Leonid Luks [i]
What is the state of American democracy after the storming of the Capitol by militant Trump supporters on 6 January 2021? This is the number one issue for numerous analysts in West and East, including “Süddeutsche Zeitung” author Christian Zaschke. The fact that the US institutions were able to block the extremist assault by ‘standing firm’ is by no means a relief, Zaschke claims, for what collapsed is the people. The American people is broken, and no one knows whether the rupture can be healed. He concludes that Trump has bequeathed a country with a poisoned soul. In brief, America is “kaputt.”
Does this mean that one of the oldest democracies in modern times is about to fail? Does the current ‘open society’ crisis plaguing the US resemble the crises of other democracies which ended up collapsing due to internal dilemmas? In order to answer this question, I would like to briefly outline the failure scenarios of two democracies. I will start by discussing the failure of the ‘first’ Russian democracy, established by the fall of the tsar in February-March 1917.
1. The ‘first’ Russian Democracy
The ‘Paradox’ of the February Revolution in 1917
The fall of the unpopular Romanov dynasty brought about by the February Revolution of 1917 was welcomed euphorically by an overwhelming majority within Russian society. The reason why one of the oldest European monarchies disintegrated after a revolutionary struggle in the capital that only lasted three days was mainly due to the utter lack of support amongst every class of its own population, ranging from the poor to the political elite. Practically no one was prepared to defend the monarchy. Eight months later, however, the first Russian democracy founded on the debris of the tsarist regime also collapsed. This system hardly enjoyed any support either. How could things come to such a pass? To find out, we need to study the so-called ‘paradox’ of the February Revolution, as Leon Trotsky once put it. In fact, the revolution consisted of two separate and even opposing revolutions: on the one hand that of the Europeanized intelligentsia who wanted to reform Russia into a parliamentary democracy based on western models, and on the other the insurrection of the underclasses whose expectations of the February Revolution were quite different. For the latter wanted to see their ancient ideals of justice, containing primarily egalitarian elements, fulfilled, as several authors have pointed out.
The Russian lower classes used the revolution to rebel against the principles of hierarchy. Political parties that questioned the principle of equality had little chance of survival during the egalitarian frenzy that dominated the year 1917. The chasm between the top and bottom of Russian society that had been exceptionally deep for generations now reached a dimension unheard of in Europe at that time. After the first few days of the revolution this chasm became institutionalized. Bourgeois-liberal circles felt represented by the Provisional government formed on 2 March 1917, whereas the lower classes felt represented by the basic democratic Petrograd Soviet of Worker´s and Soldier´s Deputies, which developed at around the same time.
After the fall of the tsar, the country was swept up into a frenzy of freedom. The appeals of moderate socialists to act sensibly and responsibly fell on deaf ears. Why should peasants wait until the constitutional assembly had been called before expropriating landowners and workers refrain from establishing worker control systems in factories, if their ‘class enemies’ were now so defenseless and weak? 
Did the radicality of the masses, which seemed almost impossible to quell, mean that the young Russian democracy was doomed to fail? Far from it. What was of greater importance to the outcome of the crisis was the mental state of the country’s political class. In the pioneering anthology ‘De Profundis’, published in 1918, the Russian philosopher Semyon Frank writes:
“In no social order and under no circumstances in society
do [the popular classes] initiate and shape political life.
Even in a highly democratic state the people constitute an organ…
in the hands of a leading and inspiring minority.”
