Facing Fascism in Europe

Against the Current, No. 84, January/February 2000

Bill Smaldone

European Socialists Respond to Fascism:Ideology, Activism and Contingency in the 1930s by Gerd-Rainer Horn (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996) $49.95 hardcover.

ADOLF HITLER’S RISE to power in 1933, and the Nazis’ rapid destruction of Germany’s Social Democratic and Communist parties, shook the European left to its core. For many socialists and communists, the total defeat of two of the world’s largest and best-organized workers’ parties was grim evidence of the immediate need to set aside obstacles dividing them and to join together in the fight against fascism.

For the first time in more than a decade, socialists and communists began drawing together to struggle for common aims and even to reach out for new allies among non-proletarian social groups.

After years of internecine warfare, the mid-thirties was a period in which workers’ organizations were forced to rethink their strategies and relationships in important ways and to consider previously unthinkable options. Thus, from the despair of defeat arose cause for hope.

In his European Socialists Respond to Fascism, Gerd-Rainer Horn successfully captures the complexities and significance of the left’s rethinking process from the disastrous year of 1933 to the fleeting successes of the popular fronts in France and Spain in 1936.

Although Horn’s project is a very ambitious one, he clearly accomplishes his central aim of illuminating the role of working-class organizations during a particularly volatile “moment of opportunity.”

Most other studies of the emergence of the popular fronts focus on specific national contexts or on the evolving views of leading socialist politicians and intellectuals.

Horn approaches the subject by comparing developments in five countries—Germany, Spain, France, Belgium and Austria—and even more importantly, by examining the views, actions and interrelations of rank-and-file party members, national leaders and international organizations such as the Labor and Socialist International (LSI) and the Communist International, or Comintern [also referred to as the Second and Third Internationals, respectively—ed.].

Drawing on archival materials located in six countries, Horn shows that the emergence of united or popular fronts was not merely the result of decisions made by the top leaders of the Comintern, the LSI, or the Socialist and Communist parties, but evolved out of a process in which radicalized party members and leaders interacted.

The process did not occur uniformly or in a unilinear fashion, but was shaped by varying conditions in different national contexts. In some cases, such as that of Germany, party-sanctioned united fronts never developed at all, as socialist leaders successfully opposed rank-and-file calls for cooperation with communists.

Where they did arise, however, Horn’s evidence makes clear that their form and policy derived from a convergence of members’ and leaders’ views under specific historical circumstances.

A Bitter Legacy

Horn begins his study by examining the rhetoric and actions of the “top” of the socialist and communist movements’ respective hierarchies, the LSI and the Comintern. In the aftermath of the First World War these two organizations engaged in a bitter struggle for control over the labor movement.

The LSI was the international organization of the world’s socialist and social-democratic parties. It generally promoted the parliamentary road to socialism, rejected revolutionary violence and was critical of the Bolshevik dictatorship in Russia.

The Comintern was the international organization of the world’s communist parties. Established in 1919, it aimed to promote world revolution by expelling “reformists” from the workers’ movement and organizing the latter’s “revolutionary” wing.

All parties wishing to join the Comintern had to transform themselves officially into Communist parties, organize themselves according to democratic-centralist principles, and submit themselves to the discipline of the Moscow-based executive committee.

When the revolutionary tide ebbed in the early twenties, the Bolsheviks used their control over the executive to mold the Comintern into an instrument of Soviet foreign policy.

Thus the conflict between the LSI and the Comintern fractured the workers’ movement. The Nazi seizure of power, Horn shows, led the LSI to adopt a radicalized rhetoric and to begin to talk about unity, but did little to change its actual policy.

Deeply divided over the issue of cooperation with its Communist rival, the LSI undertook no concrete steps toward a rapprochement for fear of precipitating a split. For its part the Comintern also initially refrained from changing course.

Despite calling for the formation of “united fronts” with social-democratic parties in March 1933, it vacillated on this issue and persisted in labeling social-democrats as “social-fascists” well into 1934. [This was a legacy of the extreme sectarian “Third Period” policy ordered by Stalin in 1928, in which Communist parties pronounced that revolution was imminent and all other working class parties were counterrevolutionary enemies—ed.]

It was not until May of that year that the Comintern definitively broke with the sectarian politics of the Third Period and called for united fronts with social democracy to struggle against fascism.

Rank-and-File Pressure

Horn’s focus on the formation of united fronts is of central importance to his overall analysis. Well before the LSI radicalized its language, broad sectors of the rank-and-file in Europe’s socialist parties were clamoring for united fronts with other working class organizations and for joint action against fascism.

The LSI’s rhetorical shift “galvanized” the workers behind a left turn, already in the making, that was characterized in many places by joint demonstrations of socialist and communist workers irrespective of their own party’s official view of such activities.

As national workers’ organizations themselves began to actively cooperate together, many were infused with new hope not only to defend their societies against fascism, but to drive forward the fight for socialism.

