Saturday, April 13, 2019

3222. Fascism and the Labor Movement: Some Lessons from Germany and Italy

By Anthony Gabb, April 13, 2019
American neo-fascists.

This article examines the possibility of the rise of fascism in the United States of America (USA) today. To consider this prospect, a probe into the Italian and German experiences with fascism offer some compelling lessons. The success of fascism in Italy and Germany suggests that when economic conditions deteriorate there is a rise in labor militancy that morphs into an existential communist threat. But the absence of a revolutionary workers’ party creates an opening for counter-revolutionary forces including reformists, the state, corporate interests, and fascists to disrupt workers from taking power. 

Today the labor movement in the USA is in crisis and the radical left is atomized. Still, capitalism is under grave stress which has recently led to flare-ups of labor resistance in the USA and globally. By that very fact, the prolific words of the leading Marxist revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg, “spontaneity [is] the vital matter of all revolutions,” signals an urgency for militant workers to take back control and grow their unions and together with the radical left organize a radical workers’ party. 

The rise of far-right populism, xenophobia, patriarchy, misogyny, propaganda, hate speeches and crimes, bloody fights  in the streets, climate change denial, public rebuke of state institutions, and protectionist and nationalist policies, which have become commonplace, may be symptoms that are coincidental intersections with fascism or a rehearsal of what’s to come. So, it is necessary to aggressively meet head-on fascist tendencies and practices, symptoms or otherwise, wherever they surface. The history of fascism in Italy and Germany shows that if the next rise in labor militancy in the USA is organized it will create the possibility of a socialist society, not fascism.

What is Fascism?      
Fascism is the most extreme right-wing form of capitalism. The germ of fascism is endemic in capitalism and the threat of communism can cause it to metastasize; fascism can sprout to epidemic levels if a militant labor movement is not organized. In his analysis of fascism the Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, said that fascism contains a large base, a form, particular traits, and provided an explanation for how it rooted. Fascism is not simply a response to communism, as the reformists in Italy and Germany believed, but a spontaneous organic movement growing out of the collapse of capitalism that is different from other dictatorships. So, there are different fascisms resulting from specific material conditions. Italian and German fascism are similar in how they developed and why they succeeded. They were outgrowths of the ash heap of capitalism and militant movements that were betrayed. 

When the “normal” organs of oppression, fail to stabilize social upheaval, Trotsky wrote “the turn of the fascist regime arrives.” A 21st century version of fascism consists of an alliance between the government and corporate interests who finance, orchestrate and put in motion uncontrolled gangs of the masses that come from the middle class including small business owners and supervisors and managers who share the mindset of the ruling class, those living in suburban areas and work on farms, the disenfranchised including the poor and destitute, as well as segments of the working class, people who work in industry as manual-laborers and rely on earnings from wage labor. Its leaders use socialist demagogy and resort to methods of divisiveness and civil war to purge and annihilate, first and foremost, militant workers and communists. Then they call for peace. After which fascists are given complete control and administration of all state institutions, including education, the police, the prisons, the military, the courts, the press, social media, and religious institutions.

Why Fascism Succeeded in Italy and Germany
Venice is the birthplace of modern capitalism. By the early 20th century, Italian and German workers decided to replace it with communism, but they were betrayed and fascism succeeded.

Between the fourteenth and twentieth centuries, the collapse of feudalism gave birth to capitalism in Italy, Germany, Great Britain, France (the place some consider to be “the cradle of fascism” and others say there was no successful indigenous fascism because the Vichy fascists government was installed by the Germans), and Holland and Belgium (the Low Countries). By the mid-1800s, capitalism gave rise to the class struggle between employers (bourgeoisie) and workers (proletariat). 

Leading up to WW1, as capitalism spread across Europe so did misery and poverty.  Consequently, there was a rise in militant labor union membership and radical organizations and the early successes of the 1917 Russian Revolution reverberated across the world. Twelve years later, the Great Depression of 1929, exacerbated living conditions and Europe remained in turmoil.  

