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International Socialism, Summer 1999


Jim Wolfreys

The physiology of barbarism


From International Socialism 2:83, Summer 1999.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Donny Gluckstein
The Nazis, Capitalism and the Working Class
Bookmarks 1999, £9.99

Few historical events have been subject to the same degree of controversy, confusion and mystification as the Nazi rise to power and the tragedy which unfolded in its wake. Attempts to understand the phenomenon have focused on a variety of explanations, some stressing the psychology of individual Nazis, others, such as Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, arguing that the German population shared Hitler’s pathological race hatred and that this mass psychosis made the Holocaust possible. Various studies have stressed the exceptional nature of the Nazi regime, and many have therefore tended to minimise the potential for such atrocities to happen again. Recent trends have seen earlier social explanations of Nazism challenged by studies which claim that the Third Reich was above all else a racial hierarchy. [1] Another increasingly widespread view holds that the Nazi state pursued a programme not of reaction but of modernisation or revolution. Donny Gluckstein offers a powerful counter to such arguments, and in the process reaffirms the Marxist analysis of fascism with a clarity and an authority that make The Nazis, Capitalism and the Working Class essential reading.

The book begins with an outline of the development of modern Germany and takes up the argument that the conditions which gave rise to the Nazi regime are somehow linked to a unique path of historical development whereby the ‘normal’ process of capitalist development was bypassed, producing an exceptional semi-feudal state. The opening chapter succinctly describes the specific features of German capitalism and their consequences for the classes in that society. In most advanced industrial nations capitalism had emerged with national unification and the establishment of bourgeois democracy. In Germany national unification was brought about by the Kaiser without any real democracy. This did not mean that capitalism failed to develop in Germany – in fact it did so at a great rate. But Germany’s status as a ‘follower’ nation, industrialising after Britain, meant that it emerged with certain distinctive features, notably a greater concentration of capital in certain sectors, since it started out with larger production units, greater collaboration between capital and the state and, as a latecomer to the battle for international markets, a more prominent role for the state. At the same time, a mass of smaller, artisanal units continued to prosper, ensuring the survival of a large middle class.

The development of Nazism was to be shaped by all these factors, but above all else it was a product of the imperialist stage of capitalism. The concentration and centralisation of production, the increasing importance of banks as investors of finance capital, and the intensification of competition in an expanding world market led to a greater role for the state as an actor in defending and promoting economic interests both domestically and abroad. The fusion of state and capital under Nazism was therefore characteristic of an era dominated by finance capital which ‘makes the dictatorship of the capitalist lords of one country increasingly incompatible with the capitalist interests of other countries, and the internal domination of capital increasingly irreconcilable with the interests of the masses’. [2] In order to resolve these conflicts Germany’s ruling elite turned to Hitler in much the same way as the French bourgeoisie had turned to Bonapartism in 1851, giving up its crown ‘in order to save its purse’. Except that, given Germany’s status as an advanced industrialised nation, the Nazis were forced to mobilise the petty bourgeoisie to secure power, using it as a ‘battering ram’ against working class opposition. [3]

Rather than transforming existing social relations, Nazism reinforced them ‘by the most brutal and systematic methods imaginable – counter-revolution at home and, later, world war abroad’. [4] Hitler, then, ‘did not fall from the sky or come up out of hell: he is nothing but the personification of all the destructive forces of imperialism’. [5] In the sense that Nazism reflected the tendency, identified by Marx, for the relations of production to be constantly revolutionised under capitalism, it may be considered ‘modern’, but, as the author argues, a regime which bolsters a system that has ‘outlived its usefulness’ is not engaged in modernisation. [6]

The origins of Nazism are firmly rooted in the counter-revolutionary current which developed in Germany after the First World War as a reaction to the revolutionary surge of 1918–1923. During this period Hitler established himself as a force to be reckoned with and sealed links with industrialists prepared to consider radical means to block the left, like the steel magnate Thyssen, who stated, ‘Democracy with us represents nothing’. [7] But although the capitalist class had an interest in promoting Hitler as a means of eliminating obstacles to its domination both at home and abroad, funding of the Nazi Party (NSDAP) did not guarantee complete control over them: ‘Connections existed between capitalism and the NSDAP; but this does not mean the Nazis were either robots programmed by the bosses, or free agents making up their own minds and acting as they pleased’. [8] Having failed to win ruling class backing for an armed uprising in 1923, Hitler realised that mass support was necessary to make fascism a serious alternative to democratic forces. The creation of a mass party of a million members with a 400,000 strong armed wing gave the Nazis a degree of autonomy, but their capacity for brutality had to be balanced against the need to keep elite supporters on board by not upsetting ruling class sensibilities.

