books Ernst Bloch: Looking Backward, Looking Forward in the Fight Against Fascism
“Helene Otto, a Communist teacher, said in one of her lectures, “We do not only want to drink wine, we want to drink it from beautiful glasses too.” She said something there that might have been meant especially for me. To a great extent, the realization that the problems of “little Kathe” from Kaspar Street were the problems of most working-class children and that they were explicable and solvable, made me a Communist.”
Katharina Jacob held onto that remark throughout her life, including the years she was imprisoned by the Nazis in the Ravensbruck concentration camp. It reflected one way to respond to the poverty and harshness of the Weimar era. Contrast that sentiment to a view too many others were to embrace as the 1920s turned to the 1930s. As Ernst Bloch observed in The Heritage of Our Times,
“The day is empty. Work is lacking. Service is hard. The populace needs stimuli. The Nazi paints them in the stuffy air as the “populace” wishes and capital commands. “Workers” of the brow hold out their hand (nothing else) to the worker of the fist; big owners of small mining shares shout “Good luck!” To everyone else, behind the excesses of revenge, the portal of cliches, there always just appears the same unstopped reality…Doctors have to make people healthy and productive for a hell, cure diseases which always return from the living conditions of modern society like wounds in war. Lawyers dispense justice as a naked expression of violence; the fascist state tolerates them solely as butchers of a higher order or as sophists of crime…Nevertheless, petit-bourgeois habit stands in the way of each of these insights. Nevertheless, a very small stratum of people with a vested interest shapes the revolutionary situation in reactionary terms and makes use of those whom the nineteenth century called “desperados.” Nevertheless too, however, the forces of reaction would never have been able to seduce people so far if their methods were not speckled and contradictory like the situation itself . . The irrational needs of today, of course, ultimately stem from the economic situation, but not so smoothly and simply, and they therefore cannot be so smoothly and simply treated and remedied either…For if there were not as much starved imagination as offended snobbery, economic ignorance and real deprivation among the pauperized strata, then it would have been impossible to conduct the “revolution” in such reactionary terms…with God, Fuhrer, fatherland and fireworks. (emphasis mine).”
Ernst Bloch wrote this shortly after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor. He was a critical Marxist thinker, a close supporter (though not a member) of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) from the 1920s through the 1950s. After the Nazi defeat in World War II, Bloch returned from exile in the US to East Germany, where he served as a professor of philosophy at the University of Leipzig. When openings for internal socialist and democratic reform were blocked he moved again, this time in 1961 to West Germany, and became an influential figure within New Left and liberation theology circles during the 1960s and 1970s. His particular importance as a revolutionary thinker lies in his concept of “concrete utopia” – the idea that humanity has, from the birth of class society, striven for a world without oppression, a world of shared freedom and equality and such visions have inspired folk art, critical literature, music, theater, and revolutionary movements throughout history.
Distinctive in this notion is the “concrete” prefix, for idle fantasies have little to do with Bloch’s understanding of utopia. As a Marxist, he never lost sight of the class dynamics of history, yet he also remained aware of how cultural traditions inform the way people understand themselves, and the world within which they live. His critique of left-wing responses to the danger of fascism lay in the tendency to rely too much on either the automatic progress of society or the counter-tendency to envision change through force of will alone. It was in the vacuum between the two through which the Nazis gained support for a distorted vision of past glories.
As social theorist Oskar Negt, himself an important figure in the West German New Left in the 1970s, explained in an introduction to Bloch’s work,
“Already in 1924, when Hitler had just emerged, Bloch described the fascination emanating from his speeches and resisted the temptation to underestimate his importance. While Marxists continued to adhere to a rational belief in educative propaganda and spread the truth in an administrative style, Hitler mobilized the people’s anxieties with symbols and archetypes of salvation and strength. [Bloch wrote]
‘Revolution not only intervenes in the understanding, but equally in the fantasy, which has for so long been undernourished in socialism. The Nazis spoke deceptively, but to people; the socialists spoke completely truthfully, but about situations; it is our task now to speak completely truthfully to people about their situations.’
“Socialism, this most human of all concerns, requires a human face at the top.”
The Nazis were unable to shake the core strength of either Communists or Social Democrats (SPD) in the working class, but their strength was sufficient when linked to corporate power and existing civic and military institutions to overwhelm all opposition. The question before us is how do we build a movement broad enough to address the mass basis of reaction at its core, without abandoning principles of solidarity or the necessity of systemic transformations at the heart of socialist politics?
To understand this challenge, we can look at the mindset of someone whose experiences are those of many who have fallen under the sway of Trump. Harris Gruman, a Service Employees Union (SEIU) staff member, wrote about an encounter he had at a laundromat in Utah:
“An athletic young man came in with a basket of what looked like mostly toddler’s clothing. He was angry, banging things around, mumbling irritably. Not the most comforting companion, but I kept reading my paper.
“Then he began speaking for my benefit. He was on a political tirade about that [B-word] Hillary Clinton and our [N-word] president. I now saw him clearly, close-cropped blond hair, late twenties, solid and trim…
“He was a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, three tours in all, and now he was unemployed, doing the washing while his wife worked down the road at Wal-Mart. The Democrats only cared about transgendered people and immigrants. Trump was his choice.
‘My uncle in Wyoming thinks we should kill President Obama.’
At that point, Gruman confronts him in conversation, and turns the temperature down. When the man learns that Gruman works for a union, he comments: “I wish I had a union job.” It turns out, his father, a railroad worker, was a lifelong unionist. But that pathway has been blocked – a future for a working person all too bleak. The essay concludes:
“Back in 2016, I met a face in the rioting white supremacist crowd of January 6th, 2021. Yes, he was a racist. Yes, he was resenting people even worse off than himself. Yes, he was far too ready for murderous violence.
“But don’t talk to him about white privilege…or label him ‘a deplorable.’
“Get him that union job.”
Fair enough as far as it goes – but we still have to ask ourselves why this person’s anger found an outlet in the extreme right and not a left-wing socialist organization, why he imagines violent action against a sitting president but does not imagine joining with others to build a union and rebuild the economy so that jobs with a future could be grasped.
The question is not academic. We need to go beyond moralizing to understand the roots of fascist appeal if that wish for a “union job” is manifested in action to defend democratic rights instead of descending into the hatreds of racism, the myth of the self-made man, the “solution” of authoritarian reaction.
Bloch attempted an answer in 1932:
“Not all people exist in the same Now. They do so only externally, by virtue of the fact that they may all be seen today. But that does not mean that they are living at the same time with others.
“… In general, different years resound in the one that has just been recorded and prevails. Moreover they do not emerge in a hidden way as previously but rather, they contradict the Now in a very peculiar way, awry from the rear. The strength of this untimely course has become evident; it promised nothing less than new life, despite its looking to the old. Even the masses flock to it since the unbearable Now at least seems different with Hitler, who paints good old things for everyone. There is nothing more unexpected, nothing more dangerous than this power of being at once fiery and puny. The workers are no longer alone with themselves and the bosses. Many earlier forces, from quite a different Below, are beginning to slip between”.
