Learning From 1930s Germany

Anti-fascist rave. Neukölln, September 2018.

The German revolutionary movement before Hitler was based on the economic and social theory of Karl Marx; an understanding of German fascism, therefore, presupposes an understanding of Marxism.

Shortly after National Socialism came to power in Germany, doubts about the correctness of the Marxist concept of the social process were voiced even by people who for many years had actively proved their revolutionary convictions. These doubts were caused by a fact which, though at first unintelligible, was nonetheless beyond doubt: fascism, the most extreme exponent of political and economic reaction, had become an international phenomenon and in many countries had clearly gained the upper hand over the socialist revolutionary movement. The problem was accentuated by the fact that this phenomenon was most pronounced in the highly industrialized countries. The international growth of nationalism was accompanied by a failure of the workers’ movement; this during a phase of modern history which the Marxists called “economically ready for an overthrow of the capitalist mode of production”.

In addition to this failure, there was the burning memory of the failure of the Workers’ International at the beginning of the first world war and of the revolutionary movement outside of Russia between 1918 and 1923. Thus the doubts about the correctness of the Marxian theories seemed to be supported by weighty facts. Now, if the basic Marxian concepts were indeed erroneous, then the workers’ movement needed a thorough reorientation. If, on the other hand, these doubts were unfounded, if the basic Marxian concepts of sociology were correct, then, a thorough analysis of the continuous failures of the workers’ movement was needed, and, even more than that, an elucidation of the new mass movement of fascism. Only this could lead to a new revolutionary policy.

Outlawing German Fascism

Certainly, no change for the better could be expected unless this were done. It was perfectly clear that neither appeals to a “revolutionary class consciousness” nor the then fashionable method of denying failures and of camouflaging important facts with illusions could lead anywhere. One could not be content with the fact that the workers’ movement also “progressed” here and there. For the decisive factor is not that progress is being made, but how much progress is being made in relation to the international progress of political reaction.

The young movement of work-democratic sex-economy is interested in a thorough clarification of these questions not only because it is a part of the fight for social freedom in general, but chiefly because the attainment of its goals is inextricably linked with the attainment of the economic goal of natural work democracy. We shall, therefore, use the workers’ movement as an illustration of the interlacing of the special sex-economic problems with the general social problems.

Tattooed by Kalashnikov. Chemnitz protest, Karl-Marx-Straße.

In many German meetings around 1930 revolutionaries, such as Otto Strasser, who were intelligent and honest though their thinking was somewhat nationalistic and mystical, would say to the Marxists: “You Marxists always point to the theories of Marx. Marx taught that theory is confirmed only in practice. But you always come up with explanations for the defeats of the Workers’ International. Your Marxism has failed. The defeat in 1914 you explain with the ‘defection of the Social Democrats,’ that of 1918 with their politics of betrayal.’ And now you have new ‘explanations’ for the fact that in the present world crisis the masses turn to the right instead of the left. But your explanations do not alter the fact of these defeats! Where, in the past eighty years, has there been any confirmation of the social revolution by practical action? Your basic error is that you deny or ridicule the mind which moves everything, instead of comprehending it.”

These were the arguments of many revolutionaries, and the Marxists had no answer to them. It became increasingly clear that their political mass propaganda did not reach anybody except those who already belonged to the left front, simply because this propaganda referred to nothing but the objective socio-economic processes (capitalist production, economic anarchy, etc.). The elaboration of material needs, of hunger alone, was not sufficient, for that was done by every political party, even the church. Thus, when the economic crisis was most acute, the mysticism of National Socialism defeated the economic theories of socialism.

Fascism in the Era of European Decline

It was evident that there was a wide gap in the propaganda and in the total conception of socialism, a gap which was responsible for its “political mistakes”. It was a defect in the Marxist comprehension of political reality. True, the method of dialectic materialism had provided the means for correcting this defect, but they had not been utilized. In brief, Marxist politics had not included in its political practice the character structure of the masses and the social significance of mysticism.

If one followed and actually experienced the theory and practice of Marxism on the revolutionary left front between 1917 and 1933, one found that it was limited to the objective economic processes and to state politics. The so-called “subjective factor” in history, the ideology of the masses, its development and contradictions, were not even considered, let alone understood. The Marxists failed to apply their own method of dialectic materialism, to keep it alive, and to use it to comprehend every new social phenomenon.

That is, the method of dialectic materialism was not applied to new historical phenomena. But fascism was such a phenomena, a phenomenon which was still completely unknown to Marx and Engels and of which Lenin was aware only in its very beginning. The reactionary comprehension of reality by-passes its contradictions and actual conditions; reactionary politics automatically makes use of those social forces which are against development; it can do that only as long as science does not uncover all the revolutionary forces which of necessity must overcome the reactionary forces. The mass basis of fascism, the rebelling lower middle classes, contained not only reactionary but also powerful progressive social forces. This contradiction was overlooked; more than that, the role of the lower middle classes, up to the time of Hitler’s coming into power, remained entirely in the background.

Punk multiculturalism, in German.

Adapted from The Mass Psychology of Fascism by Wilhelm Reich (1933.) Published under a Creative Commons license. Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.