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The Nazi System

(December 1942)

From New International, Vol. VIII No. 11, December 1942, pp. 349–350.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

BEHEMOTH, the Structure and Practice of National Socialism
by Franz Neumann
Oxford University Press, 549 pages, $4.00

Franz Neumann, a German social-democratic refugee, has written a study of Nazism in the grand manner. It is serious and thorough; it is carefully documented with several hundred references to original sources as well as innumerable quotations from political theorists of all ages; it contains much valuable descriptive material; and it has that indispensable Germanic professorial style that makes each sentence taste like a chunk of raw cowhide. Nonetheless, Behemoth is a book of very uneven quality. Part of the major theoretical premises are, in the opinion of the reviewer, untenable, and this despite the excellence of many of the book’s sections.

Neumann believes that Nazism is a “non-state, a chaos, a rule of lawlessness and anarchy, which has swallowed the rights and dignity of man, and is out to transform the world into a chaos.” It is a society which has lost the compensating factors of even the most reactionary of all previous capitalist societies: rationality of social functioning and rational generality of codified law. It is a society which is marked by arbitrariness in its behavior toward the ruled classes and even toward subordinate sections of the ruling classes. Germany, Neumann claims, retains all the essential economic characteristics of capitalism; it has in fact an imperialist economy par excellence; but it marks a rupture with all previous capitalist societies because socially it marks a complete turn toward the “chaos of a non-state”! What is more, Neumann believes that “it is doubtful whether national socialism possesses a unified coercive machinery” since there are four conflicting social groups – the state bureaucracy, the party bureaucracy, the army leadership and the capitalists – all of whom are conducting an internal struggle among themselves which merely contributes toward the “chaos of the non-state.” We are not told how this “chaos” is capable of conducting such an immense venture as the present war, how this internal jungle succeeds in presenting such a dreadfully orderly and efficient front to the rest of the world. Germany, Neumann believes, is no longer a state. He writes on page 467:

If a state is characterized by the rule of law, our answer to this question (Is Nazism a state? – R.F.) will be negative, since we deny that law exists in Germany. It may be argued that state and law are not identical, and that there can be states without law. States, however ... are conceived as rationally operating machineries disposing of the monopoly of coercive power. A state is ideologically characterized by the unity of the political power that it wields ... I doubt whether even a state in this restricted sense exists in Germany ... There is no realm of law in Germany ... The monopolists in dealing with non-monopolists rely on individual measures and in their relations with the state and with competitors, on compromises which are determined by expediency and not by law. Moreover, it is doubtful whether national socialism possesses a unified coercive machinery ... The party is independent of the state in matters pertaining to the police and youth, but everywhere else the state stands above the party. The army is sovereign in many fields; the bureaucracy is uncontrolled: and industry has managed to conquer many positions. One might say that such antagonisms are as characteristic of democracy as they are of national socialism. Granting that, there is still one decisive difference. In a democracy and in any other constitutional system, such antagonisms within the ruling groups must be settled in a universally binding manner ... If it is necessary for the state to coordinate and integrate hundreds and thousands of individual and group conflicts, the process must be accomplished in a universally binding manner, that is, through abstract rational law or at least through a rationally operating bureaucracy. Under national socialism, however, the whole of the society is organized in four solid, centralized groups, each operating under the leadership principle, each with a legislative, administrative and judicial power of its own. Neither universal law nor a rationally operating bureaucracy is necessary for integration. There is no need for a state standing above all groups; the state may even be a hindrance to the compromise and to domination over the ruled classes. The decisions of the leader are merely the results of the compromises among the four leaderships ... It is thus impossible to detect in the framework of the national socialist political system any one organ which monopolizes political power.

And in order to understand something of the basis of this amazing theory, it is necessary to quote Neumann’s concept of law:

The average lawyer will be repelled by the idea that there can be a legal system that is nothing more than a means of terrorizing people. He will point out that hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of transactions in Germany are handled according to calculability and predictable rules ... culturally indifferent rules of a predominantly technical character ... Do we really mean such technical rules when we speak of law, however? Law ... is a norm, comprehensible by reason, open to theoretical understanding, and containing an ethical postulate, primarily that of equality. In other words, the formal structure of the law receives a significance independent of its content (page 440–41).

It is the doctrine of positive law which states that only a law which has a general character, applicable to all is a law, which Neumann adheres to, and since there is no general character to Nazi law, therefore there is no law in Germany at all.

It is then a lawless, stateless chaos, with four powerful sections of the ruling class competing for power and possessing parallel coercive apparati, in a word, a “chaos.”

It should be obvious that we are here dealing with a mind in which the cobwebs of legalism have gained a firm grip. Despite this, it is necessary to note that there is intermingled with this fantastic theory some very important insights. It is both true and important that fascism represents, socially, a qualitative change from previous forms of capitalist society. All pretense of equality, of the general welfare as a purpose of societal existence, of even formal rights, are destroyed. Socially the totalitarian structure of the Nazi society is comparable only to some of the ancient oriental despotisms when they were already reaching the stage of decay. This point is of great importance, since it serves as the most dramatic possible indication of the state of decay of the capitalist system, which does still exist in Germany. And to the degree that Neumann describes this, his book is valuable and worthy of study.

