‘Beaten but Not Defeated: Siegfried Moos – a German Anti-Nazi Who Settled in Britain’ reviewed by Howard Feather

Reviewed by Howard Feather

About the reviewer

Howard Feather has taught social theory at both City and London Metropolitan Universities over many …


Viewed one way this is the story of an individual at the heart of the action over a period from the late 1920s to the 1960s. Looked at another way the writer outlines an epochal crisis in modern capitalism: the on-going crisis of bourgeois legitimacy and its eventuation in Stalinism and Fascism. Here the ability of the capitalist class to continue to govern in the old way has atrophied and yet nothing replaces traditional ruling mores by way of a legitimating civil society. As Gramsci observes in the Notebooks: `The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear’.

As a youth, Siegi Moos was radicalised by the experience of the Bavarian Soviet. After studying economics at Munich he moved to Berlin in his twenties and became a leading member of the Red Front, a grass roots organisation that defended working class neighbourhoods against raids by the police and the Brownshirts (SA). He was also a central figure in sports and theatre-based agitprop and organised large scale events for the Communist Party (KPD) leadership. After the Nazi accession to power he eventually escaped to the UK where he continued anti-Nazi work. He was, as an economist, uniquely placed, working for the government, to give the authorities a detailed analysis of the productive power of the Nazi state, which may have significantly impacted on UK war strategy. Having left the KPD around 1937 he appears adrift politically and moves towards left reformism by the early 1940s. The revolutionary awakenings of the 1960s produce a political and personal distancing from the author, his daughter, who argues: ‘neither Washington nor Moscow but international socialism’.

Sociologically speaking, Moos occupies a position within the consequent flux and permeability of directive intellectual strata subsequently (wrongly) characterised by Mannheim as `free-floating intellectuals’, but always within a milieu which somehow targets the oppressive, exploitative nature of capitalism, rather than the more deterministic stance of historical inevitability taken by the KPD elite. Capitalism as continued by other means –especially under the Nazis – became a focus for his writing. Within this conjuncture of permanent crisis politico-intellectual networks form and break and it is within this productive and influential context that Moos operates and through which he is shaped and figured.

He remains a figure of doubleness throughout: firstly of marginality in the sense that his activity is always plural and culturally critical; always exceeding any given hypostatized position. He is in tune with his times, and in that sense a kind of historically representative figure, reflecting the dynamic, fluid tendencies, currents operating within a particular conjunctural situation. The author depicts this in Germany in terms of a political migration of marginalised and unemployed workers – a certain tension or competition for these groups between the KPD and the SA, where KPD and SA members attended each other’s meetings and jointly supported strike activity (but also where, fatally, the KPD leadership was unable to respond to the fluidity of events on the ground). However, as the book shows, this is one case of many where networks of influence and intellectual connection are both diffuse and kaleidoscopic, whether as captured at any particular point or in the way they mutate over time.

 Moos operates within the cultural left – in and outside the KPD – as a directive force in agitprop theatre and film, and collaborates with the modernist Stefan Wolpe, producing lyrics for the latter’s songs, which circulate throughout Germany towards the end of the Weimar Republic. He is also active in the grass roots anti-Nazi Red Front paramilitary organisation and almost certainly, given his industrial expertise, as an agent for the Comintern in its dealings over oil with Indian industrialists. His opposition by omission to the ‘social fascism’ line and depiction of the Nazis as the main enemy of the revolutionary left transgressed the position of the KPD leadership but reflected a view held in parts of the German left in favour of active collaboration between the rank and file members of the Third International and the SPD. In some cities there was co-operation between the two parties, although this was frowned upon by the party elites. In highlighting the autonomy of rank and file grass roots movements the book has much that is new to tell us about popular opposition to the Nazis, as Ian Birchall has also noted (in comments provided by the historian for the publisher’s blurb). There was a dense network of popular cultural agitprop activity which had its roots in oppositional culture outside the formal political parties – in sport, theatre, music – as well as the grass roots working class defence organisation, the Red Front. These groups at once came under the umbrella of the party bureaucracies – from 1929 for the KPD – but also exerted their autonomy from party lines/hegemonisation. The spontaneous culture of political life depicted here transforms the way we see the Weimar period away from formal politics towards its organic basis in German society. We see here the flow of people between different movements, sometimes occupying positions within many of them, as in the paradigm case of Moos.

The importance of networks in German society at the time leads us perhaps to the infer that the deadening impact of class and bureaucratic hierarchies did not operate in quite the same way as in Britain where there was a relative absence of working class politico-cultural networks despite the efforts of the ILP (Independent Labour Party) and others. Symptomatic of this is the iron-clad segmentation of the Left which produced little opportunity for this and popular front-type collaboration, as the author indicates. The Weimar networks of intellectual, agitprop, cultural activity represent a situation in which the boundaries of intellectual and working class life have broken down, a time of ‘organic intellectuals’, and therefore suggest a specificity to the politico-ideological formation of the period where grass roots movements outrun the stasis of party bureaucratic command structures. There is, in consequence, arguably a sense of the contraction of history which portends an event or moment of Benjaminian ‘now-time’ (Jetzeit). The concentrated popular and agitprop cultural activities suggest a ground for this as they draw upon and rehearse historical resources as a critical articulation of the now/historical present. The systemic interrelatedness of lived experience or everyday life and its Gestalt are often overlooked in favour of formal party and class hierarchy but the book clearly identifies this dimension and its historical significance.

