Anti-fascism: Its problematic history and meaning

       Manuel Kellner | Henning Mächerle
Wolf Wetzel | Jan Gerber
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Platypus Review 63
February 1, 2014
Image: Antifascist
conference (1922)
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Since the Nazi seizure of power eighty years ago anti-fascism has been integral to left-wing politics. The struggle against fascists and Nazis is morally self-evident, so that political anti-fascism seems to be similarly self-evident. Yet in past periods of history, the politics of anti-fascism was completely different, as was the understanding of what it contributed to leftist politics more generally. Still certain continuity can be discerned in anti-fascism’s retention of anti-capitalist claims. Where does this come from? What was anti-fascism and how has it changed? How do the category and concept of anti-fascism help us to understand both historical and contemporary political realities? What does anti-fascism mean today in the absence of fascism as a mass movement?

What follows is an edited transcript of an event organized by The Platypus Affiliated Society in Frankfurt on April 30, 2013. The discussion addressed the different historical and political implications of anti-fascist politics in order to throw into relief the underlying questions and problems of left-wing politics in the present.
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Opening remarks

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Wolf Wetzel:
This discussion is itself an historical event. The Left is at present so fractured, that it is impossible, even forbidden, to have discussions with each other.  We would normally never see a group like this on a platform together. Yet the problem of the Left is also one of anti-fascism.  Many people from the “Antifa” [anti-fascist movement] here in Frankfurt have refused to attend this discussion, since on the evening before an anti-Nazi march, they can only meet to discuss plans of action. They cannot allow themselves to discuss anti-fascism itself because for them to do so on the day before an action would be demobilizing.  This is remarkable given that formerly such discussions of political substance were commonplace.

The other issue is the intense mutual criticism of the different positions represented on this platform. Who can speak with whom? When is it a betrayal? When is it bourgeois, even counterrevolutionary? The assemblage here — representing anti-German, Trotskyist, German Communist Party (DKP), and Autonomist positions — could meet nowhere else in the Federal Republic. Even though I oppose many of the views represented here, these meetings are valuable because they show where these political differences come from and what lessons can be drawn from them.

I want to raise the question of the role Nazism plays today and how to understand the Nazis. This is a big question, one that is too often avoided by anti-fascists themselves. But one must ask: How threatening are they? Are they dangerous materially, politically, or ideologically? Also the historical question must be raised: Who in the ruling apparatus and state institutions of the 1930s when the Nazi Party was on the rise had an interest in their program? If the system itself is in crisis and the political elite hit rock bottom, what prevents the Left from coming to power (something much more likely in the 1930s than it is today)? At that time, it was an existential crisis for the political and business class: Would the conflict arising in the capitalist crisis be answered in a rightwing, fascistic way, or in a socialist way? Might not the crisis conclude with the bursting apart and transcendence of the capitalist system itself?

When we demonstrate against the Nazis we should ask what significance they have, not how many of them there are — 200 or 500. Such figures anyway sometimes get exaggerated in order to inflate the sense of the threat the Nazis pose.

We must discuss what role neo-fascist organizations, their parties, and their armed groups play. My view is that conditions today are massively different from the 1930s. The fascist movement then and today cannot be equated. The political class and the political system have become something quite different. It is absolutely necessary to ask where the true menace lies. I do not believe that the neo-Nazis are the driving protagonists of German racism and nationalism. Racism and nationalism are mainstream and have the support of the majority.  These arrived a long time ago at the center of society. They are represented by political power. The National Democratic Party (NPD) and the other, less organized neo-Nazi groups only express consistently what is already established as mainstream.

Swastika mass ornament, Nuremberg 1933

Swastika mass ornament, Nuremberg 1933

Henning Mächerle: What we are discussing here today depends on the fact that the German workers’ movement of the 1920s and 1930s failed. The Communist Party of Germany was defeated. At the time, it was the biggest Communist Party outside the Soviet Union and it failed without organizing any significant armed resistance or, indeed, interfering with the functioning of the Nazi Party on a large scale. The dilemma of the German Left is that we drag this historical burden along with us. That we are mortgaged to history in this way is the occasion for this debate on anti-fascism. To advance our discussion first we need to understand fascism. That is only possible when we describe society as a class society and understand that it is one in which the owners of the means of production — the ruling class — have a compelling interest in the maximization of profit for which a large number of people must sell their labor power. Because of this, the workers’ movement formed and, through its decisive battle with the capitalist class, shaped the last 150 years. For Eric Hobsbawm, the October Revolution was the decisive point of the “short 20th century” that first showed the possibility of establishing a non-capitalist, perhaps socialist society of free and equal people.  The Left was then — unlike today — a truly serious social movement. It was comprised of people who were not primarily ensconced in universities, but had normal wage work and social interests. The big problem of the Communist Party was it only represented a specific milieu within the workers’ movement.

