Fascism confronts us today, not just as a dark chapter in the history of the twentieth century, but as an emerging danger in our own times. It is a phenomenon that demands serious analysis.
But the dominant explanations of fascism offered by mainstream thinkers are deeply unsatisfactory. Flick through the conventional literature, and you will find an assortment of shallow formulas for explaining it. One of the most common is that fascism was a sort of mass “cult of the leader”, or that Hitler’s “charisma” was simply irresistible. Such theories tell us nothing about the underlying social tensions that can push large numbers of people to the right.
Fascist movements, capable of wide-scale political and physical repression, cannot be written off as the cunning scheme of a single demagogue able to command the support of mindless devotees.
Nor can they be explained as extreme manifestations of racism. The far right certainly can and does weaponise race in an immensely destructive way. But fascism is not reducible to racism, nor is extreme racism the preserve of fascists. Mainstream capitalist political parties routinely use racist fear mongering to generate support, without being fascist.
The Australian Labor Party, for example, was forged around a nationalist perspective that sought to reconcile the interests of Australian workers with those of their bosses, and to stoke hostility towards migrant labour. But it is in no way a fascist party. The Liberal Party has overseen the murder and torture of refugees in its detention camps, yet remains the mainstream respectable representative of the Australian business class.
History tells us more about why racism can’t be at the core of our definition of fascism. There are many examples of fascist movements that have not employed race as a central mobilising tool. Indeed, racist rhetoric was relatively absent from the “classical” Italian form. In Italy, Spain and even in Australia during the 1930s, the main enemy that fascism identified for itself was the socialist left, not any purported ethnic threat.
This is not to discount the horrific crimes perpetrated in the name of anti-Semitism by the Nazis, nor to underplay how the modern far right uses Islamophobia to galvanise support. It is simply to say that racism need not be an essential feature of fascist movements.
Fascism historically has played on sentiments as diverse and contradictory as monarchism, corporatism, libertarianism, economic protectionism and aggressive militarism. As British Marxist Colin Sparks commented in 1974, “fascism shuffles together every myth and lie that the rotten history of capitalism has ever produced like a pack of greasy cards and then deals them out to whoever it thinks they will win”.
If particular ideological arguments aren’t universal to fascist movements, then is it possible to have a general theory of fascism at all? Marxists argue it is, but it requires going beyond the superficialities of such movements. It requires an understanding of the capitalist societies in which fascism emerges, the crises these societies produce and the class tensions that are endemic to them.
The first attempts to compare Mussolini’s Italy with German Nazism were made by Marxists. In a speech as early as 1925, Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci argued that fascism “is not a purely Italian phenomenon ... it is a European and world phenomenon, of great importance in understanding the general postwar crisis”.
By the early 1930s, socialists were able to draw on their experiences of fighting fascism in Germany, Italy, Spain and France to produce a general outline of its essential characteristics. For these activists, fascism had a few consistent features that endured across every one of its manifestations.
First, fascism has an identifiable class basis. Trotsky argued that, everywhere, the “main army of fascism ... consists of the petty bourgeoisie and the new middle class, the small artisans and shopkeepers of the cities”. These layers have interests distinct from the two major classes of capitalism, the working class and the capitalists.
The middle classes are caught between two hostile poles. On the one hand, capitalism’s tendency to concentrate production in large firms can threaten the existence of small business. As the chaos of a profit-driven economy inevitably produces periods of boom alongside acute contractions and crises, the middle classes feel buffeted by forces outside their control. They can become hostile to the major political representatives of capital, whose taxation policies and bailout packages tend to favour big business.
At the same time, small proprietors feel particularly vulnerable in the face of working-class organisation. Without the backing of large investors, their bottom line can be critically impacted by small wage increases or improvements to health and safety. Even those middle-class elements who are not direct employers can share this fear of working-class activity. Intellectuals, petty officials and state bureaucrats are all dependent on the smooth functioning of capitalism and the legitimacy of its political structures. Any workers’ movement that destabilises capital is a threat to their privileged position.
The middle classes at certain times can be driven to such depths of desperation and frenzy that they abandon their support for traditional elites and attempt to build their own political organisations. Such organisations aim to use the power of the state to crush the workers’ movement and sections of capital that threaten the middle class’s interests, a classic fascist program.
Fascism’s petty-bourgeois character doesn’t mean other social layers aren’t involved. As it grows, fascism can draw support from those who see no other solution to the misery brought about by capitalism. Returned soldiers brutalised by war, the desperate ranks of the unemployed and others disenchanted with the status quo can be dragged along by the middle classes. German revolutionary Clara Zetkin recognised how fascism had become “a refuge for the politically homeless, for the socially uprooted, the destitute and the disillusioned”.