The labor movement, the organized left in all its iterations, maintains and builds upon a sense of history, past victories, defeats, and sacrifices that have brought us to the present – yet it is a movement that consistently looks to what might be. One can almost see class consciousness as a form of modernism, a search for a possible future, not a buried past. We need but think of the words of the Internationale: “No more tradition’s chains shall bind us, Arise ye slaves no more in thrall, The earth shall rise on new foundations, we have been naught, we shall be all.” Or the words of Solidarity Forever: “We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old, for the Union makes us strong.” Or of Bertolt Brecht’s Solidaritätslied, which concludes: “Whose tomorrow is tomorrow, whose world is the world?”
Millions, however, including those who suffered from capitalism and war, sought instead status or authority within a society that was gone. The Nazis confronted workers’ strivings to create the world anew with a return to an atavistic past. The mass base of reaction lay within the declassed middle class and sections of the nobility who lost security and status in the social dislocations that occurred after Germany’s World War I defeat. Many soldiers were unable, after four years of total war, to readjust to civilian life. Refugees from territories lost with the signing of the Versailles Treaty in 1919 and peasants forced off the land felt homeless. All these were existing within the “unbearable Now.” So the turn by many to Hitler – who “paints good old things for everyone” – a society that is hierarchical but stable, in which everyone had their place and knew where they stood, a past that was insular and not welcoming of strangers who could be agents of change and disruption, a past in which a seemingly benevolent authoritarianism bound all together against the rest of the world.
The vision of what socialism could create is exactly what the Nazis contested, as has every mass-based right-wing movement that appeals not to an envisioned future but to an imagined past (i.e. “Make America Great Again”).
Bloch terms these differences “synchronous” and “nonsynchronous” contradictions, meaning contradictions emerging of the time, rooted in the genuine conflicts within contemporary society and through which an alternative society based on justice can emerge. These are distinct from a consciousness rooted in past social formations, out of step with future possibilities embedded in present day realities – and through which a politics of hate can be manipulated. Although complex, it is important to look at Bloch’s elaboration of this concept:
“The subjectively nonsynchronous contradiction is pent-up anger, the objectively nonsynchronous one is unsettled past; the subjectively synchronous one is the proletariat’s free revolutionary act, the objectively synchronous contradiction is the impeded future contained in the Now…the impeded new society with which the old one is pregnant in its productive forces…The increasing socialization of labor is no longer compatible with the private capitalist property relations, with the bourgeois form in which industrial labor grew up. This is the objectively synchronous contradiction of the times…Only this exact antithesis is decisively revolutionary for the times. Nonetheless: it is not the only one there. The other antithesis, that between capitalism and the nonsynchronously immiserated classes, lives alongside the synchronous antithesis, even though only in a diffuse way. Thus it produces fear and pent-up anger in the class of the petty bourgeoisie which “lacks a history.” Nor does it allow for an elaborated, present class consciousness of its own. For that reason it makes the thrust of the conflict external and blunt, directed only against the symptoms, not against the core of exploitation.”
That anger reflects legitimate frustration with society. Yet frustration without direction opens the door to violent rage. Clearly this is what marks people like that guy in the laundromat: my life could have been different, but society has gone to hell. It is a way of thinking “out of sync” with the times, thus the ease with which the Protocols of Zion or QAnon or “Great Replacement” fantasies take hold.
Yet, and this is the critical insight for Bloch, that appeal to a supposed past “serves not only in a reactionary way, to hold up to the present a past as something which in part is genuinely not dead. It also positively delivers in places a part of that matter which seeks a life not destroyed by capital.” Contrary to fascists past or present, this look back can be rooted in positive notions of pre-capitalist life, a life with meaning in work, community through harmony with the natural world, and thereby a universality that ties equality to freedom. As such, it is part of an intersecting stream of myths and dreams. It is a way of understanding that can reinforce and be reinforced by socialist movements working within time to create a suppressed yet possible future. The failure to make such yearnings explicit as the context for ongoing political activism, contributed to the isolation of the militant working class during the last years of Weimar. The failure to make such connections today leaves the field far too open for the disconnected and isolated who can’t imagine their place in the world as it could be.
A politics built on this understanding will go nowhere unless rooted in the conditions that make the threat of reaction greater at one time as compared to another. The depth of the threat to democratic and constitutional structures in the United States today is greater than any other time since the Civil War, due to a set of crises that leading sections of business cannot see a resolution for – absent sharp limitations on democratic rule. Too many locate the danger we face today with Trump and his entourage’s personalities, or in the racism and misogyny manifested in militias. Trump personifies a danger in his individual presence that cannot be ignored, nor can the danger posed by armed right-wing white supremacist groups be minimized. Yet ignoring the structural basis of authoritarianism and the reasons why attacks on democratic rule are posed so sharply at the moment inhibits our ability to overcome the looming crisis.
Noting that corporate capital is at the root of the fascist danger does not mean reducing anti-fascist politics to a narrow “class against class” perspective. During the 1920s, demands for the rights of women, anti-authoritarian public education, opposition to social conformity, militarism, domestic violence, anti-Semitism, and national chauvinism were part and parcel of the class struggle and is the reason “culture wars” were launched by the Nazis with as much fervor as our reactionary equivalents do today. Similarly, current struggles against book banning, for freedom of sexuality and new definitions of families, against mass incarceration, against manifestations of racism in everyday life, are intrinsic to the class struggle understood as working people grasping hold of their lives at work, at home, and in society.
Behind these lie contrasting notions of freedom, contrasting notions of what has been lost over the course of history. These contrasts ought to be an explicit part of every confrontation over the direction we take as a society.
“It is great that we humans are born unfinished as a species, not only as children. But it is a hard lot to be engaged in a development which proceeds so slowly since it is trapped over and over again by deceivers…Mankind is the animal who takes detours, yet often in an obdurate and flagrantly foolish way, not just cunningly. Otherwise, all of outward life would run as easily and peacefully as now happens, at best, among friends.”
Bloch, as the quote from “Dialectics and Hope” above indicates, was keenly aware that political struggle doesn’t exist as something separate from the struggles each of us face in our daily lives. The “correct” program will inevitably fall short if the contradictory lives and thoughts of the people for whom such programs are written are ignored. The path toward liberation twists and turns. Hopes can be disappointed, defeats need not be final.
Reexamining Weimar can remind us that Germany’s turn toward fascism was not an inevitable response to military defeat. From 1918 until around 1923-24, working-class organizations acted upon a broad demand for genuine democracy and revolutionary change, a society without war or exploitation – aspirations that, for a brief period, became a dominant influence in German society. During those years, the majority of the discontented saw hope in socialism, a significant section of the middle class proved open to democratic politics and a program of peace, some sections of business were willing to make concessions to labor. Reaction, of course, was also on the scene. Assassinations against revolutionaries and reformers were rife, as was armed suppression of every attempt to assert working-class power. Yet those indicated weakness, not strength, for authoritarian politics were unable to command a mass movement in the open.
