The reaction

1. Prehistory of the reaction

Before the First World War, social reaction had been gathering pace in response to the emergence of the working class as a force in history. In 1911 Winston Churchill anchored the warship Antrim in the Mersey ready to fire upon strikebound Liverpool (Ponting, 1994: 98-9). Elites had tried to re-direct the pressure for change towards the Empire, and finally into the Great War itself. But the failure to discipline the working class by enlisting them showed that the war had failed to resolve the underlying conflict between the classes.

2. Reaction begins in Russia

The counter-revolutionary White Army reduced the country to bloodshed and famine. In the spring of 1918 the Whites gained the support of a force of British, American, Japanese, Czechs and Slovaks invading from Siberia in the East, Murmansk and Archangel in the West. At the War Office Churchill demanded a full-scale invasion to overthrow the 'tyrannic government of these Jew Commisars' but preoccupied with problems at home, the powers' intervention on the side of the Whites remained token (Ponting, 1994: 230). In Hungary, Admiral Horthy's reaction successfully overthrew the short-lived Soviet Republic. 'Horthy’s courts and officer gangs killed thousands of people in “reprisals” and interned, imprisoned and maimed tens of thousands', according to Victor Serge (who also accused Kun's Commisars of abandoning Hungary, Serge, 2004: 4-4).

3. De-mobbed soldiers made up the human material of the reaction.

In Germany the 'Socialist' Ebert set the paramilitary Freikorps on his Communist rivals, and had Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknicht killed along with hundreds of supporters of the Spartakusbund in January 1919 (Frölich, 1972: 297-301). In Ireland, auxiliaries known as the 'Black-and-Tans' were recruited to back up the Royal Irish Constabulary against nationalist rebels. 'When we begin to act we must act like a sledgehammer, so as to cause bewilderment and consternation among the people of southern Ireland,' said Churchill (Ponting, 1994: 264).

4. The 'Great Red Scare'

In the USA in 1919 anticommunist hysteria was whipped up and followed by the Palmer Raids against socialists, and the election of Warren G Harding on a platform of 'normalcy'. Anti-socialist repression in America was directed at newer migrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. In 1920 Anarchists Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were framed for a robbery in Boston (they were eventually sent to the electric chair on 23 August 1927).

5. Splitting the movement

While the left-wing of the workers' movement was met with violence, tentative feelers were put out to the moderates. Social Democrats held office at local and national level in Germany, and in Britain, first in McDonald's Labour-Liberal alliance government of 1923. US loans underwrote a moderate Social Democracy in Europe. 'In the autumn of 1923 everyone thought that Germany was on the eve of civil war', recalled Ilya Ehrenburg, 'but nothing happened … the workers were worn out'. Instead 'the days of the Dawes plan were approaching, of Stresemann's shrewd diplomacy, of sudden plenty after years of unremitting want' (Ehrenburg, 1966: 56).

In Ireland the Treaty negotiated between David Lloyd George and Michael Collins in 1922, divided Ireland between the 26 Counties in the South and a six-county northern Ireland that remained under British rule. Liam Lynch and Liam Mellowes on the anti-Treaty side, and Collins himself on the pro-Treaty side died in the ensuing civil war between the Republicans.

6. Reaction in the USSR

'Until the revolution takes place in all lands, including the richest and the most highly civilised ones, our victory will be only a half victory, perhaps still less.' Lenin (in Carr: 227).

