Democracy and dictatorship
IN THE PREVIOUS Section on Parliament we examined the proposition that the capitalists could abolish Parliament in the face of a determined socialist majority. Those who imagine that the capitalists can do this, point to Nazi Germany as an example of what would happen if capitalist power were threatened by a growing socialist movement committed to democratic political action. This of course is not a valid example as the mass Social Democratic and Communist parties of pre-Nazi Germany were not expres¬sions of the desire of the German workers for Socialism. Nevertheless, the rise of the Hitler regime and the problems it presents are worth going into in some detail as the myth of fascism or dictatorship as the last defence of the capitalists against the workers still persists.
Under a dictatorship the traditional forms of working class political and economic organisation are denied the right of legal existence. Freedom of speech, assembly, and the Press is severely curtailed and made to conform to the needs of a single political party that has for the time being secured a monopoly in the administration of the State machine. Under political democracy the workers are allowed to form their own political and industrial organisations and, within limits, freedom of speech, of assembly and of the Press is permitted, also the possibility of the electorate choosing between contending political parties.
The Socialist Party of Great Britain has always insisted on the democratic nature of Socialism, and on the value that the widest possible discussion of conflicting political views has for the working class. From its formation the Socialist Party of Great Britain, in a manner unique among political parties in this country, has followed democratic methods, not only in its internal organisation bat also by having all its Executive Committee and other meetings open to the public and by allowing all opponents at our propaganda meetings to put questions and state their case.
We do not unite with non-socialist organisations which claim to be defending democracy, neither do we minimise the importance of democracy for the working class or the socialist movement; it is simply that we are convinced that democracy cannot be defended in such a manner.
As proof of this contention the working class has a rich experience on which to draw. The policy of the 'lesser evil', that is, a policy of concessions to and compromise with non-fascist parties and elements of capitalism, was pursued and justified by the German Social Democratic Party on the ground that such a policy was dictated by the necessity of defeating Nazism. Its total failure points the lesson: that provided the threat of dictatorship is real, the formation of a bloc of non-socialist anti-fascists does not impede the advance of dictatorship but, if anything, serves to expedite its progress. In order to make this point quite clear it is necessary that we should understand the nature of democracy and its usefulness to the working class. Unemployment, poverty, insecurity and other evil effects of capitalism remain, no matter whether the form of its political administration be democratic or dictatorial. Freedom to cry working class misery from the house-tops will not, by itself, abolish that misery. Democracy is a weapon, potentially invaluable, it is true; but, like every other weapon, it can be used either for self-preservation or for self-destruction. And the painful fact is that in Germany the workers, lacking an understanding of how to use the democratic weapon in their own interests, chose instead to commit political suicide with it.
The constitution of the German 'Weimar' Republic — set up in 1919 but already doomed before Hitler took power — was formally one of the most democratic in the world. Nevertheless so miserable had the existence of wide masses of the German people become that in the last free election held in Germany in 1932, a majority of the electorate voted for the abolition of democracy. For in spite of the concern for democracy which is falsely expressed by the Communists nowadays, at the time of that election Nazis and German Communists were united in their hatred of what they called 'bourgeois democracy'. The chief difference between the Communists and Nazis was that they chose different vehicles through which to express their hatred of democracy. Lacking an understanding of their social position, disgusted by the antics and ineptitude of self-style socialists, the mass of the German people found the source of their grievances not in the capitalist nature of the social system but in the democratic form in which it was administered. In their uninformed despair, they fell an easy prey to astute and unscrupulous demagogues, who never failed to reinforce the false belief that democracy was the cause of social distress.
Dictatorship does not exist in a vacuum: like every other social phenomenon it is related to, and has its origin in, a social background. That background is capitalism which inevitably gives rise to working class problems, consequent frustration, prejudices and bitterness which can be exploited by the opponents of democracy. With equal inevitability it also gives rise to problems of a specifically capitalist nature: such as maintaining the profitability of production; securing new and retaining old markets; the necessity of forging 'national unity' when faced with war with rival capitalist groups, and so on. It is precisely in an attempt to solve these problems that the ruling class in certain circumstances has recourse to dictatorship. That these problems can be permanently solved is precluded by the contradictory nature of capitalism itself; but that will not prevent the capitalists from making the attempt where it appears that no other means will serve. As long as the workers support capitalism and capitalist policies they will be tempted ultimately to give their support to the policy best calculated to meet the political and economic needs cf capitalism, though that policy may be one of dictorship.
