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International Socialism, October 1977


Tim Roderick

Fascism & the Working Class


From International Socialism (1st series), No. 102, October 1977, pp. 7–10.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


A constant theme in the attacks on the anti-fascists of Lewisham has been the accusation that confrontations with the Nazis involve two sets of extremists with little to choose between them. For example, Tom Jackson described the Socialist Workers Party as ‘red fascists’ and Michael Foot warned against using ‘fascist methods’ against the National Front. In this article TIM RODERICK analyses the differences between revolutionary socialists and fascists.

One thing unites the various critics of the Socialist Workers Party – their failure to define fascism. But, unlike our critics, the SWP does have an analysis of what fascism is – which is why we take the National Front so seriously.

The National Front’s aim is to build a mass movement which can smash all workers’ organisations. It is obvious who benefits from such a movement – the capitalist class.

In contrast, the SWP puts all its efforts into strengthening workers’ organisation, confidence and self-activity. For us, the working class – a strong, confident working-class – is the necessary pre-requisite for the transition to socialism.

The National Front, like the Nazis in Germany, pick on a racial minority to divide the working class. This minority are subjected to harassment, abuse and physical attacks by the fascists. In Germany it was the Jews; today it is the blacks – it is directed against the workers’ movement and the gains made by the working class as a whole.

In Italy after World War One the workers wrung from the employers higher wages and the eight-hour day. The working-class offensive culminated in the occupation of the factories in August–September 1920. The industrialists and landowners found themselves impotent in the face of this offensive – as Gramsci put it, they were unable to ‘control labour by ordinary means’. Although the reformist trade union leadership staved off revolution in 1920, the Italian bourgeoisie decided that their well-being was now incompatible with the continued existence of independent workers’ organisations. They began to see the need for a new type of party – a mass party which could take on workers and smash them. They found such a party in the PNF (Partito Nazionale Fascista) led by Mussolini. Within a month of the defeat of the factory occupations, Mussolini’s Blackshirts, exploiting workers’ demoralisation and disillusionment with their traditional leaders, went onto the offensive.

Many socialists and trade unionists were murdered. All working-class organisations were branded as ‘Bolshevist’ and subjected to indiscriminate attack. Luigi Fabri, an eyewitness, described the attacks:

‘The fury of destruction made no distinction between the various institutions; it was enough that they were run by working men, whether they were unions or federations; libraries or newspapers; retailers or producers’ co-operatives; working men’s clubs; cafes or private houses’. [1]

The union buildings and other working-class institutions were invariably burned down as lorry loads of fascists toured the towns and villages murdering and looting. Needless to say, the fascists were aided and abetted in their task by the police and the army. There were vicious street battles between workers and fascists. Many anti-fascists lost their lives in the process: a conservative estimate puts the death toll in 1921–2 at 3,000, although in reality the figure was far higher. [2] The links between big business and Hitler’s Nazis are well documented. [3] But it is important to note that, before German capitalists were prepared to support Hitler financially on a large scale, it was necessary for the Nazi party (and the same is true of every fascist movement) to pass through a period of autonomous development. Every fascist party must do the same if it is to win mass influence among the petty bourgeoisie and backward layers of the working class.

During this phase the fascists have to put on a ‘left face’ and make demagogic attacks on big business in order to win mass support. The Nazis sought to present themselves as revolutionaries with an alternative to crisis-ridden German capitalism. Their anti-capitalist propaganda married with their racist agitation through their identification of the enemy as ‘Jewish finance capital’.

At the same time the Nazis had to convince the German bourgeoisie that, whatever they might say to win mass support, their aim was to smash the working class. By 1933 big business in Germany did not need much convincing. The Nazi party debts of 70–90 million gold marks were written off. Two years previously Hitler had pledged a meeting of top industrialists in Dusseldorf that he would eliminate the trade unions completely and give absolute freedom to manage to the employers.

