The workers militia and the struggle for socialism

[An educational talk given to the Melbourne DSP branch, August 2005]

The question of the workers militia may seem to be extremely remote from our present concerns but under the broader heading of workers self-defence it is a very important aspect of the struggle for socialism. And, of course, as Marxists, in preparation for the future, we study a great many things that may seem far away from our immediate concerns but which might, in time, become critically important and which all serve to deepen our understanding of the struggle for socialism.

This afternoon I want to outline some general considerations, especially with reference to the rise of fascism in the 1920s and thirties, and then spend some time on a not widely known but nonetheless extremely instructive example, that of the Austrian workers' self-defence forces — the Schutzbund — in the period 1918-1934.

At certain points in the development of the class struggle, the question of workers' self-defence becomes a central question, even the central question.

In 1952-53, during the height of the Cold War anti-communist witch-hunt in the United States, Socialist Workers Party leader James P. Cannon took time out to deliver six lectures on the topic of America's Road to Socialism. Five of them are collected in the book of the same name (and two are in our book Fighting for Socialism in the 'American Century'). His fourth lecture was entitled "The Coming Struggle for Power". I think his remarks have considerable general applicability.

American capitalism [Cannon explained] is not in love with democracy. It's no principle of American capitalism that we must maintain all the democratic forms — free speech, free press, free rights to organise, and all the rest. The only principle the American capitalists have is the exploitation of labour, the extraction of profits, and the enrichment of themselves at the expense of the workers. That's their principle. If they can do it in an easy and smooth and quiet and peaceful way under political democracy, OK. That's the cheapest way. But when that doesn't work any longer, our wonderful democratic capitalists will turn, with the savage fury of the German and Italian capitalists, to the bloody violence of fascism. They will finance and equip a fascist movement, and check it straight up to the labour movement: "What are you going to do about it? There are going to be no more debates with you, it's going to be fight."

It will be a fight to the finish, and it will be fought on all fronts, from election campaigns to strikes and fights with fascist gangsters in the streets …

The alternatives in this struggle will be truly terrible: Either a workers' government to expropriate the capitalists, or a fascist government to enslave the workers …

Who will win … That side … will win which deserves to win. That side will win which has the will to win, and the consciousness that no compromise is possible. Power is on the side of the workers. They are an absolute majority of the population. And their strategic social position in industry multiplies the importance of their numerical majority at least a hundred times … All they need is will, the confidence, the consciousness, the leadership — and the party which believes in the revolutionary victory, and consciously and deliberately prepares for it in advance by theoretical study and serious organisation. [America's Road to Socialism (Pathfinder Press: New York, 1975), pp. 68-69]


In Europe the 1914-18 world war with its terrible bloodletting and destruction was followed by a real crisis of capitalist rule as workers across the continent launched a number of fundamental challenges to the system, especially in the defeated countries.

In November 1917, the Russian workers and peasants took power and established the first soviet republic. In Germany the years 1918-19 were marked by a huge struggle between the revolutionary-minded workers and the bourgeois counter-revolution. In Austria the end of the war saw the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy and the development of a revolutionary situation. And in Italy the years 1919 and 1920 saw a great upsurge of the workers and peasants culminating in the Turin factory occupations of September 1920.

However, only in Russia was the revolution successful. But in Italy (and then later in Germany), capitalism’s near-fatal encounter with the upsurge of the masses radicalised the bourgeoisie. The bosses wanted to inflict a decisive defeat on the masses so that there would be no resistance to increasing the rate of exploitation and restoring business profits.

For this task the police and army were not sufficient. In fact, it is dangerous to use the army against the people — there is a very real danger that it will disintegrate and sections may even go over to the masses. The bourgeoisie realised it needed a large and specialised anti-popular force to carry out this policy. So it made a turn towards subsidising the fascist bands, hurling them at the workers and peasants to cow them, smash their organisations and break their will to fight.

The social basis of fascism was the petty bourgeoisie, driven to desperation by the crisis. Peversely, through fascism they were recruited to serve the interests of big capital, whose greed and rapacity were the very source of their distress.


