Chris Harman


The impossible change

(November 1985)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 81, November 1985, pp. 31–32.
Transcribed & marked by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Facing Total War, German Society 1914–1918
Jurgen Kocha
Berg £15.95

The Working Class in Weimar Germany, A Psychological and Sociological Study
Erich Fromm
Berg £15

History of the German Labour Movement
Helga Grebing

ONE OF the biggest problems revolutionaries in the advanced western countries face is the near all-pervasive feeling that things simply cannot change, that nothing can break the hold of established ideas over the minds of millions of people.

It is this mood which leads former revolutionaries to develop the most ludicrous illusions in the party of Neil Kinnock.

That is why the period from 1914 to 1945 remains of crucial importance. In these years bourgeois democracy was not the ‘normal’ form of capitalist rule in major advanced countries. Both the ruling class and the majority of the population in countries like Italy and Germany came to reject bourgeois democratic forms of rule, with the ruling class endorsing the claims of the fascist right, and very large numbers of workers the hopes of the revolutionary left.

Facing total war examines the first of the key experiences which led to the breakdown of bourgeois normality in Germany, the impact of World War One.

Kocha is not a Marxist. But he is prepared to use certain Marxist categories to aid him in his presentation.

He shows how the war accentuated trends already in operation in the years before it – trends towards monopolisation in industry, the intensification of work, the development of mass production industries, the ‘proletarianisation’ of many areas of white collar work. And he also shows how, at the same time, these trends combined with the material deprivation caused by the war to create bitter opposition to the state among wide sections of the population.

This bitterness led to the revolutionary upheavals of 1918–20, and to the crystallisation of a very large revolutionary minority within the working class throughout the 1920s and early 1930s.

One of the most interesting parts of his book is where he looks at the impact of the war on the ‘middle layer’. He shows how the old petty bourgeoisie of small businessmen and artisans were driven to the right, adopting the ‘free enterprise’ ideology of big business. By contrast, white collar workers (referred to by Kocha as the ‘new middle layer’) were, at first, attracted to the left (although not nearly as strongly as manual workers). But then, in the 1920s, the far right was able to gain ground at the expense of the left among these groups,

This is empirical backing for Trotsky’s argument that these sections of ‘middle class’ can be attracted by the working class movement when it acts decisively to change society – and by the reactionary right when the revolutionary challenge from the left falters.

The Working Class in Weimar Germany is an empirical survey of working class attitudes carried out 11 years after the war (and four years before the victory of fascism). At the time Erich Fromm was an orthodox Marxist.

He issued detailed questionnaires to a sample of workers to find out their range of attitudes over a number of topics, ranging from the directly political to those concerned with wider issues, like attitudes towards authority and views on sexual liberation.

The findings are of some interest. For his findings confirmed his view that class position determined people’s attitudes in a general sense. He found, for instance, that manual workers tended to be less authoritarian than white collar workers, and that workers in large workplaces less so than those in small workplaces. He also discovered that within the working class there was a variation in the degree to which people rejected authoritarian, conformist stereotypes. At one extreme there was a high level of rejection among activists in the Communist Party, at the other extreme a relatively low level of rejection among right wing social democrats, with supporters of the left social democrats occupying an intermediate position.

There is a weakness with his approach, however. It is static – it does not deal with how people’s attitudes are affected by the experience of different struggles and the political leadership provided to them. And so it does not deal with the most important issue of all: that of how the ‘advanced’ minority can draw the rest of the class behind it at certain points in history.

Nevertheless, the fact that there was such a minority in Germany is an important counter to liberal, social democratic and Eurocommunist claims that revolutionary ideas cannot find a wide following inside the working class. And because it shows this, Fromm’s book is worth looking at.

The same cannot be said for Helga Grebing’s History of the German Labour Movement. It sprints through 140 years of history in 200 pages, always assuming that the main mistake of the labour movement until after the Second World War was that it was influenced by revolutionary, Marxist ideas. Wide-ranging historical judgements are made without any attempt to justify them by arguments except those of ‘common sense’. In the process we are presented with ‘facts’ that simply are not true (like her picture of Rosa Luxemburg as opposing Lenin from the point of view of bourgeois democracy) and are left without any idea at all why the revolutionary left grew to be so strorig in Germany after 1918 or why the Nazis came to power in the 1930s.

Last updated on 14 October 2019