Book review by Tom Cord, from Fighting Talk magazine issue 23 (1999).
In this issue we review a new book by Socialist Workers Party member Donny Gluckstein, 'The Nazis, Capitalism and the Working Class', which is claimed by its SWP publishers to be "a major contribution to the debate about the nature of Nazism and how we can continue to fight the Nazi menace today".
However, though Gluckstein has obviously done a lot of research, he has written a book that is of no use to anyone wanting to understand the nature of the Third Reich nor to those who want to fight fascism in the 21st century. The purpose of the book is to legitimise the SWP's own 'anti-fascist' strategy by selective references to a distorted history of the Third Reich.
Gluckstein's analysis is based closely on that of the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, despite the fact that he died 60 years ago and his writings on Germany were based largely on newspaper reports. There are 30 references to Trotsky in the index, a sure sign that there won't be any fresh ideas around.
That is not to say there isn't anything useful in Trotsky's writing but a realisation that 60 years of research has improved our understanding of German fascism. Trotsky's key analysis was that the Nazi party was made up of the petty bourgeoisie, the middle classes, and that it was this layer which was the backbone of fascism, and helped it into power.
In the decades since he first wrote this it has become a truism for the entire Left, that this indeed was the case. Gluckstein himself is more than happy to agree with Trotsky, despite the fact there is now a whole body of research into German fascism that emphasises that Hitler did make significant inroads into working class support.
Gluckstein is so hung up on Trotsky's analysis that he ties himself up in frequent knots, as he desperately tries to convince himself that the 'Great Man' was right. He gets upset at a description of the NSDAP as a "combination of middle class formation ...and working class protest".
Gluckstein doesn't seem to understand that workers do vote for the Tories, do vote for Labour, do vote for the BNP or the FN in France, and, in fact, workers in Germany voted and fought for Hitler. Workers are not immune to the ideas of fascism, as history has shown. How many middle class people does Gluckstein think voted for the BNP's Derek Beackon on the Isle of Dogs in 1993? As the SWP has already decided that only the middle class and the ‘lumpen proletariat' vote for fascism, then that's all there is to say about it. In reality, sizeable numbers of working class people not only voted for Hitler and the Nazis but they also joined them. This is no surprise as the period of the Weimar Republic in Germany, 1919-1933, was one of complete crisis. Massive inflation and high unemployment affected not just the working class but also layers of the middle classes.
Nonetheless, any party that wanted to control the streets and ultimately take power had to get support from the working class. This was just as much the case for the Nazis, as it was for the Communists and the Social Democrats. Therefore right from the start of the NSDAP, the organisation aimed its propaganda at the working classes at the same time as they were wooing big business.
However, there were also Nazis who were genuinely anti-capitalist but nevertheless nationalists. There is no contradiction in this but Gluckstein finds it hard to understand. For the same reasons he ignores the facts that a significant minority of working class people voted for the Nazi party and actually joined them. To prove his point that workers didn't vote for the Nazis, he contests the analysis contained in Jurgen Falter's article, "How likely were workers to vote for the NSDAP?", (from 'The Rise of National Socialism and the Working Classes in Weimar Germany').
Falter maintains that "a particularly marked resistance by workers in general or industrial workers in particular, does not seem to have any empirical foundation". As might be expected, to Gluckstein this is the equivalent of pissing in church but as he says himself, "If Falter is correct, then the thesis of this book would have serious flaws." Exactly! Gluckstein's main objection is that the definition of 'the working class' used by Falter is too broad, but the standard SWP definition, originating with Trotsky, is too narrow. Gluckstein wants to write off all the poorer elements, particularly the unemployed, agricultural workers and those in smaller enterprises, to arrive at a more pristine pure definition of working class that focuses purely on the industrial workers. This serves no purpose other than to convince Gluckstein that all is well with his thesis, as these other elements are not really working class. This is not just intellectual dishonesty but stupidity.
