Friday, July 31, 2015

Lessons of the Nazi takeover (1984)

From the December 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

The year 1984 has become synonymous with tyranny. It has, in fact, become a cliche. People who have never read Orwell and in some cases have only a hazy idea who he was, know all about 1984 and Big Brother. Orwell's nightmare has not yet come to pass but fifty years ago a real Big Brother, Adolf Hitler emerged; that when the Nazis finally consolidated their hold over Germany and ushered in a tyranny which, while perhaps not quite as grim as Orwell's vision, was still pretty vile. Having crushed all their opponents, they turned on their allies. One thing which distinguishes the modem totalitarian state from older forms of tyranny is that no deviation, however slight, can be allowed. Friend as well as foe must be forced into line. This had already been demonstrated in Russia, where Stalin had shown the way and Hitler was an apt pupil. 

Two events stood out in 1934. The first was the bloodbath that began on 30 June, in which the leaders of the SA, the Brownshirts on whose backs Hitler had climbed to power, were wiped out. The second was the death of President Hindenburg in August of that year, which removed the final block to Hitler's absolute power. The SA or Sturm Abteilung (storm troopers) came into being in 1921 at the very beginning of the Nazi movement. Originally called the Gymnastic and Sports Division, they were formed to protect meetings and speakers from attacks by their opponents. They rapidly became the strong-armed squads of the party, breaking up opponents' meetings and beating up hecklers at their own. Dropping all pretence of being a defensive body, they made no secret of their real aims and openly glorified violence. They terrorised their opponents on the streets and fought pitched battles with Communists and other left groups. Horst Wessel, who wrote the Nazi Party anthem (sung to a tune pinched from the Communist Party who, in turn, had pinched it from the Salvation Army!) was one such young thug, killed in a street brawl. 

Many of their earlier recruits were ex-members of the Freikorps movement, set up in 1919 from war veterans, mostly young, who volunteered for service on the Eastern Front to guard against attacks from Poles and Russians. They were set up with the blessing of the army, to get around the restrictions in the Treaty of Versailles which limited the size of the German army to 100,000. The Freikorps' main task was to smash the rather pathetic attempts by the left to set up communes. This they did with great brutality. One of their slogans was "our job is to attack, not govern"; another was "moderation is a crime against one's people and one's state". The Allied powers forced the German government to disband the Freikorps, and many of their members found their way into the SA. 

In the 1920s there were in Germany many organisations calling themselves National Socialist or sometimes German Socialists. The one that was to emerge as the Nazi Party, the National Socialist German Workers' Party, was based in Munich. These organisations were independent of each other, but would co-operate from time to time. Some people belonged to more than one of them. They all shared the same philosophy, a mixture of extreme nationalism, rabid anti-semitism, and a hotch-potch of half-baked "revolutionary" ideas borrowed from the Communists and Social Democrats. They all had their strong arm squads, like the parties of the left. Private armies were tolerated, as the Freikorps had been, by governments partly through weakness, but mainly because they were seen as additions to the strength of the army. 

These squads usually wore windcheaters but Hitler saw the value of a distinctive uniform. The Nazis wore shirts of a gaudy shade of brown with caps based on the Austrian Imperial model and red arm bands. A small group within the organisation, formed to guard Hitler and leading Nazis, wore black uniforms over their brown shirts, with military caps bearing the skull and crossbones. These were called Schutzstaffeln, or Protection Squads, the name contracted to SS. From this small beginning came the organisation that was to dominate the Nazi movement in its later stages. The SA were always a separate organisation from the Party, running side by side with it. 

The slump that began in 1929 and produced mass unemployment throughout the world hit Germany particularly hard. Unemployment rose to seven million and workers who were disillusioned with the old parties and their failure to solve their problems, began to turn to the Nazis and Communists. The ranks of the SA were swollen by the young unemployed; they were provided with boots, meals and uniforms. As the Nazi party grew, the SA grew with it. Organised on military lines with lorries and weapons, they copied the Red Flag of the Communists with the Nazi emblem, the ancient symbol of the swastika, in the centre. The flag shafts had lance-like points, useful weapons in a melee. As with the Freikorps, successive governments as well as the military tolerated these private armies. Nationalist parties were prepared to go along with the Nazis, thinking they could use them and then dispose of them — an attitude they were later bitterly to regret. 