This “leading minority” in the revolutionary Russia of 1917 were the socialist groups forming the backbone of the most powerful organ of the revolution, the Petrograd Soviet, described above. Here it should be mentioned that the overwhelming majority of the Soviet leaders during the first phase of the revolution belonged to the moderate socialist parties, which were totally against the populist demands of the radical opposition in the Soviet, i.e., the Bolsheviks. Yet, despite their rejecting Bolshevist demagoguery, they continued to consider the Bolshevists as kindred spirits within the common cause, which was to prove disastrous for the pro-democracy majority in the Soviet. One of the leaders of the Menshevik Party, Iraklii Tsereteli, recognized the nature of the Bolshevist danger, one of the few moderate socialist politicians to do so. As Tsereteli noted in June 1917, the counterrevolution could enter through one door only, that of the Bolshevists. These words sounded like blasphemy to most of the pro-democratic socialists, however. They regarded the Bolshevists as part and parcel of the ‘revolutionary-democratic’ front. Disarming the Bolshevists, they felt, would lead to weakening their own side.
The Bolshevist Disaster in July 1917
In his memoirs Tsereteli writes that the non-Bolshevist majority in the Soviet did not want any power so as not be forced to act against the Bolsheviks not only verbally but physically. Tseretli’s claims need some correction here: during 1917 there were several situations in which supporters of Russian democracy attempted to resist the extreme left challenge, with some success, especially during the coup attempted by the Bolsheviks at the beginning of July, which ended in a disaster for the putschists. This event shows that a solid democracy was starting to form, and that the young Russian democracy was quite capable of standing up to its radical opponents. An estimated 800 leaders involved in the July insurrection were arrested, including many Bolsheviks. The pro-Bolshevist military units were disarmed, and the Bolshevist press largely banned. To avoid arrest, Lenin fled the capital and lived at a secret location in Finland until the Bolshevist coup d’etat took place in October 1917. Another discrediting factor was that the government published documents about the cooperation of the Bolsheviks with the Germans. Lenin was threatened with a trial for treason.
Why did the Bolsheviks gain power?
How did the Bolsheviks manage to gain power just four months later, despite this decisive setback? This was mainly due to the attitude of the non-Bolshevist left. The attempt by the Bolsheviks to overturn the established order with the aid of violence in July 1917 did not lead to their expulsion from the ‘revolutionary democracy’ camp. They continued to be accepted as an integral part of the socialist solidarity community and so representatives of the Soviet majority refused to take tough measures against them. Despite their participation in the attempted coup, the Bolshevist Party was not indicted for hostile activities against the state.
This lenience was interpreted by the Bolsheviks as weakness. Later Lenin acknowledged the Bolsheviks had committed a series of errors which their opponents could have exploited during the power struggle. Luckily, their enemies failed to take decisive action.
The Bolsheviks benefited from the fact that the moderate socialists were terrified of a counterrevolution. That’s why they viewed the Bolsheviks as potential allies in the conflict against the right. Did this confrontation really demand the mobilization of all the forces on the left, including militant anti-democrats such as the Bolsheviks? The pitiful failure of General Kornilov’s attempted coup at the end of August in 1917 showed that the army was no longer an effective instrument in the struggle against the own society. Russian democracy in fact had no need of the extreme left to successfully eliminate the danger posed by the right. Nevertheless, the moderates rearmed the Bolsheviks after the latter had been disarmed during the July coup — the catastrophic consequence of the Kornilov affair. After that the Provisional government and the moderate socialists in the Soviet lost the political initiative. Paralyzed, they watched the ambitious strategic steps taken by the Bolsheviks, who were masters at making full use of the new democratic freedoms to nip the democracy in the bud.
2. The ‘First’ German Democracy
The Legend of the ‘Enemy Within’
Let us now turn to the gradual erosion and subsequent collapse of the ‘first’ German democracy, established following the 1918 November Revolution. Above all, it is necessary to mention the attempt by those contemptuous of the Weimar Republic to hollow out the state using myths and legends. For one thing, it involved the notorious ‘stab-in-the-back legend.’ This was conjured up by members of the ruling elite in Germany, who controlled the country almost completely during the final years of World War I. Following the failure of the German Spring offensive in 1918, the ruling circles realized that defeat at the front could not be prevented without ending hostilities immediately. But in order to evade responsibility for defeat, the ruling elite transferred power to the previously impotent Reichstag and its political parties. Thus, Germany acquired a parliamentary form of government not by means of struggle from below but as a ‘gift’ from above — by the military. And now this unexpectedly empowered parliament was to assume responsibility for the disastrous outcome of the war and all its consequences.
