I found this extract from Karl Kautsky’s “Some Causes and Effects of National Socialism” in the section on Fascism in Lucien Laurat’s Marxism and Democracy (London: Victor Gollancz 1940). It’s footnote 2 on pages 174-5. What struck me was the similarity between Kautsky’s view of the rise on the Nazis in Germany, and some of the factors underlying the rise of Trump today and the increasing right-wing extremism of mainstream politics in Britain. Kautsky wrote
Those masses of the people without political and economic knowledge, drawn into political activity only by the war and its effects, were imbued with militarist ideas and were totally ignorant of political economy. They believed that the will and political power would be sufficient to obtain for them all they desired. These desperate people entirely failed to recognise the existence of economic laws, which must be known before measures can be taken to restore the economic system to health, nor did they see the international character of the crisis, which demanded international remedies.
These elements thirst for power rather than for knowledge; having no confidence in themselves they do not demand that political power should be given into their hands, but into the hands of an individual from whom they expect their salvation, that is to say, an improvement in their personal situation…
In a moment like the present the strength of National Socialist propaganda is very great, particularly as since the war the militarist idea has vanquished the economic idea. A far-sighted strategist is well aware of the importance of the economic element, but the ignorant soldier believes only in the omnipotence of violence. The war with all its evil consequences has reinforced this belief amongst certain classes of the people, so that to-day the crassest petty-bourgeois ignorance believes itself capable of guiding the development of the State and of society without any preliminary study, and solely in accordance with its most pressing needs…
To these circumstances is added the absolute necessity for radical intervention in economic life, the paralysis of parliamentary activity owing to a more or less even balance of party strength, the bankruptcy of the old political parties, the despair not only of the workers, but also of the middle classes and the intellectuals, belief in the omnipotence of violence, and the ignorance of great masses of the people, particularly the youth, with regard to economic and social questions, a phenomenon particularly striking since the World War and for which the war is largely responsible.
This analysis of the rise of Nazism doesn’t completely explain the rise of Trump and the Far Right in America and the Continent today, but there are certain elements common to both. These are:
1. The effects of war and violence.
The West has been at war for about 15 years now following 9/11 against Islamism, and the result has been that all Muslims are regarded by a certain portion of the population with deep suspicion as potential terrorists and a threat to western society. The result has been a rise in xenophobia. At the same time, both America and Britain have at the level of popular culture a deep faith in the ability of the militaries to emerge victorious. All it needs is for us to give more support in terms of personnel and funding to our troops, and al-Qaeda and ISIS will be wiped out. While al-Qaeda and ISIS certainly need and deserve to be wiped completely from the face of the Earth, this simplistic view of ending the present wars through more violence and force ignores the radicalising effect of our attacks and counterattacks on the indigenous population, and the possibility that more peaceful methods, such as sanctions and the freezing of terrorist bank accounts, may be a far better solution.
2. Ignorance of the Economic Causes of the Global Crisis.
The current economic crisis, and the devastation of societies all over the globe, has been brought about through the operation of economic laws. Laissez-faire capitalism doesn’t work, and the neoliberalist economics embraced by politicians of various shades since Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan have been responsible for immense economic, social and political damage. But these are supported uncritically by vast numbers of the population, who revere these figures as saving the country from the threat of socialism or encroaching liberalism. As the real economic causes of the crisis aren’t recognised, people look around to find scapegoats for their ills, finding them in the threat of ethnic minorities.
3. Kautsky’s statement that people’s sense of personal powerlessness leads them to expect and demand salvation from a strong political figure also seems apt. The right has led a campaign over the past three decades and more to destroy the very organised working class organisations, which have acted to protect and empower working people, such as trade unions. And the effect of the recession, with its threat of redundancies and the imposition of zero hours contracts and short-term contracts, has been to make more people feel powerless. As a result, they turn to a strong political figure, like Trump, to give them what they feel they need, rather than empowering themselves through left-wing campaigning and political action.
4. The paralysis of parliamentary activity, and the bankruptcy of the old political parties. The precise circumstances between America today and Weimar Germany of the 1920’s and 1930’s is different, but the overall analysis still holds here as well. Hitler came to power at the end of the 1920s and beginning of the ’30s, when parliamentary democracy in Germany broke down completely. The ruling coalition that governed the country since the end of the First World War between the Social Democrats, Catholic Centre Party and the two Liberal parties collapsed, with the individual parties refusing to cooperate with each other. Hindenburg, the president, began to govern by decree, as provided by the German constitution. He also approached the Nazis to break the deadlock by including them in a coalition which would have the necessary majority. The result was demands by Hitler for total power, and the final collapse of German democracy.
In America, public opinion of congress is extremely low. The power of the corporations to influence politics is such that polls have shown that only 9 to 25 per cent of the American public believe their politicians are doing a good job and representing them. A study by Princeton found that America was no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy because of the corporate nature of American politics.
There are also significant differences, however. While the majority of Trump supporters are middle class, the majority of supporters for Bernie Sanders, the self-confessed democratic socialist, were young. Most of the audience for Fox News is in its late sixties and above. It’s America’s young people, who are challenging the Conservative political establishment of the older generation.
As for Trump’s middle class support, this has been interpreted as disproving the explanation that Trump’s rise is due to the impoverishment of the American working class. That’s true, but it doesn’t mean that the threat of impoverishment isn’t one of the factors behind his rise. One of the causes of the emergence of Fascism in Germany and Italy was the fear of those countries middle classes that they were losing their social status, threatened by big business from above and organised labour from below. Certainly the rise of Trump, and that of the neocons before him, is due to the sense of threat felt by white, middle class men that their privileged social status is under threat from women and ethnic minorities. At the same time, the American middle class is shrinking due to the effect of neoliberal economics in immiserating the broader masses of working people, including salaried employees.
My guess is that much of this analysis also applies to Britain, where many people have the same view of the essential morality and effectiveness of using extreme military force against the peoples of the Middle East; a sense of threat of foreigners and the unemployed taking jobs and support from the dwindling welfare state; an ignorance of the role of Conservativism and neoliberal economics as the direct cause of the growing impoverishment of British society; a feeling of powerlessness that looks to strong leaders to save them; a feeling of despair engendered by a corrupt parliamentary system, dominated by a shared political consensus between left and right in neoliberalism, and permeated with corporate corruption.
What is needed to stop the growth of the extreme right is not just a campaign of anti-racism, but also a renewed assault and abandonment of the prevailing neoliberal consensus. More people need to be shown that not only are immigrants not responsible for poverty and poor welfare provision, but that these have been directly caused by the likes of Thatcher and Reagan. And far from neoliberal and conservative economics being the only effective system, it is possible to challenge these and think outside them, to see them as the real cause of contemporary poverty and the economic and political crisis engulfing America and the world.
Tags: 'Marxism and Democracy', 9/11, al-Qaeda, Armed Forces, Bernie Sanders, Catholic Centre Party, Congress, Corporate Donors, Corporations, Donald Trump, Ethnic Minorities, Hindenburg, Immigration, ISIS, Islamism, Islamophobia, Karl Kautsky, Lucien Laurat, Margaret Thatcher, Men, Middle Class, Middle East, Muslims, Neocons, Neoliberalism, Parliament, Princeton, racism, Ronald Reagan, SPD, War, Weimar, Whites, Working Class, World War I