Potential Lessons From Interwar Europe To Combat Fascism

The period after World War I and before World War II gives liberals lessons as they contend with a contemporary surge in the radical right.
President von Hindenburg and Chancellor Adolf Hitler on the day of Potsdam – March 21, 1933 (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S38324/CC-BY-SA 3.0)

President von Hindenburg and Chancellor Adolf Hitler on the day of Potsdam – March 21, 1933 (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S38324/CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Dr. Matthias Wasser studies the formation of fascist movements and states in the inter-war period, as well as the development of labor relations in the British Caribbean in the aftermath of abolition.

Fascism appeared as a governing force in a particular period – the interwar one – and in a particular set of places – some countries, but not others. What many historical sociologists approaching the period agree on is that assembling a broad left-liberal coalition was the necessary condition for defeating it. But what was required to do that?

Here we see several families of answers. Some see the fundamental requirement being ideological innovation – the ability to break with previous dogmas and come up with a compelling ideology for the circumstances of the 1930s. Others see the fundamental requirement as stretching back earlier – in the subordination of one base (almost always, the subordination of the left to liberalism) that made rifts impossible.

Left-liberal alliances were necessary because without the left constraining them, ruling liberals would prefer to distribute rewards to insiders over-responding effectively to economic crises, and without liberals, the left could not govern. (Similarly, the far-right cannot effectively govern without the consent of mainstream conservatives.) Left-liberal alliances were hard because the two fractions define themselves by the most basic of struggles in normal times – the distribution of economic resources. And left-liberal alliances were always possible in principle because of a shared heritage in the humanistic ideals of the enlightenment. But in the interwar period, what made them possible in practice?

Moments like these require unrelenting truthtelling. We take pride in being reader-funded. If you like our work, support our journalism.

An Intellectual Break?

Karl Polanyi’s classic Great Transformation frames things in terms of the obsolescence of classical liberalism. Because laissez-faire dogma was incapable of responding to the economic crisis of the 1930s, something had to replace it. What would, though, was up in the air – almost anything could as long as it was willing to intervene without spooking enough important political actors. On this telling, for political liberalism to survive against communists and fascists, who had neither compunctions to preserve free markets nor electoral politics, economic liberalism had to be abandoned, and social democracy formed as an ideological response.

Sheri Berman’s Primacy of Politics emphasizes “social democracy” as an ideological break even more explicitly and centrally, though she emphasizes a different thing for it to break from: not liberalism but Marxism. In her telling, dogmatic Marxists (such as, in her telling, those in the German SPD) were not willing to conduct reforms within capitalism because they believed reforms within capitalism to be impossible – a stance that made classical Marxists rather like classical liberals: unwilling to bend, therefore doomed to break.

What is perhaps remarkable about both narratives is the extent to which Polanyi and Berman – both social democrats – emphasize the similarities, not the differences, between social democracy and fascism itself. Social democracy, like fascism, was willing to make class compromises and make vague appeals to the “good of the nation;” an overall stance towards politics that has always been easy to view as opportunistic.

Social democracy, like fascism, was voluntaristic and presumed that capitalism can largely be disciplined by political will, rather than adhering to the classical liberal or classical Marxist presumption that capitalism will overcome any logic set against it. Social democracy and fascism are thus largely structurally similar – at the root having “just” a moral difference, that social democracy, unlike fascism, holds humanistic ideals high, even if it is less particular about the economic form they are implemented in than previous such ideologies.

An Unequal Partnership?

Polanyi and Berman both characterize social democracy as a unitary thing that was new; other scholars are more willing to characterize it as a fusion of older elements, and with older roots. According to accounts like Kees van der Pijl’s Making of an Atlantic Ruling Class, Dylan Riley’s Civic Foundations of Fascism, Gregory Luebbert’s Liberalism, Fascism, or Social Democracy, or Ernesto Laclau (in various works), the basic issue is whether liberal forces, so hegemonic in the nineteenth century, were able to successfully incorporate labor as a junior partner in their coalition or whether there was a breakdown of hegemonic authority.

