Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 10, 2021

No, America has not entered the Weimar era

Filed under: Fascism,Germany,Trump — louisproyect @ 7:22 pm

Long before Trump became President, I noticed that some on the left were confusing contemporary America with the Weimar Republic in 1920s Germany. In 2010, I commented on an interview that Chris Hedges did with Noam Chomsky that encapsulated this misreading of history. Hedges starts off:

“It is very similar to late Weimar Germany,” Chomsky told me when I called him at his office in Cambridge, Mass. “The parallels are striking. There was also tremendous disillusionment with the parliamentary system. The most striking fact about Weimar was not that the Nazis managed to destroy the Social Democrats and the Communists but that the traditional parties, the Conservative and Liberal parties, were hated and disappeared. It left a vacuum which the Nazis very cleverly and intelligently managed to take over.”

As I have always tried to do when encountering a blinkered take on Weimar, I introduced some economic data:

To start with, the economic situation during the late Weimar Republic was far worse than today in the U.S. In 1932, there were 5 million unemployed German workers out of a total population of 66 million, an unemployment rate of 30 percent–twice what we are suffering in the U.S. today. Also, keep in mind that unemployment insurance, which had been introduced in Germany in 1927, was the victim of fiscal austerity after the 1929 market crash. All public funding was suspended, which resulted in higher contributions by the workers and fewer benefits for the unemployed.

After Trump was elected in 2016, the Weimar analogies increased dramatically for obvious reasons. Trump was widely perceived as the second coming of Adolf Hitler (or Mussolini) and as such it was incumbent on the left to study what happened in Germany in order to prevent another 1932. Both Ted Glick and Harold Meyerson tried to scare voters into pulling the lever for Hillary Clinton by bringing up the Weimar bogeyman. In my reply, I took exception to their notion that Jill Stein’s Green Party candidacy had anything to do with the German Communist Party’s insane ultraleft policy that equated the Socialist Party with the Nazis. I added that if there was any analogy, it was with the SP’s centrist politics that lost the votes of workers in the same way that Hillary Clinton’s continuation of Obama’s pro-Wall Street presidency made it possible for Trump to demagogically attack her Goldman-Sachs speeches. It was doubtful that either Glick or Meyerson had given much thought to SP policies in the 1920s:

Like the Democratic Party, the German Socialists cut deals with the opposition rightwing parties to stay in power. In effect, they were the Clinton and Obamas of their day. In 1928, the Socialists were part of a coalition government that allowed the SP Chancellor Hermann Müller to carry out what amounted to the same kind of sell-out policies that characterized Tony Blair and Bernard Hollande’s nominally working-class governments.

To give just one example, the SP’s campaign program included free school meals but when Müller’s rightwing coalition partners demanded that the free meals be abandoned in order to fund rearmament, Müller caved in.

My last reference to the Weimar Republic was a CounterPunch article last October that recapitulated previous articles and added:

Attempts to liken the Proud Boys or the Boogaloos to Hitler’s Brownshirts fall apart when examined under a historical spotlight. By 1932, it had 400,000 men that had years of experience attacking working-class demonstrations and rallies. By contrast, antifa confrontations with Trump supporters are skirmishes that generally do not involve casualties. When one happens, as was the case with Kyle Rittenhouse, the left must express outrage while it puts his actions into perspective. Like the driver who plowed his car into Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, this was an exception to the rule. America’s would-be fascists are primarily looking for fist-fights, not to commit homicide—at least for the time being.

For obvious reasons, the Weimar card is being played again after Trump supporters swarmed into the Capitol. Walden Bello has an article in Foreign Policy in Focus titled “America Has Entered the Weimar Era” that warns:

Future electoral contests for power may well end up being decided by a strong dose of street warfare, as the U.S. goes the way of Germany’s ill-fated Weimar Republic. The violent storming of the Capitol by a Trumpian mob underlined the face of crises to come.

