Could Punching Nazis Have Prevented Hitler From Taking Power

On November 28, 2006 Alexander Cockburn wrote an article titled “The 9/11 Conspiracists and the Decline of the American Left” that interpreted the rise of conspiracism as the result of a dwindling number of leftists learning “their political economy from Marx via the small, mostly Trotskyist groupuscules.” This created a theoretical and strategic void that was filled with “a diffuse, peripatetic conspiracist view of the world” that understood historical change as driven by CIA skullduggery rather than the class struggle or inter-imperialist rivalry.

Although I totally agree with this assessment and would even go a bit further by adding the zeitgeist to the mix, there is another problem bedeviling the left that is the product of Marxism’s decline and that dates roughly close to 9/11. I speak of the elevation of street-fighting tactics over theory and strategy, symbolized by the black bloc and antifa. Starting with the Seattle protest in 1999, the occurrence of some spectacular altercation became a litmus test on whether a protest was successful. A peaceful protest in which people only marched down the streets making a demand on the state is seen as tame and “liberal”, even though that describes most of the movements that occurred in the last major period of radicalization in the USA prior to 1999, from the Vietnam antiwar movement to the fight to legalize abortion.

Ever since Charlottesville, I have seen repeated references to how Nazism could have been stopped by street-fighting with almost no attention paid to the concrete socio-political conditions of Germany between 1920 and 1933, when Hitler took power. For many of those who think that physical force was the key to stopping Nazism, the viral video of Richard Spencer getting punched in the face was far more important as a guide to action than understanding the tragic history of the German left. On January 22, 2017 Natasha Lennard wrote a Nation magazine article titled “Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer Got Punched—You Can Thank the Black Bloc” that saw little need for tame mass actions. All we had to do was passively applaud the self-appointed saviors: “You don’t have to fight neo-Nazis in the street, but you should support those who do that day.” Unfortunately, Lennard had little to say about the consequences of the black bloc adventurism that day. The cops arrested innocent bystanders who are now facing up to 75 years in prison, all because some people felt the need to take part in a empty ritual as if capitalism could be undermined by a broken bank window.

I would ask CounterPunch readers to forgive me for the length of this article that will try to tell the story of the German left’s failure to stop the Nazis from taking power. As a survivor of what Alexander Cockburn called a Trotskyist groupuscule, this was a topic that all new members paid close attention to, especially since Hitler’s triumph was one of the primary motivations for Trotsky founding a new International. For him, the key to understanding Hitler’s triumph was disunity on the German left. In some ways, despite the entirely different set of circumstances we face in 2017, this remains our continuing problem. My hope is that this bit of history might have some provide some insights on the kind of movement that needs to be built today since punching Nazis in Charlottesville was not the solution to an intractable problem that will take millions of Americans acting on their own class imperatives to solve.

Social Democracy (SPD)

Between 1918 and 1919, there was a revolutionary uprising in Germany provoked by disgust with the ruling class’s war and by the accompanying austerity. As was the case in Czarist Russia in the previous year, the left was divided over the goals of the revolution. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were leaders of the Spartacus League that sought the overthrow of capitalism, while the social democrats only sought to take the reins of a bourgeois democracy with a reformist program in line with the party’s roots in Eduard Bernstein’s revisionism. In January 1919, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were captured by troops following the orders of SPD leader Friedrich Ebert, beaten unconscious with rifle butts and shot in the head. They threw Rosa Luxemburg’s body into the Landwehr Canal where it was discovered on July 1st.

Despite the desire of the masses, including SPD members, for sweeping change, the social democrats compromised with the most reactionary members of the ruling class once they took power of a new state based on the Weimar constitution, one incorporating the kind of reforms we associate with the “Swedish model”. While an advance over past governments, it was always blocked by the nationalist bourgeoisie and the military high command with which the SPD allied against the revolutionary left.

In a way, the Weimar Republic was what the Russians would have ended up with if Alexander Kerensky had been able to work out a deal with the Czarist military and landowners. There might have been a period of social advance but it would have destroyed by counter-revolution as soon as the old guard had regained its momentum.

In the early years of the Weimar Republic, there was a significant improvement in the lives of working people as normal trade with other nations kicked in. They were able to benefit from the newly instituted 8-hour day and a proliferation of welfare state benefits that most people associate with socialism in terms of the Bernie Sanders campaign.

Despite these benefits, the 1920s were also a hard time for workers because the industrialists sought to undermine the SPD controlled trade unions as part of their drive to rationalize production using electricity rather than steam power. When workers lost their jobs, there might have been unemployment benefits but a stagnant economy left few options.