The petty bourgeoisie and the middle classes, who had owned small means of production or were otherwise independent — lost their property in the economic crisis that reached its peak in 1929. The result was that the social anxiety they experienced grew creating the environment in which a romantic anti-capitalism could establish itself. This romantic anti-capitalism addressed the need for a change of circumstances and spoke out against the massive rationalization and concentration of capital. It registered discontent with a process that was undermining the position of these social classes. This is how they became susceptible to certain ideologies. A process of social destabilization was a necessary but insufficient condition for the rise of a mass fascist movement and its eventual seizure of power. While addressing these classes’ anxieties, it was also fundamentally beholden to the interests of the ruling class.

The difference in this respect between Germany and Italy is not so great. Both countries were late nation-states. Both combined massive large-scale production with landlordism. In both there was an unfinished bourgeois revolution that spawned a middle class that, in turn, habitually operated in cooperation with the feudal nobility and other elements of the ruling class. In the 19th century both conceived a desire to win “a place in the sun.” They wanted colonial possessions like the established imperial powers. This and the First World War that resulted from it combined to produce the conditions without which German fascism is unthinkable.

Often we encounter arguments that emphasize the uniqueness of German fascism. And, certainly, it was unique in its brutality, efficiency, anti-Semitism, and willingness to exterminate millions. On the other hand, one can ask, is it possible to understand Auschwitz without thinking of Monowitz, I.G. Farben’s camp at Auschwitz, where about 15% of the Reich’s production of methanol and fuels took place? When one considers this fact then the irrational no longer seems so irrational. One can observe capitalism in its crudest form in German fascism, if one thinks it through to the end. Man is a commodity that is only of interest as a factor of production.

In today’s debate, we must realize that we are dealing with a political dispute and not a moral question. Politics can only exist with clear positions and an overarching perspective. As the political left, we will only reach people if we can offer them a way out of their concrete life problems. Otherwise, elements of the ruling class will exploit these people in a crisis situation and mobilize them for a right-wing mass movement. This is the most important lesson from the history of anti-fascism, which was not always just pure dilettantism. After 1945, it stood in the tradition of the Oath of Buchenwald for the clear positions that it took: for example, the demilitarization of Germany; its de-Nazification; its de-monopolization; democratization; as well as support for the welfare state, international understanding, and anti-fascist unity. There was always in this concept the idea that another society is possible and necessary, one that must be struggled for against the ruling forces and the ruling class. That is the only way a mass movement is possible. Without the mobilization of people there will be no other society. If we do not ask the right questions and offer solutions, then others will do it for us.

Manuel Kellner: I will refer to the contributions of the outstanding Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in the collection The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany. This does not itself make me a “Trotskyist.” My political mentor, the Belgian-Jewish Marxist and revolutionary Ernest Mandel, was the best-known member of the Fourth International, and he wrote a preface to this collection.[1] In it, writing as an admirer of the revolution proscribed by the official Communist movement, Mandel claims that Trotsky developed a coherent theory of fascism. I view the matter more critically. If I compare the discussions of the Communist International under Stalin with its earlier phase at the time of the fourth Congress in 1922, then I recognize no distinctive “Trotsky-ism” with respect to anti-fascist politics any more than with respect to the strategy of transitional demands. Trotsky was simply the main theorist to continue the analytical, political and programmatic tradition that began with the Communist International. Stalinism is the distortion of that tradition.

The difficulty is to draw lessons from the past without concocting blueprints for today. Despite all the structural similarities we think we can perceive the reality today is in fact quite different from that prevailing during the Weimar Republic. I will illustrate the change in the politics of anti-fascism with a quote from Georgi Dimitrov at the time ofthe seventh congress of the Communist International in 1935. Dimitrov’s view was the Communist International’s official line: Fascism is the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary chauvinist and most imperialist elements of finance capital. But this definition leaves out very important elements. Because the characteristic of the fascist movement, especially of Nazism, is that it represents a radical mass movement organized to serve as a battering ram against the labor movement so as to smash it completely — its mass parties, its ancillary organizations, and its unions. It emerged at the pinnacle of the structural crisis of capitalism. The example of Italian fascism demonstrates unmistakably that fascism’s aim was the defeat of the workers movement. There was a revolutionary upsurge, a mass strike movement, which fought for the demand of workers’ control. The union leadership, however, betrayed this demand and the left movement began to melt away. Shortly thereafter, the great upsurge of the reactionary mass movement began.

