Sunday, June 29, 2008

Fascism, workers and the 'national community'.


Tim Mason has described how the Hitler regime, even once it had physically liquidated its trade unionist and socialist opponents during the first half of 1933, was not capable of simply overriding the interests of the working class. It had instruments of terror, such as the politically committed 'soldiers' of the SA, who would happily apprise intransigent workers of the new spirit of national community if they failed to accept wage cuts and degraded working conditions. And it could rely on the existence of a vast reserve army of labour created by the depression to coerce workers into accepting a more subordinate status. Yet the Nazi regime had to engage the working class and try to s[t]imulate their support. The working class was sufficiently important to the Nazi self-image and propaganda that the Nazi Party's records tended to overstate the extent of working class membership drastically, sometimes doubling the real levels. In truth, at least according to Richard Evans, workers were often those quickest to leave the Nazi Party having joined it, and the real means by which the Nazis expanded beyond their traditional lower middle class backbone was by integrating segments of the upper middle and ruling classes.

The spectre of the working class constantly hovered over the Nazi regime. This is hardly because workers were serenely insusceptible to Nazi ideology. Many workers bought Goebbels' propaganda wholesale, and were quite convinced by the idea of restoring the colonial programme in order to overcome the depression. Those who had not been immersed in traditions of socialist activity were the most vulnerable. Even in conservative Bavaria, however, where repression and depression atomised and disoriented the working class most thoroughly, the evidence suggests that workers were severely hostile to the new regime. When the Nazis created the 'Council of Trust' to consolidate its rule in the factories, early elections showed large numbers of workers, sometimes as many as three-fifths, rejecting the Nazi candidate. Such hostility was felt and expressed most vociferously as wage cuts, longer working hours, and terrible shortages compounded the unpopularity of the regime between 1933 and 1936, with oppositional groups gaining ground in the factories. If the working class no longer expressed its demands in explicit slogans or in the language of Marxism (quite apart from Nazi repression, the disarray of German Marxists in the face of the Nazis' rise to power had pretty well discredited them and angered their supporters), they explicitly expressed a class antagonism which could become the basis for a powerful movement against a highly fractious state. Throughout the Reich, working class self-organisation and collective action was increasingly in evidence in the later 1930s. Though it was rarely understood as directly political resistance to the Nazi state, the regime had to take it seriously and find ways to counteract it.

While the social Darwinist doctrines which the Nazi leadership embraced strongly militated against welfarism, minimum wages or other such anti-competitive practises, the Nazis were nominally a 'workers' party', and had spent a great deal of the pre-1933 era wooing the socialist working class. They were committed to the creation of a 'national community', and such - it was imagined - would eventually be generated through war, in the mythical spirit of 1914. But in the meantime something had to be done about the workers besides the wave of repression and surveillance that was immediately introduced. The Labour Front, though it was a coercive organisation which posed no threat to the German capitalist class (which duly joined the organisation) was one attempt to produce such a feeling of community, and various legal forms were introduced to permit workers to petition their bosses or seek the intervention of the Trustee of Labour, who was to enforce codes of industrial chivalry, in which the role of the employer was now that of a carer as well as a leader. The Nazis had abolished genuine democratic restrictions on employers as well as every gain made since the fall of Bismarck. But the Labour Front, despite the formal restrictions on its scope of operation, eventually became a means by which employers - usually smaller employers - could be disciplined into accepting some concession or other.

It is important to be clear about one thing: to the extent that Nazi institutions pressured employers to assimilate to the imaginary new social order this did not, ever, mean that the Nazis were siding with the workers in a class dispute. One result of Nazi terror was that real wages sank even below the miserable levels that had persisted under Hindenburg and von Papen for the first few years of Nazi rule, (the recovery in later years was a side-effect of the armaments boom). The overwhelming impact of Nazi rule was to disarm the working class, demolish its political parties, drive down its wages, and place a repressive police state at the service of the employers. The conservative-romantic propaganda about a national community that the business class had been disseminating throughout the 1920s became part of the official ideology of a state with an unprecedented grip on the production of ideas. In the long-term, the decimation of working class self-organisation with the resulting retreat to the private sphere and the individualisation of economic struggle arguably laid the ground for a much less politicised working class and a much more stable capitalism in the postwar era. Yet, while that was an admirable record from the point of view of employers, the Nazi Party didn't intend to be simply an anti-communist dictatorship. It intended to turn ordinary Germans into racial warriors.

