Issue 174 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review

1934: rebellion from below

The year 1934 marks the moment 60 years ago when the workers' movement internationally turned towards militancy and resistance in the face of the fascist threat and the misery of unemployment. Chris Bambery looks at some of their fights, while Lindsey German and Chanie Rosenberg review two important books on fascism in the 1930s

As 1934 opened the fascists believed that their hour had come. Hitler was consolidating his dictatorship in Germany. Fascism seemed set to sweep the board in France and Austria.

The traditional party of the French middle class, the Radicals, was losing its support. The various French fascist bands claimed a membership of 1 million. A series of financial scandals involving Radical Party ministers had rocked France. In January a Ukrainian Jewish speculator, Stavisky, was found shot dead in an Alpine resort. The common view was that he had been killed to stop him revealing links with top politicians.

The fascists responded to the Stavisky affair with a mix of anti-Semitism and denunciation of corrupt politicians. On 6 February the various fascist bands called a demonstration outside the Chamber of Deputies, and tried to force their way in. Marbles were thrown under the hooves of police horses, fascists wielded canes with razors attached, railings were torn up to be used as missiles and a bus was set on fire. Not until the early hours were the rioters finally dispersed. Fifteen people were killed and 1,435 wounded.

While all this was going on the Radical government had won a vote of confidence. But the next day, fearing it could no longer maintain order, it bowed to the fascist threat and resigned. A right wing government of 'order' took over. It presented itself as a bulwark against fascism, but to most workers it seemed a step towards fascism.

The Communists and the Socialists were divided. But the main trade union federation, the CGT, called a nationwide strike. The CGT was led by right wingers but its leadership was under more direct pressure from the rank and file than either the Socialist or Communist leaderships.

No one knew how the strike call for 12 February would be met. The French working class had suffered a series of defeats since the end of the First World War. Union membership was low. The Communist Party refused to back the day of action until the day before. The general strike met with a huge response. In the Paris region alone a million workers downed tools. In the capital there were two demonstrations, one called by the Communists, the other by the CGT and the Socialists, which converged on the Place de la Nation. The Socialist leader, Leon Blum, recalled:

In the weeks following, the Socialist and Communist leaders retreated into their old posturing. But at a rank and file level Committees of Vigilance sprang up which mobilised against the fascists. Within weeks the two parties had to enter into a 'Unity Pact' under pressure from below. The French fascists were thrown back from the edge of power onto the defensive. Native French fascism was never able to challenge for power. The working class began a process of radicalisation which would explode in June 1936, with the biggest general strike the world had yet seen and nationwide factory occupations.

Events in France were in strong contrast to those in Austria. Rather than imposing a fascist dictatorship directly, the Austrian chancellor Dolfuss aimed to chip away at the Socialists' power base. In February 1934 he was confident enough to order the Heimwehr (the fascist militia), the police and the army to 'cleanse' the working class areas of Vienna.

The working class districts of Vienna were ringed with artillery and tanks. A three day battle began. But the Socialist Party ordered that resistance should be left in the hands of a few thousand Schutzband (Socialist militia) members. As house to house fighting went on there was the strange spectacle of the bulk of Vienna's workers left to watch the fighting as spectators, cheering on their side! After three days of heavy fighting the Schutzband was overwhelmed. Some 2,000 workers were killed, over 5,000 were wounded, while tens of thousands were jailed. The Socialist Party and the trade unions were banned.

Yet the resistance of the Viennese workers was an inspiration to workers across Europe. The slogan 'Better to die in Vienna than surrender in Berlin' served as a call to action, and nowhere more than in an isolated mining region on the other side of Europe.

For seven years, from 1923 to 1930, Spain had been under the heel of the military dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera. The dictatorship collapsed amidst popular jubilation in 1930. A year later the monarchy was swept away and a republic proclaimed. But the carnival atmosphere soon gave way to a growing polarisation. After years of repression the working class expected great things from this republic. The country exploded in a strike wave led by the revolutionary anarchist trade union federation, the CNT. In the countryside landless labourers seized land. Within a year the CNT reached its peak membership of 1,200,000.

In response, the Spanish upper classes increasingly looked to the newly formed semi-fascist CEDA. The right wing won a victory in the elections of November 1933, helped by the CNT's boycott of the poll. This new government began to crack down on the workers' movement and invited CEDA to join it in office.

The Socialist Party underwent a sweeping radicalisation. Its timid constitutionalism was replaced by openly revolutionary language. Its leader, Largo Caballero, who had previously collaborated with the dictator de Rivera, was now called the 'Spanish Lenin'! Among the party's rank and file this new language had a powerful effect. The Socialist Youth began to describe themselves openly as Marxists.

