In the wake of the U.S. presidential inauguration and January’s massive Women’s March, there has been renewed discussion on the left about the interplay between radicals and liberals, with a number of activists emphasizing the importance of “popular front” coalitions in combating fascism. Effective opposition requires mass movements, the argument goes, and radicals simply cannot muster the numbers necessary. Therefore alliances with liberals are the order of the day.
But the historical reality isn’t nearly so rosy. Liberals have, as a general rule, feared revolution more than they have feared fascism, often to their own detriment. Indeed, left-liberal coalitions in 20th century Germany and Spain ended in bloodshed when liberals colluded with fascists to crush left-wing radicals—and were then crushed by the fascists in turn.
Given this bloody history, suspicion of liberalism has less to do with purity politics than it does legitimate safety concerns.
As Democrats follow prior liberal parties down the slippery slope in their acquiescence to the Trump regime, these concerns are more relevant than ever. By learning from the experiences of revolutionary Germany and Spain, leftists can engage with liberals and build coalitions without setting themselves up to get played—again.
Socialism or Barbarism
A century ago, amid the carnage of World War I, German socialist Rosa Luxemburg denounced the war as a diversion from class struggle. The real choice facing society was not that offered by rival imperialist blocs, she insisted, but between “socialism or barbarism”—either building a fair and equitable economic system or waging increasingly brutal violence to preserve an unjust status quo.
Sadly, during the major crisis points of the last century, when their own wealth and safety was on the line, liberals have joined hands with the far right in choosing barbarism.
Luxemburg herself was a casualty of this collusion. In November 1918, German sailors and soldiers mutinied, bringing the war to a grinding halt and forcing the Kaiser to abdicate his throne. Workers’ councils sprang up across the country. For several hopeful months, it looked like Germany would follow Russia down the path of social revolution, placing factories and farms under workers’ control and reorganizing its economy along more equitable lines.
But the moderate Social Democratic Party (SPD) had other ideas. Disdainful of the more radical socialists led by Luxemburg and fellow activist Karl Liebknecht, SPD officials had no intention of extending Germany’s democratic experiment to the workplace and threatening elite interests.
When communist militants revolted in Berlin that January, the social democrats called in the Freikorps—a right-wing death squad comprised of war veterans—to crush the uprising. They didn’t stop there. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were arrested, tortured, and summarily executed. Months later, the Weimar Republic was established—a capitalist republic as the SPD had hoped.
But the social democrats’ victory was short-lived. The far-right forces that they had allied themselves with during the uprising continued to grow in strength even as the SPD’s own economic half-measures failed to provide relief to impoverished workers. Scarcely a decade later, Hitler swept to power, his inner circle flush with Freikorps veterans. In 1933, he brought the cycle of political repression full circle by banning the SPD.
With Friends Like These . . .
The same phenomenon would play out several years later in the Spanish Civil War as moderate elements in a broad left-wing coalition turned on their more radical counterparts. When the right-wing Nationalist forces led by General Francisco Franco mounted a coup in 1936 to forestall the mild reforms of the Second Spanish Republic, triggering open warfare, leftists and liberals alike mobilized in defense of the center-left Republican government.
From the beginning, however, this alliance was marked by liberal hostility toward their left flank.
In some cities, the Republican authorities refused to arm the workers against Franco’s looming columns, hastening their own military defeat. In others, as historian Paul Preston painstakingly documented in The Spanish Holocaust, Republican officials protected right-wing figures from popular reprisals and quelled anarchist attempts to expropriate the property of local landowners, thinking it would save them from the onslaught.
Instead, the fascists executed them all alike. And liberals abroad did little better.
Roosevelt refused to ship arms to Spain under the pretense of a neutrality agreement that Italy and Nazi Germany flagrantly violated. The British Labour Party split over the issue. Meanwhile, France’s own reigning Popular Front government further confirmed the uselessness of such alliances by refusing to aid its Spanish counterpart.
As British political theorist Alan Woods summarized: “Far better to hand Spain over bound and gagged to the fascists than allow the workers and peasants to take over the running of society.”
By the time the Stalinists had purged the Republican forces of anarchists and other independent socialists, the Republic’s defeat in April 1939 was a foregone conclusion. Franco ruled until his death in 1975. As the Spanish far-left learned, sometimes the enemy of your enemy is not your friend but, in fact, just another enemy.
Whither the Resistance?
Disturbingly, the Democratic Party is already following in the bloody footsteps of earlier liberal parties—albeit at a faster and arguably more erratic pace.