In his book Fascism and Big Business (Monad Press: New York, 1973), Daniel Guerin explains how in 1920, the Italian War Ministry sent out a colonel, a "military expert in civil war", who travelled throughout Italy and prepared a detailed plan for a massive assault on the workers and peasants movement. The existing anti-labor gangs would not suffice. (Composed of ex-officers and right-wing army veterans, these bands had flourished after the war.) According to the colonel in his report:

There must be added an idealistic militia organised by the most expert, courageous, strong, and aggressive among us. This militia must be capable both of military resistance and political action … Local actions, with the view to subduing the insolence of the most subversive centres, will be an excellent school for our militia and will at the same time serve to demoralise and crush the enemy …

Guerin remarks that:

Already he [the colonel] was christening these "actions" "local punitive expeditions". The militia to be formed should have strict military organisation and tactics. Only thus would they get the better of the enemy forces — "heterogeneous mobs", badly armed, passive, and incapable of planned and coordinated action. [p. 103]

Subsidised by big business, with the connivance and assistance of the police and army, the fascist bands grew and were welded into a formidable force. At the end of 1920, in 1921 and 1922, fascist attacks took place all over Italy. Thousands of Blackshirts (as they were called from their uniforms) would invest a town or village, wrecking and burning the offices of the workers' co-operatives and the left and labour newspapers; socialist town halls would be seized; workers were tortured and murdered.

However, the reformist Socialist Party politicians and trade union leaders restrained the resistance of the masses and instead pathetically called on the bourgeois state to disarm the fascist gangs. But this was utterly futile and simply demoralised and miseducated the people. What was needed was for the labor and peasant movements to develop a policy of united, militant, armed self-defence — to form their own militias to defend their workplaces and communities and take the struggle to the fascists.

At the certain point the defensive struggle necessarily goes over to a struggle for workers power. As Daniel Guerin explains: "Once fascism embarks on the road to power, the labour movement has only one recourse left: outstrip the fascists and win power first." (p. 121)

The tragedy of Italy in the early 1920s was that the relatively small, but highly motivated and disciplined fascist militia was able to subjugate the numerically far larger and potentially much stronger workers and peasants movement. The latter was unable to develop any effective resistance to the Blackshirt assault. Fascism came to power without its cohesion or fighting capacity being put to a serious test by having to confront a popular movement determined to defend itself by "any means necessary".

Arditi del Popolo

In June 1921 an organisation was created that might have become the nucleus of an effective united popular militia. It was called the Arditi del Popolo — the People's Shock Troops. But the SP and its unions refused to support it. Unfortunately, the Communist Party under the leadership of Amadeo Bordiga also had a sectarian attitude toward it and tried to set up its own purely communist militia (an anticipation of the disastrous policy later carried out in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power). However, individual socialists and communists joined with anarchists and other working-class militants to build the militia.

In August 1922, when 20,000 fascists attacked the working-class stronghold of Parma, a town of 70,000 people in north-central Italy, what eventuated provided a glimpse of what might have happened if the Italian masses had managed to develop their own united self-defence forces on a significant scale.

The defence of the proletarian section of the town was organised on military lines by the Arditi del Popolo, which had long forseen and prepared for just such an attack, both politically and militarily. The whole population was mobilised, inspired and prepared to fight to the end; the available arms were distributed and other weapons improvised; the streets were barricaded and mined and buildings turned into strongholds. In the event, over six days of fighting, the Blackshirts suffered a serious defeat and were forced to withdraw from the town.

But unfortunately the successful defence of Parma remained an isolated event.


In Germany, the end of the war was tied up with a proletarian upsurge which led to the fall of the monarchy and the installation of a right-wing social-democratic government. It was this government which conspired with the bourgeoisie and the army commanders to crush the developing workers revolution in 1918-19 and which was responsible for the murder of Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg and many other revolutionary leaders. Chris Harman's book, The Lost Revolution (Bookmarks: London, 1997) is an excellent study of the German revolution and the stormy years which followed it.

After the war there were numerous anti-worker militias composed of ex-officers, adventurers and criminal elements. These — especially the notorious Freikorps — played a significant role in crushing the proletarian upsurge in 1918-19. Initially Hitler's Nazi Party and its Brownshirt thugs was merely one of these formations. But by the later 1920s it had become the most significant, with the backing of important sections of big business. Although it was not until the early 1930s that the bourgeoisie decisively opted for the fascist solution.

