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Book Reviews: 'The Dictators - Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia', & 'After Socialism - Reconstructing Critical Social Thought'

Hitler and Stalin

'The Dictators: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia'. By Richard Overy. (Penguin, £9.99)

If you’ve been thinking that books on the two most renowned political dictators, Hitler and Stalin, have been done to death forget it and read this book. Whereas books such as Alan Bullock’s Parallel Lives, Alan Kershaw’s Hitler and Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Court of the Red Czar (reviewed in the March 2006 Socialist Standard) concentrate on personality, Richard Overy investigates issues far more important to the working class. He raises such questions as how dictatorships could happen, how did they manage to hold on to power and impose their will on a sometimes-uncooperative working class. For answers to questions such as these this book is excellent.

Overy finds many similarities in the methods adopted by the dictators but also some important differences, lying mainly in the varying levels of economic development existing in the two countries. Germany, emerging from its history as a collection of loosely federated states was already a capitalist nation. It had a native capitalist class, trade unions, a democratic political constitution in the Weimar Republic. Russia had none of these. Eighty percent of its population were peasants, its home-grown capitalist class were almost non-existent, or at any rate very weak. There were trade unions (in fact it was largely trade union action which had toppled the Czar) they had not yet reached the same level of development as those in Germany. There had never been even the semblance of political democracy in Russia.

These historical conditions were important in the way the dictators came to power and held on to it. One thing Overy makes abundantly clear is that neither dictator was “imposed” or brought about by force against an unwilling or resisting populace. Hitler used the electoral process to gain power and, although no one in Russia ever had the chance of voting against Stalin, he still needed working class support to remain in power.

Hitler maintained his position of supreme ruler by adopting the cult of leadership right from the beginning. Everyone (including, crucially, the army) had to swear allegiance to the Führer. Stalin had to work slowly and behind the scenes to achieve his pre-eminence. But, as Overy makes clear, neither of them could move very far without popular support, and they both went to extraordinary lengths to hold on to a mass following.

This does not mean of course that Stalin and Hitler did not routinely employ force. But by means of propaganda, of general scare alarms – about “wreckers” in the case of Stalin, or “undesirables” in the case of Hitler – they managed to enlist the support of the ordinary citizen. Informers were actively encouraged and many enthusiastically took part in wholesale denunciation of the regime’s opponents.

Overy makes a strong case for believing that both dictators believed in their own ideologies – something that can be readily accepted in the case of Hitler with his belief in the existence of “race” and of a “racially pure” Aryan blood. However we find it much more difficult to accept that Stalin really believed that he was building socialism. Overy also suggests that Stalin’s purges of Communist Party members had some basis in reality in the sense that they really did threaten his conception of “socialism”. After getting rid of Roehm,  Hitler was much more loyal to his close circle as he built up his authority on the basis of personal loyalty and did not see them as a threat. His biggest problem lay in the conservative nature of the generals. This explains why he took over the conduct of the war as sole commander, something also attempted by Stalin, who sacked or murdered most of his generals. Overy also appears to have a greater respect for Stalin as a political theoretician than is warranted by the facts.

For anyone who wants to understand how the Holocaust came about and the circumstances building up to it this book is essential reading. >From general beginnings as slave labour to its eventual conclusion as mass killing, it makes chilling reading. He also presents some interesting statistics on the Gulags and their role as providers of slave labour in the economy that goes a long way to understand them.

In the pursuit of maintaining power both dictators used spectacle. Parades, military processions, torchlight rallies – all were used extensively and served as displays of power and as entertainment. In the days before television this was very effective. Rigid control of the press was also an essential. Any criticism of the establishment was viciously suppressed.

A serious shortcoming of this book lies in the author’s conception of socialism. Overy takes the word “socialism” and the concept of “national socialism” as used by Stalin and Hitler at their face value. He never defines the terms and appears to believe that socialism is synonymous with a “command economy” capitalism, regarding which he has some very perceptive things to say. However the lessons implicit in this book are vitally important and it is to be recommended.

CYR

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'After Socialism: Reconstructing Critical Social Thought'. By Gabriel Kolko. (Routledge, £19.99)

Kolko writes as a critic of capitalism, but as one who has no time for Marxism, or rather for what he thinks is Marxism. His two chapters on this are irritating as he paints Marx as a crude economic determinist who saw working class action to establish socialism as a mere inevitable reflex action to capitalist conditions. But if this was the case, why was he a revolutionary agitator in the 1840s and again in the 1860s and 1870s? True, he got it wrong in that, contrary to what must have been his expectation, the working class has still not acted to establish socialism. And this has meant that we socialists today are a lot less confident than earlier generations in speaking in terms of socialism being inevitable.

Kolko also criticises Marx for not having much to say on imperialism, war and state intervention. This is true too, but then these only became big issues after his death in 1883, and those in the Marxist tradition (including ourselves but also the likes of Hilferding and Bukharin) did address these questions.

Kolko’s real argument is with the two attempts in the 20th century to ostensibly challenge capitalism – Social Democracy and “Communism”. The former was led by ambitious parliamentary politicians who ended up merely administering the status quo, and the latter by those who cynically installed themselves in power as a new elite  and then paved the way for later members of this elite to transform themselves into ordinary capitalists. According to him (and we can concur) both these have been utter failures and any radical movement against capitalism has to start all over again on a quite different basis. For him, “socialism” is dead and cannot be resurrected. Hence the book’s title.

The two chapters in which he describes “capitalist realities” – a world dominated by capitalist corporations run by greedy and self-seeking executives and by governments which do their bidding when not lining their own pockets – are the best.

As to his solution, he proposes a new radical Left party which will be more democratic and more principled than the old Social Democratic parties. But, because he has rejected the sort of overall view that Marxism has of capitalism as a system governed by economic laws, he thinks that problems such as the threat of nuclear war, inequality and poverty can be dealt with piecemeal. In other words, another version of the same old, failed reformism.

Kolko is a historian who has specialised in analysing wars and he thinks that history demonstrates that the best chance of a mass working class movement to overthrow capitalism will be after some war that the ruling class will have foolishly embarked on. He could be right. But let’s hope he’s not.

ALB