Breitbart for the Left

We need left-wing media outlets to build socialism. And the late German communist Willi Munzenberg shows us how it can be done.

Willi Munzenberg. Wikimedia Commons

Every political movement has its hidden architects, those unscrupulous tacticians who shun the limelight, preferring to shape public perception from behind the curtain. In the United States, these imagineers work under many titles: key adviser, chief strategist, head of communications. In today’s Russia, they are referred to as “political technologists.”

The Right tends to be less squeamish about their necessity, and accordingly, has frequently outmaneuvered the Left in the battle for hearts and minds. Teddy Roosevelt had Hearst, Hitler had Goebbels, Putin had Surkov, and Trump has Steve Bannon.

It is unfortunate that the Left and liberals have yet to reckon with or learn something from what Bannon built quietly over the years with Breitbart. With little more than a snuff right-wing news website and some DIY documentaries, this “Leninist” nobody assembled a coalition of resentment that turned out to be crucial for Trump’s victory. Bannon climbed directly from tracking social media analytics and Youtube documentary rentals to the apex of state power. It is our failure if we don’t take the example and seize the opportunity that to do the same.

Bannon’s one little alchemical trick was to simultaneously cultivate Trump and blow on the damp ashes of the Tea Party until they caught fire — moderate suburban Republicans were gently molded into born-again rebels, raging against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, NATO, and the globalists, a bloc that could be easily harvested by candidate Trump.

The various agitprop stunts during the campaign — like bringing Clinton’s accusers to the third debate – were like playing a medley of the greatest hits, songs everyone already knew, firming up the base. The Clinton campaign and most leftists were deaf to the music, the passion. Countless Trump voters told reporters “He says the things I’m thinking, it’s like he’s inside my head.”

The Clinton campaign responded by shaming deplorables, fact-checking statements, serving only to embolden and reinforce this newly constituted public. After the election, the Democrats and media activated a new lexicon to explain away their failure to form a constituency: “post-truth,” “alternative facts,” and “influence campaigns.” The Democrats and the media continue to present themselves as the non-ideological custodians of fact, decency, and reason, and honestly still believe that if they gather enough unsavory details about Trump, they can take him down. This remains a long-shot possibility.

But structurally, the media has learned little from their failure to see Clinton’s weaknesses. The supposedly unbiased and non-ideological media could not defeat an emotionally powerful strategy. A legion of Washington Post fact-checkers aren’t going to change anything.

Objectivity, decency, and crypto-elitist shaming are like tried and true antibiotics that suddenly no longer work. The bacterium has developed resistance. Ideology hummed in the background of both campaigns, but only Trump’s camp could admit it. A crypto-ideological left media is needed that does more than chip away and hold power accountable. It also needs to catalyze and create new space, slowly pushing liberals, the independents, Trump voters, and others to the left to create a new coalition by attrition.

The problem is that precious few publishers or media entrepreneurs have sturdy populist-leftist values or goals beyond reproducing their organizations and garnering media-bubble social and economic capital that can later be harvested. Even fewer have risked leveraging their organizations toward mass organizing or pursuing concrete political goals. It’s easier to criticize and comment on power than it is to build political hegemony.

The fact is despite a plethora of suitable media 2.0 sites that could make a serious gambit, its hard to imagine a Breitbart or Bannon emerging from the East Coast liberal media world — like the NFL, the media bubble is a league where players are traded from team to team, and as Colin Kaepernick shows us, the unspoken rule is don’t rock the boat. The right-wing media has a weaker, less-ingrained meritocracy with fewer prospects, making the risk-reward ratio more palatable. At this moment, even if some publishers had a burning ideology, there are few incentives for Shane Smith or Ben Smith or Rachel Maddow to turn their organs into an actual living hive of political resistance.

It is easier for the media to continue doing things the way they have always done, with surface declarations of resistance and a minor shift in tone and fervor to accord with the ruptured political situation. As a rare positive example of how the mass media can be weaponized to build a mass movement, we should revisit the life and efforts of the Weimar communist media mogul Willi Munzenberg.