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Between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, after the decline of the manorial system, because of its strategic location, Venice, Italy, was the greatest commercial city in Europe. It was rivaled only by Paris in the West. The main interest of the mercantile nobility, the Barbarigo in Venice and the Medici (fiscal agent of the Pope) in Florence, was to “buy cheap and sell dear.” Florentine bankers, the Bardi and Peruzzi families, were the leading bankers of Europe, and Northern Europe was the home of banking. By the mid-nineteenth century, capitalism was prosperous. But by the early twentieth century, the global economy was in decline and as economic conditions began to deteriorate labor militancy increased. Workers and the radical left had identified their enemy and started to organize.

The Italian Socialist Party (ISP) was founded in 1892. Leading up to World War I, increasing collaboration between the government, the business class, and the union bureaucracy resulted in a fissure over the war between the ISP leadership and the union rank-and-file who opposed the war. In 1921, the ISP split into the reformist section which retained its name and the radical Italian Communist Party (ICP). The ICP adopted the platform of leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution, V.I. Lenin, which sounded the call to oppose the war and transform the imperialist WWI into a civil war to overthrow capitalism. The powerful reformist General Confederation of Labor (CGL), Italy’s largest trade union and an affiliate of the ISP, was established in 1906. The Italian Syndicalist Union (ISU) was an industrial union founded in 1912 by a group of anarchists previously affiliated with the GCL; the ISU established ties to the Third International or Comintern, an international organization of communists who advocated for world communism. Trade unions organized workers based on their skills, while anarcho-syndicalist organized industrial unions which had an open membership policy to all workers, skilled or unskilled; anarcho-syndicalists believed industrial unions were the path for workers to take control of the economy and society.
By the early 20th century, as economic conditions got worse, membership in trade unions, the Italian Socialist Party, and the anarchist movement grew. After WWI, the ISP membership grew to 250,000, the CGL reached 2,000,000 members, and the ISU had between 300,000-500,000 members. By 1918, Italy was on the brink of revolution. 

In 1920, all across Italy, over 600,000 factory workers occupied auto factories, steel mills, machine and tool plants of the metal sector, which spread to cotton mills and hosiery firms, lignite mines, tire factories, breweries and distilleries, steamships and warehouses in port towns. What began as a struggle over wages quickly morphed into a battle cry for a communist Italy.

But the ISP convinced the workers to accept concessions in the form of wage increases and shared-management of the factories of which they were already in full control, from Victor Emmanuel (the head of the Italian government) and employers. Then the ICP opposed Antonio Gramsci, the leading Italian Marxist revolutionary, and V.I. Lenin’s position to form a united front with the ISP as a merger of convenience against the fascists, who were gaining ground. The united front was also the position held by the Third International. The betrayal of the workers by the ISP and the ICP allowed fascism to prevail.

By 1921, as the radical movement struggled over the question of a united front and workers accepted concessions, with the support of the state and business class, Mussolini’s fascist movement expanded. The following year the March on Rome resulted in Mussolini’s coming to power on October 28, 1922. Immediately the campaign to annihilate the movement began in Bologna and quickly spread to the countryside and eventually the big cities. As support for the fascists increased, Mussolini was able to provide support to fascist groups, which they used to terrorize the radical movement and entire communities. As the fascist campaign of oppression intensified with the backing of the police and the army, eventually the left movement was driven underground. The counter-revolution had triumphed.