When the Nazis came to power in 1933 they did so not as the result of a popular uprising, or even an electoral majority, but because they had the backing of a section of the ruling class. How, then, the author asks, did a party acting in the interests of this tiny elite achieve such widespread support among ordinary Germans? The analysis of this question, presented in chapters on the ‘Nazi machine’ and the Holocaust, is one of the book’s great strengths. Central to the explanation developed here is an understanding of the way in which capitalism’s capacity to mask the exploitation at its core is refracted through the prism of class:

The daily experience of life under capitalism mediates the impact of capitalist ideology. It can reinforce it, contradict it, or still have more complex results, partially reinforcing some points of the ideology and negating others. The general pattern is that with capitalists their life experience serves to reinforce belief in the system; the life experience of workers tends to clash with the received ways of thinking and cause it to be questioned either partially or totally. The middle class has a life experience which leaves it vacillating between both these poles. [9]

Nazi ideology was less likely to exert an influence over workers living in large towns – whose livelihood was threatened by unemployment and whose experience of work was characterised by a sense of collective solidarity – than over those working in craft or service sectors, less affected by unemployment, or those living in isolated rural communities. Similarly, in terms of middle class support, those whose livelihoods were threatened by the loss of savings – the old middle class ‘rentiers’ – or whose careers were bound up with the survival of the capitalist state – the civil service bureaucrats – were more likely to identify with Nazism than white collar employees, who remained potential allies of the industrial working class. What determined both electoral support for the Nazis and membership of the party itself were the social relations of capitalism. The more isolated the individual, the more bound up their lives and careers were with the preservation of the status quo, the less resistant they were likely to be to fascism: ‘What counts in resisting Nazism are the chances of collective organisation and consciousness, and freedom from the direct influence (and intimidation) of the employer’. [10]

This is not to say that workers were immune to the pull of Nazism, or that no workers joined Hitler’s party, but in general it was anxiety about the effects of the crisis which drove people into his arms, rather than rejection of the capitalist system, or even direct experience of unemployment. At the core of the mass movement built by the Nazis was the frustrated petty bourgeoisie which, faced with the disintegration of society and fearful of the prospect of revolution, sought to break free from the domination of the monopolies and cartels. Fusing at the lower end of the social scale with the working class, and with the capitalist bourgeoisie at the other, it is ‘no wonder’, wrote Trotsky, ‘that ideologically it scintillates with all the colours of the rainbow’. [11]

Fascism’s capacity to combine counter-revolutionary aims with a mass movement was both its strength and its weakness, a factor identified very early on by Clara Zetkin:

We should not regard fascism as a homogenous entity, as a granite block from which all our exertions will simply rebound. Fascism is a disparate formation, comprising various contradictory elements, and hence liable to internal dissolution and disintegration ... however tough an image fascism presents, it is in fact the result of the decay and disintegration of the capitalist economy and a symptom of the dissolution of the bourgeois state. [12]

Although the ‘sheer weight of forces at its disposal’ [13] would permit a fascist regime to survive for some time, as a movement it was nevertheless vulnerable when confronted, and sections of its support could even be won to a different political project. In the absence of a credible revolutionary socialist alternative, however, the ‘countless human beings whom finance capital has brought to desperation and frenzy’ [14] were pulled by fascism into a movement in which everything was ‘as contradictory and chaotic as in a nightmare’. [15]

Was fascism a middle class movement? Nazi propaganda before 1933 was full of promises to its middle class followers: ‘100,000 independent cobblers’, declared Gottfried Feder, ‘are worth more to the economy of the people and the state than five giant shoe factories.’ [16] Despite such rhetoric, Nazi rule offered very little to the middle classes. Indeed, once the labour movement had been defeated, ruling class power was immeasurably reinforced, at the expense of all other classes. [17]

