Some of my listeners, I hope, are committed antifascists, people who show up in public to fight the fash. Welcome, brothers and sisters! I too have counterprotested the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups. We deplatform them and deny them a legitimate presence in the public square. This is all for the good. The German SPD also did those things, and they were organised for fighting fascists on a much grander scale than we currently are. What the German SPD failed to do was to block Hitler’s ascent to power politically. Understanding this history is crucial if we are to understand how to work for political progress when the occupant of the White House is an open fascist.
For the sake of brevity, I’m going to mention here the sources I draw on for my understanding of the German revolution and just make the citations in the transcripts. These books are excellent: Pierre Broue’s The German Revolution reprinted in 2005, a collection edited by Marrius S. Ostrowski called Eduard Bernstein on the German Revolution first available in English in 2019, Arthur Rosenburg’s excellent 1936 History of the German Republic [HGR], and for general Prussian history Christopher Clark’s Iron Kingdom. Do you ever think to yourself Marxists would save themselves a world of error if they would just read a good history of Prussia. Just me? Okay.
Ferdinand Lasalle founded the General German Workers’ Association, the forerunner of the German SPD, in 1863. Lasalle was a true believer in big government and in the Prussian bureaucracy, and in private he courted Otto von Bismarck because Lassalle was convinced that Bismarck could be persuaded to provide universal suffrage. This was not an unreasonable expectation, as the Prussian state had a long history of progressive reform, but a meaningful vote had proven elusive. In the Prussian Landstag the deputies were chosen by the vote of a college of representatives. The college of representatives was split into three equal parts which were each elected by a different tax bracket. This meant that low income people, the vast majority, could only ever get one third of the vote in the college of representatives which elected their version of the house of representatives. Moreover, Bismarck systematically abused the process to ensure the Landstag remained in conservative hands, favoring the interests of rural constituencies, that is rent collectors (Clark, 560). In such circumstances a movement for radical democracy was necessarily a revolutionary movement, and this is why Marx uses the terms democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat interchangeably (Marik, 191, 208). As discussed in a previous episode, the dictatorship of the proletariat as Marx understood it was an armed force comprised of the working classes that would defend the gains of a democratic revolution. The failure and scandal of Lassalle’s collusion with Bismarck, alongside the Imperialist ideology of the middle German classes, led in Germany to a widespread discrediting of working in Democratic coalitions, and a kind of workers’ chauvinism. Marx and Engels did not realize that the German worker’s movement they had inspired had lost faith in radical Democracy. Arthur Rosenburg comments: “The relation of the Social Democrats to the German middle classes, and in general to all the other groups of the population who were not industrial workers, was indeed very different from what Engels imagined. Engels believed that it would be possible to bridge the gap between the socialist party and the middle classes; social democracy as the only actually progressive party of the nation might then be a real popular movement, capable of attracting ever increasing groups without great effort. Actually the rigid contrast of “bourgeois” and “social democratic” and the isolation of the socialist skilled workers, which could not be removed even by the occasional entry of middle-class individuals into their ranks, already existed at that time...The old social-democratic movement of 1848 had vanished from the political horizon of Europe. Its place was taken, even if very inadequately, by the various socialist parties and groups” (Rosenberg, Democracy and Socialism [D&S], p. 299). Lenin's Leftwing Communism an Infantile Disorder is paradigmatic of Lenin the small 'd' democrat.
In 1920 when the Bolsheviks were at the peak of their power and prestige, radicals around the world were attempting to repeat the experience of the Russian Revolution, mostly failing. As previously noted, Lenin’s party rode a mass democratic movement into power, but in these other places like Germany, communists set up committees and attempted to seize power with or without a democratic mandate. Though the Bolsheviks were desperate to spread the revolution to avoid the isolation that they ultimately fell into, they tried to convince the international movement to work within democratic parlements where they existed and to address society at large, not just the workers movement. The classic text of Bolshevik strategy that came out of these discussions is Lenin’s Leftwing Communism-an Infantile Disorder. (The word “infantile” would be more accurately translated as “naive” meaning the disorder comes more from the inexperience of the new communist movements than from an inability to mature).