The plasticity of political culture and allegiances is captured in Moos’s array of contacts and associates which further demonstrate the linked and traversed trajectories of a web of political and ideological currents where Moos appears as representative of the interstitial character and reach of oppositional life. Links exist from the agitprop of the cultural left via the KPD to the editor of the Frankfurter Zeitung and the co-founder of the General Electric Company in the 1930s, and then through to Orwell, The BBC, The New York Times, The Oxford Institute of Statistics, Beveridge, Stafford Cripps, Harold Wilson, the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR), and so on in the 1940s and later.

However, distinctions should be made straight away between the permeability of oppositional culture in Weimar Germany and the web of connections that existed between intellectuals and activists in different states and partly sponsored by them, and relatedly, the connections in the less permeable social structure of the UK.

Hence the other side of the global reach of political and ideological interconnections is the impact of the state on such networks. Whilst networks have a heimliche or peer-to-peer character this is mediated by parties and factions and the way state bureaucracy permeates everyday life through, for instance, the education system, police, and welfare. Hence what appear as heimliche – connections in the education elite or BBC – often hide reified structures, and in the UK the lack of porosity of hierarchies and factions is remarkable. This partition of everyday life runs counter to the German experience, that is, to Moos’s own cultural formation, that is as interstitial – someone who is able to be both in the thick of things and on the margins at the same time (possibly aided by his formative experience as a downwardly mobile member of the haute bourgeoisie). He is well-connected but at the same time moves between different strata and thus can see the world from both insider and outsider perspectives.

Moos comes to experience this cultural contrast through exile as a double dislocation in 1933 when, after participating in the defence of the working class areas of Berlin against the SA, he escapes via KPD networks to Paris, and then moves on to London – most of his agitprop comrades are ultimately killed. The Nazis destroyed critical popular culture long term in Germany (it only slowly re-emerges in the post war period with currents of which the early 1970s avant-gardism of Kraftwerk is indicative).

This dislocation in both statehood and everyday cultural life means, as the author notes, that the exile is always bereft of their own culture – ‘country, comrades and friends’ as well as being externally related or sutured to that of their adopted land.

Ironically, the bureaucratic fragmentation and securitisation of the social represented by statehood means personal insecurity for Moos in that every year he has to apply for renewal of his residence permit. Whilst he fears the attention of the security services (MI5 and MI6), because of his KPD activities, he is treated more favourably than others who are interned on the outbreak of war. Presumably this is related to his anti-Nazi record and usefulness to the British state.  

As a result of the condition of being ‘alien’ and the structural limitations on developing left networks already mentioned, Moos’s political activity is muted and once at the Institute in Oxford economic analysis of the Nazi state takes its place. Moos completed his unpublished research project The Political Economy of the Nazis in 1942. The Institute also encouraged him to liaise with and produce research papers for the Free French on the shape of a post-war French economy. Moos and his partner also work for the government’s propaganda machine producing articles for the official anti-Nazi paper Der Zeitung –distributed to the UK’s German émigré population and possibly within Nazi Germany itself. Psychologically, however it is difficult – even with the end of the War – to adjust to a normal life given his KPD past and the temporary nature of residence – the state’s sword of Damocles.

After the War, Moos having worked with Harold Wilson under Beveridge, then at the NIESR, moves under the aegis of close associate Thomas Balogh to the Board of Trade as an economic advisor to the Wilson government, where he focusses especially on anti-monopoly policy and combatting the power of multinationals. Whilst this might look like a million miles from the KPD we can infer that the combined impact of the 1933 German cataclysm and the impasse of the sectarian British left had moved Moos’s political outlook towards left reformism, as the book shows from his exchanges with Orwell in 1943. Whilst Moos calls for the building of a socialist counter elite within the state, Orwell rejects this idea in favour of an independent intellectual directive force communicating autonomously with the public. It is nonetheless also worth considering that Moos’s reformism as manifested in his focus at Trade is a huge distance from the neo-liberal state that is the UK today. Moos worked at a time when there seemed to be an opening to the left within the State but it now requires a hermeneutic labour to recapture the radicality of the quasi-collectivist spirit of the early Wilson era as manifested, for instance in much popular culture of the times.

Beaten, not Defeated recognises through Moos the changing nature of modernity – from an era in which to be a virtuoso in different walks of life was regarded as a mark of excellence to an epoch of stultifying specialisation resulting from the unremitting rationalisation promoted by capitalism via the neo-liberal state.

Eventually granted naturalisation Moos emerges from the shadows to engage in local arts clubs and action groups – a supporter of the Vietnam demos, reader of Labour/Socialist Worker, and of Solidarity, he also engaged with Ralph Miliband in the late 1960s over creating a non-sectarian grouping to the left of the Labour Party, and is reconciled with his daughter after many years of estrangement: a kind of return from exile. There is then a sense here that defeat is never final.

2 March 2015

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