German poster of Trotsky, shortly after the foundation of the Fourth International (February 1937)

German-language poster of L.D. Trotsky, shortly after the
foundation of the Fourth International (February 1937)

Trotsky describes this as follows:

Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of the normal development of society has now come gushing out from the throat; capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism. Such is the physiology of National Socialism.[2]

What was the 20th century debate on how to fight fascism and National Socialism? A key concept was the united front policy: that is, joint action by all organizations of the workers’ movement. At the time, these consisted chiefly in the Social Democratic Party, the Communist Party, and the All Germany Trade Union Federation. Social Democracy was often unwilling to participate because this put them on a par with the extremism of the left and right. They were more inclined to fight the Communists, or to unleash the police against striking workers, especially when they had influence within the state apparatus. The Communist leadership did not consistently support the united front policy either, such as when they depended on the so-called theory of “social fascism.” According to this, Social Democracy was worse than the Nazis, because they constituted a hidden and disguised form of fascism.

The best parallel with the situation in the 1930s can be found today perhaps in Greece, where the issue is very acute. The development of the Golden Dawn is awful! These are open Nazis and anti-Semites who use extreme brutality against all who do not fit into their racial image. This is something quite different from right-wing populist forces, no matter how much we must also combat the latter. As in the past, we here have the electoral success of open Nazis, an intensified economic crisis combined with the inability to find an adequate response to these developments by the bureaucracy in Brussels. Accompanying this has been a spectacular decline in the living standards of the broad masses and confusion on the left. This shows how acute this problem has remained.

If we wait for the whole spectrum of the left, with all their different traditions, currents, and political horizons to agree on a program and strategy then the Nazis will long since have won. This is not what is meant by anti-fascist unity, but rather, as was said in the 30s, “march separately, strike together.” It is the willingness to defend each other, to come out on the streets together on the first call, and thus to jointly build the mass movement to ensure that the legal and illegal gangs are unable to destroy the movement’s ability to exist.

Jan Gerber: Tomorrow, the first of May, the great dream of Georgi Dimitrov will come true here in Frankfurt: The Popular Front will prevent the takeover of fascism! If all goes well, “Single Unionists,” Trotskyists and Stalinists, anarchists as well as the Wolf Weltzel will, together with Mayor Feldmann, resolutely oppose the march of the NPD to Berlin.

The call of the “anti-fascist council Rhein-Main” alone is supported by more than a hundred groups and organizations. Yet, apart from the estimated 37 members of the NPD-District Association in Frankfurt this Nazi demonstration would seem to be of no significance to anyone. Frankfurt is an ordinary German city in 2013 and, indeed, apart from some of the mayors of eastern provinces there is hardly anyone in the Federal Republic who has any sympathy for pillaging and murderous Nazis. What was to be read in the nineties only in anti-fascist leaflets today is found in the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Anti-fascism has become statesmanlike. The New Germany has a craving for recognition of its anti-fascist sentiments. Indeed, the Federal Republic parades Germany’s pioneering role in overcoming the past. On this basis, it presents itself to the world as a great moral authority.

We must also address the question of whether the current anti-fascism might not be best understood as a psychological reaction formation, which was designated by a wise man many years ago as counter-phobic: In order to escape the attraction of fascism and a possible repetition compulsion, their attraction is displaced toward its apparent opposite. The trouble is that this opposition perpetuates what one seeks to avoid. Anyone who was in the Antifa knows what I mean. In these groups there is always someone obsessed by the “Landser” and the “Störkraft” [names of neo-Nazi bands]: He can sing along to any Nazi text, he reads little else other than Nazi pamphlets — of course, for “research reasons” — and he knows the uniforms of the different SS units better than Heinrich Himmler.