Germany has experienced a recent renaissance of interest in Munzenberg, but he remains a relatively obscure figure in the United States. The slim shelf of English-language scholarship on him is eaten through with reactionary Cold War platitudes about communist spies, “front organizations,” and “useful idiots”: this is a strange fate for a man who allegedly orchestrated the international campaign for Sacco and Vanzetti, who struck fear in Goebbels’s heart, and appeared to some in Stalin’s apparatus as a more troubling renegade than Trotsky. Trotsky and Munzenberg died within months of each other, and Munzenberg’s mysterious death in a forest on the Franco-Swiss frontier remains unsolved to this day.

The Communist Mogul

Born into abject poverty in Thuringia and raised by a violently alcoholic innkeeper father, Munzenberg rose through prewar Bolshevik émigré circles to build a remarkable and still little-understood media empire known as the Munzenberg Trust.

Bottom-lined by the Communist International, this octopus of newspapers, magazines, and film companies became the fourth-largest media organization in the Weimar Republic, just behind the venerable old liberal houses. The Moscow apparatus gave Munzenberg a wide latitude to operate as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist: he founded new companies and bought up distressed Social Democratic papers and magazines, increasing their circulations and funneling the profits back into the organization.

Arthur Koestler, one of the many prominent writers and editors on Munzenberg’s payroll, cataloged the company’s 1926 holdings as follows:

Two daily papers in Germany with mass circulations, Berlin am Morgen and Welt am Abend; the Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung, a weekly with a circulation of one million, the Communist counterpart of Life; a series of other publications, including technical magazines for photographers, radio amateurs, etc., all with an indirect Communist slant.

In Japan, to quote a remote country as an example, the Trust directly or indirectly controlled nineteen magazines and newspapers. It also financed Communist avant-garde plays, which were in great vogue at the time. Finally the Trust was also the producer of some of the best films by Eisenstein and Pudovkin that came out of Russia . . . Within a few years, the Munzenberg Trust had progressed from soup-kitchens for starving children to the launching of Storm over Asia.

His contradictory personality — the communist-capitalist — exerted such fascination that Koestler devoted an entire chapter of his own autobiography to his mentor. Munzenberg looked like “a master-cobbler in a Thuringian village — one could imagine him sitting on a low stool, with a leather apron, driving tacks into an old boot.” A sleepless workaholic with a fiery demagogic temperament, he had hypnotic eyes, capable of producing an “optical blitz . . . as if he had just said ‘Boo!’ to a small child.” He barged into rooms with all “the casualness of a tank bursting through his wall.” Koestler reported that “Socialist Cabinet Ministers, hard-boiled bankers, and Austrian dukes behave[d] like schoolboys in his presence.”

As an employer, Munzenberg made sure his workers earned salaries commensurate with those offered by the bourgeois firms. Profits from the flagship newspapers and magazines were reinvested into less profitable specialty publications including a workers’ photography journal, a satirical magazine, a women’s magazine, and licensing deals that brought Soviet cinema to Germany. A fleet of two thousand unemployed communists carried his publications to the provincial hinterlands on bicycles, building circulation and distribution.

Munzenberg shamelessly embraced the high life. Nicknamed the “Red Millionaire,” he cruised around Berlin in a black Lincoln limo piloted by his trusted chauffeur Emil. His common-law wife and biographer Babette Gross noted:

Whereas most Communist officials adapted their customs to the “proletarian” way of life, Munzenberg . . . regarded it as quite normal to use taxis and horse-drawn cabs because it seemed more important to him to be mobile than to bow to arbitrary prejudice.

When he sensed profit, he “was quite ready to engage in the extremely bourgeois business of speculation,” Gross wrote. His willingness to dirty his hands in business garnered him the ire of some militants. When Munzenberg held a “Red Ball” with a ten-mark cover charge, a group of young communist street-fighters released a communiqué saying, “We hope that proletarian fists will be found to beat up this collection of parlor communists.” Munzenberg shrugged off the barbs, writing:

Only political fools, philosophical speculators in coffee houses, or tired folk who have made their peace with capitalist society . . . can do without economic enterprises in support of a broadly based revolutionary mass propaganda and agitation.

Building a Big Tent

Munzenberg had a special talent for bringing communist ideas out of the intellectual ghetto and making them palatable for average working people. His efforts hinged on a single premise — that ideology functioned best when hidden. Early on, he recognized that austere party publications would never appeal to the masses, instinctively understanding that people resisted stridency and dogma.

