The Few

For more than fifty years the ‘United Front’ has been a talisman of the Left. Leading SWP member and journalist, Paul Foot, recently explained why. Astonishingly as Joe Reilly discovers, the whole rationale is based entirely on a series of lies.

Maybe it’s something to do with the Millennium but revisionism is everywhere. You can hardly open a paper without some widely accepted historical truth being traduced as ‘myth’. From the comment of American academic Norman Finkelstien that the Imperial War Museum view of the Holocaust read ‘like a Harry Potter story’; to the Mel Gibson reworking of the American War of Independence, to the refighting of ‘The Battle of Britain’ along class lines.

Yet in the midst all the dissembling, a single paragraph by Paul Foot, on where the blame for the rise of Hitler should lie, is, by some distance, the most treacherous and despicable of the crop. Where The Mirror columnist Charlie Catchpole rushes to the defence of the well cultivated myth of ‘The Few’ as “dashing young pilots with upper class accents” (when as C4’s Secret History shows they were overwhelmingly working class recruits, buttressed, by more than a fair smattering of generally, better trained, Poles) Foot invents a series of myths to malign ‘the few’ in another not unrelated conflict. Catchpole does not attempt to deny the facts explored in Secret History, but was insistent nonetheless that it was “nasty and mean-spirited” of the makers of the programme to bring it up.

‘Nasty and mean-spirited’ were some of the more restrained criticisms that greeted Norman Finkelstein’s book The Holocaust Industry. Unlike Mel Gibson’s, The Patriot, which was accused of inventing atrocities in order to depict the British as Nazis, the central charge against Finkelstien is that he is intent on denying the ‘uniqueness’ of the atrocities committed by the Nazis against the Jews. For Jewish leaders like Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal and Elie Weisel, the Nazi attempted extermination of the Jews was ‘a unique event - and uniquely irrational’. Weisel for example is insistent the Holocaust remains “a religious mystery, unknowable and inexplicable.” (Evening Standard)

As is all too evident, the quarrel generally is not over the hard facts of the past, but more hegemony over the future. For many the past is not history. Indeed in all too often cases as with fascism, the past is not even past.

It is against this backdrop that Foot’s own contribution has emerged. It is a falsification of history at least as politically loaded as the accusations laid against Finkelstien. Because as a mere glance at the map of Europe 2000 shows, the far-right are winning arguments and making substantial political gains hand over fist, without any evidence of a cogent counter-strategy.

Central to this inertia is that notion that fascism was an ‘inexplicable aberration’, and could, had tactics differed a fraction, been entirely avoided, Hitler could have been stopped by entirely legal and, most importantly, non-violent methods. By constitutional means, by democratic elections, by, in a word -pacifism.

Writing in The Guardian on June 3 Foot, by seeking to explain the theoretical underpinning, went out of his way to endorse this line of thinking. “Though their combined vote and their influence in the country was substantially greater than those of the Nazis, both sides - especially the communists - rigidly refused to form a united front against the fascists. The communists, who at one stage were getting 6million votes, renamed the social democrats ‘social fascists’. So great was the sectarian divide in those crucial months before the deluge that the communists preferred even to link up and stage strikes with the fascists rather than campaign in the country and the factories for a unified force against fascism. ‘After Hitler, our turn’ was the boast of communist leader Ernest Thalmann. After Hitler as it happened communists and social democrats were at last united - in the concentration camps.”

Paul Foot is a highly respected and indeed influential journalist, so his thesis deserves to be accorded some respect. I will therefore address the main points chronologically.

Before we begin it is only fair to say that as a simple statement of fact it is in almost every respect false. Worse it is knowingly false. Paul Foot, not to put too fine a point on it, is a liar - and given the level of research on the subject - a brazen one to boot.

