The masses against the masses

JVL Introduction

Richard Seymour writes insightfully about fascism in the earlier part of the C20th and suggests parallels with developments today.

To understand fascism’s rise we need to see that its ideological groundswell had been present well before 1914, when millions were infected by volkisch, racial-nationalist ideas.

What the Nazis added to this, suggests Seymour, aside from a “socialist” rhetoric which was swiftly abandoned, was the tactic of stormtrooper terror, which had the effect of radicalising the state repressive apparatus itself

Civil society was terrorised, yes, but it was also an instrument in terror. The masses were deployed against the masses. The left was fragmented and divided.

What about today? Seymour chronicles “the several vectors of right-wing politicisation congealing at the moment, with global consequences: militias, QAnon, far-right parties in government, paramilitaries and hit squads linked to various states, anti-lockdown and anti-mask protests, anti-abortion activism, anti-trans activism, MRAs, and so on.”

It feels, he says, like counterrevolution without revolution, “as if the political rupture building over the last few years had already been hegemonised by a hardline nationalist right…”


Thanks to the Richard Seymour for permission to repost this article.

This article was originally published by Patreon on Fri 2 Oct 2020. Read the original here.

The masses against the masses

“It’s too easy to be antifascist on the molar level, and not even see the fascist inside you, the fascist you yourself sustain and nourish and cherish with molecules both personal and collective.” — Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

In 1932, the twilight of Weimar, Daniel Guérin went hiking across Germany, hoping to find evidence of revolutionary contestation. He was shaken, and demoralised, to find instead the ferment of Nazism. In The Brown Plague, collecting the dispatches he wrote for the French socialist press, he described towns and villages absolutely alive with passion, devoured by desire for the “saviour”, Hitler. They believed that Hitler was going to lead a revolution.

Though the Communists still had their dedicated supporters, they were destroying themselves with Moscow-induced sectarian idiocy. (Arthur Rosenberg, a former member of the Communist Party, was blunt: “the official KPD was totally useless”). The ‘bonzes’ (big shots) of social democracy and the trade unions were complacent, aloof and hiding out in luxury. Meanwhile, the swastika was plastered on schools and town halls. Tens of thousands marched in uniform, tens of thousands watched and cheered. The Horst Wessel song rang out where from loudspeakers. Hitler’s portrait stared down from the walls. There were “deeply disturbing sexual components” in Hitlerism. There was not a huge gap between the “Wild-frei” gangs, with their Dionysian sexual rituals – many of whom would join the Nazis – and the insolent SS boys who loved to strut about in their leather, and the girls who went into paroxysms of excitement when the stormtroopers showed up.

That millions found a thrill of liberation in this revolutionary-despotic movement was palpably obvious. What Trotsky wrote of the Black Hundreds could just as well apply to the fanatical torturers and murderers of the stormtroopers, among whom the unemployed, the declassed, the criminalised, and a sizeable number of workers, could elevate their status with methods learned from hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches:

Now this man without shoes has become king. An hour ago he was a trembling slave hounded by the police and by hunger. Now he feels like an absolute despot, he can do anything he likes, everything will pass, he is master of life and death. If he feels the urge to do so, he throws an old woman from the window of the third floor to the pavements below, he smashes the skull of a baby with a chair, he rapes a small girl in front of a crowd of people.

Fascism, Guérin concluded after returning to Germany the following year, “surged forth from the depths of the German people. It’s because of its popular appeal that it was irresistible, that it swept everything else away; that the workers’ parties, divided among themselves, couldn’t form a front against it; that the old reactionary and feudal Germany had to reluctantly make way for it.” Somehow the masses had come to desire fascism. This conclusion, and the vivid descriptions supporting it, led many of his readers to suspect he had lost his marbles. Surely it wasn’t as bad as he was saying? And yet, how could it not be? Between 1928 and 1933, the Nazis had added 16.5 million votes to their support. Of those, over seven million came from the old parties of the Right, eight and a half million were totally new voters, and at least one million had come from the parties of the Left.

