By Terry Teachout, in Commentary
Above: the Vienna Philharmonic under Hans Weisbach, playing in Bucharest in 1941
The Vienna Philharmonic recently issued a report by a group of independent historians in which the orchestra officially acknowledged for the first time the closeness of its relationship to the Third Reich. Not only had half its players become members of the Nazi Party by 1942, but all 13 of its Jewish players had been fired four years earlier and five of them later died in the camps. A few weeks later, Der Spiegel published a 6,000-word essay called “Wagner’s Dark Shadow: Can We Separate the Man from His Works?” in which Dirk Kurbjuweit dealt no less honestly with the continuing inability of many German music lovers to grapple with the fact that Richard Wagner was a virulent anti-Semite whose writings directly influenced Adolf Hitler.
The extent to which Hitler and his cultural commissars sought to control and shape European musical life has been chronicled in detail. But most of these books have dealt primarily or exclusively with German-speaking performers and those performing artists from other countries, France in particular, who collaborated with the Nazis. Yet the unswerving determination of the Nazis to rid Europe of what they called entartete musik (degenerate music) may well have had an even more far-reaching effect on postwar European musical culture. After all, many well-known Jewish classical performers—Fritz Kreisler, Artur Schnabel and Bruno Walter among them—managed to emigrate to America and other countries where they continued their careers without significant interruption. Not so the Jewish composers whose music was banned by the Nazis. Some of them were killed in the Holocaust, and none of those who survived succeeded in fully reconstituting their professional lives after the war.
A turning point in our understanding of the effects of Nazism on European classical composition came in the 1990s when Decca/London began to release a series of albums called “Entartete Musik” containing some 30-odd works by such celebrated Jewish composers as Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Schreker, Arnold Schoenberg, and Kurt Weill, all of whom had their music banned. After the series came to an end, Michael Haas, its producer, decided to devote himself to further study of the subject. Now he has written a book called Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis (Yale, 352 pp.). It is, amazingly, the first full-length history of what happened to the composers who ran afoul of the Nazi regime.
Though Haas is not a historian by training, Forbidden Music is still an outstandingly fine piece of work, one that not only tells the story of what happened to these composers but also places it in the historical context without which we cannot fully understand their sufferings. For the history of entartete musik is in large part a tale of Jewish assimilation and its discontents—and of Wagner, whose own mad obsession with Judaism had much to do with the fate of the composers who later felt Hitler’s wrath.
Prior to the social emancipation of Jewry that followed the establishment of Austria-Hungary’s dual monarchy in 1867 and the German Reich in 1871, it was all but impossible for German-speaking Jewish classical composers to achieve success in their native lands. The most important ones either emigrated (like Jacques Offenbach) or spent large parts of their career in other countries (like Felix Mendelssohn).
Given the extent to which Austro-German musical culture dominated classical music throughout the 19th century, it stands to reason that emancipation should have inspired many Jewish composers not merely to assimilate socially but to embrace a new cultural identity for which they had longed so intensely. It was, Haas writes, “the long-awaited entry [of the Jews] into the most élite, educated and cultivated ‘club’ on earth.” Arnold Schoenberg, the least “clubbable” of men, went so far as to proclaim that his invention of the 12-tone method of atonal composition would (in his oft-quoted words) “ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years.”
Not surprisingly, many of these composers sought to expunge all recognizably Jewish elements from their music, hoping thereby to compose in the “true” Germanic tradition. Those who, like Karl Goldmark, failed to purge their styles with sufficient thoroughness were attacked for that very reason by such assimilated Jewish critics as Vienna’s Eduard Hanslick, who complained in a review of one of Goldmark’s operas of his “musical transliteration of Jewish Orientalism….It’s even used when general human feelings are called for rather than anything specifically Jewish.”
Despite their fondest hopes, these musicians were never able to escape the blight of anti-Semitism. Part of the problem was that their success led to growing envy on the part of less accomplished Gentile musicians. Just as important, though, was the emergence of a specifically racial brand of anti-Semitism of which Richard Wagner was the first major proponent. In Judaism in Music and Other Essays (1850) and other writings, Wagner proclaimed his “instinctive repugnance against the Jew’s prime essence” and decried “the be-Jewing of modern art,” going so far as to claim that Judaism threatened German culture itself, since Jews were “the purest of all races and it matters not with whom they mix: the Jewish race always dominates.”
Wagner’s race-based anti-Semitism became an accepted part of the cultural conversation in fin-de-siècle Europe, and it may have had an inhibiting effect on at least some of the Jewish composers of the period. The vast majority of German-speaking Jewish composers of the post-emancipation era were so determined to emphasize their “Germanness” that their music became derivative. Some favored Wagner’s hyper-romanticism, others the conservative traditionalism of Johannes Brahms, but whatever their choice, the result was a body of work that is—with good reason—almost totally forgotten today.
Not until Gustav Mahler, whose First Symphony was performed in 1889, did a Jewish composer of profound, even radical, originality appear on the scene. Yet Mahler’s relationship to his Jewish heritage was complex in the extreme. On the one hand, he unhesitatingly incorporated Jewish elements into his music—the slow movement of the First Symphony, for instance, contains a section that evokes the pungent sound of what would come to be called klezmer. At the same time, though, Mahler was, as Haas explains, equivocal about his background. Not only did he convert to Roman Catholicism to facilitate his appointment as director of the Vienna Hofoper (later the Vienna State Opera), but he “shuddered at the sight of kaftan-wearing, bearded Jews from Eastern Europe and refused to identify with them.”
Whatever his personal feelings about Judaism, Mahler was the key figure in the development of the next generation of post-emancipation Jewish composers. For those who were convinced that Wagner’s all-encompassing romanticism was a dead end—a “debilitating condition” (as the musicologist Alfred Einstein put it) that threatened to smother Austro-German musical culture—Mahler’s symphonically oriented style, at once more acerbic and more linear, offered budding modernists such as Schoenberg a much-needed alternative to the stodgy conservatism of the Jewish composers of the late 19th century.
Schoenberg soon found himself in the vanguard of musical modernism, though he and his followers, Jewish and otherwise, were outnumbered by other composers who still looked to Wagner or Brahms for guidance. But whatever their musical allegiance, these men all followed the path of assimilation, for they were true believers in Austro-German musical culture who wanted to preserve or (in Schoenberg’s case) improve it. It never occurred to them that their passport to that culture could be revoked.
How would Austro-German musical culture have evolved had Jewish composers continued to play a part in its development? The question, while provocative, is unanswerable, for starting in 1933 Adolf Hitler removed them from the scene. Read the rest of this entry »
BBC Radio 3 starts a week of Wagner in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth.
It begins with:
Wagner In Zurich: 12.15, Saturday 18 May
Tom Service travels to Zurich, where Richard Wagner the revolutionary lived in exile for nine years, and finds a city which played a crucial role in the development of the composer’s thinking and provided fertile ground for his Ring Cycle, and which is marking the 200th anniversary with a festival including a new musical theatre piece by the director Hans Neuenfels. Tom visits the home of the Wesendonck family, where Wagner was inspired to write Tristan und Isolde and his Wesendonck Lieder, and also the idyllic Tribschen district of Lucerne, where Wagner later lived and composed his Siegfried Idyll as a birthday gift to his second wife, Cosima. It was from Germany’s 1848 revolutions that Wagner had fled to Switzerland, and from Leipzig, Wagner’s birthplace and a city which is central to this year’s anniversary celebrations, the BBC’s Berlin correspondent Stephen Evans reports on the composer’s controversial place in German culture today.