General Erich Ludendorff, who together with General Field Marshall von Hindenburg led the ‘Dritte Oberste Heeresleitung’ (the Third Supreme Command) and imposed a type of military dictatorship on Germany from August 1916, during the final two years of the war, claimed in his memoirs published in 1919 that Germany had not lost the war on the external but on the internal front. The pacifist and defeatist ideology of the democratic opposition had sapped the fighting spirit of the troops. In other words, not the all-powerful military but the impotent political parties were to blame for the defeat. This led to the creation of the ‘stab-in-the-back legend,’ the belief that Germany’s bid for hegemonic domination over Europe had failed not because this goal was an unrealizable dream but due to the treason of a small group of internal enemies.
Rejection of the West and Western Values
In addition to the ‘stab-in-the-back legend’, the demise of the ‘first’ German democracy was also caused by a radical rejection of the West and the values associated with it.
Once the First World War myth of the “German army undefeated in the field” had been dispelled, the German right began to demonize both the Western victors and the values they stood for. The severity of the Treaty of Versailles, which actually did not differ that much from the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk signed on the Eastern Front in March 1918, was reason enough for those in the Weimar Republic who supported national revenge to ‘blow up’ the European order. The feeling of wounded national pride developed into an all-consuming motif penetrating their every thought and act: to deny the existence of a common European heritage.
“We are a hard-pressed people”, Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, a highly influential pioneer within the ‘Conservative Revolution’ in the Weimar Republic, wrote in 1923. He added that:
“The meager territory onto which we had been crowded
conceals the enormous danger that comes from us.
Should we not build our policy on the basis of this danger?”
Many supporters of the Conservative Revolution and other nationalist groups condemned liberalism imported from the West as the mortal enemy of the Germans and in fact of the entire humanity. For Moeller van den Bruck liberalism constituted a “moral pandemic”, the freedom to be without convictions whilst passing this off as a conviction.
This moralizing attitude so typical of the Conservative Revolutionaries now came to the fore. Authors who because of the injustice perpetrated in Versailles were prepared to blow up the entire European order, mocking any form of humanitarian sentimentalism, accused liberalism of being morally apathetic, and all in the same breath. No wonder that this moralizing immoralism, which was quick to sanctify its own planned actions but and declare its opponents to be incurable, wicked sinners, attracted so many followers.
By criticizing liberalism, the proponents of the Conservative Revolution latched onto the age-old conservative topos, labelling liberalism as a deadly power. They claimed it destroyed the organic bonds within a community by promoting the lower, selfish instincts of every individual. Instead of public service, the struggle for individual interests stood at the heart of atomized liberal society. According to the legal scholar Carl Schmitt, the liberal Weimar Republic was no longer a state. Individual segments in society (political parties, interest groups, etc) were seizing state power and abusing it purely for their own benefit. He thought the state as the embodiment of public service was being abolished. German critics of liberalism regarded the legislative powers of the liberal state as an incurable weakness, since they believed this type of state to be incapable of making decisions and dealing with crises successfully. Within the legislative state, Carl Schmitt complained, people or authorities no longer existed: they had been replaced by laws. Thus the term ‘Herrschaft’ (domination) had been stripped of its original meaning and been replaced by abstract norms. Schmitt’s student, Ernst Forsthoff, added that honor, dignity and loyalty […] were eluding standard safeguards […], the pure state under the rule of law […] being the prototype of a community without either honor or dignity.