The truly mass character of fascism was verified by Arthur Rosenberg in his analysis of “Fascism as a Mass-Movement” in the year after Hitler took power. It was not sufficient, he argued, to characterise fascism as a conspiracy of imperialist capital, or as a movement of the petty bourgeoisie. Neither had the political strength to accomplish what the Nazis had. To understand the rise of fascism, one had to see that its ideological groundswell had been present well before 1914. Millions were infected by volkisch, racial-nationalist ideas, long before Hitler was even a clamorous, minatory nuisance in the fringes of the German Right. White-collar workers, academics, students, state employees, had all been anti-republican, anti-democratic and thoroughly racist before Germany’s humiliating defeat in the First World War. What the Nazis added to this, aside from their ‘socialist’ rhetoric – which assumed enormous importance in the Depression, in a way that such language never did for Mussolini – was the tactic of stormtrooper terror. Just as the squadristis had in Italy, the stormtroopers leveraged the division and paralysis of the Left while emboldening the repressive wing of the state, giving immense cheer to sections of capital who were turning against democracy, and attracting workers who were long demoralised by the ‘bonzes’ and the failures of the Left.

The Nazis never received a majority in a free election. However, it is clear that by March 1933, amid a campaign of stormtrooper terror against the Left, there was a broad popular consensus favouring core elements of the fascist agenda. Though the Left held on to a third of the vote in this desperate situation, the Nazis had a clear plurality in all but two constituencies. Moreover, it’s clear that on top of the Nazis’ 44 per cent of the vote, millions of centrist and conservative voters were willing to accept a dictatorship against the Left. Adolf Hitler himself was wildly popular, more so than the Nazis. If fascism truly was an ‘anti-mass’ phenomenon, as Ishay Landa argues, it was a mass ‘anti-mass’ phenomenon.

The question is, what happens to the mass once fascism takes power? After all, as the Left fully expected, the Nazis did nothing to fulfil the ‘socialist’ rhetoric they espoused. It cannot even be said that they showed favouritism toward their base. They formed an open alliance with sectors of large industry. Whence the ‘revolution’? In the classical theory of ‘totalitarianism’, it doesn’t matter what the masses think once civil society has been crushed. The masses only exist in what Sartre called ‘manipulated seriality’: they all have the common experience of hearing the leader’s radio broadcasts and reading the party’s newspapers, for example, but they have no organisation among themselves. Therefore, there can be no ‘public opinion’, and no meaningful consent or dissent. At most, it would appear, fascism legitimised itself with superficial, plebiscitary ‘consultations’, but in so doing it didn’t measure public opinion, but the extent of its terroristic grip on the population. This version of events hasn’t been tenable for a long time.

There are two major resources on popular opinion in the Third Reich. The first is the reports of the Nazi secret police, the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), which kept close track of public opinion from every feasible angle. The second is the reports smuggled out through the SPD’s exile organisation, Sopade. These documents clearly convey that popular opinion existed and was expressed (however covertly), was heterogeneous rather than uniform, and broadly supported the regime. There were grievances over specific policies. Most disliked the brutality and corruption of lower Nazi officialdom. Christians resented the Nazis treatment of the churches. Many were appalled to discover that the Nazis were murdering the mentally ill. And there is no evidence that the third or so of voters who backed the Left really changed their minds. But the evidence is that a large majority accepted the regime, and masses were enthusiastic for it. As a Sopade report explained in 1935, the frenzy far exceeded that spirit of 1914 and ‘Augusterlebnis’. “People can be compelled to sing,” it said, “but not forced to sing with such enthusiasm. . . . Hitler has again gained extraordinary ground among the people. He is loved by many.”

Perhaps most disturbing is the role that a large, radicalised minority played in catalysing the regime’s offensive against Jews. The latter findings, documented by Otto Dov Kulka, show that in the run up to the Nuremberg Laws (1935) and Kristallnacht (1938), the Nazi leadership was being pressured to act by violent demonstrations and pogroms. The riots erupting before Nuremberg were largely driven by mass hysteria about Jewish “race defilers” (Jewish men having sex with “Aryan” women), which even a member of the Gestapo described as a kind of “psychosis”. The Nazis had every intention of destroying German Jews, and it was often Nazi party members who instigated such actions. However, some of this turmoil was potentially precipitous for the regime. In the first years of the regime, statements about Jews were, as Robert Gellately puts it, “notable by their absence”. The majority were, if not necessarily supportive of the Jewish minority, not radical antisemites. Moreover, the tumult, in which cops were frequently called “Jewish lackeys” if they intervened, risked causing a rift with police who had thus far been smoothly integrated into the Third Reich. Local authorities, under popular pressure, were acting on their own initiative to prevent marriage between Jews and “Aryans”, arrest “race defilers” and forbid Jews from flying the German flag. The same pattern of agitation occurs before and during Kristallnacht. The regime radicalised its base with intense propaganda, who in turn catalysed and consolidated the regime’s agenda.