Though the White Army had been defeated, the cost to Soviet Russia was too great to survive in the absence of a European revolution. The working class, always a minority, had come close to extinction, leaving the soviets (workers' councils) an empty shell, until their suspension in 1919. Bolshevik party activists were consumed with bureaucratic tasks. The Bolsheviks had managed to stabilise the economy by permitting a controlled market in grain (the 'New Economic Policy') though with destabilising consequences. In the debate over how to proceed, the advocates of 'Socialism in one country' won - though this meant not socialism, but an unstable and dictatorial regime based on Russia's backward technological base. Under Joseph Stalin, the regime took the final step of destroying democracy within the party in 1924, purges of old party members soon followed, leading to the executions of Zinoviev, Bukharin, Kamenev and in 1940, after years in exile, Trotsky. The ascendance of the new leadership did not mean a restoration of the market though, in fact when peasant-proprietors threatened the regime, Stalin 'collectivised' agriculture, at a terrible human cost. But German Ambassador Count Rantzau 'stressed that the elimination of Zinoviev and Trotsky would be a tremendous gain to Germany' in a report to Berlin (Hilger and Meyer, 1953: 211-3). Despite having abandoned the goal of world revolution, it still suited the Russian leadership to maintain links with the Communist Parties in other countries for diplomatic leverage. The majority of communists in the West continued to believe that the Soviet Union was building socialism, an illusion that was to have disastrous consequences for the working class movement.

7. Middle Classes mobilised

In Italy, an ex-Socialist who had supported entry into the war, Benito Mussolini organised ex-servicemen to attack militant workers. In 1921 his Fascists won 36 seats drawing support from agricultural workers, students and small proprietors. In 1922 Mussolini led a 'March on Rome' (though he personally travelled by train) and made himself 'Il Duce', dictator of Italy. On the 8th and 9th of November 1923, Adolf Hitler attempted a Putsch in Munich, and though he got the support of Ludendorff, the army used force to restore the Bavarian Government ('the story of that struggle cannot be read without admiration', wrote Churchill, Ponting, 1994: 393). Churchill in turn, through his editorship of the British Gazette, mobilised middle class volunteers in the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies to defeat the General Strike of 1926.

8. Hitler's ascendancy

Despite the belief that Hitler's NSDAP enjoyed popular support, he came to power in 1933 two years after the party's vote had peaked in the 1931 elections. Hitler had mobilised the middle classes against the KPD and militant labour, but depended upon the backing of industrialists and the establishment to put him in office. Panicked that the Nazis influence might be waning, those backers gave him what he wanted. Once there, Hitler used the same executive powers that the SPD had tried to use to have him banned - powers that Max Weber had inserted into the constitution as a stop-gap against the left, article 48. Between 1933 and 1939 225 000 people, Communists and Socialists, mostly, were convicted of political offences by Nazi courts, with nearly twice as many again imprisoned without trial (Mandel, 1986: 40). Despite the war that was to follow, the Nazis were not critics, but admirers of the British Empire: 'I, as a man of Germanic blood', wrote Hitler, 'would rather see India under British rule than under any other' (1992: 601).

9. Europe of the dictatorships

On 27 February 1939 Neville Chamberlain recognised the 'nationalist' government of Francisco Franco, installed after three years of military rebellion against the centre-left government elected in 1936. Spain joined the list of dictatorships created to frustrate popular power: Admiral Horthy's created in Hungary in 1919, Mussolini's from 1922, General Pilsudski's in Poland and Salazar's in Portugal from 1926, King Alexander's dictatorship in Yugoslavia from 1929, Hitler's from 1933, General Metaxas' in Greece, formed to break a general strike in 1935. Still unable to discipline the working class, ruling elites resorted to coercion and the suspension of democracy. Only where working class combativity had been thoroughly defeated and tamed - in Britain, Sweden and the Netherlands did democracy carry on as an empty exercise. France, was perhaps exceptional, in that the ruling classes had conceded the Presidency to Leon Blum's Popular Front government, and Czechoslovakia remained a democratic republic until 1938 when it was occupied by Germany.

10. Anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism was an essential part of the European reaction. In fact racism of all kinds was ubiquitous amongst pre-war elites. Reactionaries instinctively characterised their class enemies as a race apart, finding it easier to demonise radicals as Jews or some other foreign intruder, than face up to their lack of support amongst their own populations. The US immigration act of 1924 aimed to keep the country 'Nordic', and 24 states passed 'Eugenic' sterilisation laws (Kevles, 1999). Churchill, too, advocated the sterilisation of 100 000 'mental degenerates' (Ponting, 1994: 102). In 1905, after a decade of anti-Jewish agitation, the 1905 Aliens Act had been passed in Britain, restricting entry (Winder, 2004: 4). Anti-Semitic laws and attacks on Jews were common in Hungary, and after Pilsudski's death in 1935, in Poland. It was Germany's anti-Jewish laws, however, that were the most barbaric: 'National Socialism is the first Anti-Semitic movement to advocate the complete destruction of the Jews', Franz Neumann deduced just from the racial purity laws of 1933 (Neumann, 1966: 111). The laws created a 'legal ghetto', with Jews and other non-Aryans made subjects, but not citizens, their property seized, their access to the Civil Service and professions barred, and sexual relations with Aryans forbidden (Neumann, 1966: 115). Anti-Semitism was a fantastic re-imagining of the threat to the German middle classes. The Jews stood for everything they hated: the East, the burgeoning working classes (100 000 Jews from Poland had migrated to Germany after the war), Bolshevism and also high finance.

11. Militarisation of labour

The Nazi Government made the 1 May a national holiday in 1933, and trade union leaders marched alongside national socialists. The following day their offices were occupied, and on 12 May 1933, all their property attached to the public prosecutors office in Berlin, with Nazi labour leader Robert Ley as trustee (Neumann, 1966: 414). The German Labour Front substituted itself for the unions, but as an organisation that promoted Nazi ideals to workers rather than one that represented their interests. Compulsory Labour Service (Arbeitsdienst) and Compulsory Agricultural Service (Landhilfe, the 'most feared') were introduced, and war industries were working 70 hours a week by 1936, when workers were pledged to secrecy under threat of the death penalty in the event of 'treason' (ICC, Vol. III, No 1, January 1937: 22). In Italy, under the Vidoni Palace agreement of 1925 the General Federation of Industry granted sole negotiating rights to the fascist unions, effectively outlawing independent trade unions (Guerin, 1973: 180).

The militarisation of labour was not restricted to the Fascist dictatorships, though. In France decree laws increased hours in the armament industries to 60 a week (Clinton, 2002: 73) - output increases that would later feed the German military. In the US four million unemployed were organised in the Civil Works Administration in 1934, a further three million in the Works Progress Administration the following year, and 2 500 000 men aged 19-25 in the Civil Conservation Corps (Mattick, 1978: 132). These latter were camps in the woods, like the South Mountain Reservation, in New Jersey, where Captain Tobin had to call in the park police to expel mutineers in 1935 (ICC, No 6, March 1935: 8). Where Britain, France and America differed from Italy and Germany was that instead of dismantling the trade unions, they had succeeded in recruiting their leaders as quasi-official supervisors. In the US, for example, the American Federation of Labour, which had reduced from four to 2.5 million members between 1920 and 1932, was boosted by official recognition as the house union of the National Relief Association.

12. Caesarism and the suspension of legal norms

In Nazi Germany the formalisation of the leadership principle, the abolition of the distinction between the National Socialist party and the state (party property was exempt from taxation), the suspension of citizenship rights, the loss of the distinction between the private realm and the public, retrospective legislation and the practice of judicial pre-emption of yet-to-be-passed laws all added up to a suspension of ordinary legal norms. Mysticism, charismatic leadership - 'decisionism', and intuition all took precedence over rational norms in law and government - often in ways that seem like they were inimical to the creation of a secure business environment. Though more extreme in the German case, such features were hardly unknown elsewhere. 'In the election of Roosevelt was not revealed so much the will of the masses to activity', thought one commentator, 'but rather the instinctive recognition of their present impotence, which seeks after the strong man' (ICC, Vol. III, No 1, January 1937: 3). Certainly Roosevelt demanded from congress 'a broad Executive power to wage war against the emergency' (quoted in Mattick, 1978: 130), and tried to pack the supreme court when it voted down his National Industrial Relations Act. Franz Neumann argued that corporate capitalism made abstract law problematic: 'In a monopolistically organized system the general law cannot be supreme', because the state is acting against one corporation, not adjudicating between many interests (Neumann, 1996: 126). But it was of course unlikely that the suspension of general law would work in the interests of the masses.

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Jun 19 2011 12:45


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