20 September 2019

Brexit Britain and Weimar Germany – some parallels

Norman Laporte on some suggestive parallels between politics in Weimar Germany and the situation facing Brexit Britain.

A fragmented and polarised party system, culture wars, constant reference to the past world war, xenophobia, the rise of nationalism, claims of regaining sovereignty as political legitimacy erodes – and, not least, referendums as a means of ‘resolving’ major national issues. This is a thumbnail sketch of Weimar Germany. Sound familiar?

So, can the British left today learn anything from that perfect storm at the centre of Europe’s troubled twentieth century?

One key lesson is that ideology, applied dogmatically, is like a trick of the light. The ideologue sees a new world shimmering just beyond the horizon, where only their voluntarism can take us; but when they arrive, it’s gone – and the brave new world of their creation brings suffering for almost everyone.  

Weimar Germany was not short of ideological dogmatism. Communists believed they were the only party able to lead the ‘working people’ to a new and better future. And when unemployment soared in the 1920s, and the ranks of the party swelled, this further reinforced the hard-liners’ view that they alone – without a wider alliance with the Social Democrats – could offer a way out of the crisis.

Meanwhile the leading press baron of the day, Alfred Hugenberg, framed Marxism as the principal threat to Germany, and made every effort to detoxify the image of the insurgent Nazi movement. Both the left and the right were committed to myopic visions of a future utopia.

Labour today is far from the sectarianism of interwar Communism, though there are still lessons it can learn – especially about the need to build a democratic alliance. But the current anti-democratic trajectory of the Tory Party is cause for more uncomfortable parallels.

Thus, for example, the Tories and their echo-chamber in the right-wing media have been keen to resurrect anti-Marxism as a main threat, and the figure of Corbyn as bogeyman. Their aim is to demonise any serious alternative to neoliberalism – particularly one which did very well at the 2017 general election, not least among young voters who could not remember the Cold War. The imagined utopia to which this is counterposed is to become the state of Brexitannia, the ‘global leader’ in free-market capitalism.  

Founding myths: ideas as political weapons

What should be remembered and what forgotten about the past - which version dominates public discourse and takes hold in specific circumstances - is a key question in the battle of ideas to define our times and shape political actions. During the Weimar Republic, for example, it was not only the far-right that claimed a ‘stab in the back’ had caused defeat in the First Word War and the fall of Imperial Germany. Betrayal by the ‘enemy within’ was also a foundational myth of the German Communist Party: it was the treacherous leadership of the Social Democrats, allying themselves with the old order, that had prevented revolution in 1918/19. It was this that underpinned sectarian attitudes to the Social Democrats.

For the Tory Brexiteers, the foundational myth is 1940, when Britain stood alone against a continent under German yoke, and when Britannia still ruled the waves. Brexit is being played out in the language of the Second World War – just as, as Marx observed, the English Revolution of the 1640s was played out in the language of the Old Testament. This framing is not insignificant, particularly since it is so widely echoed in the media. Yet, even as the Tories - officially the Conservative and Unionist Party – present themselves as ‘patriotic’, and acting in the can-do ‘Blitz spirit’, they are repelling the non-English nations in our multinational state, who have moved on from 1940.

When and why do these myths take root? Marx argued that the answer lies in ‘material conditions’; it is these that shape the interconnections between ideology and the social and economic conditions that give rise to politics and political ideas. The Weimar Republic, like Brexit Britain, was a period of rapid, destabilising social and cultural change and economic upheaval, which underpinned the realignment of politics from the ‘centre ground’ to the extremes. The scene was set for the search for scapegoats – the unpatriotic ‘enemies within’ or the ‘outsiders’ undermining ‘national culture’.

‘Economic modernisation’ in 1920s Germany meant that employers were investing in new, more productive machinery to push down wage costs. This produced the structural unemployment that saw many workers abandon Social Democracy – the self-styled ‘party of state’ – and look to the more radical solutions offered by the Communists. When the Great Depression hit its nadir in 1932, the Communist vote almost equalled that of the Social Democrats. A parallel process took place on the political right: every party that took political power was unable to satisfy its own supporters and lost its electoral base to a more radical party. It was this process that led to the Nazi Party becoming a mass movement and dynamic electoral machine, a ‘catch-all party of protest’ on the political right, as Thomas Childers called it. Its core support came from the losers in ‘economic modernisation’ among the old, downwardly mobile artisanal lower-middle classes, and this expanded during the Great Depression to include the upper-middle classes in major cities, who feared communism. 

Ideology, however, also obscured the Communists’ vision. The crisis of capitalism in the early 1930s seemed to validate Stalin’s ‘social fascism’ thesis, which held that social democracy had to be destroyed before revolution could take place. The party even championed the deluded slogan, ‘First Hitler, Then Our Turn’, and refused to abandon it even as the political left – whether communist or social democrat – was being ‘swept’ from the streets into the camps.