The Socialist Party joined the Workers' Alliance, a united front which included the Communist Party and revolutionaries. This promised that if CEDA joined the government it would organise a nationwide insurrection. Caballero hoped that this threat would in itself be enough to stop CEDA from taking office. Meanwhile the CNT refused to join the alliance.

Only in one area, the mining region of Asturias in north west Spain, was there true unity. Here the CNT joined the regional Workers' Alliance which aimed to mobilise the workers against fascism, not just to defend democracy but to make the revolution. They argued this was the only way to defeat fascism.

On 4 October CEDA entered the government. The Socialist Party leadership's bluff had been called. Reluctantly it proclaimed a general strike, which with no preparation was a failure everywhere except Asturias. The miners had waited months for what they saw as the day of the revolution. Hastily formed militias besieged the hated paramilitary police Civil Guard posts. Local Workers' Alliance committees rapidly took over the villages and towns, and organised every aspect of local life from food and hospitals through transport and communications to a makeshift war industry.

The miners had few arms but seized on dynamite from the mines to defeat the civil guards. A thousand dynamiters were dispatched to the regional capital, Oviedo. Here revolutionary power was established on the streets. Prostitutes joined workers in bitter hand to hand fighting with the government forces who were driven into a few isolated strongholds. Such was the optimism of the workers of Asturias that they dismissed news of the general strike's failure elsewhere as government lies.

The government sent troops under the command of General Franco to crush the Asturias Commune. In the mountain approaches they faced stiff resistance. Giant catapults rained down dynamite on them. When the 20,000 strong Red Army ran out of explosives they fought with rocks. But inevitably they were pushed back. On 18 October the Commune surrendered. Franco's troops entered the mining communities leaving a trail of murder, rape and torture. Over 3,000 workers died during the revolution and 30,000 were jailed.

Nevertheless the heroism of the Asturian miners was not in vain. They effectively stopped Spanish fascism from coming to power constitutionally as Hitler had done in Germany. Above all the uprising accelerated the radicalisation of the Spanish working class. The left won a sweeping victory in the elections of February 1936, and when in July Franco led the army in an uprising, the workers did not hesitate to take to the streets, to arm themselves and to seize the factories.

Teamsters' strike paper says it all
Teamsters' strike paper says it all

Across the Atlantic 1934 marked an even more dramatic reversal in the fortunes of the working class. A mere 3 million American workers were organised in trade unions before the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Union organisation was confined to craft workers, whose leaders argued that unskilled workers were 'unorganisable'.

In the great steel, car and rubber plants non-unionised workers could be fired at will. They faced a ten to 12 hour day and regular speed up on the production lines. The level of fightback was low. In the Great Depression unemployment topped 18 million. Over 3 million workers were forced to take 10 percent wage cuts. More than a million were homeless, on the road in search of work and food.

The leaders of the union federation, the AFL, were unconcerned with their fate. In 1932 they even opposed federal unemployment benefit! Trade union membership fell by 7,000 a week. In 1932 unemployed demonstrators in River Rouge were machine gunned. Four protesters were killed. In Washington unemployed war veterans were driven off the capital's streets by cavalry.

Yet things were set to change. In 1933 Franklin D Roosevelt was elected president as the Democratic Party candidate. He had promised change which he would not deliver but the vague talk of change encouraged resistance. At the beginning of 1934 there was a brief economic recovery. Unemployment fell by two million to 'just' 14 million. The effect of this was dramatic, removing the threat of redundancy and of the blacklist for many workers.

Three strikes--among Toledo auto component workers, San Francisco dockers and Minneapolis teamsters (truckers)--all unofficial, triggered a nationwide strike wave which swept the old union leaders aside.

In Minneapolis a small group of Trotskyists had spent years working among the truckers, organising the union. At the beginning of 1934 they were able to lead a strike of 600 coal shovellers to victory. The effect of the strike in the city was dramatic and the Trotskyists were able to spread the message that workers could fight and win.

Within weeks all the teamsters walked out to secure union recognition. The strike then spread to affect all the city's workers. The bosses caved in, only to renege on the deal having ensured the state governor would mobilise the National Guard. The second strike which followed remains a model for revolutionaries. Cruising pickets went back on the streets. When they met with opposition from the police they brought out other workers in solidarity. Strikers' wives were mobilised as picket squads, as were unemployed workers. Decisions were taken by mass meetings and an elected strike committee.

