History does not repeat, but it often rhymes. As I write this, ‘mostly peaceful’ demonstrations which resulted in the deaths of an innocent Black child in an Atlanta parking lot are becoming less ‘mostly’ and more ‘somewhat not’ peaceful. Major news outlets continue to conflate the hundreds of ‘not peaceful’ demonstrators with the thousands of ‘entirely peaceful’ marchers, which has the result of undermining public support for traditional Civil Rights organizations.
Reactionaries are confronting both ‘entirely peaceful’ and ‘not peaceful’ people in the streets. We now have street shootings. Civil society is collapsing. In order to avoid the fate of the Weimar Republic, it might be worthwhile to review its fate.
Many people know about the rise of fascists in Weimar Germany following World War I. Fewer people know about the strategy and tactics of the German left. After the rise of Stalin, the KPD (German Communist party) actively worked to undermine Weimar. They denied meaningful distinctions between Liberals (in historical sense) and fascists.
Political debate became public displays of ideological loyalty instead of reason. Rather than bolster efforts by civil authority to maintain order and ensure that all parties could gather, the KPD confronted nazi stormtroopers in the streets – with the resulting violence providing the justification needed to shut down political gatherings and speech more generally.
Were the German communists just naively unaware that the result of undermining social democracy could be Nazi power? No. The KPD leader, Ernst Thalmann, influenced by Stalin, took a calculated risk that if they could destroy liberal institutions, the Communists would rule after Hitler.
The approaching Left on Left purge in the United States is not exactly the same as Weimar, but it is similar enough to raise the alarm. Our public square is becoming filled with mass displays of ideological affiliation, with no tolerance of independence, much less dissent. Activist leaders are open about their rejection of liberal institutions, and their embrace of Illiberal tactics and goals.
— Here is an excerpt from an article on the strategy and tactics of the German left during the fall of the Weimar Republic.
“Divided they fell: the German left and the rise of Hitler”, International Socialism: Issue: 137, Posted on 9th January 2013, Florian Wilde
The Communist Party organisation began to change fundamentally in the mid-1920s. Concomitant with the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, Stalinisation of the KPD began under the leadership of Ernst Thälmann. Freedom of discussion and internal democracy were replaced piece by piece by a mood of unquestioning discipline and authoritarian leadership. Oppositional currents were discouraged from speaking openly and eventually forced out of the party. No longer held politically accountable to the membership, in 1929 Thälmann and Stalin agreed upon an ultra-left course against the SPD, concluding that the Social Democrats represented a form of “social fascism”. This disastrous line would eventually prove fatal for both the Social Democrats and the Communists.
The theory of social fascism dictated that Nazis and Social Democrats were essentially two sides of the same coin. The primary enemy of the Communists was supposedly the Social Democrats, who protected capitalism from a workers’ revolution by deceiving the class with pseudo-socialist rhetoric. The worst of them all were the left wing Social Democrats, whose rhetoric was particularly deceptive. According to the theory, it was impossible to fight side by side with the SPD against the Nazis under such conditions. Indeed, the KPD declared that defeating the social fascists was the “prerequisite to smashing fascism”. By 1932 the KPD began engaging in isolated attempts to initiate broader anti-fascist fronts, most importantly the Antifascischistsche Aktion, but these were formulated as “united fronts from below”—ie without the leadership of the SPD. Turning the logic of the united front on its head, SPD supporters were expected to give up their party allegiance before joining, as opposed to the united front being a first practical step towards the Communist Party. Throughout this period the leaderships of both the SPD and the KPD never came to a formal agreement regarding the fight against Nazism.
Another fatal consequence of the KPD’s ultra-leftism was that the term “fascism” was used irresponsibly to describe any and all opponents to the right of the party. The SPD-led government that ruled Germany until 1930 was considered “social fascist”. When Brüning formed a new right-wing government by decree without a parliamentary majority in 1930, the KPD declared that fascism had taken power. This went hand in hand with a deadly underestimation of the Nazi danger. Thus Thälmann could declare in 1932: “Nothing could be more fatal for us than to opportunistically overestimate the danger posed by Hitler-fascism”.3 The KPD’s seeming inability to distinguish between democratic, authoritarian and fascist expressions of capitalist rule proved to be its undoing. An organisation that continually vilified bourgeois democratic governments as fascist was unable to understand the true meaning of Hitler’s ascension to power on 30 January 1933, the day the KPD infamously (and ominously) declared: “After Hitler, we will take over!”
The KPD was able to grow tremendously during the economic crisis. Its radical anti-capitalist rhetoric proved attractive to a large minority of the working class. In elections the KPD went from 10.6 percent (3.2 million votes) in 1928 to 16.9 percent (6 million votes) in November 1932. Its membership doubled in the same time, from 130,000 to almost 300,000. Most of this growth came from the ranks of the unemployed. But despite its phenomenal growth, the KPD was never able to unleash the German proletariat’s revolutionary potential or fundamentally challenge the capitalist system. Its confrontational stance towards the SPD prevented a united struggle against the Nazis as well as the austerity imposed by the capitalist parties. The KPD’s strategy also prevented the development of a realistic socialist perspective that could have pulled many of the Nazis’ unemployed and petty bourgeois supporters back towards the labour movement.
It should be noted that despite employing a strategy that prevented an effective, united struggle, the Communists were at the same time those who fought the Nazis the hardest: hundreds of Communists fought in the civil-war-like street battles that became a common sight in Germany from 1929 to 1933, costing the lives of a hundred Nazis and even more KPD members. After Hitler’s ascension to power no group resisted harder or paid as high a price in blood as the KPD. Nearly every third KPD member went to prison under Nazi rule and thousands were murdered.