You get the same thing from blogger Kenn Orphan whose post “Warnings from Weimar” is long on rhetoric but sketchy on the historical details:

There are many similarities of current day American politics to the final years of the Weimar Republic of the early 20th century: a bureaucratic plutocracy governed by out of touch liberal capitalists, incapable of understanding, let alone meeting, the needs of ordinary working people, in a nation where factions of the left foolishly downplayed the looming threat of the far right. This terrible recipe created the conditions that led many Germans to feel increasingly alienated from public life, and thus easily manipulated by nationalism, racism and the scapegoating of all of their problems.

Governed by out of touch liberal capitalists? Well, not exactly. More to the point, unless you get into the nitty-gritty realities of 1920s Germany, you might as well just say nothing since spouting glittering generalities does not help the left prepare for the possible emergence of a genuine fascist threat. In this post, I want to dig deeper into the concrete realities of Weimar that should make it obvious how different our situation is today. We have plenty to deal with but mostly it involves trying to build a socialist movement that in the final analysis is the best defense against fascism as opposed to voting for someone like Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden.

To start with, the conditions facing Germans immediately after WWI were disastrous. Forced to sign an onerous treaty imposed by the allies, the country suffered a precipitous drop in economic well-being. On one hand, it led to revolutionary struggles that failed to take power as I have outlined elsewhere. On the other, it spawned a far-right movement led by the Freikorps that had no parallels with today’s Proud Boys or any other white supremacist militia.

Between 1918 and 1922, 354 German politicians of the left had been murdered by the Freikorps or other rightwing militias that predated the Nazi Party. To give you an idea of the social weight of the Freikorps, over 1.5 million men joined for the sole purpose of beating up or, less frequently, killing leftists. Given the precarious position of the Socialist Party government in the immediate postwar period, it is not surprising that it relied on the ultraright militia to maintain “law and order”. It was SP President Friedrich Ebert’s decision to give the Freikorps the green light to murder Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in 1919.

By 1925, conditions had stabilized in Germany to the point where the Freikorps had outlived its usefulness. Another rightwing terrorist group called the Organization Consul continued assassinating leftists but less frequently and with less mass support.

But in only four years, conditions reverted to the early 20s as a consequence of the Great Depression. Millions of Germans were plunged into poverty to the point that they’d rally behind any group on the right or the left that could “make Germany great again”. Unlike the largely middle-class MAGA cap wearing louts that invaded the Capitol, the Germans susceptible to Hitler’s demagogy were driven by economic misery rather than nationalism for the most part.

A brief article from the June 19, 1932 New York Times should give you a feel for the desperate situation in Germany:

In the Bischofshem forest hikers found the corpses of a family of five—father, mother, and three children from 3 to 7—a brief note in the man’s pocket stating that economic misery had determined him and his wife to commit suicide, and take their children with them. “The courageous don’t grow old,” the note concluded. Its writer was 35 years old, a World War veteran, out of work, trying to eke out a living selling newspapers. He had shot his wife and children, and then himself.

Eighteen thousand people killed themselves in Germany last year, according to the provisional figures. Berlin alone had nearly seven hundred suicides the first four months of this year. The suicide curve seems to be rising steeply, and common sense interprets this as the reflection of constantly increasing economic pressure.

This time, however, it was Adolf Hitler’s Nazi stormtroopers that were targeting the left, Jews and Roma rather than the Freikorps. His party grew but so did the Communist Party. The Nazis had 107 seats in the Reichstag but the CP had 77. More importantly, the SP had 143. Added together, the two nominally socialist parties had twice as much political clout than the Nazis but their failure to unite against the fascists led to a tragic defeat. As stated above, the SP urged a vote for capitalist politicians like Bruning and von Hindenburg while the CP carried out a sectarian “united front from below” that went so far as to back a Nazi referendum that would result in the unseating of an SP governor in Saxony. How does this compare to the USA with zero socialists in Congress except the squad that has little influence over national or international affairs.