Besieged from the left by the Communists (KPD) and by nationalists on the right, the government sought to protect itself by an upgraded police department that was equipped with armored cars, machine-guns, hand-grenades, machine-pistols, carbines and tear-gas bombs after the fashioned of today’s militarized police departments. In addition, the SPD created the Reichsbanner, a militia that had 3 million members.

In addition to these bodies of armed men, the state routinely banned KPD demonstrations and meetings, censored plays and films, and arrested people accused of “libeling” government officials.

The SPD trade unions were also being tamed. No longer instruments of class struggle and instead resembling the AFL-CIO of today, it was content to conduct “business unionism” as Peter and Irma Petroff point out in “The Secrets of Hitler’s Victory”:

The conciliation system, with its compulsory arbitration fixing unfavourable wage scales, transformed the trade unions from militant organisations of free proletarians into appendages of the capitalist state. This development conferred on the trade union ‘leaders’, who became more and more respectable, the halo of statesmen weaving secret diplomatic webs. In their luxurious palatial office buildings, with their beautiful equipment in the most modern style, an army of parasitic officials completely detached from the labour movement gathered. The total expenditure on this swallowed a very considerable part of the income of the trade unions, and the chief concern of these officials was to prevent the reduction of the funds by strikes. They used all their influence to prevent strikes.

The indifference to the factory worker except as a dues-paying member and a reliable voter was even more pronounced after such workers lost their jobs. The Petroffs describe the consequences of SPD neglect:

Another instance: a member of the juvenile section of the Metal Workers Union of Frankfort, a young Social Democrat, had been unemployed for a long time, and when he was out of benefit he walked to Berlin to try his fortune there. Tired and hungry, with worn-out boots, he arrived and went to his union for assistance, hoping at least to find here a bit of warm food and a friendly reception, but he got the cold shoulder. He was told: “You have no further right to benefit according to the rules of the union. Go and get a job, and pay your contributions again, then you may come back.” What was the outcome? In his despair, the boy went to the Nazi storm-troops. Here nobody asked him for documents or opinions; they gave him plenty to eat, let him rest, and gave him new boots. Only then they told him: ‘If you like, you can join us…’ The trade union bureaucrats could not see a hungry boy, they could see only their rules and regulations. A member has to pay contributions. If he cannot do that, and there is no clause in the rules according him further rights, this sucked orange will be thrown on the dump. Let the Nazis pick it up if they like. And the Nazis did pick them up – in masses…

The SPD was undermining its own chances for survival just like the Democrats in the USA. With its membership flooded by professionals and small businessmen who had little interest in the party’s Marxist origins, it lost whatever traction it once had in proletarian circles. With the fascists growing in power because of its fecklessness, the social democrats found themselves in the same position as Hillary Clinton in 2016. While Donald Trump was no Adolph Hitler, he was able to capitalize on the Democratic Party’s abandonment of its New Deal roots. While never a Marxist party, the Democrats could at least point to its past connections to a vibrant labor movement. However, when neoliberalism overtook the party, it proved vulnerable at the polls even against a charlatan and psychopath like Donald Trump.

The last socialist Chancellor to rule Germany during the Weimar Republic was Herman Muller, who was elected in 1928 as part of a coalition with centrist parties. Like Hillary Clinton reaching out to the Republican old guard, Muller looked to the bourgeois parties for support rather than the working class. Like the Democrats, Muller thought that moving to the right would be the best way to forestall the ultraright. In every way, electoral politics in Germany in this period was dominated by the same “lesser evil” logic as today.

Elections were held again in 1930 and this time the winner was Heinrich Brüning, a leader of the aptly named Center Party who was forced to cope with the Great Depression. Unlike the SPD, he saw no reason to accommodate the working class. He tightened credit and rolled back wage increases just like Herbert Hoover in the USA. This led to mounting fury in the working class against the government as well as its supporters in the SPD.

The SPD adopted a program of “toleration” toward Brüning, which meant defending him against the fascists. Within the SPD there were many who opposed tolerating Brüning. In some ways, they were the Sanderistas of 1930 except that they were more ready to take radical action than the typical Sanders voter, especially those who were members of the Reichsbanner militia.

From Brüning to Paul von Hindenberg who was elected in 1932, the Nazi final victory was virtually insured unless there was a revolutionary party in Germany that had the same fire in the belly as Liebknecht and Luxemburg. Unfortunately, the one that did also lacked a brain in the cranium.

The Communists (KPD)

Unfortunately for the revolutionary left in Germany, Paul Levi, who became the leader of the KPD after Liebknecht and Luxemburg’s assassination, was expelled in 1921for openly criticizing the adventurism of the party that was acting on Comintern orders against his advice. That year, a “March Action” foisted on the party by Comintern “adviser” Bela Kun resulted in a disastrous setback for the party.

