Socialist Worker

Can Labour leaders stop the fascists?

by Charlie Kimber
Issue No. 1802

DOES THE rise of the far right mean we all have to shut up and unite behind New Labour? Certainly that is what people like TUC leader John Monks are suggesting. There are cynical figures in New Labour and the unions who see the threat of the far right as a useful tool to shore up declining support for the government and to beat down those who want to break to the left.

There is a much larger group of genuine people who do not trust New Labour but feel under pressure to curb open criticism of the government in case it helps the BNP. But the experience of the last 70 years shows that parties like New Labour are never a reliable barrier to fascism.

The far right has gained from bitterness at the policies implemented by Labour-style parties in government. When parties like New Labour push through policies that favour big business, far right parties push their poison of division and scapegoating as a fraudulent solution for the people who have been betrayed.

Under pressure Labour-type parties always give ground to the far right's arguments. This is not done as a conscious strategy to help the Nazis. In fact some people think it is the way to head them off. But all it does is make them seem more respectable.

HITLER COULD not have become chancellor in January 1933 if the SPD, Germany's Labour Party, had fought him effectively. For most of this period SPD leaders were too busy fighting those to the left of them to take on the Nazis.

Many people know that in the 1930s the German Communist Party followed a disastrous strategy of refusing to form a united front with the SPD against the Nazis. But the SPD, the largest working class party in the world at the time, followed even worse policies.

In the revolutionary years after the First World War it was the SPD which saved German capitalism by crushing workers in revolt and murdering revolutionaries such as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Then in 1929, as an economic blizzard hit Germany, the SPD had no answers to the millions whose lives were being wrecked.

The government at the time was headed by Socialist Richard Müller, and its finance minister was Rudolf Hilferding, the SPD's economics expert. It presided over a doubling of unemployment and then collapsed as both the ruling class and the working class lost faith in it.

The SPD then 'tolerated' the rule of 'Hunger Chancellor' Heinrich Brüning from 1930 to 1932 because he was a 'lesser evil' compared to Hitler. But Brüning, leader of the Catholic Centre Party, pushed though vicious attacks which simply fed Nazi support.

In 1932 the SPD supported a vote for the deeply reactionary Hindenburg as German president. This was the man who within a few months would hand power to Hitler and pass the constitutional decrees abolishing civil liberties. Throughout this period the SPD downplayed the Nazi danger.

Nine days before Hitler became chancellor in 1933, one of the SPD's key figures jubilantly announced that the Nazis were finished. 'We no longer perceive anything but the odour of a rotting corpse. Fascism is definitely dead; it will not rise again.'

As Hitler took power the SPD refused to call action because he had done so 'within the constitution and using the measures of legality'. Even after Hitler became chancellor, but before his rule became entrenched, the SPD leaders insisted that workers should wait for elections to protest. Otto Wels, the SPD's parliamentary leader, said, 'The people will have the opportunity in elections to take its destiny again into its own hands.'

The Berlin federation of the party insisted, 'Above all, do not let yourself be provoked. The workers must be preserved for the day of struggle.'

IN ITALY it had been a tragically similar story. In 1921, after a series of murders by fascists, the leader of the right wing of the Socialist Party, Matteotti, advised, 'Stay home-do not rise to provocations. Even silence, even cowardice are sometimes heroic.'

Matteotti became another of the victims of Mussolini's fascists. He was murdered by them in 1924. As a virtual civil war developed, the veteran Socialist Party leader Turati made a speech in parliament where he turned towards Mussolini and said pathetically, 'I shall say to you only this: let us really disarm.'

The Socialists then signed a 'peace pact' with the fascists, which Mussolini's gangs denounced and abandoned as soon as it suited them. When Mussolini seized power in 1922 the Socialist Party and the unions it controlled failed to call any effective action.

CLOSER TO today Labour-type parties have been equally useless in halting the far right. In 1981 the Socialist Party's François Mitterrand was elected French president after 23 years of right wing rule. Over 200,000 people poured onto the streets of France in celebration.

For a year there were reforms and then, as the bosses revolted at further change, the reforms abruptly stopped. Mitterrand's government slashed public spending and froze wages while unemployment soared. The result was anger, bitterness and disillusion, a breeding ground for the Nazis of Le Pen's National Front.

In 1983 as a result of a pact with the mainstream right wing parties, the Nazis made their first electoral breakthrough. They won councillors in the city of Dreux in northern France.

But instead of denouncing the right and confronting Le Pen head-on, Mitterrand pandered to his views. Government ministers attacked striking car workers, many of whom were of North African origin, in overtly racist language. Such capitulation was repeated time and again, and boosted the right wing and Le Pen.

The National Front took two million votes at the 1984 European elections and the French Tories rose in the polls. Mitterrand responded by pushing through electoral reforms that he knew would benefit the Nazis in the hope these reform would also divide his Tory opponents. Under the new system the National Front grabbed 35 MPs in the 1986 parliamentary elections. This was a huge boost to the party and on the back of it Le Pen won over 14 percent in the first round of the 1988 presidential election.

IN ITALY the fascist MSI was a marginal party for 40 years after the fall of Mussolini. The memory of what fascism meant prevented the party from making any sort of breakthrough towards power.

It took Bettino Craxi, the leader of the Socialist Party, to give them a veneer of respectability. Craxi came to office in 1983 after nearly four decades of Christian Democrat (Tory) rule. The MSI had won just 6 percent in the elections but, as he drew up his cabinet, Craxi invited the MSI to talks about the future government. Three years later he had secret talks with the fascists to discuss fracturing the traditional right wing vote. Such treatment was a turning point for the fascists.

Craxi's rule was also marked by systematic corruption and the betrayal of workers' hopes. The MSI grew and continued to prosper as all the traditional parties fell apart during the early 1990s. The implosion of the Socialists cleared the space for Silvio Berlusconi to ride to power in 1994-and to put five far right ministers in his government. It has been the same in Britain. The Nazi National Front (NF) made its strongest challenge after Labour came to office in 1974.

In 1976 the value of the average wage fell by 7 percent. Unemployment reached a post-war high of 1.6 million. The welfare state was systematically assaulted by the Labour Party that claimed to have built it.

Profiting from the disillusion and confusion that followed, the NF took 119,000 votes in the London council elections, beating the Liberals in 33 seats. When anti-Nazis confronted the NF march in Lewisham in August 1977, the Labour Party rounded on those who had taken on the fascists. Bob Chamberlain, Labour's West Midlands organiser, tore into the Socialist Workers Party. 'They are just red fascists. They besmirch the name of democratic socialism,' he said.

In 1978 Labour passed a further battery of racist anti-immigration laws. The home secretary admitted these were 'a device to keep out coloured people'. We want to work with Labour members against the Nazis and to involve Labour MPs in activity against the BNP. But we cannot rely on Labour-type parties to break the far right.

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Sat 1 Jun 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1802
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