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After the collapse of feudalism, Germany was the most vibrant landlocked pocket of capitalism. By the late fifteenth early sixteenth centuries, it was the main trading route between Italy and Northern Europe. The Fugger banking family, who invested in mining and durable equipment, personified the spirit of capitalism. By 1511, Jacob Fugger, a professed catholic, was the richest person in the world. Like Italy, Germany’s economy went through a period of rapid industrialization. By the mid-1800s working class militancy was on the rise.
In 1863, the General German Workers’ Association (GGWA), the first political party of German workers was established. It was led by Wilhelm Liebknecht a contemporary of Karl Marx and father of Karl Liebknecht, who later would become one of the founding members of the Communist Party of Germany (CPG was formed in 1918). In 1869, the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Germany (SDWP) was formed. In 1875, the SDWP combined with the GGWA and became the Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany (SWPG). In 1890, Bismarck outlawed the SWPG in an effort to suppress the movement. In 1890 when the laws were lifted, there was an upsurge of socialist activity. That same year the SWPG changed its name to the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SDPG).   

In 1917, the more radical section of the SDPG became the Independent Socialist Party (ISP). The ISP was against the war and advocated a policy of gaining power through the ballot box. Founded in 1914, the revolutionary socialism program of the Spartacus League (SL) was also against the war, but called for a socialist revolution in Germany. The SL was a Marxist movement founded by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht and others that took its name from Spartacus, the leader of the largest slave rebellion in the Roman Republic. In 1918, the SL renamed itself the Communist Party of Germany (CPG). 

The CPG was a major political party between 1918 and 1933. It opposed the war and was committed to world communism. After Germany lost the war, the Kaiser fled and was replaced by the Weimer Republic with the SDPG in power led by Friedrich Ebert. The Weimer Republic was the democratic government in Germany after the war; 15 years later it voted to hand over power to Hitler. After the 1918 Armistice, the SL led a civil war in Germany, known as the Spartacist Uprising, to replace the Weimer Republic with socialism. In response to the uprising, over a hundred years ago, on January 15, 1919, the execution of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg was ordered by Ebert and the social democrats and carried out by the Freikorps (the army of mercenaries of Hitler’s “Protection Squadron”, Schutzstaffel or SS).

Between 1912 and 1928, the SDPG and the CPG had broad support from the workers; together they controlled 207 of the 421 seats in the Reichstag, the parliament of the Weimer Republic. In 1929 the Great Depression sent the economy into a tailspin and in 1930 Hitler’s Nazi Party (formed in 1920) held 107 seats, compared to 12 seats two years earlier. By 1932, with the backing of the corporate class, the fascists were riding a wave of popularity; they held 230 seats and in 1933 they controlled 288 seats. In 1933, the SDPG and CPG controlled 201 seats. 

By 1930, as the Nazi Party’s popularity grew, the Comintern under Lenin and the Bolsheviks (the majority faction of the Russian Social Democratic Party which would become the Communist Party after the 1917 Russian Revolution) supported a united front against the fascists as they did in Italy. But now the Comintern led by J.V. Stalin, pushed the CPG to adopt a policy of “social fascism”, essentially waiting for the fascist to win in Germany. Social fascism was the term referred to those who supported a united front with reformist social-democratic organizations against fascism. Stalin opposed any alliance with reformists; he believed that fascism was not a viable threat and would not last a month, two months, or six months. Ironically, after fascism succeeded, Stalin would push for a Popular Front against the fascists.

Hitler banned the CPG immediately after winning the 1933 elections. With the rise of fascism, the corporate class became detached from their traditional parties which they no longer recognized as an expression of themselves and aligned, with the Nazi Party. After the Reichstag fire on February 24, 1933, the Nazi Party launched a wave of violence against members of the German Communist Party, other Left-wing groups, and militant labor unions. Communists, socialists, anarchists and Jews all over Germany were swept up, murdered and/or sent to concentration camps.  

Can Fascism Rise in the USA Today?
The answer to this question is contingent on the lessons learned from the experiences in Italy and Germany, as well as from the 1920s and 1930s in this country, by the next wave of labor militants and radicals. 

