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Are we going back to the 1930s? A decade of political polarisation

This article is over 14 years, 3 months old
Matthew Cookson looks at the decade of economic turmoil and political polarisation
Issue 2094
Fighting on the streets of London in 1930. The introduction of a strict means test for the limited availability of unemployment relief led to widespread rioting across Britain in the 1930s
Fighting on the streets of London in 1930. The introduction of a strict means test for the limited availability of unemployment relief led to widespread rioting across Britain in the 1930s

The crisis in the financial markets has sent bankers, media and politicians into panic. Many of them have compared the current problems to the economic crash of 1929, which heralded the Great Depression of the 1930s.

“There is a whiff of 1929 about all this,” the Financial Times said about the recent fall of the Bear Sterns investment bank in the US.

“This is clearly the worst financial problem we’ve had since the Great Depression,” said Joseph Stiglitz, the former chief economist of the World Bank.

This talk conjures up images of the world heading towards a huge slump with millions of people thrown into unemployment, hunger and poverty.

While no two crises are the same, it is certain that today’s bankers and politicians will attempt to make ordinary people bear the load of capitalism’s problems, just as they tried during the 1930s.

But the 1930s show that these plans can be resisted. It was a decade of huge struggles across the world. In city after city the forces of hope and despair fought on the streets.

The 1929 crash ushered in a decade of political and economic turmoil. Thousands of banks and companies went bust and millions of lives were torn apart.

By 1931 almost one in three workers in the US were unemployed, while in Germany even more than one in three workers were out of work.

By the end of 1932 world industrial output had fallen by a third.

The US, where the recession began, also saw some of the most inspiring resistance. The pressure on millions of people’s living standards provoked a fightback.

Socialists played a crucial role in this resistance, which often met repression from the state and the company bosses.

Farmers fought the police to stop their land being sold off. Unemployed workers protested against the state and the bosses, demanding jobs and funding. School children demonstrated to demand the school system provide them with food.

There were 300,000 members of unemployed self-help organisations in the US. They took part in huge demonstrations across the country.

Workers also joined in the revolt. There were strikes across the US against wage cuts, including a 150,000 strong strike by North Carolina clothing workers in 1932.

There were mass strikes in San Francisco, Toledo and Minneapolis.

On 30 December 1936 over 3,000 workers occupied General Motor’s Flint plant in Michigan for union recognition. Their 40-day strike inspired workers in other plants to strike and forced the company to recognise the union.

Workers in other companies followed suit. In 1936 there were 48 of these “sitdown” strikes. In 1937 there were 477 such actions.

Power to resist

These struggles played a crucial role in improving workers’ conditions in harsh circumstances, and deterred US bosses from making further attacks on their living standards.

In many parts of the world ruling class attempts to stabilise the system meant coups – including in Japan and many countries in Latin America.

In Germany, the crisis reached such a height that the ruling class invited Nazi Adolf Hitler to form a government in January 1933.

The ruling class was terrified of the workers’ movement, whose revolution had stopped the First World War, and who still had the power to resist the bosses’ attacks.

The Nazis had grown from a small, isolated party in 1928 to the largest party in the German parliament in 1932. The economic whirlwind had thrown a section of big business – along with millions of people broken by the crisis – into Hitler’s arms.

There was deep polarisation in German society as the crisis hit. The combined support and force of the two left wing parties – the Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party – was always bigger than that of the Nazis.

But the two parties refused to join forces to resist Hitler and allowed him to come to power with barely a murmur of protest.

The resulting disillusionment of the working class allowed Hitler to crush any resistance and force through a one party state, with the support of Germany’s ruling class.

The ultimate result of this was the smashing of the strongest working class in the world, and the nightmare of the Second World War and the Holocaust.

Hitler’s victory boosted the confidence of the right across Europe.

French fascists tried to emulate Hitler in 1934. On 6 February a fascist demonstration became an attack on the recently formed “left of centre” government. The prime minister resigned the next day.

But workers responded to the fascist rising. Five million workers joined a general strike. Separate demonstrations by the Socialist Party and the Communist Party converged in unity.

This threw the fascists back and boosted the support for the left. In 1936 a left government was elected, which included Socialists.

A strike wave greeted the victory, including the occupation of Renault’s plant at Billancourt in Paris. This helped win real gains for workers – such as a 40-hour week and two weeks paid holiday.

Popular Front

Spain saw the highest point of resistance in the 1930s – and also showed the possibility of running society differently.

A general strike in 1931 helped to abolish Spain’s monarchy and establish a republic. In 1934, 20,000 Asturian miners rose up against a right wing government taking office.

They occupied their valleys and fought the military for two weeks before they were defeated.

Workers responded by electing a left wing Popular Front government in 1936. But the military, led by general Francisco Franco, launched a coup against the government.

It wanted to smash the new republic and all resistance. But workers

rallied to the cause of the republic and stopped the coup. For a short time workers in many parts of the republic took over their workplaces and peasants took control of the land.

Ordinary people across the world were inspired by the Spanish people’s anti-fascist war. They fought to defend the isolated republic for three years, before the Nazi-armed forces of Franco finally won.

The Great Depression also had a major impact in Britain – though not as great as the US and Germany because it was offset to some degree by Britain’s access to markets in the empire.

By the end of 1930 unemployment In Britain had risen from one million to 2.5 million. Prime minister Ramsay MacDonald abandoned the Labour Party and formed a national government with the Tories to push through wage, pensions and unemployment benefits cuts.

There was grassroots opposition to this. Unemployed workers rioted, and there was a mutiny by sailors at Invergordon in response to the attacks.

The Communist Party launched the National Unemployed Workers Movement, which at its height mobilised demonstrations of 250,000 people.

The slump increased the tensions between states as well as between classes, leading to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.

Capitalists wanted to grab resources beyond their national borders. Countries without empires, such as Hitler’s Germany, looked to expand their influence. This brought them into conflict with the dominant powers such as the US, Britain and the Soviet Union.

The war, and the massive state investment needed to conduct it and rebuild afterwards, was the means by which capitalism finally escaped from the Great Depression. But capitalism’s recovery had come at a huge human cost.

The crisis today is not yet as deep as in the 1930s. But the system is facing major problems.

A global recession will intensify existing tensions between states. The last decade has been marked by US imperialism leading to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. These have been driven not by the strength of the US but by its underlying economic weakness.

Economic crisis is built into capitalism – a system based on the competition of corporations who put profit above all.

A crisis can lead to devastation for millions, but it can also lead to a huge anger and resistance to the system.

Socialist ideas, which expose the madness of capitalism and point towards a different society, can play a large part in this resistance.

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