Hermannstrasse Ecke Warthestrasse. Aufgenommen Sommer 1945

Hermannstrasse Ecke Warthestrasse. Aufgenommen Sommer 1945

Historic anti-fascism has in this respect served as a model. Because, tragically, the men and women who returned from the concentration camps and from exile, have often done more for the bad continuity of German history than have the NPD, the Mutual Aid Association of Former Waffen-SS Members (HIAG), and the German refugee associations put together. In the labor movement, from which emerged most of the anti-fascist resistance fighters, the proles were indoctrinated long before 1933 in thought patterns that the Nazis had to discover for themselves in order to be successful. Love of country, cleanliness, order, and diligence was taught years before by the KPD and the SPD to workers who later defected to the Nazis. They learned these virtues from the Left, not only from the Storm Troopers or the German Labor Front. After 1945, though the former resisters could take these thought patterns and sustain or rehabilitate them, as resisters they were not discredited due to any collaboration with the Nazis.

The smarter anti-fascists who will go out tomorrow against a march by a party that gets 1.5% of the vote know all that, of course. If, however, they enlist in “the great Germany stays clean campaign” it is not clear that this is because they fear a fascist takeover. But they do so in order to satisfy their need for the immediate and concrete. Of course, this need for immediacy and concreteness, for “direct action”, is not a specialty of the Left, but it nevertheless exposes what these social relations do to people.

These left actions and campaigns have in the world of our parents, our colleagues and fellow students a counterpart, that of the do-it-yourselfer. Against the background of the adjusted practice — because a political practice, worthy of the name, currently is not possible — the actions of the Left remind one of hobbyists who sullenly withdraw after work into basement workshops where they proceed to make things that are available at the hardware store, the only difference being that the store-bought article is both of better quality and cheaper. In the case of both of the contemporary Antifa activist and the do-it-yourselfer, the bastions of immediacy must be saved in the hardened and consistently mediated society. In both cases, individuals who have long lost their subjectivity and spontaneity try to pretend that everything depends on them. This form of practice is an instrument to fend off reality. Since leftists, like all people, are often less stupid than the pronouncements of their respective organizations might lead one to believe, they are aware that nothing depends on their actions.

In the eighties Antifa was only a sideshow, where the radical left was active; the Nazis were so curtly dismissed out of hand by “Anti-imps” [anti-imperialists], autonomists, etc. Back then one turned to what were believed to be more basic problems: nuclear power plants, the western runway [of the Frankfurt airport], hugging trees, etc. Since 1989, however, Antifa has become the main activity of the radical left. This development is not only due to the growth of the Nazi movement after reunification; Antifa groups arise not only in response to a threatening situation. (In Frankfurt, it is likely then that there will not be half-dozen neo-Nazi groups, maybe none.)

Antifa groups arise not least because from time to time we can still have in the anti-Nazi struggle a sense of achievement as Leftists. In this placeholder function that the current anti-fascism serves it resembles the older tradition. For even the historical anti-fascism always wanted to be more than a struggle against fascism and Nazism. Because of its understanding of fascism — the idea that behind the fascism was capital and in no case the proletariat — the anti-fascist could hold fast to the belief in a logical course of history and the historical mission of the working class.

By making fascism fit seamlessly into bourgeois rule, you could pretend to pull on the Red Thread of history, which had long since been ripped out by the Nazis. A weak sort of afterglow of these concepts, of the relation of Antifa to anti-capitalism, is found in the call of the Stürmische Zeiten [“Stormy Times”] alliance that issued the watchword for tomorrow in all seriousness: “Stop the Nazi march — fight for a liberated society.” The difference between this and historic anti-fascism, however, is that the old anti-fascists actually acted on their own account and had to defend themselves against the absolute majority of their countrymen. With their resistance they delivered an existential judgment on Nazism which despite all criticism, is worthy of the highest esteem. With today’s anti-fascists, however, everything which presents itself as rebellious has turned into conformity: The children of dentists play at Red Front Fighters till they have finished their studies, at which point they take over Dad’s practice or enter the advertising industry.

