Anti-fascists should emulate the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and its organizing efforts in the 1960s and 1970s.
We must realize that fascism is a movement of the disappointed and of those whose existence is ruined. Therefore, we must endeavor either to win over or to neutralize those wide masses who are still in the fascist camp. I wish to emphasize the importance of our realizing that we must struggle ideologically for the possession of the soul of these masses. We must realize that they are not only trying to escape from their present tribulations, but that they are longing for a new philosophy. We must come out of the narrow limits of our present activity. – Clara Zetkin, 1923
In my experience as an anti-Klan, anti-Nazi researcher and organizer in Mississippi from the 1970s to the 1990s, the reference to which I turned most frequently for practical analytical guidance was Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s 1978 book Economy and Class Structure of German Fascism. My 1981 manifesto, Fighting the Ku Klux Klan—Nazi Threat, quoted it extensively.
Sohn-Rethel originally wrote several of the essays that came together in his book in the 1930s and 1940s, one of them as a clandestine Marxist economist inside Nazi Germany and the others as an exile in Great Britain. His most creatively useful insight is in a passage that summarized Karl Marx’s pertinent lessons in Capital Volume One:
“A Marxist analysis will help us to understand the system more fully. We know that capitalist profits are reaped from the amount of work which laborers perform over and above that necessary to produce the value of their wages. This unpaid labor represents the “surplus value” which can be “absolute” or “relative.” It is called relative when its extraction is associated with increased labor productivity because it can be enlarged without an extension of the labor time. This implies a general technological advance of society and marks a progressive stage of the capitalist mode of production. In the early epochs of capitalism the measure of the surplus value depended on the absolute length of the working day and, when this met with outer limits, it depended on the speeding of labor. This Marx calls “absolute surplus value” because the technical and the social conditions of labor then are tantamount to a fixed, absolute magnitude. Judged from the angle of these Marxian categories the essence of the fascist economic system is recognizable as a reversion of the capitalist mode of production from the relative to the absolute surplus value extraction.” [pages 92-93]
This framework provides a more helpful explanation of fascism’s distinctive features than those previously set forth by Marxist theoreticians Georgi Dimitrov (“the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinist, and most imperialist elements of finance capital”); R. Palme Dutt (“a system of direct dictatorship ideologically masked by the ‘national idea’ and representation of the ‘professions,’—in reality, representation of the various groups of the ruling class”); Leon Trotsky (“fascism leaves the social system untouched…the most ruthless dictatorship of monopoly capital”); and Daniel Guérin (“a strong state intended to prolong artificially an economic system based on profit and the private ownership of production”).
In a 1986 Afterword to a second English-language edition, which had not yet been written when I was urging anti-fascist activists to study Sohn-Rethel’s book, Jane Caplan explained the consequences of his teachings clearly and crisply:
“Sohn-Rethel’s analysis has a certain force: He argues that under fascism the extraction of absolute surplus value was the dominant form, and was the means by which German capital was rescued from its valorization crisis. This was made possible only by the Nazi regime’s terroristic disciplining of the working class, which broke the connection between increased productivity of labor and reduction in the value of labor power. This was because the cost of wage goods did not fall, and there was little or no compensation paid for the increased working hours or intensity of labor. In other words, the price paid to labor fell below its value: wages did not rise sufficiently to cover the cost of reproducing labor power….” [page 165]
“As the editors of the German edition point out, Sohn-Rethel’s concept of a reversion to the production of absolute surplus value also gives us a fresh understanding of the hideous “logic” enacted in the enslavement of a workforce and the unremitting workday of the SS concentration camps.” [page 168]
Sohn-Rethel defined “true” fascists, as distinct from bourgeois, as “those who comprehended the regime in terms of the counter-revolutionary class struggle.” [page 104] To achieve this counter-revolution, though, they employ the full arsenal of proletarian weapons. The Nazis supported a communist-led strike of 20,000 transport workers in Berlin in November 1932, a strike that was opposed by the social democrats and the trade union bureaucrats. Yet,
“Needless to say, the fascist party was not anti-capitalist. On the contrary, it thrived on capitalism,—on a capitalism struggling desperately for survival. Only when things went economically wrong for bourgeois society did the Nazi Party flourish and vice versa. Their election successes and membership rose and fell in exact parallel to the unemployment figures. During the years of prosperity between 1924 and 1928 the Nazis as good as disappeared from the political arena. But again, the deeper the capitalists subsided into crisis, the more firmly did the fascist party sit in the saddle over them. Thus it was that the Nazi propaganda painted the weaknesses and misfortunes, the contradictions and sicknesses of bourgeois society in as black a tint as possible. Communist propaganda did the same. Both often sounded the same trumpet, slipped into the same groove, poured their critical bile into the same wounds and only competed to see which one could do it louder and more brashly. And more often than not, it was Goebbels’ ‘Angriff’ (Attack) rather than the ‘Rote Fahne’ (Red Flag) that won. Of course the jargons of their anti-capitalism—the genuine one of the Communists and the fake one of the Nazis—were worlds apart: class concepts here, racial ones there.” [page 133]
Not anti-capitalist to be sure, but fascist governments were and are Bonapartist—they rule dictatorially over all classes, representing the interests of a ruling class that has proven too weak to govern in its own name. Sectors of the bourgeoisie are instrumental in orchestrating the fascist triumph, but it is important to learn what makes certain sectors more reactionary, more terroristic, etc., than others, and what conditions favor their triumph.