The picture in Toledo and San Francisco was similar. In Toledo socialists had organised an unemployed movement which allowed them to win support among car workers which, when the strike broke, gave them a position of leadership. In the San Francisco docks a group around the Communist Party had launched a rank and file paper, the Waterfront Worker. From a small beginning they were able to build an all out dock strike.

Victory in all three strikes was gained by new methods. Each was run by elected strike committees. When cops attacked pickets other groups of workers struck in solidarity. Previously unorganised workers showed great militancy. In Toledo 10,000 pickets defied a court injunction, chased off the National Guard and then bombarded scabs in the plant with rocks using giant catapults made from tyre inner tubes!

Within two years of these strikes America was rocked by a new strike wave which threw up another new tactic--factory occupations. The leaders of the AFL were simply swept aside. A new union federation, the CIO, was built among the unskilled.

The year 1934 was a year in which the fortunes of the working class shifted dramatically. In the case of France, Spain and the United States this shift was unexpected, stemming from rank and file action. What mattered was that socialists could respond to that shift. In the 1930s there were just handfuls of revolutionaries so the main beneficiaries were the Communist Parties, which swelled in size. Today, 60 years on, events are moving with the same urgency.

Friends at the top

'Fascism corresponds to Italian conditions. The organised strength and highly developed political education of the German working class, as well as the relative weakness of the non-proletarian masses in Germany in comparison with Italy, make such a brutal crushing of democracy impossible in our country.'

This statement appeared in the journal of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) in 1929--only four years before Hitler became leader of one of the most powerful capitalist nations and set about crushing its trade unions, political parties and democratic institutions.

Hitler appeared as a right wing lunatic on the political fringe, supported by only a handful of fanatics, for much of the 1920s. How could fascism grow from these tiny beginnings to dominate the whole of the political scene and eventually take power? After all, there were mass Communist and Socialist Parties in Germany and the unions were very strong.

Fascism seemed an aberration, created by extreme nationalists and racists who were in a tiny minority in the country as a whole. So for the Nazis to come within even a chance of seizing power they had to obtain the backing of much wider forces inside society.

The way in which this happened--in both Germany and Italy--is described in great detail in one of the best books on fascism, Daniel Guerin's Fascism and Big Business. Guerin was a French revolutionary socialist writing in the 1930s as he witnessed the seemingly unstoppable rise of fascism in Italy, Germany and then Spain.

He explains that fascism appealed above all to those sections of the middle classes whose lives were being ruined by big monopoly capitalism. The German middle classes had suffered hyperinflation in the 1920s which left many of them destitute, their savings wiped out and investment income rendered worthless. The collapse of a number of banks during the slump in 1931 also hit them particularly hard.

Fascist propaganda had a strong appeal. It spoke of restoring the former national glory of Italy and Germany, of taming big capital and the banks and of helping small businesses and restoring the former prosperity of the middle classes.

A movement based on the middle classes alone, however, could not have succeeded. Key sections of big capital had to throw their weight behind Hitler in order for him to take power. Guerin points out that capitalism does not seek fascist rule. It would far rather carry out capital accumulation in conditions of parliamentary democracy than under the conditions of dictatorship. Democracy is cheap. It allows a safety valve for workers' grievances, preventing clashes between the rulers and the ruled.

'When the feast is abundant, the people may safely be allowed to pick up the crumbs', but when economic crisis hits, things begin to change. The capitalists need to cut wages, raise taxes and slash welfare in order to maintain their levels of profit. Then the democratic institutions which workers have developed can become a hindrance to capitalist rule. 'And so, in certain countries and under certain conditions, the bourgeoisie throws its traditional democracy overboard.'

The capitalist, class is not united in turning towards fascism. It is a last resort undertaken because of the depth of the crisis. Guerin shows that in both Italy and Germany it was the heavy industrialists, in iron and steel and mining, plus the bankers who funded them, who turned to fascism. The bosses of light industry were much less enthusiastic and sometimes hostile. Heavy industry depended much more on a level of economic nationalism or autarky, and of course on military and related spending.

Mussolini addresses rally in Milan 1936
Mussolini addresses rally in Milan 1936

In Italy, Mussolini's March on Rome, which marked his accession to power in 1922, was financed by the heads of the Banking Association. The leaders of the Federation of Industry and the Federation of Agriculture telegraphed Rome that the only possible solution was a Mussolini government.