Having almost zero resemblance to the street fights between antifa and the Proud Boys, et al, the battle for control over the streets between Nazis and Reds after 1929 were bloody battles that took the lives of 155 and injured another 426 in Prussia. Most of the casualties, of course, were Reds who had to face the combined forces of cops and fascists.

On January 2nd, I posted a link to an article by Jairus Banaji titled “The Political Odyssey of Arthur Rosenberg, Germany’s Forgotten Marxist” that appeared in Jacobin. It refers to his most important work, “A History of the German Republic” that fortunately can be read on Marxists.org.

The final paragraphs of the concluding chapter titled “Chapter IX: The End, 1928-1930” will put Hitler’s rise into context. You had a Socialist Party with millions of members that makes the American left today look like a flea next to an elephant. While not quite as large as the SP, the CP was far more militant and far more willing to battle the Nazis in the street. It is our misfortune that the self-styled antifa has little understanding of why punching Nazis, or even killing them, would do little to block Hitler’s rise to power. Let Arthur Rosenberg explain why:

A united front SPD – KPD that ruthlessly waged war upon Brüning’s dictatorship and capitalism might still have decided the destiny of the German republic by compelling the new Nazi electorate to decide between capitalism and socialism. The necessity for any such decision would have broken up Hitler’s following and deprived the counter-revolution of its popular basis. Since, however, the KPD leaders did not want a revolution, but only wished to follow the easy road of making propaganda against the SPD, and since the right-wing Socialist leaders mistrusted the power of the proletariat and preferred the ‘lesser evil’, no such united socialist fighting front came into existence. Moreover, left-wing Socialists were hemmed in between the majority in their own party and the official KPD, and therefore rendered incapable of action.

The new Reichstag was composed of 150 supporters of the Hitler – Hugenberg block, 220 Marxists and about 200 supporters of Brüning’s government. The Conservatives did not fear either the SPD or the KPD, but the competition of the Hitler – Hugenberg block, which had scored such a notable success at the polls. The struggle between the Conservatives and Hugenberg’s supporters was, however, a domestic concern of the great capitalists and their friends among the territorial magnates. The SPD regarded the Conservative government as the lesser evil, and therefore gave its support to Brüning in his struggle with the Hitler – Hugenberg block and the KPD.

On 18 October 1930 the majority in the Reichstag composed of Brüning’s supporters and the Social Democrats resolved to refer the question of the emergency decrees to a special commission of the Reichstag and to pass to the order of the day without discussing the proposed vote of no confidence that lay upon the table. The Reichstag thus abandoned the struggle with the unconstitutional dictatorship of Brüning and his friends by a majority vote. The same hour saw the death of the Weimar Republic. Since then one dictatorship has succeeded to another in Germany.

The leading Social Democrats, who were convinced that the socialist proletariat was too weak to embark upon open warfare, indulged themselves in hopes that the existing crisis would run the same course that had been followed by the crisis of 1923. They were prepared to ‘tolerate’ the emergency decrees in a similar fashion to that in which they had formerly ‘tolerated’ the enabling act. If Brüning in his struggle with Hitler and Hugenberg only contrived to avoid making any really serious mistake, it was possible – so they argued – that some fortunate concatenation of circumstances would permit of the resuscitation of the Weimar Republic. These men forgot that in 1924 democracy in Germany was not rescued by their endeavours, but by the intervention of the New York Stock Exchange. In 1930-31, American financiers were neither willing nor able to rescue the Weimar Republic for a second time.

The middle-class republic established in 1918 in Germany was the creation of the working classes. The middle classes themselves had either fought against it or only half-heartedly supported it. The middle-class republic collapsed in 1930 because its destiny had been entrusted to the middle classes, and because the working classes were no longer strong enough to save it. Although the working classes comprised three-quarters of the entire nation, they were unable to unite either upon their political ideals or their political tactics. The counter-revolution triumphed because the working classes squandered their immense forces in internecine warfare.