Since Donald Trump’s upset electoral college victory in November, the party has been in a state of free-fall. At a moment that calls for unified resistance, not a single Democratic senator has voted against all of Trump’s cabinet nominees—not even progressive heartthrob Elizabeth Warren and nominal independent Bernie Sanders. In fact, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has voted for all of Trump’s military and intelligence picks, an admittedly curious form of resistance.
Not to be outdone, House leader Nancy Pelosi has gone out of her way to alienate millions of young progressives by defending Trump against impeachment threats. Rather than embarking on a campaign of all-out legislative obstruction, Democrats have been more focused on stamping out the last vestiges of the Sanders insurrection and elevating Obama loyalist Tom Perez to chair the Democratic National Committee. It is a party both unwilling and, as recent events have shown, fundamentally unable to address the needs of its own working-class and multicultural constituencies.
Green Party nominee Jill Stein’s election-season refrain that “you can’t make revolution in a counter-revolutionary party” has proven prescient. Liberals argued then that Hillary Clinton’s aggressive neoliberalism could be kept in check by social movements and their Congressional allies—and most U.S. voters concurred. The last month has debunked this fantasy.
If the Democratic Party cannot bring itself to resist Trump, the most reviled president in recent U.S. history, when there is zero political downside to doing so, what possible incentive would they have had to hamstring the legislative agenda of a second Clinton administration? None at all.
This is not a mere counterfactual. Understanding the fundamental inadequacy of the Democratic Party machinery to combat social injustice, much less fascism, lies at the heart of what must be done now.
The party’s failure to resist Trump—indeed, its eagerness to collaborate with him for no discernible political gain—should be the final proof that the party is not a suitable vehicle for achieving social change. As with leftist participation in the German SDP or the crumbling Spanish Republic, efforts to reform or “reclaim” the Democratic Party have run their course.
“The War and the Revolution are Inseparable”
The problem is not simply that liberal politicians have a propensity to “sell out.” The problem lies with liberalism itself. “The Democrats are caught in that fundamental contradiction of their existence,” The Nation editor Doug Henwood noted in a recent Jacobin interview. “It’s a party of business that has to pretend otherwise for electoral reasons … There is that structural issue where the loyalties are so divided it’s hard for them to speak with one voice.”
Ultimately, liberalism is not a fighting ideology. As Henwood suggests, it is more comfortable accommodating itself to power than combating it, all the faddish #Resist hashtags aside.
There is a reason why communists and anarchists—that is to say, radicals—were so well-represented among the anti-Nazi resistance movements of World War II. It takes radical perspectives to call for no-holds-barred resistance. Liberals, with all their reasonable talk of lesser evils, were more likely to stay in the civil service to mitigate the damage of Nazi occupation. History shows who made the right call.
As Jewish psychologist and concentration camp survivor Bruno Bettelheim wrote in his 1963 review of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: “Arendt’s point—and it is well-taken—is that any organization within a totalitarian society that compromised with the system became immediately ineffectual in opposing it and ended up helping it.” Similarly, working through corporate-captive institutions only reinforces their power under the guise of undermining it.
How, then, can leftists engage with liberals without falling into the same trap? The first item of business is to engage with liberals as if they are undiscovered radicals. While leftists should avoid shaming political newcomers for their relative absence during the Obama years, as Princeton African American studies professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has argued, it will be just as crucial to challenge liberal glorification of the Obama years, as well as the #NotNormal refrain, when such sentiments arise in these quarters.
As Taylor observes, radicals are created through the collision of their liberal ideals and their own experiences with the system.
To that end, leftists should focus on providing liberal activists with a framework to understand the repeated betrayals of what Chris Hedges calls the “liberal class.” Bernie did not only lose because of DNC misconduct, but because he is a self-described socialist vying for power in “history’s second-most enthusiastic capitalist party,” as one former Nixon strategist put it. Democrats do not support Trump’s nominees because they are “spineless,” but because they largely agree with the GOP on war and corporatism.
Most of all, leftists must vehemently reject any notion that they should water down their politics—as the Spanish anarchist parties did to join the Republic—and meet liberals in the middle.
Liberals can and should meet us on the left. George Orwell, who fought in Spain, boiled down that left-wing political schism to the following: communists believed that winning the war took priority over advancing the revolution, while anarchists argued that the war and the revolution must go hand-in-hand.
Eighty years later, the players have changed, but the game remains the same. Many will argue that resistance to right-wing attacks should take precedence over the building of “a new world” within the old. Now, as then, we must insist that “the war and the revolution are inseparable.”