When the Nazis first came to power their position was still precarious and it was the Brownshirts who tipped the balance. The SA launched a wave of terror that prevented any comeback by their opponents; they rounded up and hunted down the enemies of the new regime and manned the new makeshift camps that were to develop into the concentration, and later extermination, camps. But once Hitler was in power and the torchlight processions and book-burning sessions were over, the SA became an embarrassment. 

Once power was achieved, people with ambitions jumped on the bandwagon and rushed to obtain party cards. The "Old Fighters", as they called themselves, had expected to be rewarded for their efforts but they were pushed aside and were often unemployed. Rohm and other SA leaders began to be edged out of key jobs into less important ones. What is more Hitler, who now had the backing of the big industrialists and businessmen as well as the army, and even the grudging support of the land-owning Junker class, did not want to be embarrassed by pseudo-socialist ideas or wild economic theories that could not possibly work in capitalist society. 

Worse still from the point of view of the Nazis and the people backing them was the SA's desire to take control of the army which, although small, was the highly efficient nucleus of the German army of the coming World War. They did not want it influenced by amateurs. As the spring passed into early summer, tension grew and there was talk of a second revolution. In their crude way, Brownshirts talked of "cleaning out the pigsty" and "driving the greedy swine away from the troughs". SA regiments began to arm and make threatening noises, most of which seems to have been play-acting with no real evidence of any actual plot but, on the night of 30 June, Hitler struck. 

The brutality that then began has been called the "Night of the Long Knives" — a romantic title for a squalid bout of internal savagery. Rohm and other leading SA leaders were rounded up and shot. The hierarchy of the SA were wiped out. This was mainly done by the SS, who had been subordinate to the SA leadership but now became the most powerful organisation in the Party. The opportunity was taken also to remove the few remaining characters whose continuing existence was inconvenient, plus a few revenge killings. A few unfortunates who were killed by mistake — Gregor Strasser, a member of the party from its early days who had left it and had attempted to co-operate with other bodies; ex-Chancellor General von Schleicher and his wife; General von Bredow and Gustav von Kahr, ex-premier of Bavaria who had been largely responsible for the failure of the 1923 coup attempt, were among many who died over that weekend. The full figures will probably never be known. 

The SA were broken as an independent body. From now on they were to occupy a subordinate position in the party, allowed only to handle mundane affairs. The Old Fighters were to be reduced to delegates to the Reichstag, wheeled in to applaud Hitler's speeches and rubber-stamp his proposals, or to take part in boozy reunions in Munich beer cellars. The days of random brutality were over. From now on tyranny was to be an organised affair. 

Within Germany shock at the events was tempered by relief that the hated Brownshirts, who had strutted and bullied their way across the country, had been tamed. In the whitewash that followed, much was made of Rohm's homosexuality. Not that anyone had worried very much about this over the previous twenty years. Outside Germany many people began to wake up to the true nature of the Nazi setup; until then Hitler had been regarded as a bit of a joke, a funny little man with a Charlie Chaplin moustache and a strange hairstyle. Just as later Idi Amin was always good for a laugh — unless of course you happened to live in Uganda. 

The other event was the death of President Hindenburg in August. He had been a professional soldier, an East Prussian Junker who regarded Nazis and Social Democrats with equal aristocratic contempt. He had been Commander in Chief during the First World War, had commanded the German army on the Eastern Front and had smashed the Russian advance in August 1914 at Tannenberg. He occupied a similar position in Germany to that which Kitchener occupied in Britain. He became President in 1925 but, by the early 1930s, he was senile and it is doubtful whether he knew what he was doing. Nevertheless he was a rallying point for Nationalists, and he had the complete support of the army. While the army was outside Nazi control, Hitler could never be completely safe. Had Hindenburg ordered the army to take over, as he had threatened to on a couple of occasions, the SA and SS would have been no match for them. His death removed that threat and left Hitler in complete control. 

Fifty years on, mass unemployment is with us again with its poverty, insecurity and homelessness, and people are looking for simple solutions. A persistent myth is that there is such a thing as a benevolent dictatorship. This was an idea beloved of Edwardian writers such as H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. Such an idea is a contradiction in terms for, to exist, a dictatorship must be oppressive. The only difference is in the degree of oppressiveness. Under a dictatorship all the old problems of capitalism remain but with the additional ones produced by a lack of freedom. 

Capitalist crises are often explained away by reference to scapegoats. It does not matter too much who the scapegoat turns out to be. Anybody a bit different will do. In the twenties and thirties it was the Jews, although anti-semitic feeling was a legacy of medieval times when it was a mixture of religious bigotry and naked greed. As non-Christians in a Christian world Jews were outside the law and could be plundered at ease. So the Jew was an easy target for persecution but in Finland, where there were very few Jews and no anti-semitic feelings, it was the Swedes who were the target for fascist attacks. 