Bitter divides among working people, the inability of any left organization to construct a politics around which a decisive majority of the population could rally (be it on a reformist or revolutionary basis), eventually led to loss of popular initiative. Business and landed interests reunified politically, glorification of war reemerged in popular culture and contempt for democratic possibility grew. The wide range of left-wing organizations with meaningful support dwindled to just the SPD and KPD. Despite each having hundreds of thousands of members and millions of supporters, they became ever less able to generate mass support outside the working-class, and were no longer credible as alternatives to existing power.
With the onset of the Depression, business became even more determined to undo the concessions to labor made at Weimar’s birth. They feared that further immiseration of working people might recreate a revolutionary situation, while the army saw the opportunity to break free of restrictions imposed by the Versailles Treaty. A shift with non-synchronous contradictions becoming dominant politically was underway as the Nazis gained a mass base rooted in myths and violence, all with capital’s full support. Old slogans and strategies were insufficient in response, and left-wing and democratic groups were unable to counter that outlook to the degree necessary. By 1932-33 defeat was already in the cards.
Our crisis in the United States today has unfolded over a longer sweep of time. What brought us here had a beginning in the mid-1970s, when US defeat in Vietnam marked the limits of our “guns and butter” policies. Leading business circles concluded that no return to higher rates of profitability nor re-assertion of imperial power was possible without undoing concessions made to labor during the New Deal era in the 1930s, nor concessions made thereafter to movements for equality, social justice, and peace.
Corporate globalization and neoliberal deindustrialization followed; the resulting mass unemployment and dislocation diminished labor strength and vehicles of resistance. Subsequently, inequality grew in the country overall and within the working class itself as racial justice gains were systematically attacked. Civil liberties were undermined by the war on drugs, which led to the enormous increase in our prison population, its racialized edge used to undo every step forward toward political power and improved conditions of life that the black community had made in prior decades. Financialization via the dollar was used to dominate allies that were becoming competitive, destroy attempts at economic independence by countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and, ultimately, prevail in the Cold War.
Ideologically, the process was justified by posing the private and individual against the social. The anonymity of government, large corporations, huge universities, the distance between leaders and led, that had been subject to critique after World War II was twisted around so that “government” (i.e. universal rights and programs) was demonized, the privilege of private wealth extolled. The attendant atomization was accompanied by promotion of a sense of community that was exclusive, not inclusive, the glue being a revival of evangelical religion centered on limiting women’s autonomy.
The whole was held together by a kind of “patriotism” rooted in an abstract notion of freedom and democracy, defined by the ideology of American exceptionalism grounded in glorification of war – itself a breeding ground of violence, abusive policing, and the spread of neo-fascist ideology. Although sharp divides within mainstream politics never vanished, “opportunity” instead of equality, the primacy of individual over collective rights, “growth” as an end in itself, became hegemonic during Reagan’s presidency, defining social policy across corporate circles and dominant in both Republican and Democratic parties.
Here lay the outlines of what took full blown shape with Trump and his supporters – the revival of a “myself alone” outlook, in forms that were implicitly and then explicitly racist, anti-egalitarian and anti-democratic. Here we see too that look to the past, growing out of hatred of the present and fear of the future – nonsynchronous, out of time.
Although left-wing, working-class, and community movements were demoralized and disoriented, such struggles as did occur were sufficient to prevent full implementation of Reagan’s neoliberal project. Moreover, the financialization of the economy and debt-financed growth was unable to overcome systemic weaknesses as reflected in 2008’s banking collapse. That, in turn, undermined neoliberalism’s ideological dominance, fueling the attack on constitutional rule backed by violent “white power” movements. These gained a mass base among people who felt betrayed by the decline of the past 40 years but put the blame on movements to extend rights to the excluded. Hence, the danger of fascism.
This shift, however, has been accompanied by deep divides over social, economic, and environmental policies within the “power elite,” quite unlike during Germany’s Weimar years. Also quite unlike what prevailed when fascism became ascendant in much of the world in the run-up to World War II is that after a period of relative dormancy, the left, social justice movements and labor have also risen in strength.
For that upsurge to sustain itself, those organizations and movements need to maintain an openness to ideas, experimentation, difference, generally reflected in initial waves of political activism which all too often dissipate as hopes in renewal fade, as radicalism becomes detached from the complexity of human life. Politics rooted in “concrete utopia” provide a pathway to maintain a connection between organizing around pressing needs without losing sight of deeply held aspirations. Doing so will better enable us to understand those detours we face and provide a possible means to break the boundaries of hatred that create the space within which fascism develops. Linkages that tie the varied steps, no matter how small, people take to challenge existing power, to build mutual support and solidarity, can, in turn, re-humanize engagement and create the framework to see as a realizable possibility a world in which all live with dignity and respect.
Tom Moylan, a scholar of science fiction and a longtime activist, noted that for Bloch, “dreaming ahead” can become
“ … an act which is capable of revolutionary awareness and which can enter the activity of history. With such wishes and dreams [Bloch wrote], ‘virtually all human beings are futuristic; they transcend their past life, and to the degree that they are satisfied, they think they deserve a better life (even though this may be pictured in a banal and egotistic way), and regard the inadequacy of their lot as a barrier, and not just the way of world.’
“Utopian literature as a form of romance or fantasy serves to stimulate in its readers a desire for a better life and to motivate that desire toward action by conveying a sense that the world is not fixed once and for all. In the estranged vision of another society lie the seeds for changing the present society. Utopian writing that resists cooptation and limitation within the categories of the given system can offer a forward and emancipating look toward an autonomous existence in a non-alienating setting. To be sure, that forward -pulling vision also carries with it the necessity of willed transformation, of struggle against all types of exploitation and domination – that is, of revolution.”
A Legacy to Draw Upon
Is it possible, in the face of anger at life as it is, to sustain a movement that also contains hope? A movement that looks to drink wine from beautiful glasses? Authoritarian danger loomed in the United States as the Depression deepened in the early 1930s. That danger was overcome by building mutual support across lines of disagreement through reform programs and a sense of what our country ought to be. The New Deal was a reimagining of Jeffersonian democracy to encompass all and connect decentralized, participatory structures of engagement to national organizations and government able to constrain private power. Reengaging that sense of US history underscored the possibilities, rather than the constraints, that exist within our heritage – forming the ideological framework within which the industrial unionism of the CIO, the building block of democratic advance in that era, was created.
Toni Gilpin, in her history of one of those unions – the Farm Equipment Workers (FE) – encapsulates the profound implications when “an injury to one is an injury to all” moves from slogan to collective action to interpersonal relationships:
“…this is a tale about a long deep grudge, and how that anger and resentment prodded workers to demand what was justly theirs and to win at least a larger portion of it. But it is also a story about love: about workers who genuinely loved their union, and thus each other, as they had developed the deep bonds of affection and solidarity that uplifted them and energized them to fight on together. To build a successful labor movement – and thereby a fair and equitable society – the grudge needs to be acknowledged and acted upon. But the love must be there too.”