Saturday Classics: 3.00pm, Saturday 18 May
The great English operatic bass Robert Lloyd joins Radio 3′s celebration of the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth with selections from his favourite Wagner operas.
Mastersingers of Nuremberg
Duration: 58 minutes: 1.00pm, Sunday 19 May
Immortalised by Wagner in his famous opera, Lucie Skeaping looks back on the life and music of the real Hans Sachs and his fellow Mastersingers in 17th Century Germany.
Wagner and His World
At 12.00 pm throughout the week Donald Macleod explores the connections and relationships that helped establish Wagner as the most revolutionary musical thinker of the 19th century. Includes:
One Winter’s Afternoon
8.00 pm, Sunday 19 May
The story of the great operatic rivalry between Guiseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner in the year marking the bicentenary of their births. In real life, the two great composers never met.
There’s no denying the fact that Richard Wagner wrote some sublime music. But never forget this, either:
80 years ago (yesterday, to be precise) , Hitler and the ‘National Socialists’ came to power by democratic means in Germany. Angela Merkel, quite rightly, has been leading the German state’s remembrance of this occasion with the words, “the majority had, at the very best, behaved with indifference.
“The co-operation of the German elite and broad swathes of society” had allowed it, she said, speaking almost precisely to the minute that Paul Hindenburg, then the president of the Reich, had sworn Hitler in as chancellor eight decades before.
Above: Merkel at the Topography of Terror exhibit in Berlin
Merkel’s words are timely, and no doubt sincere. But she does not – cannot – address how to stop it happening again.
Leon Trotsky discussed this in a series of authoritative articles written in the early thirties (collected as ‘The Struggle Against Fascism In Germany’) in which he unerringly predicts the rise of fascism in Germany, and proposes a workers’ united front to combat it. The (then) ultra-left Communist Party, to their eternal shame, rejected the anti-Nazi united front, on the grounds that the Nazis would pave the way for the Communist Party to take power (!)
Now seems an appropriate moment to reproduce Trotsky’s February 1933 article,
“The United Front for Defence: A letter to a Social Democratic Worker“:
This pamphlet addresses itself to the Social Democratic workers, even though personally the author belongs to another party. The disagreements between Communism and Social Democracy run very deep. I consider them irreconcilable. Nevertheless, the course of events frequently puts tasks before the working class which imperatively demand the joint action of the two parties. Is such an action possible? Perfectly possible, as historical experience and theory attest: everything depends upon the conditions and the character of the said tasks. Now, it is much easier to engage in a joint action when the question before the proletariat is not one of taking the offensive for the attainment of new objectives, but of defending the positions already gained.
That is how the question is posed in Germany. The German proletariat is in a situation where it is retreating and giving up its positions. To be sure, there is no lack of windbags to cry that we are allegedly in the presence of a revolutionary offensive. These are people who obviously do not know how to distinguish their right from their left There is no doubt that the hour of the offensive will strike. But today the problem is to arrest the disorderly retreat and to proceed to the regrouping of the forces for the defensive. In politics as in the military art to understand a problem clearly is to facilitate its solution. To get intoxicated by phrases is to help the adversary. One must see clearly what is happening: the class enemy, that is, monopoly capital and large feudal property, spared by the November Revolution, is attacking along the whole front. The enemy is utilizing two means with a different historical origin: first, the military and police apparatus prepared by all the preceding governments which stood on the ground of the Weimar Constitution; second, National Socialism, that is, the troops of the petty-bourgeois counter-revolution that finance capital arms and incites against the workers.
The aim of capital and of the landowning caste is clear: to crush the organizations of the proletariat, to strip them of the possibility not only of taking the offensive but also of defending themselves. As can be seen, twenty years of collaboration of the Social Democracy with the bourgeoisie have not softened by one iota the hearts of the capitalists. These individuals acknowledge but one law: the struggle for profit And they conduct this struggle with a fierce and implacable determination, stopping at nothing and still less at their own laws.
The class of exploiters would have preferred to disarm and atomize the proletariat with the least possible expense, without civil war, with the aid of the military and police of the Weimar Republic. But it is afraid, and with good reason, that “legal” means by themselves would prove to be insufficient to drive the workers back into a position where they will no longer have any rights. For this, it requires fascism as a supplementary force. But Hitler’s party, fattened by monopoly capital, wants to become not a supplementary force, but the sole governing force in Germany. This situation occasions incessant conflicts between the governmental allies, conflicts which at times take on an acute character. The saviors can afford the luxury of engaging mutually in intrigues only because the proletariat is abandoning its positions without battle and is beating the retreat without plan, without system, and without direction. The enemy is unleashed to such a point that it does not constrain itself from discussing right in public where and how to strike the next blow: by frontal attack; by bearing down on the Communist left flank; by penetrating deeply at the rear of the trade unions and cutting off communications, etc. … The exploiters whom it has saved discourse on the Weimar Republic as if it were some worn-out bowl; they ask themselves if it should still be utilized for a while or be thrown into the discard right away.
The bourgeoisie enjoys full freedom of maneuver, that is, the choice of means, of time, and of place. Its chiefs combine the arms of the law with the arms of banditry. The proletariat combines nothing at all and does not defend itself Its troops are split up, and its chiefs discourse languidly on whether or not it is at all possible to combine forces. Therein lies the essence of the interminable discussions on the united front If the vanguard workers do not become conscious of the situation and do not intervene peremptorily in the debate, the German proletariat may find itself crucified for years on the cross of fascism.
Is It Not Too Late?
It may be that here my Social Democratic interlocutor interrupts me and says, “Don’t you come too late to propagate the united front? What did you do before this?”
This objection would not be correct. This is not the first time that the question of a united front of defense against fascism is raised. I permit myself to refer to what I had the occasion to say on this subject in September 1930, after the first great success of the National Socialists. Addressing myself to the Communist workers, I wrote:
“The Communist Party must call for the defense of those material and moral positions which the working class has managed to win in the German state. This most directly concerns the fate of the workers’ political organizations, trade unions, newspapers, printing plants, clubs, libraries, etc. Communist workers must say to their Social Democratic counterparts: ‘The policies of our parties are irreconcilably opposed; but if the fascists come tonight to wreck your organization’s hall, we will come running, arms in hand, to help you. Will you promise us that if our organization is threatened you will rush to our aid?’ This is the quintessence of our policy in the present period. All agitation must be pitched in this key.
“The more persistently, seriously, and thoughtfully … we carry on this agitation, the more we propose serious measures for defense in every factory, in every working-class neighborhood and district the less the danger that a fascist attack will take us by surprise, and the greater the certainty that such an attack will cement rather than break apart the ranks of the workers.”
The pamphlet from which I take this extract was written two and a half years ago. There is not the slightest doubt today that if this policy had been adopted in time, Hitler would not be Chancellor at the present time and the positions of the German proletariat would be unassailable. But one cannot return to the past. As a result of the mistakes which were committed and the time which was allowed to pass, the problem of defense is posed today with infinitely greater difficulty: but the task remains just as before. Even right now it is possible to alter the relation of forces in favor of the proletariat. Towards this end, one must have a plan, a system, a combination of forces for the defense. But above all, one must have the will to defend himself. I hasten to add that he alone defends himself well who does not confine himself to the defensive but who, at the first occasion, is determined to pass over to the offensive.
