Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 8, 2017

Could Punching Nazis Have Prevented Hitler From Taking Power

Filed under: anti-fascism — louisproyect @ 11:49 am


Street-fighting between Nazis and Communists, 1933

On November 28, 2006 Alexander Cockburn wrote an article titled “The 9/11 Conspiracists and the Decline of the American Left” that interpreted the rise of conspiracism as the result of a dwindling number of leftists learning “their political economy from Marx via the small, mostly Trotskyist groupuscules.” This created a theoretical and strategic void that was filled with “a diffuse, peripatetic conspiracist view of the world” that understood historical change as driven by CIA skullduggery rather than the class struggle or inter-imperialist rivalry.

Although I totally agree with this assessment and would even go a bit further by adding the RT.com zeitgeist to the mix, there is another problem bedeviling the left that is the product of Marxism’s decline and that dates roughly close to 9/11. I speak of the elevation of street-fighting tactics over theory and strategy, symbolized by the black bloc and antifa. Starting with the Seattle protest in 1999, the occurrence of some spectacular altercation became a litmus test on whether a protest was successful. A peaceful protest in which people only marched down the streets making a demand on the state is seen as tame and “liberal”, even though that describes most of the movements that occurred in the last major period of radicalization in the USA prior to 1999, from the Vietnam antiwar movement to the fight to legalize abortion.

Ever since Charlottesville, I have seen repeated references to how Nazism could have been stopped by street-fighting with almost no attention paid to the concrete socio-political conditions of Germany between 1920 and 1933, when Hitler took power. For many of those who think that physical force was the key to stopping Nazism, the viral video of Richard Spencer getting punched in the face was far more important as a guide to action than understanding the tragic history of the German left. On January 22, 2017 Natasha Lennard wrote a Nation magazine article titled “Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer Got Punched—You Can Thank the Black Bloc” that saw little need for tame mass actions. All we had to do was passively applaud the self-appointed saviors: “You don’t have to fight neo-Nazis in the street, but you should support those who do that day.” Unfortunately, Lennard had little to say about the consequences of the black bloc adventurism that day. The cops arrested innocent bystanders who are now facing up to 75 years in prison, all because some people felt the need to take part in a empty ritual as if capitalism could be undermined by a broken bank window.

I would ask CounterPunch readers to forgive me for the length of this article that will try to tell the story of the German left’s failure to stop the Nazis from taking power. As a survivor of what Alexander Cockburn called a Trotskyist groupuscule, this was a topic that all new members paid close attention to, especially since Hitler’s triumph was one of the primary motivations for Trotsky founding a new International. For him, the key to understanding Hitler’s triumph was disunity on the German left. In some ways, despite the entirely different set of circumstances we face in 2017, this remains our continuing problem. My hope is that this bit of history might have some provide some insights on the kind of movement that needs to be built today since punching Nazis in Charlottesville was not the solution to an intractable problem that will take millions of Americans acting on their own class imperatives to solve.

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  1. Louis, I’ve read in a number of articles of yours about the need for the left to ditch the hammer and sickles, raised fists, etc. I don’t necessary disagree.

    But what exactly is the alternative? I don’t imagine you mean the American flag. Probably some symbol out of American history.

    But is the IWW symbol, for example, not just such an example? And did not both the 26th July Movement and the FSLN, which you have referred to as better models to follow, both use a red and black flag, which obviously has strong leftist connotations and comes out of the radical history of both countries (the influence of syndicalism in Sandino’s thought, and in the early labour movement in Cuba, etc).

    And even if these symbols are ditched, won’t we simply be accused as leftists of hiding our real beliefs and historical symbols from the eyes of the general public? That we are ashamed of all of our history and the symbols that inspired previous generations?

    Can you give any examples of what different symbols you would prefer to see the left use?

    Enjoyed this article.

    Comment by Victor — September 9, 2017 @ 10:50 am

  2. Peter Camejo chose the North Star as a symbol for the network he formed in early 80s with this in mind. When he explained his thinking back then, he also referred to the rainbow flag that the gay movement had developed. In terms of the use of red and black flags, I don’t have such big problems with that as much as I do with the hammer-and-sickle. If there is a group that still clings to such iconography that is not a sect, I’d be surprised.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 9, 2017 @ 12:23 pm

  3. Thanks Louis. I keep intending to get around to reading Camejo’s memoir. I have read Barry Sheppard’s two volumes on the SWP. The equivalent North Star symbol for us Aussies is the Eureka flag, which has had a long association with the left, the labour movement, democratic struggles and militant unions. Over the last 2 decades or so its been increasingly adopted by right-wing nationalists and the extreme right, which has compromised the original democratic, labour and left-wing associations quite a bit. But they haven’t been completely successful on this front.

    Comment by Victor — September 9, 2017 @ 1:19 pm

  4. Among the forces that generated Richard Spencer is the University of Virginia’s infamously reactionary Department of English, from which this Pillsbury Dough Boy of the far right obtained a BA with (God love us) “High Distinction” in 2001. That opened the door to the University of Chicago, which also predictably–with characteristic total lack of moral and intellectual integrity–fell all over itself kissing his stinking fat ass. and awarded him an MA for an antisemitic screed that would have disgraced Julius Streicher.

    You can’t usefully call these institutions fascist themselves in any global sense, but there is nothing they like better collectively than falling on their knees before “the intelligent conservative,” the goofier the better. In the dotage of postmodernism, the emergence of one or more high-concept Nazis from one or more of these expensive shitholes was more or less inevitable. What do you expect from a milieu that still venerates the rebarbative Paul de Man?