In an ill-conceived adventure that would probably make the most hardened antifa activist blanch, KPD’ers began robbing banks, burning down buildings and dynamiting trains in a bold but strategically insignificant campaign. The repeated dynamiting of passenger trains filled with workers going off to their morning factory jobs tended to alienate them and the people who worked on the railroads.

The German Communists could not control this insurrection which did take on a certain life of its own. Many deeply frustrated unemployed and lumpen elements joined in the rioting and looting. Neither were they capable of spreading the struggle to other parts of the country. In Berlin, despite their most inflammatory slogans, the masses remained uninvolved. This was a purely Communist-led action and regarded with polite curiosity at the best. In most cases, it earned bitter resentment.

Levi instead called for unity between the KPD and the SPD on a principled basis even if Ebert had killed his comrades. When he was not given an opportunity to present his critique of the March Action to the KPD’s rank and file, he had no other recourse but to go public. This was considered such a breach of discipline that he was expelled even though Lenin basically plagiarized his work in the name of the United Front, a strategy he urged upon Communists in the West as part of his turn against ultraleftism.

A year after this fiasco, the German party continued to be under the sway of Moscow when the most logical thing would have been for it to develop on its own. Long before Stalin began to see such parties as border guards for the USSR rather than as revolutionary parties, there was the same tendency to make it serve the Kremlin’s goals. This was most obvious after the Treaty of Rapallo was agreed upon by Germany and the USSR in 1922. Worried about hostility from Anglo-American imperialism, the Soviets began to orient to the nationalist bourgeoisie in Germany that shared its enmity to nations that had bled it dry through the Treaty of Versailles. Since the Treaty of Rapallo was intended to shore up relations between Germany and the USSR, how could communists then call for the overthrow of the German government?

There was not only an orientation to the German nationalist bourgeoisie but to the most rightwing elements. Ruth Fischer, a particularly unhinged leader of the KPD, gave a speech at a gathering of right-wing students where she echoed fascist themes:

Whoever cries out against Jewish capital…is already a fighter for his class, even though he may not know it. You are against the stock market jobbers. Fine. Trample the Jewish capitalists down, hang them from the lampposts…But…how do you feel about the big capitalists, the Stinnes, Klockner?…Only in alliance with Russia, Gentlemen of the “folkish” side, can the German people expel French capitalism from the Ruhr region.

This was in line with a National Bolshevism current in Germany at the time that has been revived today by Alexander Dugin.

In 1923, there was yet another attempt at a “revolution” in Germany that was as poorly thought through as the March Action. The KPD tried to stage an insurrection that had little support in SPD circles. When confronted by the reality of the indifference of most workers and the presence of a powerful military force that had little signs of the sort of support that the Russian army gave to the Bolsheviks in 1917, the insurrection was called off.

This fiasco was so demoralizing that within a year the party had shrunk from 300,000 to 125,000.

All of this took place before the degeneration of the Communist Party in the USSR that would make the German party even more of a pliant tool to be used by Joseph Stalin. In 1928, the Stalinized Comintern met in Moscow and approved a resolution stating that capitalism had entered a “Third Period” that would be marked by economic disaster and working class radicalization.

As applied to Germany, this meant treating the SPD as “social fascists”. In keeping with the earlier orientation to the German bourgeoisie during the Treaty of Rapallo, there was a tendency to see the SPD as even more dangerous than the Nazis. For example, KPD leader Kurt Sindemann stated in 1930: “Oh yes, we admit that we’re in league with the National Socialists, that we together with the National Socialists, want to destroy the existing social system . . . Bolshevism and Fascism share a common goal; the destruction of capitalism and of the Social Democratic Party. To achieve this aim we are justified in using every means.”

That year, the KPD decided to support a Nazi-sponsored plebiscite that would have dissolved the SPD-dominated parliament in Prussia. No matter how reactionary the SPD bureaucracy was, the rank-and-file KPD member understood that his or her interests were the same as those of the SPD members. If there was ever a time for a united front, this was it. However, the KPD adopted a sectarian policy called the “united front from below” that had nothing to do with true unity. It only meant that KPD’ers were instructed to reach out to fellow factory workers and win them over to the party’s perspectives. Incomprehensively, this meant reaching out to Nazis in the factory who were alienated from the Weimar Republic but much more inclined to stick with the well-funded nationalist machine.

