[Discussion Article] Reflections on the Fascist Threat – From the 1930s to Today

Barbara Epstein

Should the Left unite with the center – or the progressive liberals – against fascism? Thoughts from a veteran socialist. First presented at a November 21, 2021 meeting of the Los Angeles chapter of the International Marxist-Humanist Organization — Editors

I’ve been asked to talk about the danger of fascism in the US. The verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse case has just accelerated the danger of fascism in this country.  What it means is that the right wing doesn’t need a militia, they can just send out a call and their supporters, including 17-year-olds, can go to demonstrations with guns and shoot if they feel endangered.  I don’t know what more to say.

There is more than a danger that the Republicans will gain a clear majority in Congress in the 2022 midterm elections and that the Republican Party will win the 2024 election, possibly putting Trump back in office. If this were to happen the Republicans would control not only the Supreme Court, as they do now, but also the House and the Senate. There would be greater restrictions on who could vote, reactionary laws would be passed, and the Republican Party would gain a lock on power that would be very difficult to overcome.

The danger we face is of fascism, not authoritarianism.  Authoritarianism means rule by one person or group.  It may not be accompanied by major upheavals or conflict.  Fascism, on the other hand, describes a system in which a group comes to power, and maintains its power, by inflaming existing prejudices and conflicts and setting one or more sectors of a population against others.  Fascism thrives on internal conflict and violence.  In the US, it rests on racism and, to a lesser but growing extent, antisemitism, and it also rests on sharpening the differences between cultural and or political groups, creating crises that escalate and promote violence, inflaming racism, and creating conflicts among whites as well.  A fascist system involves violence from above and also promotes violence between groups within the population.  An escalation of this sort is a real possibility, which none of us wants.  That means that we have to take it seriously, and we have to be smart about how we go about opposing it.

In thinking about how to oppose it we have to recognize the capacity of the left to make mistakes, sometimes mistakes with serious consequences.  I want to first talk about a mistake made by the Communist International, and in particular the German Communist Party, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, that cleared the way for the victory of fascism.  And then I want to talk about an approach being taken by many on the left today that I think increases the chances of Republican victories in 2022 and 2024.  The first was a problem of ultraleftism– that is, setting the Communist movement against the rest of the left, the second is a problem of what I would call moralism.  Though they are not the same, I think the two have in common that they convey a sense of superiority to others that can get in the way of our efforts to win those who are not part of the left over to our side.

The first case:  in 1928 the Communist International, or Comintern, which officially represented all the Communist parties in the world but was dominated by the Soviet leadership, adopted what was called the policy of the Third Period.  According to this policy, Communist parties around the world were to refuse to ally with other parties of the left and were to attack social democratic organizations, socialist parties affiliated with the Second International, as social fascists.

The leaders of the Bolshevik Party had expected that the Bolshevik Revolution would be followed by similar revolutions elsewhere in the capitalist world, particularly in Europe.  This had not happened.  By 1928 signs of economic depression were appearing, soon to be greatly magnified following the US stock market crash of 1929.  Soviet leaders concluded that the period of capitalist stability that had followed the Bolshevik Revolution was coming to an end, that capitalism was on the verge of collapse, and that Communist parties should prepare to lead that revolution by discrediting rival socialist parties, especially the socialist parties that, especially in Europe, had gained large memberships and established themselves electorally.  The Soviet, or Comintern, view, in 1928, was that the first period had been that of the Bolshevik Revolution, the second period consisted of the stabilization of world capitalism that followed, and the oncoming third period would be that of the worldwide collapse of capitalism.

The purpose of Soviet attacks on all other socialist organizations was to eliminate competition for leadership of the supposedly imminent revolutions, to clear the way for Communist-led revolutions.  It was also to discredit and undermine the influence of other organizations, especially socialist or social democratic parties, that wanted significant reform but were ambivalent about the extent to which the existing capitalist system should be dismantled, and thus, in the Communist view, stood in the way of revolution.

