Socialist Worker

Is the world going back to the 1930s?

The growth of right wing populism and fascism provokes fears of a re-run of a disastrous decade. Charlie Kimber points out that the 1930s not only marked the rise of the right, but also vital opportunities for the resistance

Issue No. 2613

None of today’s fascists yet have the same terrifying power of Hitler’s Nazi party

None of today’s fascists yet have the same terrifying power of Hitler’s Nazi party


The rise of far right forces across Europe and Donald Trump’s racist assault in the US have encouraged a sense that the world is returning to the 1930s.

When the financial crisis broke in 2008, “back to the 1930s” expressed above all a fear that economic collapse might later lead to disastrous political effects. Today there is less expectation of immediate economic dislocation.

But malign forces have emerged out of the economic shock and disillus­ionment with the ­mainstream.

Nearly everywhere rulers are fostering nationalism and racism against migrants and Muslims and pushing through austerity.

Trump speaks about the possibility of using nuclear weapons—and there is an increased drive to war.

Fascist forces are not just marching on the streets. They sit in parliaments—and sometimes around cabinet tables.

After big far right marches for Tommy Robinson - how we can beat the Nazis
After big far right marches for Tommy Robinson - how we can beat the Nazis
  Read More

Such Nazi groups are not the same as traditional conservative and racist populist parties that focus on parliament. Fascists want to smash parliamentary democracy—not just use it to gain office.

But fascists and the ­mainstream right feed on each other—and drive the ­political environment rightwards.

In Austria the Tory OVP party tried to outflank the fascist Freedom Party at last November’s election—then formed a coalition with it. Austria hasn’t become a fascist state, but the fascists control key ministries that help them ramp up attacks on migrants and Muslims.

In Hungary Viktor Orban’s viciously Islamophobic, ­antisemitic and anti-migrant government has grabbed large parts of the fascist Jobbik party’s programme.

And now a new fascist movement called the Our Country Movement is calling for “a Hungary that will remain a white island in Europe”. It declares that it’s fed up of “listening to how everyone is guilty except the Jews”.

In Germany the far right AfD party—half of whose MPs are Nazis—is the official opposition to the Christian Democrat/Social Democrat coalition. And last week the AfD was polling ahead of the Labour-type SPD.

In Italy interior minister Matteo Salvini of the League party has called for a “mass cleansing, street by street, neighbourhood by neighbourhood” of migrants. And he wants a register of Roma people to deport most of them.

Trump acts as inspiration for far right movements. He does not share their aim of building street movements and smashing democracy, but his rhetoric is dangerously similar.

None of these fascists yet have the same terrifying power of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party. By 1932 he had millions of votes—but also over 350,000 paramilitary storm troopers that could physically eliminate opponents and assault strikers and the left.

Italian fascist ruler Benito Mussolini launched his movement by attacking the print works of socialist daily Avanti in 1919, killing four. He developed ­paramilitary squads to ­intimidate and smash opposition.

This has not happened on a broad scale yet, but anyone who fails to recognise the threat is being complacent.

Trump acts as inspiration for such far right movements. He does not share their aim of building street movements and smashing democracy, but his rhetoric is dangerously similar to the fascists.

“These aren’t people, these are animals,” he said about migrants last month. They want “to pour into and infest our country,” he tweeted recently.

“Infest” is a word generally used for pests and rodents. It is a language that dehumanises groups of people, a route towards treating them as worthless.

There are other echoes of the 1930s in the effects of economic crisis. The credit crunch of 2007 wasn’t as disastrous as the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

By 1931 around a third of workers in both Germany and the US were unemployed and world economic output fell by a third.

That scale of destitution has not happened this time, but there has been a slower economic recovery than the 1930s. And while the world economy is growing again, this growth is facing a new challenge from trade wars initiated by Trump.

Supporters of Nazi Tommy Robinson ran amok in central London in June

Supporters of Nazi Tommy Robinson ran riot in central London in June (Pic: Guy Smallman)


The economist Paul Krugman wrote recently that “there’s a pretty good case that an all-out trade war would lead to a very large reduction in trade, maybe 70 percent”. And the overall cost would be about a 2-3 ­percent reduction in world production a year—destroying over half of current global growth.

Even where there is growth, it’s nearly all grabbed by those at the top.

A recent report from the OECD group of advanced capitalist countries said that every year capitalists have taken a greater percentage of economic growth than workers. The result is that “if real average wages had perfectly tracked productivity growth over 1995-2014, they would have been 13 percent higher at the end of the period.”

Even this underestimates the scale of the theft because those at the very top have continued to do extremely well. And in some countries, such as Greece, Ireland and Britain the fall in living standards has been greater than the average.

In Britain we have seen the longest fall in wages since the Victorian era and a war against people on benefits.

Meanwhile in the US over 20 percent of adults are not able to pay all of their current month’s bills in full. Over a quarter of adults skipped necessary medical care in 2017 due to being unable to afford the cost.

Governments have encouraged racism to break resistance to austerity and deflect blame from themselves. But this has not been enough to maintain the hold of mainstream parties—another echo of the 1930s.

Crisis does not just lead to pain for workers. It also causes divisions in the ruling class and opens possibilities for ­massive struggles.

Instead new or reinvented political forces have emerged—sometimes on the left, more often on the right.

As well as the new far right forces, think of the rise of French president Emmanuel Macron’s new movement. It emerged from nowhere to install him as president and dominate the parliament.

In Britain Jeremy Corbyn has rebooted the Labour Party.

Again, the dissolution of the mainstream has not gone as far as the 1930s, but there are echoes of the same effect of the crisis.

In the 1990s Tony Cliff, the founder of the Socialist Workers Party, used to talk of a situation like “the 1930s in slow motion”. He added, “The fact that the film of the 1930s returns, but in slow motion, means there is much greater opportunity to stop the film and direct it in the way we want.”

Revolution and war in Spain in 1936 - a battle that could have been won
Revolution and war in Spain in 1936 - a battle that could have been won
  Read More

Now the film is speeding up. The tasks of resistance are even more urgent. One clear lesson from the 1930s and today is that the fascists cannot be halted by defending the status quo and existing institutions such as the European Union.

It is precisely the capitalist policies so aggressively imposed by them that have wrecked people’s lives and caused such fury against the elites. Instead of seeking to ­maintain the political centre, there has to be a fight to challenge neoliberal policies and to build a movement that can overthrow capitalism.

Crisis does not just lead to pain for workers. It also causes divisions in the ruling class and opens possibilities for ­massive struggles.

The 1930s was not just a time of victories for reaction. It saw the most militant workers’ resistance in US history, including mass strikes in San Francisco, Toledo and Minneapolis and an occupation at the Flint General Motors plant.

In France in 1934, 5 million workers joined a general strike to block an attempted fascist coup. And two years later the election of a left government saw a great wave of strikes that pointed to how workers could win power.

Spanish workers drove out the monarchy in 1931 after a general strike. In 1936, faced with a fascist rising, workers took over large parts of industry and peasants and agricultural workers occupied the land and sometimes collectivised it.

In Britain there were riots, a naval mutiny and the unemployed workers’ movement held huge demonstrations.

Had these struggles been successful in breaking capitalism’s rule, the appalling cost of the Second World War, the Holocaust and nuclear weapons could have been averted. Instead they were too weak—or were held back by their leaders.

This is not a time for compromise or retreat. It is time for the broadest possible resistance to racism and fascism—but also for developing revolutionary ­socialist forces.


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