What attitude does the Social Democracy adopt towards this question?
A Non-Aggression Pact
The Social Democratic leaders propose to the Communist Party to conclude a “non-aggression pact.” When I read this phrase for the first time in the Vorwärts, I thought it was an incidental and not very happy pleasantry. The formula of the non-aggression pact, however, is today in vogue and at the present time it is at the center of all the discussions. The Social Democratic leaders are not lacking in tried-out and skillful policies. All the more reason for asking how they could have chosen such a slogan, which runs counter to their own interests.
The formula has been borrowed from diplomacy. The meaning of this type of pact is this: two states which have sufficient causes for war engage themselves for a determined period not to resort to the force of arms against each other. The Soviet Union, for example, has signed such a rigorously circumscribed pact with Poland. Assuming that a war were to break out between Germany and Poland, the said pact would in no way obligate the Soviet Union to come to the aid of Poland. Non-aggression and nothing more. In no way does it imply common action for defense; on the contrary, it excludes this action: without this, the pact would have a quite different character and would be called by a quite different name.
What sense then do the Social Democratic leaders give to this formula? Do the Communists threaten to sack the Social Democratic organizations? Or else is the Social Democracy disposed to undertake a crusade against the Communists? As a matter of fact something entirely different is in question. If one wants to use the language of diplomacy, it would be in place to speak not of a nonaggression pact, but of a defensive alliance against a third party, that is, against fascism. The aim is not to halt or to exorcise an armed struggle between Communists and Social Democrats – there could be no question of a danger of war – but of combining the forces of the Social Democrats and the Communists against the attack with arms in hand that has already been launched against them by the National Socialists.
Incredible as It may seem, the Social Democratic leaders are substituting for the question of genuine defense against the armed actions of fascism, the question of the political controversy between Communists and Social Democrats. It is exactly as if one were to substitute for the question of how to prevent the derailment of a train, the question of the need for mutual courtesy between the travelers of the second and third classes.
The misfortune, in any case, is that the ill-conceived formula of a “non-aggression pact” will not even be able to serve the inferior aim in whose name it is dragged in by the hair. The engagement assumed by two states not to attack each other in no way eliminates their struggle, their polemics, their intrigues, and their maneuvers. The semiofficial Polish journals, in spite of the pact, foam at the mouth when they speak of the Soviet Union. For its part, the Soviet press is far from making compliments to the Polish regime. The fact of the matter is that the Social Democratic leaders have steered a wrong course in trying to substitute a conventional diplomatic formula for the political tasks of the proletariat.
Organize the Defense Jointly;
Do Not Forget the Past;
Prepare for the Future
More prudent Social Democratic journalists translate their thought in this sense: they are not opponents of a “criticism based upon facts,” but they are against suspicions, insults, and calumnies. A very laudable attitude! But how is the limit to be found between permitted criticism and inadmissible campaigns? And where are the impartial judges? As a general rule, the criticism never pleases the criticized, above all when he can raise no objection to the essence of it.
The question of whether or not the criticism of the Communists is good or bad is a question apart. If the Communists and the Social Democrats had the same opinion on this subject, there wouldn’t be two parties in the world, independent from each other. Let us concede that the polemic of the Communists is not worth much. Does that fact lessen the mortal danger of fascism or do away with the need for joint resistance?
However, let us look at the other side of the picture: the polemic of the Social Democracy itself against Communism. The Vorwärts (I am simply taking the first copy at hand) publishes the speech which Stampfer  delivered on the subject of the non-aggression pact. In this same issue a cartoon has as its caption: The Bolsheviks are signing a nonaggression pact with Pilsudski, but they refuse to draw up a similar pact with the Social Democracy. Now, a cartoon is also a polemical “aggression,” and it so happens that this particular one is most unfortunate. The Vorwärts completely forgets the fact that a non-aggression treaty existed between the Soviets and Germany during the period when the Social Democrat Müller was at the head of the Reich government.
The Vorwärts of February 15, on the same page, defends in the first column the idea of a non-aggression pact, and in the fourth column makes the accusation against the Communists that their factory committee at the Aschinger Company betrayed the interests of the workers during negotiations for the new wage scale. They openly use the word “betrayed.” The secret behind this polemic (is it a criticism based on facts or a campaign of slander?) is very simple: new elections to the factory committee of the Aschinger Company were to take place at this time. Can we, in the interests of the united front asks the Vorwärts, put an end to attacks of this sort? In order for that to happen, the Vorwärts would have to stop being itself, that is, a Social Democratic journal. If the Vorwärts believes what it prints on the subject of the Communists, its first duty is to open the eyes of the workers to the faults, crimes, and “betrayals” of the latter. How could it be otherwise? The need for a fighting agreement flows from the existence of two parties, but it does not do away with the fact. Political life goes on. Each party, even though it adopts the frankest attitude on the question of the united front cannot help thinking of its own future.
Adversaries Close Ranks in the Face of the Common Danger
Let us assume for the moment that a Communist member of the Aschinger Company factory committee declares to the Social Democratic member: Because the Vorwärts characterized my attitude on the question of the wage scale as an act of treason, I do not want to defend, together with you, my head and your neck from the fascist bullets.” No matter how indulgently we wanted to view this action, we could only characterize the reply as utterly insane.
The intelligent Communist the serious Bolshevik, will say to the Social Democrat: “You are aware of my enmity to the views expressed by the Vorwärts. I am devoting and shall devote all my energy to undermining the dangerous influence which this paper has among the workers. But I am doing that and shall do it by my speeches, by criticism and persuasion. But the fascists want to do away arbitrarily with the existence of the Vorwärts. I promise you that jointly with you I will defend your paper to the utmost of my ability, but I am waiting for you to say that at the first appeal you will likewise come to the defense of Die Rote Fahne regardless of your attitude towards its views.” Is this not an irreproachable way of posing the question? Does not this method correspond with the fundamental interests of the whole of the proletariat?
The Bolshevik does not ask the Social Democrat to alter the opinion he has of Bolshevism and of the Bolshevik press. Moreover, he does not demand that the Social Democrat make a pledge for the duration of the agreement to keep silent on his opinion of Communism. Such a demand would be absolutely inexcusable. “So long,” says the Communist “as I have not convinced you and you have not convinced me, we shall criticize each other with full freedom, each using the arguments and expressions he deems necessary. But when the fascist wants to force a gag down our throats, we will repulse him together!” Can an intelligent Social Democratic worker counter this proposal with a refusal?
The polemic between Communist and Social Democratic newspapers, no matter how bitter it may be, cannot prevent the compositors of the papers from forming a fighting agreement to organize a joint defense of their presses from attacks of the fascist bands. The Social Democratic and Communist deputies in the Reichstag and the Landtags, the municipal counselors, etc., are compelled to come to the physical defense of each other when the Nazis resort to loaded canes and chairs. Are more examples needed?
What is true in each particular case is also true as a general rule: the inevitable struggle in which Social Democracy and Communism are engaged for the leadership of the working class cannot and must not prevent them from closing their ranks when blows threaten the whole working class. Isn’t this obvious?
