When Putsch Comes to Shove: Mass Action, Punching Nazis, and Stopping Them Before They Grow

By Jeff Shantz

Times of rising fascism are periods of open, brutal, class war (where the sheets literally slip off). Events of the last year show the desperate need for working class self defense of our communities.

One can learn some useful lessons on the need to treat proto-fascist mobilization harshly and with concerted action, before it grows, in the putting down of the Kapp Putsch in Berlin in 1920, under conditions of Weimar democracy, and two years before Hitler’s own Beer Hall Putsch. One might also ask what contributed to the decisive mass actions of the German working class that did not see a similar response to a fascist push in 1932 when the Nazis successfully broke the resistance (a resistance that never really crystallized for specific reasons we should understand. And what does it say to us about the fight against fascism today?

The Kapp Putsch was an early attempt by the proto-fascist Rightwing in Germany to make a show of strength and to overthrow the liberal Weimar Republic and institute an authoritarian Rightwing government. The revolt in March of 1920 was led by Wolfgang Kapp who was the founder of the far Right Fatherland Party and by General von Luttwitz. The putsch leaders were motivated by their resentment at the conditions of the Versailles settlement to end World War One, a resentment that motivated the Nazis as well and which was shared by many Germans. Notably, von Luttwitz’s Erhardt Brigade used as its primary symbol none other than the swastika. Like later fascist groups, including ones today, Kapp’s Fatherland Party claimed to be beyond politics, above the political fray (neither Left nor Right in today’s terms). The force for the rising was the Freikorps, the precursor to the Brownshirts.

Of some note, the fading of the workers’ and solders’ councils that had played crucial parts in the rebellions of 1918 and 1919 (the Bavarian Council Republic, etc.) played a major part in creating a context where the Rightists thought they could act. The need for compromise seemed diminished to them. They miscalculated. The German working class, and its organizations were united and militant.

In 1920, 1,700,000 German workers went on strike in order to defeat proto-fascism and the far Right but also to push past the limits of the Social Democrats. The working class found unity in its response to the far Right mobilization. The Kapp Putsch was frustrated fundamentally, fatally as workers in various regions went on general strikes. There was organizational development and there were spaces for development of ideas and debates over strategy and tactics on a large scale.

The state showed its true colors as only one participant in this armed Rightwing uprising against the government faced any jail time. And the judges gave him a break because of his “selfless patriotism.”

In Germany in the 1920s the working class was well organized and had a decent understanding of what fascism and violent Rightwing populism meant. By the mid-1930s they had been brought to despair and the institutions of the social democratic Left had played a major part in that. In 1920 at the time of the Kapp Putsch, the Social Democrats seemed to offer people a better life and an alternative to the misery of capitalism and war. This was not so by 1932 at the time of another fascist coup attempt, this time in Prussia.

The German Social Democratic Party, the ruling “socialist” party that had previously come to the aid of the German bourgeoisie in putting down the anarchist and communist uprisings of 1918 and 1919, from the 1920s onward had been at work implementing austerity policies and turning workers away from their class interests (toward phoney national ones). By 1932 German workers had less reason to defend the Social Democrats when the came under attack from the far Right. This politics also allowed some ground for the communist critique of the Social Democrats as “social fascists,” the fatal line of the Communist International. The austerity attacks on the working class allowed for a split of the Social Democrats and the Communist Party. This contributed to the context that allowed the Nazis to rise.

It was the failure of the Social Democrats, and the Left broadly, to provide any alternative to capitalist conditions and to address the desires of the working class for better lives, that motivated much of the work of radical psychoanalyst and libertarian communist Wilhelm Reich in his attempt to understand the mass psychology of fascism. For Reich, the Left bore some responsibility in not developing policies and practices that connected with working class desire. This allowed some to turn to the Right while simultaneously weakening the resolve of many to fight. What was the Left fighting for after all.

In 1932, rank-and-file members of the Reichsbanner were armed and ready for an uprising against the Rightwing government that was about to cede power to Hitler and the Nazis. It would have changed history. But the legalistic Social Democratic leadership prevented it.

In the account provided by historian Richard J. Evans:

“In the situation of July 1932, when Hindenburg, the military leadership and the conservatives were all extremely anxious to avoid provoking a civil war in Germany, an armed uprising by the Reichsbanner might have forced a climb down by Papen, or an intervention by the Reich President. One can never know. The call to resist never came. The law-abiding traditions of the Social Democrats compelled them to put a ban on any armed resistance to an act that was sanctioned by the head of state and the legally constituted government, backed by the armed forces and not opposed by the police.” (2003, 286)

 

As Evans puts it further:

“After 20 July 1932 the only realistic alternatives were a Nazi dictatorship or a conservative, authoritarian regime backed by the army. The absence of any serious resistance on the part of the Social Democrats, the principle remaining defenders of democracy, was decisive. It convinced both conservatives and National Socialists that the destruction of democratic institutions could be achieved without any serious opposition.” (2003, 287)

The communists proposed a united front with social democracy for a general strike. The working classes were in favor of a general strike. The social democratic workers, however, did not go against social democracy. The Communist Knorin (by no means a pristine source to be sure) suggested in 1934 that even limited resistance to preserve Weimer democracy (far from proletarian revolution) would have compelled the fascists to retreat and in denying the fascists power would have contributed to their collapse. It may have won over some of their soft base of support in the middle strata and  peasantry.