Luebbert and van der Pijl place a great degree of focus on whether union leaders were willing, ultimately, to play ball with employers who were willing to make some concessions on social benefits; Laclau and Riley on the situation in soon-to-be-fascist countries in which the bourgeoisie could no longer rule by consent and thus felt compelled to rule by force. Drawing especially on Gramsci, these flesh out his characterization of the interwar period as one in which “the old is dying and the new cannot be born,” a “time of monsters.” For all, since the left had little chance to win on its own, its only hope was as a thoroughly subordinate partner in an alliance with those elements of capital which still preferred constitutional to arbitrary government.

As with Polanyi and Berman – social democrats who highlight social democracy’s similarities to fascism – there is an element of the surprising here. Most of the authors who flesh out this position are committed Marxists of one kind or another. But this conclusion, which would run at odds with their politics, finds some degree of sympathy with their theoretical premises. Since labor and capital are necessarily at odds, any fusion of their interests must be seen as a temporary compromise rather than (as Berman and Polanyi characterize fascism and social democracy, and indeed as fascists characterize their own program) a break in previous logic that transcends class interests to focus on “national” ones. And yet these Gramscians also concede that if such a rallying around impartial “general” interests is in some sense impossible, the appearance that it did so was necessary for any winning coalition.

Looking to make a difference? Consider signing one of these sponsored petitions:

Take Action To Protect Voting Rights With The ACLU Sign Now
Demand Equal COVID-19 Economic Support And Healthcare For African Americans Sign Now
Support The Switch To 100% Renewable Energy Sign Now
*Rantt Media may receive compensation from the partners we feature on our site. However, this in no way affects our news coverage, analysis, or political 101's.

Contemporary Lessons?

At a recent discussion with other young historical scholars affiliated with CARR, a common complaint came up – that people’s interest in our work only extended as far as they perceived direct parallels between it and the present, and “lessons” that could be drawn from this. On one hand, this is a rather strange and petty thing to complain about – one wants to be useful, and the world surely has more direct use for antifascists than antiquarians. Further, academics are also always complaining about no one being interested in their work, and anyway, aren’t there some strong parallels between our moment and the interwar period?

Indeed there are. But I think our complaint had to do with a concern for the danger easy parallels can do to both – in basing contemporary approaches too neatly on a simplified understanding of “what happened last time,” and in flattening out a complex past to a caricature that meets what would make the neatest lesson for the present. With that in mind, rather than draw easy lessons (“come up with something entirely new” – okay, that should be easy – “the left, insofar as it exists, should subordinate itself to the liberal center” – whew, well, at least we’ve got that covered), let me qualify any lessons we might draw with a few skeptical considerations.

First, any of these accounts (or families of accounts) might fairly be questioned. To do so is likely the subject of a later blog post, but for a few brief considerations: what happens to most of these stories if we grant that the German SPD was quite willing to play ball with liberal capital? That the survival of democracy is quite well predicted by how recently coercion in agriculture had been abolished, throwing a great deal of doubt on the autonomous role that ideas and party decisions might make? There are good reasons scholars keep coming back to these questions.

Second, while there are parallels between this time and our own, and these can be fruitful for thinking about the latter (and even the former!), there’s often too great a temptation to flatten down the differences. Consider a parallel that might be drawn between the rise of the printing press and that of social media – in both cases, a technological change is dramatically lowering the barriers to communication and participation in public debate more specifically; leading to both an intellectual efflorescence of a certain kind as well as conspiracy theories and ideological polarization.

Thinking through these parallels can give us new ways of thinking about the challenges and opportunities opened up by new media technology. But it would be a mistake to, say, ask what successful vs. unsuccessful Protestant movements did, and take that as “the answer” for what one should do today – at least, not without a great deal of work. Again, to draw out the dis-parallels is the work of a future blog post, but consider: how much weaker organized labor is, how the “old is dying and new cannot be born” applies to radical right governments themselves (who have come to power through legal means and proven as incapable – or more – of addressing crises as anybody), how analogues could perhaps be found for global warming or coronavirus but not without some degree of arbitrariness, and so on. Caveat comparator!

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

Rantt Media and ZipRecruiter

Opinion // CARR / Europe / Fascism / Radical Right