Libya, the Greens and the fate of Bela Kun

Green enthusiasm for cause of a no-fly zone over Libya attracts much angst is it inconsistent with their pacifist traditions? Perhaps we retread the steps of the 1930s. From the mid 1930s Communists under the banner of the Popular Front backed the cause of collective security against the fascist powers and shifted their position on support for the military budgets of the capitalist democracies. The leadership of the Greens revives this tradition. This shift however attracted substantial opposition on the left: Trotskyists and independent revolutionary socialists (such as sections of the British Independent Labour Party) opposed this new Communist position. They argued that it meant collaboration with imperialism and fostered illusions that fascism was in some sense an aberration (a dictatorship of particular sections of capital as Dimitrov put it) rather than an inevitable product of capitalist decline. The Spanish Civil War provided evidence for their argument as they contended that local Communists sought to contain the revolutionary upsurge in the interests of cooperation with the local bourgeoisie. However the new shift was also unpopular within the Comintern, many questioned the accommodation with bourgeoisie democracy. The purges saw many of the Comintern skeptics liquidated. However some survived and Stalin himself was less enthusiastic about the Popular Front than many realised.

Within the broader international labour movement however the anti-fascist turn attracted opposition from the right. For many the horrors of World War I remained the dominant point of reference and their principal concern was to avoid another war. Many on the right of the labour movement regarded Communists with extreme suspicion. In Australia this tradition was very strong within the mainstream labour movement and was fused with isolationist anti-British and Catholic loyalties. Some on the right was not completely hostile to fascism. In Australia Catholic Italy attracted sympathy in its war with Abyssinia. The fascist critique of liberalism attracted sympathy from Catholic intellectuals such as B A Santamaria. In Europe particularly France some labour movement activists too up non-Marxist critiques of capitalism in particular those of Proudhon and were influenced by the fascist critique of ‘unproductive’ finance capital and the unplanned nature of laisser-faire capitalism. In the crisis of 1939 many of these right-wingers opposed war: ‘We don’t want to die for Danzig’ was the slogan. After the Axis victories some collaborated with the Nazis. Henri de Man Belgian socialist leader hailed the downfall of the plutocratic democracies. Marcel Deat a leading intellectual from the right-wing of the French Socialists spent the war seeking German assistance against the stodgy conservatives of Vichy. They came to identify socialism with statism and anti-imperialism (defined as opposition to the capitalist democracies) like contemporary enthusiasts of third-world ‘socialism’.

In retrospect Deat and de Man’s career appears bizarre. However their fear of another war stroke a chord with working-class experience. They like Oswald Mosley had begun as socialists of the front generation. When in 1939-41 the Communists reversed their position on the war and many looked with sympathy on Nazi grievances, as Stalin told Georgi Dimitrov put it in November 1939:

In Germany, the petty-bourgeois nationalists are capable of a sharp turn – they are flexible – not tied to capitalist traditions, unlike bourgeois leaders like Chamberlain and his ilk

Communist opposition to the war however also appealed to many working-class voters even as it repealed anti-fascist intellectuals and some Party leaders. In Australia Communists found ground with the Catholic isolationism of the Langites. For some in the Comintern the 1939-41 line represented a return to familiar certainties, Australian Communist leader and committed Popular Frontist Ernst Fischer recalled that it was German Communists steeled in the struggle against social democracy who were most sympathetic to the new turn. Comintern loyalists complained that it was middle-class liberal intellectuals who failed to appreciate the equivalence of bourgeois democracy and fascism. In Britan such views were upheld by Baillo graduate and Comintern loyalist R. P. Dutt against boilermaker Harry Pollitt who confessed that he despised himself for defending the new Comintern line. It is fair comment that much of the contemporary Australian left of the Greens left revives this tradition and sensibility. Liberalism is a term of insult and the Greens are despised as ‘middle-class’ this term being a floating signifier applied to anyone with a university degree who takes the incorrect position.

In retrospect the revolutionary left critique of Popular Frontism in large part appears fanciful. German workers were never going to overthrow Hitler, the Spanish anrachists were militarily inept. However before we wrap ourselves in Popular Front nostalgia we should recall that the other side of the banners, marches and democratic euphoria was the Gulag, the Great Terror and the horrors of the NKVD in Spain where those who disagreed were liquidated. Still this is Australia Tad Tietze will not endure the fate of Osip Piatnitsky or Bela Kun.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>