Beginning in the mid-1500s, the colonists set out on a savage campaign that enclosed and privatized about four million square miles of land in what was to become the USA, displaced and committed genocide against tens of millions of its inhabitants, and maintained an African slave population of about five million people. By 1650, the native population was reduced to three hundred thousand and the transatlantic trade route became the graveyard for millions of African people. The massive extraction of resources that followed propelled the USA economy toward rapid industrialization and set the stage for USA imperialism.
The rise of capitalism in the USA began in the seventeenth century. By the mid-nineteenth century, cotton was king, the Civil War brought an end to chattel slavery, the age of “Robber Barons” had arrived, and the Transcontinental Railways facilitated the process of national industrialization. After WWII, the USA was the undisputed number one global superpower.

National industrialization was followed by a 230-year militant labor history that started in the late 1700s, peaked in the 1950s, and to a lesser extent continues today. From the beginning, workers demonstrated a deep understanding of the role of unions as an expression of solidarity and class consciousness. The USA has always had labor unions. Before private sector unions were regulated in 1935, they were illegal. Labor’s militancy started with the founding of the printers union in 1778 and continued with the textile workers strike in 1935. By the mid-1800s, women were leaders in a wide-range of social and political struggles, including the suffragette movement which ended with the right to vote in 1920.
In 1778, the printers briefly formed a union in NYC and disbanded after attaining its goals. In 1791, the Philadelphia carpenters went on strike demanding the 10-hour work day. In1842, the boot makers of Boston were convicted of organizing an illegal strike after their employer hired a non-union worker. In a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1842, the case of Commonwealth vs Hunt, while it did not legalize unions, it ruled that it was not illegal for workers to join together to improve their living standards. 

After the 1842 ruling, union activities spiked. The mid-1800s marked the formative years of labor unions and political organizations. The Knights of Labor (KOL) was formed in the 1869, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU) in 1881, the National Labor Union for Federal Employees (NLFE) and American Federation of Labor (AFL) in1886, the Workingman’s Party of the USA (WPUSA) in1876, the Socialist Party of America (SPA) in 1901, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1905, the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) in 1919, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1935, and in 1955 the AFL and CIO merged. 

The IWW industrial union model opened membership to skilled and semi-skilled workers and was violently anti-capitalist; sentiments that were consistent with the militancy of the rank-and-file. It wasn’t until 1935, the period of wide-spread unionism, that private sector unions would be regulated by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). By 1954 union membership grew to about 34 percent of the labor force versus 10 percent today and the service sector makes up 80 percent; 60 percent of public sector employees can legally form a union. 

In the late 1800s, as union membership spiked, there were hundreds of strikes across the country and unions played a major role in the economy. In 1886, without the support of the union leaders, workers went on strike demanding the eight hour workday. By the 1890s, substandard wages and poor working conditions led the Pullman Railway Union and United Mine Workers to strike, only to be attacked and broken by federal troops. 

The labor movements of 1920s and 1930s offer some interesting insights into the conditions of the labor movement today. For most of the 1920s the CPUSA focused on industrial unionism, forming a labor party and establishing socialism. The CPUSA’s strength was in its membership, the rank-and-file. Militant labor came from the industrial sector which made up about 25 percent of the economy.
During the roaring twenties the government and employers remained hostile toward unions. As a result, notwithstanding the efforts of the CPUSA, union membership and activities suffered a sharp decline. By the late 1920s, organized labor was at a crossroads, the radical movement was isolated from organized labor, membership was at a low point, and the economic inequality gap widened. The main political currents were the Social Democrats, Communists, revolutionary Socialists movements, anarchists and the rank-and-file. Workers were looking for a solution to their plight. 

By the early 1930s, shortly after the 1929 Depression, there was a surge in militant union building activities that lasted into the 1950s. As the effects of the depression dragged on, this was a time of massive organizing drives and strikes, when most workers embraced unions. Communists, socialists, Trotskyists, and militant labor provided the leadership for these uprisings. 

