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.

August 6, 2019

How the German Communist Party adapted to nationalism in the early 1920s

Filed under: fashion,Germany,Werner Angress — louisproyect @ 4:36 pm

Karl Radek

In my follow-up commentary on the El Paso killer’s manifesto, someone took issue to my pointing out that the German Communist Party adapted to ultraright nationalist ideology in the early 1920s. I had called attention to Karl Radek’s eulogy to Albert Schlageter, a member of the Freikorps—the rightwing militia that killed Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Additionally, I referred to a speech by Ruth Fischer that contained anti-Semitic rhetoric, designed to appeal to fascists in a mass meeting.

In comment #7 at https://louisproyect.org/2019/08/04/understanding-the-el-paso-killers-manifesto-in-context/#comments, he wrote:

Radek was never a “National Bolshevik”. In the early 20’s his views reflected the official policy of the Communist International, which he represented in Germany.

When I responded that his comment omitted any reference to Ruth Fischer’s anti-Semitic demagogy, he dismissed her as having nothing to do with Radek in another comment: “Ruth Fischer was always a ultra-left windbag.”

The problem, however, is that Karl Radek and Ruth Fischer had a history together. As Comintern emissary, Radek endorsed the policies of the ultraleft leadership that had been responsible for the 1921 March Action–a complete fiasco. Two years later, a new leadership had replaced Fischer but a new tendency had developed that was just as misguided as the earlier ultraleft adventurism—an adaptation to German nationalism that historian Werner Angress calls the “Schlageter Line” in chapter 11 of “Stillborn Revolution: the Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923”. Developed during the United Front period, a correction of the earlier ultraleft strategy, it hoped to exploit the nationalism that was gestating in Germany during the 1920s as a result of the Allies punishing treaty.

Angress describes Radek’s initiative as follows:

It was Radek who gave real impetus to Communist attempts in Germany to win sympathizers, if not allies, from the political Right, especially from the nationalist-minded lower middle class. The occasion arose when the enlarged Executive Committee of the Communist International met for a regular session in Moscow from June 12 to 23, 1923. During the first four days of the session, Radek spoke no less than three times, and in each of his speeches touched on the problem of nationalism in Germany. None of the ideas which Radek advanced were startling. In essence, and with a semantic virtuosity of which he was a past master, he merely repeated the main points of a policy which the German Communists had followed for months. His fine distinction between “national” and “revolutionary-national” interests may have puzzled his audience, but his meaning was actually quite clear: to smite Poincare at the Ruhr was the demand of the hour for the German proletariat. The German bourgeoisie, from pure self-interest, had initially held the same objective, and to this end had fostered a wave of extreme patriotism. But the bourgeoisie was ready to capitulate to France, at the expense of the German working class. It therefore fell to the latter to rally the masses to the defense of the nation, and in this endeavor the KPD had to lead the way. Once the masses, including the misled segments of the petty bourgeoisie, now still in the nationalist camp, came to realize that their interests were better represented by the proletariat than by the “corrupt capitalist classes,” the moment would arrive when the old order would be overthrown and replaced by a workers’ government. That such a government would then be in a position to conclude a firm and binding alliance with Soviet Russia went without saying.

Later on Angress described the political impact of Radek’s “turn”:

Radek’s speech was the cue for the KPD to embark upon a nationalist propaganda campaign, which at the time aroused much attention but netted the party few, if any, tangible advantages. The most sensational aspect of the Schlageter line was that it provided the public for a few weeks with the unprecedented spectacle of nationalist and Communist writers engaged in a series of intellectual exchanges on the feasibility of political cooperation between Right and Left.

The civilized tone which marked the exchange of ideas on the Schlageter line among the literati of both camps was generally absent from the party’s street-corner debates. The “man on the street” was rarely susceptible to lofty ideas, the nature of which contrasted with his own concepts of what a nationalist and a Communist had or had not in common. This was as true for the “Fascists,” whom the party tried to convert, as it was for the Communist rank and file who were more accustomed to exchanging bullets with the Fascists than to engaging them in public discussions.” Nevertheless, the street-corner approach was tried, at first especially with the academic youth. Oratorically gifted Communist functionaries ventured into such hostile strongholds of nationalism as university campuses and student eating-houses to do missionary work. Early in July a Comrade Schneider, KPD member from Hannover, addressed students at Gottingen University, or, as the Rote Fahne put it, penetrated the sticky atmosphere of the small universities. He spoke on the subject: “For What Did Schlageter Die?” The same topic was used as a basis for discussion at Jena, and toward the middle of the month in Berlin as well.” There the party distributed handbills in various restaurants, frequented mostly by students, with this announcement:

Wednesday, July 25, 1923, 7 P.M.

Auditorium of the Dorotheenstadtisches Realgymnasium

Dorotheenstrasse

AGENDA: “For What Did Schlageter Die? Communism, Fascism, and the Political Decision of the Students.” Speaker: Comrade Ruth Fischer

Students: Gain an understanding of the ways of the revolutionary fight for freedom. We want to point out especially to our völkischen opponents that unlimited opportunities for discussion will be maintained.”

According to the report of the Rote Fahne, the discussion at this particular gathering lasted several hours without leading to any incidents. Ruth Fischer stated that “the giant, who is going to liberate Germany, is here. . . . The giant is the German proletariat, to which you belong, and with which you should align yourselves.” This was greeted, so the paper says, with “loud applause.” Then the meeting broke up, and the opposing groups separated “not exactly conciliated, but with a feeling of mutual respect.” The Social Democratic organ, Vörwarts, threw an interesting sidelight on this particular performance of Comrade Ruth Fischer. Quoting an eye-witness account, the paper claimed that the Communist speaker appealed openly to the anti-Semitic sentiments of her audience.

“Whoever cries out against Jewish capital…is already a fighter for his class [Klassenkampfer], even though he may not know it. You are against the stock market jobbers. Fine. Trample the Jewish capitalists down, hang them from the lampposts. . . . But . . . how do you feel about the big capitalists, the Stinnes, Klöckner? .. . Only in alliance with Russia, Gentlemen of the volkische side, can the German people expel French capitalism from the Ruhr region.”

Anti-Semitic remarks, innuendos rather than open expressions, occasionally cropped up during this period in the Communist press. Thus the Rote Fahne printed on August 7 a little item on “Stresemann’s Jewish Kommerzienrate” (councilors of commerce, a title conferred on distinguished financiers), in which the paper drew attention to the fact that such prominent Social Democrats as Friedrich Stampfer, the editor of Vorwarts, Carl Severing and Hermann Muller were closely connected with these Jewish capitalists. Although the Communists tried on the whole to stay clear of the anti-Semitic issue, they could not always avoid it, especially when it was raised by nationalist hecklers during joint discussion meetings. This was clearly demonstrated in the case of Hermann Remmele, who on August 2 addressed a mixed audience of Communists and National Socialists in Stuttgart. When he told his listeners that anti-Semitism was an age-old device which those in power employed to distract the attention of the blind and ignorant masses from the real causes of their misery, he was interrupted by shouts of contradiction from the floor.

Remmele continued: “How such anti-Semitism arises I can easily understand. One merely needs to go down to the Stuttgart cattle market in order to see how the cattle dealers, most of whom belong to Jewry, buy up cattle at any price, while the Stuttgart butchers have to go home again, empty-handed, because they just don’t have enough money to buy cattle. (`Quite right!’ from the Fascists.)”

A little later in his speech, Remmele again touched on this subject, and again with the apparent purpose of appeasing the audience in order to put his own point across: “You, the Fascists, now say [that you want] to fight the Jewish finance capital. All right. Go ahead! Agreed! (Stormy applause from the Fascists.) But you must not forget one thing, industrial capital! (Interjections from the Fascists: ‘We fight that too!’) For finance capital is really nothing else but industrial capital.”

How eager the party was to use any expedient to reach some common ground with the nationalists was evident from another public debate in which Remmele participated on August 10. Besides Remmele, one speaker each from the National Socialists and the Social Democrats had been invited by the Communists to participate in the discussion. The SPD, however, turned down an invitation. In his eagerness to win the sympathies of the Nazis, Remmele made a number of statements which were in flagrant violation of the party’s official united front policy. Thus he told his 8,000 listeners that he considered an alliance with the National Socialists less objectionable than one with the Social Democrats, and then added that the Communists would even be willing to cooperate with the murderers of Liebknecht and Luxemburg.

Aside from engaging in literary debates and holding joint meetings with nationalists, the party concentrated in the summer of 1923 on winning converts among the Reichswehr and the police forces throughout Germany. Two different avenues of approach were used for making inroads into these organizations. One was designed for officers, either active or retired, and another for enlisted men.

Early in August, the Social Democratic newspaper Vorwarts published a “Blueprint for the Solicitation [Gewinnung] of Officers,” copies of which had been found on two Communists arrested by the police. The blueprint outlined various means of establishing contact with officers, such as propaganda literature and the use of Communist officers or ex-officers as intermediaries, and also specified the manner of properly addressing men of military rank. The instructions stressed that ideological differences should be minimized in the arguments used by party members, and common interests should be emphasized, for instance, mutual hostility to France and the German republic. Furthermore, promises of high army positions “after the revolution” were to be given to prospective collaborators.