In 1924 the Socialist Party had formed its own anti-fascist militia, the Reichsbanner. It was very large and staged impressive parades. While it is clear that the proletarian ranks wanted to resist the Nazis the social-democratic leaders with their thoroughly parliamentary, legalistic and bourgeois outlook refused to involve it in action and went out of their way to avoid the Reichsbanner actually fighting the fascists, despite endless attacks and provocations. As in Italy earlier, the SPD leaders looked to the state to disarm the Nazis.

The Communist Party also had its own militia, the League of Red Front Fighters. From 1929 to 1931 their policy was to aggressively confront the fascists, even attacking Brownshirt barracks and headquarters. But after 1931 the party abruptly renounced the physical struggle against the Nazis.

Hitler became chancellor in January 1933 and proceeded to consolidate his regime and eliminate all opposition. The seemingly imposing working-class movement was completely eradicated and a severe discipline imposed on the workers (they were tied to their jobs, wages were reduced, etc). As in Italy, fascism had not been seriously opposed by the powerful workers movement and its real combat strength had not been tested.

But it could have been very different. The fascist victory was in no way inevitable. Had the communist and socialist parties understood the fundamental nature of the threat, had they formed a united front to defend the workers movement from the fascist danger, had their powerful militias cooperated to actively resist the Nazi onslaught, the fascist advance could have been checked. The Brownshirt ranks would have become demoralised, big business would have lost confidence in Hitler's capacity to carry out the task assigned to him, and the conditions would have been created for a revolutionary advance.

France in 1934

The victory of fascism in Germany shook up European politics and had echoes everywhere. France, deeply affected by the economic crisis of the early 1930s, was no exception. Rightist militias grew stronger, feeding on the mood of desperation growing in the petty bourgeoisie, and supported by sections of the bosses.

On February 6, several thousand armed right-wingers, fascists and monarchists rallied outside the Chamber of Deputies in Paris to protest against the scandal-ridden Radical Party government of Eduard Daladier. The demonstration became a pitched battle with the police — 14 people were killed and 1300 wounded. The government fell and another Radical, Doumergue, took over, implementing a harsh austerity program. Despite the same divisions as in Germany, the labor movement responded on February 12 with a massive, united general strike.

During this time Trotsky was in exile in France. He had arrived in July 1933 and stayed until mid-1935, harried all the time by both the right wing and the Stalinists. While obliged to play no active role in French politics, he paid very serious attention to what was going on. His most extensive analysis was "Whither France?", written in October 1934. It can be found in the collection Leon Trotsky on France (Monad Press: New York, 1979).

His basic point was that French capitalism was in a deep crisis and that, just as in Italy and Germany, it could no longer afford a democratic regime. The parliamentary system was beginning to disintegrate and the bosses were starting to look to fascism as the means to smash the workers movement. He called on the Socialist and Communist parties to unite for self-defence against the growing rightist threat and orient towards a decisive struggle for power. "If the revolutionary proletariat does not take power, fascism will inevitably take it!" (p. 60)

In "Whither France?" Trotsky devotes a lot of attention to the question of a workers militia and takes up the arguments made against it by the social-democrats and Stalinists.

1. They trumpeted the virtues of the newly formed united front of the two parties. But as Trotsky pointed out: "In itself the united front decides nothing. Only the struggle of the masses decides." (p. 44) It would only have value if Communist and Socialist detachments came to each others aid when the fascists attacked their offices and activities. But this presupposed that combat detachments existed, were trained, armed and properly led.

2. The idea of "mass self-defence" was counterposed to the militia. Trotsky responded: "Without the support of the masses, the militia is nothing. But without organised combat detachments, the most heroic masses will be smashed bit by bit by the fascist gangs. It is nonsense to counterpose the militia to self-defence. The militia is an organ of self-defence." (p. 44)

3. The Stalinists argued that the SPD and CP militias did not save the German workers from fascism, as if the militia were the problem. "The militia in itself does not solve the question", Trotsky retorted. "A correct policy is necessary." (p. 45) He argues that 90% of any civil war struggle for power depends on the political struggle and only to a much smaller degree on purely military and technical questions.