It was a crucial goal of the Nazis to convert workers to the 'national socialist' doctrine, since these workers would be the footsoldiers of a total war - to colonise Eastern Europe and enslave Russia, having helped conquer Spain and invaded Belgium and France. They had, somehow, to produce a social concert without fundamentally transforming relations of production. (Despite all the talk of a 'planned economy', the Nazi regime didn't in fact obtain real state control of the economy until mid-way through the war, instead tending to rely on close alliances with major corporations such as IG Farben.) The Nazis therefore tended to settle on aesthetic solutions, emphasising the Beauty of Work, the inherent value of artisanal labour, the necessity for 'happiness' to pervade the working environment. This was met with sullen forms of resistance, including defacement of redecorated work premisses and 'anti-social' behaviour.

When it finally came to total war, however, it was necessary to do something very different. Only a politically committed minority could experience a war to the finish between Nazi Germany and its geopolitical rivals as a great adventure and a noble exertion of a restless race. 'Strength Through Joy' was a slogan even less persuasive in the battlefield than in the workplace. So, it was necessary to redistribute wealth in a new way. Götz Aly has shown (in his recent book, Hitler's Beneficiaries) that the Nazis, so far from relying on Germans of any class paying for the war, actively sought to transfer most of the economic burden of the war from German taxpayers to the citizens of conquerered territory. The reason for this was that, the so-called 'Augusterlebnis', the conservative fantasy of Spirit of 1914, could not be duplicated in September 1939. On the contrary, it was obvious that years of Nazi indoctrination, relentless propaganda, repression, the destruction of political opponents, the cranking up of antisemitism, had not created the indicated 'national community'. It is true that this was in part because Hitler had been driven by a national economic crisis to launch his war of expansion far more quickly than he had intended, and thus hadn't adequately prepared the ground for war fever. But Hitler was supposedly an adored national leader. Yet, while Churchill could expect British workers to pay for a war with severely restricted consumption and the purchase of war bonds, Hitler was unable to expect the same of German workers. Instead, the regime bolstered welfare provisions with state subsidies to welfare provisions rising from 640.4 million Reichsmarks in 1938 to 1,119.2 million Reichsmarks in 1943. Meanwhile, invading Nazi soldiers brandished Reich Credit Bank certificates with exchange values set at such levels that they could buy local produce very cheaply. Such measures were paid for with plunder and extortion, in which the Nazis imposed enormous levies for the 'services' supplied by occupying troops and received payment in labour, resources and in several cases, goldbricks.

Aly is far too committed to the implausible idea that the Nazis practised a kind of racially exclusive egalitarianism ("Nazi socialism", as he calls it). In showing how much the Nazi state came to rely on the proceeds of brutal extraction and slave labour to sustain popular acquiescence, he by no means demonstrates that German workers actually benefited from Hitler's war as his title implies. Rather, welfare programmes ameliorated a situation of severe hardship created by war. Similarly, while (according to Aly) most of the increase in taxation within Germany was paid by those with the means - the capitalist class - the overwhelming bulk of profits from the war also went to this class. War was a highly profitable investment on their part, as it often is for businesses, for whom warfare is one of the few activities that will induce them to part with a chunk of their profits. The main force of Aly's argument, however, is that German workers were not 'willing executioners' but largely bought off by a regime anxious to forestall resistance. That of course demands a further interrogation as to the state of a people so available for purchase in this way. And there is no doubt that most ordinary Germans acquiesced in the war, while millions either had knowledge of or complicity in its most barbaric expressions, from slave labour to genocide. But then it is no part of this argument that the German working class remained in a state of pristine opposition to Nazism, splendidly unaffected by its barbaric cadences, secretly in a state of permanent opposition. Rather, it is just that structurally the working class proved impossible to integrate into the Nazi dream of a racial-national community of solidarity - far more so than middle class sectionalism, for example - precisely because of the elitism that characterised Nazi ideology and practise.