Today in Britain it is Asians and West Indians; in Germany, Turks and Italians; in France, where a racist party has recently made alarming gains in the European elections, it is North Africans and in the United States it is Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. The theory is that outsiders take "our" jobs and "our" houses ; remove them and our problems will be solved. The events of fifty years ago are not just history. They are a warning to workers and, as the Socialist Party has often stated (and it cannot state this too often): Workers ignore this warning at their peril. 
Les Dale

Piper Alpha (1988)

From the August 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard
"We now go over to the ITN studios for a newsflash . . . ""An emergency telephone number has been issued for anxious relatives . . . "
The explosion and fire aboard the Piper Alpha platform on 6 July was waiting to happen. The revelations and admissions that followed within a few days of the disaster make that clear. The only surprise should be that it hadn't happened sooner.

Speaking in the House of Commons in the immediate aftermath of the fire the Energy Secretary, Cecil Parkinson, said, "Safety is the first priority of the Government and the operators." This is not true. Certainly safety is the a very high priority, for accidents cause lost production and in the case of Piper Alpha this was on a massive scale. But safety is not top priority. What stops a company from ceasing trading - a poor health and safety record alone or simply a lack of profit? What the House of Commons should have heard from Parkinson is that safety takes second place - to production.

The unavoidable fact about capitalism is that profit ultimately dictates. This is as true for the very first days of the North sea oil boom as it is for the last days of Piper Alpha.

To relieve pressure on the balance of payments and raise tax revenues as quickly as possible, British governments of the 1960s and 1970s - both Labour and Tory - went out of their way to ensure that offshore oil reserves were exploited at the earliest opportunity, particularly following the oil crisis of 1973. In planning their exploitation and production schedules, the oil companies were therefore presented with few government restrictions. Just as capitalism forced companies to maximise productions and profits, so the state too, is required to put safety to one side when convenient. As the professor of Marine Technology at Strathclyde University put it, "the number one priority after the 1973 oil crisis was to get oil quickly, and you don't get a Rolls-Royce for the price of a Mini".

Like other platforms, the Piper Alpha was built at a fraction of the value that would be created once production started. It cost £530m and was in production for 12 years, during which it pimped approximately 1,000 million barrels of oil ashore. At the current (depressed) price that is the equivalent to some £10,000m. The cost of the platform and wages bill (about £20m per annum) over the period amounts to just a few per cent of the wealth created. In the UK sector of the North Sea some 1,500 million pounds worth of oil is pumped out per month, with the government making £300m in export revenue.

These figures give some indication of the vast fortunes to be made in the North Sea -not, needless to say, from working there but just by owning. It is in the context of the disaster appeal - £1m from both the Government and petty cash box of Occidental Petroleum - should be viewed.

Much is made of how well-paid the average offshore worker is. The average pay is between £200 and £600 a week for a very exhausting, anti-social and stressful lifestyle. If that is high pay, what can be said of Dr Armand Hammer, chairman of Occidental Petroleum and one of the richest men in North America? The present writer was offshore on 6 July, on a platform from which the Piper Alpha was just a faint glow fifty miles to the north. Talking with some of the oil-workers as increasingly alarming reports were coming in, the impression gained was far from the usual macho image of oil-workers. It's not bravery or stupidity that makes them work offshore, but simple necessity. As one man put it to me, "You don't like to think about it. You can't afford to think about it".

Workers have regularly had to die for oil. When "their" countries go to war over ownership of natural resources, workers are required to do the dirty work of killing and dying for companies like Texaco, ELF or Esso. It's much the same in "peacetime": the war to defend profitability, the battle to advance the share of the oil market, is fought on the front line oil platforms by members of the working class.

So we shouldn't be shocked at the latest casualty figures. Within 48 hours of the disaster, grieving Occidental accountants recovered their composure long enough to calculate the cost to the company would be about $25m, reducing the estimated profit for this financial year to $200m. Shareholders would have to bite the bullet and suffer the tragic loss of 5-10 cents a share.

It's not all black armbands in the City though. The fire which devastated the platform and did much the same to 170 families, prompted some ferocious trading in New York and London while still smoldering: "Crude prices jump on news of disaster". (Headline, Guardian 8 July). North sea oil prices, previously depressed by a production "glut" (how many OAP's died of hypothermia last winter?), immediately rose by 25 cents a barrel.

