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.