Falter's conclusion is that while the largest group of Nazi voters were undoubtedly middle class, "on a regular basis more than a quarter of National Socialist voters were workers at least as defined by social insurance law" and "workers formed so significant a sub-group that it is impossible to talk of a purely or even a predominantly middle class movement'. This is a sizeable minority and if you include the unemployed and retired along with all working class dependents, this would "represent just under 40% of National Socialist voters." Even if we accept that it is difficult to be absolutely sure about the class composition of voters, we can see that there was a definite tendency for a substantial group of working class people to vote for the Nazis.
This will be even more the case when we look at the membership of the Nazis, incidentally, it is also worth saying that Gluckstein spends 3 pages assessing how the working class voted while Falter's analysis covers 45 pages.
As with the discussion over votes, Gluckstein's arguments over the social composition of the NSDAP come from what he wants to be the case rather than reality. He just cannot accept that workers would join the Nazis. Gluckstein writes, "In an essay entitled `A worker's party or a party without workers'?', Detlev Muhlberger estimates the proportion of workers in the NSDAP to be '40% of members in the period between 1925 and the end of January 1933.' The notion of the NSDAP as a workers' party is ludicrous." Notice that he never disputes this 40% figure.
Gluckstein's thesis suffers all the more when we move from examining the nature of the Nazi party itself to that of the Stormtroopers (SA). Here we find that the percentage of working class members was even higher. Even by Gluckstein's own figures, which cover only the period 1929 — 30th Jan 1933, the percentage was 64%. His response to this is not to admit he has been wrong in saying that the working class weren't involved with the Nazis but to deny its significance. "First of all, fewer than half of the SA actually belonged to the Nazi party. This suggests a lack of commitment to the party's aims and outlook."
Now this is just crap. As their name suggests, Stormtroopers were, well... Storm-troopers, the frontline forces of fascism; the ones who fought, and often died, for fascism. To accuse them of lack of commitment is just plain bizarre. As a matter of fact, you could say that as the SA, prior to its smashing in 1934, was more radical than the parent body - then a greater number of workers were attracted to a more radical version of fascism.
All this is anathema to Gluckstein. He has already decided that workers weren't attracted to Nazism in any substantial way. But while he has his head stuck firmly in the sand it is worth quoting something else from Muhlberger (from `The Rise of National Socialism and the Working Classes in Weimar Germany') that Gluckstein doesn't mention:
"The observation that the Nazi Party was only outmatched by the SPD in terms of its ability to recruit working class members is therefore no exaggeration. In numerical terms there were more workers to be found in the NSDAP by 1932 than in the much smaller Communist Party, even though in the latter they did provide all but 20% of the membership."
Gluckstein has to ignore the fact that workers did join the Nazis and the SA, because he is incapable of explaining it. The simple reason it happened is that because of the failures of the SDP and the Communist Party, workers looked to other alternatives as a way to improve their lot. Neither of these organisations stood for independent working class action.
The SPD, since helping destroy the German revolution in 1919, had continually stabbed the working class in the back whenever it had the chance. The Communist Party, on the other hand, was effectively run from Moscow and though at various times gathered substantial working class support, it always put the interests of Russia first. The Nazis, though, attacked both the communists and the SPD, and the capitalists, and seemed to offer a chance of stability amidst the chaos of crisis. That was why they won working class support.
To conclude, we have to ask ourselves why is the argument that Hitler, and by extension today's fascists, only able to recruit a few misguided working class people so important to Gluckstein and the SWP. Partly this is because Trotsky's analysis emphasises the petty bourgeois nature of fascism and, as Gluckstein says himself, if this is wrong a whole new theory would be needed.
However, there is a more fundamental reason for Gluckstein's reticence to face facts. If even a substantial minority of workers can be won to fascism, then or now, it exposes the fact that fascism was, and still can be, a lot more attractive than the dismal 'revolutionary' alternatives on offer. Then the SWP might just have to face up to the fact that the politics of the entire 'Left' have not only failed but made a large contribution to the rise of fascism themselves.
To learn from the past you have to understand it and this book does neither. Leave well alone.