The public inquiry which starts next month is likely to call for changes in the organisation of offshore safety. In 1980 responsibility for North Sea safety was transferred to the Department of Energy, whose function it also is to maximise production. At present, a variety of regulatory agencies and inspectorates have this responsibility but are insufficiently strict because they compete with each other for business. What is needed, according to experts, journalists and politicians, is an "independent" body such as the Health and Safety Executive, who presently enforce (if that is the right word) health and safety on the mainland.

The HSE is, however, a separate arm of the same body. As a watchdog it may be on a longer leash but it has little bark and fewer teeth. Its independence is as genuine as the Energy Department's and divorce from the overriding motive for capitalist production is, in any case, impossible.

It is likely that the inquiry will recommend improved designs of platforms and that most of these will be ignored or disputed by the oil companies on grounds of cost. Even the measures that can be introduced may only be effected if required across the board, of all operators; otherwise, companies will claim that new safety measures would make them uncompetitive. Many improvements could be made: larger platforms would allow the accommodation areas (where so many died on Piper Alpha) to be sited further away from production units; adjacent accommodation rigs would be safer still; fully automated systems are technologically feasible.

The immensely impressive technology used to extract oil from the sea-bed is not, it appears, available for ensuring worker safety. Technology under capitalism is redundant until it finds a market:

  • On the Australian barrier reef a vast floating hotel and leisure complex is being built, designed to withstand typhoons.
  • A shipping tycoon recently unveiled plans for the largest luxury liner ever. Complete with gardens, theatres, a couple of gymnasiums and dozens of restaurants it will cater for thousands of the Dr Hammers of the world.
Capitalism has made this level of technology possible, but available only to the minority who can afford it. A sane society will not need to rely on governments, companies or authorities to enforce safety. Socialism will rip the price tags from everything and liberate the productive potential of the world. It's a point to consider the next time your programme is interrupted by a newsflash and pictures of Mrs. Thatcher on another ward round.

Brian Gardner

The belated death of a class warrior (2002)

Editorial from the May 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard
So, she's finally gone. The BBC dusted off its pre-prepared reels of fawning documentaries and gave Peter Sissons the task of breaking the bad news to the public. Sissons, however, forgot the script and put on a maroon tie, much to the chagrin of the Daily Mail, who seemed to want him charged with treason.
Then one million pathetic crawlers emerged from under their rocks to line the streets of the capital – or at least that's the way it first appeared. In reality, many turned up just to see the spectacle. And for the million who turned up on the day another 57 million voted with their feet and didn't.
Why should they have paid their respects to Britain's most famous parasite anyway? Few in society epitomised the privilege and condescension which are the traditional hallmarks of the owning class better than Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. That patronising grimace and vague wave of the gloved hand (like “opening a jar slowly” she once said, but in reality more like a thinly disguised two-fingered salute) were the body language of one who considered herself “born to rule”.
Of course, this was an arrogance that was as baseless as it was base. For what was the Queen Mother actually good at? What did she do? Did she ever make things? Or look after people? Or teach them? By all accounts she couldn't even open her own curtains or squeeze the toothpaste from its packet without having assistance from one of her fifty servants. Sure, she drank gin a lot by all accounts but any of us can do that and it can hardly be considered a talent. She liked the gee-gees too – and a flutter – but then so does your average derelict.
Some people in the queues outside Westminster Abbey said she “stood by the nation during the war”, but what exactly did they mean by that? Were the blitzed and beleaguered working class in wartime London supposed to thank their little ration books that she hadn't decamped to join most of the rest of her family in Germany? And why should we all be eternally grateful to her for this since?
During the blitz the working class in the East End of London took a different view of her entirely. When she lorded it over them on one of her walkabouts, they returned her salute to them with interest, pelting her with rotten vegetables. Then, after Buckingham Palace was hit by a couple of stray bombs she made her famous statement that “I can now look the East Enders in the eye” despite the fact that for nearly all the blitz the King and Queen were holed up in Windsor Castle. It was one of first of the many PR stunts for which the entire royal family are now famous.
And some public relations triumph it was – at least for a while. It is in many respects quite amazing that the Queen Mother was able to cultivate the image she did as “the nation's favourite grandmother”, representing an oasis of virtue in an otherwise barren scene. The epithets most commonly deployed to describe her by those who had never met her: “caring”, “considerate”, “dignified” and “loyal”, were phrases devoid of real meaning. How could it be otherwise when she spoke in public rarely if ever, didn't give an interview from 1928 until her death and never wrote an article or otherwise do anything to instil such emotions or elicit such responses?
Her political views were just about as reactionary as they come – far to the right of where popular opinion currently resides, enough to make even Mr Blair blush. She was an old-fashioned ruling class warrior – anti-trade union, suspicious of (and patronising towards) the working class and distrustful of arrivistes like Blair and New Labour. She reportedly said on one occasion that she preferred “Old” Labour but even this was only for their novelty value and so long as they stayed in opposition, where they belonged.
In the end, she died when the popularity of the thing she held dearest – the Royal Family as exemplars of ruling class standards and etiquette – had already started to badly fade. That so few people were really bothered or troubled by her death is testament to this as was the decision by the BBC to significantly scale down its coverage compared to what had been envisaged some years ago.
Socialists – like increasing numbers of the working class as a whole it would seem – will remember her for the things that truly defined her existence: her uselessness on the one hand and her daily embodiment of ruling class privilege on the other. Born in different circumstances into a different environment she may have grown to be somebody genuinely useful to society. But, unfortunately, and to paraphrase the lady herself, she was born to be a parasite. And for that we can only say goodbye . . . and good riddance.