Another instance of this campaign was a circular letter which a “Group of Communist Officers of Germany” [Gruppe kommunistischer Offiziere Deutschlands] sent to officers in the Reichswehr and the police. This eight-page communication, adorned with quotations from Clausewitz and Trotsky, contrasted the Communist struggle against the Entente with the attitude of the “Social Democratic traitors.” The party membership was portrayed as constituting the “most splendid human material among the German working class.” Eighty percent of the KPD, claimed the letter, were former soldiers. The circular then depicted the future national liberation movement as an extensive guerilla war which would follow in the wake of a proletarian revolution. To make the latter acceptable to members of the officers’ corps, the letter invoked Oswald Spengler as a means of affirming that “Prussianism is Socialism,” and claimed that the system of councils (Rätesystem) was by no means an alien institution but a “Prussian idea, based on the concepts of elite, co-responsibility, and esprit de corps among colleagues [Kollegialität].”

It is doubtful that the KPD had any illusions as to the effectiveness of its ambitious recruiting drive. However, one retired officer from Munich, a world war veteran by the name of Hans von Hentig, responded to the Communist efforts with a letter to the Rote Fahne, which appeared under the heading “Worker and Soldier.” Herr von Hentig lamented Germany’s present condition, and the demoralizing effects of political and economic chaos on the population, in particular on the educated youth. After the enigmatic statement that “petty-bourgeois masses and intellectual strata [Schichten] will soon exist only as displays in museums,” he wrote that “. . the working class, . . . [especially] Communism, shall know that hundreds of veteran frontline officers, who really put Germany über alles, will march by its [Communism’s] side through every social upheaval, through every political change, unmindful of their own treasured concepts, im gleichen Schritt und Tritt, once the drum has sounded the call to battle.”

The propaganda approach to the non-commissioned personnel of the Reichswehr and the police forces was similar to that applied to the officers. The same methods of dissemination were used, personal contacts and the illicit distribution of leaflets, pamphlets, and newspapers. The emphasis, however, was different. The material designed for the soldiers and policemen concentrated on what the Communists assumed were perennial grievances among the lower ranks in every military or paramilitary organization. Soldiers were encouraged to report to the party any incidents of ill-treatment by superiors. They were reminded of the privileges which the officers enjoyed over the men, and in some instances were encouraged to disobey unpopular orders en masse. Similar instructions were deposited in the hallways of police headquarters, though here the party faced some very thorny problems. The policemen were those agents of the “bourgeois” state with whom the Communists collided most frequently. The party press referred to them usually as “henchmen of capitalism,” or applied other, equally unflattering terms to them. On the other hand, most policemen, unlike the majority of Reichswehr soldiers, were city-bred and normally lived on a modest, lower middle-class level. For this reason the party leadership encouraged the Communist rank and file in the summer of 1923 to fraternize with the guardians of the law, and to persuade them that they were, after all, merely exploited proletarians in uniform.

The efforts to win sympathizers among the lower echelons of Reichswehr and police forces proved on the whole as unsuccessful as did those to convert the officers. This was not surprising. Reichswehr soldiers were very carefully selected. The military authorities took great care to concentrate the recruiting drives primarily in the traditionally conservative rural regions of Germany, and as a rule excluded from the army Jews, Socialists, Communists, or even men of outspoken democratic leanings. In addition, the soldiers were not conscripts but volunteers, career men who generally had nothing but contempt for the Communist “rabble.” The police forces, especially the hand-picked and strictly disciplined Prussian police, were equally immune to Communist propaganda.

April 19, 2019

A Socialist Defector

Filed under: Counterpunch,Germany — louisproyect @ 2:21 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, APRIL 19, 2019

There are men who struggle for a day and they are good.
There are men who struggle for a year and they are better.
There are men who struggle many years, and they are better still.
But there are those who struggle all their lives:
These are the indispensable ones.

– Bertolt Brecht, “In Praise of the Fighters” (song)

Arriving on a book tour for his newly published “A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee” on April 23rd, Victor Grossman is a testament to Bertolt Brecht’s oft-quoted lyrics. At the age of 91, he has never ceded an inch to capitalism and imperialism. Indeed, the sense of outrage over the way in which East Germany was “liberated” pervades throughout this most necessary personal history is a reminder that “youthful rebellion” can be overrated. For that matter, his 68 articles for CounterPunch over the years are a testament to his undying revolutionary spirit as well as to CounterPunch’s age as well as political diversity. Unlike other periodicals on the left oozing youthful rebelliousness, the editors have a keen sense of the importance of contributions from our leftwing tribal elders from Ralph Nader to those who have passed on, like Uri Avnery. With a profound radicalization on the horizon in the USA, there is no substitute for relying on the insights of people who have gained hard-earned experience from earlier historical periods. As someone who was organizing anti-racist protests at Harvard University in 1947 as a Communist Party member, Grossman’s experience is essential for young people involved with Black Lives Matter today. The struggle against capitalism, racism, and imperialism is an epochal one and connecting the strands between fighters from different generations cannot be overestimated.

Continue reading

April 11, 2019

The deck was stacked against East Germany

Filed under: economics,Germany — louisproyect @ 10:13 pm

I will be posting a review of Victor Grossman’s “A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee” to CounterPunch a week from tomorrow but couldn’t resist sharing this brief excerpt now since it is about as useful a summary of the disadvantages East Germany faced in trying to compete with West Germany. Perhaps compete is the wrong word since the goal was more modest, namely to offer its citizens what its leaders regarded as socialism. Yes, the country was burdened by secret police, bureaucracy and all the rest but there were many decent aspects that shine through in Grossman’s account. Even if Tony Cliff or Farrell Dobbs were the Prime Minister of East Germany, I doubt that they could have done much better with the cards they were dealt, including from the USSR.


I happened to land in a new republic where the factories, mines, and landed estates of those mighty guilt-ridden men had become public property and a barrier against their powerful rule as job-givers and decision makers. Their refusal to accept these losses in this divided country and city and their active hatred of the GDR demanded a choice. While socialism and capitalism were fairly abstract issues in the United States in the 1960s, chewed over in many theoretical variations, here, in my new home, the dividing line was far sharper, with echoes of fateful events in 1919, 1933, 1938, 1939, and 1945 resounding in almost every street we trod. “Which side are you on?” was not just a good union song but an almost daily decision. Until the Wall was built in August 1961, that other side was only one stop away on the subway, one step away on unchecked street borders. Many sought to evade a choice in some agreeable, unpolitical niche. But for a “political animal” like myself, this was never an option. And how in hell could I ever accept the rule of an Adenauer, Globke, Krupp, or Thyssen?

Yet how should I look upon this alternative Germany? How was it developing? What doubts and burning problems were present?

From the start, all cards were stacked against little East Germany. About the size of Ohio or Virginia, far smaller than the three zones forming the Federal Republic, close to California in size, it had neither the iron and steel industry of its Ruhr Valley nor endless tons of high-quality coal under its surface, but had to start off with one steel plant, hardly any natural resources except potassium salt mines, a little copper, and huge amounts of low-quality, damp, stinky lignite coal, its weak basis for electricity, fuel, and chemicals. Yet it was saddled with almost 95 percent of reparation costs. France, Britain, and the Benelux countries soon absolved West Germany from most payments. But Poland and the USSR, immensely demolished, desperately needed their share of reparations, which came almost exclusively from the Soviet-occupied zone. Whole factory complexes, machinery, rail tracks, and a good share of emerging new production were removed. To make matters worse, most industries in the East, like machine tools or textiles, depended on raw materials from West t Germany, supplied in varying quantities or not supplied, depending on how much pressure Bonn wished to exert in a changing political situation. Meanwhile, after 1947, West Germany was getting big investments through the Marshall Plan, a key factor in its “economic miracle.”

There was another serious drawback. Large numbers of engineering and managerial personnel, those most strongly infected with the Nazi bacillus and fearful of punishment under Soviet occupation or left-wing rule, and hating nationalization with its ousting of their beloved industry leaders, disappeared westward, before the Red Army arrived if possible but also, in later years, often at crucial moments. Many took plans, patents, and documents with them plus their know-how on running factories. Their change of address involved no new language to learn and no risk. Their former employers, soon an integral part of the “economic miracle,” were glad to offer them far higher pay than in the poorer, more egalitarian East. The young GDR economy thus faced not only wreckage, reparations (until 1953), and a cutoff from former resources but also had to rely on the thin ranks of engineers and managers willing to remain plus a new generation being trained in colleges that lacked professors and researchers who, having eagerly supported the Nazis, also had moved westward. Such luring of experts, including newly trained ones, was assiduously maintained through the years, even after the Wall made it far more difficult to “disappear.” A former manager of a big GDR shipyard told me how half of his pre-1961 class of skilled machinist apprentices were regularly lured away by West German companies, but only after they had completed their expensive training. That meant big losses in the East and big savings in West German costs.

And yet, despite myriad difficulties and highly skeptical, even cynical sectors of the population, the economy had started up again, and here and there with genuine, new enthusiasm.

December 9, 2017

Ben Norton throws a tantrum at Jacobin magazine

Filed under: Germany,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 9:19 pm

Last Wednesday someone on a pro-Syrian FB group posted a link to a vitriol-filled blog post by Ben Norton from November 30th titled “Jacobin, leading neo-Kautskyite magazine, whitewashes SPD, erasing murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht”. I hadn’t given much thought to Norton since the Trump presidency began since it was apparent that the ultraright president had provided much less fodder to professional Assadists like Norton and Blumenthal. It was a bit difficult to write Gray Zone articles about the danger of regime change in Syria when there was every indication that there was a commonality of interests between the White House and these two knuckleheads over the need to destroy ISIS, al-Qaeda and any bearded man with the temerity to shout “Allahu Akbar” after taking out a Baathist tank.