This dialectic gets closer to the truth of a fascist regime than the picture of totalitarian conformity. The problem was not the absence of civil society. Civil society was terrorised, yes, but it was also an instrument in terror. The masses were deployed against the masses. It must also be said that the consensus behind the Nazi regime did not fall apart, according to Ian Kershaw, until the middle of the war when it became clear that Hitler was leading Germany to disaster.  Even after the war, surveys of those who had lived during the regime showed half had positive memories of it. This can be contrasted with the very different state of affairs in Italy where, after an initial burst of enthusiasm, the Fascist regime quickly and irreversibly lost all public enthusiasm. By the end of the 1930s, it had little support beyond its middle-class core, and was subject to a lot of contempt. In part, the difference can be explained by the fact that, while living standards in Italy fell, in Germany they rose. Nonetheless, even in Germany, the average worker was consuming significantly less in 1938 than in 1928. The Nazis restored industrial profitability far more than they restored living standards.

In truth, as Richard Grunberg suggests, the “psychological improvement was outpacing the material advantage”. To what did that psychological improvement correspond if not to the regime’s efficient selection and destruction of enemies? This is what we need to think about in our present situation. As we’ve seen, fascism percolated away in the mass of the population long before it was institutionalised. The attitudes, the practices, the ‘microfascisms’, the ‘molecules’ of fascism that eventually bond into a molar fascist dictatorship, pre-dated even the name ‘fascism’. We have also seen that fascism does not, in the first instance, derive its strength from overt state support. Its use of the stormtrooper tactic has, rather, strengthened and given confidence to the repressive part of the state. Moreover, it was never a ‘public relations’ problem for the fascists. To the contrary, it suggested the allure of omnipotence, the erotic glamour of organised violence. It was part of the popularity of fascism. And the core commitment of fascism to race war, to cataclysm, to terror, commanded sufficient popular support that its evident abandonment of conjuncturally important rhetoric against capitalism did not weaken the regime one bit. Nor did its open, escalating war against various ‘deviants’, ‘traitors’ and political enemies. To the contrary, once established, the regime and its base were propelled forward in a dialectic of mutual radicalisation.

This is what we need to think about, particularly given the distributed nature of the current far-right. There seem to be several vectors of right-wing politicisation congealing at the moment, with global consequences: militias, QAnon, far-right parties in government, paramilitaries and hit squads linked to various states, anti-lockdown and anti-mask protests, anti-abortion activism, anti-trans activism, MRAs, and so on. If  we can speak of anticommunism without communism, this feels like counterrevolution without revolution. I have written before as if the political rupture building over the last few years had already been hegemonised by a hardline nationalist right. It now feels as though, given the global crunch in living standards that is afoot, the rupture has only just begun. And, very soon, if the balance of forces doesn’t abruptly change, many of us will face genuine physical danger.

The author writes of himself: “If, somehow, you don’t know me, I am the author of several books, including this hymn to our dearly departed: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics (Verso, 2016). My latest book, The Twittering Machine (Indigo Press, 2019) is a rave-reviewed attack on the social industry: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and the political and cultural effects of the capitalist capture of social life. And I am a founding editor of Salvage magazine. I mostly write marxist political commentary — a practiced purveyor of undead ideas. And sometimes I take strange, nocturnal detours.”

Comments (9)

  • Tony Dennis says:

    An excellent, and highly disturbing, piece of writing. I think we need a follow up which carefully analyses just how, and where, the various currents of the present-day far right (the anti-maskers, the anti-abortion campaigners, the preachers of ‘traditional values’) link with established right wing parties like the Tories and the Republicans, how these groups might coalesce into a politically effective force, and how they might be most effectively fought.

