of the emigres, Austria, of the Germans in Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, etc. The most important task of all at present, in my opinion, is putting out Unser Wort properly.

Sending money to Germany makes no sense, because there it will be spent on trifles. Whereas a properly organized paper will become a source for raising money (in addition to everything else).

To go over to a monthly magazine now is premature. The situation has not yet fully defined itself. Everyone is waiting for clarification of the ongoing events. Of course if – by allying ourselves with other groups – we could create a monthly for theoretical discussion in addition to Unser Wort, that would be good. But to abandon a fortnightly newspaper at this time would be impermissible.

What you report about Kurella is very interesting. This is a man who hated the Left Opposition viciously. How are things with the Hamburg comrades? Don’t forget that we are living here now without a “German” present, and that is much worse than not having a Britisher (Here, Trotsky is referring to translation problems within his political staff following Frankel’s departure).

Write me about yourself. How are you living? How is your health?

Best regards.

Yours, LT.