Saving the Earth (1992)

Editorial from the June 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

Will capitalism bring the world to the brink of ecological disaster? It is certainly having a good try. Its pursuit of profits and its competitive pressures to keep costs down have led to all sorts of inappropriate methods and materials being used in production.

Two of these in particular are threatening the stability of the biosphere as the environment that sustains life on Earth. One is the production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which are known to have caused holes in the ozone layer. The other is the burning of fossil fuels which releases abnormal amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and which could cause a global over-warming.

The ozone layer is vital to life on Earth since it protects the life-forms that have evolved here from ultra-violet rays from the Sun. So the appearance of holes in the ozone layer is a serious matter. It is in the vital interests of us all that everything be done to stop them growing and then to close them. In concrete terms, this means immediately stopping the production of all CFCs.

A rise in the world's average temperature would have disastrous consequences on the present patterns of human life. The sea level would rise, flooding areas which now supply much of the world's food would no longer be able to do so. Once again, what must be done is known. Steps must be taken to reduce current levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. First, by dramatically cutting back on the burning of fossil fuels in power stations and in cars, trains, ships and planes. Second, by stopping further deforestation as trees absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide.

So will capitalism step back from the brink? Will it be able to prevent its drive for profit from destroying the environment? At least the two problems are recognised. At least a world conference has been called. But recognising a problem and calling a conference is one thing; agreeing on and implementing effective measures to remedy the situation is another.

The Conference that is taking place in Brazil this month has been hyped by the media as "the Earth Summit" but is nothing of the sort. It is merely a conference of the leaders of the various capitalist states into which the world is artificially divided. All those present are supporters—indeed administrators—of the capitalist system which caused the problems in the first place. Each of them is there to defend their own particular sectional, national capitalist interests. In these circumstances whatever is decided will be totally inadequate.

Look at the record so far. In 1987 twenty-three industrialized countries met in Montreal and agreed to phase out the production of CFCs by 1999. The United States was the keenest—because it had a virtual monopoly on the production of substitutes. The other countries wanted time to catch up with this technology. Hence the delay to 1999. But many countries, particularly in the co-called Third World, refused to sign, on the grounds that they couldn't afford the substitutes (estimated to be at least three times more expensive). Some of these states can be expected to eventually begin production of CFCs themselves.

It's the same story with the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. Here it is those countries with above average dependence on coal- and oil- fired power stations who, led by the United States, have been dragging their feet. Paying for filters or building other types of power stations would raise their industrial costs and put them at a disadvantage vis-à-vis their competitors on world markets. So any treaty on global warming that might emerge from Brazil will be an inadequate compromise between rival capitalist states full of loopholes and get-out clauses to protect vested interests.

Before anything constructive can be done, capitalism must go and, with it, the artificial division of the world into separate, competing states. The Earth, and all its natural and industrial resources, must become the common heritage of all humanity. A democratic structure for making decisions at world as well as at local levels must come into being. 

When such a united world has been established (or is about to be established) a real Earth Conference can be called to decide how to repair the damage capitalism has done to the biosphere. Then what scientists already know should be done can be done, and humanity can begin to organise its relationship with the rest of nature in a genuinely sustainable way.