Even in January of 1930 there was a chance, though conditions were already not as favorable for the working class resistance. Then, too, the Social Democrats worked to prevent a general strike and opposed a communist demonstration.

In 1920, the unions and the socialists worked together to put down the proto-fascist coup, despite its support by the armed forces. By 1932 that unity was gone. A year or so later so was the Left and so was the possibility of a successful anti-Nazi resistance. By then the only option would be military.

 

Disarming Resistance and the Fatal Illusions of Electoralism

The German working class in the 1920s and 1930s was the most powerful, armed working class (non-statist) force in the industrial West. Yet in the 1930s the Social Democrats disarmed or stood down the armed wing of the working class and the party. This was true in Austria as well as in Germany. These forces outnumbered and could have outgunned the fascists at crucial points in the 1930s.

The disarming of the socialist armed wings was related to the electoral illusions of the Social Democrats and gives us some lessons on the dangers of electoralism as an approach to fascism. The Social Democratic Party was concerned with its electoral chances and wanted to maintain an image of respectability as means to election success. A futile, and historically fatal pursuit.

Thus they shut down the force that could have defeated the fascists in the baseless hope that they could achieve an electoral path to marginalizing the Nazis. It bears little additional discussion but to note that this electoral strategy was disastrous.

And it remains so today. One can see hints of it though in liberal attacks on ANTIFA and appeals to vote Democrats into power as if no lessons have been learned about how liberal centrism might work to stem the growth of angry Rightwing resentment and white supremacist mobilization. And note too that this plays neatly into ongoing projects of neoliberal social war. So-called mainstream conservatives are even calling for elections of Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections and we can refer too to neoliberal conservatives who sided with Doug Jones against the repugnant Republican Roy Moore (or at least offered write in votes rather than support him) as evidence of a new Rightist centrist (actually quite far Right itself) consensus using Trump to move politics further Rightward along with neoliberal Democrats.

The Democratic centrism under Clinton already played a part in the unlikely election of Trump of course. And the Democrats continue to provide only more of neoliberal desperation and despair that fuels Rightwing and white working class resentment and anger (with racism and patriarchalism too of course). And this could serve to broaden susceptibility to Rightwing appeals (as being the only real, possible, realistic alternative).

Now is a period of economic and political crisis. People are looking for answers. That is partly why Trump could get elected in the first place. The search for answers in a time of crisis does not always yield the best answers. People sick of the usual approaches will look outside the usual frames of politics. Democratic-patriotic and pacifist-patriotic appeals are fatal now as they were under the German Social Democrats.

 

Charlottesville and Since

In the period of 1920 to 1932 antifascism had a mass movement and strength that does not exist today. The movement is more marginalized and is by no means a mass movement with broad connections to large sections of the exploited and oppressed.

Charlottesville represented an attempt of the alt-Right to show their overall strength in one place. This was no putsch. It was merely an effort by a fascist Rightwing, feeling emboldened in the first year of the Trump presidency to come out publicly, provide a rallying point for fellow travellers there and elsewhere in the United States, and show some sign of hoped for unity and strength. But it actually showed the relatively minor significance and limited capacity of fascist forces in the US right now. The alt-Rightists picked what they thought was the best place at the best time. They sought a concentrated level of public action, one where their forces would hold a critical mass. But the response against them in Charlottesville and in cities all over the US showed how marginal they are.

And it also showed the strength and appeal of anti-fascism and what might be called the Left (however this might be conceived broadly as anarchist, socialist, communist, etc.).  This was a testament to the courageous action of people in Charlottesville opposing the fascists and of the organizing work done there. It showed the necessity and effectiveness of shoving the fascists off the stage. It did not come without a terrible cost, of course, as fascists killed Heather Hayer and injured others.

Even with a president who is sympathetic to them the fascists in the United States are not having the attraction and base that the antifascists (and the Left more broadly) are. Indeed the broad Left, and the radical anti-capitalists and anti-statists associated with it, are finding perhaps the greatest attraction they have had in generations.

A problem for the far Rightwing is that they do not have a class constituency that they can appeal to. Capital certainly cannot and will not meet peoples’ needs. The alt-Right appeals, as fascist have historically, to the disaffected middle strata, the declasse who feel pinched by capital and by organized labor. In today’s context they are a component of the middle strata who view themselves as  entrepreneurs or artisans (new tech workers, etc.) who feel deprived of the American Dream promised them as they toil in service sector work or the “gig economy.”

Some move to the far Right over a belief that they have to compete over the little that is still available in a context of austerity and social scarcity. And there is a danger that more of the white  working class can be moved to the far Right as the supposed electoral alternative of the Democratic Party continues to offer the neoliberal “no alternativism” and “lesserevilism” they put forward in the figure of Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Fascism is not at a [point where it will take power any time soon. Capital permits fascists to take power when they feel there is some pressing need for it. Right now they have no need to invest in that kind of unruly and unpredictable power. The regular mechanisms of neoliberalism are still working to repress, regulate, and control the working class and resistance movements.