Put more prosaically, Roger Horowitz described that process of how that solidarity is built in a history of another CIO union – the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA):
“The channels for rank-and-file influence in the UPWA led to an acceleration of the organization’s social unionism. The new union militants rose out of their departments to become stewards, officers, members of important union committees. They pressed their concerns inside chain meetings, at UPWA conventions, and the biennial wage and contract conferences that set negotiating priorities. Beginning in 1953, the union attached anti-discrimination and women’s conferences to the contract meetings. These sessions…allowed rank-and-file leaders to raise their priorities and forge links with like-minded activists in other UPWA plants. As participants in critical contract sessions, blacks and women on the chain negotiating committees watched carefully that their particular interests were not sacrificed…[during bargaining]. The institution of union democracy, which survived the difficult postwar years, now expanded to allow union members to make a strong imprint on their organization’s objectives.”
That this survived through the 1950s within the AFL-CIO was rare. As social transformation was stalled, as corporate power grew, the kind of unionism represented by FE and UPWA became marginalized. The question now: how to prevent another unraveling?
Bloch’s concepts of synchronous and nonsynchronous contradictions, developed not just to understand but to engage the enemy, anticipated the subsequent direction of anti-fascist politics. The shape this would take was proclaimed by the Bulgarian Communist Georgi Dimitrov, tried in Leipzig at the end of 1933 by the newly installed Hitler government after the Reichstag fire. Instead of an expected defense of revolution, however, Dimitrov confronted prosecutors by asserting the right of Communists to continue to advance their worldview and commitment to socialism illegally as part of a defense of civil liberties and rights then in the process of being eliminated. His spirit of defiance, joined to a clear-cut legal and political argument, was a spark needed to overcome the demoralization that followed mass repression. Thereafter, the Nazis held no more public trials.
Dimitrov galvanized calls for a popular front – an alliance across political divides, across class lines – to unite all opponents of fascism around a program to defend democracy by expanding its content. My grandfather was one so influenced. A furrier by trade, a member of the SPD, the Reichsbanner, and a Jewish workers circle in Leipzig, he attended a mass rally in support of Dimitrov and imprisoned KPD leader Ernst Thälmann along with my father, then in his early teens . Arrest, privations, and multiple border crossings followed, but a commitment to Popular Front politics remained.
Franz Dahlem, who oversaw the banned Communist Party’s organizing in Germany until his arrest in France, noted that workers in Frankfurt-Main initiated the first unified project by Communists and Social Democrats after Hitler’s assumption of power through contacts developed by surviving illegal factory committees. These committees built ties with Nazi supporters disappointed after the 1934 purge of Storm Troopers, which meant the promised “Second Revolution” (against big business) would never take place. This was not conceived as a coalition rooted in least common denominator politics, but rather as a movement asserting democratic rights to protect basic needs.
Such forms of resistance were too little too late. Nonetheless, they reflected an undercurrent that always existed within the working-class movement. More to the point, it provides a point of departure for understanding how democratic initiative around shared interests can, even in the harshest times, develop transformative politics by addressing the multiple “Nows” within which people live.
In “Demokratie als Ausnahme” (Democracy as Exception), Bloch maintained this perspective even as conditions became bleaker. Writing in 1939 after Germany occupied the remnant of Czechoslovakia still “independent” after the Munich Agreement, he argued that this defeat did not invalidate the strategy:
“The strength of the Popular Front lies in the spirit of struggle and is the foundation of the mass basis of the anti-fascist movement….Munich was a lost battle but the basis of that defeat lies in there having been too little, not too much, Popular Front politics….for it is not enough to set store by bourgeois freedoms, we must use these freedoms to make a better world….The Popular Front needs to take into account that war is the normal state of class society, not democracy.”
Turning back to the US, the civil rights movement, organizing under conditions of murderous repression, exemplifies how a democratic ethos can enable a movement to simultaneously become broader and more radical. Jack O’Dell developed his politics as a merchant seaman and member of the National Maritime Union, which was once a left-wing CIO union like FE and UPWA. He played a critically important role in the Black Freedom movement, working with King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Jesse Jackson in the Rainbow Coalition. Looking back on those events, he articulated this process:
“Beginning with the events of Montgomery in 1955 when the Afro-American community of fifty thousand citizens stood as one in a bus boycott and extending to 1969 with the Vietnam Moratorium in which an estimated four million people participated…our movement created a dual authority in the country. There was on the one hand the established authority: the citadels of institutionalized racism, the masters of war, the apparatus of government – state, local and federal; and those chosen to do the dirty work of suppression of our movement…This established authority acted out a way of life that was rooted in custom, tradition, and dictated by class interests. The other center of authority was the Civil Rights – Anti-War Movement which represented a continuum of protest action during this period. The authority, the Movement, represented the people’s alternative to institutionalized racism and colonialist war.
“As the new authority in the country, our movement drew on the best traditions of the Negro church, organized labor, and popular radicalism. This was reflected in the musical themes that we made popular such as “This Little Light of Mine,” “All We Are Saying Is Give Peace A Chance,” “We Shall Not Be Moved.” And the most famous, “We Shall Overcome.”
“The spirit and commitment to the goals of our struggle enabled our Movement to keep on moving while sustaining the wounds inflicted upon peaceful demonstrators in Birmingham, Selma, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the tear gas routing of the Poor People’s Encampment in Washington, D.C.
“If one participated in any of these demonstrations or was merely aware that such activity was going on in one’s city, one knew as Martin [Luther King] said so eloquently in his last speech. “Something is happening in our world. The people everywhere are demanding freedom. Whether in Johannesburg, South Africa, New York City or Memphis, Tennessee…”
The combination of elements this entails, drawing upon numerous traditions, the self-activity of countless communities, hinged around programs that were concrete – ending segregation, protecting voting rights, ending the Vietnam War and aspirational – though as inexpressible as the hope contained in spirituals that grew out of the lives of the enslaved. It was the combination which proved transformative. This doesn’t mean racism lost its grip on millions of people, or that militarism was banished from our culture. Far from it. But it did mean that both were marginalized within the public sphere and were forced to speak in ever more coded language. Whereas the first civil rights demonstrations and the first anti-Vietnam war protests were often confronted by even larger crowds of right-wing counter protests, those eventually gave way. Repression had to be carried out ever more exclusively through police power and those who do the violent, disruptive work of reaction in the shadows.
“Alternative power” meant reaching far beyond the sphere of supporters and opening eyes to countless people to challenge their prior ways of thinking. Common sense that accepts what is as unchangeable had for millions of individuals given way to critical thinking that saw the possibility of a just world, reflecting how the ideas of those seeking to transform our country’s politics had gained hegemony.