Rotfrontkämpferbundes poster, 1928

Rotfrontkämpferbundes poster, 1928

WW: Jan Gerber, you accuse the victims of the Nazis, the anti-fascists of the Communist Party, for fighting for a “national community” [Volksgemeinschaft] only under an opposite sign. This is too much! It is unspeakable with regards to the anti-fascism of the 1930s, the German Communist Party, and all the organizations that responded to the fascists to say that they have shown only a disguised form of the “national community.” Similarly outrageous is the claim that the Antifa today actually think and act according to the logic and structure of the “national community.” One can criticize the Antifa for a great deal, but you are reaching the point where the possibility of a genuine political discussion wanes. “National community” implies a fascist ideology and a racist logic and a characteristic dictatorial style. To refer in this way to the resistance of the 1930s — or, for that matter, of the 70s and 80s — is intolerable. The problem of Antifa are not their rituals, but the difficulty of the work, which can be illustrated with reference to Dresden: Since 2010–11, there has been a great effort by many anti-fascist and left-wing organizations against the annual Nazi rally marking the anniversary of the Dresden bombing. This produces large contradictions within the Alliance, everything from the “chains of light” (processions of people marching with candles) of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to the SPD to militant blockages. Events have led to the political class responding and having to simulate protests. But their candlelight processions have nothing to do with the militant blockers. In order to get enough people on the street to prevent a march, of course you always have to make compromises. But these problems are far removed from your concerns. You do everything you can to make yourself ridiculous and cynical by pulling back into the guard tower of theory and pleading for “pure criticism” in order not to make yourself an accomplice.

HM: I agree with Jan Gerber on the point that the ruling class has since 1989 claimed for itself and rendered impossible many terms that have previously been part of the ideological resources of the Left. One of these is anti-fascism, which the ruling class — especially with Gerhard Schröder — tries to exploit precisely in order to generate momentum for imperialism! But just because one’s opponents do something, it does not mean one can just leave off oneself. Rather, we must act because the rulers always act. We cannot stop doing anti-fascist work just because there are people on the other side who exploit it for their own purposes.

The real issue is, in fact, what assessment one has of fascist groups. It is not about the NPD or the respective small groups, but what functional relation they have to the ruling class. The complex in which they are located and the political context in which they operate can be exploited. For example, the asylum debate has been prepared substantially by the fascist right-wing populist groups, so that the dominant politics could reach a compromise on the right to immigrate by way of claiming political asylum. So, the fascist and right-wing groups perform an important function.

JG: How do you estimate the potential risk and the effective power of fascist groups now? To me it seems obvious that they currently have no influence at all. Here in Frankfurt tomorrow they will put a maximum of 300 people on the street. You say if we do not act, then the rulers will act. Yes, the rulers will act tomorrow: The German Federation of Unions will make a great rally, the SPD mayor has jointly issued a ban with the other department heads of the CDU. The mayor will give a speech tomorrow and everybody will be there — from the Free Democratic Party to the Greens to the Antifa. Against this background, one must ask, what function does such an action serve? Tomorrow they march against 200-300 people who are completely marginalized, at least here in the west (because in the east there is a whole other discussion). Tomorrow the new Germany — the current ruling class, as you mentioned earlier — holds one of their identity-forming rituals. They will come together to position themselves as anti-fascists. They will come together again and play the old song: “We have learned the lessons of history,” etc. It is on this basis that Germany claims moral authority in the international arena. And you play along! This is true no matter what goals you have, even if you basically condemn it. If no one would take action against the Nazis, then that would be another thing: you would be compelled to do so. But here in Frankfurt this is not the case. Here you would have to jam this great community ritual or at the very least criticize it. Otherwise, you are allowing yourself to be used.

MK: I think the contribution made by the early anti-German ideology critique was very important. I have learned a lot from it and have confronted my reading of Mandel with it. Although he himself was persecuted as a Jew and a Marxist who survived a concentration camp, the feeling remains that he had a need to relativize and contextualize National Socialism.

To Jan Gerber I want to say: you have designated the mobilization against the Nazi rally as a “national community” assembly, but imagine what would happen if these people were not against the Nazis, but turned against us as we sit here and discuss. When you think of Greece, this is not far-fetched. If the German workers and unemployed are set against the poorest countries in Europe to compete and German exports fall away, because no one can pay for them, then the real and perceived crisis tendencies will be exacerbated. But you will not come around and risk getting your hands dirty. The requirements of an emancipatory practice are not so easily avoided.

John Heartfield’s The Meaning of the Hitler Salute: Little man asks for big gifts. Motto: Millions Stand Behind Me! (1932)

John Heartfield’s The Meaning of the Hitler Salute: Little man
asks for big gifts. Motto: Millions Stand Behind Me! (1932)

Q&A

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Q: What role does anti-Semitism play in German Fascism? Is there a difference between the struggle against anti-Semitism and racism and the struggle against fascism?

HM: In German fascism, the anti-Slav attitude is inseparable from anti-Semitism. The high civilian casualty figures in the Slavic countries, the concept of people without space [Volk ohne Raum] and anti-Semitism form a common complex with the development of ethnic nationalism in 19th-century Germany. The history of Jewish assimilation made a certain kind of resentment fruitful, on which the middle classes were able to draw very effectively.