The catastrophe of the twenty-first century is more likely to be the global impact of climate change, as powerful entrenched interests – not least in Trump’s America –continue to claim that environmentalism is just another leftist plot against the ‘profit motive’. And here, too, we can expect no more than lip service from a Johnson cabinet. Indeed, under PM Johnson, especially if severe and lasting pain is caused to ‘ordinary’ Leave voters, we risk neoliberalism’s mutation into an authoritarian ‘national populism’ that disdains social and cultural liberalism or concern for the planet. The snarling face of Faragism would likely replace the grinning visage of Johnson in a turn of events far removed from his ‘One Nation’ pseudo optimism.

Some researchers have identified a recent shift in popular opinion from ‘freedom to security’, as expressed, for example in a majority preference for a ‘strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament’. These findings are more than reminiscent of Erich Fromm’s classic study from 1941, Fear of Freedom, when the focus was the Weimar Republic. Fromm’s findings showed that, as insecurity rose in society, so too did the search for the seeming security offered by authoritarian rule under ‘strongmen’ in place of parliamentary democracy, its tensions and divisions.

Stalemate in a paralysed parliament
In the final years of the Weimar Republic, one election followed another – including referenda and regional diet (Landtag) elections: by 1932 there was a so-called ‘Negative Majority’ of the republic’s enemies in the Reichstag, which had been prorogued since 1930, with legislation being passed by presidential emergency decree. According to the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, something similar is an option to overcome Westminster’s Brexit impasse.

Weimar’s mass movements of the political extremes stood on opposite sides of a fault-line between citizens in urban areas and those in small town and rural localities – just like the fault-line over Brexit. The stalemate led to political appeals to the other’s core supporters: the Communists tried to win over rural voters with a ‘Peasants’ Aid’ programme and the Nazis set up a ‘National Socialist Factory Organisation’ to appeal to workers. Both sides also claimed to represent the ‘German nation’ against the ‘humiliation’ of the Versailles Treaty in a propaganda war the Communists – given their close association with Soviet Russia – could not win. Neither party succeeded in winning over the hearts and minds of the other camp, despite some evidence that both sides believed the dam was about to burst.

PM Johnson appears to be adopting this strategy. He has recently announced his rediscovery of the state as a provider of social services to the needy. The Conservatives de facto election campaign clearly turns on a rebooted version of May’s ‘Red Tory’ policy to win over Leave voters in Labour’s small-town heartlands – minus the ‘Magic Money Tree’ mantra of strict controls over public spending. This is a crucial part of the Johnson cabinet’s gamble on making Leave a reality by winning a working parliamentary majority.

Of course, this depends on the target electorate having a short memory. Voters would be well advised to remember the proverb that people can be judged by the company they keep. Step forward Jacob Rees-Mogg, a walking windup of traditionalism elitism, and a man who derives his personal wealth from global financial investments, personifies the ‘off-shore patriot’; and Dominic Raab, whose recent co-edited book cum political manifesto, Britannia Unchained, calls on the poor to pull their socks up and find their inner work ethic, arguing that there is no need for a ‘Nanny state’ to kill them with kindness. Under Chancellor Brüning in the early 1930s, the state was also  to be ‘shrunk’ back to health, in Weimar’s version of austerity.

Time for a popular front?
There is, however, hope for Remainers in an electoral map so fractured it looks more like broken china than the clean break of a warring couple. As long as the Leave camp remains divided – and as suggested by the recent Brecon and Peterborough by-elections – Remain can win. But it can only do so as part of a tactical Remain coalition.

It is here that Labour, the largest – if still divided – party of opposition can learn from the history of the Weimar Republic. The Communists’ policy of treating the Social Democrats as their enemy, to be destroyed before capitalism could be swept away in a revolution, ultimately opened the door for the defeat of the entire left, reformist and revolutionary – and set the country on a path towards something much worse than Weimar’s troubled and failing capitalism.

Rather than the ideological purity of ‘Lexit’ – based on the the utopian dream of ‘socialism in one country’ – the Corbyn leadership should look to the policy that was developed after, and to a great extent in response to, the collapse of the German left in 1933. The ‘popular front’ of the mid-1930s – then against fascism internationally, now against Brexit and the ‘populist wave’ – could be reprised as a tactical alliance of all the pro-Remain parties, putting aside their wider domestic agendas. This won’t be easy, but its benefit could be enormous. Brecon has shown that, in a marginal seat which voted Leave in 2016, Remain can win. It’s just a pity that the Liberal Democrats were the ones to teach Corbyn’s Labour how the ‘popular front’ is done. We can only hope that the Labour leadership are quick learners. If not, Brexitannia – destination unknown and uncharted – is set to sail into the neoliberal sunset.