Confronting the fascist threat

March 7, 2013

Shaun Harkin explains how Marxists understood fascism's rise--and how to stop it.

TODAY IN Europe, fascism is again attempting to present itself as a solution to the disorientated and the desperate--to those whose world appears to be crumbling around them in the midst of economic ruin.

In Greece, Golden Dawn, the European organization most openly reverent of its fascist and Nazi legacy, has gained international attention for its beatings of immigrants in broad daylight, its attacks on socialists and communists, its penetration of the Athens police force, its violently nationalist rhetoric and its growth in electoral support.

However, the phenomenon is by no means limited to Greece. In Hungary, Marton Gyongyosi, a member of parliament for the far-right Jobbik Party, called for the government to draw up lists of Jews who pose a national security risk. More than 500,000 Hungarian Jews were killed in the Nazi Holocaust during the Second World War.

In many other countries in Europe, populist right-wing parties have at their core former or camouflaged fascists who, cognizant of the revulsion millions feel about their politics, have sought legitimacy through "respectable" election campaigns, focusing on opposition to immigration and Islam, and appealing to those hardest hit by unemployment, declining social services and rising inequality.

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The potential for the different varieties of the far right to grow, though far from inevitable, makes it increasingly essential for the left to understand the roots of fascism, how it organizes and whose interests it serves.

FASCISM IN Europe is most commonly associated with Adolf Hitler's National Socialist German Workers Party. The rise of the Nazis culminated in unimaginable barbarism--the death of 6 millions Jews, 2.5 million Poles, 500,000 Gypsies and hundreds of thousands of others, including communists, socialists, unionists and the disabled. The Second World War exceeded the casualties of the First World War by many times, with 50 million dead and whole economies and societies ruined.

But fascism first seized power in Italy in 1922, with Benito Mussolini at its head--and the immediate backdrop was the catastrophe of the First World War. This was the first "total war" and the bloodiest in human history to that point, with millions dead and whole societies unraveling. The war produced a vast radicalization among masses of people
angry and impatient for change.

Initially, fascism was thought to be uniquely Italian and simply another form of reactionary capitalist rule, without fundamental differences from bourgeois democracy. Italian communists believed that fascism represented one side of an internal debate within the ruling class and a political distraction for revolutionaries to focus on.

However, by 1922, after Mussolini's seizure of power, Karl Radek, a leader of the Communist International established by the Russian revolutionaries after 1917, could argue:

I see the victory of Fascism not merely as the triumph of their arms, but as the greatest defeat that socialism and communism have suffered since the beginning of this period of world revolution [during and after the First World War]...The Fascists represent bourgeois counter-revolution; that needs no further demonstration. Those who wreck workers' organizations and maintain the power of the bourgeoisie are counter-revolutionaries.

German communist leader Clara Zetkin, writing in 1923, captured the urgency about confronting fascism, along with a strategy to thwart the emergence of fascism:

Whenever Fascism uses violence, it must be met with proletarian violence. I do not mean by this individual terrorist acts, but the violence of the organized revolutionary class struggle of the proletariat. Germany has made a beginning by organizing factory "hundreds."

This struggle can only be successful if there is a proletarian united front. The workers must unite for this struggle, regardless of party. The self-defense of the proletariat is one of the greatest incentives for the establishment of the proletarian united front. Only by instilling class-consciousness into the soul of every worker will we succeed in preparing also for the military overthrow of Fascism, which, at this juncture, is absolutely necessary.

Building on these insights in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky began to develop a sophisticated understanding of the threat that fascism posed in the period preceding the Nazis' seizure of power in Germany. Trotsky's analysis was in sharp contrast to the passivity and disastrous abstentionist strategies pursued by both Germany's Social Democratic Party and the Communist International, now in the hands of Russia's new bureaucratic ruling class led by Joseph Stalin.

In 1931, Trotsky warned:

The coming to power of the "National Socialists" would mean, first of all, the extermination of the flower of the German proletariat, the destruction of its organizations, the eradication of its belief in itself and in its future. Considering the far greater maturity and acuteness of the social contradictions in Germany, the hellish work of Italian fascism would probably appear as a pale and almost humane experiment in comparison with the work of the German National Socialists.

Thus, for Trotsky, fascism was not simply another form of reactionary capitalist rule, but the attempt to completely atomize working class resistance to exploitation by destroying all collective and independent organization, whether revolutionary or reformist socialist parties and unions. Challenging fascism was a life-and-death matter for the German working class movement and would determine the fate of European and world politics for decades.