    This is an old story. When Martin Walker spent a postgraduate year at Harvard (1969-70), he kept a portrait of Hitler on his mantel and was notorious for late-night bouts of martial arts sparring with a like-minded neighbor who was writing a thesis on Nietzsche. The walls shook. Walker accumulated an entourage of right-leaning prep-schoolers, very much like UVa students, who shared his orientation and formed something of a network in the university. Despite his subsequent career with the ostensibly leftwing Guardian, Walker never to my knowledge expressed any regret about the Hitler portrait, however quiet he kept it publicly. His political utterances were exceedingly guarded, but it is not too difficult to see the actually colorful and even charismatic Walker–from the university point of view–as a prototype of Spencer, however drab the later may be by comparison.

    As with jesting Pilate, the question “What is Truth” is forever on the lips of the moral and intellectual alcoholic frauds and sex maniacs (Albee and Nabokov got that much right) who populate so much of the professorial zoo. This is the result of their–as they see it–delightful subtlety and playfulness–and a perverted sense of free speech which allows the creation of monsters merely for the sake of novelty. For balance, every so often they throw up a Braying jackass to cry up the Nazi menace that they themselves have perversely cultivated and partly created.

    As has been stated often enough in these pages, taking the Nazi bait and responding with hysterical antifascism is precisely the wrong thing to do, though of course it is what the center and right expect and want. Unless you are an exceptionally faunlike, perverted, and capering UVa Professor of English Language and Literature, Spencer is chiefly remarkable for a total lack of charisma and a general mediocrity that makes it astonishing that anyone even notices him, let alone follows him. He, like Milo, is a damp squib that would certainly fizzle out on its own without the twin boost provided on the one hand by the prestigious universities that created him and on the other hand by antifa and the furore it generates.

    The academic willing role in all off this begins IMHO, as revenge for the student strikes of the late Sixties and 1970s, which afflicted the tenured with a mortal sense of injured majesty that has echoed down the ages ever since. It’s quite remarkable how persistent this has been given the transitoriness of the “student revolt,” which by 1972 had degenerated into mere lifeless ritual, and which–owing to the lack of class-based mass organization amid the frenzy of ultraleftism (crudely stated)–would have fallen apart of its own accord anyway.

    Is this history rendering judgment on the strike fist iconography and accompanying, often merely symbolic violence of that time? In 1969 or so a mob of Harvard students marched on the ROTC building with the stated intention of burning it down. This would have been difficult because nobody involved had any materials with which to start a serious fire or any notion of how to do so. The official lie is that a heroic, spontaneous student opposition confronted and quelled the would-be arsonists bravely. In reality, the whole thing fell apart from lack of interest and accelerant, and everybody went home to play pinball. But it did happen, and gave rise to the complete fiction, during the student strike a year later, that the striking students were conspiring to set fire to Widener Library. This lie was willfully and deliberately propagated by the University authorities, and is repeated to this day by deliberate liars.

    The actual violence of the student strike consisted of an SDSer (was it Michael Kazin?) symbolically laying hands on Dean Archie Epps and escorting him gently from occupied University Hall, which was then invaded and laid waste by a rioting mob of state troopers. There were a few street clashes with the police in which non-students shattered plate-glass windows in anticipation of anitfa, but this was deplored not only by the authorities but also even by demonstrators who were perfectly willing to fight with the police up to a certain point. But there is no doubt that this and similar occurrences were part of the justification for a murderous assault on the forces of the left (Kent State, etc.) and marked–though they did not cause–the beginning of the neoliberal turn that is currently devastating the political life of this country.

    The New Left had “politicized the university.” What a crime! What a stain on the white radiance of eternity!

    But what should or could the student left have done differently?

    This is a tough question. People in SDS before it fell apart were trying hard for a Marxist analysis, but most of them got it wrong–as witness Progressive Labor mud-wrestling with the Revolutionary Youth Movement. Certainly the willingness the to cry “fascist” at every turn has led to the current hysterical, moralistic, and politically sterile fad of antifascism.

    No answers here. My own feeling is that the unmasking of university connections with the CIA and what used to be called “the pigs of the power structure” was a necessary phase, and that the Vietnam War had to be opposed even at the risk of political error. And while the Marxism of SDS was in every way defective, there is no doubt that it influenced numbers of people to seek out the real thing. The fact that universities three generations down the road are still vigorously fighting the long-vanished students of my day strongly suggests that not everything they fought for should be thrown out with the historical bathwater.

    Let’s hope the serious undercurrent is still running amid all the adventurist bullshit. Maybe this time someone will get away from the masked mob of macho twerps and bullies and get it right.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — September 9, 2017 @ 4:10 pm

  5. Simply put: you at your best, Louis. No disagreement with you this time. Spot on, AFAIK. Hope you have followers.

    Comment by Néstor G. — September 10, 2017 @ 4:48 pm

  6. Hey Farans that was a brilliant post!

    Comment by iskraagent — September 10, 2017 @ 5:48 pm

  7. […] and ultraleftism and Antifa and the Perils of Adventurism, for example, along with his latest Could Punching Nazis Have Prevented Hitler From Taking Power with his usual mixture of common sense and post-Trotskyist dogmatism. (I particularly like his […]

    Pingback by A Last Post on the Antifa (For Now) – NeoPopulism — September 10, 2017 @ 7:57 pm

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