Saturday, July 23, 2016

Lessons From Weimar

In the wake of the Republican Convention, Charles Dermer writes that there are three lessons progressives should remember about the failure of Weimar Germany:

First, the German Left splintered and failed to create strong coalitions. The Social Democrats and the German Communist Party -- both large parties of Labor -- made little efforts to work together or to organize and coordinate closely with many of the remarkably progressive Weimar urban feminist, gay and civil rights movements. Much of the blame falls on the Communists, who decided to take their marching orders from Stalin, believing that the collapse of the German economy would lead to a Communist revolution. But the Social Democrats were also responsible, aligning themselves with conservative parties and aristocratic landed elites -- and supporting repression of Far Left movements while failing to reach out to and make concessions to either the Communists or the movements.

Had the Social Democrats and Communists formed a common bloc, working in a strong coalition with progressive urban cultural movements, they would have controlled the majority of Parliament and might have kept power. The lesson here is that we must wrestle with the potential ways in which the Democratic Party, the Sanders supporters and our major social justice movements might work together, building a coalitional front that can push back against the dangers posed by Trump, promote the aims of the Sanders "revolution," and help unite or "universalize" Left grassroots movements in a long-term effort to create a systemic transformation of militarized, racialized, patriarchal capitalism.

Second, to build a united front, all types of progressives must grapple with the real threat of a Trump victory and of a broader right-wing populist ascendancy, with or without a Trump victory. The German Left -- as well as the German corporate and landed gentry Establishment -- never took Hitler seriously, dismissing Far Right movements and believing Hitler had no large popular base. Likewise, many US progressives cannot imagine that Americans would embrace Far Right populism and elect an overtly racist demagogue such as Trump.

The Weimar Left and the German Establishment wildly underestimated the Far Right and Hitler's resonance during a massive economic crisis with a public with authoritarian tendencies. They lost touch with the working and lower middle class, especially the rural or small town population, who felt they were losing not just their jobs but their country and culture. They also never believed Hitler could gain so much support in his pursuit of genocide.

This leads to a third lesson: the need for a massive shift in the Democratic Party and a resurgence of progressive movements to solve the economic crisis and address the sense of national decline perpetrated by the Establishment itself. The Weimar Left, especially the Social Democratic Party, largely disconnected from grassroots urban progressive cultural movements, had no transformative vision or energy. It was an exhausted, reformist party offering no economic or social solutions. The Communists didn't even try, as they promoted collapse.

The inconvenient truth is that the Democrats have bought into neo-liberalism with almost the same fervor as the Republicans:

The Democratic Party in the age of Clintons, disconnected from social movements, has aligned with the corporate and military establishment. While Bernie Sanders resonated far and wide because of his urgent message of "political revolution" and democratic socialism, Hillary Clinton has only begun to -- at least in rhetoric -- embrace the importance of structural change. But to win, she has to take Sanders more seriously and respond not only to his demands but also to the demands of the civil rights, Black liberation, peace and environmental movements.

Germans made the mistake of believing that Hitler was simply a nutbar who would self destruct. That's what he eventually did. But what he left in his wake was utter devastation.



The Mound of Sound said...

It's a compelling argument, Owen, one of application in our own backyard. Our Liberals, despite their kumbaya instincts, bear some resemblance to Weimar's social democrats. Turn back the clock a couple of decades and they would be Progressive Conservatives. In our Weimar, even the New Democrats shunned the Left leaving undefended that entire flank of the political spectrum. We don't have the bombast of a blowhard like Trump. Our populist will be much more subtle - until the fear-mongering begins in earnest.

Toby said...

There has long been a wonder that the Germans actually elected Hitler. Now we are seeing something similar in many places, most notably in the US. The forces behind it are the same as we have seen with Brexit and the rise of right wing parties in Europe and our time with Harper in Canada. Watch for more of it as Kenney vies for the leadership of Alberta conservatives.

Free trade and globalization have been unkind to masses of people yet our politicians still consort with free marketeers.

Owen Gray said...

Like Willie Sutton -- the bank robber -- they know where the money is, Toby.

Owen Gray said...

Stephen Harper understood that power could be achieved by dividing the opposition, Mound. That could be Trump's ticket to victory -- if the opposition splinters.