He developed his argument further:

Fascism is a particular governmental system based on the uprooting of all elements of proletarian democracy within bourgeois society...To this end, the physical annihilation of the most revolutionary section of the workers does not suffice. It is also necessary to smash all independent and voluntary organizations, to demolish all the defensive bulwarks of the proletariat, and to uproot whatever has been achieved during three-quarters of a century by the Social Democracy and the trade unions.

The specific conditions that can give rise to fascism are caused by capitalist economic and social crisis. As long as capitalism exists, its intrinsic tendency toward crisis can unleash forces culminating in fascist barbarism. Eradicating the fascist threat requires eliminating capitalism.

FASCISM'S HISTORIC role is the "annihilation" of all independent working class organization because internal crisis and international competition compel ruling classes to smash all opposition and dissent.

The countries where fascism first seized power, Italy and Germany, were both, to different degrees, capitalist industrial powers whose economies were convulsed by crisis and who were locked in imperial struggles with the rulers of other powerful nation-states. They were also both countries where the working class had shown its power.

In Italy, workers had seized control of sections of the economy in the rebellious "red years" after the First World War. But they failed to transform the two-year revolt into a working-class challenge for power. Likewise, in Germany, a revolution at the end of the war toppled the Kaiser, opening up a period of revolutionary crisis in which the possibility of German workers following the example of Russia and establishing a workers' state was on the cards.

By 1923, the revolutionary moment had passed in Germany. Still, in the aftermath of the 1929 financial crisis, the powerful organizations of the German working class were a bulwark against drastic austerity measures demanded by capitalists attempting to claw their way out of the economic paralysis. Class conflict would be a brake on the ruling class' ability to prepare its nation-state for economic and military competition with other European and global powers.

In What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat, written in 1932, Trotsky argues: "The period of halfway measures has passed. In order to try to find a way out, the bourgeoisie must absolutely rid itself of the pressure exerted by the workers' organizations; these must be eliminated, destroyed, utterly crushed."

Despite the fascists' use of reactionary anti-capitalist and anti-establishment rhetoric, it is a movement financed by the owners of wealth and fashioned to pursue the interests of capitalists--even if this takes place behind the backs of its adherents.

Capitalists have turned to fascism when the level of working class opposition is so strong they have been incapable of pushing through their class prerogatives. In Fascism and Big Business, Daniel Guerin documents why iron, steel and mining magnates, and bankers with a stake in heavy industry in Italy and Germany, subsidized the growth of fascism--and ultimately were the chief beneficiaries of fascist dictatorship.

This contradicts the myth that capitalism is naturally associated with democracy. It has taken great struggles to force ruling classes to submit to varying degrees of "democracy"--and even then, there are definite limits to what they are willing to accept. Trotsky points out that for "the monopolistic bourgeoisie, the parliamentary and fascist regimes represent only different vehicles for domination."

He goes on to argue:

At the moment when "normal" police and military resources of the bourgeois dictatorship, together with their parliamentary screens, no longer suffice to hold society in a state of equilibrium--the turn of the fascist regime arrives. Through the fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie, and bands of declassed and demoralized lumpenproletariat; all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy.

In a crisis as deep as Germany's following the catastrophe of the First World War, the democratic institutions that the ruling classes rely on to give legitimacy to the "dictatorship of capital"--for example, the limited democracy of parliamentary elections--can become an impediment to their goals. At the same time, the authority of the dominant political parties begin to crack because of their inability to find a way out of the crisis. This creates the space for political alternatives--of the left, but also of the right--to emerge and quickly win mass support.

AS TROTSKY and other Marxists showed, the natural base of fascism is the petty bourgeoisie or middle class, driven into destitution by the crisis--even if it ultimately acts in the interests of the capitalist class. But fascism can also win support, both active and passive, from sections of the working class, the unemployed and others by speaking to their grievances if other political forces don't take them up.

To understand the role of the petty bourgeoisie amid the rise of fascism, Trotsky outlined the "mutual relations of the three classes in modern society: the big bourgeoisie, led by finance capital; the petty bourgeoisie, vacillating between the basic camps; and finally, the proletariat."

Capitalists, because they are numerically negligible, depend on the support of the petty bourgeoisie. The middle class of smaller business owners, upper-level management, lawyers, judges, police chiefs and so on exist between societies two most powerful classes. In periods of extreme crisis, this middle class is squeezed between the struggles of capitalists and the collective resistance of the working class. In What is National Socialism? Trotsky writes: "Not every exasperated petty bourgeois could have become Hitler, but a particle of Hitler is lodged in every exasperated petty bourgeois."

The political content and rhetorical appeal of fascism reflects the individualistic middle class' hostility to the owners of the major means of production and their fear of the numerical power of organized workers. Facing ruin and desperation because of crisis, the petty bourgeoisie has neither the collective resources of the ruling class, nor the capacity for united action involving millions, as workers do. It is pushed into a frenzy by bankers and industrialists, and raised up on its feet and given a uniform by fascism in order to serve "finance capital."