4. The bourgeois state is armed to the teeth. How could the workers stand up to this? Where will they get arms?

In the first place, the workers can get arms by systematically disarming the fascists. When the workers militia begins to build up its stock of weapons at the expense of the fascists, big business will be more cautious with its support. Furthermore, Trotsky points out:

The proletariat produces arms, transports them, erects the buildings in which they are kept, defends these buildings against itself, serves in the army and creates all its equipment. It is neither locks nor walls which separate the proletariat from arms, but the habit of submission, the hypnosis of class domination, and nationalist poison.

It is sufficient to destroy these psychological walls and no wall of stone will stand in the way. It is enough that the proletariat will want arms — and it will find them. [p. 52]

And to those who were frightened by the military might of the modern army, Trotsky pointed out that behind the army's weapons were human beings, linked to each other and the wider society by social and political bonds. A key task of every revolutionary struggle is to paralyse or neutralise the bourgeois army and, if possible, to win over a significant section of it.

"Whither France?" is both an acute analysis and an impassioned call to arms. This text and the others in the collection Leon Trotsky on France will certainly repay serious study by Marxist activists.

Workers self-defence in general

The Transitional Program (written in 1938), in the section on "The picket line/defence guards/workers’ militia/the arming of the proletariat", generalises the experience of the international workers movement in regard to defending itself against the threat of fascism.

The sharpening of the proletariat's struggle means the sharpening of the methods of counterattack on the part of capital …

The bourgeoisie is nowhere satisfied with official police and army. In the United States, even during "peaceful" times, the bourgeoisie maintains militarised battalions of scabs and privately armed thugs in factories. To this must now be added the various groups of American Nazis. The French bourgeoisie at the first approach of danger mobilised semilegal and illegal fascist detachments, including such as are in the army. No sooner does the pressure of the English workers once again become stronger than immediately the fascist bands are doubled, trebled, increased tenfold to come out in bloody march against the workers …

Only armed workers’ detachments, who feel the support of tens of millions of toilers behind them, can successfully prevail against the fascist bands. The struggle against fascism does not start in the liberal editorial office but in the factory — and ends in the street. Scabs and private gunmen in factory plants are the basic nuclei of the fascist army. Strike pickets are the basic nuclei of the proletarian army. This is our point of departure. In connection with every strike, and street demonstration, it is imperative to propagate the necessity of creating workers’ groups for self-defence …

A new upsurge of the mass movement should serve not only to increase the number of these units but also to unite them according to neighborhoods, cities, regions. It is necessary to give organised expression to the valid hatred of the workers toward scabs and bands of gangsters and fascists. It is necessary to advance the slogan of a workers' militia as the one serious guarantee for the inviolability of workers’ organisations, meetings, and press.

Only with the help of such systematic, persistent, indefatigable, courageous agitational and organisational work, always on the basis of the experience of the masses themselves, is it possible to root out from their consciousness the traditions of submissiveness and passivity; to train detachments of heroic fighters capable of setting an example to all toilers; to inflict a series of tactical defeats upon the armed thugs of counterrevolution; to raise the self-confidence of the exploited and oppressed; to compromise fascism in the eyes of the petty bourgeoisie and pave the road for the conquest of power by the proletariat. [The Transitional Program & the Struggle for Socialism (Resistance Books: Chippendale, 1999), pp. 34-36]

Workers self-defence against a growing ultra-right or fascist threat in various political contexts is a key focus of our book, The Fight Against Fascism in the USA (Resistance Books: Chippendale, 2004). It has articles by Cannon, Trotsky and others.

Austrian Schutzbund

Now I'd like to turn to the case of Austria.

Austro-Marxism is the term used to refer to the reformist politics of Austrian social-democracy, led by Otto Bauer (1882-1938), who stood on the left and was its chief theoretician, and Friedrich Adler (1879-1960), the son of party founder Victor Adler. In 1916 Friedrich Adler had assassinated the Austrian prime minister in despair and protest against the wartime slaughter. But this terrorist act did not make him a revolutionary and he remained a social-democrat. Another prominent figure in Austrian social-democracy was the right-winger Karl Renner (1870-1950). Following the November revolution he was chancellor of the first postwar government and again in the 1945 post-Nazi government.