Therefore the Conservative Revolutionaries yearned for a genuine ruler, for a Caesar. A charismatic leader, whose appearance had already been considered controversial by several great European thinkers in the 19th and early 20th centuries, whilst filling others with great expectations, was to act as a substitute for impersonal institutions by imposing his will. Heroes were called for, not doctrines, classes or anemic institutions. A former representative of the Conservative Revolution, Ernst Niekisch, later wrote (in 1936) that the German middle-class masses were fed up with being ruled by impersonal legislation and despised the freedom such laws provided; they wanted to serve one person, one personal authority, a dictator […]. In other words, they preferred the volatile moods and erratic behavior of a personal ‘Führer’ to the firm reliability of an inviolable, constitutional order. 
The tragic fate of the Weimar Republic was also closely linked to the mood of the time. This was the era that glorified national egoism (sacro egoismo). Politicians like Gustav Stresemann, who strove to reconcile Germany with the victorious Western powers, were unable to appease the elements in their country that radically despised the West. But many other European countries were also experiencing exceptionally high levels of intensely emotional nationalism.
The End of the ‘First’ German Democracy
After the Depression of October 1929 rocked the world, the demise of the Weimar Republic seemed inevitable. The extremist majority in the Reichstag (including the NSDAP and communist KPD) now completely paralyzed the German parliamentarian system. In the general election held in July 1932 the NSDAP gained more than 37% of the vote. Therefore the democratic playing rules in 1930s Germany were not “the only game in town” (Juan Linz and Alfred Suppan). Nevertheless, the National Socialists had no chance of seizing power on their own.
As opposed to the Russian state apparatus in 1917, the German political system at the beginning of the 1930s was still relatively intact and so the National Socialists were unable to conquer the state single-handedly by following the Bolshevist example. They were dependent on the cooperation of non-National Socialists. They had no choice but to seek a compromise with the ruling groups in the Reichstag before they could seize power. To speed up matters, the National-Socialist leadership drove home their message of the ubiquitous communist danger.
Just as the Bolsheviks in 1917 had cleverly exploited the exaggerated fears of the Russian democratic parties of an imminent right-wing counterrevolutionary coup d’etat, the National Socialists used the exaggerated fears of a communist revolution held by the conservative classes. As to whether a communist revolution really posed any danger in the early 30s in Germany, this is what the conservative politician Hermann Rauschning had to say, shortly after he had broken with Hitler after the National-Socialist takeover:
“In 1932/33 the German Reich was under no threat of a Bolshevist revolution,
not even a left-wing political insurgence! Even those circles
currently spreading the myth of a pending Bolshevist coup
know this full well, and have proven with their own tactics
that it was only possible for a coup to succeed
with the backing of the legal administrative powers.”
Thus, the German power issue was decided by conservative elements which only represented a tiny segment of society. In 1993 the Berlin historian Heinrich August Winkler wrote that no other highly industrialized society had a pre-industrial elite able to cling on to as much political power as the Junkers in the Germany of the Weimar Republic.
The “Era of Irresponsibility”
In 1923 (during the Ruhr crisis) a German state crisis had been resolved by means of a coalition of the conservatives and the SPD (Social Democrats). But in 1933 the mainly conservative groups had already grown tired of the coalition with the ‘Marxists’. They now tried to overcome the crisis by establishing a coalition with a party that saw itself as the enemy number one of the Weimar State. On 24 November 1932 President von Hindenburg had turned down Hitler’s demand that he should be Chancellor and sent Hitler the message that he feared that a presidential cabinet led by Hitler was bound to become a dictatorship, with all the consequences that would entail. Yet, only two months later, the very same president of the Reich named Hitler Chancellor, thus initiating the era Hitler biographer Konrad Heiden would characterize as the ‘era of irresponsibility’.
3. Is American democracy experiencing a twilight phase?
Is democracy in the USA today in its twilight, comparable to 1917 Russia or 1930s Germany? Is America ‘kaputt,’ as Christian Zaschke believes (see the introduction above)? To answer these questions, I would like to compare a couple of aspects of the Russian and German scenarios, described above, with US developments following four years of the Trump administration. The first question applies to every single democracy: does the governed population have the ability to change the government by means of an election? In Russia the population did sharply rebuff the Bolshevist dictatorship just weeks after the Bolshevist coup by voting in the constitutional assembly. The Bolshevist party only received a disastrous 24% of the votes. Yet the Bolsheviks were not prepared to respect the election results and violently dissolved the constitutional assembly in January 1918, thus preventing their rule from being democratically legitimized for once and for all.