 1.   Let’s deal first with his claim that the Communist and Socials Democrats “combined had substantially greater influence in the country generally than the Nazis”. The facts differ starkly. In November 1932 the Nazis took 33.1% of the vote. In this election the Communists were big gainers with 16.9%. This put them little more than 3% behind the Social Democrats on 20.4%. Simple arithmetic, is therefore, all that is required to rip to shreds Foot’s statement ‘that the combined vote for the Left was substantially greater than that of the Nazis’. In November 1932 the joint SPD/Communist vote came to 37.3%. In that election, it amounted to a lead of a mere 4.2% over the Nazis. But this was in a reduced poll. Only three months earlier, in July, the Nazis themselves had received 37.4%! So comparing the results over the two elections reveals the differential to be - 0.1% - and that in favour of the fascists! So Foot’s inference that by merely casting aside ‘sectarian differences’. Hitler could have been stopped, can be dismissed as a nonsense. Also in making it clear whose sectarianism was at fault, it is evident who, in the name of ‘unity’, Foot believes should eat crow. Again what this skates over, is that from 1928 onward, SPD support was in free fall. Unlike Foot, even in voting terms it was not ‘communist extremism’ the German working class were holding to account. For instance in 1928, the SPD took 29.8% while the Communists took just 10.6%. By 1932 the differential had been whittled down to just over 3%. Even the banning of their left-wing rivals couldn’t stop the SPD melt-down which dropped a further 2% to 18.3% in 1933. As bad, Foot totally ignores the reality of all other parties in the Republic being, to one degree or another, (by today’s standards certainly) extremely right-wing. And so while tactics differed, all were united in the fight for the ‘total extermination of Marxism’. So much then for the “substantially greater influence” of the Left,

2.   Foot also throws in that other old SWP favourite, the inference of some sort of routine communist fraternisation. Or the “communist preference” as he puts it, for creating alliances with the Nazis rather than the social democrats. Foot alleges that the communists preferred “to stage strikes and link up with the Nazis rather than argue for a united front in the country and the factories against the fascists”. This too is almost complete rubbish. In truth, while communists enjoyed wide support particularly among the unemployed within working class communities, it was the far larger Social Democrats who held sway in the factories. Barring a miracle, if a ‘united front’ was to materialise from there, the initiative undeniably lay with the SPD. Even more erroneous is the charge of ‘linking up with the fascists’ and the inference of ‘strikes’ jointly staged. To start with, even the use of the word ‘strike’ in the plural, is an exaggeration. On the one occasion the Nazis joined a picket line it was in support of the Berlin Transport Workers Strike in 1932. It was a strike that was indeed communist-led. The Nazis, who at the time, for entirely tactical reasons were emphasising the ‘socialist’ over the ‘national’ in their strap line, felt they had no option but to support it. Otherwise their support from among the German working class (something else the SWP deny incidentally) would have been seriously shaken. “We are in by no means an envious position” Goebells wrote at the time. “Many bourgeois circles are frightened off by our participation in the strike. But that’s not decisive. These circles can very easily be won back. But if we’d have lost the workers they’d have been lost for ever”. The loss of ‘a few thousand votes’ in a more or less ‘pointless election’ was of no consequence in the ‘active revolutionary struggle’ the propaganda boss commented. Not only was the election itself not pivotal as Foot insinuates elsewhere, it is perfectly plain that it was fascism that was forced with gritted teeth, to temporarily adapt to a communist-led class war agenda. The exact reverse of the outrageous Foot allegation that it was the other way round.

3.    So far so bad for Foot you might think. But the biggest and politically most dangerous calumny goes to the very heart of his revisionism. This is the largely unchallenged assumption, of the capacity of the tactic of the ‘united front’ to ‘stop Hitler’ by itself. Numbers alone, (regardless of tactics, which are deliberately never mentioned) would, Foot implies, have been sufficient. We have already identified one gaping hole in it. But there’s more. For Foot, of those who, to quote Pastor Niemoller, “stood up” to the Nazis, it was the “rigid refusal” of working class Communist street-fighters to bond with the Social Democrats, which more than any other factor was responsible for handing the Nazis victory on a plate. But even thoroughly reformist Social Democratic leader Karl Kautsky, generally reviled in Bolshevik circles as “the renegade Kautsky”, appreciated that “acts of violence cannot be prevented by votes and editorials, or by protest meetings”. Moreover, without “organised combat detachments the most heroic masses will” as Trotsky repeatedly emphasised would “be smashed bit by bit by the fascist gangs”.