George Gale, top witch-hunter for the Daily Express, recently made a profound discovery. He tracked down the name of the German Nazi party – the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP). This, according to Gale, proved that the Nazis were socialists. Margaret Thatcher said much the same sort of thing in a recent speech. But then why did big business support a movement that was going to overthrow them? And why was the Nazis’ first target the workers’ organisations?

The Nazis’ ‘socialist’ demagogy was necessary in order to win mass support. That is why point 13 of the NSDAP programme called for the nationalisation of limited liability companies, while point 17 called for confiscation without compensation of land – although both points were dead letters after the Nazis came to power.

In 1928 Gregor Strasser led the Nazi drive to win a working-class base under the slogan ‘Into the factories!’ In 1929 the National Socialist Factory Cells Organisation (NSBO) was set up. Both Gobbels and Strasser were past masters at apparently promising everything to the oppressed and exploited while in fact committing themselves to nothing. According to the NSBO Nazi ‘socialism’ was ‘true socialism’, which the Marxists had betrayed to the sinister moneyed powers of ‘Jewish finance’ and crude materialism. Strasser called for a ‘struggle against capitalism and imperialism’ while Gobbels said that said that .the Nazis called themselves socialists

‘... as a protest against the lie of capitalist social compassion ... We demand no compassion ... We demand a full share of what heaven gave us and what we create with our hands and our brains ... That is socialism!’ [4]

Despite this pseudo-socialist rhetoric Gobbels stressed that ‘we protest against the idea of class struggle ... our whole movement is one great protest against the class struggle’. [5]

The NSBO was seen as the way to carry the fight against ‘Marxism’ into the enemy’s territory – the unions, factories, etc. Muchow, a leading member of the NSBO, said, ‘the point of national socialists remaining in the trade unions is to penetrate and conquer them’. [6]

Forty years later the Nazis’ aim is still the same. John Tyndall said in 1974 that the National Front is ‘to do what the Tories have not done and cannot do, to fight the left on its own ground in the unions and wrest control of the unions from it’.

By 1933, when Hitler came to power, the NSBO numbered 400,000 members. However, it never made any significant gain among the organised working class. Highly paid skilled workers were rarely recruited by the Nazis. The workers drawn into the NSBO were usually administrative personnel and unskilled and unorganised workers of recent peasant origin.

The Nazis did recruit widely among the unemployed – for whom they had a special paper. The proportion of Nazi party members belonging to the working class between 1930–34 varied between 28–32 per cent.

But the mass of the working class remained solidly anti-fascist, ranged behind their traditional parties – the SPD (Social-Democratic Party) and the KPD (Communist Party). [7] Hitler was to pick up his principal support from those who deserted the traditional bourgeois parties and flocked to the banner of fascism. [8]

What was the Nazi attitude to strikes? Here again the Nazis were in the same difficulty. Their aim as a party was to scab on strikes (which they frequently did by sending in the Brownshirts); but at the same time they could not appear to be totally anti-worker without antagonising their supporters in the NSBO.

Hitler’s solution was to allow the NSBO to support strikes only when not to do so would leave the Nazis hopelessly isolated from the working class. Even so the NSBO endorsed only a few strikes, and often found itself forced to protect their left image by complaining about the strike-breaking activities of their fellow Nazis in the stormtroops (SA).

‘We protest against the idea of class struggle...’ – JOSEPH GOEBBELS

The only major strike the Nazis supported took place in November 1932, when Berlin transport workers came out on strike to prevent a wage-cut. The trade union leadership refused to’ sanction the strike, which was then called by the KPD. The Nazis came out in favour of the strike in an attempt to gain working-class support. And in some districts of Berlin, Communists and Nazis stood arm in arm collecting money for the strike. [9] But this action terrified a large section of the Nazis’ middle-class supporters and the Nazis never repeated the experiment.

In Italy the basic orientation of the fascists towards the working class was the same. The 1919 programme of the PNF called for the ‘dissolution of corporations and suppression of all sorts of banking and stock market speculation’. Mussolini, faced like Hitler with a strong and well organised working class, insisted that ‘fascism does not dream of depriving the proletariat of its organisations’.

