Tony Cliff

Marxism at the Millennium

Chapter 8
The struggle against fascism

Lessons of Nazi victory in 1933

On 30 January 1933 Hitler became the prime minister of Germany. This was not inevitable at all. Two months earlier, in November 1932, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) won 7.2 million votes and the Communist Party (KPD) 6 million. So the two organisations between them got 13.2 million votes, while the Nazi vote was 11.7 million, i.e. 1.5 million votes less. Even more significant was. the quality of the supporters of the workers’ organisations as against those of the Nazis. As Trotsky put it:

On the scales of election statistics, 1,000 fascist votes weigh as much as 1,000 Communist votes. But on the scales of the revolutionary struggle, 1,000 workers in one big factory represent a force 100 times greater than 1,000 petty officials, clerks, their wives and their mothers-in-law. The great bulk of the fascists consists of human dust.

Alas, the leadership of the two mass organisations was completely bankrupt.

In the face of the menace of Nazism the SPD relied on the German state and its police to defend democracy. Even after Hitler had become prime minister, Otto Wels, leader of the SPD, could state that people should not be worried: the new cabinet was not purely National So cialist but only a coalition of German Nationalists with National Socialists; only three of the 12 government members were Nazis, the other nine being Conservative. Moreover, Hitler had promised the president on oath to uphold the Weimar Constitution. And Wilhelm Frick, the Nazi minister of the interior, had announced that the cabinet had refused to ban the Communist Party and would not interfere with the freedom of the press! A couple of months later, of course, the Communist Party was banned, and Socialist candidates to the elections were arrested.

When on 23 March 1933 an enabling law giving Hitler unlimited power was moved at the Reichstag, Otto Wels spoke against it, but he made it clear that the party; acting as a lawful opposition, would only offer non-violent, lawful opposition to the regime. Wels said:

The election of 5 March has given a majority to the government par ties and thereby given them a chance to govern according to the text and spirit of the constitution ... We accept their present rule as a fact. However, the people’s sense of justice is also a political force, and we shall not cease to appeal to this sense of justice.

The KPD leadership was not less bankrupt. In Stalin’s footsteps they declared that the Social Democrats were social fascists, ie there was no qualitative difference between the Nazis and Social Democracy. Hence Remmele, leader of the KPD Reichstag faction, could declare on 14 October 1931 that after Hitler it would be Remmele’s turn. “We are not afraid of the fascist gentlemen. They will shoot their bolt quicker than any other government. (Right you are! From the Communists.)”

Trotsky, with all his passion and brilliance, called on German workers to face the threatening catastrophe represented by Hitler. On 23 November he wrote a pamphlet entitled Germany, the Key to the International Situation. He said:

On the direction in which the solution of the German crisis develops will depend not only the fate of Germany herself (and that is already a great deal), but also the fate of Europe, the destiny of the entire world, for many years to come ... The coming to power of the National Socialists would mean first of all the extermination of the flower of the German proletariat, the destruction of its organisations, the eradication of its belief in itself and in its future. Considering the far greater maturity and acuteness of the social contradictions in Germany, the hellish work of Italian Fascism would probably appear as a pale and almost humane experiment in comparison with the work of the German National Socialists ... Ten proletarian insurrections, ten defeats, one on top of the other, could not debilitate and enfeeble the German working class as much as a retreat before fascism would weaken it at the very moment-when the decision is still impending on the question of who is to become master in the German household ... the key to the world situation lies in Germany.

Three days after Trotsky wrote Germany, the Key to the International Situation, he wrote another strong appeal and warning to German workers entitled For a Workers’ United Front Against Fascism. He wrote the following urgent words:

Communist workers, you are hundreds of thousands, millions; you cannot leave for any place; there are not enough passports for you. Should fascism come to power, it will ride over your skulls and spines like a terrific tank. Your salvation lies in merciless struggle. And only a fighting unity with the Social Democratic workers can bring victory. Make haste, Communist workers, you have very little time left!

On 28 May 1933, in an article entitled The German Catastrophe: the Responsibilities of the Leadership, he wrote again, “The unparalleled defeat of the German proletariat is the most important event since the conquest of power by the Russian proletariat.” And on 22 June 1933 he concluded, “The present catastrophe in Germany is undoubtedly the greatest defeat of the working class in history.”

We in the SWP have learnt the lessons of Germany

With the coming to office of Labour in 1974 unemployment rose from 600,000 to 1.6 million three years later. Wages fell, and for the first time since the war there was a decline in the real standard of living. With poverty and deprivation the conditions existed for the growth of the Nazi National Front (NF). In 1976 the NF got 44,000 votes in the local elections. The National Party, the other Nazi Party, gained two council seats in Blackburn. In 1977, in the elections to the Greater London Council, the NF got 119,063 votes (5 percent, compared with 0.5 percent in 1973), beating the Liberals into third place in 33 constituencies. An Essex University survey suggested the NF support during this period would give it 25 MPs under proportional representation.