Indeed, given the close ties between the Nazis and the German bourgeoisie, it was often the case that Nazi membership was the only way to get a decent-paying factory job. On top of everything else, the KPD had its own Red unions that could barely compete with the massive SPD unions. Despite the cachet of being tied to the world’s only socialist country and despite the desperation of the working class, the KPD was nothing much more than an isolated sect. Even its military wing—the Red Front—could barely stave off the much larger and well-funded Nazi Stormtroopers let alone the German police and army. The only way forward for the left was for the KPD to drop its sectarian posture and join the SPD trade unions and to draw closer to the SPD politically. With Joseph Stalin pulling the puppet strings, there was little chance of this happening.

In the final analysis, it was a perfect storm of reformism and ultraleft sectarianism that allowed Hitler to come to power, not an absence of street-fighting. Even when Hitler was close to coming to power, the two working class parties failed to unite their militias into a single fighting force. They were the proverbial deer caught in a headlight.

Peter and Irma Petroff describe how the two parties rooted nominally in Marxism melted away after Hitler became Chancellor in January 1933:

Under Papen and under Schleicher, the Social Democrats, as a constitutional party, could still hope to muddle through somehow, although with clipped wings. ‘The party has overcome the anti-socialist law of Bismarck, it has gone through the war, it will get through this time as well’; so they comforted themselves.

But now that they were faced with the fact of Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, what hopes were left? Where were the ‘Iron Front’, the Reichsbanner, the general strike threatened by the trade unions in such an emergency? Nothing stirred…

And the Communists? What was left for them to lose? Had they not been trained for civil war? Had their military experts not made all preparations? Had they no terrorist groups? Where was the Rote Frontkämpfer-Bund? Were they not sufficiently armed? Was it not clear to them that only one alternative was left for them – either to wait till they were slaughtered or to fight for life? Why did not they prefer to fight, hopeless as the situation was?

Had they perhaps no free choice left to them? Had Moscow forbidden them to fight? Surely there was no lack of willing fighters. No one who witnessed their demonstration in Berlin shortly before Schleicher’s fall; who saw those hundreds of thousands tormented by hunger, without overcoats, poorly clad, with worn boots, marching through the streets in thirty-five degrees of frost, often held up for long intervals, standing in the terrible cold without leaving their places; no one who saw those resolute faces, those glowing eyes, could question the revolutionary fervour for fight of these masses who had gathered under Communist banners. Not below, but above, was the failure. Why did the Communist Party machine fail? Were they perhaps under the illusion that they would be able to steer the organisation, reshaped for underground work, through a short fascist period, so that they might afterwards step into the shoes of the quickly played-out fascists, replacing their dictatorship of ‘monopoly capital’, by a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’?

If the left had prevailed in 1933, the world would have been spared WWII, the holocaust and likely the collapse of the USSR. Stalin would have been undermined because in the absence of a Nazi invasion, he would have had less of an ability to cultivate the reputation of a defender of the Motherland. We also would have been spared the invention of nuclear weapons that only became a reality after Einstein convinced Roosevelt that their development was necessary.

Left Unity

I do not believe that the USA is in danger of a fascist takeover. Unlike most of the left, I regard the alt-right as a negligible force. In 1920, the Thyssen steel trust was already beginning to pour money into the nationalist right, including the Nazis, because it was determined to crush a revolutionary working class. For all of the articles urging that people like Richard Spencer be punched, none seem to engage with the reality that he is not being funded by any sector of the ruling class, including those that are on the extreme right like Robert Mercer. For that matter, American fascism will likely come up with its own poisonous mystique rather than mechanically repeating slogans like “blood and soil”.

The most urgent task today, as it was in the 1920s, is to create a left party that can speak in the name of working people and that will eventually be massive enough to take power. Hopefully, this will cost the lives of no more than those that were lost on the day the Bolsheviks took power in one of the most peaceful social revolutions in human history.

However, to begin building such a party, we have to keep in mind that it must be seen as a serious endeavor that “normal” people can take part in. This means looking and sounding like the rest of the country rather than ninja warriors. It also means adopting tactics that will not land a bread-winner in jail unless he or she is in a situation where breaking the law is necessary to answer to a higher law, namely to defend the interests of those who sell their labor power in order to survive. Finally, it means dumping the rhetoric and symbols of the Russian or Chinese revolutions that might have made sense to those living through that experience. We need to leave the hammer-and-sickle in the museum where it belongs.

There are signs that after a long deep freeze, young people are beginning to move. The spectacular growth of the DSA is proof of that. Like the leaves trembling in a tree as a great storm is approaching, the graduate students and baristas who join DSA will soon be joined by truck drivers, meatpacking workers, nurses and warehousemen/women. Everything we do today must ensure them that we are serious and smart about the business of changing society. Anything that gets in the way has to be moved to the side. If the costs of Hitler coming to power were so prohibitive, there is every reason to be even more mindful today of the risks of foolish adventurism.

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.