Common elements can be seen in the labour policies of both the German and the Italian fascist movements before they came to power. First, both parties used anti-capitalist demagogy in order to win mass support. Second, both parties declared their respect for the institutions of the working class, while at the same time launching physical attacks on certain sections of the working class. Third, fascists gained the economic and political support of sections of big business as they generalised the attack on the working class.

The coming to power of Mussolini in 1921 and Hitler in 1933 inaugurated a dark age in the history of the European working class. Once in power the fascists set about their central aim – to smash all the workers’ organisations and to restore the profitability of capital.

In Germany the Nazis’ first target was the KPD, as the party of the militant workers and therefore the greatest potential threat to the new regime. After the KPD Hitler planned to tackle the SPD and only then the trade unions themselves. The Nazis feared that if they attacked the trade unions first, the union leaders would be forced to call a general strike of possibly revolutionary proportions.

Thousands of Communists were rounded up and murdered either immediately or in the concentration camps. But the.Nazis’ aim was to destroy all the workers’ organisations, not only the KPD. Thousands of SPD members suffered the same fate as their brothers and sisters in the KPD.

The SPD leadership told their rank and file to oppose Hitler by ‘constitutional means’. This was at a time when SPD officers and newspapers were being smashed by the Stormtroopers, and in an attempt to prevent the banning of the SPD its deputies voted for Hitler’s foreign policy in the Reichstag (the German Parliament).

The trade union leadership also capitulated totally to Hitler in the vain hope that the Nazis would keep their hands off the trade unions. Traditional links with the SPD were broken and trade union funds totalling millions of marks, which had been sent abroad for safekeeping, were brought back to Germany as an act of ‘good faith’. In return the Nazis stepped up their attacks on trade union offices.

Leipart, president of the trade union federation, even negotiated with the NSBO in order to find some place for the trade union bureaucracy in Hitler’s Germany. Two days after these negotiations, the Nazis proclaimed May Day a national holiday – ‘National Labour Day’. The final capitulation of the trade union leadership came when they agreed to take part in this bogus ‘holiday’, marching with the employers beneath the swastika. The very next day stormtroopers occupied all trade union buildings. German trade unionism had been crushed – and with no serious working-class resistance. [10]

The Nazis then moved from the atomisation of the working class through the destruction of the socialist parties and the trade unions to the regimentation of labour. Eight days after the unions had been smashed the Labour Front was formed under the leadership of Robert Ley.

The Labour Front was not an organisation to represent the working class, but to police it. Militants in the factories were rooted out, sacked and handed over to the Gestapo. In November 1933 Ley told the employers that the Labour Front had no intention of fixing wage rates, etc. As a result, the employers’ organisations were dissolved and merged with the Labour Front. According to Ley, the class struggle had now been abolished!

The employers were given free rein in the factories. From now on, according to the Labour Front, the bosses should now be referred to as ‘leaders’, to whom the workers owed absolute obedience and authority as their ‘followers’. [11]

Each workplace was to elect ‘councils of trust’ from a list drawn up by the boss and a Nazi-appointed ‘shop steward’. This council was to advise the boss, but of course whether he accepted their advice was up to him. For the capitalists this was, of course, an ideal situation – any workers who resisted were handed over to the Gestapo. The giant chemical company IG Farben and the aircraft firm Junkers even had their own private police forces and gaols!

The Labour Front became a vital organisation in the Third Reich. Its staff of 30,000, with an income twice that of the NSDAP itself, were concerned solely with regimenting the working class. Various campaigns were carried out by the Labour Front. One, called the ‘Beauty of Work’, sought to persuade the workers that, contrary to their own experience, their exploitation in the factories was in fact a ‘creative and joyous experience’.

Certainly for the bosses life in the Third Reich was a ‘joyous experience’. Real wages fell by 15 per cent between 1932 and 1937. At the same time profits went through the roof. Overall profits rose from 6.6 billion marks in 1933 to 15 billion marks in 1938. And in the first year of Nazi rule alone the wage bill of the giant Krupp company fell by 2.2 million marks while the number of workers rose by 7,000. In the first seven years of the Third Reich the labour force increased by fifty per cent – illness at work increased 150 per cent and fatal accidents by 250 per cent. Workers were also subjected to speed-ups and longer hours.

