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The New International, March 1944

Walter Jason

Books in Review

European Labor and Fascism


From The New International, Vol. X No. 3, March 1944, pp. 94–95.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Tragedy of European Labor
by Adolph Sturmthal
Columbia University Press, New York

Honest self-appraisal is not an easy task. Nor it it easy to draw the lessons from great social events, whether they be victories or defeats. It is a monumental task to relearn and reteach the valuable lessons of the October Revolution, to wipe out the vast stock of myths, legends and ghastly lies that twenty years of Stalinism have built around this supreme achievement of the world working class to date. But at least, in that study one thing is revealed: the revolution did triumph. Labor did take power as the historical justification of the prognosis of Karl Marx. Yet, when one turns to the history of the European labor movement since the First World War, more difficulties present themselves. Only defeats were the final experience of the working class despite many brilliant attempts to change the course Of history.

Professor Sturmthal presents for consideration his theory – the lessons he drew from the disaster that overtook the labor movement in country after country – and it deserves careful consideration, for it is attractive, not to say seductive. And those people who are interested in building a tomorrow for the war-engulfed generations of today have to be rigorous in examining the past, not only because it remains with us today, but because it can teach the lessons for tomorrow.

Sturmthal’s thesis is the following:

“I intend to show that European labor, far from ‘mixing in too much with politics,’ was not sufficiently political minded and hesitated to accept real political responsibility commensurate with the political and social pressure which it exercised. It was this fact, more than anything else, which caused the downfall of European labor and at the same time of European democracy, since both perished by the same process ... The bitter feuds within the working class organizations had little reference to the basic weaknesses of European labor’s actions – the lack of real political participation and constructive thinking on basic social problems.”

In outlining his thesis he further charges, after sketching how vastly imposing the political structures and edifices of the European labor movement were, that “all this, however, was largely surface activity. Scraping below it, we would find, well hidden in the maze of political action, but determining its content, the same pressure-group mentality that is characteristic of American labor. For most socialists, and most communists after 1923, socialism was a distant objective which had little influence upon present-day action.” They had primarily a pressure group mentality. And while the form of the pressures was different from those employed by American labor, basically the content was the same. European labor was not so different than that in the USA.

Whose Failures Were They?

Of course, to support such a theory one must deal with what Sturmthal calls “Leninism,” which to him is the doctrine of Lenin and not the masquerade of Stalinism in the cloak of Leninism. Lenin’s penetrating analysis of the pressure group mentality which characterized the entire social-democracy is given proper credit, but then Rosa Luxemburg – defenseless against her numerous anti-Leninist friends – is brought to bear as an authority against the Leninist concept of building a fresh revolutionary movement, known as the Third International, which would crack through the old-line mentality and lead the workers to victory.

“The lesson of the Leninist failure in Central and Western Europe,” says Sturmthal, “should have been plain to any Marxist. It was that no organization could defeat the powerful economic and social forces which had turned the labor organizations into pressure groups. Political maturity depended upon the recognition by labor that its interests required institutional changes in society. Not before the facts had demonstrated to the large working masses themselves the extent to which their immediate interests required basic reform could labor develop into a genuine political movement.”

Consider the German revolutions of 1918 and 1923, and the collapse of the labor movement in 1933, the British Labor government, Austria, Italy and the Popular Front. Through this thesis you have a pat explanation. Even more, you have set the historic responsibility for the failure on labor. Surely that must be comforting, at least to the tired, bankrupt refugee “politicos,” who, after all, did their best, didn’t they, against this pressure-group mentality? Besides, it affected them too, only because “powerful economic and social forces” created this mentality. A man can’t rise above his historic environment. That must be plain even to you dogmatic Marxists. Yes, we hear all this and more from the lips of the Sturmthals today.

Now it is our turn to take the floor and ask a few questions. Was not the “pressure-group” mentality of the Social-Democrats in Germany responsible for the failure in 1918? A decisive majority of the working class was ready to seize power. They tried. But we anticipate the heckler. What about 1923? Why didn’t the Bolsheviks take power in Germany then? A fatal error, we reply, but two wrongs don’t make a right. Comes our critic again. It just proves that the so-called revolutionists had only a pressure-group mentality too. Not so fast, not quite so fast. Didn’t the – yes, we have to mention his name, even though Sturmthal’s book tries to ignore him – other great leader of the October Revolution, Leon Trotsky, seek to instill will power and drive into the leaders of the German Communist Party?

Bolshevism Offers the Way Out

To be sure, Trotsky lost this struggle as well as many others. In each case it was the conservative and counter-revolutionary weight of Stalin’s machine and the social-democracy that combined against “Trotskyism,” with a boldness and audacity which were never used against class enemies. Otto Bauer, to whom the book is dedicated, did his share too. For what was the story of each successive social crisis and the failure of revolutionary victory? It was a failure of leadership. That’s where the heart and soul of the pressure-group mentality rested. At each turn of history, in Germany, Austria, Italy, France and Spain, has there been any evidence – no one has dared to forge it – that the masses weren’t willing to sacrifice and die in the struggle for power? And each time, the “generals” called off the war and the foot soldiers were left leaderless against a well organized and attacking enemy.

Today any military claim of blaming the soldiers for defeat is laughed out of court. Soldiers always fight when given leadership. The generals have the responsibility for the strategy and the tactics. When they are good, success is probable. As a friend of the “labor generals,” Sturmthal attempts precisely this alibi for the defeats in the class struggles in Europe.

It takes the peculiar gall that one can only associate with those people who cover themselves with the holy cloak of “scholarship” to attempt to pass that one off on the working class. Even in these dark days of a Second World War, where truth takes such a horrible beating, enough is enough. Make all the criticisms you want about failures, but at the right people. The theory of “superimposition of a world revolutionary staff” is just the old cry of the frightened social-democrats, who feared struggle above all other things. It was precisely Lenin who was against artificial leadership, super-imposition, and “dictatorship over the masses.” There is a little brochure which Sturmthal ought to read: Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder. Lenin does a better job of demolishing precisely those concepts which Sturmthal seeks to attribute to him than does the honest professor.

There is a great lesson to be learned from the tragedy of European labor: Pressure mentality isn’t enough. Any leadership with that basic concept is doomed. There is only the road of the October for victory.

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