Lenin’s argument hinges on the insistence that a small party, one that does not represent a large part of society, must realistically assess its reach and not attempt too much too soon. “One must not count in thousands, like the propagandist belonging to a small group that has not yet given leadership to the masses… we must ask ourselves, not only whether we have convinced the vanguard of the revolutionary class, but also whether the historically effective forces of all class -- positively all the classes in a given society, without exception -- are arrayed in such a way that the decisive battle is at hand…” (351). In a situation where the party has been unable to lead society, unable to capture a plurality with its program, Lenin says that revolutionaries must support liberal bourgeois candidates, that to not do so would be a crime against the proletariat. This orientation was informed by Lenin’s experience organizing for socialism as a party that was outlawed by the Czar. Without the right to free speech and assembly, which the political right wing were constantly threatening, socialists had no path to power.
Lenin could change strategy in an instant. For instance the slogan of all power to the soviets was his line in April of 1917, but that wasn’t his line in March of 1917, and it wasn’t his line in December of 1917. But when it comes to the electoral strategy of the revolutionary party Lenin is categorical: the Bolsheviks always before 1920 participated in liberal parliaments, and never putting up candidates where doing so could spoil an election against the center left. In the context here “Labour” refers to the moderate center left, and “Liberal” refers to right wingers like Churchill. While Trotskyists have historically rejected the idea that Labor was a bourgeois party, it is clear that Lenin did think that Labor was a bourgeois party, right or wrong (Hicks). Knowing that Lenin thought the Labor party was bourgeois is essential to understanding his electoral strategy laid out here. “If the Hendersons and the Snowdens [center left] reject a bloc with the Communists, the latter will immediately gain by winning the sympathy of the masses and discrediting the Hendersons and Snowdens; if, as a result, we do lose a few parliamentary seats, it is a matter of no significance to us. We would put up our candidates in a very few but absolutely safe constituencies, namely, constituencies where our candidatures would not give any seats to the Liberals [i.e. Churchill] at the expense of the Labour candidates... In September 1917, on the eve of the Soviet revolution, the Bolsheviks put up their candidates for a bourgeois parliament (the Constituent Assembly) and on the day after the Soviet revolution, in November 1917, took part in the elections to this Constituent Assembly.” (346). One should recognize here the utter commitment to democracy that Lenin adopts from Marx in the phrase “give leadership to the masses,” which he urges all mature revolutionaries must do (p. 351). This was the same spirit that moved Marx to write in 1848 that he hoped a revolutionary National Assembly would “win over public opinion, a power against which all bayonets and rifle butts would be ineffective” (Marik, 191). Lenin insisted that communists must participate in this way in bourgeois parlements even in contexts where democracy was handicapped by autocracy, under the Czar, and even after a revolutionary seizure of power, after November 1917. What’s of first importance in all of this is that the party participates in educating society, and especially the working class, on the importance of lifting up leadership that is independent of privileged classes. Liberal reformists [Labor] had to be supported where socialists couldn’t win, and the party had to explain in clear terms that such reformists could not be sufficient to the needs of the most vulnerable.
Overreaching, Lenin argues, means failing to even do what is within one’s ability. “Science demands… that account be taken of all the forces, groups, parties, classes and masses operating in a given country, and also that the policy should not be determined only by the desires and views, by the degree of class consciousness and the militancy of one group or party alone… It is true that the Hendersons, the Clyneses, the MacDonalds and the Snowdens are hopelessly reactionary. It is equally true that they want to assume power (though they would prefer a coalition with the bourgeoisie), that they want to ‘rule’ along the old bourgeois lines, and that when they are in power they will certainly behave like the Scheidemans and Noskes [whom Lenin blamed for the murders of Leibknecht and Luxembourg]. All that is true. But it does not at all follow that to support them means treachery to the revolution: what does follow is that, in the interests of the revolution, working-class revolutionaries should give these gentlemen a certain amount of parliamentary support… the fact that most British workers still follow the lead of the British Kerenskys… indicates that the British Communists should participate in parliamentary action, that they should, from within parliament, help the masses of the workers see the results of a Henderson and Snowden government in practice, and that they should help the Hendersons and Snowdesn defeat the united forces of Lloyd George and Churchill. To act otherwise would mean hampering the cause of the revolution, since revolution is impossible without a change in the views of the majority...” (pp. 340-343). Let me put a fine point on this by updating Lenin’s formula: if most American workers follow the lead of the Bidens, then socialists must participate in electoral work to help workers see the results of a Biden presidency in practice, and we must help Biden defeat the forces of Donald Trump.