The fellow who posted a link to Norton’s post prefaced it with:

Ben Norton being a weird Leninist Polemicist. It appears his beef with Jacobin has to do with it publishing pro-Syrian-revolution stuff. It’s funny he accuses them of having this Kautskyist editorial line, when actually they pay $50 for articles and take stuff mostly from freelancers.

I’m not exactly sure what being paid $50 and Kautskyism has to do with each other but I heartily concur with the “weird polemicist” characterization. Leninist? Well, only in the sense that he sounds like ten thousand other Internet Bolsheviks who maintain Twitter accounts festooned with pictures of Stalin, hammers and sickles, and any other regalia from the 1930s. Such people are unlikely to get FBI visits as I did in the 1960s when being a Leninist meant going out and building demonstrations. Since Norton’s chief involvement with the left is writing for AlterNet, a magazine that is two centimeters to the left of MSNBC, I doubt that he has much to worry about.

To be a proper Leninist, even in the degraded sense of sects like the Spartacist League, you have to be a disciplined, dues-paying member with responsibilities. This describes Ben Norton about as much as the term virginal describes Harvey Weinstein. When you begin throwing around terms like Kautskyist, it is like going to a Halloween Ball disguised as Lenin. More to the point, Lenin’s polemics against Kautsky have to be seen in context. In Norton’s case, the only context appears to be Jacobin’s new line on Syria that closed the door on him and his Assadist pals, so much so that after Norton attacked an anti-Assad article in the Jacobin Facebook group, he was blocked.

Turning to the article itself, it is a broadside against “the pro-imperialist, social chauvinist, and historical revisionist editorial line of Jacobin”. One wonders why Norton didn’t throw in “petty bourgeois” while he was at it, the cherished term of all those who strike Leninist poses. It seems that the AlterNet staff member had gotten himself into a proper tizzy over a November 6th item titled “When Social Democracy Was Vibrant” that looked back fondly at the German Social Democracy of the late 1800s when it formed gymnastics associations and cycling clubs, choir societies and chess clubs. I can understand the spirit in which the article was written since I had the same feelings about the CPUSA of the Popular Front era when it was providing support for Orson Wells’s Mercury Theater and drawing composers like Aaron Copland into its orbit. You can make a distinction between such contributions like these and voting for Democrats unless you are incapable of dialectical thinking (hint, that is Norton’s Achilles Heel).

The article, written by Adam J. Sacks, includes this judgment on the SPD toward the very end of the article:

World War I ended all of that. Succumbing to the militarism sweeping the continent, SPD parliamentarians voted for war credits to fund the barbaric conflict. Though they initially tried to justify the war as an act of humanitarian intervention on behalf of the oppressed peoples of the tsarist regime — and an antiwar faction soon declared independence from the party — the decision signaled the death knell of the Second International. The leading light of socialism had turned its back on the bedrock principle of proletarian internationalism.

You’d think this would be enough to protect the author and Jacobin from Norton’s curses but anybody who has been following his deceitful, Judith Miller-type reporting over the past two years should be used to this by now. No, it wasn’t enough to denounce the SPD parliamentarians voting for war credits in 1914. You also had to take a position on choirs, gyms, chess clubs and the like. Unless you took the correct position on the Ruy Lopez opening, you were providing cover for the SPD sending “millions of workers to die for capitalist empire in World War I.”

Since Sacks’s article begins by extolling an SPD rally from 1889, a date by which it had become beyond the pale of revolutionary socialism, you’d think that Norton might have taken the trouble to explain how the Erfurt Program adopted by the party just two years later could have had such a profound effect on Lenin. In 1899, Lenin wrote a draft program for the Russian Social Democracy that demonstrated him falling short of Norton’s lofty standards:

Here a few words are in order on our attitude to the Erfurt Programme. From what has been said above it is clear to everyone that we consider it necessary to make changes in the draft of the Emancipation of Labour group that will bring the programme of the Russian Social-Democrats closer to that of the German. We are not in the least afraid to say that we want to imitate the Erfurt Programme: there is nothing bad in imitating what is good, and precisely to day, when we so often hear opportunist and equivocal criticism of that programme, we consider it our duty to speak openly in its favour.

If you’ve read Lars Lih, you’re probably aware that Kautsky was the main inspiration for Lenin’s Bolshevik Party and that Lenin continued to consider himself a disciple of Kautsky until the differences over the October revolution produced Lenin’s excoriating polemics. However, there are also indications that when it came to the debate between Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Kautsky in the German Social Democracy, Lenin found himself on Kautsky’s side occasionally as pointed out by Leon Trotsky in a 1932 article titled “Hands off Rosa Luxemburg”:

In Rosa Luxemburg’s struggle against Kautsky, especially in 1910–1914, an important, place was occupied by the questions of war, militarism and pacifism. Kautsky defended the reformist program, limitations of armaments, international court, etc. Rosa Luxemburg fought decisively against this program as illusory. On this question, Lenin was in some doubt, but at a certain period he stood closer to Kautsky than to Rosa Luxemburg. From conversations at the time with Lenin I recall that the following argument of Kautsky made a great impression upon him: just as in domestic questions, reforms are products of the revolutionary class struggle, so in international relationship it is possible to fight for and to gain certain guarantees (“reforms”) by means of the International class struggle. Lenin considered it entirely possible to support this position of Kautsky, provided that he, after the polemic with Rosa Luxemburg, turned upon the Rights (Noske and Co.).

Norton clearly has an inability to grasp things dialectically. He is much more comfortable seeing things in black and white. Not only was the Bolshevik Party a direct descendant of the German Social Democracy, the German Social Democracy itself had its own divisions in which Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg were on the same side against Eduard Bernstein, the father of the “revisionism” that is manifest today in the Swedish social democracy et al. Yet this same Eduard Bernstein was one of the authors of the Erfurt Program that Lenin imitated by his own admission.

In general, I find terms such as “Kautskyist”, “reformist” “revisionist”, “petty bourgeois” and “treacherous” a dead giveaway that those using them have an inability to develop a substantive critique of their opponents in a debate. Blanket characterizations generally reflect a preference for the cleaver–the preferred tool of the politically feebleminded–over the scalpel.

The question of German social democracy is complex. While those unfamiliar with German social democratic history like Norton tend to fixate on the assassination of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, there were indications that the party was by no means as compromised as Norton would have you believe. In fact, his knee-jerk dismissal of the German social democracy is what was prevalent in the German Communist Party at the time when Lenin sought to bring the ultraleft back down to earth through the united front tactic.

In the Fall of 1923, Germany had entered a pre-Revolutionary situation. French occupation of the Ruhr, unemployment, declining wages, hyperinflation and fascist provocations all added up to an explosive situation. The crisis was deepest in the heavily industrialized state of Saxony where a left-wing social democrat named Erich Zeigner headed the government. He called for expropriation of the capitalist class, arming of the workers and a proletarian dictatorship. This man, like thousands of others in the German workers movement, had a revolutionary socialist outlook but was condemned as a “Menshevik” in the German Communist press.

After he took office on October 10, 1923, Zeigner brought two members of the Communist Party into his government. Because of this, he was deposed 19 days later by Germany’s social democratic president Friedrich Ebert, the man Norton equates to Bhaskar Sunkara.

The Russians intervened in Germany to get the Communists to overcome their hatred of the social democracy and join with Zeigner’s forces to overthrow Ebert. Unfortunately, the workers were not so eager to join an offensive that was ill-prepared. It was over basically before it began. The German Communists, the Comintern, and the Social Democrats pretty much share equal blame. Today, there is a new accounting for this historic defeat that was an important part of Hitler’s rise. For those seeking to understand it, I strongly recommend Pierre Broué’s “The German Revolution, 1917-1923”, available from Haymarket.

It was the failure of the left to become unified in Germany in the 1920s that led to the eventual triumph of Nazism. We are dealing with terrible divisions today that must be overcome if we are to provide an alternative to the two-party system. Despite my criticisms of the Jacobin/DSA “inside-outside” electoral strategy, I regard the growth of a leftwing party made up of young people to be one of the most hopeful signs of an emerging revolutionary movement. I have no problems with criticizing the DSA or Jacobin but Ben Norton’s tantrum serves nothing else but his own fragile ego.

March 30, 2017

Another Stasi film? No thanks

Filed under: Cold War,Germany,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 12:32 am

Goodbye, Lenin is available on Amazon.com

When it comes to films, there are two subject matters that have zero interest for me. One is the Holocaust and the other is the Stasi—the East German secret police. Both lend themselves to predictability both in plot and message. We know that the Jews will be killed and families scattered. We also can be sure that the Stasi will come off as fiendish enemies of freedom and human rights. So, when it comes to stick figures, nothing works better than making films about fending off Nazi Commandants or Stalinist secret police—both with lines like “Ve haf ways of making you talk.”

This afternoon I was listening to an NPR interview on the Leonard Lopate show with the husband-and-wife team that made the documentary “Karl Marx City” that is described in the heading of A.O. Scott’s NY Times review as revisiting the “Everyday Terror of Dictatorship”. The wife is the daughter of a man who after being accused of being a Stasi agent after the fall of the Wall killed himself.

Just for the heck of it I Googled “Stasi” and “film” and discovered that this is a well-trodden theme going back to 2006’s “The Lives of Others”. It is all about people living in fear of informants in a society with an abnormally high suicide rate. Although I never saw the film, it sounded like a fictional version of “Karl Marx City”.