16 Comments »

  1. Good job. Rosenberg’s history is an important one for socialists to be familiar with. So, too, is his “Socialism and Democracy. both these books were readily available fifty years ago, and at least some, not many, socialists read them. They would be good to read again. How about Tasca (Rossi) on fascism? There is a disconnect from history today that is dangerous. “Proud Boys” and company do not amount to a fascist movement in any form. The response of the left, however,  has the odor of the mentality of the German socialists then. A socialist movement, through its slogans, actions and analysis has to be able to explain the current reality to the followers of Trump and his social base and capture them for the program of the left.

    Here we do not even have an SAP or Leninbund – and they couldn’t hold any following.

    Comment by Wayne Collins — January 10, 2021 @ 8:23 pm

  2. Thank you for a great article

    Comment by Arthur Birnbaum — January 10, 2021 @ 11:42 pm

  3. So because USA in 2021 doesn’t look exactly like Germany in 1930, that means there are no similarities and there can’t be fascism? Because… Trotsky said so in 1933?

    The same washed up middle class leftists who numbering maybe 100,000 at their peak dream they were on the verge of seizing power in 1960-1970 now discount a movement of tens of millions with the support of the commander in chief.

    Truly strange times.

    Comment by Doggo — January 10, 2021 @ 11:51 pm

  4. So because USA in 2021 doesn’t look exactly like Germany in 1930, that means there are no similarities and there can’t be fascism? Because… Trotsky said so in 1933?

    Of course there can be fascism down the road. If we ever have general strikes led by Amazon warehouse workers who use M-16s to defend occupied warehouses and the BLM begins driving the cops out of Black communities through mass resistance, then certainly yes.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 10, 2021 @ 11:55 pm

  5. It’s very strange how liberals and naive leftists feel they can’t do anything politically until they smell a Nazi. It rather reminds me of our cousins among the great apes, who have to wait on an estrous cycle to have sex. I seem to recall reading about one male chimpanzee who was observed to touch a female’s genital area and then wistfully sniff his finger hoping for that magic scent.

    The non-correspondences of our current situation in the US with Weimar–in the big sense–are numerous and obvious. This is the best analysis I’ve seen.

    Nevertheless, there is one limited area, IMO, in which there may be a correspondence. The Trump phenomenon and the associated half-serious, half-deadly stew of right-wing militancies–including more than a few professed Nazi fans who are certainly capable of murder, like the police–have been able to do what they’ve done and accomplish what they’ve accomplished because of the long-simmering low level of legitimacy enjoyed by the so-called “democratic” institutions of the US–as witnessed by the apathy, in most elections, of half the eligible voters, and now the metastasis, under Trump, of the rantipole anti-government right into something IMO qualitatively new and mass-insane, ideologically speaking.

    Like the Weimar Republic–and indeed the Roman republic in ancient times–the US faces a crisis of legitimacy that could presage a fall, however objectively unique to our times in the final analysis.

    Trump has legitimized what I would call his authoritarian anarchism through continuous political outreach during his administration–endless rallies, the endless tweets, etc. This horseshit has achieved legitimacy perhaps because there is nothing else politically for the masses on such a direct level.

    What strategies are available to “Team Biden” for generating legitimacy once anti-Trumpism loses its appeal?

    The situation might not lead to a totalitarian “organic” state with everyone of the approved race finding a place in some body part thereof–ja, ja,ja–march, march, march. But a predatory capitalist bust-out state or gangster dictatorship, devouring its own institutions and dismantling infrastructure and governance at will, could be just as bad or worse. Even if the new order couldn’t muster the nous to build extermination camps like the Nazis, genocide–ongoing by the police today as George Floyd proves–would be well within its grasp, or that of roving bands of rightwing terrorists and little big men nationwide. In fact, most of that could happen under a wounded bourgeois democracy with no overthrow

    It would be wrong, in my view, to completely dismiss the view that post-Trump the US might be heading for political collapse and murderous bad times, perhaps at least in part signaled by the weird events of January 6.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — January 11, 2021 @ 12:01 am

  6. How does Trumpism lose its appeal? The people in Appalachia and the Rust Belt barely surviving with no jobs or hope, in collapsing towns, addicted to opiods, yet being constantly derided as “privileged whites”, are suddenly going to find bags of money under their pillows?

