The Conformists

Donny Gluckstein, The Nazis, Capitalism and the Working Class

Haymarket Books, 275pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781608461370

reviewed by Tom Steele

How did it come about that during the 1930s the world’s most advanced and politically well-organised working class so quickly succumbed to Nazism? By the late 19th century the German working class had developed a Social Democratic Party (SPD) of considerable authority and a strong trade union organisation. It was complemented by a notable workers’ educational arm, led by Wilhelm Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, which added to the liberal German tradition of Bildung a strong Marxist component that was not inflexible but open to challenge and critique. It appeared to be the healthiest example of a proletarian public sphere yet developed. But then a series of hammer blows that included Germany’s defeat in World War One, the abortive revolution of 1919 and the murder of SPD leaders, created deep fractures. The formation of the German Communist Party under Soviet direction and the SPD’s pursuit of parliamentary constitutionalism created a fatal schism in the Left. Nevertheless, the workers’ movement was still an uncomfortable and unwonted threat to German capitalism’s pursuit of profit and, with the economic crisis of the early 1920s, bankers and big business were keen to bring it to heel. In this they were more than encouraged by the military, still in painful denial and agitating to exterminate the Red Menace that they believed had cost them victory. From this melange emerged the appalling phenomenon of Nazism.

Gluckstein’s excellently researched book attempts to answer the question posed. The book is a new American edition of his original publication by Bookmarks in 1999 (though, sadly, there is not a new introduction) and includes an extensive bibliography and scholarly notes many of them relying on original sources in German. Gluckstein appears not to depart from Ian Kershaw’s The Hitler Myth (Oxford University Press, 1987) and supports many conclusions with quotations from Leon Trotsky. The rise of Nazism is taken chronologically and the conclusion warns that fascism is once more on the rise. Gluckstein insists it must be denied a political platform since, once it attains power, the democratic means it used to get there will be suspended and all opposition crushed. This is what happened in Germany in the 1930s.

Despite the vehement anti-Semitism expressed in Hitler’s speeches and publications like Mein Kampf in the mid 1920s, the primary target of Nazi repression was not Jews but the workers’ movement; the first concentration camps for ‘protective custody’ were set up for Communists, Socialist and other left ‘deviants’. Only in the late 1930s did the Nazis begin rounding up Jews, and even then it was initially only those who were politically active. The full-scale attempt to exterminate Jews began when Jewish property was forcibly expropriated by the Nuremburg Laws on 1935 and preparation for imperialist expansion began (though ironically, Jews able to work were released from the death camps when the demand for labour for the war effort intensified in 1941). Gluckstein’s argument is that Nazism was first and foremost an attempt to combat the workers’ movement and not, at least initially, genocidal.

So, given its anti-socialism, where did the ‘socialist’ element of National Socialism come from? Nazism was a mass movement and not simply the result of a ruling class conspiracy against the workers, as is sometimes maintained on the Left. Its roots lay in the small businessmen, artisans and peasant farmers of the small towns and countryside. Relatively few industrial workers were involved until the Socialist and Communist opposition was crushed in the mid-to-late 1930s, when many workers did indeed join the Nazi party - a feature that Gluckstein unfortunately does not explore in depth. The Christian churches were largely content to sit by passively while events unfolded, although the Roman Catholic Church was more compromised than the Protestant, and heroic resistance was offered by the Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and his followers (Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazis shortly before the end of the war). So Nazism seemed to be less of a ruling class ruse than a petit bourgeois revolt against both the organised working class with their relentless wage and condition demands on the one hand and cutthroat big business, which under-priced the small business man and whose merciless bankers charged extravagant rates of interest on loans and then wound up family businesses when they could not repay. This was the basis for the mass movement Hitler generated, nostalgic for the glory days of Bismarckian imperialism, with pride in its national culture, and an extraordinarily fanciful mythology of Gods and Heroes, operatically played out to a theme of racial purity and national destiny.

Of course much of this appealed to the ruling class, particularly when the Nazis emphasised the military dimension and played down the problems of big business. But Sozialismus was something else. It’s hard to believe, but in the early days there was in fact a left wing of the Nazi Party of which Goebbels was a leader. Goebbels wrote in his diary (having heard Hitler give what he regarded as a ‘reactionary’ speech) ‘... Compensate the aristocrats ... Don’t disturb private property. Horrendous! We are socialists. We don’t want to have been so in vain.’ This appeal to workers’ radicalism, which appears to be not simply cynical (although it’s hard to know), isn’t further investigated by Gluckstein, unfortunately. Other authors have commented on how many communist workers did in fact flip to the Nazis, taken in by the anti-capitalist rhetoric, but this is not followed up in any detail. Gluckstein blames the German left’s poor leadership and tactics, but it seems something more structural is at work. Maybe for some the appeal of socialism was not so much its potential for human liberation so much as guaranteeing a disciplined order and ‘just’ social regulation – in fact, a kind of conservatism that was well exhibited in Stalinised Russia. While this is wholly understandable, particularly when the entire might of Western capitalism (led by Winston Churchill) had been ranged against the Bolshevik Revolution, the truly vital element in socialism lies in its ability utterly to transform human lives. If this is wholly ignored in the interest of ‘revolutionary discipline’ then we lose the thing most worth fighting for. But when this desire for order and stability, without a corresponding struggle for human liberation, is combined with a racialised nationalism, as Gluckstein shows, holocaust is the only outcome.

What can we learn from Gluckstein’s book about fascism today? Well it’s still around in one form or another. Is it on the rise? Well, again, there are noisy right-wing movements across Europe, some even calling themselves Neo-Nazis. But what forms do they take? The most prominent are the anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic movements which, in France for example, can get up 20% of the popular vote but often lose support when conservative governments are elected. All these movements need to demonise an Other in the same way the Nazis demonised Jews and Communists ,and many talk about the need for racial purity. Some are quasi-military in their operation and structure. Although there may be some similarity in their rural and provincial class basis to the Nazis, the peasant farmer class is now supported largely by grants from the European Union and so less inclined towards militant nationalism. Many mobilise elements of what Marx called the Lumpenproletariat as their shock troops - as did the Nazis - but there is no groundswell of support from the employed. Sure, some will vote for the British National Party because they are fed up with the neoliberalism of New Labour, but they often return to the fold after periods of conservative power.

There is no great ideological enemy like Communism or Social Democracy to galvanise reactionary ardour: the Soviet Union’s last rites were administered in 1989 and European Communist and Socialist Parties have died a death. Few countries possess imperialist ambitions for lebensraum as did the Nazis and no country harbours the national humiliation of defeat in world war. No European country contains anything like the defeated German army whose leaders, the Junkers class, were key elements in smoothing the way for the Nazis. No charismatic hero bellows blood-and-soil allegiance and the small-time cranks that try to whip it up are either easily mocked by a liberal media (such as with BNP leader Nick Griffin on Question Time) or have to tame their appeal for an election platform. The centre ground, as Obama showed recently, is perhaps the only viable ground for politics – although the extreme right will always latch on to populist issues like immigration, whipped up by the tabloids. Their main influence seems to lie in persuading the mainstream political parties to adopt illiberal policies. For the moment the priority is to oppose such populist trends and defend human rights, but with an ear always cocked for the drumbeat of jackbooted feet.