2012 was a banner year for East German Stasi films with “The Tower” and “Barbara” getting rave reviews. Stephen Holden’s review of “The Tower” mentions that an overweight East German soldier is forced to eat feces in boot camp as a punishment. Thank goodness, East Germany is now liberated but who will now liberate the USA where a Marine drill sergeant forced a Muslim enlistee into a laundry dryer, where he suffered second degree burns?

In a NY Times profile of Christian Petzold, the director of “Barbara”, he states that he did not want Stasi operatives to be “depicted as mustache-twirling villains”. The eponymous lead character is a doctor who has been banished to the countryside for some unspecified offense, where she is snooped on by Stasi operatives. We learn from a review of the film that Petzold was influenced by Alfred Hitchcock, evidence of which is “the prickles of unease that creep into his work, creating a cold climate of paranoia and an oft-justified fear of an imminent threat.” I haven’t seen this film but when it comes to prickles of unease, you can’t help but think of Hitchcock’s “Torn Curtain”, where mustache-twirling villains abound.

In the Lopate interview, the subject of “Ostalgie” came up. Since East Germany has become pretty well integrated into the smoothly running German capitalist machine, there’s not much concern about “Ostalgie”, which is a neologism based on East (Ost) and Nostalgia. The couple briefly referred to its feeling among some East Germans that there were some good things about Communism, like workers not having to worry about unemployment.

I wonder if that meant much to NPR listeners, who strike me as a mixture of Upper West Side psychotherapists, liberal college students and cabinet makers. Funny how that can matter to people—the right to a job. I was only on unemployment once in my life, back in 1990 before going to work for Columbia and it was really hell on wheels. I say that as someone without a family and debts at the time. What is it like for a coal miner in West Virginia who hadn’t worked in five years, had no health insurance before Obamacare and was suffering from some debilitating illness? Would he trade his situation for that of a coal miner in East Germany who was guaranteed a job for life even if the Stasi was snooping on him?

The Wikipedia article on “The Lives of Others” mentions a film that made quite an impression on me when it first came out in 2003. It describes “Goodbye, Lenin” as a comedy, which doesn’t do it justice. Suffice it to say that is a film that honors “Ostalgie” and puts East German Communists in a light that struck me as sensitive to why many Germans became Communists, even if the project involved compromises with the revolutionary impulses that made them to join the party.

Good Bye, Lenin

posted to http://www.marxmail.org on January 14, 2004

It is 1989 and Communism is crumbling everywhere except in the heart and mind of Christiane Kerner (Katrin Sass), a middle-aged Berlin resident who has a picture of Che Guevara on her bedroom wall and is fiercely loyal to party leader Erich Honecker.

Her son Alex (Daniel Brühl, who played the schizophrenic youth in the powerful “White Sound”) and daughter Ariane (Maria Simon) are typical young Berliners. They have little use for ideology and yearn for the material goods and personal liberty of the West. Despite their differences with their mother, they love her deeply and would do anything to make her happy.

One night as Christiane is heading toward a party celebration, she happens upon a police crackdown on anti-Communist protestors, including her son who is being thrown into the back of a truck in handcuffs. This sight causes her to collapse on the street with a heart attack. She is brought to a hospital in a coma.

When Alex visits the hospital, the doctor tells him that there is no guarantee that she will ever awake from the coma. If she does, the important thing is to prevent any shocks to her psyche since another heart attack would prove fatal. For the next eight months, as Christiane lays motionless in her hospital bed, everything changes around her. The Berlin Wall collapses, the two Germanys are reunited and the East is flooded by Western companies.

Finally Christiane regains consciousness but in a weakened state. In a ploy that constitutes the dramatic tension of the film and its underlying political and social theme, Alex resolves to create an artificial environment in her bedroom back at home that is faithful to the Communist past. After elaborately preparing the bedroom with the clunky furniture and Stalinoid photos they had discarded, they spirit her from the hospital making sure that the ambulance attendants stay mum about the political sea change.

Alex, who has befriended a co-worker and aspiring video artist at a Western satellite-dish company (his former employer has gone bankrupt, like almost all “Ostie” firms), relies on him to assemble archival news programs from the Communist past that they play for Christiane on a concealed VCR. The joke is that it really doesn’t matter, since the “news” consists mainly of reports about dissatisfaction in the West with unemployment, drug addiction and other social problems.

This joke is part of an ensemble of comic situations as Alex goes to greater and greater lengths to sustain the illusion that Communism is still in power. He searches desperately for consumer goods from the past that apparently not only appeal to his mother, but to other elderly East Berliners who feel swamped by Western products that are alien to their culture. Although the word “globalization” is not mentioned once in the film, an astute member of the audience might think of the French farmer José Bové who vandalized a Macdonalds for its encroachments on native cuisine and values.

As Alex ventures out into the brave new world of capitalism, he begins to question the changes. For example, when he brings his mother’s East Germany currency to a bank to be converted into Deutschemarks, he is told that the deadline was two days earlier and that they are worthless. When he raises his voice in protest, bank guards throw him out. He calls them assholes.

In the final scene of the film, as his mother is approaching death, he stages one last ruse that summarizes the sensibility of Wolfgang Becker, the film’s director and co-author (written with Bernd Lichtenberg). After she has discovered traces of the West during an unsupervised stroll in her neighborhood (Coca-Cola signs, BMW’s, etc.), they convince her that immigrants from West Germany have recently begin flooding into the East, seeking refuge from unemployment and crime. The film’s coda consists of a televised speech by East Germany’s “new” head of state, a renowned former cosmonaut (a cab-driver recruited by Alex), who addresses the profound changes in Germany as it is reunited under socialism.

However, the speech does not consist of Stalinist jargon. Instead it is a heartfelt plea for an egalitarian society that is based on human need rather than private profit. Obviously written by Alex, it is a sign of his final reconciliation with his mother on both familial and philosophical grounds.

On January 13, 2004, the New York Times reported on the phenomenon of “Ostalgie”, a neologism that indicates nostalgia for the “East” or the Communist past, which is epitomized in a small museum in the town of Eisenhüttenstadt near the Polish border and that has gotten a boost from the popularity of “Good Bye, Lenin”. It evokes Christiane’s bedroom:

“The museum is just a few rooms, mostly on the second floor of a former day-care center, but it holds 70,000 to 80,000 objects from the former East Germany. About 10,000 people a year come to look at Mikki transistor radios, jars of Bulgarian plums, schoolbooks, plastic water glasses that never seemed to come in the right colors. Seeing these familiar objects clearly stirs warm feelings about the vanished and unrecapturable past.”

This is not just about nostalgia for chintzy objects that might be regarded as a German version of “camp”. It is also about a growing disenchantment with the new capitalist world that they had assumed would be a kind of utopia:

“Ostalgie is complicated, made up of various ingredients. One is clearly the disillusionment felt by many former Easterners over German reunification, which took place 13 years ago. Unemployment these days is commonly 25 percent in regions like Eisenhüttenstadt. Rents are no longer subsidized. Doctor visits cost money. People can be fired. In addition, as Andreas Ludwig, the West German scholar of urban history who started the museum a few years ago, noted, even capitalist products break down or are shabby and schlocky.”

It would be too much to expect the New York Times to acknowledge what is truly driving “Ostalgie”. It is the memory of Easterners that the old system guaranteed cheap rents, a job, medical care and low crime. With “globalization” turning most of the planet into an ever more ruthless competition for disappearing jobs, such a past might retain some appeal. Indeed, a Lexis-Nexis search on “East Germany” and “nostalgia” returned 529 articles, many with headlines like “Wealth and freedom? No thanks, we’d rather have a Trabant” (referring to a defunct automobile).

The true story of East Germany’s birth and death could never be conveyed in a film such as this, but there are realities that never surfaced in conventional cold-war narratives. In Carolyn Eisenberg’s “Drawing the Line: The American Decision to Divide Germany, 1944-1949”, we learn that FDR intended that Germany be deindustrialized, demilitarized and–most importantly–denazified after the war, a goal shared by his partner Joseph Stalin. Then along came Harry Truman, who saw Communism as just another impediment to American hegemony. In violation of the Potsdam and Yalta agreements, Truman pushed for reindustrialization of West Germany under the Marshall Plan and the creation of a formal West German state.

Washington then abruptly ended denazification, leaving 640,000 war criminals unprosecuted, and canceled steps to break up the cartels that had provided much of Hitler’s economic and social base. Defying conventional notions of Stalin’s intractability, Ambassador Walter Bedell Smith confessed that “we really do not want nor intend to accept German unification in any terms that the Russians might agree to, even though they seemed to meet most of our requirements.”

And what did the Soviets seek? Nothing but what had already been hammered out at Yalta and Potsdam, namely $10 billion in reparations, four-power control of the Ruhr Valley and vigorous denazification and permanent demilitarization. In exchange, they would accept free elections throughout Germany modeled along the lines of the old Weimar Republic–hardly the stuff of Communist subversion.

When the West reneged on all this, the Soviets began to crack down in the East. The rest is history.

(Good Bye, Lenin is scheduled to open in NY theaters at the end of February. It was the winner of the Best European Film at the Berlin Film Festival.)

 

July 14, 2016

Misusing German history to scare up votes for Hillary Clinton

Filed under: Fascism,Germany,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 3:13 pm

Hermann Müller

Herman Müller: German SP head of state in 1928 and forerunner to the Clintons and Barack Obama

Over the last week or so, I have read two articles that offer a highly distorted version of events leading up to Hitler’s seizure of power that are put forward in order to help elect Hillary Clinton.