    Trumpism grows because America, outside of Wall Street, the Golden Mile, the Upper East Side and the Silicon Valley, collapses. If you don’t turn around the decline you won’t end the growth of Trumpism.

    Comment by Doggo — January 11, 2021 @ 1:11 am

  7. Who wrote this: “the reformists shut their eyes to the organic character of fascism as a mass movement growing out of the collapse of capitalism”?

    Answers on the back of a postcard.

    Comment by Doggo — January 11, 2021 @ 3:00 am

  8. Doggo: it is an exact quote from Trotsky in is pamphlet Fascism: What it is and how to fight it . This pamphlet should be in the library of all current Marxists. Trump is not a fascist but a right wing authoritarian populist. Remember what Rosa Luxemburg pointed out over 100 years ago if the working class and its leadership are not up to its objective task and allow the Social democrats to expropriate the working class politically for the benefit of the bourgeoisie that the working class and the petty bourgeoisie will tend to adopt the culture of the lumpen proletariat. Today the leadership of the working class is almost non existent it was far superior in 1905 than it is in 2021 which is the reason lumpen ideology and values are so prominent among the Trumpies in the USA today.

    Comment by Michael Tormey — January 11, 2021 @ 2:41 pm

  9. Thanks for the effort. Of course, this morning I awake to the same (same author as your example, recycled by Democracy Now) ahistorical, counterproductive fearmongering. But now I was armed, and sent them your essay.

    Comment by Keith — January 12, 2021 @ 5:39 pm

  10. Martin Thomas in the present issue of the UK paper ‘Solidarity’ (published by the Alliance for Workers Liberty):

    6 January 2021, 6 February 1934

    Author: Martin Thomas

    France, February 1934
    Many historians, in hindsight, regard the 6 February 1934 attempt by mostly far-right army-veteran groups to storm France’s Chamber of Deputies, over a corruption scandal, as a blip.

    They can make a case. The 6 February riot was smaller than 4 January’s in Washington. The police were solid against it, indeed shot down the protesters, killing 16 and injuring 600-odd.

    The riot never got near breaching the parliament building. The biggest contingent, the Croix du Feu, went home when trouble started.

    Politically, the protest was a mix of small groups. The French far right in 1934 was weaker than the US far right is now, with Trumpists hegemonic in the Republican Party and the 100,000-strong militia movement drawn into Trump Republicanism. Trotsky wrote at the time: “fascism is not a mass movement in France”.

    The riot did make the prime minister resign; but that was the sixth change of prime minister since the victory of a Radical/ Socialist Party [SP] alliance in the June 1932 election, and the shift was from one member of the Radical Party to another.

    In truth, if 6 February turned out a blip, that was because the French left saw it as a warning, as more than a blip. 6 February ended the Stalinist Third Period. It pushed the SP to the left, and the CP into a united front with SP; it impelled anti-fascist activism; it set things moving towards the June 1936 general strike. It opened the way for the Trotskyists to win support in the SP youth.

    The CP would drag the SP back into alliance with the Radicals (the Popular Front); the SP and the CP would betray the general strike; and then France would move right again. But the surge of response to 6 February had created better possibilities.

    Responses in France were shaped by the recent Nazi triumph in Germany (January 1933) and the Great Depression.

    The US today is different, but economic disruption from the pandemic is and will continue large. Erdogan in Turkey, Modi in India, are not the Nazis, but they do show a new era of at least proto-fascist politics.

    6 January in Washington didn’t stop the ratification of the 4 November election. That does not prove it a setback for the far right, any more than 6 February 1934’s failure to put the Croix du Feu into power proved that a blip.

