Antifa, nationalism and democracy
Maciej Zurowski interviews Freerk Huisken - until his recent retirement a lecturer at the University of Bremen - about his new book
In last week’s issue of the Weekly Worker, we looked at the institutional anti-fascism of the German state. But what about the anti-fascism of the German left? Surely, in a country that has seen an exponential rise of far-right activity following reunification, the left has developed a thorough political analysis of neo-fascism, coupled with a scathing anti-capitalist critique?
Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. On the left, the “German neurosis” that we described last week finds its expression in abstruse phenomena such as the pro-imperialist, pro-Zionist ‘anti-German’ movement. Peddling slogans which, at their most extreme, wish death and destruction upon the German masses, the ‘anti-German’ movement is based on a simple political error: it conflated the imperialist project of ‘reunification’ with the confused, resentful and often murderous far-right reaction to its material effects in the former German Democratic Republic. It must have somehow escaped the ‘anti-Germans’, who attribute neo-Nazism to some defect in the German national DNA, that the entire former Soviet bloc, including Russia and Poland, has seen very much the same sort of developments since 1989.
Elsewhere on the German left, things do not look a lot better. Though taking its name from the Communist Party of Germany’s street fighting squad of the 1930s, the present day Antifaschistische Aktion (Antifa) is a somewhat ramshackle alliance of anarchists, leftists and - let us be honest - left liberals who regard fascism as the central threat facing humanity today. Divided into mutually hostile ‘anti-German’ and more traditionally anti-fascist camps, Antifa’s programmatic propensity to treat mere symptoms at the expense of proposing a cure is reflected in the broader anti-fascist discourse that dominates the Left Party (‘Die Linke’) and the publications close to it.
The German writer and academic, Freerk Huisken is that rare thing on the German left: a Marxist voice critical of left anti-fascism. In his new book, Der demokratische Schoss ist fruchtbar (‘The democratic womb is fertile’), he argues that the left’s anti-fascist critique is in a poor state and, furthermore, that “democrats of all stripes” are incapable of criticising fascism.
Much as comrade Huisken’s book is refreshingly provocative, I would argue with some of his views. In the course of this email interview, I felt Huisken had a tendency to blur the distinction between democracy under capitalism and fascism, misinterpreting any objective evaluation of the different conditions of class struggle under these two forms of bourgeois rule as apologia for the latter. Then there is his idiosyncratic understanding of ‘democracy’, which, in my view, has more to do with Bordigist and various other left communist interpretations than it does with the actual, radically democratic programme espoused by Marx and Engels. However, I decided to leave further discussion around the dictatorship of the proletariat for another time.
Leftwing papers and websites in Germany are full of reports about neo-Nazis. Some even have permanent Antifa sections in their pages. Does the preoccupation with neo-Nazis constitute a kind of vicarious satisfaction for the German left?
That has nothing to do with psychology, with “vicarious satisfaction”. It is indeed the case that considerable layers of the German left do not focus their critique on the political and economic forces that administrate and enforce capitalism - that is, forces which make people’s lives difficult in the present. Instead, they construct the neo-Nazis as a particularly severe looming threat.
Then again, let us not downplay the problem. There really exists a relatively strong and well organised neo-Nazi movement in Germany. What is wrong with the way the left deals with it?
It declares the neo-Nazis to be its main enemy. That is a political error - not least because really existing bourgeois rule does everything it can of its own accord to eliminate the neo-Nazis as political competition. Therefore, German Antifa act as auxiliaries of the government.
In your new book, you provide eight examples of “how to criticise (neo) fascist statements and slogans, and how not to criticise them”. Could you illustrate one of the false arguments?
When nationalists claim that immigrants are stealing ‘our’ jobs, for instance, there is a tendency to argue that immigrants create jobs, that there is unemployment even though migrants have left Germany over the past few years, and so on. These arguments treat the slogan as if it were a serious labour market political statement. That is not what it is about, though. It is merely a variation of the ‘Foreigners out!’ slogan, and the material employed to illustrate it is relatively arbitrary. Today the immigrants are drug-dealers, tomorrow parasites, and the day after tomorrow they steal our jobs. That is why such nationalists would not be satisfied even if all Germans had jobs and all immigrants too. To them, every foreigner in Germany is one foreigner too many.