In a situation where the majority supports not the socialist but the liberal candidate, Lenin said that socialists must support the liberal while loudly criticizing them. This is what he considered meeting society where it was. This is further proof that Lenin believed in democracy as a fundamental value, that he rejected the idea that a small enlightened clique should seize power and impose their will on other people. Considering the history of 20th century socialisms, we should embrace his tactics, unite with the center to smash the right, and build for the moment when our message can be heard: society must rally democratically to the most vulnerable under their own leadership.
As we saw in Russia in 1917 a network of democratic soviets, which had begun in 1905, fought for power against the Czar and won. In Germany, soviets were not institutions that had similarly sprung up amongst the people because of a governmental vacuum spanning decades. The bulk of the German soviets developed amongst the soldiers and sailors in Germany’s armed services, people who were not motivated by any ideology but rather solely for the purpose of ending the war.
The situation of German socialists at the end of WW1 was very similar to that of the French revolutionaries of 1789. They inherited the position of state power after the collapse of the former regime. The nation had a military that was organised partially into soviets, but that was completely behind the government. We’ve spoken earlier about how the Prussian state provided a managed democracy where rich peoples’ votes meant more. Underneath that official form of state power was a patchwork of compromises the Kaiser had made with the various regions that were brought under his rule. The cabinet that was tasked with leading the work of forming a government was composed of six socialists, three of each tendency. “Ebert, Scheidemann and Landsberg represented the Majority Socialists, and Haase, Dittmann and Barth the Independent Socialists. ” [HGR] What kind of government would these socialists produce was the question of the day. Would they create a democratic republic or would they create a soviet style socialist state based on the Russian model?
There was already at the end of the war a split between socialists who had voted for war bonds and supported the war (the Social Democratic Party, SPD), though as we saw many of these supported military defense of Germany but not expansion, and those who had opposed the war from the beginning (the Independent Social Democratic Party, USPD). The SPD more or less preferred a democratic republic that would respect the property of the big landowners. There is something to the idea that at this juncture the SDP was following the LaSallean line of working within a democracy dominated by the bourgeoisie, with one major difference: the new German state was offering real equality of representation while the Prussian state systematically worked to make sure poor people were not represented.
The USPD held to what they imagined was the revolutionary aspect of Marxism interpreted now through the lens of the recent Russian revolution. But the context had changed radically, and the ideologues were largely unable to keep up. Under the rule of the Prussian Kaiser and Landstaag the only reasonable position for people who favored democracy was to be a revolutionary. Under a system where there was real democracy, one vote for each person, the Marxist position became ambiguous. It could mean that the working class had to be rallied to defend the democratic republic, or it could mean the time had come for the working class to abolish democracy. It all depended on whether you thought that socialism had to be democratic, had to respect the rights of people who differ from us, or if you thought it could be imposed from above. Within the German far left those who were losing their patience with democratic reform were beginning to favor what they took to be Russian style Soviet rule, the imposition of socialism from above by a minority of supposedly enlightened workers.
Now, as pointed out in previous episodes, Marx had expected a democratic movement to create republics where all people had a vote and had rights, and he advocated from 1848 onwards that when such a republic came about that it would have to be defended by the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” The Russian experiment showed that if society were organized instead in democratic councils that the state could transition directly into socialism. In the attempt, the Russians ruined democracy by driving the masses out of government by the imposition of minoritarian rule, and ended up with a totalitarian state where a ruling clique owned everything and everyone. The far left fringe in Germany was trying to impose socialism from above without the democratic upswell that had vaulted the Bolsheviks into power to begin with in Russia. The Germans failed badly. Led by Karl Leibknecht and Rosa Luxembourg, they had to go to communities that didn’t have soviets yet and urge them to form soviets. Despite the antidemocratic ideas then circulating in the USPD, these groups were invited to help form the new government. The majority of the population, and of the socialist movement, even a large group among the Sparticists who wanted to end private property, believed that the existing institutions should not be attacked but discouraged through education and reform. For the most part the socialists in Germany wanted to win over the rest of the population. On the far left people believed that if workers were told the truth they would choose to run production democratically, i.e. they would choose socialism. But there was a further left fringe that did not want to wait for society to catch up to their point of view.