The Nature of Law

But the basic premises of this theory are dearly unacceptable. Law is not merely a codification which is general and universal; such a concept is completely the reflection of bourgeois democracy since general and universal law was first accepted, on a decisive scale, only with the advent of bourgeois democracy, which used it as a means of hiding its class structure and furthering its pretensions toward being a classless or supra-class society. As far as Marxists are concerned, law in its decisive aspects is merely the codification of the supremacy of the ruling class, regardless of whether it is universally applied or not and regardless of whether it also includes technical rules for the convenience of all (garbage collection, water supply). The law of the French monarchs was neither universal nor general yet is was certainly law. Nor is there ever a situation in which a society hesitates to go beyond the boundary of its formal law if it feels itself in danger. Whenever there is an element of grave stress within an existing society, that society abandons the usual rules of its procedure and dominates by open might; yet even within that “lawlessness” there is still a considerable element of formal law. There is law wherever there is organization; the content of law is determined by the class content of the social organization. That holds as true for Germany today as for any other class society, even though that law no longer makes the pretense to universality and generality.

Is There a State in Germany?

Nor can we subscribe to the notion that there is no longer any state in Germany today, that there are four parallel ruling groups coexistent and sometimes conflicting. Neumann is in error when he places the capitalists, the army leadership and the state and party bureaucracies on the same plane. The capitalists are a social class; the others are social groups within or dependent upon the capitalist class. It is impossible for the army bureaucracy to have as much social power as the capitalists; in point of fact they do not have that power, they seldom challenge that power and are in reality its supporters. As for the state bureaucracy, that is a parasitic organism swelling up on the basis of the needs of a completely centralized, monopolistic capitalist economy. This is especially true in Germany. As for the Nazi Party bureaucracy, Neumann himself admits and proves in his section on Nazi economy that the party bureaucracy is fast becoming absorbed in or dependent on the capitalist class and that the conflicts between them are decreasing.

There is a state in Germany today; it is a capitalist state; the capitalist class is the decisive ruling group, even though many of its secondary political functions have been taken over by the Nazi bureaucracy. In fact, then, not only has the state not disappeared; it has become more powerful as the German imperialist machine geared itself for total war. It has become more centralized, rather than diffused; only a many blinded by legal obfuscations can say that in Germany today there is “no unified coercive authority.”

What, then, is the purpose of these theories? Why are they presented? The answer lies, I believe, in the tender spot which Neumann retains in his mind for the Weimar Republic with its “pluralistic” (read: class collaborationist) approaches. For it is apparent that everything which Neumann says Nazi Germany does not have (the state as arbiter of social groups, universal law) did exist under Weimar. Clearly then, what is needed in Germany is a real “state” which will restore the checks and balances with which Weimar “restrained” the monopolists. The political program of our author is hardly more attractive than the theoretical mechanism with which it is justified.

Germany Capitalist Character

All that remains then, is the second section of the book describing the capitalist economy of Nazi Germany. This is by far the best part of the book. It is thorough and detailed; it contains excellent analysis of the structural development of German monopoly capitalism in the direction of continued centralization and cartelization. Especially excellent are those chapters describing the preparations of German business for the present war. Neumann has digested, in this connection, an immense amount of statistical material and has correlated it into an excellent picture of the present functioning of German capitalism.

“National socialism,” he writes on page 360, “has coordinated the diversified and contradictory state interferences into one system having but one aim: the preparation for imperialist war ... Preparation for totalitarian war requires a huge expansion of the production-goods industry, especially of the investment-goods industry, and makes it necessary to sacrifice every particular economic interest that contradicts this aim. This means that the automatism of free capitalism, precarious even under a democratic monopoly capitalism, has been severely restricted. But capitalism remains.”

One remark, however, in connection with the reasoning which Neumann uses against those who hold that Germany is no longer capitalist. If, he says, the means of domination in Germany have become purely political, since the laws of capitalist economy no longer function and the economy is run as part of the job of the state apparatus, then “we must also conclude that nothing but a series of accidents can destroy such systems. If the systems are held together only by political ties and not by any inescapable economic necessity, only political mistakes can destroy them. But why should political errors occur?”

I think this mode of reasoning is fallacious. It is reminiscent of the arguments used by those who believe Russia to be either a “workers’” or capitalist state. “If the laws of capitalist society, which explain why capitalism is doomed to inevitable crisis, no longer apply, then what laws do apply and what is the driving force, if any, that leads Russia (substitute in this case, Germany) to crisis?” That question is difficult to answer and it may be impossible because of the immaturity and national uniqueness of the Russian bureaucratic collectivism. If Germany were no longer capitalist, it would also be difficult to answer that question about Germany. But merely to pose the difficulty is not to prove that Germany remains capitalist, or that Russia remains a “workers’” or capitalist state. These questions must be decided on an empirical basis, by examining the economy of the countries concerned. If we are convinced that the economy of Germany is no longer capitalist or that of Russia no longer “workers’” or capitalist, but that one or the other of them is a new society, then it is truly difficult to present immediately the laws of its functioning and crisis. But Germany is a capitalist society, not because of the difficulties of a theory of non-capitalism, but rather because a concrete examination of German economy reveals it to contain the basic characteristics of capitalism.

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