The CPUSA entered the 1930s as the leader of the movement. In some respects, the USA labor movement was the most progressive in the world. Spoken in 1918, the words of the socialist-internationalist-industrial-unionist, Eugene V. Debs, resonated among workers then and now: “I believe, as all Socialists do, that all things that are jointly needed and used ought to be jointly owned—that industry, the basis of our social life, instead of being the private property of the few and operated for their enrichment, ought to be the common property of all, democratically administered in the interest of all.” In addressing the war, Debs agreed with Marx and Engels position that since capitalism is a global system, to be successful, socialism must replace capitalism on a world scale. He went on to say that “Peace based upon social justice…will never prevail until national industrial despotism has been supplanted by international industrial democracy.”
The San Francisco strikes of 1934 and the sit-down strikes between 1936 and 1938 in the rubber and auto industries preceded the largest wave of strikes; after WWII “a crisis was at hand.” Over 5 million workers were on strike in 1946; 320,000 United Auto Workers won a 17.5 percent wage increase from General Motors. Electrical workers, mine workers, railroad workers, meatpackers, lumber men, teamsters, and steelworkers all participated in labor actions, from Rochester to Pittsburgh to Oakland, California.  

But the post war strikes failed to revitalize the militant fervor of the 1930s. The turning point came as the government, union bureaucrats, corporate interests and the CPUSA agreed to concessions which were soft pedaled as the movement demobilized. In return for higher wages and benefits, the CPUSA encouraged members to vote democratic, support the war and war efforts and pledge not to strike during wartime. The FDR administration’s New Deal provided relief from the effects of the Great Depression. It included public works projects to put people back to work, relief for farmers, and unemployment and social security benefits. As the movement waned, the Cold War led to a campaign to roll-back concessions and purge the communists, socialists, and other radicals from unions and the workplace; many union leaders allied themselves with the purge. The movement came to a halt.

All three militant labor movements discussed in this essay (Italian, German, and USA) stalled after they were betrayed by the alliance between corporate interests, the state, union bureaucrats, and reformist political parties. The next labor uprising in this country will have different outcomes once the labor movement revives its class consciousness and rebuilds class unity, while avoiding the mistakes of the past. 

Today, as in the 1920s, the labor movement is under relentless attacks by the corporatocracy and the radical movement is disorganized and detached from organized labor. But it is not only the economy that has been brought into question, the rise of far right populism has underscored the inherent weaknesses of political institutions in this country. Also, the recent spate of labor activities from the teacher’s strikes in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Colorado, to the Gilet Jaunes (Yellow Vests) protests in Paris, to the Google workers walkout, to the 40,000 factory workers strike in Mexico are all reminders of labor’s militancy in the USA and globally. Workers are fighting back against a wave of far right populism and attacks against immigrants, automation and precarious employment in the gig economy, stagnant wages, austerity measures, economic inequality which is at dizzying heights, environmental destruction, government and corporate attacks on unions, deindustrialization and global restructuring. One of the challenges for organizers resulting from deindustrialization and global restructuring is the need for scientific consensus on where the next wave of militants and labor vanguard will come.

While the industrial sector has gotten smaller and corporations have gotten larger, re-structuring has created even greater opportunities for organized labor. Supply chains may be even more vulnerable to strikes, economic inequality has reached staggering levels (8 men own more wealth than the bottom 50 percent of the world’s population), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) fears there could be a global recession, capitalists have run out of tools necessary to reset the system, civic engagement has increased, and isolated protests, strikes and walkouts are ubiquitous and becoming more frequent. These uprisings, many horizontally and self-organized in spite of opposition from union bureaucrats and occurring in some states where public employee’s strikes are illegal, show how much workers are willing to risk as they search for any means of escape from their mare’s nest, which will get worse. This at the very least should attract the attention of the radical Left. The rank-and-file know that the union is more than just a vehicle for collective bargaining, it is an important vessel for building solidarity, class consciousness, a revolutionary workers’ party, and liberation.

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