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Friends at the top

(April 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 174, April 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

‘Fascism corresponds to Italian conditions. The organised strength and highly developed political education of the German working class, as well as the relative weakness of the non-proletarian masses in Germany in comparison with Italy, make such a brutal crushing of democracy impossible in our country.’

This statement appeared in the journal of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) in 1929 – only four years before Hitler became leader of one of the most powerful capitalist nations and set about crushing its trade unions, political parties and democratic institutions.

Hitler appeared as a right wing lunatic on the political fringe, supported by only a handful of fanatics, for much of the 1920s. How could fascism grow from these tiny beginnings to dominate the whole of the political scene and eventually take power? After all, there were mass Communist and Socialist Parties in Germany and the unions were very strong.

Fascism seemed an aberration, created by extreme nationalists and racists who were in a tiny minority in the country as a whole. So for the Nazis to come within even a chance of seizing power they had to obtain the backing of much wider forces inside society.

The way in which this happened – in both Germany and Italy – is described in great detail in one of the best books on fascism, Daniel Guerin’s Fascism and Big Business. Guerin was a French revolutionary socialist writing in the 1930s as he witnessed the seemingly unstoppable rise of fascism in Italy, Germany and then Spain.

He explains that fascism appealed above all to those sections of the middle classes whose lives were being ruined by big monopoly capitalism. The German middle classes had suffered hyperinflation in the 1920s which left many of them destitute, their savings wiped out and investment income rendered worthless. The collapse of a number of banks during the slump in 1931 also hit them particularly hard.

Fascist propaganda had a strong appeal. It spoke of restoring the former national glory of Italy and Germany, of taming big capital and the banks and of helping small businesses and restoring the former prosperity of the middle classes.

A movement based on the middle classes alone, however, could not have succeeded. Key sections of big capital had to throw their weight behind Hitler in order for him to take power. Guerin points out that capitalism does not seek fascist rule. It would far rather carry out capital accumulation in conditions of parliamentary democracy than under the conditions of dictatorship. Democracy is cheap. It allows a safety valve for workers’ grievances, preventing clashes between the rulers and the ruled.

’When the feast is abundant, the people may safely be allowed to pick up the crumbs’, but when economic crisis hits, things begin to change. The capitalists need to cut wages, raise taxes and slash welfare in order to maintain their levels of profit. Then the democratic institutions which workers have developed can become a hindrance to capitalist rule. ‘And so, in certain countries and under certain conditions, the bourgeoisie throws its traditional democracy overboard.’

The capitalist, class is not united in turning towards fascism. It is a last resort undertaken because of the depth of the crisis. Guerin shows that in both Italy and Germany it was the heavy industrialists, in iron and steel and mining, plus the bankers who funded them, who turned to fascism. The bosses of light industry were much less enthusiastic and sometimes hostile. Heavy industry depended much more on a level of economic nationalism or autarky, and of course on military and related spending.

In Italy, Mussolini’s March on Rome, which marked his accession to power in 1922, was financed by the heads of the Banking Association. The leaders of the Federation of Industry and the Federation of Agriculture telegraphed Rome that the only possible solution was a Mussolini government.

German heavy industrialists were enthusiastic about the Nazis from relatively early on. Emil Kirdorf, head of the Gelsenkirchen metal trust, was Hitler’s ‘admirer’ from 1927. Fritz Thyssen, the steel magnate, regarded Hitler as his friend. ‘By the summer of 1930, most of the great industrialists and bankers associated with them were underwriting the National Socialist [Nazi] party. They gave it the formidable material resources that permitted it to win the electoral victory of September, 1930, and gain 107 seats in the Reichstag [parliament].’

Those industrialists connected with light industry feared fascism and the consequent dominance of heavy industry, but believed they could tame the fascists, who could be a useful parliamentary counterbalance to the left. They soon found out that the fascists had become an independent force who could only be combatted by armed force.

