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Ian Birchall

An Opposing Man

(June 1974)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.70, Mid-June 1974, pp.29-30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

An Opposing Man
Einst Fischer
Allen Lane, £6.00

ERNST FISCHER, the Austrian Communist and writer who died in 1972, was an intellectual of broad interests, who writes sensitively about his childhood, his mother and his sister. He was also, for at least 25 years of his life, a Stalinist hack.

By saying this I am not trying to smear Fischer. On the contrary, this is precisely the problem which he is trying to solve himself in these memoirs, written shortly before his death. His first chapter is entitled, simply but significantly, Was that Me? He quotes at length, and with obvious shame, from his pamphlet Destroy Trotskyism. The interest of Fischer’s book is not just that it shows an old man coming to terms with his own life; it can help us to understand the fantastic attraction that Stalinism exercised over a whole generation of the European left.

Basically, Fischer gives two reasons why he joined the Communist Party, even though at the time he was ‘fully conscious that I was opting for the cause and against myself, against my capabilities and my inclination.’

The first was the rise of fascism, which Fischer observed at first hand in Austria and neighbouring Germany. He shows how the leaders of the powerful Austrian Social Democratic Party, men like the learned Marxist and brilliant parliamentary orator Otto Bauer, abdicated responsibility when the real crunch came. Though critical of the German CP’s failure to oppose Hitler effectively, Fischer came to see the Communists as the only people prepared to fight fascism.

The second, closely related, reason, was Russia. In face of the threat of fascism, Russia seemed to offer an alternative, and Fischer, like so many others, was prepared to swallow his criticisms.

In strictly political terms, Fischer’s retrospective analysis has little to offer. Fischer may express sympathy for the new wave of revolutionaries in the sixties, and even argue that the Communist international was on the wrong lines from the early twenties. But he still endorses the political line of the Seventh Congress of the Communist International, the so-called ‘Popular Front’, the alliance with ‘progressive’ and ‘anti-fascist’ sections of the bourgeoisie. Yet it was this line which led to tragic defeat in Spain; and the whole logic of it is to refuse the independent organisation of the working class on its own demands.

Likewise, Fischer still believed to the end of his life that Russia was still on the side of socialism. It was because of his intransigent opposition to the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia that Fischer was finally expelled from the Austrian Communist Party in 1969. Yet if one believes that Russia is in some sense socialist, then the invasion can, in the last resort, be justified.

But when Ernst Fischer is remembered, it will above all be as a literary critic, as the author of The Necessity of Art. And if his memoirs are seen as a work of literature rather than as political guidelines, they are well worth reading.

Fischer’s story contains many vivid pictures of political life between the wars. As a young soldier in 1918 he collapsed from exhaustion on to a hay cart, and awoke to find himself elected to a soldiers’ council. Later, as a Social Democratic agitator, he used to travel around giving lectures on Plato, as an excuse to discuss democracy when formal political meetings were outlawed. For this and much more the book is well worth borrowing from a library.

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