Hot Heads and Hitlerism: Some Observations on Unity
Whatever else Hitler may or may not succeed in doing he can certainly claim that he drove many of his opponents in England into a mental condition bordering on hysteria. Scenes reminiscent of the short-lived war-time “brotherhood of capital and labour” are being re-enacted. Prosperous Jewish traders may be seen hob-nobbing with Communists at anti-Hitler demonstrations. Bellicose “pacifists” barely stop short of demanding immediate war. Labour M.P.s who have for years agitated for the revision of the Versailles Treaty in Germany’s favour now press the Government to give an undertaking that nothing of the kind shall be allowed to happen. The spokesmen of the Liberal, Labour and Conservative parties are for a while almost harmonious in their mutual agreement to dislike the new Germany. And at the rear of the procession the I.L.P. and Communist Party bawl “united front” with a fervour which may disguise from some simpletons how diminutive is their following but which has so far completely failed to snare the more wily old birds in the Labour Party and Trades Union Congress.
All of which is by way of introduction to the serious question what ought we to do in face of the rise of movements such as that led by Hitler. What shall we answer to the plea to sink all differences and unite the workers against any such movement in this country? At first sight it may appear that the question does not need a second thought. It will be asked, “How can there be any objection to uniting the workers against a movement the success of which would destroy all independent organisation and propaganda, from the trade unions to the S.P.G.B.?” However, the matter is not so simple as it seems.
In the first place, do the workers want to be united against Hitlerism? The answer as regards Germany is that the workers there emphatically did not and do not want to be united against it. Millions of them, employed and unemployed, are among Hitler’s most enthusiastic supporters. How else could his party have gone on increasing its vote at one election after another until it reached 17,000,000? It is idle to deny facts like these, and dangerous to base policies on the illusion that Hitler’s is an isolated group, imposing itself by naked force on a working class opposed to him and his policy. Let us then face the fact that Hitler in Germany, like Mussolini in Italy, came to power because he had behind him millions of peasants, small traders and clerical and manual workers. In order to complete this picture by bringing England into it let us next recognise that the great majority of employed and unemployed workers voted for the National Government at the last election. Although in the past two years some voters who backed the National Government will have decided to support one or other of the opposition Liberal and Labour groups, there can be little doubt that the majority still favour the present Government, and no doubt whatever that the Labour group have behind them only a minority of the working class.
The question of organising opposition either to Fascism or to the National Government therefore boils itself down to this: “What prospect is there that a United Front including the Labour Party and the Communist Party could win over a majority to its side?” The answer to the question is that, in existing conditions, and for a considerable time in the future, there is no possibility of such a thing happening.
On the contrary, it is the Labour and Communist Parties of the various countries which in their different ways have helped to drive the workers into their present frame of mind. In many countries since the War so-called Labour or Socialist Parties have been able to take over the Government, either alone or in coalition, or have given their Parliamentary support to Governments supposed to be sympathetic to the Labour programmes. In each case it was argued that legislation would be enacted of a kind beneficial to the workers, and that this would improve the workers’ conditions of life and at the same time strengthen the Labour Parties. Nothing of the kind took place. Normal capitalist conditions, particularly the world crisis which began in 1929, shattered the dreams of the Labour leaders, and undermined the popularity of their programmes and parties. Almost everywhere – with greater or less violence – the pendulum has swung away from Labour parties and back to parties appealing to conservative and nationalistic prejudices – among them the “Fascists.” We need not seek far for an explanation. Those who voted “Labour” knew little or nothing about the basic capitalist economic problems, all they knew was that they were promised work and wages and social reforms; instead of which what they got was “economy campaigns,” persistent and then rising unemployment, and falling wages. In their subsequent stampede away from the Labour parties many of them have rushed headlong after new leaders like Hitler – attractive because he has not yet been tried and found out.
These Fascist movements have been encouraged by the Communist propaganda of rioting and civil war. The workers having once put their trust in Labour parties, whose chief appeal was that they were going to introduce drastic economic and political changes, do not in their disappointment turn towards the Communists whose appeal is for still more violent changes, but towards the men who promise to give prosperity by methods of “discipline and order.”