O’Dell was writing in the late 1970s, when the Movement became narrow through either a self-limiting pragmatism or by a retreat into revolutionary rhetoric – each a pathway to ineffectiveness and isolation. A serious attempt to overcome that weakness by building an organizational framework for the broad expanse of activism and by directly engaging in electoral action, was thereafter developed by the Rainbow around Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential election campaigns. This too was rooted in a look back and forward, creating a unity in diversity, addressing politics but also human hearts framed by a worldview embedded in US history. Sheila Collins, an activist within and chronicler of the Rainbow, explained:
“The Constitution itself is a product of heroic struggle against hereditary privilege and imperialism. As such, it incorporates the most revolutionary notions known to humankind: the principle of the equality and dignity of all human beings and their inalienable right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”… Yet the contradiction at the heart of U.S. history is that to guard their own privilege the Founding Fathers who enshrined this principle were not prepared to apply it to everyone. Thus they read out of the notion of humanity everyone who was not a white property-owning male.
“Such is the genius of the Constitution, however, that the ideal remained to be striven for and the subsequent history of social struggle and constitutional reform has been the struggle of successive groups of the locked-out to apply that ideal to the vast majority…
“What the Rainbow Coalition platform suggests is that that principle [inalienable rights] must now become universal…compromises were always a violation of the original norm.”
This concept of “the original norm” has deep roots in rebellions throughout history, as expressed in spiritual and secular form. Dissenting Christianity, the Black church, traditional Native beliefs, and other religious lineages that reject institutionalization have consistently expressed the oneness of humanity in opposition to hierarchies that take bread away from those who toil, impose wars on those who live in peace, and rationalize power from above while denying “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” to those they wish to subjugate. Radical enlightenment, with deep roots in a secular materialism, rejected “natural” hierarchies and notions of a personal God in favor of a naturalism that asserted the connection of all living beings. Separately or combined, these formed the backdrop to how colonial revolutionaries and slave rebellions sought to understand and change the world – providing the language within which popular radicalism has consistently expressed itself.
At the same time, such influences consistently face pushback. The capitalist system recreates divides between people, reinforcing prejudices and fears of equally long lineages; reflected in the intractability of instituional racism and patriarchy. That is overlaid on top of structural pressures that tend to always seek to lower wages, increase hours, and restrict the rights people use to address their needs. The heyday of the radicalism of CIO unions like FE, the NMU, UPWA, of the rank-and-file rebellion and wave of bottom-up organizing in the 1960s-1970s were relatively brief.
Similarly, connections the Rainbow and prior movements began to build came undone. The neoliberal consensus, alongside a sharp partisan divide that became sharper after Bill Clinton’s election in 1992, seemed to leave little room for independent working-class movements or politics. The legacy of such initiatives survives in numerous forms, but out of the disappointment of defeat, there also came a revival of narrow, parochial
Present Past, Present Future
Where does all this leave us in our time?
Millions took part in the November 2022 elections, providing a mixed result. The forces of democratic humanism made some gains, yet were unable to turn the tide. Reaction fell short of its goals but retained enormous strength – the fascist danger is with us still. What would a politics look like that could overcome this threat?
Voting rights is a way to begin. This serves an obvious purpose for the legal basis by which a minority, such as Trump supporters, can take power is by disenfranchising their opponents. Historically, the struggle for universal suffrage has been long and bitter, the path toward it becoming truly universal only emerging with passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen touch on an unstated argument: votes are illegitimate when cast by immigrants or Black Americans in numbers that make a difference to the outcome. Fundamentally, the right to vote is a core right of citizenship, a marker of equality that challenges the inequality structured in capitalist society and our political system as it has evolved.
Not incidentally, voting rights has become a particularly salient political dividing line. On one side, a minority is increasingly forced to drop the pretense of commitment to majority rule. On the other side, a contradictory and heterogenous majority seeks to protect and expand the vote, either to better defend the existing system, secure incremental changes within it, or radically transform our political and economic structures.
The challenge is to develop a politics that strives to maintain mutual support within the wide range of shared and divergent interests, without losing sight of the need to use the vote as a step to build a politics that mobilizes those core communities inclined toward an egalitarian social justice perspective, reaches those millions who don’t vote or vote on an ad hoc basis, and connects with some of those who have been captured by reaction. Turning pro-democratic engagement into a positive force organizing around needed alternative public policies is central to anti-fascist engagement.
Weimar provides a clear example of what happens when election results fail to translate into measures that respond to social need. Social Democratic policy became paralyzed after 1928 in the face of a dire political and economic crisis. Wholly dependent on parliamentary action, the SPD was without direction once parliament became dysfunctional, defending the shell of a state system without content. Trade unions, in turn, became ever more parochial, distancing themselves from the SPD. They eventually attempted an accommodation with the Nazis, reinforcing rather than overcoming weakness. Communists sought to combine mobilization on issues with legislative action, but without a strategy to coalesce with other political actors. Acting without allies, they were unable to break out of a left-wing cul-de-sac. And independent socialist/democratic forces had neither a base nor a political vehicle, hence their sharp critiques of the rising danger of fascism and calls for unity failed to translate into meaningful public support. Whereas sharp legislative battles took place through the mid-1920s, by 1930 the government was run by executive decree and parliamentary debate had become largely pro forma.
Undermining legislative institutions was in the Nazis’ interest. It didn’t matter that they were responsible, what mattered was the image of failure by elected leaders which gave credence to demands for a strong hand. This has its analogue in Republican policy since Obama’s election, for their goal has been to block not pass legislation, an orientation on full display during Trump’s presidency and continuing into our present.
Therefore, using elections and elective office is crucial if we are to defend existing democratic rights and freedoms, as Bernie Sanders’s 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns demonstrated, as he gave voice to millions seeking an egalitarian social justice answer to the misrule of the “1%.”. The growing bloc of genuinely progressive and socialist elected representatives in Congress has increased that visibility. Although small in and of itself, as part of the larger House Progressive Caucus or associated with organizations such as Working Families Party, Our Revolution, National People’s Action, DSA and others, they have avoided the dangers of isolation while being strengthened by the simultaneous election of similarly inclined legislators to state and municipal offices. This combination provides a basis for defending the vote not as an abstract right, but as a right that can be used practically.
But the limitations on that possibility are also real. Corporate/Pentagon dominance within the Democratic Party continues, just as developers, business associations, big money and “law and order” interests maintain disproportionate power in local government irrespective of the party in office. Moreover, every political initiative from the Democratic side runs into the gauntlet of Republican obstruction backed by their corporate benefactors and by millions of conservative voters. Our capacity to use elected office to enact egalitarian reforms is limited by undemocratic structures within our constitutional framework, and by the imbalance of power between concentrated wealth and working people.
Thus, critically important as elections and legislative action are, by themselves they are incapable of overcoming entrenched power. The reason is not because of the stance of one or another legislator. Rather, it lies with the relative weakness of popular movements organizing for more fundamental change. Here we return to Bloch and the recognition that we can best defend existing democratic rights and freedoms by organizing to extend them, which is to say organizing at workplaces, in communities, and around defined issues outside the framework of elections, which creates different alliances than those that exist in partisan politics.