  • Richard Kuper says:

    Remember Michael Rosen’s wonderful poem

    Fascism: I sometimes fear…

    I sometimes fear that
    people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress
    worn by grotesques and monsters
    as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis.

    Fascism arrives as your friend.
    It will restore your honour,
    make you feel proud,
    protect your house,
    give you a job,
    clean up the neighbourhood,
    remind you of how great you once were,
    clear out the venal and the corrupt,
    remove anything you feel is unlike you…

    It doesn’t walk in saying,
    “Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution.”

  • I am deeply disappointed by this article. It is not possible to rebut it in 300 words or so. It says more about Richard Seymour than fascism. To put it at its kindest, Richard Seymour understands little or nothing about the rise of Hitler.

    I was reminded of Daniel Goldhagen’s book Hitler’s Willing Executioners. He too believed that Hitler’s dictatorship rested on consent of the German masses.

    Seymour himself is rapidly moving to the right and this essay is one milestone on his journey. I am surprised though that this shallow and superficial article was considered fit for publication.

    I shall distribute a response since I shall assume that a right of reply will be refused.

  • Graeme Atkinson says:

    Richard Seymour’s article is shallow and, sad to say, rather politically uninformed about the class nature of Hitler fascism and German working class’s resistance to it.

    In particular, it gives no proper attention, let alone credit, to the bitter political and physical struggles carried out by the KPD/RfB, the SPD/Reichsbanner and the ADGB – in other words, the organised working class and its defence organisations – against the Nazis and the whole of the German right before 1933.

    The violent conflict with the NSDAP and its allies, that raged between 1928 and 1933 in particular, claimed hundreds of lives. This is well documented in Eve Rosenhaft’s ground-breaking book “Beating the Fascists”.

    It can be argued with some justice that the militant struggle against Hitler’s brown-shirted marauders was registering success as, before power was handed to Hitler in January 1933, electoral support for the NSDAP was distinctly starting to slide.

    The March 1933 election was not “free” but was conducted under Nazi terror and murder. Even then, the Nazis still couldn’t get a majority at federal level or in Berlin where the KPD garnered more than 383,000 votes and the SPD over 287,000 compared with the NSDAP’s 398,000.

    There was never any lack of will to fight or sacrifice on the part of the working class despite the political inadequacies, errors, failures and betrayals of its leaders. And, there is no lack of evidence of this fact either to be found in numerous books on the period.

    For example, there are the works of Eve Rosenhaft, Richard Bessel, “Jan Valtin”, Oskar Hippe, “Robert Black”, lots of others like Steve Cushion and Marilyn Moos – Google them all – and, above all, the Trotsky/Ernest Mandel collection, that amply testify to the intensity and ferocity of the German working class’s resistance to the fascists.

    A final note: during the ten years I lived in Germany, it was my great privilege to get to know a number of Widerstandkämpfer and Spanienkämpfer. I can well imagine their incandescent reaction had they read Richard Seymour’s article.

  • Bob Reeves says:

    A sobering analysis with much to think about in the contemporary context. Richard’s piece is an important contribution, not just historically but towards understanding of what is happening right now. So, my point here is meant to clarify, meant in the most positive spirit.
    He suggests that the Nazis gained up to 16.5 m votes and cites 44%, but I don’t recognise those figures. They did not do that well in electoral terms. The Nazi party peaked in July 1932 election with 13.7m votes or 37%, compared with the Communist Party’s 5.3m and the SDP’s 7.9m. Or about 36% for the left.
    After the chaos and violence of the autumn the November 1932 election saw the Nazi Party lost electoral ground, as did the left. It gained about 33% of the vote to the left’s 27%. The Weimar system enabled smaller parties, and support had grown for right wing conservative nationalists, many of whom shared much of Hitler’s anti-Semitism and anti-communism but distanced themselves from the brown-shirt ruffians. By January 1933 Hitler, in cahoots with the old aristocratic/ military establishment and big business, staged a coup. It might have been constitutional but a coup. Further elections were then subject to terrifying violent suppression by Nazi thugs.
    Maybe the point for us is that elections can be a vehicle for fascism to mobilise mass support but in the end it is not the vote count they rely on but power and violence.