To change hearts and minds, a soft touch was needed. People will always prefer entertainment to dogmatism, so he did the natural thing and folded communist ideas into mainstream publications, product packaging, plays, and movies. He saw communists as a hidden vanguard operating at the helm of a coalition of liberals, social democrats, and intellectuals who were slowly being “softened up” (to use Lenin’s phrase) to eventually form or join communist parties.

It was Lenin who first recognized Munzenberg’s unique talents in 1915, prying him from a romance with Italian anarcho-syndicalism. “Lenin was probably the only person in those years who recognized the real genius of this restless young man,” Gross wrote, “Although Munzenberg’s political drive and inclination towards independent thought and action conflicted with Comintern policy, they were qualities too valuable to waste.”

He was put in charge of rebuilding the Youth International, then sent to run International Workers’ Aid, the Bolshevik response to the Red Cross. President Herbert Hoover and the American Relief Administration had been spending heavily to relieve the Soviet famine, and the party wanted a way to show that they didn’t need charity from the bourgeois democracies.

The organization raised funds in the United States and Western Europe and then set up orphanages with names like the “John Reed” and “Rosa Luxemburg.” When hyper-inflation hit Germany in 1923, it set up collective mills and bread bakeries to feed workers in the insurrectionary regions.

His campaigns and interventions were designed to give the Soviet Union a glimmering sheen and draw liberals, social democrats, sympathetic intellectuals, and anticolonial nationalists together. “We must avoid being a purely communist organization,” he told a Comintern congress, “Now, especially, we must bring in other names, other groups, to make persecution more difficult.”

In 1927, he and Virendranath Chattopadhyaya orchestrated the Brussels conference that drew anti-imperialist and anticolonial leaders from Syria, Java, Indo-China, Egypt, and Mexico as well as European and African American communists. The conference marked the genesis of the Third World non-aligned movement. Jawaharlal Nehru attended, and, in Vijay Prashad’s The Darker Nations, is quoted as saying, “The Brussels Congress helped me to understand some of the problems of colonial and dependent countries.”

Building Cultural Hegemony

Munzenberg left little written exposition of his ideas. A driven workaholic, he regarded intellectuals with a mixture of interest and contempt — they were egos that needed to be coaxed and hands that needed to be held. While Gramsci was in prison theorizing about cultural hegemony, Munzenberg was out there building it. His campaigns broke down the artificial barriers between muckraking journalism and entertainment, public relations and politics, advocacy work and mass organizing.

His specialty was the covert influence campaign. These interventions — like those the CIA employs — involved throwing shadows with articles, mass psychology, and a degree of deceit.

Gross breaks down a typical Munzenberg campaign as follows: two undercover Comintern agents were sentenced to death in Shanghai. An unsigned editorial would be written with the headline “Stop the Hangman.” A day later, another article would appear with the headline, “World Protest against the proposed murder of Trade Union Secretary in Shanghai.”

He would then mobilize his stable of artists and intellectuals, including Walter Gropius, Lion Feuchtwanger, and Otto Dix, to bombard the Chinese embassy with telegrams demanding freedom for the prisoners. Within a month, a Defense Committee would be formed, with signatures acquired from Paul Klee, Theodore Dreiser, and Senator William Borah. Soon enough, the prisoners were released.

Munzenberg firmly believed that atrocity porn had political uses. When Koestler turned in his manuscript about Spain, his editor burst into his room, shouting:

Too weak. Too objective. Hit them! Hit them hard! Tell the world how they run over their prisoners with tanks, how they pour petrol over them and burn them alive. Make the world gasp with horror. Hammer it into their heads. Make them wake up.

He created the Popular Front strategy avant-la-lettre, fighting the Comintern for nearly a decade before they made it official policy.

Munzenberg and Goebbels

Munzenberg inspired particular fear and loathing among the Nazis. Their newspapers fulminated against the “communist capitalist” with his “truly Jewish business sense.” They accused him of taking hostages and poisoning municipal water supplies.

Goebbels regarded him as a nemesis but learned the dark arts of media strategy by watching him work. In fact, the two men served together in the Reichstag during the Weimar Republic, Munzenberg for the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and Goebbels for the Nationalist Socialist Party of Germany (NSDAP). Munzenberg was embarrassed of some of his fellow Communist deputies. They wore red and black suits to parliament and protested by blowing on tiny trumpets.