The German communists who split off from the German Social Democratic Party were the first to eschew democratic politics and try to take power as a minoritarian party in 1919. The slur that people leveled at Lenin, that he was anti-democratic, was true of Karl Leibknecht. Germany was the first place where the strategy people thought had worked in Russia was applied somewhere else, and because it was exported without the democratic component it failed. The resulting split in the German socialist movement coupled with an anti-liberal politics, made Germany vulnerable just at the moment when a new ideological virus was spreading throughout Europe. That virus was fascism, the highest form of which was that of the German Nazi party. But to understand how fascism arose and developed in Germany, we have to understand the splits in the socialist party, because it’s out of that wound that the infection would spread.
I spoke in an earlier podcast about Karl Kautsky being forced to vote for war bonds. Another socialist who was forced to vote for war bonds was Karl Leibknecht, who had been drafted and was part of the soldiers’ soviets movement. Karl Leibknecht played a key role in leading both the split in the socialist movement and the Spartacist uprising in 1919, and what’s clear from his actions throughout this period is that he acted not out of concern for his fellows, nor to mobilize society, but out of guilt over his participation in WW1. Leibknecht more than anyone in the movement was committed to leading Germany into revolution by the Russian method, regardless of whether the circumstances supported it. Though he and his group, the Spartacists, were invited to help form the new government, because the majority of Germany opposed the establishment of soviet style socialism he led a boycott of the republic. The agitations of Leibknecht led to a wave of protests in December 1918, with violence being committed on all sides. The Russians seem to have actively supported this agitation, seemingly oblivious to the different German conditions and the decline of democratic values in the movement. On the last day of 1918 the socialists who could not bear to wait and educate, those who abandoned democracy as such, founded the German Communist Party, the KPD. At this point the USPD withdrew its support for the republic.
The insurrection on their left imperiled the democratic coalition that the SPD was trying to form. If they were going to stop Germany from devolving into civil war, they had to show that the rules would be applied fairly to all. The KPD would test by open insurrection the SPD’s resolve to defend the republic. In Russia the workers of St. Petersburg could rely on certain parts of the military from the very beginning, and Bolshevik influence in the Russian military expanded throughout this period. In Germany on the other hand, the workers were being called to insurrection against a military that was firmly behind the republic. The departure of the USPD from the republican coalition government had one important exception: Emil Eichhorn was police chief in Berlin. The SPD tried to replace him, but failed. When protests broke out on January 4th in Berlin, they spiraled out of control.
Broue correctly compares this episode to that of the July days in the Russian Revolution. In July a mass protest movement took place in St. Petersburg that was not supported in the rest of the country. The Bolsheviks helped lead the protesters, who could not be persuaded against marching. Eventually, Trotsky was able to convince the protestors in St. Petersburg in July to disperse. The army arrived a very few hours later, and would have massacred the protesters. The Russian movement in July was not ready to take power nationwide, and the Bolsheviks bided their time. Not so with the Berlin workers led by Leibknecht.
Workers in Berlin, emboldened perhaps with the knowledge that the local police chief was in their pocket, became increasingly provocative. In fact, a large group of workers was allowed to occupy the police station and arm themselves, and the building had to be retaken by force of arms. Though the rest of the country was not behind the rebellion, they persisted. The SPD in power was facing on one side a sizeable minority to their left that was intent on wrecking their project, and on the right were people eager to see the young democracy fail for their own purposes. Unable to call upon a police force, the Socialists were forced to call upon the army to put down the rebellion.
Now, the Prussian army was well known for its tendency to flaunt civilian control. Going back probably before 1809 there was a culture in the army of insubordination, particularly to civilian authority, but in 1809 Major von Schill defied the Kaiser and together with Russia attacked Napoleon’s armies. Schill was afterward considered a national hero. Napoleon was so unpopular at that point that the Kaiser had to accept that because of the Major’s initiative Prussia was thereafter at war with France. In 1904 when there was an insurrection in the German colony of Namibia, General Trotha led a genocide against the locals over and against the protestations of the civilian authority there in the person of the Governor Theodor Leutwein. It’s not clear that the Kaiser could really command the army against the will of its generals, and for sure the SDP couldn’t.
The Freikorps shock troops who arrested Karl Leibknecht and Rosa Luxembourg took it upon themselves to execute the beloved socialist leaders. The socialists who had ordered the army to put down the insurrection, in particular Gustav Noske, a basket weaver from Brandenburg who had been made into the minister of military affairs, was villainized for the deaths of Leibknecht and Luxembourg. Though no one could ever prove Noske explicitly ordered their deaths, it was always blamed on him. According to this logic, opposing authoritarian socialists with state power will always make someone a traitor to the cause. The entire movement of socialists in Germany for a democratic republic was from this moment forward considered to be enemies of progress, enemies of the international communist movement. When the fascist parties rose up to attack the republic under the social democrats, they would find willing partners in the newly formed German Communist Party [KPD].