    Fascist (or proto-fascist) movements don’t seize power by popular uprisings. Usually they do it by convincing enough of the state machine and the ruling class that the country can’t be governed against the far right, so best bring the far right to office and hope to restrain it by coalitions.

    I don’t know whether the Romney-line Republicans will now rally. But crying contradictions in the Trump line haven’t broken up the Trumpist movement to date, and it’s unlikely they will now. The takeaway for the Trumpist far-right from 6 January is that they can impede governance. They can credibly paralyse a Biden administration which would have been conformist even without the far-right threat. And then in four years…

    Hope lies with the possibility that 6 January will galvanise the US left and labour movement as 6 February 1934 galvanised the French left.

    Comment by Jim Denham — January 13, 2021 @ 7:14 pm

  11. Hope lies with the possibility that 6 January will galvanise the US left and labour movement as 6 February 1934 galvanised the French left.

    I had no idea there was a labor movement in the USA.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 13, 2021 @ 7:28 pm

  12. “Biden inauguration rehearsal is postponed due to security threats The president-elect’s Amtrak trip to Washington, planned for Monday, has also been canceled.”

    https://www.politico.com/news/2021/01/14/biden-team-postpones-inauguration-rehearsal-due-to-security-threats-459538

    This with 20,000 soldiers in DC, and the city under martial law.

    Even during the Civil War, Lincoln was able to travel by train throughout the Union.

    Still think there’s no serious threat?

    Comment by Robin — January 15, 2021 @ 7:59 am

  13. What are you saying? That Biden will not be inaugurated? He certainly will be. The ruling class is backing him, not QAnon activists.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 15, 2021 @ 1:03 pm

  14. I am saying what is obvious to anyone with functioning eyeballs:

    1. There is an extreme rightist threat in the United States.
    2. The bourgeois republic can no longer function normally.

    Comment by Robin — January 15, 2021 @ 11:52 pm

  15. It depends on what you mean by normally. Was it normal when Joe McCarthy accused the military high command of protecting a Red? Was it normal when Nixon approved burglaries in DP offices? Was FDR normal when he rounded up Japanese-Americans and put them in concentration camps?

    Comment by louisproyect — January 16, 2021 @ 12:09 am

  16. I see what you mean, but we’re talking about two different things. All of what you mentioned would indeed be “normal” or within the realm of bourgeois republican rule. Political infighting, dirty as it gets, oppression of the general population, which in America would include slavery, massacres, imprisonment. None of that is out of the norm in a country like America. None of it has to do with the day-to-day functioning of the government and state.

    I am talking about the norms of operation of the bourgeois republic. That would be the specific way in which the ruling class has ruled the United States for hundreds of years. To paraphrase Lenin, “the rulers are unable to rule in the old way.” The Capitol has been breached (with the help of police and politicians), events already protected by 20,000 soldiers are deemed “too threatened to take place”, and the POTUS elect cannot even travel freely in the country!

    The ruling class is not all lined up behind Biden. The Guardian just reported of billionaires backing 42 Republicans politicians who continue to challenge election results. Then there are all the soldiers and police behind Trump — it’s so serious that the military brass had to publicly remind the officers and rank-and-file that they serve the constitution rather than Trump personally.

    On top of that, you have tens of millions of middle class, working class and lumpen Americans mobilized in a huge populist movement. Trump got 75 million votes this time around, up significantly from 2012. According to polling done yesterday, 88% of those who voted for Trump still say he won and do not think there was anything wrong with the confederate-flag waving, cop killing insurrection.

    And ultimately, the point is this: whether or not this is the Wiemar Republic (it’s obviously not), whether our far-right model itself after Mussolini’s Fascio d’Azione (it obviously doesn’t), whether or not they attack in response to a worker’s movement (which doesn’t exist), they are still an extreme threat to organized labor, leftists, queers, people of color, Muslims and immigrants. Heck, even Republican congressmen are now walking around with bullet proof vests and armed guards.

    This isn’t “just another day”.

    Comment by Robin — January 16, 2021 @ 10:37 pm


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