For 15 years after World War I the Austrian workers had a very substantial armed workers militia, at times rivalling the bourgeois army in numbers and effectiveness. However, under the control of the social-democracy it was not used as an instrument of the proletarian revolution but solely as a passive threat directed at the right: You play by the supposed rules of the bourgeois-democratic game or … we’ll do something. Then, in February 1934, faced with a determined right-wing assault, when they finally actually did attempt to do something what eventuated was a tragic fiasco — albeit marked by tremendous heroism from a committed vanguard.

The study on which I’ve largely depended for what follows is Ilona Duczynska’s outstanding book Workers in Arms: The Austrian Schutzbund and the Civil War of 1934 (Monthly Review Press: New York, 1978). Born in Austria, the author was a participant in the postwar revolution in Hungary and a member of the early Communist Party there. She wrote the book when she was in her seventies. It is dedicated "In memory of all who worked and died true to social and national liberation — socialists, communists, guerrillas of all countries, believers in all faiths." It certainly deserves to be on comrades' reading lists.

Here I can only sketch several key episodes and try and draw some political lessons. Comrades wanting a proper history should read Ilona Duczynska's book.

1918-19: revolutionary upsurge

During the war the sprawling Austro-Hungarian empire of the Habsburg dynasty was Germany's junior and much weaker partner. Like tsarist Russia, the empire was a prison-house of nations centred around German Austria. With the defeat in November 1918 it started to come apart. The monarchy fell and the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians and other peoples went their separate ways. Austria was now the small German-speaking remnant of a once huge empire, forbidden by the Allies to unite with Germany.

As the soldiers streamed home from the fronts Austria was awash with arms. Defence units sprang up everywhere. The workers in the factories spontaneously proceeded to arm themselves and form workers' guards to protect the plants and defend their new freedoms. Although it was independent at first, the social-democratic leadership eventually managed to gain control of the new militia movement.

On March 21, 1919 a soviet republic was proclaimed in Hungary. It lasted until August when it succumbed to the counter-revolution. Some 1200 Austrians joined the Hungarian Red Army and 400 died in action in its ranks.

A Central Workers' Council was formed in Vienna, dominated by the social-democrats but with minority participation by the communists. Against the votes of the communists, the council refused to join hands with the Hungarian workers.

In a letter to Béla Kun, the leader of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, Otto Bauer set out his reasons for failing to press forward to create a soviet bloc in central Europe. (In April a short-lived soviet republic was also set up in Munich in Bavaria.) In his introduction to Workers in Arms Eric Hobsbawm summarises:

He [Otto Bauer] pointed out that a communist Austria (a) would have provoked immediate counter-revolution by the right-wing peasant provinces, (b) immediately would have led to the withdrawl of the daily food supplies by the victorious powers on which Vienna depended, and (c) immediately would have provoked armed intervention by the victorious powers, which had made the unacceptability of a communist Austria quite clear. [p. 24]

"In short," concludes Hobsbawm, "the Austrian social-democrats were not Bolsheviks." In fact, the Austrian social-democratic leaders had long been pillars of the bourgeois order in the country. From the very opening moments of the Austrian revolutionary ferment in early 1918, they had worked to curb and control the movement and prevent it from moving forward to a workers' republic. There was never any hesitation.

Furthermore, they played this role despite an extremely favourable objective situation, at a time when the forces of order were in complete disarray, when the workers were spontaneously arming themselves, and when all of Europe was in increasing ferment.

The defeat of the Hungarian revolution had a big impact among the Austraian workers and gave a big impetus to the formation of self-defence units and these were set up on a broad scale. For instance, a May 1921 report put the national strength of this militia at 47,000 with about 26,000 rifles and 225 machine guns. So, while its equipment was still inadequate, this was quite a substantial force.

But the social-democratic leaders continually strove to gain complete control over this expanded militia movement and sideline and exclude radical and communist elements. They successfully sought to completely subordinate it to their bourgeois parliamentary perspective.

1927: revolutionary crisis

1927 was a watershed year. Ever since the 1918 revolution the vast Vienna arsenal, with its massive stocks of weapons, had effectively been under the control of the workers, who had kept them out the hands of both the Allied control commission and the government. But in March 1927 the government managed to remove the bulk of these weapons from the arsenal and out of the hands of the workers. The social-democratic press blustered and tried to cover up the seriousness of the blow that had been struck.