This mistake was echoed by much of the left. The way the left dealt with the fascists effectively strengthened them. The main working class parties insisted that opposition to the fascists had to come through parliamentary and constitutional channels. Sometimes the left and the liberals even helped the fascists to gain a respectable parliamentary base. The liberal Italian politician Giolitti incorporated the fascists into a bloc of government parties, resulting in the election of 30 fascists in 1921. He later wrote:

‘Fascism already represented a real force in our national life, and, according to my old principle that every political force in the nation should express itself in parliament, it was desirable that fascism should have parliamentary representation.’

Mussolini used the election results as a springboard to build his power and to gain a breathing space. He used the time to build fascist gangs, terrorise his opponents and launch his successful bid for power in 1922. Even after this, however, he was careful to pretend that he respected parliamentary democracy until he felt strong enough to crush it in 1924.

Hitler’s strategy was similar. He used the election campaigns in order to build his support, claiming – like many of today’s fascists – to be just another right wing patriot. In the meantime he built up his gangs of stormtroopers who terrorised Jews, Communists and trade unionists.

The Nazis were treated as a constitutional party, and Hitler only became chancellor in January 1933 with the agreement and collusion of right wing constitutional politicians. Even at this stage the main left wing parties stressed the need for calm and order. Otto Wels, a Socialist leader, said, ‘The people will have the opportunity on 5 March [the election date] to take its destiny into its own hands.’

But the fascists used their position to prevent the left gaining in the election. The state of emergency declared after the ‘Reichstag fire’ (when parliament was burnt down and the Communists were blamed) at the end of February led to Nazi stormtroopers becoming auxiliary police who tortured or killed militant workers, anti-fascist parties could not hold meetings and Communist deputies were arrested. The Nazis did well in the elections, and ensured an absolute majority by outlawing the Communists and sending some Socialist deputies to concentration camps. In the months that followed all democratic organisations were brutally suppressed.

The Nazis had used their democratic platforms to destroy all democracy, just as Mussolini had before them. Hitler summed up the fatal flaw in the anti-fascist strategy:

‘Only one thing could have broken our movement – if the adversary had understood its principle and from the first day had smashed, with the most extreme brutality, the nucleus of our new movement.’

Instead the Nazis were given crucial time both to put on a respectable face and to use the armed bands of stormtroopers to smash up union offices and intimidate militants.

Could it have been any different? Guerin argues very persuasively yes. Firstly, the workers’ movements in Italy and Germany could have been mobilised to prevent the fascists’ growth. Divisions among the different workers’ parties, a sense that parliamentary opposition was enough, and of political complacency all contributed to defeat.

Nor was it automatic that the middle classes would back fascism. They had good reasons to hate the capitalist system and big business, which had ruined them. But the middle classes had no coherent strategy or class politics of their own and were therefore dragged in the wake of one or the other of the main classes. Tragically, the working class did not develop the successful struggles which could have given a lead and a sense of confidence to sections of the middle classes.

The victorious fascists were careful not to seriously damage the privileges of the capitalist class. This led to tensions among their supporters, who had been fed anti-capitalist rhetoric. In both Italy and Germany the fascist leaders turned on their popular base when it became any sort of challenge to big capitalism. In Italy the fascist militias were integrated into the regular army.

In Germany, Hitler eventually had to physically crush his stormtroopers, with the full backing of the capitalists. Two days after Hitler visited the arms manufacturer, Krupp, in June 1934, he carried out the Night of the Long Knives, having many of his oldest fascist collaborators shot. From then on the main support of the fascist dictatorship was the regular army. This and the German capitalist class backed Hitler right to the end of the war in 1945.

The great strength of Guerin’s book is its demonstration that fascism was never inevitable – its rise was due to the failure of the class struggle and the weaknesses of the workers’ parties. The German revolutionary Clara Zetkin wrote in 1923, ‘Fascism is the punishment inflicted on the proletariat for not having continued the revolution begun in Russia.’ We have to relearn that lesson today.

Fascism and Big Business by Daniel Guerin is published by Pathfinder and is available from Bookmarks, 265 Seven Sisters Rd, London N4. Price £12.95 (plus postage)

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