The only adequate explanation I’ve seen is contained in Sohn-Rethel’s book, He wrote:
“The essence of fascism is counter-revolution in late capitalism when the standards of bourgeois society are utterly discredited.” [page 155]
This deserves to be reread a dozen times. Late capitalism, when the achievements of bourgeois technology generate insoluble crises, such as this:
“If the prices fall to a level below the cost of production, production can be curtailed and thereby a corresponding part of the proportional costs can be saved. If however the essential part of the costs of production are fixed then the costs will not be lessened by the curtailment of production. And if in this situation the prices fall there is no purpose in compensating this fall by a curtailment of production. It is cheaper to continue to produce below the production costs.” [page 24]
When the standards of bourgeois society are utterly discredited. Often fascist movements have recognized this aspect more readily than much of the left. Attempting to build an anti-fascist movement by reinvigorating the social order that has been utterly discredited cedes anti-establishment ground to the ultra-right. The crisis is not the failure of backward obsolete capital to compete with modern, highly productive capital. It is the failure of the most advanced:
“It is clear, therefore, that enterprises of this new modern type which are run on the principle of structural socialization of labor but continue along private capitalist lines, are under continual coercion to produce. So long as they are not totally closed down, thrown on the scrapheap, so to speak, they must produce regardless of whether there is a demand for their products or not. And if there is no demand of a real kind, that is, of reproductive values, then an alternative demand, that of non-reproductive values, must be created in order to keep the world in motion. Non-reproductive values are products which are not consumed either directly or indirectly into the maintenance or renewal of human labor power and social life or into the renewal of productive machinery. Among these, armaments obviously have pride of place, and in our most recent experience since the 1960s onwards can be added the manufacture of waste products and space exploration. In order to make the demands effective a state power is needed to compel the population to pay for this production.” [page 30]
This, then, is the economic motor of fascism; it is not simply a heavy-handed device to regulate class struggle.
“The capitalist economy can force enterprises into liquidation whose technical efficiency has dropped behind the necessary progressive requirements of production. It cannot do likewise with those which do not conform with these standards for the opposite reason, because they have grown beyond these standards. Their losses have to be transferred to the community by the State. Such enterprises in common with others in the same position put in jeopardy by their paralysis the entirety of finance capital. They are out of step because they have rationalized too quickly the possibility of responding to the market. Capitalism is forced in such cases to provide for the necessity for production which such enterprises require. Schmalenbach was perfectly right with his conclusions that such planned giants of production demand production relations different from private capitalism.
“Had it been possible in the thirties to overcome and discard capitalism then those production relations would have become socialist. Instead they became trans-capitalist—encapsulated in capitalism. The resultant developments described in the following chapters should serve to clarify the way the transcending elements of capitalism contributed to the tilt over into fascism. Marx and Engels predicted that the basic elements for a socialist mode of production would develop within the depth of capitalism. Capitalism can either give birth to socialism, or to the deformed monster of fascism.” [page 30]
Sohn-Rethel goes on to show that the strongest and healthiest bourgeois industries provided no significant support for Hitler:
“In fact we still have to search elsewhere for the industrial driving force behind the catastrophic desperado policies of the Hitler regime; not in the Siemens camp, not in firms such as Zeiss or Leitz or the German machine tool firms, nor in textile manufacturing and the many other active outposts of German secondary industry. For the decisive element was not that these firms did not profit from the armaments business but that they could have flourished even without it.” [page 43]
“But neither could those sectors stop Hitler. They were imprisoned by their own economic prosperity; their only strategy for the duration of the crisis was defensive—to stall, marking time with a liberal or social-democratic regime until the rest of the economy could recover. But the collapsing sectors were “freed” by the crisis.
“The overall position can be summed up by saying that, paradoxically, the economically sound parts of the German economy were politically paralyzed, whilst only those economically paralyzed enjoyed political freedom of movement. This freedom of movement was put to untrammeled use by all the financially desperate elements of the population. These comprised, apart from the unemployed, the white-collar proletarians—teachers, post office workers and the like—and the mass of farmers and small property owners who had a decade ago lost their savings in the post-war inflation and now through the collapse of share prices felt themselves pushed to the brink of proletarianization themselves.