  • Tony Dennis says:

    I entirely agree that Seymour ignores the working class resistance to the Nazis, and that this is a major weakness in his article. It’s also the case, though, that we do ourselves no favours if we insist on seeing fascism as something entirely imposed on the working class, and ignore the degree to which it was and is able to tap into beliefs and emotions which are already present, at least in a latent form, in all capitalist societies. The idea of an unsullied and ideologically uncorrupted working class is more characteristic of Left romanticism than it is of Marxist analysis.

    We also need to be aware of the obvious, but frequently ignored, distinction between a working class culture and a socialist one. There will be – must be – overlaps between the two, but you don’t have to accept an entirely Leninist view that socialist ideas need to be brought to the working class from the outside, to accept that neither do they arise entirely spontaneously without political education, nor that reactionary ideas – racism, sexism and xenophobia in particular – are not also there and will have to be defeated.

    It seems to me that we can both respect and celebrate the struggle of the German Left against the Nazis, and also accept, as Seymour says, that most of the population acquiesced once they were in power, and that at least a sizeable minority stayed enthusiastic to the very end. If we don’t recognise this, however unpalatable it might be, and try to analyse why it might have been so, we risk being unable to understand the appeal of far right ideas for significant numbers of people in the here and now, and to be unable to develop effective strategies to counter that appeal.

  • Les Hartop says:

    I’m not an ‘anti-lockdown activist’, but I am anti-lockdown. There may be people who are right wing who go on any demonstration about any or all government restrictions, or because they just love Donald Trump, but I think it’s a mistake to consider that most of these people raising objections to the lockdown can be grouped in with Nazis and the QAnon anti semites.

    If I happen to know different scientists with different views to the ones chosen by Boris Johnson, similar to the scientists in Sweden (!), its a bit unfair to say I share anything with ultra right, well, thugs basically.

    If ‘anti-trans activists’ includes people who just raise the question about the danger of non-trans men pretending to be trans in order to go into women only spaces, then I think we have a similar problem.

    The left must avoid dividing against itself, and make sure these topics (like the other great divider, Brexit) can be discussed without fear.

  • DJ says:

    Les Hartop. Anti lock down protestors tend to be drawn from the reactionary right wing of politics. Libertarian free marketeers, anti vaxxers, anti abortionists, the far right including fascists and neo nazis. They often embrace conspiracy theories, some of which are antisemitic and some of which are not. Many on the Tory right who are willing to contemplate a no deal Brexit are also libertarian free marketeers. For these people the pursuit of profit trumps the need for properly funded public health and social care services.For them the covid crisis is viewed as an opportunity to accumulate more wealth by the elimination of public sector bodies to deliver the services required to deal with the crisis. The left needs to challenge the neoliberal ideology which underpins their failure to surpress the virus. As socialists we should demand the privatised test and trace system is socialised, the furlough scheme is extended and those forced to self isolate are properly supported. Lock downs and restrictions placed on our human rights are the result of Tory failures I’m sure you agree with me, that they are not part of some sinister plot of Bill Gates to enslave us.

  • I never thought I’d find myself agreeing with Graeme Atkinson of Searchlight but I do. Richard Seymour’s article is superficial and based on a lack of knowledge. Not only did the working class not support Hitler to the end but it is also true that important parts of the countryside did not do so, as Ian Kershaw points out in Catholic Bavaria.

    The KPD’s strategy was sadly wrong, given that Stalin was not unhappy about the rise to power of Hitler. The idea that the SPD were fascists thus precluding a united front was catastrophic.

    But to quote uncritically from Guerin that support for Hitler ‘“surged forth from the depths of the German people. It’s because of its popular appeal that it was irresistible, that it swept everything else away; that the workers’ parties, divided among themselves, couldn’t form a front against it; that the old reactionary and feudal Germany had to reluctantly make way for it.” and to then say that ‘Somehow the masses had come to desire fascism.’ suggests that Seymour is on a short journey to the Right.

    Graeme is also correct to say that the March 1933 elections were anything but fair. They were conducted under a state of terror, despite which the working class remained firm.

    Seymour also knows nothing of working class resistance during the Nazi reign. E.g. in Augsburg Kershaw tells us that by 1936 the use of the Hitler salute had all but disappeared. A deeply disappointing article

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