Fascism’s capacity to present itself as a radical alternative to capitalism was another feature noted by interwar socialists. The denunciation of big banks, globalisation and elites are all constant refrains of fascist movements. Fascism can employ anti-capitalist rhetoric, but the solutions it provides are thoroughly reactionary.
Trotsky observed that the unifying goal of fascism is “the uprooting of all elements of proletarian democracy within bourgeois society”. Fascists seek to “demolish all the defensive bulwarks of the proletariat, and to uproot whatever has been achieved during three-quarters of a century by social democracy and the trade unions”.
Fascism’s goal is the violent suppression of the working class, not some radical re-ordering of social relations. The petty-bourgeois dream of the steady exploitation of workers, unfettered by the inconvenient farce of liberal democracy.
Because of their shared hatred for the working class, representatives of big capital often directly fund and support fascist movements. Hitler’s activities were financed from early on by the coal baron Emil Kirdof and the steel magnate Fritz Thyssen. In Britain, the media mogul Lord Rothermere donated to and provided publicity for Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts. In extreme cases, fascism is welcomed by existing rulers where traditional methods of coercion and consent have been unable to restore capitalist stability. Neither Hitler nor Mussolini seized power through insurrection; they were invited to rule by kings, presidents and army generals.
Fascism is not revolutionary, but Marxists understand that it is a special type of mass movement. It grows as a relatively independent force with a committed petty-bourgeois base, not as the direct instrument of capital.
The Nazis and the Italian Fascisti adopted various strategies for building their parties before being welcomed into power. Mussolini’s strike-smashing machinery was perfected through years of political terror in the Italian countryside before moving against the industrial centres of working-class strength.
The Nazi Party endured five years of relative insignificance on the fringes of German politics following a failed armed uprising in 1923. It became clear that straightforward political violence could not defeat the organised working class in southern Germany. Hitler announced that “instead of working to achieve power by armed conspiracy, we shall have to hold our noses and enter the Reichstag against the Catholic and Marxist deputies”. This electoral work allowed the Nazis to build up a committed and highly active membership that could be deployed as street-fighting cadre towards the end of the decade. Mass demonstrations are important for fascist movements because, as Hitler noted, they “burn into the little man’s soul the proud conviction that, though a little worm, he is nevertheless part of a great dragon”.
Fascist movements perform myriad twists and turns in their rhetoric and organisational forms. They can also play a reactionary role even where they are not installed into government. In February 1934, fascist gangs initiated an abortive coup against the National Assembly in Paris. While they were unsuccessful at storming parliament, the French ruling class used the riots as an excuse to overthrow the democratically elected government and appoint the conservative Prime Minister Gaston Doumergue. By 1940, French capitalists were welcoming the Nazi invasion from Germany and establishing a collaborationist regime headed by the anti-Semite Philippe Pétain.
A similar story emerges on a smaller scale in Australia. In 1932, the fascist New Guard hatched a plot to depose the supposedly “socialist” New South Wales Labor government under Jack Lang. The New Guard had spent years terrorising the left and smashing workers’ organisations in street brawls. In the end, the state’s governor sacked Lang before the fascists could organise their coup, and the New Guard was reabsorbed into the respectable machinery of Australian conservatism. But significant damage had been inflicted on the left, and a new far-right tendency had entered mainstream politics.
These examples from the 1930s illustrate that fascism can have a complex relationship to other right-wing forces. At times, fascist movements can operate as shock troops for more traditional conservative parties. They can emerge from and re-enter mainstream electoral formations as the political context changes. Gramsci characterised fascism as “a spontaneous swarm of reactionary energies that coalesce, dissolve and then reassemble”. Always and everywhere, though, fascism is fed by the social tensions that capitalism produces.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created an opening for far-right and fascist forces to grow. The weakness of the workers’ movement, and the conservative social stability that engenders, puts a limit on how much support they can attract from big capital and mainstream political figures today. Nevertheless, the numbers they are able to rally should be cause for concern and motivation to act.
To be successful, we need an analysis that builds on the important insights of socialists who have fought fascism before us. Crucially, we need to start from a fundamental critique of the structure of capitalist society, the tensions it creates and the political ideas it spawns. As the German leftist Max Horkheimer insisted in 1939, “whoever is not willing to talk about capitalism should also remain silent about fascism”.