In “Can the Green Party Make a Course Correction?”, Ted Glick equates Jill Stein’s determination to run against both Clinton and Trump in every state with the German Communist Party’s “Third Period” turn. Referring to Jill Stein’s reference to Trump and Clinton on “Democracy Now” as being “equally terrible”, Glick linked her to the German CP’s refusal to unite with the Social Democrats against Hitler:

Jill’s words are an eerie echo of huge mistakes made by the German Communist Party in the 1930’s. Here is how Wikipedia describes what happened:

“The Communist Party of Germany (German: Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, KPD) was a major political party in Germany between 1918 and 1933. During the Weimar Republic period, the KPD usually polled between 10 and 15 percent of the vote and was represented in the Reichstag and in state parliaments. The party directed most of its attacks on the Social Democratic Party of Germany, which it considered its main opponent. Banned in Nazi Germany one day after Adolf Hitler emerged triumphant in the German elections in 1933, the KPD maintained an underground organization but suffered heavy losses.”

In Harold Meyerson’s “Bernie, Hillary, and the Ghost of Ernst Thalmann”, the same historical analogy is used to get out the vote for Clinton but this time directed more at disaffected Sanderistas than Green Party activists who Meyerson likely views as beyond hope:

In the last years of the Weimar Republic, the real menace to Germany, Thälmann argued, wasn’t the Nazis but the Communists’ center-left, and more successful, rival for the backing of German workers: the Social Democrats. The SDs, he said, were actually “social fascists,” never mind that they were a deeply democratic party without so much as a tinge of fascism in their theory and practice. But as the Communists’ rival for the support of the German working class, the SDs became the chief target of the Communists’ campaigns.

Thälmannism, then, is the inability (be it duplicitous, willful, fanatical, or just plain stupid) to distinguish between, on the one hand, a rival political tendency that has made the compromises inherent to governance and, on the other hand, fascism. And dispelling that inability is precisely what Bernie Sanders will be doing between now and November.

I’m neither equating Donald Trump with Hitler nor saying he’s fascist in the classic sense. Trump has no organized private army of thugs to attack and intimidate his rivals, as both Hitler and Mussolini did. But Trump’s racist, xenophobic, and nationalist appeals; his division of the nation into valorous and victimized native-born whites and menacing non-white interlopers; his constant employment of some Big Lies and many Little ones; and his scant regard for civil liberties make him the closest thing to a fascist of any major party presidential nominee in our history.

Yet a minority of Sanders’s supporters fail to grasp the threat that a Trump presidency poses to the nation—to immigrants, to minorities, to workers, and even to the left and to themselves. I doubt more than a handful will actually vote for Trump, but Jill Stein and even Gary Johnson will win some of the Sanders diehards’ votes (though for voters, moving from Medicare-for-All Sanders to Medicare-for-None Johnson requires either extraordinary ideological footwork or simple brain death). In states where the race between Clinton and Trump is close, however, a Sanders diehard’s vote for Stein or Johnson, or a refusal to vote at all, is in effect a vote for Trump.

Both Glick and Meyerson have long-standing ties to the left. Glick has been a member of the Green Party for 16 years and before that worked with a small group promoting an “inside-out” electoral strategy. In many ways, that is much worse than being strictly “inside” the Democratic Party because the brownie points Glick has accumulated over the years as some kind of “outsider” gives him the leverage he needs to subvert the genuine radicalism of a third party on the left. In 2004 Glick was part of a group of “Demogreens” who engineered the nomination of David Cobb as Green Party presidential candidate instead of Ralph Nader, who they feared would siphon votes away from John Kerry. Basically this is the same strategy Glick is pursuing today with Jill Stein being demonized as the equivalent of the berserk Stalinists of the “Third Period”.

Meyerson was active in the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee in the 1970s, a group better known as DSOC that would later on fuse with other groups to become the DSA. He is currently the vice-chair of the National Political Committee of the DSA and a contributor to liberal magazines both online and print.

Like Glick, Meyerson saw Ralph Nader’s campaign in 2004 as inimical to the interests of the Democratic Party although formulated in terms of defeating the horrible Republicans. Just as Glick argued in his article, Meyerson took Nader to task for not recognizing the differences between the two parties in “The American Prospect”, a liberal magazine he publishes. Referring to Nader’s appearance on “Meet the Press”, Meyerson took issue with his claim that the system was rigged:

He did, of course, assert that there were no very serious differences between the two parties, though host Tim Russert got him to concede that there were distinctions on such ephemera as judicial nominations, tax cuts, and environmental enforcement. The American government, Nader reiterated, was still a two-party duopoly.

So what does all this have to do with the rise of Adolph Hitler? The answer is nothing at all. Hitler is invoked as a kind of bogeyman to frighten liberals. He serves the same purpose as a warning from your parents when you were six years old. If you don’t brush your teeth, the bogeyman will get you. Now it is if you don’t vote for Hillary Clinton, der Führer Donald Trump will get you.

Unpacking and refuting such nonsense is dirty work but someone has to do it. To start with, it is necessary to put the German Socialists under the microscope to understand the historical context. If the German CP’s ultra-left position was a disaster, how else would you describe the social democracy’s failure to resist the Nazis? While there is no point in making an exact equation between the Democrats and the German social democracy (we should only be so lucky), it would have been incumbent on Meyerson and Glick to review its strategy especially since they are the American version of Weimar Republic reformists today.

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.

Another example was his failure to tackle the horrible impact of the worldwide depression. When there was a crying need to pay benefits to the unemployed, whose numbers had reached 3 million, Müller was unable to persuade his rightwing partners to provide the necessary funding. Their answer was to cut taxes. If this sounds like exactly the nonsense we have been going through with the Clinton and Obama administrations (and a new go-round with Mrs. Clinton), you are exactly right. The German SP had zero interest in confronting the capitalist class. That task logically belonged to the Communists but the ultra-left lunacy mandated by Joseph Stalin made the party ineffective—or worse. When workers grew increasingly angry at SP ineptitude, it is no surprise that the most backward layers gravitated to Hitler.

The ineffectiveness of the Müller government led to a political crisis and its replacement by Heinrich Brüning’s Center Party. Brüning then rolled back all wage and salary increases as part of a Herbert Hoover type economic strategy. Needless to say, this led to only a deepening of the economic crisis and political turmoil. Eventually Brüning stepped down and allowed President Paul von Hindenburg to take over. And not long after he took over, he succumbed to Nazi pressure (like knocking down an open door) and allowed Hitler to become Chancellor.

Within the two years of Brüning and von Hindenburg rule, what was the role of the German SP? It should have been obvious that Nazi rule would have been a disaster for the German working class. Unlike the Salon.com clickbait articles about Trump the fascist, this was a genuine mass movement that had been at war with trade unionists and the left for the better part of a decade. Stormtroopers broke up meetings, attacked striking trade unionists and generally made it clear that if their party took over, the left would be annihilated. Indecisiveness in the face of such a mortal threat would be just as much of a failure as the “Third Period” but that is exactly what happened with the SP as Leon Trotsky pointed out in “What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat”, written in January 1932 on the eve of Hitler’s assumption of power.

In its New Year’s issue, the theoretical organ of the Social Democracy, Das Freie Wort (what a wretched sheet!), prints an article in which the policy of “toleration” is expounded in its highest sense. Hitler, it appears, can never come into power against the police and the Reichswehr. Now, according to the Constitution, the Reichswehr is under the command of the president of the Republic. Therefore fascism, it follows, is not dangerous so long as a president faithful to the Constitution remains at the head of the government. Brüning’s regime must be supported until the presidential elections, so that a constitutional president may then be elected through an alliance with the parliamentary bourgeoisie; and thus Hitler’s road to power will be blocked for another seven years. The above is, as given, the literal content of the article. A mass party, leading millions (toward socialism!) holds that the question as to which class will come to power in present-day Germany, which is shaken to its very foundations, depends not on the fighting strength of the German proletariat, not on the shock troops of fascism, not even on the personnel of the Reichswehr, but on whether the pure spirit of the Weimar Constitution (along with the required quantity of camphor and naphthalene) shall be installed in the presidential palace. But suppose the spirit of Weimar, in a certain situation, recognizes together with Bethmann-Hollweg, that “necessity knows no law”; what then? Or suppose the perishable substance of the spirit of Weimar falls asunder at the most untoward moment, despite the camphor and naphthalene, what then? And what if … but there is no end to such questions.

Now of course we are in a period hardly resembling the final days of the Weimar Republic. The good news is that a fascist takeover is highly unlikely since parliamentary democracy is more than adequate to keep the working class under control. The bad news, on the other hand, is that the left is so inconsequential and the trade unions so weak that there is no need for fascism.

But who knows? Another decade or so of declining wages and cop killings of Black people might precipitate the rise of a left party that has learned to avoid the reformist stupidity of the German SP and the suicidal ultra-leftism of the Stalinists. It is highly likely that people like Harold Meyerson and Ted Glick will be as hostile to it as they are to Jill Stein’s campaign today. Despite their foolishness, we should soldier on to final victory. The fate of humanity rests on it.

 

February 20, 2015

German racists seek to build “anti-imperialist” bloc with Russia

Filed under: Germany,mechanical anti-imperialism,racism — louisproyect @ 4:26 pm

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The magazine Compact represents Elsässer’s longstanding attempt to coalesce an “anti-imperialist” bloc around a phantasmal Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis to counter American hegemony. Nonetheless, since anti-Muslim racism serves at the moment as the point of convergence for these different forces, it makes sense to sketch the function of racist discourse directed at Muslims in Germany over the last few years.