“…the iron and steel magnates had slipped into the subordinate position….Only a determined policy of re-armament could realize their aims and free the full productive potential of their plant from the restrictive shackles of the market system, opening up the sluice-gates for an all-out resumption of activity.” [pages 44-45]
“Both the Army Staff and Krupp kept their distance from the Harzburg Front [the 1931 coalition of German right-wing political forces] until the last possible moment. This was not because Krupp had less enthusiasm for re-armament than had, for instance, Herr Thyssen, but because at that time the firm was less financially desperate for it. Thyssen would have gladly accepted inflation, Germany’s isolation, or every possible risk if only he could at last secure his first order for cannon; Hitler too, if he could only gain access to the state’s coffers. So felt the many candidates of despair who faced economic disaster at the time.” [page 63]
After explaining the conjuncture of forces that swept the Nazis into power—which seems to me substantially parallel to the emerging situation in the United States and other Western countries today—he goes on to explain the economic function of the ostensibly senseless aspects of Nazi rule:
“It was not merely that the fascist dictatorship was particularly indebted to this kind of stupidity and ignorance. This mere psychological fact hides a far deeper motive. The switch to the terroristic control of absolute surplus value production by the state meant that the bourgeois elite had to smash not only the proletarian organizations but also the mass basis appropriate to their own previous control through relative surplus value production, mainly the unions and social democracy; these they had to replace with a different mass basis: that of National Socialism. However, the relationship of the bourgeoisie to this new mass basis is fundamentally different from the earlier one. Social Democracy and the leading elite groups of financial capital belonged together as opposite poles within the same economic regime, that of advancing relative surplus value production. In a fascist dictatorship, the proletariat is excluded as a class from all share in power, but this means that the bourgeoisie stands in a constant polemic with its own unavoidable situation, the objective, blind power embodied in the party dictatorship of its fascist class vanguard. The vanguard is by no means the bourgeoisie’s obedient tool for the disarming of the proletariat. The fascists perform this function only if they can ride roughshod over the bourgeoisie too, forcing it to go the way they want.” [pages 69-70]
Despite this, the bourgeoisie, with a great deal more actual power at its disposal, could not overturn Nazi rule:
“The regular army that the capitalists had at their potential disposal could at any time have put a bloodless end to the Nazi tyranny. What made the rule of the Party so invincible compared with the power potential of the bourgeoisie was the bourgeoisie’s entanglement in the contradictions of its own position.
“…Every real action undertaken against the agencies of dictatorship, an army insurgency, for example, cancels out the very class and profit interest which gave rise to the opposition in the first place. For what would be the point of a bourgeois opposition which, by winning, came to power? The only possible sense it could have would be a restoration of the genuine profitability and profit-making suspended by fascism,—in other words, a return to the rules of economic competition and the methods of relative surplus value production. It would amount to conditions whose previous unrealizability had already caused the plunge into fascism, conditions which had now become all the more unrealizable, for fascism had massively multiplied the disproportions existing at the outset. With every successful opposition action, the bourgeoisie would run into increasingly total economic helplessness and when pushed to the extreme brink of its class rule would have of necessity to create just such a dictatorship as its opposition had had the misfortune to overthrow.
“…We can thus see that the party derives its power not from its own strength or from any original political concept or line of its own but solely by virtue of the unavoidable predicament of the bourgeoisie, trapped between the profit and the loss calculations of its own class interest; as this predicament intensifies, so does the power of the Nazis.” [pages 70-71]
The contradiction of a state-run economy for private profit requires the rule of terror.
“The terroristic power of the fascist party serves not only to eliminate political enemies. It is the suspension of bourgeois laws which is the hallmark of fascism and it is by this means that it financially guarantees that the state can wield its entrepreneurial function smoothly and can aid and abet monopoly capital in its state of peril.” [page 129]
Thus, every aspect of fascism that differentiates it as a political force and as a ruling social order is thrust forward not only by the will of the demagogues and the backing of the most reactionary financiers, characters who are present somewhere during every moment of the bourgeois epoch. A combination of objective conditions elevates fascism to prominence and invests it with momentum—conditions that once again have begun to haunt us.
It is not enough to counter fascism militarily, as Antifa does, though that is important. To truly defeat fascism, we must win over a substantial segment of the social strata that make up its mass base. That is a project that has not been undertaken since the 1960s and 1970s, when the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) challenged white radicals to organize in white communities against racism and for economic and social justice.
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About the Author
Ken Lawrence is an investigative journalist and veteran writer for CovertAction Magazine.
Since the magazine’s founding in the late 1970’s, Lawrence regularly penned the popular column “Sources and Methods.” See the archives.
Lawrence was born in 1942 and raised in Chicago. At age 17, in 1960, he traveled to Atlanta to attend the conference of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and witnessed the emerging civil rights movement at first hand. The following spring, after his second year of college, Lawrence left school to become a full-time activist.
He moved to Mississippi in 1971 to work full time as an organizer and writer. From 1971 to 1975, he was the Deep South representative of the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF), and correspondent for The Southern Patriot, a monthly civil-rights movement paper.
Today, Lawrence is a free-lance writer, researcher, editor, lecturer, historian, and media consultant living in rural Pennsylvania.