He was also disgusted by how the official Communist policy, handed down from Moscow, focused fire on other left-of-center forces. He passively followed the line in his publications, but foresaw that the Nazis were the far graver threat than the social democrats and needed to be confronted directly.

In the two years prior to Hitler’s rise, he worked furiously to bring socialists, communists, and social democrats together into an antifascist coalition. He blitzed the population with films, agitprop, and events like International Solidarity Days. John Heartfield’s visionary anti-Nazi collages adorned the covers of Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung. In the weeks leading up to the 1932 elections, Gross wrote that her partner “could not sleep at night and only wandered about, as if waiting for the National Socialists’ final assault.”

The day after the Reichstag fire, newspapers identified him as one of the communist masterminds behind the arson. Now one of Germany’s most wanted, he quickly liquidated the company’s assets and fled across the border to the house of the philosopher Martin Buber.

In Paris, Barbusse and Sartre set Munzenberg and Gross up, and VU publisher Lucien Vogel housed them. Paul Nizan helped them acquire Editions du Carrefour, a publishing house.

He and Goebbels hurled lightning bolts at each other like demigods. When Goebbels started Attack, Munzenberg founded Counter-Attack. When the Nazis got into the cigarette business, Munzenberg created “Solidarity” cigarettes, which included pull-out photo inserts of labor leaders in each pack.

Before the Nazis could bring Communist leaders Ernst Thalmann and Georgi Dimitrov to court for the Reichstag fire, Munzenberg arranged a heavily publicized counter-trial in London. Sympathetic liberal intellectuals reviewed the evidence and deposited their “not guilty” verdict on the front pages of newspapers worldwide. This helped turn the tide of public opinion against the trial in Leipzig and establish the enduring narrative that the Nazis set the fire themselves. It has also been called the first known case of a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”

Fighting for his life, Munzenberg organized the World Committee for the Relief of Victims of German Fascism, with Albert Einstein presiding. That same year, he published the widely translated Brown Book of the Hitler Terror. Later came The Yellow Patch, the first book on Nazi antisemitism, and the Black Book on Spain.

In the Woods

By the time the Comintern caught up with Munzenberg’s Popular Front strategy, he was already drifting away from the party. As Gross explained:

For years he had advocated joint campaigns with the Socialists and the left-wing bourgeois parties and time and again his efforts had been frustrated by inflexible and unrealistic decisions. During all those years Moscow had never wanted genuine links with reformists or leftist bourgeois.

Munzenberg never liked going “home” to the Soviet Union, but in the mid-1930s, these trips became perilous and strange. It’s remarkable today to think of how many foreign communists were liquidated while visiting Moscow. Munzenberg’s friends and benefactors like Karl Radek and Heinz Neumann had disappeared into the oubliette, and he knew he was next.

In 1936, he and Gross had their passports confiscated and spent a sleepless night “waiting for the knock on the door of the NKVD [the secret police].” The next morning, Munzenberg made a big scene at the Comintern to get their passports returned, and they took the first train back to Europe.

For a while, he tried to make himself indispensable by getting involved in Spain’s Popular Front. But he kept getting summons to report home to Moscow, and he kept postponing. A wily snake to his core, he stayed quiet, going along to get along; his initial impulse was avoid, delay, and wriggle free. Friends told him that nothing bad would happen if he went back, but he simply responded that he would prefer not to — that he would be shot like all the others.

When he finally broke with the Communist Party, he launched a new magazine called The Future. The first issue condemned the Comintern, the purges, and the Nazi-Soviet pact in an article titled “The Traitor, Stalin, is You.” He became a pariah.

When Paris fell to the Nazis in 1940, he was shuffled through the internment camps with a group of art historians, editors, and publishers until they reached Chambaran near Lyons. According to his friends, a mysterious redheaded youth — whom nobody knew — insisted on sharing a room with Munzenberg and following him everywhere. When the time came to move again, Munzenberg planned to escape over the border to Switzerland with the stranger, ignoring his friends’ pleas to stay put.

Months later, hunters found his corpse in the forest, having fallen from a tree with a piece of wire wrapped around his neck. The redhead was never seen again. The police initially ruled his death a suicide.

It was, as Gross puts it, an “unusual end to an unusual life.” But one that we should strive to remember and draw lessons from.