Writing in 2007, the sociologist Georg Klauda noted that a specifically anti-Muslim racism in Germany remained confined primarily to the intelligentsia:

Islamophobia has, at least in this country, its relevance not as a mass phenomenon, but as an elite discourse, which, shared by considerable numbers of leftist, liberal, and conservative intelligentsia, makes possible the articulation of resentments against immigrants and anti-racists in a form which allows one to appear as a shining champion of the European enlightenment.

While this statement was undoubtedly true in the context it was written seven years ago, what Pegida represents is the transformation of anti-Muslim racism from an elite discourse into a mass phenomenon, something capable of mobilizing large demonstrations of more than 20,000 people.

Elsässer began publishing books and articles arguing for the constitution of a “Berlin-Paris-Moscow axis” in opposition to Washington. After a series of explicitly nationalist interventions got him booted, successively, from pretty much every major left-wing publication of note, Elsässer started Compact, thus creating a coherent ideological center for a new type of far-right politics: resolutely German nationalist, explicitly adopting traditional far-right tropes against “finance capital,” positing the formation of a “Eurasian” power axis as a counterpole to the United States, and resolutely anti-immigrant in terms of domestic policy while supporting “anti-imperialist” countries such as Iran or Syria abroad.

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May 19, 2014

A response to the Kellogg-Riddell exchange on the early Comintern

Filed under: Comintern,Germany,national question,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 9:46 pm

John Riddell

Paul Kellogg

I strongly recommend that you read two important contributions to understanding the role of the early Comintern. The first is an article by Paul Kellogg titled “Substitutionism versus Self‐emancipation: The Theory of the Offensive, the Russo‐Polish War of 1920 and the German March Action of 1921” that can be downloaded from here. I was particularly interested to read this since I had learned from Paul that it was in the works back in April 2013 at the HM Conference. He related a positively hair-raising narrative of the Red Army invading Poland to extend the Bolshevik revolution at the point of a bayonet led by a former Czarist officer who was a raving anti-Semite. This was Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a very capable military man who was among those to face a firing squad opon Stalin’s orders on the eve of WWII.

In the interests of transparency, I must confess a strong identification with Paul Kellogg’s analysis, especially on the importance of Comintern’s role in the German disaster of the early 1920s. He has written a defense of Paul Levi who opposed the bumbling diktats of the Kremlin that relies on the same material I found useful—Pierre Broue’s history of the ill-fated German revolution as well as Werner T. Angress’s “Stillborn Revolution; The Communist Bid For Power In Germany, 1921 1923”. Based on my review of the German events, I came to the conclusion that the Comintern imposed a “Zinovievist” party-building model on the Comintern that led to both Stalinists and Trotskyists turning away from what was truly revolutionary about Lenin’s party—its ability to draw revolutionary-minded workers into struggle without bureaucratic or sectarian limitations. The “Zinovievist” model put a premium on “democratic centralism” and discipline for good reasons. After the German disaster, it became necessary to circle the wagons and protect the leadership in Moscow from the responsibility of defending an indefensible policy. Many years later, I saw the same tendencies at work in the American SWP, a group whose “turn toward industry” was just as disastrous but fortunately limited to a marginal sect on the American left rather than the working class in its millions.

Paul Kellogg’s article was a review of John Riddell’s Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922, a book published by Haymarket. Since I think this is a book that belongs on everybody’s bookshelf, it is too bad that the publisher has put a $55 price tag on it. Years ago, when Riddell was a member of the Trotskyist movement in Canada, Pathfinder Press in the USA—the publishing arm of the SWP—came out with a number of books by Riddell on the Comintern. I should add that I have a somewhat different take on where things like the Comintern proceedings belong. They should be on the Marxist Internet Archives along with the rest of the core literature of our movement and not for sale by small propaganda groups or outfits like Lawrence-Wishart. If Haymarket had made such a decision, their political capital would have increased immensely even if their bottom line had decreased. Forget about Pathfinder—they sicced their corporate lawyers on MIA some years ago when the comrades put some of their copyrighted material on the Net.

Riddell has come a long way since his original work on the Comintern for Pathfinder when he (and I) saw its early history after the fashion of Christian fundamentalist understanding of the Garden of Eden myth. Before the snake tempted Eve, there was perfect goodness—afterwards perfect evil so much so that God flooded the Earth and started over. In our theology, it was Stalin rather than the snake that led to perdition.

While only small Trotskyist sects still hold to this view, most serious scholars and activists have a more nuanced view of the early Comintern. A careful study of the pre-Stalin years will reveal disasters of biblical proportions to extend the analogy a bit. There is no disagreement between Riddell and Kellogg on this, only on what Riddell describes as Lenin and his comrades coming to their senses.

Riddell reminds his readers that even if the Comintern’s legacy is mixed, it made many decisions that are relevant to today’s world especially since they might be aimed at those who pursue ultraleft and sectarian positions at odds with its program. For example, Riddell views the position on bourgeois revolutionary struggles as antithetical to the typical ultraleft dismissal of the Bolivarian revolution, including one made by Duncan Hallas, a leader of the British SWP (now deceased:

The Comintern’s Second Congress in 1920 agreed, on Lenin’s proposal, to support “bourgeois liberation movements” in colonial and semi-colonial countries provided they are “genuinely revolutionary.” (The term “bourgeois” referred here not to class composition but chiefly to a program that did not go beyond the limits of a bourgeois [capitalist] order.) Hallas dismisses this position on the grounds that a “bourgeois liberation movement” necessarily fears arousing the masses and is therefore not genuinely revolutionary (p. 50–51).

The objection is not small, given the role of national liberation in revolutionary struggles throughout the twentieth century and into the new millennium, as for example in Venezuela. Many Marxist currents share Hallas’s viewpoint, and their aversion to the Comintern’s position on nationalism has a major impact on practical policy.

I would only add that even if Lenin were resurrected today in a Marxist version of Jesus showing up on Easter, it would make no difference to today’s sectarians whose hatred of Venezuela is so visceral that they are beyond hope. At certain point, data and logic make no difference to dead-end sectarians. Just read the Militant newspaper on Venezuela—a group that detested Hugo Chavez while at the same time hailing the Obiang kleptocracy in Equatorial Guinea.

But beyond this there is an additional problem. Even when Comintern resolutions said the right thing, there were times when the words clashed with the action. I am reminded of this now that I am immersed in Ukrainian history of the period demarcated by Riddell’s book, when relationships between the Kremlin were as troubled as the intervention into Germany. Indeed, I would include the policies on the Ukraine as ranking with those in German and Poland in terms of undermining the goal of world revolution as even those responsible for the policies were deeply committed to achieving them.

You would assume, for example, that Lenin was totally for the self-determination of Ukraine when he wrote these words on December 28, 1919:

The independence of the Ukraine has been recognised both by the All-Russia Central Executive Committee of the R.S.F.S.R. (Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic) and by the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks). It is therefore self-evident and generally recognised that only the Ukrainian workers and peasants themselves can and will decide at their All-Ukraine Congress of Soviets whether the Ukraine shall amalgamate with Russia, or whether she shall remain a separate and independent republic, and, in the latter case, what federal ties shall be established between that republic and Russia.

Yet just three months later Lenin had this to say about the Borotba Party that the Ukrainians had democratically elected:

When we said in the Central Committee that the maximum concessions should be made to the Borotbists, we were laughed at and told that we were not following a straight line. But you can fight in a straight line when the enemy’s line is straight. But when the enemy moves in zigzags, and not in a straight line, we have to follow him and catch him at every turn. We promised the maximum concessions to the Borotbists, but on condition that they pursued a communist policy. In this way we showed that we are in no way intolerant. And that these concessions were made quite rightly is shown by the fact that all the best elements among the Borotbists have now joined our Party.

In other words, Lenin saw the bloc with the Borotbists as a necessary evil. As long as Denikin was threatening the security of the USSR and using the Ukraine as a launching pad for armed forays, there would be a need for keeping the Ukrainians on your side. But this was just a maneuver. The Borotbists were really an enemy, a group that Lenin had compared to the Right SR’s on occasion, and not genuine allies. But the statement that really hits home is this: We promised the maximum concessions to the Borotbists, but on condition that they pursued a communist policy.

How does this square with the statement of the Comintern that bourgeois liberation movements in colonial or semi-colonial countries should be supported? Apparently, there is an exception clause for those countries that were in the Czarist Empire. The movements had to pass a “communist” litmus test.

It didn’t matter that the Borotbists held the Comintern in high esteem or that they favored a government based on workers and peasant’s councils. They were still not sufficiently “communist”. In early 1920 they applied for membership in the Comintern, not the sort of act one would associate with a party that was similar to the Right SR’s. The Comintern turned down their application as conveyed in a letter found in Ivan Maistrenko’s “Borot’bism: A chapter in the history of the Ukrainian Revolution”. They were told that their agitation against the Red Army was counter-revolutionary, even if the Red Army was backing a Bolshevik like Christian Rakovsky who said that the Ukrainian nation did not exist.