Since the early 90s, countless books about neo-Nazism in Germany have been published. Why was yours so necessary?
Firstly, I do not know of any book that explains how democracy - or, more precisely, democratically administrated capitalism - necessarily breeds frustrated nationalists again and again. These frustrated nationalists are the fundament of every far-right or fascist movement. Secondly, it is precisely Antifa that lacks an accurate critique of fascism. This is particularly visible in their helplessness when confronted with the anti-capitalism of the fascists. And, finally, it seemed necessary to me to counter the insipid, purely moralistic gibberish about nationalism and racism that you hear among parts of the left with a more precise analysis. It is particularly important to me to provide evidence for the fact that nationalism and racism are part and parcel of democratic societies.
Some try to ‘confront’ neo-fascists with placards and educational articles, while others argue for anti-fascist violence at all times and in all situations. Do the former neglect a fundamental pillar of fascist movements, the ‘power of the street’? Do the latter fetishise violence? Or do both sides lack tactical flexibility?
Of course, there is nothing wrong with education, and sometimes you cannot avoid confrontation with neo-Nazis. How useful these methods are always depends on the concrete circumstances. If such education exhausts itself through preoccupation with the German slogan ‘Fight the beginnings’ instead of critiquing democratic nationalism, then it is useless. And if Antifa cobbles together an entire political programme based on the defence of shops and offices that are attacked by neo-Nazis, then that is useless too.
‘Physical force’ anti-fascists all seem to agree that you must not talk to Nazis - at best, you prevent them from talking. But is the battle of ideas not something that Marxists should engage in as a matter of course, no matter who is to be debated?
Of course. My book is a plea for precisely that and a manual explaining how to do it. The question of whether one should debate with confident neo-Nazis is irrelevant, as they cannot usually be won for debate anyway. Rather, the ‘battle of ideas’ must be fought against those nationalists on whom German bourgeois rule rests. It must be fought against those who, intellectually and practically, enable that rule to convert one capitalist crisis after another and one capitalist boom after another into German successes on the world market - at their expense. The moment you understand that you are harming yourself when you side with bourgeois rule, whether critically or uncritically, you are immunised to fascism.
Some German activists who claim to be on the left want a so-called Querfront: ie, an alliance between far-left and far-right forces. The former Kommunistischer Bund and ex-‘anti-German’ activist Jürgen Elsässer, whose magazine Compact features contributions from ‘new right’ authors, springs to mind. What do you think of such people - can we work with them or should we exclude them from the left?
It is true that the Querfront phenomenon exists not only in the bourgeois camp, but that there are ex-leftists who have curious affinities to the extreme right. When they discover their love for Germany, I begin to wonder whether that is a sudden change of direction or whether they have not always been somehow driven by that kind of sentiment. I do not care for either of the two alternatives you are offering: cooperation or exclusion. Wherever these ex-lefts stick their noses, they and their followers must be criticised.
What I find to be far more upsetting than these blatant Querfront alliances is that, since the uncovering of the National Socialist Underground, some groups within the leftwing Antifa regard the state authorities’ measures against neo-fascism as useful. They are coming round to support a National Democratic Party ban and, when it comes to uncovering fascist groups, they are offering their services as superior Nazi hunters. They seem to be indifferent to the fact that the ruling democrats regard the leftwing Antifa as ‘extremists’ who must be fought. Nor do they seem bothered by the fact that banning political parties was an instrument of National Socialist rule.
The classic social base of fascism was the petty bourgeoisie and the lumpenproletariat. Does this also apply to the new Nazis in Germany?
I do not share this view. In my opinion, you are already pointing in the wrong direction when you speak of a “social base”. There is no connection between one’s social position and fascism. Fascism has always won supporters from all classes and camps, including from the working class, and it is no different today. It does so by addressing the nationalism of frustrated citizens: ie, their patriotically tinged dissatisfaction with the state of the nation, which continues to be present in all classes.
It seems that you do not care too much for the term ‘democracy’, whether you are referring to bourgeois democracy or the “true democracy” that Antifa advocates. But didn’t Marx regard the battle of democracy as an essential element of the class struggle? What is wrong with “true democracy” - ie, the democratic dictatorship of the majority?