If then it were desirable to organise anti-Fascist movements the only chance of success would be to throw overboard the Labour Parties and the Communists. Their presence would be a hindrance, not a help.
While we are on the subject, it is worth while looking into past experience to see what the Labour Parties and Communist Parties have achieved when faced with the rise of parties of violent repression. First there is Italy. In that country, after the War, there were groups in the trade unions and the so-called Socialist Party corresponding roughly to the Labourites and Communists in every country. Both groups professed to aim at a more or less distant and vaguely defined Socialism, but both put forward a list of “immediate demands” which was the real basis on which members and supporters were attracted. Their chief distinguishing features were that while the “right wing” group stood for compromise with Liberal Governments, the other preached armed revolt and civil war. At no time was the backing for the two groups a majority of the population, nor did the backing consist of voters who understood Socialism.
Each group confessed to understand how to prevent Mussolini from coming into power, yet their activities, including the disastrous seizure of the factories in 1920, were directly paving the way for that event. As Fascism grew there came a point – repeated in Germany in 1932 and in Austria in 1933 – at which the openly capitalist Government of Italy invited the support of the so-called Socialist Party to keep the Fascists out. The Communist wing refused and demanded aggressive action against Fascism, just as they did in Germany eleven years after, and are doing now in Austria, England and elsewhere. The non-Communist group favoured accepting the offer of the Italian Government. The result was that the two groups separated. The Italian trade unions and the Socialist Party were each split into two more or less equal factions, free to take action on the lines they desired. Events soon showed that both of them were in practice utterly helpless in face of the growing support given to Mussolini by the peasants and workers. Neither compromise nor street-fighting availed against the growing popularity of Fascism. Both groups were crushed with ease after Mussolini gained control of the machinery of Government and the Army and Navy.
When Von Schleicher was Chancellor of Germany in 1932, a similar situation faced the German Social Democratic Party. Should they support him in order to keep Hitler out? Inclination said “yes,” but always there was the fear that the Communists would make capital out of it and win over many Social Democratic voters. In Austria, at the time of writing, the Austrian Social Democrats are torn in two over the same issue. Shall they support the openly capitalist Dr. Dollfuss in order to keep out the Nazis? And if they do will they lose members to the Communists?
It is one of the ironies of politics that the parties of political compromise should thus get caught in a trap fashioned by themselves. First, their past associations and compromises with capitalism and capitalist parties made them weak and unpopular in a period of world crisis. Like all who have helped to administer capitalism they get blamed for the crisis. Then comes the critical moment when they have to decide whether to support a capitalist government, knowing that their refusal will open the door to violent repression by another capitalist party, the Fascists; but having built up their parties on the support of voters who can be easily swayed one way or the other, the leaders cannot make up their minds. All their theories of political bargaining and compromise indicate that this is the time when compromise is absolutely essential, and refusal to compromise suicidal. Yet in Italy in 1921, and then in Germany in 1932, they see their parties torn in two. They lose control at the crucial moment and take the road of indecision that leads to destruction. The Austrian Social Democrats are now hesitating at the brink of the same precipice. The British Labour Party faced it in 1931.
That will always be the fate of those who build up membership on a programme of reforms; instead of on an understanding of Socialism. An organisation of the latter kind would never create the situation from which there is no possible outcome except the choice between final compromise with capitalism, and refusal leading to violent suppression; for a genuine Socialist party would never take on the task of administering capitalism. Nor would it provoke violent reaction by attempts at armed revolt and preaching civil war.
In Hungary the position in 1919 was slightly different. Capitalist political maneuvering allowed a Communist minority to seize power for a brief period; leading to fifteen years of savage suppression by the Government which succeeded the Communist dictatorship.
If then we ask the Labour Parties and Communist Parties what are their credentials and what guarantee they can offer that either of them can stop Fascism, all they can reply is that they failed in Hungary, in Italy and in Germany, that they are now about to demonstrate their failure in Austria. If the workers let them they will repeat their failure in Great Britain.