If the regime can be seen to have retained the basic features of capitalism in an extreme form, rather than representing a break with it, how can the importance of anti-Semitism to the Nazi project be explained? A common view holds that the Nazis attempted a racial revolution and that their supporters were motivated above all else by pathological anti-Semitism. Here, again, the book underlines the importance of class distinctions. As far as ordinary Germans were concerned, racist attitudes derived from the anxieties and frustrations of everyday existence and provided scapegoats for their various grievances. In contrast, ruling class racism is a means of shoring up existing social relations and forms part of a hierarchical conception of society whereby notions of superiority and inferiority are bolstered by, among other things, the use of racism to legitimise the targeting of certain groups and, by extension, the treatment meted out to all ‘inferior’ elements in the hierarchy. [18] The reification of existence under capitalism, which turns human beings into objects to be bought and sold, found its most grotesque expression in the Holocaust, when assembly line techniques and a modern transport network were used to commit mass murder, leaving what remained – teeth, human hair, etc. – to be treated as industrial ‘by-products’. The distinction between ruling class and popular racism is an important one, not least because it undermines Goldhagen’s claim that the Holocaust was a product of a collective German mentality. The shock and repulsion felt by ordinary Germans at Nazi led pogroms such as Kristallnacht (night of broken glass) in 1938, and the revulsion felt even by rank and file Nazis at the euthanasia programme targeted at ‘lives not worth living’, are evidence of this distinction. [19]

But if ordinary Germans did not share the same outlook as the Nazi leadership, why did so many participate in its crimes? Again, the horrors perpetrated under Nazi rule are best understood not as a reflection of some kind of primordial evil but in relation to the constraints which capitalism imposes on human activity. The dehumanising bureaucratisation of life under capitalism, which strives to subordinate individuals to an external authority, and to control behaviour patterns by imposing deference to a hierarchical social structure, was reinforced and accentuated under Nazism which, by treating genocide as an everyday productive task (to the extent that railway regulations set out a system of fares for those transported to the death camps), imbued it with an illusory normality which helps explain why so many participated in it. [20] Likewise, when leading Nazis boasted of their intention to destroy the individual’s private sphere (Robert Ley declared in 1938 that the private citizen had ceased to exist and that hitherto only sleep would remain an intimate affair), such ideas were an extension, rather than a negation, of monopoly capitalism, itself typified by ‘the feeling of individual insignificance and powerlessness’ [21] as personal autonomy is suppressed by the imperatives of production and the domination of the market. [22]

None of this would have been carried out, however, were it not for the smashing of resistance. This needs to be stressed, because it is an aspect of the Nazi rise to power neglected by writers like Goldhagen who choose to ignore opposition to the Nazis before 1933. [23] In the early 1920s Hitler’s attempts to seize power came to nothing. By 1928 electoral support for the Nazis stood at only 2.8 percent. As the crisis deepened and the Weimar Republic became increasingly discredited, society polarised and support for the Nazis grew. Why did the left, the most powerful and organised in Western Europe, fail to eliminate their threat? ‘We have been defeated,’ wrote the Austrian Marxist Otto Bauer after the fascists took power, ‘and each of us is turning over in his mind the question whether we brought the bloody disaster on ourselves by our own political mistakes’. [24]

The tragedy of German social democracy’s attitude to fascism was that it repeated the errors made by Italian social democracy a decade earlier in pinning its hopes on legality and the constitution: ‘Stay at home: do not respond to provocations,’ union leader Matteotti urged Italian workers attacked by fascists, ‘Even silence, even cowardice, are sometimes heroic’. [25] The German socialist Hilferding proclaimed ‘the downfall of fascism’ in January 1933, the month Hitler became chancellor, arguing that ‘legality will be his undoing’. [26] This loyalty to the institutions of the German state had led the Social Democratic Party (the SPD) to use violence against Communist opposition and even its own members, sending in the Freikorps to crush the Spartakist revolt in 1919, murdering Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, granting emergency powers to General Seekt to smash the left wing provincial government in Saxony and shooting down 30 Communists taking part in the banned May Day parade of 1929. Instead of attempting to win rank and file socialists to the fight against fascism, the Communist Party simply issued sectarian declarations against the SPD, denouncing it as fascism’s ‘twin’ and calling for a ‘united front ... against the Hitler party and the Social Democratic leadership’ which, as Trotsky pointed out, amounted to nothing more than ‘a united front with itself’ [27]. Having failed to stop the Nazis before they took control of the state, the left was immediately targeted and crushed by the regime. No amount of heroic resistance, well documented here in a chapter on defiance against Nazi rule, could prevent the imposition of the Nazis’ sick ‘moral norms’ once the labour movement had been wiped out.

