Left in the Lurch

Left in the Lurch

LESLIE JONES reviews a resume of Weimar political culture

Weimar Thought: a Contested Legacy, eds. Peter E Gordon & John P McCormick, Princeton University Press, Princeton & Oxford, 2013

Provocative historian Jan T Gross points out in Neighbours that Polish workers only once downed tools in the critical period 1945 to 1948. But the cause of this wave of strikes in 1946 had nothing to do with pay or working conditions or even with the emasculation of the trade unions by the communists. Factory workers in several Polish cities stopped work to protest against the condemnation (in their name) of the perpetrators of the Kielce pogrom.

Such a paroxysm of working class anti-Semitism is somewhat difficult to explain from the perspective of Marxist theory.[i] But so is the crushing defeat of the German organized left in 1933. Hitler, as Martin Jay reminds us in his compelling contribution to Weimar Thought: a Contested Legacy, came to power “with only token resistance from the left”, a left moreover that had been bitterly divided throughout the years of the Weimar Republic.

Yet according to orthodox Marxist doctrine, the whole German working class should have been united “…in a single, coherent movement, both as a force to bring about socialism and as a bulwark against…barbarism…” (Jay, page 378). Class divisions in German society should have widened until a united working class was transformed from a class “in itself” to a revolutionary class “for itself”.

Jay’s objective is to challenge this dubious notion of the proletariat as “a singular collective agent”, predestined to redeem society. He identifies several factors that divided workers in the Weimar Republic, notably age, gender, religion and the growth of a white collar sector that defined itself more in terms of life-style and educational status than class. Certain contemporary commentators considered the masses particularly susceptible to manipulation, including political manipulation, by the new cinema.[ii]

Whereas employed workers tended to vote SPD (Social Democrat) their unemployed “brothers” were more open to the blandishments of the KPD (Communists) or even the Nazis. And some elements of the working class were persuaded that the real enemy was “Jewish capital” and the “Jewish Bolshevism” of the SPD, which allegedly had a disproportionate number of Jewish leaders.

Professor Jay also observes that although the SPD (Social Democratic Party) embraced “virtually all factions of the left” in the years before 1914, this ostensible unity masked some profound underlying divisions. Contra orthodox Marxist thinking, in Evolutionary Socialism (1899) Eduard Bernstein had rejected the notion of an imminent bouleversement of bourgeois society. Bernstein emphasised the continuous improvement in the living standards of the workers in the Kaiserreich, thanks partly to the endeavours of the trade unions and the socialist party. For Bernstein, democracy rather than revolution was the way forward. In Social Reform or Revolution (1900), in contrast, Rosa Luxemburg upheld the necessity of mass action, in particular the general strike. The outbreak of war and the approval of war credits on August 4th 1914 by the majority of SPD deputies brought these divisions to a head.

Although Bernstein, for one, opposed what he regarded as an imperialist war, his pre-war vision of a democratic and non-violent route to socialism clearly anticipated the praxis if not the ideology of the SPD during the Weimar Republic (1918-1933). Thus, in 1918, Carl Legien, the head of the SPD affiliated Free Trade Union, reached a quid pro quo with representatives of heavy industry (Stinnes-Legien Agreement). And in the following year, the government of the SPD leader, by then Chancellor, Friedrich Ebert gave the army and the Freikorps the green light to suppress the Spartacists in Berlin and the other leftist revolutions. In due course, elements of what the writer and critic Kurt Tucholsky called the “fossil class” (i.e. the Prussian Officer Corps) openly participated in the Kapp Putsch of 1920 and subsequently in the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 but went largely unpunished.[iii] Little wonder that the radical pacifist Helene Stöcker considered Weimar a continuation of the militarist state.[iv]

Henceforth the German left was bitterly divided over the so-called “organisational question”. In practice, the SPD in conjunction with the unions sought piecemeal reform by parliamentary methods and became what Jay calls “the mainstay of the new Republic”. In contrast, the Communist Party (KPD) founded in December 1918 and controlled from 1925 by the Comintern, denounced Weimar as a “bourgeois democracy”. It espoused the Leninist concepts of the vanguard party, democratic centralism and the dictatorship of the proletariat, opposing not just reformism but also the doctrine of the spontaneous action of the working class, as championed earlier by Rosa Luxemburg. In his essay collection History and Class Consciousness (1923), Georg Lukács provided KPD thinking with a philosophical veneer. Left to it self, he maintained, the working class would never advance beyond economism and reformism.

Far from co-operating with the rest of the left, in 1923 the KPD joined forces with the far right to try and destabilise the Republic over the issue of French occupation of the Ruhr and the execution of Nazi “martyr” Albert Leo Schlageter. In due course, the Comintern fatefully rejected the idea of a united front of the KPD with the SPD (or “social fascists”) to counter the radical right. Indeed, in 1932, the KPD even co-operated with the Nazis in a strike over the Berlin public transport system. As Sidney Hook memorably remarked, the German left was destroyed “between the hammer and anvil of Fascism and Communism”.

In The Impending Danger of Fascism in Germany (1931), Trotsky warned the German Communists that Fascism would ride over their skulls “like a …tank”. Tragically, his prescient warning went unheeded.


Leslie Jones, October 2013


[i] Although a survey of working class attitudes organised in 1929 by the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt emphasised the prevalence of authoritarianism and conformism. Likewise, in the Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933), Wilhelm Reich identified a divergence between the economic position of the masses and their ideological structure

[ii] See Sabine Hake, ‘Weimar Film Theory’, in Weimar Thought, pp 273-290, at p 276

[iii] See Karin Gunnemann, ‘Writers and Politics in the Weimar Republic’, ibid, pp 220-239 at p 225

[iv] Vide Tracie Matysik, ‘Weimar Femininity’, ibid. pp 361-376, at p 363

This entry was posted in QR Home and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.