Two Weights and Two Scales
The Vorwärts is indignant because the Communists accuse the Social Democrats (Ebert, Scheidemann, Noske, Hermann Müller, Grzesinsky) of paving the road for Hitler. The Vorwärts has a legitimate right to indignation. But this remark is too much: how can we, it cries out, make a united front with such slanderers? What have we here: sentimentalism? Prudish sensitiveness? No, that really smacks of hypocrisy. As a matter of fact, the leaders of the German Social Democracy cannot have forgotten that Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel  often asserted that the Social Democracy was ready, for the sake of definite objectives, to come to an agreement with the devil and his grandmother. The founders of the Social Democracy certainly did not demand that during this occasion the devil should check his horns in the museum and that his grandmother should become converted to Lutheranism. Whence then comes this prudish sensitiveness among the Social Democratic politicians who, since 1914, have made united fronts with the Kaiser, Ludendorff, Gröner, Brüning, Hindenburg? Whence come these two weights and two scales: one for the bourgeois parties, the other for the Communists?
The leaders of the Center consider that every infidel who denies the dogmas of the Catholic Church, the only Savior, is one of the damned and shortly destined for eternal torments. That did not prevent Hilferding, who has no particular reason for believing in the immaculate conception, from establishing a united front with the Catholics in the government and in parliament. Together with the Center the Social Democrats set up the “Iron Front” However, not for a single instant did the Catholics cease their unbearable propaganda and their polemics in the churches. Why these demands on Hilferding’s part with regard to the Communists? Either a complete cessation of mutual criticism, that is, of the struggle of tendencies within the working class, or a rejection of all joint action. “All or nothing!” The Social Democracy has never put such ultimatums to bourgeois society. Every Social Democratic worker should reflect upon these two weights and two measures.
Suppose at a meeting, even today, someone should ask Weis how it happens that the Social Democracy, which gave the republic its first Chancellor and its first president, has led the country to Hitler. Wels will surely reply that to a large extent it is the fault of Bolshevism. Surely the day hasn’t passed that the Vorwärts has failed to repeat this explanation ad nauseam. Do you think that in the united front with the Communists it will forego its right and its duty to tell the workers what it considers to be truth? The Communists certainly have no need of that. The united front against fascism is only one chapter in the book of the struggle of the proletariat. The chapters that went before cannot be effaced. The past cannot be forgotten. We must build on it We preserve the memory of Ebert’s alliance with Gröner and of Noske’s role. We remember under what conditions Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht died. We Bolsheviks have taught the workers to forget nothing. We do not ask the devil to cut off his tail: that would hurt him and we would not profit by it We accept the devil just as nature has created him. We have no need of the repentance of the Social Democratic leaders nor of their loyalty to Marxism; but we do need the will of the Social Democracy to struggle against the enemy which actually threatens it with death. For our part, we are ready to carry out in the joint struggle all the promises which we have made. We promise to fight courageously and to carry the fight to a finish. That is quite enough for a fighting agreement.
Your Leaders Don’t Want to Fight!
However, it still remains to be known why the Social Democratic leaders speak at all regarding polemics, non-aggression pacts, and the disgusting manners of the Communists, instead of answering this simple question: In what way shall we fight the fascists? For the simple reason that the Social Democratic leaders do not want to fight. They cherished the hope that Hindenburg would save them from Hitler. Now they are waiting for some other miracle. They do not want to fight. They lost the habit of fighting long ago. The struggle frightens them.
Stampfer wrote regarding the actions of the fascist banditry at Eisleben : “Faith in right and justice has not yet died in Germany” (Vorwärts, February 14).
It is impossible to read these words without being revolted. Instead of a call for a fighting united front, we get the consoling words: “Faith in justice has not died.” Now, the bourgeoisie has its justice, and the proletariat its own, too. Armed injustice always comes out on top of disarmed justice. The whole history of humanity proves this. Whoever makes an appeal to this obvious phantom of justice is deceiving the workers. Whoever wants the victory of proletarian justice over fascist violence, must agitate for the struggle and set up the organs of the proletarian united front.
In the entire Social Democratic press it is impossible to find a single line indicating genuine preparation for the struggle. There is not a single thing, merely some general phrases, postponements to some indefinite future, nebulous consolations. “Only let the Nazis start something, and then …” And the Nazis started something. They march forward step by step, they tranquilly take over one position after another. These petty-bourgeois reactionary malefactors do not care for risks. Now, they do not need to risk anything at all: they are sure in advance that the enemy will retreat without a fight. And they are not mistaken in their calculations.
Of course, it often occurs that a combatant must retreat in order to get a good start for a leap forward. But the Social Democratic leaders are not inclined to make the leap forward. They do not want to leap. And all their dissertations are made in order to conceal this fact Just a short time ago they kept asserting that so long as the Nazis do not quit the ground of legality, there is no room for a fight. Now we get a good look at what this legality was: a series of promissory notes on the coup d’état. Still, this coup d’état is possible only because the Social Democratic leaders lull the workers to sleep with phrases about the legality of the coup d’état and console them with hope of a new Reichstag yet more impotent than those that preceded it. The fascists can ask for nothing better.
Today the Social Democracy has even ceased speaking of struggles in the indefinite future. On the subject of the destruction of the working-class organizations and press, already begun, the Vorwärts “reminds” the government not to forget that “in a developed capitalist country the conditions of production group the workers in factories.” These words indicate that the leadership of the Social Democracy accepts in advance the destruction of the political, economic, and cultural organizations created by three generations of the proletariat. “In spite of this” the workers will remain grouped by the industries themselves. Well then, what good are proletarian organizations if the question can be solved so simply?
The leaders of the Social Democracy and the trade unions wash their hands, and relegate themselves to the sidelines while waiting. If the workers themselves, “grouped together by industries,” break the bonds of discipline and begin the struggle, the leaders, obviously, will intervene as they did in 1918, in the role of pacifiers and mediators, and will force themselves onto the workers’ backs to reestablish the positions they have lost.
The leaders conceal from the eyes of the masses their refusal to fight and their dread of the struggle by means of hollow phrases about nonaggression pacts. Social Democratic workers, your leaders do not want to fight!
Then Is Our Proposal a Maneuver?
Here the Social Democrat will again interrupt us to say. “Since you do not believe in our leaders” desire to fight against fascism, isn’t your proposal for a united front an obvious maneuver?” Even more, he will repeat the reflections printed in the Vorwärts to the effect that the workers need unity and not “maneuvers.”
This type of argument has quite a convincing sound. In actuality it is an empty phrase. Yes, we Communists are positive that the Social Democratic and trade-union functionaries will continue to evade the struggle to the best of their ability. At the critical moment a large segment of the working-class bureaucracy will pass directly over to the fascists. The other segment, which succeeds in exporting its carefully hoarded financial resources to some other country, will emigrate at the opportune moment. All these actions have already begun, and their further development is inevitable. But we do not confuse this segment today the most influential in the reformist bureaucracy, with the Social Democratic Party or the entirety of the trade unions. The proletarian nucleus of the party will fight with sure blows, and it will carry behind it a good-sized section of the apparatus. Exactly where will the line of demarcation pass between the turncoats, traitors, and deserters, on one side, and those who want to fight, on the other? We can only find this out through experience. That is why, without possessing the slightest confidence in the Social Democratic bureaucracy, the Communists cannot abstain from addressing themselves to the whole party. Only in this manner will it be possible to separate those who want to fight from those who want to desert. If we are mistaken in our estimation of Wels, Breitscheid, Hilferding, Crispien , and the rest, let them prove that we are liars by their actions. We will declare a mea culpa on the public squares. If all this is merely a “maneuver” on our part, it is a correct and necessary maneuver which serves the interests of the cause.