In the 1930s Trotsky highlighted the way in which barbaric aspects of medieval society survived alongside the technological advances of modernity. People all over the world could listen to radio and hear the pope talk about water being transformed into wine. Pilots flew the most advanced aircraft that science could produce but wore lucky charms to protect themselves from danger. Fascism drew on this kind of superstition and backwardness. When the Nazis came to power, he described how fascism had ‘opened up the depths of society for politics’:

Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of the normal development of society has now come gushing out from the throat; capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism. Such is the physiology of National Socialism. [28]

Today such contradictions between society’s modernity and the persistence of backwardness and superstition are even more marked. Before playing his part in one of the century’s most dazzling feats of technology by walking on the moon, the US astronaut Buzz Aldrin sat in his spacecraft and took holy communion; during the 1980s Reagan and Mitterrand, the leaders of two of the world’s most advanced industrialised nations, both felt the need to employ the services of astrologers; in the 1990s religious sects announce their suicide pacts over the internet.

In a year when New Labour ministers have used the rhetoric of anti-fascism to justify the imposition of NATO power in the Balkans, and compared those who oppose their warmongering to appeasers of Hitler, this book is a timely reminder of what fascism is and what it is not. Donny Gluckstein has provided us with an outstanding analysis of the Nazi phenomenon. In its discussion of the Nazi leadership and its anti-Semitism, its analysis of the relationship between the Nazi regime, capitalism and the ruling class, and in its assessment of the aims and actions of both supporters and opponents of Nazism, this book’s sensitivity to the interplay between the motivations of individuals and the broader historical and social context sets it out as a model for a dialectical understanding of fascism.


1. M. Burleigh and W. Wippermann, The Racial State: Germany 1933–1945 (Cambridge 1991).

2. R. Hilferding, Finance Capital, cited in D. Gluckstein, The Nazis, Capitalism and the Working Class (London 1999), p. 8.

3. In 1931 Trotsky warned that ‘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’. See Germany, the Key to the International Situation, in L. Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (New York 1971), p. 125.

4. D. Gluckstein, op. cit., p. 128.

5. L. Trotsky, cited ibid., p. 182.

6. Ibid., pp. 190–191.

7. F. Thyssen, cited in D. Guerin, Fascism and Big Business (New York 1973), p. 35.

8. D. Gluckstein, op. cit., p. 44.

9. Ibid., p. 69.

10. Ibid., p. 89.

11. L. Trotsky, What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat, in L. Trotsky, op. cit., p. 212.

12. C. Zetkin, The Struggle against Fascism, in D. Beetham (ed.), Marxists in Face of Fascism (Manchester 1983), pp. 104, 109–110.

13. Ibid., p. 110.

14. L. Trotsky, What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat, in L. Trotsky, op. cit., p. 155.

15. L. Trotsky, The German Puzzle, in L. Trotsky, op. cit., p. 266.

16. G. Feder, cited in D. Guerin, op. cit., p. 86.

17. D. Gluckstein, op. cit., p. 135.

18. Ibid., pp. 175–176.

19. Ibid., pp. 173–177.

20. Ibid., pp. 182–183.

21. E. Fromm, Fear of Freedom (London 1942), p. 188.

22. D. Gluckstein, op. cit., pp. 148–149.

23. For a critique of Goldhagen see H. Maitles, Never Again!, International Socialism 77 (1997).

24. O. Bauer, Austrian Democracy under Fire, in D. Beetham (ed.), op. cit., p. 289.

25. G. Matteotti, cited in D. Guerin, op. cit., p. 109.

26. R. Hilferding, Between the Decisions, cited in D. Beetham (ed.), op. cit., p. 261.

27. B. Fowkes, Communism in Germany under the Weimar Republic (London 1984), p. 163.

28. L. Trotsky, What is National Socialism?, in L. Trotsky, op. cit., p. 405.

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