When people act on their own behalf, be it to defend abortion rights, stop mass deportations, end mass incarceration, support public education, protect Social Security, establish health care as a right, protect homeowners from banks and tenants from landlords, they act on the basis of understood shared needs apart from political identification. Whether the demand is for student debt relief, child tax credits, affordable housing, or a living wage, every initiative that makes a difference in daily life creates the space for legislation to pass, which in turn can provide impetus for encouraging greater public engagement to expand the realm of justice, opening people to rethink what had previously been accepted.
The Black Lives Matters protests that followed the police murder of George Floyd demonstrated that process. While specifically addressing the racism that denies fundamental human rights to African Americans, the mass demonstrations became a generalized protest against all forms of oppression in the United States, against Trump and what he represents. Flowing out of a spontaneous upsurge (without forgetting decades of community organizing that set the stage) was a reaffirmation of the truism that fighting for the particular needs of one segment of working people is a necessity for fighting for the needs and rights of all – the specific and general are not opposed to each other but are mutually dependent.
That upsurge was decidedly non-electoral, which is what gave it its breadth. At the same time, it limited the movement’s effectiveness as, without legislation, it has proved impossible to enact public policy to implement demands for police accountability, let alone the more far-reaching goals of those who took to the streets. And in the space between demonstrators’ exhaustion and political stalemates, police advocates with the aid of established power regained much of the initiative.
Understanding that need doesn’t argue for prioritizing one mode of organizing over another, let alone counterposing them (i.e. fearing a given demand might lose votes for a progressive candidate or, alternatively, fearing inevitable legislative compromises will undermine militancy). Rather, it entails recognizing that organizing to get out the vote, running campaigns to defeat right-wingers and elect the most progressive candidate possible, and working with those in office to push an agenda that focuses on human needs – together with building unions, neighborhood associations, organizing street protests, public actions, civil disobedience, community forums, town halls around concerns that arise out of felt need – is the only way to protect and expand democratic rights. Even if these are not coordinated, it is only through the flowing together of multiple streams of engagement that the kind of alternative power generated by “the Movement,” as O’Dell described it, can be developed.
Challenging Fascism at its Core
Corporate power remains powerful, lines in the sand are not easily crossed, and neo-fascist movements serve as a counter to union strength within our multiracial, multiethnic working-class, composed of people with different sexual identities, different cultures, different ways of seeing and living. Desire for change, coupled with frustration at the lack of change, leads many to listen to the siren song of demagogues.
It is a conjuncture which returns us to the relevance of Bloch’s concepts of synchronous and non-synchronous contradictions, of concrete utopia, to developing an anti-fascist political strategy that speaks to the moment as part of a politics of transformation.
When looking at the political strategies above, most of the basic economic, political, and social issues addressed grew from contradictions of our time. These flow from the development of capitalism, which since the post-World War II era has developed in a way that has made precarity a way of life for society at large, causing misery and insecurity without resolving the system’s basic contradictions. It is that reality that has led to social explosions across the world in recent decades, including the United States, and has created the possibility of foundational change that would enable society to address basic human needs as a central question.
But those nonsynchronous contradictions remain and show up more forcefully in the domain where precarity expresses itself as an existential problem: war and climate change. War was the precondition for fascism’s mass base in Germany and Italy, it lays the mass base for reaction in the United States. The arms industry embodies capitalism’s dependence on destruction, while the growth of the military is held up as a model of authoritarian efficiency contrary to democratic norms. Many veterans and those still in the military can see how it uses and abuses people and that its self-perpetuating myths are just that. But many – perhaps like that guy at the laundromat — found a purpose there that civilian life doesn’t offer and so clings to its myths. More insidious is how this suffuses our culture, from film to football to countless localized commemorations, military service has become a powerful cultural force distorting our history and place in the world.
Once the United States is upheld as a global force capable of upholding human rights (normalizing our treatment of Korea, Vietnam, Latin America, Iraq, Afghanistan) it becomes easy to accept the notion that those whom we “oppose” are irrational, intrinsically evil, an “Other” unlike us. This reinforces the image of our society as a model of rectitude and the narrow nationalism that makes the Pentagon budget sacrosanct. It is also the logic behind the “ourselves alone” nationalism of Trump – itself an outgrowth of right-wing nationalism of long lineage. Conflicts between these two are real, and function within the dividing line over our country’s political direction, yet also reflect wide commonalities. That complicates the movement for peace, but does not limit its necessity. The descending line from a militarized society to a militarized border to a militarized police force to militarized vigilantes is a bumpy one, but it could be seen on January 6th – while the ease of othering people abroad stems from and reinforces the othering of racism. The broad basis of neo-fascist outlooks identifies the decline we see around us with decline in “our” power – and makes it imperative to counter the entire world view behind militarized nationalism.
Something similar is at play when it comes to climate change. Oil, coal, and other corporations in extractive industries are major funders of the extreme right wing. Through advertisements and public relations, they are able to present themselves as exemplars of the spirit of hard work, and the economic progress that once seemed to have characterized the United States which has now vanished. Overcoming environmental destruction means breaking through a different kind of barrier – the barrier between jobs and a way of life on one side and a commitment to our future and a different way of life on the other. As we have seen time and again, environmental justice is one of the sharpest dividing lines within the working class, and is one in which different conceptions of freedom and democracy come into play. What we need is a reframing of the issue. Not“reframing” as a clever tool to manipulate people, but as a process which emphasizes that unacceptable choices can be rejected – that people have the ability to think and act to pose alternative choices and alternative solutions.
Essayist and poet Maggie Nelson puts her finger on the nature of the issue which cannot be resolved simply by talking about global warming or job creation:
“The divide between those who want to drill, baby, drill and those who want urgent action on climate, often gets posed as a conflict between those who want freedom…and those who value obligation…The problem with this binary is that it risks reducing “obligation” to moral hectoring and “freedom” to a cheap, self-serving hedonism. Neither helps us seize the moment to shed some of freedom’s more exhausted – and toxic – tropes and myths, or to experiment with its next iterations. We could imagine, for example, restraint as a choice, as in the restraint needed not to extract the 80 percent of the fossil fuel underground, in order to maintain the conditions of possibility for on-going human life.”
What matters here is getting past sterile divides that lead to inaction and promote paralysis, and instead reach to another way of thinking and acting. After all, thinking of “restraint as choice,” means to exercise control over choice – which is ultimately where freedom and democracy intersect rather than collide. And it provides a way to understand how to break down that opposition by engaging those parts of the workforce and those communities most impacted and most threatened by loss as the world they have known comes undone. People need to see a tangible path forward in a world they are helping to create, a future they are part of, if they are to engage with the future that could be.