You Social Democrats remain in your party because you have faith in its program, in its tactics, and in its leadership. This is a fact with which we reckon. You regard our criticism as false. That is your privilege. You are by no means obliged to believe the Communists on faith, and no serious Communist will demand this of you. But on their side the Communists have the right to put no confidence in the functionaries of the Social Democracy and not to consider the Social Democrats as Marxists, revolutionists, and genuine socialists. Otherwise, the Communists would have had no need to create a separate party and International. We must take the facts as they are. We must build the united front not in the clouds, but on the foundation which all the previous development has laid down. If you sincerely believe that your leadership will lead the workers to struggle against fascism, what Communist maneuver can you distrust? Then what is this maneuver of which the Vorwärts is continually speaking? Think it out carefully. Is this not a maneuver on the part of your leaders who want to frighten you with the hollow word “maneuver” and thus keep you away from the united front?
The Tasks and Methods of the United Front
The united front must have its organs. There is no need to imagine what these may be: the situation itself is dictating the nature of these organs. In many localities, the workers have already suggested the form of organization of the united front, as a species of defense cartels basing themselves on all the local proletarian organizations and establishments. This is an initiative which must be grasped, deepened, consolidated, extended to cover the industrial centers with cartels, by linking them up with each other and by preparing a German workers’ congress of defense.
The fact that the unemployed and the employed workers are becoming increasingly estranged from each other bears within itself a deadly danger not only for the collective-bargaining agreements, but also for the trade unions, without even any need for a fascist crusade. The united front between Social Democrats and Communists means first of all a united front of the employed and unemployed workers. Without that, any serious struggle in Germany is quite unthinkable.
The RGO must enter into the Free Trade Unions as a Communist fraction. That is one of the principal conditions for the success of the united front The Communists within the trade unions must enjoy the rights of workers’ democracy and, in the first place, full freedom of criticism. On their part they must respect the statutes of the trade unions and their discipline.
Defense against fascism is not an isolated thing. Fascism is only a cudgel in the hands of finance capital. The aim of the crushing of proletarian democracy is to raise the rate of exploitation of labor power. There lies an immense field for the united front of the proletariat: the struggle for daily bread, extended and sharpened, leads directly under present conditions to the struggle for workers’ control of production.
The factories, the mines, the large estates fulfill their social functions thanks only to the labor of the workers. Can it be that the latter have not the right to know whither the owner is directing the establishment why he is reducing production and driving out the workers, how he is fixing prices, etc.? We will be answered: “Commercial secrets.” What are commercial secrets? A plot of the capitalists against the workers and the people as a whole. Producers and consumers, the workers in this twofold capacity must conquer the right to control all the operations of their establishments, unmasking fraud and deceit in order to defend their interests and the interests of the people as a whole, facts and figures in hand. The struggle for workers’ control of production can and should become the slogan of the united front.
With regard to organization, the forms necessary for cooperation between Social Democratic workers and Communist workers will be found without difficulty: it is only necessary to pass over from words to deeds.
The Irreconcilable Character of the Social Democratic and the Communist Parties
Now, if a common defense against the attack of capital is possible, can we not go still farther and form a genuine bloc of the two parties on all the questions? Then the polemic between the two would take on an internal, pacific, and cordial character. Certain left Social Democrats, of the type of Seydewitz, as is known, even go so far as to dream of a complete union of the Social Democracy and the Communist Party. But all this is a vain dream! What separates the Communists from the Social Democracy are antagonisms on fundamental questions. The simplest way of translating the essence of their disagreements is this: the Social Democracy considers itself the democratic doctor of capitalism, we are its revolutionary gravediggers.
The irreconcilable character of the two parties appears with particular clearness in the light of the recent evolution of Germany. Leipart laments that in calling Hitler to power the bourgeois classes have disrupted the “integration” of the workers into the State and he warns the bourgeoisie against the “dangers” flowing from it (Vorwärts, February 15, 1933). Leipart thus makes himself the watchdog of the bourgeois state by desiring to preserve it from the proletarian revolution. Can we even dream of union with Leipart?
The Vorwärts prides itself every day on the fact that hundreds of thousands of Social Democrats died during the war “for the ideal of a finer and freer Germany” … It only forgets to explain why this finer Germany turned out to be the Germany of Hitler-Hugenberg. In reality, the German workers, like the workers of the other belligerent countries, died as cannon fodder, as slaves of capital. To idealize this fact is to continue the treason of August 4, 1914.
The Vorwärts continues to appeal to Marx, to Engels, to Wilhelm Liebknecht, to Bebel, who from 1848 to 1871 spoke of the struggle for the unity of the German nation. Lying appeals! At that time, it was a question of completing the bourgeois revolution. Every proletarian revolutionist had to fight against the particularism and provincialism inherited from feudalism. Every proletarian revolutionist had to fight against this particularism and provincialism in the name of the creation of a national state. At the present time, such an objective is invested with a progressive character only in China, in Indochina, in India, in Indonesia, and other backward colonial and semicolonial countries. For the advanced countries of Europe, the national frontiers are exactly the same reactionary chains as were the feudal frontiers at one time.
“The nation and democracy are twins,” the Vorwärts says again. Quite true! But these twins have become aged, infirm, and have fallen into senility. The nation as an economic whole, and democracy as a form of the domination of the bourgeoisie, have been transformed into fetters upon the productive forces and civilization. Let us recall Goethe once again: “All that is born is doomed to perish.”
A few more millions may be sacrificed for the “corridor,” for Alsace-Lorraine, for Malmedy.  These disputed bits of land may be covered with three, five, ten tiers of corpses. All this may be called national defense. But humanity will not progress because of it; on the contrary, it will fail on all fours backward into barbarism. The way out is not in the “national liberation” of Germany, but in the liberation of Europe from national barriers. It is a problem which the bourgeoisie cannot resolve, any more than the feudal lords in their time were able to put an end to particularism. Hence the coalition with the bourgeoisie is doubly reprehensible. A proletarian revolution is necessary. A federation of the proletarian republics of Europe and the whole world is necessary.
Social patriotism is the program of the doctors of capitalism; internationalism is the program of the gravediggers of bourgeois society. This antagonism is irreducible.
Democracy and Dictatorship
The Social Democrats consider the democratic constitution to be above the class struggle. For us, the class struggle is above the democratic constitution. Can it be that the experience undergone by postwar Germany has passed without leaving a trace, just as the experiences undergone during the war? The November Revolution brought the Social Democracy to power. The Social Democracy spurred the powerful movement of the masses along the road of “right” and the “constitution.” The whole political life which followed in Germany evolved on the bases and within the framework of the Weimar Republic.