In the late nineteen-sixties, a version of this view also took hold:  there were many activists who believed that revolution was imminent, that it was liberals who were standing in the way of revolution.  In the US the word “liberal” is extremely elastic, ranging from corporate liberals – who were leading the Vietnam War – to those who opposed the war, supported civil rights and civil liberties, but without calling for a fundamental restructuring of society.  The view of many on the left was that liberals, a category including both corporate liberals and humanist liberals, were standing in the way of the revolution.  Attacks on social democrats by Communists, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, were an earlier version of the same thing.

These views, held by Communists in the early 1930s, and young activists in the late sixties, assumed that the question was, who was standing in the way of the revolution, not whether desire for a revolution was widespread enough for it to take place.  In both cases, it was those who were closest to the radical movement – social democrats or liberals – who were seen as the problem, not the right, which was, in both cases, gaining power.  But this talk is about Germany in the early 1930s, where the belief that there was going to be a revolution had far more serious consequences than a similar belief among student leftists in the 1960s US.

Third Period policy had different consequences in different countries.  In the US, Communists alienated members of the Socialist Party and others on the left with their attacks. But the policy also led Communists to organize ostensibly revolutionary unions, that is, unions outside the American Federation of Labor, and thus to organize workers that the American Federation of Labor would not organize, including Black sharecroppers, Latino farmworkers, and others.  The American Communist Party was at that time quite small and had very little if any influence in electoral politics.

In Germany, the consequences were quite different.  The German Communist Party was the largest in the world, outside the Soviet Union, and played a significant though hardly decisive role in German elections. In 1928 the Social Democratic Party, the backbone of the Weimar Republic and its social reform legislation, won nearly 30% of votes, the largest percentage among the very large numbers of competing parties.  The German National Party, a far-right nationalist party that rejected the Weimar Republic and its reforms, and that wanted Germany for ethnic Germans, came in next, the conservative but not nationalist Catholic Centre Party third, and the Communist Party fourth, with over 10% of the vote.  The Nazi Party received less than 3% of the vote.  In the next election, of 1930, the Social Democrats still came in first but with a lower percentage of the vote than in 1928, the Nazis shot up to second with over 18% of the vote, and the Communist Party came in third with 13%.  The National Party dropped to 7%; many of its former supporters were now voting Nazi.  In 1932 the Nazis came in first with over 37% of the vote, the Social Democrats second with 21%, continuing their decline, and the Communists third with over 14%, higher than previously.

What all this means is, the Social Democratic vote remained significant but was declining, the Communist vote had increased enough to alarm right wingers but nowhere near enough to win, and the Nazis were way ahead of any other party.   The Nazi plurality enabled President Hindenburg to appoint Hitler chancellor.

What made it possible for the Nazis, the vote for whom, in 1928, had been negligible, to become the rulers of Germany in 1932?  This is a complex story the details of which are not worth addressing here.  But the background was that while the Weimar Republic involved a parliament, and normally the chancellor was a member of the majority party in the Reichstag, there was also a president, not responsible to the Reichstag, and with the power, under certain circumstances, to dissolve the Reichstag and appoint a new chancellor.  Hindenburg, the president, was a right winger with no sympathy for the Social Democrats, and he was surrounded by a circle of advisors determined to bring Germany under the control of the nationalist far right.   Hindenburg’s advisors did not want the Nazis in power but believed that they could be used to defeat the Social Democrats and eliminate Communist influence (and possibly Communists themselves), while being kept under control.

This turned out to be wrong: the Nazis took over.  The Nazi Party won a plurality in 1932, Hindenburg appointed Hitler Chancellor, and the Reichstag fire took place soon after.  The Nazis blamed the fire on the Communists though it was probably set by the Nazis.  The Nazis rounded up, imprisoned and murdered leftists, primarily Communists.  By the time Hitler was installed as Chancellor Communists not already in prison fled the country or went underground.  The Nazis gained total power.

Some have argued that if the Communists and Social Democrats had formed a joint slate, they would have defeated the Nazis.  The combined vote for the two parties in 1932 was close to but did not quite equal the Nazi vote in that election.  If the Communists and Social Democrats had not been attacking each other, a joint slate might have attracted more supporters than the Nazis:  in the context of depression, nationalism, meaning hostility to and a desire to get rid of Jews and immigrants, was rampant, and this as well as widespread popular anger benefitted the Nazi Party, which was growing very fast.  Even if a joint Social Democratic/Communist slate had won in 1932, the Nazis might well have come to power at the next election.  A joint slate of the left would have given the left more time, which could conceivably have made a difference.  But between the rapid rise of the Nazi movement and the fact that Hindenburg and those around him were doing their best to undermine the Social Democrats and destroy the Communist Party, it is unlikely that a narrow victory of the left in the 1932 election would have eliminated the threat of a Nazi victory the next time.