One must think “people without space” together with exterminationist anti-Semitism. The concentration camp system can be reduced to neither extermination complex nor forced labor camp. Instead, German fascism must be regarded as a historic complex, which had its own development. At first, it was about a possible “empty” territory on which the annihilation by starvation of the Jewish and Slavic population was planned. When they could not succeed in the war because of the resistance of the Red Army, the fascists had a big problem. At the latest it was the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto that triggered a rethinking by the fascist elite. But the concentration camp system and the plan for the “Final solution the Jewish Question” only emerged during the war.

MK: Although capital, put simply, handed over its political power to the Nazis, it is still important to insist that Nazi rule was in the service of capital. The destruction of organized labor made the independent representation of working class interests impossible: The Nazi “national community” meant the forced community of workers and capitalists. And real wages fell during Nazi rule, while the profits of big capital exploded. One can prove empirically what a strong position large corporations held in the Nazi state, and for example, how much they benefited from the war industry. An aggressive, pseudo-biological anti-Semitism and racism were characteristic of National Socialism. Its monstrous willingness led to mass murder. Many people knew about it and were directly or indirectly involved. This willingness to exterminate based on anti-Semitism and racism does not go simply in to a Marxist class analysis. One can make it too simple.

JG: Historic anti-fascism continues to this day to be based on two pillars. The first is the reduction of Nazism to the dictatorship of a small clique of capitalists, hence the motto “behind fascism is capital.” The second is that the mass basis of National Socialism is completely obscured. Against this background, historical anti-fascism holds a central place in the Left worldview: It is the upholder of the faith in a logical and reasonable course of history, a belief that was refuted it would seem by the Nazis. Fascism was seen as the “last gasp” of capitalism and of imperialism, which were subsequently to be replaced by socialism. In this way, anti-fascism has sealed off the communist or materialist view of history from a complete confrontation with the historical experience of National Socialism. By using classical categories and dualisms such as “progress” and “reaction,” categories which are themselves trapped in the economism of the labor movement, anti-fascism itself distorts Auschwitz. It only has space for the category of the struggle, but not for that of extermination. This extermination for extermination’s sake is the key element of National Socialism, not the productivity of capital. This eliminationist anti-Semitism is devoid of all rationality.

MK: Hitler from the beginning publicly expressed his position on the “Jewish Question.” He clearly stated where he wanted to go. There is a connection between the anti-Semitism and the anti-capitalist demagogy of the Nazis in a particular context. The Jew was made the projection screen for the pent-up hatred of the angry masses. They were targeted, not capitalist social relations. In 1932 the Nazis had already shown themselves to be harmless toward capital. Their anti-capitalist demagogy was just propaganda. There was no reason for the capitalists to withhold their support. But I agree with Jan Gerber that you cannot just dissolve the ideology of National Socialism into a rationalistic or historically deterministic account that operates exclusively with class analysis.

Q: What are the qualitative shifts in political consciousness that took place to cause young activists who were beginning to be politically active to get involved in the Antifa and not in a leftist political party?

WW: I would like to address the question of the alliance, which was in the 1920s and 1930s not of the five or ten groups, but one of millions of people. Anti-fascism is an issue not of whether you are correct, but whether you possess the power to beat fascism, to prevent it from coming to power. It is wrong that the anti-fascists tried in the 1930s to recapitulate the “national community” [Volksgemeinschaft], because at the beginning the KPD had an ultra-left orientation. They were not seeking “national community” [Volk], nor did they just want to rally around those who were against the Nazis. The social fascism thesis had a real core: The SPD has contributed significantly to the fact that there is still capitalism and war. It was quite a politically conceivable idea to combat the SPD when you fought fascism and thus to aim at achieving a non-capitalist society. This was historically correct. In terms of the alliance issue the problem was that then you fought fascism with a lot less people. When the KPD made a turn in the late 1930s to a Popular Front alliance (i.e. cooperated with all those who are against the Nazis), it was already too late.