Democracy for the working class can only be consolidated and expanded to the extent that the workers adopt the socialist standpoint. To renounce Socialism so democracy may be defended, means ultimately the rejection of both Socialism and democracy.
Although the Nazis did not actually come to power until 1933, this was only the culmination of a development the origins of which can be traced back many years before. Defeat in the first world war had as it consequence the breakdown of the German military and semi-feudal State apparatus. When the Kaiser fled, the task of rehabilitating German capitalism fell into the hands of the Social Democrats. They were by far the largest party and had the greatest backing throughout the country from war-weary workers now ready to give parliamentary democracy a trial. In 1919 the Weimar Constitution was drawn up and, as a result of the elections, plus support from the Catholic Centre Party and others, the Social Democrats became the first Republican government. They were handicapped in consolidating their authority by several hostile forces. Principal among these were the Spartacists — followers of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg — and a breakaway section of the Independent Social Democratic Party, both of which desired to imitate the Russian example (later they became the Communist party). Feeling its authority undermined the Government, in order to crush the rebels, enlisted the aid of reactionary generals and officers — the extreme right-wing, as they were called. Such action could not but spell disaster for the Republic, for these reactionary hirelings, once reinstated, plotted against their benefactors and came out openly against the government when its influence amongst the workers had waned. The rehabilitation of capitalism in a defeated country created a mass of problems for a party ushering in a new political regime. The Social Democrats were unable to master those problems and the inevitable discontent vented itself on the Weimar Constitution.
On the other hand, the capitalists, sighing for the return of their markets and trade routes, were beginning to look elsewhere, turning a sympathetic ear to the new message of Hitler's national capitalism, miscalled 'national socialism'.
From being a mere handful of disgruntled officers who had severely suffered in prestige as a result of their abortive attempts to seize power hi 1923. the Nazis soon gained in influence. Adolf Hitler had learned a lot from his failure - particularly the need to win over the people. Hence the new party adopted a programme wide enough to appeal to practically all sections of the population. Mob oratory, anti-semitism and nationalism became his stock-in-trade.
The situation became ripe for the Nazis after 1930. The economic crisis which had then broken out, became aggravated by the widespread withdrawal of foreign investments and the cessation of loans. Meanwhile the numbers of the unemployed had increased to seven millions, whilst those in employment were periodically having their wages reduced. The failure of government after government to master the situation brought the democratic republic into ever-greater disrepute. A state of parliamentary paralysis had begun to set in (the Communists as well as the Nazis were to blame for this), and the Nazis were not slow to profit by anti-parliamentary sentiment. In addition, the leading capitalists ceased their support for the Republic. The Social Democrats had served their purpose. They had preserved German capitalism in the post-war years. They could no longer aid the capitalists in their long-delayed quest for aggrandisement; for that, a new type of militarism was necessary. Not the militarism of the early Bismarkian era, utilised mainly in the interests of a backward landowning group, but one which looked beyond the borders of Prussia for its ideal. A movement, in short, which could bring to reality all the unfulfilled dreams of a century — national centralisation and consolidation, with a view to re-entering the imperialist arena, this time unfettered by any feudal restrictions. The Nazi movement embodied these ideals and Hitler had set them down in Mein Kampf; and so it came about.
With widespread support of the masses, Germany became a 'totalitarian state'. All autonomous regional governments were abolished. Austria, Memel and Czechoslovakia were overrun. Thus the Nazi movement was instrumental in consummating the unification of Germany as desired by the early German capitalists in 1848, in addition to preparing the ground for war.
Dictatorship came to Germany not against the will of the mass of the workers. A majority of them did not even support democracy. Many who did not want the Nazis wanted a Communist dictatorship. The German worksrs cut their own throats. That was the lesson of Nazism.
The political conditions existing immediately prior to the winning of power for Socialism will be quite different from those in pre-Nazi Germany. The workers will not be turning in disgust from democratic reformism to dictatorship. They will be strongly organised on the econrmlc md political fields, ready to establish Socialism and able to cope with any who try to prevent the democratic will for Socialism from being implemented.
The Rise of Hitler: A Warning to the Workers Socialist Standard 1933(.pdf)
The Origin and Growth of Nazism Socialist Standard 1943 (.pdf)
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