The same goes for peace. War has come to appear as being in the natural order of things. Decisions as to when, why, and to what purpose are taken outside the realm of popular discussion and consideration. At the same time, value is ascribed to the profession of war that few other professions hold (especially, but not only, for those whose opportunities are otherwise limited). Proving oneself in the military, like a job on an oil rig, creates the illusion of meaning, of value in work that elsewhere is hard to find. But then, when service is over, when a job disappears, there is too little left around to choose from. With economic well-being so dependent on forces of destruction, social conditions seem ordained from above, appearing as if by magic. Thus, the appeal of conspiracy theories fixated on the machinations of a “deep state” and the need for a “strong man” with an iron will who will fix what needs fixing by conjuring up enemies – much as peasants of old turned on “witches” and outsiders, as forces that can be attacked instead of those who actually made their lives miserable.
Yet there is a kernel of truth here – our society is undemocratic in many ways. Decisions that make us go to war or to channel job growth toward destructive ends are made not in the public sphere, but reflect political decisions that flow from the capitalist system as it exists at present. To challenge the false path of thinking that gets lost in the world as it never was, requires – as Bloch noted – challenging the economic ignorance that explains the rational basis behind the irrationality of our system. It also means reasserting popular forms of mobilization and organization that assert democratic power against undemocratic structures, in both cases shifting the focus away from personalities to the basic contradiction between social means of production and the private appropriation of what is produced. Recreating such democratic forms allows space to reassert the individuality and sense of self-worth so many are seeking, but embedded in a broader community together with other working people.
Looked at that way, developments that created the mass base for authoritarian reaction can be turned on their head. These developments also create the basis for wider forms of solidarity that open up possibilities for workers’ control and participatory forms of democracy that were more difficult to achieve in the past. The combination allows a way to build economic conversion from the ground up, within extractive industries, amongst workers in arms production, in which those who do the work and those who live where the work is done can be authors of new forms of production capable of addressing those existential social needs. To the extent the labor movement, socialists, and progressives embrace such a conception, is the extent to which we can also provide a grounding for liberation embodied in the notion of an eco-socialist Green New Deal (and makes support for legislation proposed by Rep. Alesandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey of critical importance). If working people now set against each other can be organized to work for mutually supportive ends, we can embark upon the liberatory future embedded within but blocked by current oppressions.
None of this will necessarily reach those caught in the grip of reaction. Millions of people who are alienated from the present respond to similar concerns of marginalization, lack of rights, a world spinning out of control – not by reaching for forms of mutual support embodied by solidarity, but rather with a violence that that seeks to return to an imagined past that blocks the just world that could be. People harboring those views cannot be ignored. That unemployed war veteran at the laundromat has every reason to be aggrieved – any anti-fascist movement has to take such grievances seriously or we will be consumed by them. People who feel out of place in the present but see nothing that speaks to them as a future, have needs too. Addressing those needs doesn’t mean compromising the program outlined above. Rather, it means adding another element that will strengthen politics that are genuinely transformative.
Therein lies the insight of Bloch’s concept of synchronous and nonsynchronous contradictions. It is the understanding that while we are all alive at the same moment, we are not all living in the same “Now” – so both the rational and irrational impulses that comprise popular culture need to be addressed. The line between the two is captured in a particular definition of Modernism set out by Marshall Berman, informed by the political and cultural turmoil that defined the years when the 1960s bled into the 1970s:
“[Modernism] is to experience personal and social life as a maelstrom, to find one’s world and oneself in perpetual disintegration and renewal, trouble and anguish, ambiguity and contradiction: to be part of a universe in which all that is solid melts into air. To be a modernist is to make oneself somewhat at home in the maelstrom, to make its rhythms one’s own, to move within its currents in search of the forms of reality, of beauty, of freedom, of justice, that its fervid and perilous flow allows.”
This definition provides a way to politically address the abyss threatening us, by noting that liberation requires freedom and individual autonomy – demands that have taken on a reactionary hue but become revolutionary when connected to demands for democracy and equality.
Those swept up in the CIO organizing wave or the civil rights and anti-war movements acted upon not only a social critique, but a self-critique as well. Millions of people who were touched by the events called into question how they conducted their lives – and in so doing redefined values. Jimmy Porter, a Black packing house worker active in the UPWA, encapsulated the contrast between the myth of “rugged individualism” and individual meaning gained through collective action using farming as a metaphor: “If you stay on your side of the fence and respect mine, we can coexist,” he reflected. If you want to borrow my axe and I borrow your shovel, we don’t have to dig into each other, but we can dig enough space to grow.”
Far from the world of factory labor and industrial unionism, Maggie Nelson makes an analogous point about freedom when she argues that “Insistence on our interdependence or entanglement offers only a description of our situation; it does not indicate how we are to live it. The question is not whether we are enmeshed, but how we negotiate, suffer and dance with that enmeshment.”
If we return for a last time to the laundromat, there can be little doubt that a man who saw war would have his resentment boil over at having to wash his toddler’s clothes while his wife brings home a paycheck because he is unable to find a job. It is a misdirected response, reflecting the likelihood that he is alienated from himself – thus he is unable to situate himself in the world as it is, preventing action that would make finding that union job easier. What all too many fail to see is a connection British socialist feminist Sheila Rowbotham identified when she posited that “the moment within each of our daily lives wherein ‘real life inequities’ and desires are experienced” is the moment that can root radical social change within society as it exists.
It is the discovery of that “room to grow,” on how we negotiate our “enmeshment” that lays the basis for a sense of new beginnings that has the potential widening the scope and reach of the push for social justice and socialist radicalism in our time. Coalitions, the building of alliances, the need to work across class lines to defend rights under threat, begins with building that more organic unity amongst working people that strives to find the common core of mutual interest around the notion of shared needs and desires. This doesn’t contradict the reality of deep divides among people, nor does it contradict the necessity of making compromises. What it does do is create a foundation so that necessary compromises do not undermine the solidarity without which working people are powerless. This was the legacy of the CIO, the Civil Rights movement, and the Rainbow, today perhaps best reflected in the Poor People’s Campaign co-chaired by Bishop William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis and their call for a Third Reconstruction (now embodied in legislation proposed in Congress by Reps.. Pramila Jayapal and Barbara Lee).
By recognizing indeterminacy, by recognizing that we need to see beneath the surface, with yearnings that go beyond program and policy, we can stimulate a different way of seeing and thinking – not being exhortatory, but rather questioning. An alternative power can only take place where an alternative way of seeing takes hold, where individual hopes and desires are bound up with political convictions rooted in solidarity with others. Therein lies the value of the concept behind “Abolition Democracy,” put forth by by Angela Davis and Mumia Abu-Jamal as a positive assertion of our rights as human beings to live in freedom and equality by “abolishing” domestic racism, state violence and our global imperial project, posing an alternative to negative liberal and conservative notions of freedom rooted in an unjust society.
Success depends on building linkages between centers of activism rooted in different communities within our heterogeneous working-class, in a form that allows space for difference, allows for debate, multiple forms of cultural expression, and critical thinking. A concrete politics flowing from that vision creates connections, not divisions. This is what was lacking in the anti-fascist movement as Weimar went into terminal decline. It is what we need all the more in today’s fraught times.