Antifa’s talk of “true democracy” has nothing to do with the dictatorship of the proletariat. In general, Antifa does not want to abolish existing power relations. They merely want rule over the people to involve greater participation within the framework of existing class relations. It does not even occur to them that they effectively want to give antagonistic interests more power in equal measure.
The “democratic dictatorship of the majority” that you are talking about seems to be neither here nor there. As with your replacing of ‘proletariat’ with ‘majority’, I read your paradoxical “democratic dictatorship” as an audience-friendly compromise term. Since “dictatorship” sounds nasty, you prefix it with “democratic”. And because the “proletariat” has allegedly been overcome, you speak of abstract “majorities”, whoever may be part of it and whatever ideas and interests they may have.
Marx and Engels did not have such views even when they still thought they could gain something from democracy. What they had in mind was a class-conscious proletariat that might abolish capitalism through the vote. Such revolutionary consciousness does not automatically arise with one’s class position - unfortunately!
There is a certain ultra-leftist tone to your writings: you acknowledge little difference between fascism and bourgeois democracy. But has the working class not fought hard for every democratic right, and should it not defend these concessions against those who would crush the working class altogether? If nothing else, we can organise and circulate our propaganda with relatively little interference.
I am a little surprised at how you are defending democracy. What good is a system in which you have to fight state power to extract the most elementary, natural requirements in relation to health, holidays, breaks and wages above bare subsistence level? What good is it if such concessions are regularly under attack? What good is it if they are conceded only as ‘rights’: ie, within a legal framework in which the state and its powers have permanently preserved their sovereignty?
What is more, I would not dream of commending a political system on the grounds that it allows you to do political work “with relatively little interference”. It is obvious that this system does not invite its opponents to participate in a “battle of ideas”, but reserves the right to either ban those ideas or, according to its own calculations, allow them to circulate “with relatively little interference”, but under close observation and control. Democracy manages quite well to render the ideas of its opponents ineffective through the very freedoms that it grants them. To disable unwelcome criticism, one does not necessarily need to disable the critic, as the fascists used to do.
Which of the classic analyses of fascism do you find to be the most useful? That of Trotsky, Dimitrov, Thalheimer, Bordiga, Poulantzas ...?
I don’t care much for any of them. I have learned the most from Konrad Hecker’s 1996 book, Der Faschismus und seine demokratische Bewältigung [‘Fascism: overcoming it democratically’].
You argue that neo-Nazis are simply nationalists frustrated by the official nationalism of the bourgeois parties. Does nationalism still sit easily alongside capitalism in a globalised world? Or has it, as some would argue in relation to the crisis-shaken European Union, become more of a hindrance to capitalism?
Well, who enforces measures to cope with the financial crisis? Who fights wars in the Middle East? Who is in the UN security council? Who constitutes the G8 and G20? Nation-states - and leading nation-states and their leaders in particular. And in each and every one of their domestic and foreign policies it is apparent that they want to improve the economic and political position of their respective countries at the expense of other states - whether by cooperation or competition.
Globalisation is nothing but the current imperialist competition for political hegemony and the wealth of the world; it is the competition between the most successful capitalist states. From this point of view, their regents are professional nationalists. To them, it is of the greatest importance that their populace backs them through political parties when, for instance, they introduce a low-paid employment sector at home in order to outcompete European rivals.
In Germany, they have been very successful at both: Greece is completely devastated, and good German patriots who have endured increased exploitation in order to achieve this now rant about the “lazy Greeks who live off our tax money”. Capitalism only exists in the shape of mutually competing nation-states, and the nationalism of the people remains its political ‘lubricant'.
1. ‘Günter Grass and the German neurosis’, April 19.
2. There exists also a flipside of the ‘anti-Germans’: the Maoist and post-Maoist Anti-Imps (anti-imperialists), some of whom harbour a bizarre fondness of the fatherland and, presumably deriving their theoretical foundation from the Georgi Dimitrov line, regard the forces of international finance capital as the ‘real’ fascism.
4. The NSU (Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund) is a German neo-Nazi terrorist group that committed at least eight racist murders between 2000 and 2006. To much popular outrage, it emerged earlier this year that state security agents had been planted in the organisation all along, while the German government had downplayed the assassinations as ‘vendetta’ killings between Turkish families.