German heavy industrialists were enthusiastic about the Nazis from relatively early on. Emil Kirdorf, head of the Gelsenkirchen metal trust, was Hitler's 'admirer' from 1927. Fritz Thyssen, the steel magnate, regarded Hitler as his friend. 'By the summer of 1930, most of the great industrialists and bankers associated with them were underwriting the National Socialist [Nazi] party. They gave it the formidable material resources that permitted it to win the electoral victory of September, 1930, and gain 107 seats in the Reichstag [parliament].'

Those industrialists connected with light industry feared fascism and the consequent dominance of heavy industry, but believed they could tame the fascists, who could be a useful parliamentary counterbalance to the left. They soon found out that the fascists had become an independent force who could only be combatted by armed force.

This mistake was echoed by much of the left. The way the left dealt with the fascists effectively strengthened them. The main working class parties insisted that opposition to the fascists had to come through parliamentary and constitutional channels. Sometimes the left and the liberals even helped the fascists to gain a respectable parliamentary base. The liberal Italian politician Giolitti incorporated the fascists into a bloc of government parties, resulting in the election of 30 fascists in 1921. He later wrote:

Mussolini used the election results as a springboard to build his power and to gain a breathing space. He used the time to build fascist gangs, terrorise his opponents and launch his successful bid for power in 1922. Even after this, however, he was careful to pretend that he respected parliamentary democracy until he felt strong enough to crush it in 1924.

Hitler's strategy was similar. He used the election campaigns in order to build his support, claiming--like many of today's fascists--to be just another right wing patriot. In the meantime he built up his gangs of stormtroopers who terrorised Jews, Communists and trade unionists.

The Nazis were treated as a constitutional party, and Hitler only became chancellor in January 1933 with the agreement and collusion of right wing constitutional politicians. Even at this stage the main left wing parties stressed the need for calm and order. Otto Wels, a Socialist leader, said, 'The people will have the opportunity on 5 March [the election date] to take its destiny into its own hands.'

But the fascists used their position to prevent the left gaining in the election. The state of emergency declared after the 'Reichstag fire' (when parliament was burnt down and the Communists were blamed) at the end of February led to Nazi stormtroopers becoming auxiliary police who tortured or killed militant workers, anti-fascist parties could not hold meetings and Communist deputies were arrested. The Nazis did well in the elections, and ensured an absolute majority by outlawing the Communists and sending some Socialist deputies to concentration camps. In the months that followed all democratic organisations were brutally suppressed.

The Nazis had used their democratic platforms to destroy all democracy, just as Mussolini had before them. Hitler summed up the fatal flaw in the anti-fascist strategy:

Instead the Nazis were given crucial time both to put on a respectable face and to use the armed bands of stormtroopers to smash up union offices and intimidate militants.

Could it have been any different? Guerin argues very persuasively yes. Firstly, the workers' movements in Italy and Germany could have been mobilised to prevent the fascists' growth. Divisions among the different workers' parties, a sense that parliamentary opposition was enough, and of political complacency all contributed to defeat.

Nor was it automatic that the middle classes would back fascism. They had good reasons to hate the capitalist system and big business, which had ruined them. But the middle classes had no coherent strategy or class politics of their own and were therefore dragged in the wake of one or the other of the main classes. Tragically, the working class did not develop the successful struggles which could have given a lead and a sense of confidence to sections of the middle classes.

The victorious fascists were careful not to seriously damage the privileges of the capitalist class. This led to tensions among their supporters, who had been fed anti-capitalist rhetoric. In both Italy and Germany the fascist leaders turned on their popular base when it became any sort of challenge to big capitalism. In Italy the fascist militias were integrated into the regular army.

In Germany, Hitler eventually had to physically crush his stormtroopers, with the full backing of the capitalists. Two days after Hitler visited the arms manufacturer, Krupp, in June 1934, he carried out the Night of the Long Knives, having many of his oldest fascist collaborators shot. From then on the main support of the fascist dictatorship was the regular army. This and the German capitalist class backed Hitler right to the end of the war in 1945.

The great strength of Guerin's book is its demonstration that fascism was never inevitable--its rise was due to the failure of the class struggle and the weaknesses of the workers' parties. The German revolutionary Clara Zetkin wrote in 1923, 'Fascism is the punishment inflicted on the proletariat for not having continued the revolution begun in Russia.' We have to relearn that lesson today.

Fascism and Big Business by Daniel Guerin is published by Pathfinder and is available from Bookmarks, 265 Seven Sisters Rd, London N4. Price £12.95 (plus postage)

The cry of unity

A year after the publication of Ignazio Silone's Fontamara in 1933 it became a bestseller in 14 countries, moving many a reader to become an active revolutionary. Its subsequent virtual disappearance has been a tragic loss, and its republication by Redwords should be heartily celebrated.