The results are at hand: bourgeois democracy transforms itself legally, pacifically, into a fascist dictatorship. The secret is simple enough: bourgeois democracy and fascist dictatorship are the instruments of one and the same class, the exploiters. It is absolutely impossible to prevent the replacement of one instrument by the other by appealing to the Constitution, the Supreme Court at Leipzig, new elections, etc. What is necessary is to mobilize the revolutionary forces of the proletariat. Constitutional fetishism brings the best aid to fascism. Today this is no longer a prognostication, a theoretical affirmation, but the living reality. I ask you, Social Democratic worker: if the Weimar democracy blazed the trail for the fascist dictatorship, how can one expect it to blaze the trail for socialism?
“But can’t we Social Democratic workers win the majority in the democratic Reichstag?”
That you cannot. Capitalism has ceased to develop; it is putrefying. The number of industrial workers is no longer growing. An important section of the proletariat is being degraded in continual unemployment. By themselves, these social facts exclude the possibility of any stable and methodical development of a labor party in parliament as before the war. But even if, against all probability, the labor representation in parliament should grow rapidly, would the bourgeoisie wait for a peaceful expropriation? The governmental machinery is entirely in its hands! Even admitting that the bourgeoisie allows the moment to pass and permits the proletariat to gain a parliamentary representation of 51 percent, wouldn’t the Reichswehr, the police, the Stahlhelm, and the fascist storm troops disperse this parliament in the same way that the camarilla today disperses with a stroke of the pen all the parliaments which displease it?
“Then, down with the Reichstag and elections?”
No, that’s not what I mean. We are Marxists and not anarchists. We are supporters of the utilization of parliament: it is not an instrument for transforming society, but a means of rallying the workers. Nevertheless, in the development of the class struggle, a moment arrives when it is necessary to decide the question of who is to be master of the country: finance capital or the proletariat. Dissertations on the nation and on democracy in general constitute, under such conditions, the most impudent lying. Under our eyes, a small German minority is organizing and arming, as it were, half of the nation to crush and strangle the other half. It is not a question today of secondary reforms, but of the life or death of bourgeois society. Never have such questions been decided by a vote. Whoever appeals today to the parliament or to the Supreme Court at Leipzig, is deceiving the workers and in practice is helping fascism.
There Is No Other Road
“What is to be done under such conditions?” my Social Democratic interlocutor will ask.
The proletarian revolution.
The dictatorship of the proletariat.
“As in Russia? The privations and the sacrifices? The complete stifling of freedom of opinion? No, not for me.”
It is precisely because you are not disposed to tread the road of the revolution and the dictatorship that we cannot form one single party together. But nevertheless allow me to tell you that your objection is not worthy of a conscious proletarian. Yes, the privations of the Russian workers are considerable. But in the first place, the Russian workers know in the name of what they are making these sacrifices. Even if they should undergo a defeat humanity would have learned a great deal from their experience. But in the name of what did the German working class sacrifice itself in the years of the imperialist war? Or again, in the years of unemployment? To what do these sacrifices lead, what do they yield, what do they teach? Only those sacrifices are worthy of man which blaze the trail to a better future. That’s the first objection I heard you make; the first, but not the only one.
The sufferings of the Russian workers are considerable because in Russia, as a consequence of specific historical factors, was born the first proletarian state, which is obliged to raise itself from extreme poverty by its own strength. Do not forget that Russia was the most backward country of Europe. The proletariat there constituted only a tiny part of the population. In that country, the dictatorship of the proletariat necessarily had to assume the harshest forms. Thence the consequences which flowed from it: the development of the bureaucracy which holds power, and the chain of errors committed by the political leadership which has fallen under the influence of this bureaucracy. If at the end of 1918, when power was completely in its hands, the Social Democracy had entered boldly upon the road to socialism and had concluded an indissoluble alliance with Soviet Russia, the whole history of Europe would have taken another direction and humanity would have arrived at socialism in a much shorter space of time and with infinitely less sacrifice. It is not our fault that this did not happen.
Yes, the dictatorship in the Soviet Union at the present time has an extremely bureaucratic and distorted character. I have personally criticized more than once in the press the present Soviet regime which is a distortion of the workers’ state. Thousands upon thousands of my comrades fill the prisons and the places of exile for having fought against the Stalinist bureaucracy. However, even when judging the negative sides of the present Soviet regime, it is necessary to preserve a correct historical perspective. If the German proletariat much more numerous and more civilized than the Russian proletariat, were to take the power tomorrow, this would not only open up immense economic and cultural perspectives but would also lead immediately to a radical attenuation of the dictatorship in the Soviet Union.
It must not be thought that the dictatorship of the proletariat is necessarily connected with the methods of Red terror which we had to apply in Russia. We were the pioneers. Covered with crime, the Russian possessing classes did not believe that the new regime would last. The bourgeoisie of Europe and America supported the Russian counterrevolution. Under these conditions, one could hold on only at the cost of terrific exertion and the implacable punishment of our class enemies. The victory of the proletariat in Germany would have quite a different character. The German bourgeoisie, having lost the power, would no longer have any hope of retaking it. The alliance of Soviet Germany with Soviet Russia would multiply, not twofold but tenfold, the strength of the two countries. In all the rest of Europe, the position of the bourgeoisie is so compromised that it is not very likely that it would be able to get its armies to march against proletarian Germany. To be sure, the civil war would be inevitable: there are enough fascists for that But the German proletariat, armed with state power and having the Soviet Union behind it, would soon bring about the atomization of fascism by drawing to its side substantial sections of the petty bourgeoisie. The dictatorship of the proletariat in Germany would have incomparably more mild and more civilized forms than the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia.
“In that case, why the dictatorship?”
To annihilate exploitation and parasitism; to crush the resistance of the exploiters; to end their inclination to think about a reestablishment of exploitation; to put all the power, all the means of production, all the resources of civilization into the hands of the proletariat; and to permit it to utilize all these forces and means in the interest of the socialist transformation of society: there is no other road.
The German Proletariat Will Have the Revolution in German and Not in Russian
“Still, it often happens that our Communists approach us Social Democrats with this threat: just wait, as soon as we will get into power, we’ll put you up against the wall.”
Only a handful of imbeciles, windbags, and braggarts, who are a safe bet to decamp at the moment of danger, can make such threats. A serious revolutionist, while acknowledging the inescapabuity of revolutionary violence and its creative function, understands at the same time that the application of violence in the socialist transformation of society has well-defined limits. The Communists cannot prepare themselves save by seeking mutual understanding and a rapprochement with the Social Democratic workers. The revolutionary unanimity of the overwhelming majority of the German proletariat will reduce to a minimum the repression which the revolutionary dictatorship will exercise. It is not a question of slavishly copying Soviet Russia, of making a virtue of each of its necessities. That is unworthy of Marxists. To profit by the experience of the October Revolution does not mean that it should be copied blindly. One must take into account differences among nations, in the social structure and above all in the relative importance and the cultural level of the proletariat. To assume that one can make the socialist revolution in a presumably constitutional, peaceful manner, with the acquiescence of the Supreme Court at Leipzig – that can be done only by incurable philistines. The German proletariat will be unable to walk around the revolution. But in its revolution, it will speak in German and not in Russian. I am convinced that it will speak much better than we did.
What Shall We Defend?
“Very good, but we Social Democrats propose nevertheless to come to power by democracy. You Communists consider that an absurd utopia. In that case, is the united front of defense possible? For it is necessary to have a clear idea of what there is to defend. If we defend one thing and you another, we will not end up with common actions. Do you Communists consent to defend the Weimar Constitution?”