In August 1977 the NF organised a march through Lewisham, a borough in south east London with a big black population. The SWP brought 2,000 of their members and mobilised locally another 8,000 or so workers and youth, mainly black, together with whom they broke through the police cordon and physically stopped the fascist march.

The SWP activity in Lewisham was denounced by practically all the spokesmen of the Labour Party. Michael Foot, then deputy prime minister, said, “You don’t stop the Nazis by throwing bottles or bashing the police. The most ineffective way of fighting the fascists is to behave like them.” Ron Hayward, general secretary of the Labour Party, appealed to all its members to keep away from extreme left and extreme right organisations. He saw little difference between the violent demonstrators (i.e. SWP) and “NF fascists”.

The events in Lewisham in August 1977 acted as a springboard for the founding of the Anti Nazi League in November 1977.

The ANL was a united front set up by the Socialist Workers’ Party, Peter Hain and Labour MP Ernie Roberts and, among other MPs, Neil Kinnock, Audrey Wise and Martin Flannery, who were on the left of the party.

The ANL became an immensely popular movement. To give a focus for youth against the NF-the age group they drew most of their support from-the ANL organised its first Carnival in London at the end of April 1979, before the local elections. Its success was beyond everyone’s expectations, bringing 80,000 on a march from Trafalgar Square to a music festival in Victoria Park six miles away. Together with Rock Against Racism huge carnivals were organised in Manchester (35,000), Cardiff (5,000), Edinburgh (8,000), Harwich (2,000), Southampton (5,000), Bradford (2,000) and London again (100,000) The NF vote in the subsequent local elections collapsed. In Leeds it declined by 54 percent, in Bradford by 77 percent; even in its heart land of the East End of London it dropped by 40 percent.

The ANL was widely sponsored by unions. As early as mid-April 1978, before the Carnival, there were 30 AUEW branches and districts sponsoring it, 25 trades councils, 11 NUM areas and lodges, six to ten branches from the TGWU, CPSA, TASS, NUJ, NUT and NUPE, 13 shop stewards’ committees in major factories, and 50 local Labour Parties. Numbers grew after the Carnivals.

Under the hammer of the ANL the fascists never managed to have a resurgence of support to get nearer to what it was in 1976-77. To repeat, in 1976 the NF got 44,000 votes in Leicester and a year later 119,000 votes in London. In the last local elections in England, on 17 May 1998, the total vote of the British National Party and National Front was only 3,000.

Our policy of fighting fascism was two-track: attacking the rats and attacking the sewers in which the rats multiply. Fighting the fascists is not enough. One has also to fight the unemployment, low wages and social deprivation that create conditions for the growth of fascism. One demonstration of the unity of the two tracks was organising nurses in uniform to canvass against the Nazis and in defence of the National Health Service.

Comparison with SOS Racisme in France

In the elections in 1974 the Front National (FN) got a mere 0.74 per cent of the vote; in 1981 it was even lower, 0.5 percent. But with the election of the Socialist François Mitterrand to the presidency in 1981 things changed radically. The disappointment was massive. Unemployment more than doubled. The FN mushroomed. In 1984 it polled 11 percent of the votes or about 2 million. In the March 1986 parliamentary elections it won 35 MPs, as many as the Communist Party. Since then the electoral system changed and the FN has no MPs but it has over 1,000 councillors, and controls four smallish towns in southern France. In the last general election of June 1997 the FN won 5 million votes, or 15 percent of the total vote.

Why is the curve of the NF in Britain radically downwards, while that in France moves sharply upwards? One cannot explain it by referring to differences in the objective situations of France and Britain.

The proportion of blacks in Britain is similar to that in France, 5 to 6 percent. Unemployment levels are not different. The level of industrial struggle has been much higher in France, in fact, than Britain. Britain had suffered the longest and deepest downturn in industrial struggle.

So how to explain the difference between the fates of the FN and NF? One has to look to the subjective element. In Britain we have the ANL. In France the main organisation against the Nazis has been SOS Racisme. This organisation is the coat-tail of the Socialist Party. Its leader, Harlem Desir, argues against “confrontation” with the FN, claiming this will “play into Le Pen’s hands”. He looks to public opinion to uproot racism and expects equal contributions from left and right wing organisations. Though SOS Racisme calls demonstrations, these are not designed to physically confront the FN.

The role of Mitterrand in castrating SOS Racisme was central. One must remember that Mitterrand was a high official in Marshal Pétain’s government during the war, a government that collaborated with the Nazis, delivering 70,000 Jews to the gas chambers. After Mitterrand became president, every year, on the anniversary of Marshal Pétain’s death, he put a wreath on the grave of this “great French patriot”. Another wreath was laid on the same grave by Le Pen.


Last updated on 11.12.2002