When Donald Trump attempted to ignore the voters’ decision in the presidential election of 3 November 2020, all his legal suits were unanimously rejected by the American courts. This clearly proves the independence of the American judiciary. Nothing like that could ever have happened in Soviet Russia. The Bolsheviks considered the separation of powers to be a bourgeois relic, and it was formally abolished in the first Soviet constitution of July 1918.
Let us now turn to the storming of the Washington Capitol by militant Trump supporters on 6 January 2021. For several observers this event has a symbolic significance, similar to the Reichstag fire on 27 February 1933. This however ignores a fundamental difference between the two events. Several weeks after the fire, Hitler used the Enabling Act to strip the German Parliament of its powers and turn it into a toothless puppet. Only a matter of hours after the Capitol had been stormed, the American Parliament confirmed Donald Trump’s election defeat. Unlike Russia in 1917-18 or Germany in 1933, American democracy prevailed in warding off a head-on attack on its founding pillars.
But the consequences of the Trump era are bound to be a burden to US political culture for some time to come. For one thing, there is Trump’s invented myth of the ‘stolen election.’ Millions of his supporters believe it to be true. What is really worrying is the fact that 139 Republican representatives as well as eight senators refused to acknowledge Joe Biden’s victory, despite the storming of the Capitol by fanatical Trumpists. This is why some commentaries compare the ‘stolen election’ myth to the ‘stab-in-the-back legend’ of the Weimar era. Yet it should not be forgotten that the proponents of the ‘stab-in-the-back legend’ in 1933 succeeded in demolishing the political machinery of the Weimar democracy and declared themselves ‘history’s victors’ within a very short time. By contrast, all the attempts to undo the ‘stolen election’ and reverse Joe Biden’s victory were doomed to fail. Therefore, the US democratic institutions proved to be much more robust than many a sceptic had feared, and the final days of the Trump era did not witness a repetition of the 1933 German scenario. Nevertheless, the self-healing process will occupy American society for many years to come.
In his inaugural address on 20 January Joe Biden made the following appeal to his fellow countrymen:
“We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue,
rural versus urban, conservatives versus liberal.
We can do this if we open our souls
instead of hardening our hearts.”
The future will show whether this appeal by the 46th President of the United States will contribute towards breaking down the barriers and reconcile the two intractably divided political camps.
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[i] Leonid Luks is professor of history at the Catholic University of Eichstaett-Ingolstadt, Bavaria, Germany. This essay is an extended version of an article published in German on 28 January 2021 in the online debate magazine “DieKolumnisten” (translated by Elizabeth Rogans).
 Christian Zaschke, „Ein wahres Gesicht“, Süddeutsche Zeitung January 9/10, 2021
 Leo Trotzki, Geschichte der russischen Revolution (Berlin: S.Fischer, 1960), 139-169.
 See Helmut Altrichter, Russland 1917. Ein Land auf der Suche nach sich selbst (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 1997), 347; John L. H. Keep, The Russian revolution. A Study in Mass Mobilization (New York: W. W. Norton& Company Inc. 1976) 82-84, 200-206: Richard Pipes, Die Russische Revolution (Berlin: Rowohlt 1992), Vol. 2,.136.
 Semen Frank, De profundis, in: Iz glubiny. Sbornik statei o russkoi revoliutsii.( Paris: YMCA-Press, 1967), 314.
 Nikolaj Suchanov, 1917. Tagebuch der russischen Revolution. (München: Piper, 1967).308.