In the 1920s and 1930s, fascism always rose up after a failed socialist or communist revolution. Or failed republicanism in the case of Spain.

 

Overcoming the Psychological Fundamentalism of Non-Violence

Some have expressed a squeamishness about using violence against fascists today. Debates have broken out over the desirability of punching fascists. These are largely tedious. There should be little controversy over the fact that fascists should be punched wherever and whenever they appear. While some might suggest that this is not enough and more needs to be done the answer is, yes, of course. Part of the discussion here is that mass direct action is necessary against mobilizations of fascists—particularly where they grow beyond what they are now. Building that larger anti-fascist base is essential. It does not change the fact that punching fascists is right and proper.   

Opposing and overcoming—putting down—fascism and fascist movements in  the present period will, of necessity, require overcoming and opposing the prejudices of non-violence and the ingrained, socialized, commitment to non-violence in strategies, tactics, and organizing with social movements. This fundamentalist, almost religious, commitment to non-violence, an essential feature in keeping dominated populations pacified and manageable, has infected social resistance movements within liberal democracies like Canada and the United States.

This commitment takes on a psychological (rather than strictly tactical or strategic) aspect—structuring visions of justice, perceptions of legitimacy of action, and understandings of proper or appropriate resistance behavior. It shows how we view ourselves and how we might act in the world to change the world. And it has come to be used as a moral-psychological bludgeon to attack and condemn those within our movements and communities who would pursue other means—direct action and self defense.

This fundamentalist approach to non-violence not only serves to buttress the state and its institutions of domination and control—the true source of social violence, indeed the monopolists of violence in society. It also serves to keep us vulnerable and unprotected against vigilantes of the Right—those who have no qualms about using violence and are often formally trained in the use of violence through military or police training, etc.

Make no mistake—states have no hesitation in deploying violence against movements of the exploited and oppressed. And neither do Rightists who side with the institutions of authority. And the Rightists (militias, “patriots,” Minutemen, survivalists, etc.) are way ahead of progressive forces in terms of training, equipment, and, crucially, the psychological readiness and preparedness to use force against us. We have a lot of work to do to train ourselves and to ready our minds to act, to overcome our socialized and internalized, habitual, non-violence.

Capitalism is always violence. Fascism is a more desperate, unburdened attempt to break resistance. We must understand issues of state imposed violence and repression in relation to fascism.

The state can always turn to fascism for its own aims. White supremacy already relates to racist criminalization and the policing of racialized people and communities. There is a connection to anti-terror laws, programs, and fear politics. These practices have been deployed to target migrant groups and also to break resistance movements and groups and we need to understand that.

Non-violence and legalism go hand in hand. In the face of fascist risings, even in early periods, they are disastrous.

 

Conclusion

The lessons of history, the working class response to the Kapp Putsch in particular, shows the necessity and capacity of mass direct action to put down fascists and fascism early. It shows the effectiveness of such action. And it shows the rightness of it. Regardless of what the moralists of non-violence might suggest.

At the same time another lesson is provided by the subsequent disarming of the working class in Germany and Austria by the Social Democrats. This took away the real working class force that could have overcome the Brownshirts through overwhelming force and defended communities under attack by the fascists. In the absence of this force—again, disarmed by its own would-be leaders and nobody else—those communities were left without adequate defense. We know the outcome. And no moralists of non-violence can change that. That is why anti-fascists insist on punching Nazis, And why we need more.

At the time of the Kapp Putsch the proto-fascist and far Right forces were much larger, stronger, and better organized than the proto-fascsists are today in the United States and Canada. And by quite a bit. They had already had the experience of violently suppressing the workers’ uprisings of 1918 and 1919. They had given the government something to fear. Still, the mass direct action and militant response of the working class in 1920 was able to put down the rising of the Freikorps in 1920.

The basis of antifascist resistance is that we are stronger together. The emphasis is not scarcity but sharing and caring together. A promise of some abundance and security rather than scarcity and precarity. Our strength remains in solidarity and committed, principled action together with a focus on defeating fascism and white supremacy. Our tactics can be diverse. Our goal, as in 1920, is united.

Fascists always target unions and labor organizations. We need to understand this. If it is not defeated definitively it will grow. People can and will turn to fascism out of desperation and a sense that there are no other options.

Of course the current working class and working class organizations (notably unions) in the United States and Canada have no mass based militance, no armed capacities, and few experiences of street fighting resistance. Perhaps more to the point, they have no organized self defense groupings. This is true even in US states where gun possession is accepted and regular activity and in open carry states where a public display of armed working class self defense could be made. Ironically perhaps there is an inverse correspondence between union membership and open carry laws as many open carry states are also highly anti-union and with “right to work” laws in place as well as open carry laws.

 

Further Reading

Evans, Richard J. 2003. The Coming of the Third Reich. New York: Penguin

Knorin, V. 1934. Fascism, Social-Democracy and the Communists. New York: Workers Library Publishers

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