Another widely accepted notion which requires looking into is the ready assumption that the brutalities of Hitlerism are unique and “unheard of.” Unfortunately they are only too common all over the world, and if anyone has not heard of similar brutalities elsewhere that is only because the Press has not chosen to give them such publicity. Where indeed is the country which can show a clean record? France has the slaughter of the Communards in 1871 to answer for, and the inhumanities of the French penal settlements. Italian Liberals say that shocking brutalities are still being practised on political prisoners in Italian prisons, as is also true of Poland, Hungary, Rumania and other European countries. Indian Nationalists say that they can sympathise with the German victims of Hitlerism because they are subjected to similar violent suppression themselves. Then there are the recent exposures of the American “chain-gangs” and other prison horrors, and the reports of ill-treatment of political prisoners in the prisons of the Spanish Republic. In short, the world is too full of such brutality to make Germany unique – it is only the most recent of a long series scattered over the whole world.
In particular, what of the German Social Democrats and the Communists? Are their hands clean? Has everyone forgotten the methods used by the Social Democrats to suppress the Independent Socialists and Communists in the early post-war years? – the shootings and imprisonments which made infamous the Social-Democrat Noske, Minister of Defence in 1919-1920?
On what grounds, moreover, do the Communists protest against violent repression? Have they not practised and justified similar methods in Russia? If anyone has any doubts as to the views of the Communists he should read what was their “text-book ” on the subject, Trotsky’s Defence of Terrorism, published in 1921 (i.e., when Trotsky held high office and long before he fell out of favour). In Germany, Hitler has suppressed or taken over all the Social Democrat journals, and all the independent trade unions. He has seized the funds of opposition political parties and allows them to exist only on sufferance and under conditions of the utmost difficulty. How does this differ from Russia, where no independent political party or paper is allowed to exist at all, whether capitalist, social-reformist, or Socialist? The Russian Bolsheviks in 1918 promised a Constituent Assembly in Russia. As soon as it met they suppressed it by force of arms and imprisoned opposition members. Now they protest because Hitler prevents the Communists from sitting in the German Parliament and puts them in prison.
The Communists, with their tongues in their cheeks, protest against Hitler suppressing the Social Democrats. One of the parties suppressed by Hitler is the reformist Russian Social Democratic Party, which had its headquarters in Berlin because it had been suppressed and exiled from Russia by the Bolsheviks! Everyone knows, that if the Communists obtained power in Germany to-morrow and copied Moscow, the German Social Democrats, as well as any Socialist movement, would be suppressed outright, not being allowed even the precarious existence which Hitler at present allows the Social Democrats.
Kautsky, now a leading member of the German Social Democratic Party, in his book, Terrorism and Communism (1919), said all that needs to be said about the claim by the Social Democrats or the Communists that they are defenders of political liberties and opponents of repression. He speaks of the post-war so-called Socialist Governments in Germany and Russia, and of the “bloody terrorism” practised by them. He continues: –
“The Bolsheviks in Russia started this, and were in consequence condemned in the most bitter terms by all who did not accept the Bolshevik standpoint. Among them are the German Majority Socialists. But these latter hardly felt their own power threatened before they resorted to the same means practised by the Regiment of Terror which have characterised the Revolution in the East. Noske has boldly followed in Trotsky’s footsteps . . .” (Terrorism and Communism, National Labour Press, 1920. Page 1)
Of course both the Social Democrats and the Bolsheviks hid behind the plea that “the end justifies the means,” forgetting that the means must play an important part in determining what the end will be. The answer to their plea is contained in the present desperate and gloomy prospects of the two countries. In spite of Hitler’s wild promises, and the equally wild promises of Russia’s rulers, the workers in both countries have nothing before them in the near future except that which capitalism has to offer, and in the meantime Socialist propaganda has been made extremely difficult. In both countries the Socialist movement is hardly even in its infancy. When it does progress it will be on the lines laid down by us, avoiding on the one hand the bog of reformism and compromise, and on the other the reaction-breeding policy of armed revolt and civil war, and the policy of repression of opponents when political control has been achieved.
The Socialist Movement must be independent and uncompromising. It must also stand firmly by democracy, by the methods of Socialist education and political organisation, and the method of gaining control of the machinery of Government and the armed forces through the vote and only with the backing of a majority of convinced Socialists. Neither now nor in the future could the Socialist Movement join hands with its Labour and Communist opponents in a so-called united front.