The question is a fitting one and I will try to answer it candidly. The Weimar Constitution represents a whole system of institutions, of rights and of laws. Let us commence from the top. The republic has at its head a president. Do we Communists consent to defend Hindenburg against fascism? I think that the need for that doesn’t make itself felt, Hindenburg having called the fascists to power. Then comes the government presided over by Hitler. This government does not need to be defended against fascism. In the third place comes the parliament. When these lines appear, the sort of parliament emerging from the elections of March 5 will probably have been determined. But even at this juncture one can say with certainty that if the composition of the Reichstag proves to be hostile to the government; if Hitler takes it into his head to liquidate the Reichstag and if the Social Democracy shows a determination to fight for the latter, the Communists will help the Social Democracy with all their strength.
We Communists cannot and do not want to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat against you or without you, Social Democratic workers. We want to come to this dictatorship together with you. And we regard the common defense against fascism as the first step in this sense. Obviously, in our eyes, the Reichstag is not a capital historical conquest which the proletariat must defend against the fascist vandals. There are more valuable things. Within the framework of bourgeois democracy and parallel to the incessant struggle against it, the elements of proletarian democracy have formed themselves in the course of many decades: political parties, labor press, trade unions, factory committees, clubs, cooperatives, sports societies, etc. The mission of fascism is not so much to complete the destruction of bourgeois democracy as to crush the first outlines of proletarian democracy. As for our mission, it consists in placing those elements of proletarian democracy, already created, at the foundation of the soviet system of the workers’ state. To this end, it is necessary to break the husk of bourgeois democracy and free from it the kernel of workers’ democracy. Therein lies the essence of the proletarian revolution. Fascism threatens the vital kernel of workers’ democracy. This itself clearly dictates the program of the united front. We are ready to defend your printing plants and our own, but also the democratic principle of freedom of the press; your meeting halls and ours, but also the democratic principle of the freedom of assembly and association. We are materialists and that is why we do not separate the soul from the body. So long as we do not yet have the strength to establish the soviet system, we place ourselves on the terrain of bourgeois democracy. But at the same time we do not entertain any illusions.
As to Freedom of the Press
“And what will you do with the Social Democratic press if you should succeed in seizing power? Will you prohibit our papers as the Russian Bolsheviks prohibited the Menshevik papers?”
You put the question badly. What do you mean by “our” papers? In Russia the dictatorship of the proletariat proved possible only after the overwhelming majority of the worker-Mensheviks passed over to the side of the Bolsheviks, whereas the petty-bourgeois debris of Menshevism undertook to help the bourgeoisie fight for the restoration of “democracy,” that is, of capitalism. However, even in Russia we did not at all inscribe upon our banner the prohibition of the Menshevik papers. We were led to do this by the incredibly harsh conditions of the struggle that had to be conducted to save and maintain the revolutionary dictatorship. In Soviet Germany, the situation will be, as I have already said, infinitely more favorable; and the regime of the press will necessarily feel the effects of it. I do not think that in this field the German proletariat needs to resort to repression.
To be sure, I do not want to say that the workers’ state will tolerate even for a day the regime of “(bourgeois) freedom of the press,” that is, the state of affairs in which only those who control the printing plants, the paper companies, the bookstores, and so on, that is, the capitalists, can publish papers and books. Bourgeois “freedom of the press” signifies a monopoly for finance capital to impose capitalist prejudices upon the people by means of hundreds and thousands of papers charged with disseminating the virus of lies in the most perfect technical form. Proletarian freedom of the press will mean the nationalization of the printing plants, the paper companies, and the bookstores in the interest of the workers. We do not separate the soul from the body. Freedom of the press without linotypes, without printing presses, and without paper is a miserable fiction. In the proletarian state the technical means of printing will be put at the disposal of groups of citizens in accordance with their real numerical importance. How is this to be done? The Social Democracy will obtain printing facilities corresponding to the number of its supporters. I do not think that at that time this number will be very high: otherwise the very regime of the dictatorship of the proletariat would be impossible. Nevertheless, let us leave it to the future to settle this question. But the principle itself, of distributing the technical means of printing, not according to the thickness of the checkbook, but according to the number of supporters of a given program, of a given current, of a given school, is, I hope, the most honest, the most democratic, the most authentically proletarian principle. Isn’t that so?
Then shall we shake hands on it? “I’d like to think it over a bit.”
I ask for nothing else, my dear friend: the aim of all my reflections is to have you meditate once more upon all the great problems of proletarian policy.
Born (Alexandria, Egypt) 9 June 1917; died (London) 1 October 2012
The great historian and political commentator Eric Hobsbawm died earlier today, aged 95. Like many others, I have highly ambivalent feelings about him: on the one hand an undoubtably fine historian and a man of sincerely held leftist views; but on the other, an apparently uncritical Stalinist at least until the late 1970′s after which he became a “Euro-Communist” and gave intellectual justification to Neil Kinnock and the forces that were dragging Labour to the right. He genuinely hated Blair and what became New Labour, but lamentably failed to account for his own role in the process, just as he never properly accounted for his own Stalinist apologetics
I shall be returning to the subject very soon, and offering some further thoughts on this extraordinary and important figure. I may even devote some space to his jazz criticism (he wrote about it as ‘Francis Newton,’ a name that referenced Frankie Newton, a fine, neglected black American trumpet player who was a member or fellow-traveller of the US Communist Party).
For now, it seems appropriate to simply quote the (in places strange and surprising) concluding words of his 2002 autobiography, Interesting Times:
The test of a historian’s life is whether he or she can ask and answer questions, especially ‘what if’ questions, about the matters of passionate significance to themselves and the world, as though they were journalists reporting things long past — and yet, not as a stranger but as one deeply involved. These are not questions about real history, which is not about what we might like, but about what happened, and could perhaps have happened otherwise but did not. They are the questions about the present not the past, which is why they are important to those who live at the start of the new century, old or young. The First World War was not avoided, so the question whether it could have been is academic. If we say its casualties were intolerable (as most people agree) or that the German Europe that would have emerged from the Kaiser’s victory might have been a better proposition than the world of Versailles (as I hold), I am not suggesting it could have been different. And yet, I must fail the test, were I asked such a question even in theory about the Second World War. I can, with enormous effort, envisage the argument that Spain might have been better off if Franco’s coup had succeeded in 1936, avoiding the Civil War. I am prepared to concede, with regret, that Lenin’s Comintern was not such a good idea nor — this time without difficulty, for I was never a Zionist — Theodor Herzl’s project of a Jewish state. He would have done better to stay with the Neue Freie Presse as its star columnist. But if you ask me to entertain the proposition that the defeat of National Socialism was not worth the 50 million dead and the uncounted horrors of the Second World War, I simply could not. I look forward to an American world empire, whose long-term chances are poor, with more fear and less enthusiasm than I look back on the record of the old British Empire, run by a country whose modest size protected it against megalomania. What marks have I got in the test? If they are too low, then this book will not give readers much help as they go into the new century, mostly with a longer life ahead of them than the author.
Still, let us not disarm, even in unsatisfactory times. Social injustice still needs to be denounced and fought. The world will not get better on its own.
John Palmer, former European editor of the Guardian, spoke to Solidarity (paper of the AWL) about the background to, possibilities of, and implications of the call by François Hollande, who looks likely to win the presidency of France in the run-off poll today, for a reshaping of European Union economic policy.
