Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Second thoughts

(December 2000)

From Socialist Review, No.247, December 2000.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

We must be on our guard against the rise of Nazi parties warns Chris Harman

I was lucky enough to hear Ian Kershaw address a meeting at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, last month. Kershaw has just published the second volume of his monumental biography of Hitler, reviewed in Socialist Review recently by Alex Callinicos. Kershaw refutes the explanation of the Nazi barbarity as a peculiar – and unrepeatable – product of German history or the German psyche. He shows how it was extreme economic, social and political crises that transformed Hitler from an effectual nonentity into a demagogic mass leader. Kershaw also stresses the result of international political and economic pressures.

Germany was hit by two great economic crises in the 1920s – the first resulting from the impact on German capitalism of defeat in the First World War, the second from the effects of the great world slump that followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Each crisis produced enormous bitterness and disorientation among the vast swathes of German society that stood between the ‘elite’ of big business, the landed aristocracy and the heads of the armed forces on the one hand, and the working class movement dominated by Social Democrats and Communists on the other. Hitler was able to mould old prejudices into a view of the world which provided an outlet for the bitterness of this layer – small businessmen, farmers, the professions, middle ranks of the civil service, and those unorganised workers who were influenced by them.

The bitterness was in part against those at the top of society. But it was combined with fear and hatred of the working class movement below. Hitler seemed to exercise a nearly magical influence – Kershaw uses the somewhat misleading word ‘charisma’ – within this section of German society because he articulated a vision of the world in which those forces threatening them from above and frightening them from below were part of a single conspiracy. Salvation would come, he promised, if they smashed the two wings of this conspiracy – ‘Jewish’ finance and ‘Jewish’ Marxism.

But Kershaw also stresses that mobilising this layer alone would never have brought Hitler power. He failed abysmally when he attempted an armed seizure of power in November 1923, and his party’s highest electoral vote, in the summer of 1932, was only a little over a third. But then the minority of hardcore Nazis within the German ruling class were able to persuade their fellow landowners, industrialists and generals that giving Hitler power was the only way to stabilise German politics, and see off the risk of working class revolt. They accepted that the only way to protect their own interests was to hitch themselves to a racist demagogue running a mass petty bourgeois movement. This remained their view in every political crisis to beset the Nazi state until military defeat stared them in the face in 1944 and 1945. By that time the Nazis were too strongly entrenched in the state for dissidents in the ruling class to be able to do anything about it.

This led quite naturally to someone at the Bookmarks meeting suggesting that the threat of Nazism, or something very much like it, could recur in the 21st century and would not be confined to Germany. Kershaw’s response was that this could only happen if there was economic and political chaos on the scale of the early 1930s, and he thought this extremely unlikely. He had disposed very effectively of one version of the claim that Nazism was a unique historical experience only to turn to another version.

His argument rests on the assumption that the economic crisis of the 1930s was an aberration in the history of capitalism, a product of dislocation resulting from the aftermath of the First World War. It is not an argument that holds up. The epicentre of the crisis lay not in the European states damaged by the war but in the US, which gained economically from it. As US output fell by half in just two years, the German economy, previously dependent on US credits, slumped until a full third of the population were unemployed.

Thirty years ago most mainstream economists claimed the US crisis resulted from a ‘dogmatic’ adherence of governments to ‘laissez faire’ economic policies which rejected state intervention. Politicians had failed to see that only such intervention could save capitalism from its own anarchic tendencies. The claim that governments would never make such a mistake again underlay the argument that Nazism was a one-off.

Kershaw is still sticking to this contention. But the trend in every major capitalist country since the mid-1970s has been for governments to return to the old ‘laissez faire’ doctrine, today renamed neoliberalism.

Industry and finance, we are repeatedly told, have developed on such a scale that they cannot be controlled by national governments. Any attempts by governments to exercise such control will lead to inefficiency and waste on a massive scale. But if this is so, the arguments used by mainstream economists to rule out the recurrence of a 1930s-type economic crisis no longer hold up. However, that does not necessarily mean the next recession will be on that scale.

Arms expenditure played a very big role in enabling the industrial economies to recover from the slumps of the interwar years, and still remains, at least in the US, higher than in the early 1930s. And although the US government imposes neoliberalism on the rest of the world, there are still close connections between the state and sectors of big business on its home ground. Such factors help to explain why the crises of the last quarter century have been shallower than the great slump – at least as far as the advanced industrial economies are concerned. But the proportion of world output going into arms has declined over the decades. And the global trend is to still more neo-liberalism. This means cushions against a massive slump are getting thinner.

If a system based upon uncontrolled competition between rival medium-sized firms could crash in the interwar years, a system based upon uncontrolled competition between giant multinational corporations can also crash. Such a system has no inbuilt mechanisms leading to equilibrium and stability. And the external mechanisms which were said for decades to provide it with stability are being torn away.

In the 1980s and 1990s economic crises much shallower than that of the 1930s led to the sudden growth of Nazi-type parties in parts of Europe. A really big slump could have social and political effects similar to those which gave Hitler his chance. That’s why, despite Kershaw’s own views, his book provides us with lessons on how to act today, as well as an understanding of the worst horror of the 20th century.

As US output fell by half in just two years, the German economy slumped

Last updated on 22 December 2009