The “united front” period, Horn convincingly argues, was quite distinct from that of the “popular front” that followed. Not only were the united fronts officially composed only of working class organizations, but their radical aspirations and tactics differed markedly from the multi-class and more moderate aims and tactics of subsequent popular fronts.

In March 1934 in Spain, for example, Catalonian social democrats, communists and anarchists jointly launched a general strike in solidarity with strikers in Castile, while the region of Asturias experienced a full-blown workers’ revolt in the fall.

Although in France, Belgium and Italy events did not take such a radical turn, by early 1934 communists and social democrats had worked out agreements to jointly combat fascism.

The question of how to best defeat the fascists, however, remained open to debate. Here Horn turns to developments in Belgium, where in 1934 the long-time social-democratic activist Hendrik de Man formulated a “Plan of Work,” which aimed to provide a model of socialist transformation while mobilizing workers and non-proletarian social groups.

De Man’s plan became wildly popular; Horn is at his best in his description and analysis of its development and popularization in Belgium, France and elsewhere. For many socialists the Plan de Man finally provided the left with a radical, practical, and popular alternative to the capitalist order, and they demanded that it be implemented in its entirety.

That was highly unlikely without resort to revolutionary action, however, and here de Man drew the line. He hoped to implement his Plan once the united front had achieved power via electoral means, but such a scenario was unlikely. In mid-1935, when the Belgian left entered a coalition government with the conservative Christian Democratic party, most of the plan was dropped from its program.

Struggle Beyond Borders

By the spring of 1935 the leftward push of the united front movement was halted. The defeat of the revolutionary option first in Austria and then in Asturias, and the failure of the Plan de Man in Belgium forced the European left once again to rethink its strategy.

After considerable debate French and Spanish socialists concluded that increasing fascist domestic violence and the growing German and Italian military threat made it imperative to broaden the left’s political base by forming alliances with middle-class republican parties in upcoming elections.

The creation of such “popular fronts” required a substantial turn away from the radical policies of the united front and the wholesale granting of electoral and programmatic concessions to the republican right.

Thus the victories of the popular fronts in France and Spain in 1936 came at the price of moderating the goals of the earlier united fronts. Electoral success was unable to overcome the contradictions that plagued the coalitions.

Throughout his book and most compellingly in chapters seven and eight Horn argues that the left’s response to the rise of fascism must be seen as a transnational phenomenon, although also shaped by local factors.

Again and again he provides examples of the impact of major events across national borders, and demonstrates clearly how they stimulated discourse within and between different organizations and groups.

Horn also provides insight into the complexity of relations within different mass organizations. He repeatedly shows, for example, how workers often were far ahead of their leadership in the drive for united fronts and, later on, unlike their leaders, perceived no change in the substance of their immediate goals after the move toward the popular front.

At the same time, however, Horn leaves little doubt that the rank-and-file also depended on the leadership for guidance.

Horn brings his work to a close with a discussion of “contingency” in the historical process. How can one explain the “patterns of discontinuities” that characterized the left’s responses to the rise of fascism in the mid-thirties?

Horn believes that in such volatile situations structural factors remain important in conditioning and limiting choices available to political actors, but that contingency, agency and ideology should not be underestimated.

The crisis of capitalism created radically altered circumstances that varied from place to place and created a wide range of rapidly changing conditions within which the European left had to operate. It should come as no surprise that, despite the emergence of certain trends, social democrats often chose different political paths.

Historical Complexities

When considering the weaknesses of Horn’s book, two problems are apparent. First, the book is geared primarily for specialists familiar with the period. There is very little background information, for example, for readers who know little about the ideological and organizational conflicts that shattered the socialist left following the Bolshevik revolution.

This omission is important because without such information, it is difficult to ascertain just why the socialist and communist parties and their international organizations were at loggerheads in 1933, and how momentous was the subsequent shift toward cooperation.

Horn frequently points out that the leaders of the respective parties were often more hesitant than the rank-and-file to deal with rival left groups, but it is important for readers to have some sense of the depth of personal hatred that had developed among competing groups of party leaders.

Second, although Horn generally writes well, the book does not read easily. Aside from noting the very small size of the print, it is difficult to put one’s finger on why.

Some sections, like the ones dealing with the Plan de Man, read quite briskly and hold the reader’s attention, but others are so densely packed with details about competing factions (and their acronyms) that following the argument becomes quite a chore.

While Horn often narrates well, some discussions, such as the one on contingency, could easily be made more accessible.

These relatively minor criticisms aside, Gerd-Rainer Horn has made an important contribution to the history of the workers’ movement in an extremely complex and exciting period in which socialists and communists were suddenly faced with an array of unexpected challenges and choices.

For left activists in the new post-Cold War age, their actions and ideas should remain of particular interest as we work to realign our forces and discover new ways of moving forward.

ATC 84, January-February 2000