Hollande’s position to some extent reflects a shift in the thinking of important sectors of capital and the political elite outside social democracy. It is clear that even among finance capital there is growing scepticism about the coherence of a deflationist austerity strategy.
There is a broader shift in the economic consensus taking place, which is both reflected by and contributed to the position which has been taken by the French Parti Socialiste.
That shift is also reflected within German social democracy, at least as far as some parts of Hollande’s programme are concerned. There have even been sympathetic and supporting noises coming from the centre-right Monti government in Rome and the beleaguered conservative regime in Madrid.
The significance of Hollande’s position is all the greater for it being related to these other developments.
There are already negotiations taking place between Merkel’s officials and the Parti Socialiste on what exactly they have in mind for the fiscal compact. It is clear that we’re talking about addendums rather than structural changes.
The crucial question is how far will the Merkel regime go to meet Hollande. It is clear that Hollande will go, and has already gone, some way to meet the German conservative position. He is for example no longer calling for Eurobonds to deal with sovereign debt, but Eurobonds to enlarge the capital base of the European Investment Bank so it can lead an investment-led recovery.
On the Merkel side, there are signs that she is ready to give ground because of the domestic political situation in Germany. There are elections next year.
If she wants to stay in office, it looks as if she will be obliged to do a deal for a Grosse Koalition [grand coalition] with the Social Democrats, and therefore she wants to put herself in a good position for that result. She can’t go into the election with too big a gap between her and the SPD.
So I think there is likely to be some result. How effective will it be? I think the measures will be of limited effectiveness. The likely programme of an investment-led recovery, Eurobonds for the EIB, a further increase in the so-called firewall to deal with potential new crises in Spain and Italy — those things and some other measures will almost certainly go through.
The European Commission is coming forward with proposals which are aimed at the European Council summit meeting in June. We may get some flavour of them at an informal summit which van Rompuy is considering for May.
But as against that, the double-dip recession danger in the US, in Britain, and in the European Union is increasing. The ground they have to cover to mend the downward spiral in the economies is increasing. The steps they are taking will fall short of what is necessary. What is necessary, I think, is the programme that Euro-memorandum and others have outlined, which goes to the heart of the fundamental internal crisis of the euro-area, which is the asymmetry of the economic cycles and the economic management of the key euro-area economies.
The need for growth measures is the position of sectors of capital. The intellectual milieu around big capital has been shifting in that direction for some time. That reassures the social democrats that their programme is not going to be overtly confrontational, or that they can exploit the space where there are divisions over what to do within capitalist opinion.
The IMF position in favour of growth measures is to do with the French director-general. That has been her position for some time. And the facts of the deflationary course of the crisis — i.e. the spiral of stagnation, the deficits increasing not withstanding austerity — are shrieking out now, so it’s not surprising that there are shifts taking place.
Social democracy has been a marginal force in European politics in recent years. Twelve years ago the great majority of EU governments were led by social-democratic parties, and today there are only a few countries where they have any role in government.
There are also divisions emerging on the political right, with the growth of populist and far [right], which also in a distorted way reflects this sense of failure of the system, has also has opened up space.
In France, a section of the Parti Communiste vote went to the National Front, and maybe a section of it will be returning to the social democrats in the second round of the presidential election. That shows the instability of that vote.
The social democrats are coming back from a long time out of influence. The Social Democrats are back in office in Denmark, and there are signs of the political pendulum swinging in other countries, but not everywhere as yet.
If the Parti Socialiste is seen to be changing the direction of euro-area policy, in however restricted a sense, that will probably encourage other social democrats in other countries to join in.
[In the Netherlands there has been a government crisis over budget cuts, ending with a new coalition for a cuts package. But no major party in the Netherlands has been ready to propose a “euro-Keynesian” policy of deliberately continuing a deficit in a country like the Netherlands, which has a relatively mild debt problem.]
The Dutch Socialist Party, the ex-Maoist party, has called for tax increases of various kinds, but they haven’t supported the reductions in course. The Labour Party, the PvdA, is not joining the new coalition government — not because it is against any cuts, but because it is against these cuts. But the scale of the cuts in the Netherlands is tiny compared to the scale of the cuts in Greece and Spain and Ireland so on.
The Green Left party in the Netherlands calls for an expansionary Euro-area strategy, although it has supported the new budget.
Any government, including a workers’ government that took over and was operating in the global system and not attempting a North Korean party, would have to look at its budget deficit position.
In Greece the left position should have been to focus on issues like the arms deal with Germany [under which Germany insisted that Greece go through a contract to buy submarines from Germany] and the refusal to collect taxes from the rich.
There is a caricature Keynesian position that says that there are no problems with deficits. There are problems with the deficit. The class differences relate both to the scale and the speed of the adjustments, but also the nature of the adjustments — whether they focus on armaments, wealth taxes, bank reserves, profits, and so on.
An issue which has been under-debated on the left in Britain, in my opinion, is the enormous cash reserves which non-financial companies have accumulated, and they don’t know where to put them. The left should have a position on that issue.
I don’t say that it is reactionary or unprincipled for a left party to have measures to reduce the deficit. If borrowing will be necessary to fund essential services, how do you prevent the cost of that spiralling out of control unless the overall deficit is dealt with in some way?
But the whole issue of deficits should be conducted on a European-calculated basis. Any budget policy which is calculated on a purely national basis, from the left or anywhere else, will inevitably end up in a reactionary position because of the inherent contradictions.
Social democracy and other progressive forces are running behind the shift that is taking place among sectors of capital: I think that’s true.
I don’t accept either the position that the current EU policies are shaped by a German drive for domination, or the one that they are shaped by German ruling-class stupidity.
Certainly there is a bias in all bourgeois state policies to seek state advantage and to seek the extension of national power and influence. That is not unique to Germany. In fact since World War Two it may have been less true of Germany than of other EU member states, for obvious historical reasons.
I think the conspiracy theory, that current EU policies are shaped by German ambition for a Fourth Reich, is entirely mistaken. And I do not think the position can be entirely put down to intellectual stupidity in the ruling classes.
It is down to the incompatibility of the traditional framework of national-state politics and the necessity for a broader politics. It is analogous to the contradiction which the German statelets were experiencing in the run-up to and immediately after Prussian-led German unification.
The German national market was a reality which their politics could not encompass. The same sort of thing is true of globalisation and in particular of Europeanisation today.
The whole construct of the national debate, set by bourgeois forces including social democracy, is incapable of understanding that the contradictions of the system have moved beyond national borders and require solutions which transcend national borders.
That is the genesis of the fact that everywhere states have been making calculations which, when aggregated, cannot produce a solution to the crisis they face.
Added to that is an ideological factor. The media moves politicians. In Germany Bild-Zeitung came out with the famous headline, “Alle wollen unser Geld!” — everyone wants our money! That was a very powerful Sun-type articulation of a politics that was shamelessly nationalist (not so much imperialist, but rather nationalist).
Just as the politics of the Murdoch empire captivated Conservative and Labourite politicians here, so the chaotic nature of the system means that a factor like the media can exploit the vacuum and articulate a populism which is a very powerful driver of irrational policies.
Look at Cameron. What drives his stance of vetoing the fiscal treaty and then urging the other EU countries to integrate as fast as possible? He is driven not by British capital saying that is the optimal policy, but by fear of the media.