Front populaire, contre la misere, la guerre, le fascisme (1936)

Front populaire: Contre la mièere, la guerre, le fascisme;
pour le pain — la paix — la liberté!
(1936)

The problem today is the exact same thing, only at a lower level. The question is whether one wants to be right with one’s anti-fascism, i.e. demonstrate with 50 people and experience reprisals, or — as the attempt was made in Dresden — if you try to create an alliance that brings possibly ten thousand people out. This anti-fascism is not only symbolic. It is actually effective in preventing a Nazi rally. This always implies that you compromise and political conflicts are kept small. To get as many people today in Germany out on the street, you have to let a lot of things go that would otherwise be assessed differently. To have plenty of people to win an important goal is more important than being right.

HM: Alliances are a practical necessity. But whenever there are such agreements there are of course also political discussions. It should always be a given for the Left that it not remain as it is. That is, new people come into the political conversations which do not remain static. Anti-fascist policy is always about the possibility of reaching people with whom one usually has nothing to do. In these situations, people listen to each other who would not normally listen to each other. The second factor is that Antifa is always also a driving element. I would disagree with Jan Gerber. It is not just symbolic politics, but many ordinary people would not do anything if there were no Antifa. The question of why young people organize themselves as “Antifa” in the first place is, I think, very logical. For the question of party organization, or even the ideological alignment of an organization, presupposes that one has an interest in ideological confrontation, or an ideological preference. After the defeat of 1989, we have the problem that ideological moments and theoretical issues on the Left no longer play a role for young people. There is of course in the anti-fascism of an Antifa group a larger space to form connections than there is in that of a communist party. However, one must also say that any Antifa group is in this sense a political practice, a way to develop a political consciousness among young people: because political awareness usually results not from books but from practical experience.

Q: What is the relevance of Rosa Luxemburg formula “socialism or barbarism” for you today?

MK: The Rosa Luxemburg quote is good because it shows that not all Marxists had a historical determinism which assumed that socialism is brought about by a law. For Luxemburg there were always two possibilities. Maybe there are also three or four. If we do not succeed in breaking the domination of capital in the relatively near future, if we fail to build a socialist democracy, build a democratically planned economy serving the criteria of needs, and generate environmental responsibility, then it makes me pessimistic for the future of the next generation.

JG: I fear that the formula “socialism or barbarism” plays no role anymore! It is very easy to forget that barbarism has already taken place and continues to exist. Because of the fact that barbarism has already taken place in Nazi Germany and Auschwitz, the question of socialism is very different. Especially if you look at the way that left movements, the Socialists and Communists, contributed to the victory of fascism. With my formulation that the Popular Front of the 1930s was also a form of “national community” [Volksgemeinschaft], I want to show what a share the labor movement, the SPD, and the KPD have in the rise of fascism. The Nazi movement could never have succeeded without them. Where did the workers, who one after another after 1930 went over to the Nazis, come from? Where did they learn to submit to authority? In the organizations of organized labor! There they were taught the love of the “the people” [Volk] and nation state. “National community” [Volksgemeinschaft] is not really the Right’s term. Kurt Schumacher and other Social Democrats charged in 1933 that the Nazis would not really stand up for a genuine “national community.”

You certainly know the program statement on “national socialism,” i.e. to achieve “national and social liberation of the German people.” The order [national before social] is significant. And, finally, there were the actual collaborations between Nazis and Communists. Recall the Berlin transport workers’ strike (1932) where, for example, posters have been found on which the red star and the swastika appear together. So, the Left — the Communists, the Socialists, and also a part of the Left Socialists (some of whom I would, however, exclude here because some were a little smarter) — they all contributed to this outcome in one way or another. This does not mean that they were Nazis, but that they ultimately had a role in creating the basis for the emergence of National Socialism. And this legacy lives on after 1945.

HM: It is always complicated to retrospectively analyze a historical situation and to do so as if the people who made pre-1933 policy could know what happened afterwards. If you analyze history, you have to be fair and analyze the decisions of the players in their situation at that moment. The communist movement was a backlash against social democracy. Throughout the European labor movement there were two earlier wings: In Germany it was the “Lasalle wing” and the “Bebel wing.” Lasalle was an exponent of the position that imperialism was actually quite alright so long as you can be part of it. There is in the labor movement that tradition, but the communist movement was intended precisely to counter that. We have here social movements with real people who have children and fear. In 1929-1930, they did not know what was coming in 1933. They could not have known, because their experience was the proscriptions of the Alliance of Red Front Fighters [Rotfrontkämpferbundes] and the KPD in the 1920s. Certainly, the KPD was stronger, but it had a strategic problem: It emerged from a milieu which, despite several attempts, was very difficult to get out of. They tried to snatch people from the Nazi party which was getting stronger — and in this context one would have to talk more precisely about the course of the Berlin transport workers’ strike. There was also the Farmers Emergency Program. Those were two of the desperate attempts to get out of the ghetto in which you can reach just certain people and not at all the greater part of the German population, where the KPD had no chance.