They were also told that they had conducted agitation against Russians living in the Ukraine, an act that was “reminiscent of the darker activities of the Second International”. What brass to tell this to the Ukrainians when Soviet officials were asking Ukrainian peasants: “Do you want to learn Russian or Petliurist at school? What kind of internationalists are you, if you don’t speak Russian?” Such incidents were reported in Polish Trotskyist Zbigniew Kowalewski’s article reproduced here. (“Petliurists” refers to Petliura, a former head of state in the Ukraine far to the right of the Borotbists but arguably within the domain of the “bourgeois” liberation movements endorsed by the Comintern.)

Finally, I want to point out that the “German March Action of 1921” referred to in Paul Kellogg’s title was not the end of Soviet mistakes. Even after the Comintern had adopted the United Front originally proposed by Paul Levi, there was another blunder of biblical proportions as I indicated in my article “The Comintern and German Communism”.

The decision to launch a revolution in Germany in the fall of 1923 was made in Moscow, not in Germany. Germany had definitely entered a pre-Revolutionary situation. French occupation of the Ruhr, unemployment, declining wages, hyperinflation and fascist provocations all added up to an explosive situation.

The crisis was deepest in the heavily industrialized state of Saxony where a left-wing Socialist named Erich Zeigner headed the government. He was friendly with the Communists and made common cause with them. He called for expropriation of the capitalist class, arming of the workers and a proletarian dictatorship. This man, like thousands of others in the German workers movement, had a revolutionary socialist outlook but was condemned as a “Menshevik” in the Communist press. The united front overtures to Zeigner mostly consisted of escalating pressure to force him to accommodate to the maximum Communist program.

The Bolshevik leaders were monitoring the situation carefully. Lenin at this point was bed-ridden with a stroke and virtually incommunicado. Any decisions that were to be made about an “intervention” in Germany would rest on Zinoviev, Stalin, Kamenev, Bukharin, Radek and Trotsky who were the key leaders in Lenin’s absence.

At a Politburo meeting on August 23, 1923 Germany’s prospects were discussed. Trotsky was optimistic about victory and predicted that a showdown would occur in a matter of weeks. Zinvoiev was also optimistic, but was reluctant to commit to a timetable. Only Stalin voiced skepticism about an immanent uprising. A subcommittee was established to supervise the German revolution. Radek, who had only a year earlier made a batty proposal for an alliance with the ultraright, became the head of this group.

The German revolution became the dominant theme of Russian politics from that moment on. Workers agreed to a wage freeze in order to help subsidize the German uprising. Women were asked at public meetings to donate their wedding rings and other valuables for the German cause. Revolutionary slogans were coined, like “German Steam Hammer and Soviet Bread will Conquer the World!”

There was only slight problem. The head of the German Communist Party was simply not up to the task of leading a revolution and was the first to admit it. This cautious, phlegmatic functionary was a former trade union official and bore all the characteristics of this breed. He had been implicated in the failed ultraleft uprising of 1921 and was not eager to go out on a limb again.

When Brandler got to Moscow, the Bolshevik leaders cornered him and pressured him into accepting their call for a revolutionary showdown. What was key in their calculations was the likelihood that a bold action by the Communist Party would inevitably galvanize the rest of the working class into action. Once again, an element of Blanquism had colored the thinking of the Bolshevik leaders. They assumed that the scenario that had occurred in Russia in 1917 would also occur in Germany. This was an unwarranted assumption that was fed by a combination of romanticism and despair. Romanticism about the prospects of a quick victory and despair over the USSR’s deepening isolation.

It was Zinoviev, the head of the Comintern, who was most self-deluded by the strength of the German Communist Party. He wrote in October 1923, “in the cities the workers are definitely numerically superior and” and “the forthcoming German revolution will be a proletarian class revolution. The 22 million German workers who make up its army represent the cornerstone of the international proletariat.” What Zinoviev didn’t take into account was that while the working class may be united socially and economically, it was not necessarily united politically. This turned out to be a fatal miscalculation. Brandler was so swept up by the enthusiasm of the Bolshevik leaders that he joined with them in pumping up the numbers. In the end he went so far as to claim that the Communists could count on the active support of 50,000 to 60,000 proletarians in Saxony.

The Bolshevik leaders finally wore Brandler down and he agreed to their plans, which involved the following:

1) The Communists would join Zeigner’s government in Saxony as coalition partners and arm the workers. The state of Saxony would then provide a base for a military and political offensive in the rest of Germany.

2) A date would be set for the seizure of power. Trotsky was the main advocate of setting a date. Over the objections of Brandler, Trotsky insisted that the date be November 9th. This was meant to coincide closely with the Bolshevik revolution of November 7th, 1917. Trotsky said, “Let us take our own October Revolution as an example…From the moment that the Bolsheviks were in the majority in the Petrograd Soviet…our party was faced with the question–not of the struggle for power in general, but of preparing for the seizure of power according to a definite plan, and at a fixed date. The chosen day, as it is well known, was the day upon which the All-Russian Congress of the Soviets was to convene…” Trotsky simply could not perceive that Russian revolutionaries setting a date for themselves is much different than setting a date for revolutionaries in another country. This distinction would have been lost on Trotsky who had gotten in the habit of laying down tactics for other Communist Parties in his capacity as Comintern official. He had the audacity to tell the French Communist Party, for example, what should go on the front page of their newspaper L’Humanite.

The next few weeks witnessed escalating confrontations between the left-wing government in Saxony and the German capitalist class. The Communist newspaper “Red Flag” printed daily calls for arming the workers and preparing for an offensive against the bourgeoisie. A telegram from Zinoviev arrived on September 31 who confirmed that the date for seizure of power would come in the first half of November. The problem, however, is that an enormous gap existed between the feverish proclamations of their newspaper, Zinoviev’s green light and the actual preparations for an armed offensive. In fact, the problem was that very little attention was paid to technical and organizational details up to this point. While the Comintern had stressed the need for an underground apparatus, there was little evidence that the German party had paid any attention to such matters. The dichotomy between ultraleft braggadocio and painstaking preparation proved to be the party’s undoing.

Specifically, their military plan required a 3 to 1 numerical superiority over the army and police. However, the Communists could not rely on such numbers. There were 250, 000 well-trained cops and soldiers while the Communist Party membership was only about 300,000, including many people either too young or too old to be effective fighters.

The bigger problem turned out to be political, however. The German Communist Party had simply overestimated its ability to command the allegiance of the rest of the working class and its parties. While this mass party had some claim to be the “vanguard” of the German working class as compared to the Maoist and Trotskyist sects of today, it still had not won over the masses completely as the Bolsheviks of 1917 had.

The German central government had reacted to the insurrectionary developments in Saxony as one would expect. They assembled a fighting force under the command of General Muller in order to restore order. As soon as the Communists heard about this white guard’s pending attack, they assembled a conference of left-wing and labor leaders in Chemnitz, Saxony on October 21 to put together a united defense against the counter-revolution.

Aside from 66 Communist delegates, there were 140 delegates from factory councils, 122 representatives of labor unions, 79 delegates from control commissions, 15 delegates from action committees, 16 from unemployed committees and 7 from the Socialist Party. Brandler took the floor and called for a general strike. His call was met by stony silence. What he had not counted on was the hostility of the rest of the workers movement. As much as they feared the consequences of General Muller’s offensive, they were not ready to follow the lead of a sectarian Communist Party that had unilaterally made decisions for the mass movement.

On the day of the conference, the German army marched into Saxony and the Communist Party was forced to call of its revolution. Or, to be more accurate, the Communist Party was forced to call off the revolution of Zinoviev, Radek, Stalin and Trotsky.

August 12, 2013

Marx’s Lesson for the Muslim Brothers? Groucho’s, I assume.

Professor Sheri Berman

It is not every day that you find an op-ed piece in the NY Times proffering what appears to be Marxist advice. In this instance I am not speaking of Paul Krugman’s endorsement of Michael Kalecki that amounted to dipping his big toe into the Marxist pool. After all, there is some question as to how to categorize Kalecki, some seeing him as a post-Keynesian rather than a Marxist. Krugman reflects this uncertainty when he writes: “Kalecki was, after all, a declared Marxist (although I don’t see much of Marx in his writings)”.

In this instance I am referring to Sheri Berman’s op-ed piece in the Sunday, August 11, 2013 NY Times titled “Marx’s Lesson for the Muslim Brothers”. Since Berman is an unabashed social democrat on the editorial board of Dissent, I am not sure she is the best medium for channeling Karl Marx. It is a bit like reading an op-ed piece by Richard Dawkins on what lessons Marxists can draw from Islam. Despite Sheri Berman’s erudition as a Barnard professor, which certainly must entail an ability to quote chapter and verse of Karl Marx, she seems mainly dedicated to convincing the world that he is a 19th century relic—a theme unsurprisingly that serves as the backbone of her op-ed piece.

Berman begins by analogizing the Egyptian mass movement for democracy with the 1848 revolutions that swept Europe:

In 1848, workers joined with liberals in a democratic revolt to overthrow the French monarchy. However, almost as soon as the old order collapsed, the opposition fell apart, as liberals grew increasingly alarmed by what they saw as “radical” working class demands. Conservatives were able to co-opt fearful liberals and reinstall new forms of dictatorship.

Those same patterns are playing out in Egypt today — with liberals and authoritarians playing themselves, and Islamists playing the role of socialists. Once again, an inexperienced and impatient mass movement has overreached after gaining power. Once again, liberals have been frightened by the changes their former partners want to enact and have come crawling back to the old regime for protection. And as in 1848, authoritarians have been happy to take back the reins of power.