In the years that followed the Spartacus uprising, it was not the policies of the Weimar republic that angered people so much as it was that the poverty of the government crippled implementation. There were guarantees made for workers’ rights, but it didn’t seem to matter much in the context of high unemployment. Germany had to pay hard indemnities to the allies because of its ‘war guilt,’ which is still exaggerated to this day. And it must be said, the standard of living for regular Germans was severely impacted by the loss of its empire. When people lose their privileges, watch out!
The word “fascist” was coined by Benito Mussolini. It comes from an Italian word that can mean a bundle of items or a group. Mussolini started his political career as a prominent part of the socialist movement in Italy. He was put in jail for five months in 1911 for participating in a demonstration against Italy’s imperialist war in Libya. He translated two works of Kropotkin from Russian into Italian. He combined anarchistic libertarian ideology with a Nietzschean disdain for Judeo-Christian values and rejected the more traditional socialist values of democracy and equality. But as we have seen with the German KPD and the Stalinists, lots of socialists around this time were rejecting democratic values. Mussolini’s path from anarchism to fascism ran through Charles Maurras, George Sorel and the Cercle Proudhon. If you haven’t read Alexander Reid-Ross’ Against the Fascist Creep, then what are you doing with your life? Go read it. Also, if you are interested in the intergenerational cross pollination of fascism into and out of left politics, go read Alexander Reid-Ross. The important thing to understand about Musolini in the context of the aftermath of the German revolution, is that Adolf Hitler got the inspiration for his National Socialist party from Musolini, right down to both of them embracing anarchism.
Anarchism has a lot of different styles and flavors, and the only thing they really all have in common is the assertion that “you” should not be able to tell “me” what to do, ever. What the various anarchisms fill in the identities of “you” and “me” with determines the character of that anarchism. For Kropotkin the “me” that has to be free from “you” is the communal village. For Musollini and Hitler the “me” that had to be free from any outside control was the ethnically defined nation. They both envisioned a nation without a state. They both hijacked state power for the project of reviving a sense of ethnic nationhood that involved race war over resources. This is the core of fascist ideology: that the real world is just open warfare between racially defined nations for control of resources. Any idea of solidarity across ethnicity, whether that be in socialism or in Christianity or whatever, is just a lie people told you to make you do things you wouldn’t naturally do, things like protect the rights of minorities etc. Early fascist movements grow out of divided or defeated socialist movements and adopt similar rhetoric. Hitler attacked the Jew as the origin of Capitalism and of Communism. Once fascists got into power they never followed through with the socialist part of their program, but they did attack minorities.
In 1919 a young up and comer failed artist and army veteran named Adolph Hitler joined one of the multiple ultra-right patriotic parties in Germany. He joined the one called the German Workers Party. It seems Hitler was very charismatic, and after he took leadership of the party the renamed it the German National Socialist Workers’ Party. Alexander Reid-Ross does an excellent job at summarizing the moment in 1919 when Hitler’s party get its big break, so I’m going to quote him at length:
“The government attempted to dissolve the Freikorps, which responded by marching on Berlin. The putsch attempt was named after a civil servant named Wolfgang Kapp and was joined by Ludendorff, Ehrhardt, and Waldemar Pabst, the man responsible for the killing of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. After the military refused to act against the putsch, the government fled Berlin and called a general strike, which led to the end of the coup attempt. However, the general strike turned into an armed uprising, and militant workers in the industrial Ruhr region formed a Red Army, putting the government there under worker control. Although they had refused to move against the Kapp putsch, the military joined the Freikorps against the Red Army of the Ruhr, killing and torturing hundreds of people. The leftists fought back bravely, declaring “No atrocities, no revenge, no punishment; only love for humanity and justice!” But the uprising of workers’ and soldiers’ councils ended in bloody oppression. Ensuing economic destabilization compelled the Weimar government to ask France for a delay in payment of war reparations, but Germany was instead met with a coordinated occupation of the Ruhr by the French and Belgian armies in 1922. The Social Democrats and trade unions responded to the occupation with ‘passive resistance,’ and the French authorities expelled 100,000 unionists and state officials, along with their families. The Ruhr crisis and the ensuing political crisis with France created a political opportunity. Hitler seized on the model of Mussolini’s fascism, its populist pageantry, and the showmanship demonstrated in that year’s March on Rome. On the eve of November 8, 1923, Hitler proclaimed a ‘national revolution’ at a crowded meeting in a beer hall in Munich, leading General Ludendorff and other paramilitary members of the ‘Patriotic Movement’ in an abortive putsch attempt on the government of Bavaria. Though the sardonically named ‘Beer Hall Putsch’ in Munich failed, his ensuing trial gave Hitler an important public platform to espouse his anti-Semitic beliefs. During his light jail sentence, he dictated his political manifesto, Mein Kampf, to his deputy Rudolph Hess.” (pp.51-52). After the beer hall putsch Hitler’s career really takes off, not just in southern Germany where his party originated from, but throughout Prussia as well.
