One of the few silver linings people see in the election of Donald Trump is that the American progressive forces will coalesce in a united front in order to stop, or at least slow down, the implementation of his regime’s legislative program. The theory is that Trump and his allies present such a clear and present danger to all the progress that has been made over the last few decades that people will put aside their real and their perceived differences to fight the common foe.
Unity is a necessary but how realistic is it? The Left has a long history of fragmentation and too often sectarianism is rife. There is nothing inherently wrong about fragmentation into different political streams or parties as long as people can work together. Sectarianism however is where you believe you have the one true path and everyone else is either stupid, evil, in the pay of your enemies or all three. For example even during the election campaign some stated Clinton and Trump were equally evil. They equated Clinton’s being part of the liberal establishment with Trump’s innumerable fascist utterances and threats. Even everyone’s favourite socialist Bernie Sanders was not immune from being tagged as a sellout.
Politics can be seen in a lot of different ways. I learned that it was a spectrum with people spread along that spectrum from anarchists to Trotskyists to social democrats to liberals to conservatives to libertarians to fascists. The political climate shifts depending where people see themselves so our task was to shift their viewpoint. People can be fluid in their belief and even at times contradictory.
Others see politics as two sides of a line. On one side is the correct course of action, the one true path to salvation or revolution depending on your politics. On the other side are the collaborators, the compromisers and the traitors, the enemy. When you see politics that way, those who disagree with you, are seen not to have legitimate views, in fact those are dangerous views and need to be eliminated.
While the Right can be fragmented, for example the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party, generally it is the Left that is more affected by splits. The reasons for this are varied. Generally the Left is more inclusive reflecting a diverse group of people and opinions, with identity politics and single issue activism more prevalent. It also values the democratic process more highly and has a more skeptical opinion of traditional authority figures.
I should be clear that sectarianism isn’t confined to Maoist zealots crashing someone’s demo or Wobblies denouncing craft union leadership. Social democrats, in their quest for electoral respectability, can be quite vicious towards those who push for a more militant program.
Unfortunately there are too many historical examples of serious and destructive divisions within the ‘progressive’ forces to cite but given Trump’s victory, Germany in the early 30’s would be a useful historical model to examine. I recognize there are some real differences between situations in the U.S.in 2016 and Germany in 1933 but there are also some disturbing similarities.
Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of the German Reich on Jan 30, 1933. The Nazi Party had grown from a fringe group in 1928 to the largest party in the Diet with 37% of the vote in the 1932 election. On February 23 the Communist Party (KPD) was outlawed. After the suspicious fire at the Reichstag on Feb 27th communists were rounded up and the first concentration camps were opened to hold the thousands of political dissidents. In the last democratic election held in March 1933 both the KPD and the Social Democratic Party(SPD) had over 30% of the vote, some 12 million voters. This was even when the KDP was banned and Brownshirts were carrying out a terror campaign against political opponents on the Left. A right wing coalition (the Nazis still did not hold a majority of seats) then passed the ‘Enabling Act’ which gave the government carte blanc to carry out any necessary actions even if they were contrary to the nation’s Constitution. In May trade unions were banned and in July the socialist party (SPD) was also outlawed. As Florian Wilde asks in his article ‘ Divided They Fell- the German Left and the Rise of Hitler’ “how could fascism take power in Germany, the birthplace of Marxism and a country endowed with powerful trade unions, a strong Social Democratic Party and the largest Communist Party outside of the Soviet Union? How was Hitler able to take power without causing a civil war or even a general strike? How could both the SPD and the KPD be destroyed without massive resistance?”
The answer is that the Left was split into a number of different parties who not only were unwilling to work together but in fact they spent considerable time attacking each other. The leadership of the Social Democrats publicly stated there was no difference between Hitler and Thalmann .(the leader of the KPD). The KPD in turn said ‘defeating the social fascists (social democrats) was the prerequisite to smashing fascism.’
As I stated there are differences between then and now so we should be careful trying to draw lessons but unfortunately there are also some chilling similarities we cannot afford to ignore. First off Trump, as bad as he is, is no Hitler. By 1933 Hitler was a seasoned leader with a set ideology and an organized mass following. Americans have a long democratic tradition as flawed as it is. The Germans had only deposed the Kaiser in 1918 and the nascent Weimer Republic was battered by war reparations, hyperinflation and the Great Depression in its short existence.
Parallels are that economic crises and the governing party’s responses have inflicted financial and social pain on the working and middle classes that have fed people’s anger. Both Hitler and Trump are scapegoating different people, Hitler, Jews and leftists and Trump, immigrants and Muslims. Both have promised to make Germany/America great again.
Another ominous parallel is that we are fragmented as they were in the early 30’s. Once Hitler was able to break the most organized opposition, the labour movement, everyone else fell in line. The labour movement in the US is certainly not the force it once was but it still is a formidable opponent and will continue to be targeted by the Republicans. To stop Trump will require the labour movement to unite itself and then, similar to the anti-corporate globalization struggle of 20 years ago, to reach out to a broad coalition.
I usually don’t quote Leon Trotsky too often but he called for a united front against the Nazis by stating “The policies of our parties are irreconcilably opposed but if the fascists come tonight to wreck your organization’s hall, we will come running, arms in hand , to help you. Will you promise us that if our organization is threatened you will rush to our aid?”