Even when leaving aside for the moment the pivotal question of political ‘unity on whose terms’, (revolution v reform), the very best in the circumstances SPDICP unity as proposed by Foot could possibly have provided, was - electoral unity only! Yet “a united front” on such a limited basis, Trotsky was absolutely adamant, “decides nothing”. Particularly when the real ‘battle was for control of the streets’. Thus for Trotsky the real “value of the united front”, was “when Communist detach­ments come to the help of Socialist detachments and vice a versa”.

Fascism’s paramilitary cutting edge and the necessary ‘return of serve’ by anti-fascism, is something Foot, as a liberal, entirely ignores as if it were a sideshow. But as any reading of history bears out, controlling the streets was, and was considered to be, strategically pivotal. A reality even the official record of injuries and fatalities bears out. In 1932, the year before Hitler took power, the authorities reported that between January and September of that year, seventy Nazis, fifty-four Communists, ten Social Democrats and twenty ‘others’ were killed in clashes - in Prussia alone. As guns were used only rarely, the level of the fatalities are a testimony to the ferocity of the hand to hand clashes, and also signify that the level and nature of the struggle was both persistent and intense. A low level form of civil war in fact. Other statistics give a sense of the scale of the conflict. Red Aid a communist support organisation committed to looking after victims, prisoners and dependents, reported that, between 1930 and 1931, no less than 18,000 communist volunteers were wounded in such skirmishing.

Not only does the level of struggle gives a lie to the Foot prognosis that this could have all been sorted constitutionally and possibly even more ridiculously by implication - on the result of that one election - it also exposes the myth of the united front solely on an electoral basis providing any form of solution. Moreover as Trotsky makes abundantly clear, the real value, (in total contrast to the SWP interpretation) was not in an electoral alliance but was, first and foremost and almost exclusively a - paramilitary one! A yet even more startling truth is hidden within the dry and dusty statistics. Though a mere detail, it nevertheless explodes the myth of communist intransigence, and emphatically reverses the finger of blame. What the official records show, is that far from communists being ‘especially sectarian’, or having a ‘preference for linking up with Nazis’ pound for pound, and by some distance, the commitment of the far smaller organisation to the fight against fascism, dwarfed and shamed, (though not in Foot’s eyes) the strikingly larger Social Democrat Party. Staggeringly, the Communists had two more of their fighters killed in Prussia in the first nine months of 1932, than the 52 the SPD lost across - the whole of Germany - in the previous eight years! Statistics which are all the more extraordinary, when you consider that in 1928 the Communists had a membership of only 130,000 while around the same time, the SPD boasted of a membership just 30,000 - short of a million! Cold statistics such as this utterly demolish the Foot argument that it was the communists who were guilty of not pulling their weight. On the contrary it is the ‘flabby pacifism’ of the SPD that emboldened the Nazis.

Had the SPD even matched the Communists in terms of the wearing down of Nazi morale; “correct the papa’s son’s patriots in their own way” as Trotsky put it, not just in the “crucial few months before the deluge” that Foot typically refers to, but in the eight years from 1925 onwards when battle was joined, neither party, whether ‘united’ or otherwise would have ended up in the camps.

To sum up, a compound of the ‘Jews first’ (see Hegemony over History, vol 4 iss 7) ‘hardmen responsible’ revisionism favoured by Weisel and Foot produces a unitary view of events, that is both grotesque and Orwellian. Working class communists are written out of history on the one hand, at the same time as being held to account for it’s darkest chapter on the other. To then use, as is the case, this ‘false memory’ “to arm us against any repetition of similar horrors in the future” as Foot argues; to use it as the template for current anti-racist/fascist strategies is, lunatic, and suicidal.

If Catchpole can describe “C4’s attempt to destroy ‘The Few’ as it’s slimiest hour”, then surely Foot’s attack on ‘The Few’ in another conflict, is his slimiest paragraph.

‘History’, as someone once said, is merely ‘prophecy in reverse’. For the SWP, as Foot demonstrates, what is reversed is not prophecy but truth.

Reproduced from RA Volume 4, Issue 8, September/October '00