Robert O. Paxton’s Anatomy gives us a concise survey of the typical development of fascist movements. Typically, there is a period of grassroots mobilization. All across Europe, in the wake of failed Russia style coups people saw the left as an authoritarian threat, and part of the impulse of fascism is resistance to that. But also, capitalism was failing working people who turned to national solidarity in the context of a collapse of international solidarity. In Italy and Germany conservative governments faced with insurgent socialism from above movements, economic collapse and governmental disfunction were faced with a choice about whether to partner with far right groups or not. In the 20s and 30s fascists across Europe were reaching for state power, and in all but two instances conservatives successfully resisted them. Conservative governments in Romania, France, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Denmark, Holland and Norway rejected sharing power with fascists. In Italy in the 20s and in Germany in the 30s, conservatives who had lost any hope of ruling together with left centrists looked to the populist appeals of fascism to shore up their power. We see our own conservative movement split on this subject, with a small but important “never Trump” movement campaigning openly for Joe Biden in a rejection of the far right. What role did socialists play in all this, for better or for worse? We’ll continue to focus on the German case.
The best book I’ve found detailing the struggle against fascism by the German SDP is William Sheridan Allen’s The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town 1922-1945. In this book Sheridan-Allen discusses how the fascist movement came to dominate German society by focusing on the experience of a small German town called Northeim in lower Saxony. He shows us the shift this community makes through the 20s and 30s from a place where there is no Nazi party at all, and even a strong Socialist Party, to one where the Nazis are strong enough to put all the socialists in camps. One of the more frightening things I noticed in this history is just how powerful the socialist movement was compared to our movement today. They held state power. Their membership included important community members. They ran electoral campaigns, held rallies and organized sports leagues. They still didn’t keep Hitler out of power.
In general the fact that the SDP sat in power during a time when the worldwide economy was tanking meant that people blamed them for the bad economy. Fascist governments somehow get more powerful the worse things get, because they can always blame someone else. Democrats, radical or moderate, are responsible for what they do in power. Antidemocrats, fascists and Stalinists don’t have to be particularly cunning to ruin the public’s perception of a government when forces beyond their control like a worldwide economic depression cause the public pain. But the SDP did fail at things they could have done, things within their control, and that’s what I want to focus on to better get a grip on how Socialists can resist fascism.
Because of their cynical orientation to truth, the Nazis were able to change and craft their message to suit the audience. If the only reality is race war, political ideas just weapons people use in that war. The National Socialists could be all things to all people. They could represent themselves as champions of workers against bosses. They could represent themselves as champions of the nation’s industry. Crucially, they communicated to Germans that they were both progressive and traditional. They had a radical program for change in a context where people were hurting, and they had a message of national greatness. Now, I don’t think we should try and win people over with “America First” rhetoric, but I very often wonder how the far left expected to gain popularity by consistently trashing America. It seems like we could easily communicate that America has great potential from a left perspective. We fail a serious hurdle leaving this emotion for the fascists.