Fascism draws together elements of the middle class into a militarized movement to create a semblance of collective power. The ability to identify scapegoats that have supposedly ruined or betrayed the "nation" and to then direct violence against them gives the fascists a sense of power and independence. This is how fascism grows, attracting followers and generating a sense of terror among its targets. The fascist movement believes itself to be simultaneously instilling fear among workers, but also among the ruling class, which has also betrayed them. As Trotsky argues:

German fascism, like Italian fascism, raised itself to power on the backs of the petty bourgeoisie, which it turned into a battering ram against the organizations of the working class and the institutions of democracy. But fascism in power is least of all the rule of the petty bourgeoisie. On the contrary, it is the most ruthless dictatorship of monopoly capital. Mussolini is right: the middle classes are incapable of independent policies. During periods of great crisis they are called upon to reduce to absurdity the policies of one of the two basic classes. Fascism succeeded in putting them at the service of capital.

It isn't automatic that the petty bourgeoisie, or other adherents, like the unemployed, will simply turn to fascism. Large sections of the middle class can be won to supporting an alternative path out of the quagmire, led by a powerful working class movement.

Meanwhile, sections of the working class can be pulled behind a rising fascist movement. This is certainly true of Europe today, where the far right has been able to win electoral support in the form of protest votes from sections of workers that have traditionally voted for social democratic parties.

Guerin writes that fascism in 1920s and '30s Europe "did succeed in detaching from the working class certain categories of workers who, for various reasons, lacked class consciousness." It recruited from among the demoralized unemployed and "a certain number of outcasts from the working class--the "scabs," those eternally rebelling against the labor organization, who are always ready to lick the boss' boots, to act as stool-pigeons." Add to this criminal elements who can be mobilized in the streets by fascist organizations. As Guerin argues:

In a period of crisis, a strong and daring working class vanguard gathers around it all the peripheral layers of the working class. But if the vanguard lacks energy and dynamic force, the class decomposes and falls apart. That is what happened in Italy and Germany.

TO WIN support, fascism has employed a dual strategy of seeking electoral and constitutional legitimacy while at the same time developing street-fighting capacity and paramilitary organization. Trotsky captured this dynamic in What Next?:

Under the cover of the constitutional perspective which lulls his adversaries, Hitler aims to reserve for himself the possibility of striking the blow at a convenient moment. This military cunning, no matter how simple in itself, secretes a tremendous force, for it leans upon not only the psychology of the intermediate parties, which would like to settle the question peacefully and legally, but, what is more dangerous, upon the gullibility of the national masses.

It is also necessary to add that Hitler's maneuver is two-edged: he fools not only his adversaries but his supporters. And meanwhile, a militant spirit is essential for a struggle, particularly an offensive one. It can be sustained only by instilling in one's army the understanding that an open battle is inescapable. This consideration bespeaks also the fact that Hitler cannot too long protract his tender romance with the Weimar Constitution without demoralizing his ranks. He must in due time produce the knife from under his shirt.

In contesting elections, fascism appears to accept the framework of parliamentary democracy and uses this opportunity to tap into widespread grievances, to scapegoat and to present itself as a force capable of taking drastic action. Electoral success and growing legitimacy encourages fascists to take bolder action in the streets--for example, attacking immigrants, workers' demonstrations, and socialist or communist meetings.

For a fascist movement to be of use to the ruling class, it must be able to physically terrorize working-class organizations and bust it up. Therefore, Clara Zetkin's earlier point on the need to confront fascism physically and ideologically to stop it from becoming a mass movement is absolutely crucial. Fascists use notions of "free speech" in order to organize mass violence against its enemies and destroy actual democracy. For these reasons, neither the state nor the mechanisms of parliamentary democracy can be relied on to stop fascism.

To stop Hitler and the Nazis, Trotsky argued that the mass German Communist Party should initiate a united front with the mass Social Democratic Party (SPD) and trade unions representing millions of workers who were fully committed to opposing fascism. In the united front, revolutionaries and reformists would "march separately, but strike together" against a common enemy.

Such an approach could unify the working class to oppose Hitler, but also create conditions where revolutionaries could win over workers still under the influence of leaders of reformist organizations.

Tragically, Trotsky's proposal for a united front was not adopted and the working class movement in Germany was divided as it confronted the threat of the Nazis. Despite heroic resistance by communists, social democrats and trade unionists, the Nazis came to power, representing, as Karl Radek had written years before, "the greatest defeat that socialism and communism have suffered."

Further Reading

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