We are still looking forward to a future of drinking wine from beautiful glasses. The search for beauty in life is near the center of social transformation, though rarely addressed as such. We are in self-exile, which results from the way capitalist society alienates us from the products of our labor, from ourselves. This alienation can lead to the destructive and self-destructive violence at the core of fascist rule, at the heart of a disintegrating society such as we are facing today.
Thus we are engaged in a search for a return to a “Homeland” that has never existed, a concept Bloch uses to conclude his three-volume Principle of Hope as follows:
“… the root of history is the working, creating human being who reshapes and overhauls the given facts. Once he has grasped himself and established what is his, without expropriation and alienation, in real democracy, there arises in the world something which shines into the childhood of all and in which no one has yet been: homeland.
Heimat (the German word for“homeland”) is a word that conjures images of Nazi violence. But it is not the only meaning it can have. For all his erudition, Bloch remained in touch with the working-class movement throughout his life. One way of unearthing other meanings of the word is to recall the final verse of Die Moorsoldaten (“Peat Bog Soldiers”), a song written and sung by inmates of the Börgermoor Concentration Camp in Germany’s Ruhr valley, one of the camps where the initial wave of political prisoners were sent in mid-1933:
“But for us there is no complaining,
Winter will in time be past:
One day we shall cry rejoicing,
‘Homeland dear, you’re mine at last.’”
My mother, still a child, saw three of her uncles and her grandfather – all coal miners, all Communists – arrested shortly after the Reichstag fire in 1933. They were imprisoned at Börgermoor, and I can imagine them singing while laboring under guard. After all, my Tante Sophie’s husband was a drummer in the red miners’ chorus that led their parades. He survived imprisonment by less than a week, beaten badly, placed in a cell built too small to stand, too narrow to sit after having misdirected his interrogators searching for buried arms. Perhaps a measure of a life cut short is that I would visit Sophie more than 50 years later, a beer, sausage and potatoes in front of me within minutes of my always unexpected arrival. My mother’s favorite uncle, Fritz, who was less politically engaged than the others, enjoyed playing his guitar, flirting with young women, and taking his bike for long rides in the countryside. He was a hippie before his time, she would say. He was forced into exile after his imprisonment and wound up working as a cook with other German anti-fascist refugees for British troops fighting in Italy. Fritz was killed in a Luftwaffe bombing raid late in the war. According to one of his comrades who spoke to my mother’s grandmother after the war, the stray dog that was his companion in exile refused to leave Fritz’s grave when the British troops moved on.
Her oldest uncle, Ernst, was most engaged with the KPD. He escaped to France, where he likely contacted Franz Dahlem, and in 1937 joined the Thälmann Battalion to fight fascism in defense of the Spanish Republic. He was among the 3,000 German anti-fascists (of nearly 5,000 total volunteers) killed in battle. Unlike most, we have an account of his final hours: “Company commander Ernst Wömper and Hermann Drumm, both of the Saar region…fought their way into an enemy trench and silenced a fascist machine-gun with hand grenades. The enemy fled in panic, but the two friends were killed during the pursuit.”
During the years of the German Democratic Republic, whenever in East Berlin my mother would look at Ernst’s name inscribed on a wall honoring those who fell in Spain. His son, my mother’s best friend as a child, was later himself executed for an act of resistance during World War II. I once met Ernst’s grandchild – the same age as myself – from his surviving son when we were each about 12 years old at a family gathering in Westphalia.
It was in Spain that the Peat Bog soldiers became world renowned, sung by Ernst Busch (shipyard worker, actor/singer, Brecht collaborator, and Spanish volunteer), as well as by Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger and countless others. “Homeland dear, you are mine at last,” is a cry of defiance by those exiled abroad, exiled by imprisonment, those who feel exiled in the land of their birth. Our struggle, political programs, organizations, rest on that conviction: we should not be strangers in our own land. It is a sensibility, however expressed, that enables people to press forward as we seek to make the world a place worthy of all who live within it – in confrontation with fascists for whom “homeland” means license to displace, exploit, enslave.
Which brings me to my mother’s grandfather. Active in the illegal KPD, he was rearrested in 1944, imprisoned first at Sachsenhausen then at Buchenwald, where he was killed on the eve of Germany’s defeat. His final crime was aiding fellow workers from occupied countries who were conscripted as slave laborers to work in the mines. A Stolperstein (memorial stone) was placed in front of the home in Ahlen where my mother was raised, where they all once lived (and at which I have many fond memories from my own frequent visits through the years). Those uncles and my mother’s father – blacklisted and forced to flee, along with my Oma, for revolutionary activity before the Nazis assumed power – built that house in the early 1920s when hope for the personal lives each was trying to create, and hope for a socialist Germany they were striving to bring into being, was still alive. Such is the story not only of my family, but of a generation.
What can we learn from their sacrifice? The strength of the workers’ movement for socialism lay in the depth of understanding by those involved, who acted on their own individual awareness in swiftly changing political times when isolated, and yet saw themselves as part of a wider collective. What sustained them was a commitment to justice, not for some working people but for all, the conviction that the enemy of progress was not other workers but a system that values things over people. And the weakness? Obviously, there were failures of program and alliances that afflicted all wings of the labor and socialist movement. Disunity undermined the possibility of social transformation at every turn. But behind that lies a deeper cause: the inability to sustain the broad aspirations for a society of peace, democracy, and justice that animated the revolution in 1918. Absent an overarching popular vision of what could be won, working-class unity could not be built and reaction found the space to grow.
Therein lies the point Bloch was trying to make when he published Heritage of Our Times in 1935, writing:
“If we want to understand and overcome the remedies that are dished out precisely against genuine revolution to a bourgeois citizen becoming impoverished, then we must go – diabolically – into the bourgeois citizen’s land, or rather on to his ship. He has only one ship left; for it is an age of transition. May this book play its part in determining the longitude and latitude of the final voyage, so that it is really a final voyage.”
Fascism was defeated but capitalism remained, and with it the threat of its revival as we see so clearly today. Bloch did as well. In a postscript written when the book was republished in 1962, he concluded with the following:
“The Golden Twenties”: the Nazi horror germinated in them, and no light fell down below here … Hollow space with sparks, this will probably remain our condition for a long time, but a hollow space which allows us to walk undisguised, and with sparks which increasingly model a figure of direction. The paths in the midst of collapse are layable, right through the middle.”
We can see these sparks today. Perhaps if we follow the path they light we can prevent the fascist threat before us from coming into being, lay the foundation of a world without exploitation of people or the environment, take pleasure drinking wine from beautiful glasses available to all.
[Kurt Stand joined DSA in 1983 and been part of the labor movement from the mid-1970s. In 1997, he was arrested and served 15 years in prison on charges of having committed espionage for the German Democratic Republic, charges he unsuccessfully contested at trial and upon appeal. Currently he works at a bookstore, is active in Prince George’s County DSA, participates in criminal justice reform/re-entry initiatives, serves as a Portside moderator and works with the Metropolitan Washington AFL-CIO Labor Council’s Bread & Roses program.]
· Editing corrections and updates made by the author