A similar picture of intensified exploitation was to be found in fascist Italy. Wages were cut approximately by half, while profits shot up.

The thirst for profit and the exploitation of the working class dominated everything in Nazi Germany – even the concentration camps. IG Farben was instrumental in building the concentration camp at Auschwitz. The gas used to murder hundreds of thousands of the camp’s inmates was Cyclon B, produced by one of IG Farben’s subsidiaries, while the fitter prisoners provided the company with slave labour. A way was also found to profit from the remains of those murdered. Their bones were ground down and sold for the manufacture of sulphur phosphate, their fat converted into soap and their skin tanned and turned into lampshades.

The National Front aims, like its Italian and German predecessors, to build a mass movement that can smash the organisations of the working class. Like the Nazis, they hope to penetrate and capture the trade union movement. To that end, a grouping of NF trade unionists was set up in 1974. So far, however, their influence within the organised workers’ movement is minimal.

The policies of the National Front towards the trade unions are identical with those of Hitler and Mussolini. The NF manifesto states they will abolish existing trade union structures and replace them with industrial unions similar to Mussolini’s corporations. The Nazis are completely opposed to the closed shop and wish to forbid workers to take industrial action against their employers. They criticised the Tory Industrial Relations Act for being too weak and advocated the detention without trial of trade union leaders who resisted the government’s attempts to break strikes.

However, like Hitler and Mussolini, the Front combines this approach with pseudo-socialist demagogy. In certain cases they have been prepared to support strikes in order to curry working-class favour – e.g. the 1974 miners’ strike.

Basically, however, the Nazis wish to destroy all forms of working-class organisation. When Asian workers went on strike at Imperial Typewriters the NF supported the white scabs. Similarly, in a recent article in the NF magazine Spearhead Tyndall advocated the use of water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets against the Grunwick pickets.

There can be no comparison between an organisation such as the Nazi National Front and the SWP. All our efforts are devoted to defending and extending working-class organisation and consciousness. When social-democrats like Jackson and Foot attack us as ‘red fascists’ they reveal, not a commitment to fighting fascism, but the aim of isolating the revolutionary left from the rest of the working class. But it was the disunity of the German and Italian workers’ movements – the isolation of the Communist Parties, the disillusionment of many workers with their official leaders, the refusal of the reformists to combat fascism physically – which opened the door to the fascists. We must not repeat that mistake.



1. Quoted in G. Salvemini, The Origins of Fascism in Italy, p. 297.

2. Ibid., p. 314.

3. See D. Guerin, Fascism and Big Business, and G.W.F. Hallgarten, Hitler and Heavy Industry, Journal of Economic History, 1952.

4. R. Black, Fascism in Germany, p. 701.

5. Loc. cit.

6. Ibid., p. 702.

7. In elections the combined SPD-KPD vote between 1928 and 1932 remained fairly constant at between 12.3 and 13.1 million.

8. In elections the vote of the bourgeois parties (except the Centre Party) fell from 12.9 million in 1928 to 5.3 million in 1932, while the Nazi vote rose from 0.8 million to 11.7 million.

9. This nauseating spectacle was due to the fact that the KPD did not believe that the Nazis were the main threat to the working class. Instead the KPD concentrated on attacking the ‘red fascists’ of the SPD.

10. For the reasons for this defeat see L. Trotsky, The Struggle against Fascism in Germany. Trotsky argues that Hitler’s victory was possible because of the failure of the KPD to engage in joint activity with the SPD against the Nazis. Even Hitler was aware of the danger of a united front. He said: ‘the Bolshevik Trotsky calls upon communists and socialists to make common cause against National Socialism. High finance must recognise that with a common marxist front the economic crisis cannot be overcome’, quoted in Black, op. cit., p. 683.

11. See T. Mason, Labour in the Third Reich, Past and Present, 1966.

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