Scotty on Denman said...

I think the dynamic involved in Nazism's rise was critically parliamentary in nature. The socialist allied with conservatives for reasons of parliamentary dynamic in a hung parliament---which is different from citizens seeking alliances outside parliament in the formation of parties and policy. Parliamentary circumstances are what make parties dilute and/or offend the representation promised to their electors, and the dynamic plays out in backroom negotiation in order to pass legislation. This is where parties get the idea that interests outside the electorate (like the German Communists legitimized their non-cooperation with what should have been their natural ally inside Germany) have legitimacy in parliament.

The phenomenon is most starkly illustrated in hung parliaments because the dynamic involves rounding up more than one party in order to pass legislation (and in our Westminster system, failure to pass "money-bills" that form the lion's share of legislation, results in a motion of non-confidence which precipitates the fall of the government and, most often, a return to the electorate's decision at the polls. That might be alright for the direct democracy crowd among the electorate, but parties, once ensconced in the hall of influence, most often develop another priority: survival as a party-in-parliament and demotion of policy commitments that were used to be priorities promised to supporters during elections). That's one of the main reasons I question proportional representation; to me it encourages the proliferation of small parties which comprise the balance of power in a hung parliament, and discourages citizen development of big-tent parties. The difference is that compromise can be found openly in party meetings among citizens for their own sakes, on their own dime whereas by-definition less-compromising pro-rep-elected-parties (sorry about the hyper-hyphenation)---that is, less-compromising OUTSIDE parliament---are compelled to seek compromise within parliament nevertheless (by rules enshrined in the Constitution), each party for its own sake---not for their supporters' sakes---and always in backroom negotiation from which voters are excluded---and on the public dime, to boot.

IMHO, the merits of our Single-Member-Plurality electoral system are overlooked, the one referred to above being its tendency to reward bigger-tent parties with parliamentary majorities. I don't want to sound maudlin by equating pro-rep with the rise of Hitler or Trump, but I do warn that pro-rep opens opportunities for fringe parties to seize control without citizens' warrant. Besides, Hitler didn't depend entirely on parliamentary dynamic: he spiced it up with racism, murder, war, theft and genocide. He only used the diversity of uncooperative parties in parliament to create the facade of legitimacy which would finally cow the majority of German citizens to obey.

Every tyrant appeals to timeless motherhood issues, but the machinations that ostensibly pretend to "protect citizens" tell on tyrants' abiding fear that the majority will rally against them eventually. Fear of not getting the agenda done before being found out can be transformed by the tyrant with seeming sincerity into a national crisis of emerging urgency. But locking into the security services on offer is as unnatural as the majority forever tolerating oppression. The window of opportunity for the tyrant is therefore employed to strip away as much of the resources required for rebellion as possible before the window closes, the goal of broad impoverishment being prophylactic from the zenith's point of view.

Trump's America, however, is almost infinitely more powerful than Nazi Germany ever was or ever could be. When we talk about the dangers of Trump, we're also talking about the dangers of America's military and economic strength. For them parliament is just a stepping stone which can't achieve their respective agendas if it behaves as anything more.

Dana said...

The barrage begins.

Steve said...

We need lessons from pokeman to win,

Anonymous said...

[T]he German corporate and landed gentry Establishment -- never took Hitler seriously, dismissing Far Right movements and believing Hitler had no large popular base.

I don't think this is right. Hitler was an unemployed and often homeless painter before his rise to power. There is no way he could have gained power without support from the gentry and from individuals within the corporate establishment.

Owen Gray said...

That's true, Anon. People like Alfred Krupp realized that Hitler's rearmament program was good for profits. But, originally, Krupp's peers didn't take Hitler seriously because he had been an unemployed painter.

Owen Gray said...

I'm not sure, Steve. I gather that players can get so absorbed by the game that they can walk out in front of cars.

Owen Gray said...

This will be the most negative campaign in American history, Dana. Both sides will bombard the airwaves with negative ads. Americans will feel the need to take frequent showers.

Owen Gray said...

Your last paragraph is absolutely on target, Scotty. Trump's America is infinitely more powerful than Hitler's Germany. And that's why Trump is so dangerous.