To start with, Berman leaves out the relationship that existed between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood after Morsi assumed office. Rather than advancing “radical” demands, even of an Islamist nature such as Sharia law, there was evidence of a united front against the real radicals—the Egyptian underclasses. A Juan Cole blog post dated December 12, 2012 highlights the partnership against democracy:

Faced with the prospect of substantial public resistance to his scheduling of a referendum on a Muslim Brotherhood-tinged constitution on December 15, Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi has turned to the military. (The green in the title is a reference to political Islam, not the environment).

Morsi has ordered that the Egyptian army guard government buildings (and presumably the offices of his own party, Freedom and Justice, which have been being attacked by protesters). They spent Sunday putting up a blast wall around the presidential palace in Heliopolis, Cairo, which protesters invaded last Tuesday.

He also gave the military what he said were temporary powers to arrest civilians.

Now, of course, there was an eventual falling out among thieves. Inspired obviously by the neoliberal privatizing tendencies of the AKP, Morsi sought to detach Egyptian state industries from what amounted to military ownership. This measure can hardly be deemed “radical” unless you interpret economic measures heartily endorsed by the IMF et al as having something to do with 1848. ALMonitor, a rightwing online newspaper, summed up the conflict:

Mammoth tasks lie ahead for Egypt’s new, democratically elected civilian authorities. They will need to change how the state-owned commercial sector and public enterprises work in order to unlock the national economy’s potential for sustained and equitable growth.

Despite her familiarity with Marx’s writings (am I assuming too much?), Berman has a tendency to overlook class criteria when making her argument. For example, she writes about the 1848 events: “When it became clear that workers and socialists might win, liberals balked, and many of them turned back to the conservatives, seeing the restoration of authoritarianism as the lesser of two evils.” When she refers to “liberals” balking, you have to ask what that means in class terms. Let me be more specific. Corey Booker would describe himself as a liberal; so would many Black working-class voters in New Jersey. But when push comes to shove, Booker will defend the interests of big capital. Ultimately, what counts in Marxism is a class analysis—something Professor Berman seems averse to.

One of the more troublesome paragraphs in a troublesome article is this:

The 1848 fiasco strengthened the radical elements of the socialist movement at the expense of the moderates and created a poisonous and enduring rift between liberals and workers. After liberals abandoned democracy, moderate socialists looked like suckers and radicals advocating a nondemocratic strategy grew stronger. In 1850, Marx and Engels reminded the London Communist League that they had predicted that a party representing the German liberal bourgeoisie “would soon come to power and would immediately turn its newly won power against the workers. You have seen how this forecast came true.” They went on to warn, “To be able forcefully and threateningly to oppose this party, whose betrayal of the workers will begin with the very first hour of victory, the workers must be armed and organized.” This is not the lesson anybody wants Islamists to learn now.

Perhaps it is just a function of trying to pack several years of history in a single paragraph that yields an abundance of confusion or perhaps that was Berman’s intention to start off with. We see a kind of reductionism with “radicals” endorsing violence and liberals abandoning “democracy”. In reality, the situation after 1848 was a lot more complex. Those who fought against absolutism were united in their commitment to democracy—a tautology that is worth emphasizing. In the bourgeois reign of terror that followed the defeat of the movement, many democrats fled Germany in the same fashion that Pinochet’s coup produced a tidal wave of émigrés. They became known as “48’ers” and included Joseph Weydemeyer in their ranks. Weydemeyer, a Marxist, came to the United States and began publishing socialist periodicals.

General John C. Frémont recruited Weydemeyer to the Union army on the strength of his background as a Prussian military officer. Under Frémont’s command, Weydemeyer supervised the erection of ten forts around St. Louis and then went on to become a lieutenant colonel commanding a Missouri volunteer artillery regiment that fought Confederate guerillas in southern Missouri in 1862.

So what do we make of Joseph Weydemeyer? In the U.S. he pretty much followed the same course that Marx advised to the London gathering of German exiles in 1850: to arm the workers and be organized to fight for democracy. Democracy, of course, in Marxist terms means the rule of the majority—the same thing indicated by its Greek origins. Democracy means rule by the people—the demos. For Berman, it means one thing and one thing only: to participate in elections even if big capital has the right to guarantee the outcome through its stranglehold over the outcome on the basis of its disproportionate wealth.

Even on the basis of this criterion, the Marxists in Germany decided to put the armed struggle on the back burner once the situation after 1848 had stabilized. Through its class appeal to the overwhelming majority of society, the German social democracy went from strength to strength. No matter if it had been capable of taking control of the state and peacefully leading a transition to socialism, this would have not assuaged Berman’s obvious distaste for such a “radical” outcome. Her preference was for Eduard Bernstein’s implicit partnership with the German ruling class. In the name of socialism, it was as unprincipled in its way as the Muslim Brotherhood’s alliance with the Egyptian military.

In an interview with PBS, Berman described Bernstein’s breakthrough: “He saw classes that did not have the kind of conflicts that Marx and Engels predicted, and more importantly seemed to be able to work out many of their differences by using the political system.” In other words, get a PhD, work for a prestigious institution like Barnard, and write meretricious think pieces for the NY Times, the newspaper no real estate baron or hedge fund manager could live without.

As a bastardizer of Marxist theory, Bernstein obviously taught Berman how to use Marx’s writings against Marxism. In a January 5, 1898 article titled “The Struggle of Social Democracy and the Social Revolution,” Bernstein makes the case for colonial rule over Morocco. Drawing from English socialist Cunningham Graham’s travel writings, Bernstein states there is absolutely nothing admirable about Morocco. In such countries where feudalism is mixed with slavery, a firm hand is necessary to drag the brutes into the civilized world:

There is a great deal of sound evidence to support the view that, in the present state of public opinion in Europe, the subjection of natives to the authority of European administration does not always entail a worsening of their condition, but often means the opposite. However much violence, fraud, and other unworthy actions accompanied the spread of European rule in earlier centuries, as they often still do today, the other side of the picture is that, under direct European rule, savages are without exception better off than they were before.

Am I, because I acknowledge all this, an ‘adulator’ of the present? If so, let me refer Bax [Belfort Bax, the British socialist who denounced Bernstein as an apologist for colonialism] to The Communist Manifesto, which opens with an ‘adulation’ of the bourgeoisie which no hired hack of the latter could have written more impressively. However, in the fifty years since the Manifesto was written the world has advanced rather than regressed; and the revolutions which have been accomplished in public life since then, especially the rise of modern democracy, have not been without influence on the doctrine of social obligation.

Berman concludes her article with this:

A century after 1848, social democrats, liberals and even moderate conservatives finally came together to create robust democracies across Western Europe — an outcome that could and should have happened earlier and with less violence. Middle Eastern liberals must learn from Europe’s turbulent history instead of blindly repeating it.

Well, not really. There was nothing “robust” about these democracies other than the fact that elections were held every few years and even then the same sort of abuses that took place in Germany in the 1880s against the social democracy would now take place against Communists. It is really beyond the scope of this article to detail the iron fist that was concealed in the velvet glove in these “robust democracies”, but I urge my readers to have a look at Paul Ginsborg’s “History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988” where they will see what really happened. Here is a brief excerpt on how imperialism intervened to block a Popular Front victory, one that included the very social democrats that Berman extols:

THE 1948  ELECTION

The first months of 1948 were entirely dedicated to the election campaign. Never again, in the whole history of the Republic, was a campaign to be fought so bitterly by both sides, or to be influenced so heavily by international events.

American intervention was breathtaking in its size, its ingenuity and its flagrant contempt for any principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of another country. The US administration designated $176m of ‘Interim Aid’ to Italy in the first three months of 1948. After that, the Marshall Plan entered into full operation. James Dunn, the American ambassador at Rome, made sure that this massive injection of aid did not go unobserved by the Italian general public. The arrival of every hundredth ship bearing food, medicines, etc., was turned into a special celebration. Every time the port of arrival was a different one — Civitavecchia, Bari, Genoa, Naples — and every time Dunn’s speech became more overtly political. Whenever a new bridge or school or hospital was constructed with American help, there was the indefatigable ambassador travelling the length of the peninsula to speak in the name of America, the Free World and, by implication, the Christian Democrats. Often the goods unloaded from the ports would be put on a special ‘friendship train’ (the idea was the American journalist Drew Pearson’s) and then distributed with due ceremonial at the stations along the line. And just in case the message was not clear enough, on 20 March 1948 George Marshall warned that all help to Italy would immediately cease in the event of a Communist victory.

From the States itself the large and predominantly conservative Italo-American community devised all manner of propaganda initiatives in favour of the Christian Democrats. Hollywood stars recorded messages of support, rallies were held, and more than a million letters were dispatched to Italy during the election campaign. The letters all stressed the Communist peril, often contained a few dollars, and were for the most part not even addressed to relatives. On 17 March Cardinal Spellman, in the presence of President Truman, declared: “And one month from tomorrow as Italy must make her choice of government, I cannot believe that the Italian people will chose Stalinism against God, Soviet Russia against America — America who has done so much and stands ready and willing to do so much more, Italy remains a free, friendly and unfettered nation.”

If all else failed there was always military intervention. The American government studied various plans of action in the event of the Popular Front’s victory. Truman hoped to convince part of the Socialists to destroy the unity of the left, but if this did not succeed there were proposals for encouraging an anti-Communist insurrection, with financial and military assistance to clandestine groups, and for the direct military occupation of Sicily and Sardinia. As it was, the Americans strengthened their Mediterranean fleet, and in the weeks preceding the election their warships anchored in the waters of the main Italian ports.

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