And the left had its own problems. In their expectation, and advocacy of, an imminent socialist revolution, and in their attacks on the Social Democrats as the obstacle to that revolution, the German Communists were talking to themselves.  No one else thought that a socialist revolution was about to take place in Germany, and there was no evidence of it.  A united slate of Social Democrats and Communists would have been better that competition between the two, but what was really necessary was the formation of a coalition against fascism including not just the socialist left but others as well.  Communists and Social Democrats could have approached the center-of-the-road Catholic Center Party, which had at times aligned itself with the Social Democratic Party.   A substantial part of the support for the Nazis came from rural Protestants, who opposed the Weimar Republic and its reforms, and who were repelled by Berlin, with its large population of immigrants and Jews, and its avant-garde culture.  The Socialist Party and the Communists would not have been likely to find many supporters for a broad anti-fascist coalition in the countryside, but in Germany’s cities they might well have.  Had the German Communists recognized that socialism was not around the corner but that fascism was, and had they been willing to ally with the Social Democrats and other parties and speak to a broad audience, a movement capable of resisting fascism might have been formed.

Instead, the German Communists especially were talking to themselves.   No one else thought that a Communist revolution was around the corner, and there was no evidence of it.

I have told this story about the German Communists and what they failed to do in the early nineteen-thirties because I think the US left is now in some ways also engaged in talking to itself rather than to those who need to be won over.  The concept of white privilege is fundamentally a moral principle:  it calls on white people to recognize that they are better off than Blacks and other people of color.  It is not clear what this is expected to lead to, beyond feelings of guilt.  Poor and working-class white people, on the whole, and many white middle-class people as well, do not consider themselves privileged and are likely to be offended by this concept.  It would be much better, I think, to tell white people that they should join in the struggle against racism because racism is bad for them, too: it creates barriers between them and people of color and empowers the right, which enacts policies that advantage the rich and make life more difficult for everyone else.

The deeper problem, I think, is that much of the left/progressive community has come to define itself more in terms of its culture and its language than in terms of organization or organized struggle.  Meanwhile, we are at a turning point in efforts to limit the heating of the earth:  if the Republican Party takes power in the US the consequences for the global environment could be devastating.  I think that the left needs to shift its focus from culture and language to developing the organizations and strategy that might prevent the right from coming to power.


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1 Comment

  1. Sam Friedman

    I have several reactions to this piece.
    First, it is useful and thought provoking. Thank you!
    Second, it is not clear to me what “left” the author is referring to in the US. Plenty of current left activists are indeed busily trying to do various forms of organizing and to speak to people in terms that combine many forms of struggle. I agree that there are others who orient mainly on language and culture, and that the right wing and the corporate liberals (including eg many NY Times columnists) treat them as if they are the “left.” But I do not accept their definition of the left.
    Third, I have a seriously different take on the German history in the 20s and 30s. This is one case where I think Trotsky’s analysis was pretty good. The issue was in many ways being fought out not in elections but in the streets. The Communists, SOcialists and Nazis all had organized groups to take part in such battles (with the Nazis being aided by cops). In these struggles, and in workplace struggles, a Communist Socialist cooperation might have made all the difference, cleared the streets of Nazis, and weakened them considerably. I doubt that the Center Party would have gone along with that, but that is part of the argument about United Front vs. Popular Front. In the context of Germany at this time, I think the street and workplace struggle was key, and that is where a united front strategy was a good one.
    It is not clear to me what the author is saying about electoral politics in the US today. Is she/are you saying that the “left” should vote for the Democratic Party? It is my opinion that all of the “left” people she is criticizing are doing that already, often spending a lot of effort on it too. I have not, but put my effort into organizing to the extent that an old man can.
    In any case, thank you for a thought-provoking article.