In May of the same year, a worker and a young boy were killed by fascist violence in the village of Schattendorf. On July 14 the murderers were acquitted. The next day the enraged workers of Vienna responded with massive spontaneous strikes and protests; police stations were stormed. Mounted police attacked the demonstrators. The cowardly and treacherous social-democratic leaders refused to mobilise and arm the Schutzbund and when they finally did order a partial mobilisation the severely embarrassed unarmed militia were placed as a buffer between the workers and the cops. The infuriated demonstrators set fire to the obscenely misnamed Palace of Justice. By the end of the day 90 workers had been killed and hundreds wounded.

What could have been the start of a successful proletarian revolution had been turned by the social-democratic leadership into a demoralising and tragic defeat. It can be regarded as the beginning of a counter-revolution, determined to eradicate all vestiges of social-democratic influence in the country.

Following the July events, the social-democratic leaders stepped up their efforts to make sure that the Schutzbund was completely under their control, that there was no way it could drag them into revolutionary "adventures". One way they did this was by militarising the Schutzbund and depoliticising it, attempting to create a proletarian caricature of the regular army with its barracks discipline and ban on political discussion. But for a workers' militia to be effective — that is, at defending the class and spearheading the struggle for a better world — it must be very highly politicised and motivated and constantly feel behind it the support of the mass of the working class.

1934: battle against the counter-revolution

The years after 1927 saw an ongoing right-wing offensive against the workers movement. There were constant arms raids by the police (although fresh weapons were brought into the country from outside). The long-drawn-out process of yielding position after position fed a growing apathy among the masses and great frustration in the Schutzbund.

The final blow came in February 1934. A right-wing government was in power and was determined to eliminate the social-democrats as a force in the country.

The authorities began their attack by arresting as many Schutzbund leaders as they could find — they weren’t even in hiding. Police carried out raids across Vienna and the main cities looking for arms caches. But in the industrial city of Linz, the Schutzbund resisted and the civil war began. However, with the Schutzbund command structure beheaded and often the location of the arms caches known only to the arrested leaders, the resistance was chaotic. Bauer and Julius Deutsch, the Schutzbund commander, quickly slipped across the border to safety in Czechoslovakia.

But despite all the confusion the Schutzbund did fight back. The resistance was marked by tremendous heroism but it was limited to a vanguard isolated from the mass of the class. Confined to an uncoordinated and defensive struggle, the ultimate defeat of the Schutzbund was not really in doubt.

But even at this point, it might have been different. In fact, the government had been so cocky it was actually unprepared for serious opposition. Even ammunition had to be rushed in from Hungary. Aggressive political and military tactics by the insurgents might yet have overcome the right-wing forces. But that presupposes a determined revolutionary leadership — the one thing that was lacking.

Following the February defeat, the Austrian workers vanguard went through a period of intense reflection on what had happened. Many Schutzbund fighters and activists left the social-democrats and joined the small Communist Party. (Ernst Fischer, later to become the best known figure of Austrian communism, was one of these.) Many Schutzbundler later fought in Spain with the international brigades, being prominent in the machine-gun detachments.

What does the whole 15-year-long saga of the Austrian workers militia show? That the only alternative to capitalist exploitation is socialist revolution. All attempts to civilise the bourgeois order are futile. The workers must either strive to take power or they will be crushed. And if they have the means to take power and fail to use it, they will simply demoralise their own supporters and bitter defeat is only a matter of time.


A few quick points by way of a conclusion …

1. In our epoch, the fundamental conflict between the capitalist class and the proletariat will ultimately only be resolved by physical force. This is simply the lesson of history.

2. The question of workers' self-defence is thus a crucial one. This means the question of creating a mass militia will unavoidably confront the workers' movement at some point.

3. The militia must be a united-front organisation, bringing together all currents willing to fight to defend working-class and popular activities, institutions and organisations.

4. At some point the defensive struggle against attacks by the state and extra-legal bands must necessarily go over into a struggle for workers power and socialism.

5. While a proletarian militia poses a whole series of purely military problems (of equipment and organisation) the fundamental question is really political. If the working class has the will to prevail in the struggle, all the other problems are soluble. This in turn presupposes revolutionary leadership, a clear revolutionary program and so on.

6. Social-democracy and all other currents that try to hold back and restrain the working class from struggling for power, that seek to confine it within the bourgeois-parliamentary framework, are reactionary and must be ruthlessly fought.