Nazi propaganda poster, Bolshevism unmasked (1930s)

Nazi propaganda poster, Bolshevism unmasked (1930s)

MK: The criticisms of the transport workers’ strike, or “the Schlageter affair,” must not only relate to the forms of action, but must be understood politically. It was an attempt to take nationalism and the outrage over the treaty of Versailles, i.e. moods, and turn them to the Left.[3] I do not think it was well conceived, but you have to understand it in that context.

Q: Does the ideology of the “national community” [Volksgemeinschaft] articulate a utopian desire? Did a left anti-fascist politics address this utopian aspect or hide it?

WW: The times today are completely different from the 1960s/70s, when I grew up. Then the heaven of utopia was not exhausted. It was still unconsumed. Each utopia, whether anarchism, communism, or socialism, could never be charged with crime outright, let alone with disappointments of liberation movements or various forms of socialisms.

Today it is quite different: there is a scary rigid fear of even discussing utopia. But that would be a prerequisite, just as you reflect on the failure and error and must talk about it on both the communist as well as on the anarchist side. At the moment things are more or less at a standstill.

JG: I do not think that the “national community” expresses a utopian hope. The “national community” is not the utopian hope, but the destruction, the expulsion of utopian hope and of every fantasy. The essence of this so called “worldview” is somehow to have one’s way paid and to have one’s need for destruction acted on so that at least no one is better than oneself.

I doubt whether one should actually offer utopias in the present context. But I support trying to grapple with failed attempts [at utopia], but not to depict a concrete utopia. People will put their own tasks on the agenda; to assume anything else would be authoritarian.

MK: I am also of the opinion that there is a very deep credibility crisis of the socialist idea. Even for the political currents that had a criticism of the Soviet Union and East Germany, its decline has dealt a heavy blow. Accordingly, it is fruitful and correct that together we should grapple with it. But I was most interested in the next beginning: the socialism of the 21st century. The 20th century is over, and I will not live to see the 22nd.

HM: The question of utopia can only be dealt with by taking stock of experiences. These include the Soviet Union and the socialist states such as the GDR. Perhaps the GDR is particularly suitable because it was one of the most developed countries of this complex and the problems of the concrete organization of life — the way it was produced and planned — comes most clearly into view. These are experiences — of failure, if you like — that must be processed so that a planned economy can be put into effect at all. But we can clarify these questions not only theoretically, but by practicing solidarity and internationalism. Our problem in Germany is — and therefore there is the discussion in this form only in Germany — that such a strong left so miserably failed in a situation in which it found itself. We have to live and deal with this historic burden. |P

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Transcribed by Frederik Heinz, Hannah Schröder, and Jerzy Sobotta. Translated by Richard Rubin.
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Notes


[1] Kellner here is referring to the German edition of Trotsky’s writings entitled Schriften Uber Deutschland, but the English volume likewise contains Mandel’s introduction.
[2] Leon Trotsky, “What is National Socialism?” in The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971), 405.
[3] For the Schlageter Affair, see Karl Radek’s “Leo Schlageter: A Wanderer into the Void.” For a sympathetic discussion of the Schlageter line, see Uli von Hagen, “Rosa Luxemburg’s Legacy: A Reply to Jerzy Sobotta” in the Platypus Review #20 (February 2010).
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7 thoughts on “Anti-fascism: Its problematic history and meaning

  1. Anti-fascism is just a hobbyhorse for lifestylers. It’s only serves to showboat as a Gutmensch and has no social relevance whatsoever. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that anti-fa is mostly ignored by the general population.

  2. Wow. I forgot sometimes that there are still people who are so committed to the idea of Communism, even after it caused the deaths of 100 million and impoverished and oppressed a billion more. How sad. Fortunately, implementing Communism today would be impossible. Any attempt to do so would be destroyed by #GamerGate before it could ever take hold.

  3. Pingback: Anti-fascism: Its problematic history and meaning | Columna Anti-fascista

  4. Pingback: Platyleaks 2.0, Ian Donovan, and the CPGB | The Charnel-House

  5. Pingback: We are not “anti” | The Charnel-House

  6. Pingback: I’m “mit Ihm”: On electoral compromise | The Charnel-House

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