The Nazis could be incredibly popular with the middle class who was losing their property. The SDP not only didn’t work in government to protect the property of the middle classes, but revelled in their immiseration. Anyone who lost their livelihood could collect unemployment, but people didn’t want to be a burden. People want to contribute to their community and be recognized as contributing something of value. The Nazi party gave people a sense of importance and self worth in ways the SDP could not. The Nazis put forward a rhetoric that blamed socialists for Germany losing WW1 and falling into an economic depression, but that rhetoric stuck because the SDP legitimately couldn’t connect to people beyond a politics of class. It was ultimately a failure of the socialist movement to lead society as a whole that doomed the SDP and Germany. From Sheridan Allen:
“To the Socialists the Nazis were a threat only insofar as they might attempt an armed coup d’etat. Serious politics was a matter of rational appeals and positive results. Since the NSDAP [the Nazi party] seemed incapable of either, they could not constitute a political threat. Nazi propaganda seemed to illustrate this, for it consistaently pinned two labels on the SPD ‘Marxisten’ and ‘Bonzen’ (approximately, ‘wardheelers,’ with overtones of corruption). The labels are of course contradictory; it is difficult to conceive of fervid radicals who are simultaneously comfortably venal. But effective propaganda need not be logical as long as it foments suspicion, contempt, or hatred. The choice of the two words not only had that effect upon the bourgeoisie, it summed up the dilemma of the Social Democrats precisely. The SPD was not ‘Marxist,’ though it used language that made it appear so. Thus it was doubly encumbered, for it was unwilling to be a revolutionary party at a time when the best defense of democracy may have been social revolution, and secondly, its revolutionary tradition made it incapable of seeking or receiving the support of any but the working class. Furthermore, the SPD’s defense of democracy meant, in practical terms, defense of a status quo which was identified in the minds of most Northeimers with national humiliation and economic ruin...Thus the SPD could not keep the middle classes from flocking to the banners of the NSDAP, for the Nazis were known as real radicals. It was not enough to preach loyalty to democracy or to the Republic. Most Northeimers obviously felt no reason to respond to such an appeal. The way to undercut Nazis was not by blind opposition but by a counterprogram sufficiently attractive to awaken in the hearts of the bourgeoisie the kinds of hopes that the Nazis were able to arouse. Instead, the Social Democrats concentrated on holding the loyalty of the working class and saw the Nazi threat in terms of armed rebellion. Thus, no matter how hard they tried, Northeim’s Socialists did not provide effective opposition to the Nazis.” (pp. 54-55). In other words, the German SDP wasn’t trying to lead all of society, and the parts that didn’t correspond to their idea of agency, anyone who wasn’t a socialist worker, slipped away from them into the ranks of the fascist opposition.
The communists made the mistake of imagining their rivals the Social Democrats were worse than the fascists. This led them to working with the Fascists at crucial junctures, leading to workers identifying fascism with progress. In March of 1931 the Communists joined forces with the fascists in a campaign to dissolve the Prussian Parliament. In 1932 the KPD helped the Nazis in promoting and supporting a wildcat strike in Berlin. The communist orientation to a politics of class resentment led them to opposing social democracy when they should have been uniting with the SDP to fight fascism. In fact, according to the KPD the social democrats were the main enemy, because they were a roadblock to top-down socialist revolution. The KPD thought somehow that if the Fascists took power, this would allow them to win a greater victory when the pendulum swung back the other way. That is not how history turned out. As it happened the Nazi victory led to WW2 and the holocaust. The German people didn’t so much react to Nazi governance with horror and a return movement to the left as they were exhausted by the war.
Last year Ece Temelkuran gave us an insightful book about how her country Turkey slid into authoritarianism. Ms. Temelkuran is a veteran of the Gezi Park protest movement of 2013. Her book is entitled “How to Lose A Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship.” I don’t agree with everything she says, but it’s worth the afternoon or so it takes to read the whole thing. She talks about this myth of a pendulum in regards to Slavoj Zizek, who endorsed Donald Trump in 2016. She talks about how as fascism gains power, there is no rock bottom from which one would have to turn upwards. “During the 2015 elections in Turkey, our post-structuralist anarchist/militant citizen and all those who theorised and believed that there is a political bottom to hit had to physically grapple with government supporters trying to put fake votes in the ballot box. They had thought that this was the lowest life could sink to, until they experienced the referendum of 2017 on extending the government's powers following the failed coup. Once again volunteering to monitor ballot boxes, they soon drew the depressing conclusion that election fraud was even more brazen than the previous time. Although volunteers meticulously monitored the voting process, when the counting began and it became clear that Erdogan would not win, the Higher electoral Board changed the election law from one hour to the next, following pressure from the leader himself, and egregious fake votes for Erdogan were deemed valid. The opposition came to understand that, with the authoritarian regime having seized state powers, even if there were to be a political reawakening, it was almost impossible to stop the political tide with their accustomed political behaviour. They were hurtling down past the new political and moral bottom, unimaginable until it had actually happened. And as for our post-structural anarchist, like half the country who voted against Erdogan in the referendum that made him sole ruler of Turkey, he felt this latest blow would be the death of him. He was not to know that the afterlife would be even worse. The death of our particular anarchist… wasn’t at all accidental. It would have been foreseen much earlier had the progressive opinion leaders of the time not wasted years expecting a political metamorphosis to occur out of the total collapse of politics, and thus been quicker to inform the masses.” (pp.130-131).