Fontamara is the tale of a small village in Southern Italy under the heel of Mussolini's fascism in the 1920s. It starts with the centuries old unchanging cycle of the peasants' lives--grinding poverty, perpetual double crossing by their urban exploiters, breadline survival. It leads on to the rapid changes wrought through the tightening of the screws of economic and political exploitation by the victorious new breed of super-exploiters, who are backed at every stage with new laws and new taxes levied by the fascist government.

The two souls of the peasant vie with each other to find a way out. One is to fight for salvation for your own self and family against the other peasant families suffering the same plight. The other is to unite and fight together against the exploiters for the benefit of all.

Fontamara traces the transition from the one to the other brilliantly, as the pressure on the peasants becomes intolerable. In fact, that is the whole purpose of the book.

The chief capitalist of the area--the mayor--steals the water that irrigated the peasants' tiny plots by diverting the stream from the village to his own lands. The women march to town to protest to the mayor and extract a promise of three quarters of the water for the mayor and three quarters of the rest for Fontamara. They fail to comprehend the arithmetical trick but go home. When the waters are actually divided and the peasants see that they have been given practically no water at all there is uproar.

A notable called the People's Friend suggests that as the division is perfectly legal it should remain in force, but for a fixed term. '50 years,' says the mayor to a howl of protest from the peasants. After further quarrels the People's Friend suggests ten lustres, which he obligingly gets the mayor to agree to. Again, no one knows what a lustrum is (it is actually five years). There is no way the peasants can agree to the theft of their water as their food supply depends on it--the unirrigated land pays the debts and taxes. The peasants' dilemma is embodied in a landless peasant, Berardo, who, being bolder than the rest, they look up to as their leader. Berardo was suspected of being behind the burning down of the mayor's fence enclosing stolen common grazing ground and other acts of arson and sabotage. But he falls in love and gives up his care for the peasants' interests, going to town to earn money, buy a plot and marry.

However, events in the town, following a police report on his previous conduct as the 'worst possible', prevent him getting a job and eventually land him in prison, together with a revolutionary he meets. A day and night of fervid discussion in prison with the revolutionary bring him back to the revolutionary path, but this time not to the saboteur's cry of 'fire' but to the socialist's cry of 'unity'. To secure the revolutionary's freedom Berardo takes the blame for his illegal literature and is tortured.

Their intensified persecution, and what happened to Berardo, rapidly turn the peasants from a quarrelsome collection of 'each against all' into a communal group of revolutionaries. In a nearby village the peasants rise up against their exploiters. In Fontamara they unite to produce a revolutionary paper which they distribute in surrounding villages.

A bare outline of the plot of the book cannot begin to give a flavour of its passion, its bitter humour, its great artistry.

Ignazio Silone was born in 1900 and brought up in the small town of Pescina, the son of a small landowner and weaver. He was a revolutionary from an early age, a member of the Peasant League of Pescina in 1917 during the First World War. He was tried on a charge of instigating a peasant anti-war revolt, and his experience put him in contact with socialists.

A year later Silone became secretary of the Socialist Youth of Rome. He continued moving leftwards and in 1921 became a founding member of the Communist Party. He was forced to leave Italy after Mussolini's March on Rome in 1922, but returned in 1925 to engage in illegal work. He spent a number of brief periods in prison.

There could not be a more fitting background for the production of a great novel of political propaganda against fascism. Silone, the peasant son, sees the peasants as they really are, without sentimentality, without embellishment, warts and all. Silone the Marxist revolutionary knows how to generalise the peasants' experience, to see and chart the changes in their consciousness from atomised individuals, floundering indignantly but hopelessly under the battering of fascism, into a body taking control of their collective fate. He weaves the development and fate of the 'hero' into the story illustrating vividly the role of the individual in history.

Ignazio Silone completed Fontamara in 1930. In the same year he left the Communist Party, unable the accept the actions of the Comintern over the Chinese Revolution in 1927--in particular its condemnation of Trotsky's intervention. But Silone subsequently moved to the right. He repudiated Marxism, although he remained a right wing socialist. This political shift affected his later output, reducing both his passionate attack on the capitalist system and the clarity of his political insights.

Fontamara is the jewel of Silone's writings. It is one of the first books every socialist should read today.

For your free copy of Fontamara--published by Redwords this month price £6.50--turn to our offer on page 35

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