 Pipes, Die Russische Revolution, 141,
 Iraklii Tsereteli, Vospominaniia o fevral´skoi revoliutsii (Paris: Mouton, 1963), 214, 409-412.
 Pipes, Die Russische Revolution, 170; Altrichter 1917, 191; Manfred Hildermeier, Die Russische Revolution 1905-1921 (Frankfurt am Main: Rowohlt, 1989), 178-179.
 Pipes. Die Russische Revolution. 177.
 Pipes, Die Russische Revolution, 208-217; Altrichter, 1917, 208; S. Kuleshov et. al., Nashe otechestvo. Opyt politicheskoi istorii (Moscow: Terra, 1991), Vol. 2, 374-376; Mikhail Geller and Aleksandr Nekrich, Istoriia Sovetskogo Sojuza s 1917 goda do nashikh dnej (London: Overseas Publications Interchange Ltd., 1982) Vol. 2, 33-34; Dmitrij Volkogonov. Lenin. Politicheskii portret v dvukh knigakh (Moscow: Novosti, 1994), Vol. 1, 242-244.
 Trotzki, Geschichte, 624-721; Nikolaj Suchanov, Zapiski o russkoi revoljutsii (Moscow: Izdat. Politicheskoi Literatury, 1991), Vol. 3; Marc Ferro, The Bolshevik Revolution: a Social History of the Russian revolution (London: Routledge & Paul, 1985) 224-267; Sheila Fitzpatrick. The Russian Revolution 1917-1932 (Oxford: Oxford University Press,1985), 54-60; Robert Service. The Bolshevik Party in Revolution. A Study in Organisational Change 1917-1923 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1979), 37-62: Robert Service, Lenin: eine Biographie (München: Verlag C.H. Beck, 2000), 404-406; Altrichter, 1917, 305-307; Sergei Mel´gunov, Kak bol´sheviki zakhvatili vlast´. Oktiabr´skii perevorot 1917 goda (London: Overseas Publications Interchange Ltd., 1984).
 Waldemar Gurian, Um des Reiches Zukunft (Freiburg: Herder, 1932); Thomas Nipperdey, Deutsche Geschichte 1866-1918. Machtstaat vor der Demokratie (München: Verlag C.H. Beck, 1992), Vol. 2, 858-876; Heinrich August Winkler, Der lange Weg nach Westen. Deutsche Geschichte vom Ende des Alten Reiches bis zum Untergang der Weimarer Republik (München: C.H. Beck Verlag, 2000), Vol. 1, 361-377.
 Erich Ludendorff, Meine Kriegserinnerungen, 1914-1918 (Berlin: Mittler, 1919).
 Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, Das Dritte Reich (Hamburg: Hanseat. Verl. Anst., 1931), 71-72.
 Ibid. 69-71.
 Carl Schmitt, Legalität und Legitimität (München-Leipzig: Duncker&Humblot, 1932); Carl Schmitt, Der Hüter der Verfassung (Tübingen: Mohr, 1931): Carl Schmitt, Der Begriff des Politischen (Berlin: Duncker&Humblot, 1963).
 Ernst Forsthoff, Der totale Staat (Hamburg: Hanseat. Verl. Anst., 1933), 13.
 Ernst Niekisch, Das Reich der niederen Dämonen (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1953), 87.
 See Max Domarus; Hitler. Reden und Proklamationen 1932-1945 (Würzburg: Verlagsdruckerei Schmidt, 1962), Vol. 1, 68-90.
 Hermann Rauschning, Die Revolution des Nihilismus (Zürich: Europa-Verlag, 1938)
 Winkler, Der lange Weg, 530.
 Konrad Heiden. Adolf Hitler. Das Zeitalter der Verantwortungslosigkeit (Zürich: Europa-Verlag, 1936).
 Full transript of Joe Biden´s inauguration speech, see: https://www.bbc/news/world-us-canada-55656824
Picture: “Storming the Winter Palace” by Nikolai Kochergin (1950; source).