Robert O. Paxton’s Anatomy gives us a concise survey of how the various fascist movements historically ended. Fascist movements who successfully entered state power then had to struggle against liberal institutions to maintain and expand that power. They had to overcome legal institutions and norms. By the end of 1932 political differences in Germany had become so polarized, the Nazi agitation so successful in generating a mass base, and the socialist movement so disfunctional that the conservative von Papen government appointed Hitler as the Chancelor in an attempt to establish some kind of order. They saw the Nazi party as a way for them to give the nation direction, and they thought they could use Hitler without him getting the upper hand. This is precisely how Mitch McConnell has handled Donald Trump. In Hitler’s case the arson attack against the Reichstag building in February of 1933 allowed him to successfully persuade President Hindenburg to grant him special emergency powers. This began the final stage of the fascist movement, the stage that only the German movement was able to reach: radicalization. In this stage, Germany began the build up to a war of conquest where they colonized Eastern Europe in the name of German racial supremacy and a war against Bolshevism. Hitler weaponized the German state against the state powers of Eastern Europe in the belief that in the resulting chaos, with the German army occupying these other countries that the German race would awaken to its historical task of dominating other races and eradicating world Jewry. The Trump administration has been struggling to tame the justice department and foil the democratic party’s attempts to contain him, but in a second Trump term the radicalization of his movement will combine with his increasing ability to flaunt the law. There is no world where Trump supporters of today turn on him in his second term: they have to believe his narrative about coronavirus or accept guilt for having imperiled or sacrificed the lives of their family members. The psychological pain in admitting guilt over Trump’s crimes against humanity and democracy would be too great, so the false narrative must be believed, and greater crimes will be called for. This cycle of pain, corruption and degradation continues in this way until Trump’s enemies are all in camps, until America is ethnically cleansed, until a cataclysmic war stops the fascist juggernaut.
When I first came to socialist politics, I imagined that Fascism came about in Germany because the German revolution had failed. It’s closer to the truth to say that the German revolution succeeded in achieving a democratic republic, but then undemocratic strains in the socialist movement sabotaged that republic, creating the opportunity for Hitler to take power. German communists adopted the false idea of Lenin having successfully imposed socialism from above. If that were possible, they reasoned, then the real obstacle to socialism was democracy itself. The Spartacists and the KPD then believing that down was up and up was down, worked to undermine the democratic government believing falsely that a victory for the fascists would create a pendulum swing back to their side. They did not perceive that the fascist movement once in power could only be stopped by being pushed out of power by conservatives or if allowed to radicalize by the conclusion of a long war between the fascists and bare humanity. They did not have the benefit of hindsight that we do. German socialists attempted what they thought was the Russian route to power, and the reaction to that top down authoritarian socialism was an equally authoritarian right wing movement. Communist abandonment of democratic values and open collaboration with fascists allowed Hitler to take power.
Ostrowski, Marius S. Eduard Bernstein on the German Revolution: Selected Historical Writings. Springer Nature, 2019.
Paxton, Robert O. The anatomy of fascism. Vintage, 2007.
Rosenberg, Arthur. A History of the German Republic. Methuen, 1936.
Rosenberg, Arthur. Democracy and socialism: a contribution to the political history of the past 150 years. Beacon Press, 1939.
Ross, Alexander Reid. Against the fascist creep. Ak Press, 2017.
Temelkuran, Ece. How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship. HarperCollins UK, 2019.
Art: German SDP poster, Weimar Era, "Worker, open your eyes! Vote SDP!" (https://www.akg-images.co.uk/archive/Arbeiter--Augen-auf!-Wahlt-SPD-2UMDHUU7MBJ4.html).
At High Stakes by Alan Carlson-Green
Calculating Catastrophe by John Barzetti