Fascism: What is it?

27th August 2023

Today, there is much talk about various forces being ‘fascist’. Partly over the Ukraine war, partly over the Tory attacks on democratic rights and on asylum seekers and ethnic minorities that are escalating, even over Zionism in the Middle East.

Part of the problem is that many of the forces that are indiscriminately dubbed as ‘fascist’ are complicit in support for other forces that open celebrate fascism and Nazism. For instance, NATO is funding openly fascist cultists in Ukraine.

The regime in Ukraine is overtly built around the cult of Bandera, the Nazi collaborator, whose forces massacred Russians, Roma and Jews in WWII. Russians and Roma are being terribly persecuted in Ukraine today, though the president is Jewish.

As Scott Ritter elaborated at some length in his two-part documentary “Agent Zelensky”, This is a role for which Zelensky was groomed over time. Basically, the idea was to take advantage of the widespread belief that Jews are inherently good or progressive at root. A piece of camouflage for a Nazi-centred regime.

For this insight, a very serious attack on imperialist manipulation of widespread philo-semitic racism (a mirror image of anti-Semitism), Scott Ritter was purged from YouTube, and had all his channels deleted.

I’m not surprised – this was a very sharp and serious attack on a key imperialist ideological mystification today, implicitly, though Ritter did not spell out all the implications (and may not have thought them all through).

An important point is that the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie is in power in the US, and they are bankrolling Nazism in Ukraine for the purposes of waging a Russophobic, imperialist war against Russia. In the UK, on the other hand, the Trumpian, Brexiteer right are in power. Johnson and his successors. Also in Italy. And they are just as bad. Whatever Trump may say today, that is the reality.

There is nothing new about mainstream bourgeois forces, whether liberal or conservative being prepared to ally with fascism, or give fascists outright support, when it suits their class interests. It was the liberal Catholic Centre Party that provided Hitler with his first vice chancellor, Von Papen.

It was the bourgeois conservative Hindenburg who appointed Hitler as Chancellor. In Spain, it is clear that the entire bourgeoisie, both domestically and internationally, preferred Franco to the workers revolution.

This was true of the allied imperialists, of the US, Britain and France. Who imposed an arms embargo on Spain knowing full well Hitler and Mussolini were arming Franco.

When they consider it in their class interest, even the liberal bourgeoisie will support fascism. As is happening today, this is not new.

So, the question then arises: are these forces fascist? And what, for Marxists, is fascism anyway?

I would argue that Trotsky’s analysis of fascism from the early 1930s is the only coherent analysis of what fascism is. At that point Trotsky was trying to galvanise the Communist International and the German Communist Party into taking a correct position and lead a struggle to prevent Hitler’s Nazis taking power.

So going back to the question, what is fascism, I refer people to the introduction to Trotsky’s pamphlet Fascism: What it is and how to Fight it which was drawn up by the US Socialist Workers Party at the end of the 1960s. The Introduction is not bad. George Weissman wrote:

“Indiscriminate use of the term really reflects vagueness about its meaning. Asked to define fascism, the liberal replies in such terms as dictatorship, mass neurosis, anti-Semitism, the power of unscrupulous propaganda, the hypnotic effect of a mad-genius orator on the masses, etc. Impressionism and confusion on the part of liberals is not surprising. But Marxism’s superiority consists of its ability to analyse and differentiate among social and political phenomena. that so many of those calling themselves Marxists cannot define fascism any more adequately than the liberals is not wholly their fault. Whether they are aware of it or not, much of their intellectual heritage comes from the social-democratic (reformist socialist) and Stalinist movements…”

I think that is true of many of us. Those who came out of the Labour Party tradition are likely to share mainstream views that are common in the Labour Party milieu, which are identical to the social democratic movement referred to above.

We have also recently heard attitudes to fascism derived from the official communist movement, such as Andy Brooks’s explanation of the differences between fascism and National Socialism at the IUAFS discussion last week. Andy appears to believe that the differences are not simply secondary and superficial and Nazism is something much worse. I would disagree.

Trotsky gives a very clear explanation of what fascism is and what distinguishes it from other forms of bourgeois reactionary politics:

“At the moment that the ‘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 the bands of declassed and demoralized lumpenproletariat – all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy.”

He goes on:

“When a state turns fascist … it means first of all for the most part that the workers’ organizations are annihilated; that the proletariat is reduced to an amorphous state; and that a system of administration is created which penetrates deeply into the masses and which serves to frustrate the independent crystallization of the proletariat. Therein precisely is the gist of fascism …”

And the means for doing this are equally clear in Trotsky’s analysis:

“The economically powerful big bourgeoisie, in itself, represents an infinitesimal minority of the nation. To enforce its domination, it must ensure a definite mutual relationship with the petty bourgeoisie and, through its mediation, with the proletariat.

“To understand the dialectic of the relation among the three classes, we must differentiate three historical stages: at the dawn of capitalistic development, when the bourgeoisie required revolutionary methods to solve its tasks; in the period of bloom and maturity of the capitalist regime, when the bourgeoisie endowed its domination with orderly, pacific, conservative, democratic forms; finally, at the decline of capitalism, when the bourgeoisie is forced to resort to methods of civil war against proletariat to protect its right of exploitation.

The political programs characteristic of these three stages – JACOBINISM [left wing of petty bourgeois forces in Great French Revolution; in most revolutionary phase, led by Robespierre], reformist DEMOCRACY (social democracy included), and FASCISM – are basically programs of petty bourgeois currents. This fact alone, more than anything else, shows of what tremendous – rather, of what decisive – importance the self-determination of the petty bourgeois masses of the people is for the whole fate of bourgeois society.”

As Trotsky explained earlier, in 1926, when comparing Pilsudski’s coup movement in Poland that year with Mussolini’s earlier seizure of power in Italy in 1921, they both:

“…worked with extra-parliamentary means, with open violence, with the methods of civil war; both were concerned not with the destruction but with the preservation of bourgeois society.   While they raised the petty bourgeoisie on its feet, they openly aligned themselves, after the seizure of power, with the big bourgeoisie. Involuntarily, a historical generalization comes up here, recalling the evaluation given by Marx of Jacobinism as the plebian method of settling accounts with the feudal enemies of the bourgeoisie … That was in the period of the rise of the bourgeoisie. Now we must say, in the period of the decline of bourgeois society, the bourgeoisie again needs the ‘plebian’ method of resolving it’s no longer progressive but entirely reactionary tasks. In this sense, fascism is a caricature of Jacobinism.”

Fascism, then historically, becomes a danger above all when the organised working-class movement poses a challenge to capitalist society in its decay, but fails to carry through its own revolutionary mission, angering the petty bourgeoisie without being able to provide a solution:

“…woe, if the revolutionary party does not measure up to the height of the situation! The daily struggle of the proletariat sharpens the instability of bourgeois society. The strikes and the political disturbances aggravated the economic situation of the country. The petty bourgeoisie could reconcile itself temporarily to the growing privations, if it arrived by experience at the conviction that the proletariat is in a position to lead it onto a new road. But if the revolutionary party, in spite of a class struggle becoming incessantly more accentuated, proves time and again to be incapable of uniting the working class about it, if it vacillates, becomes confused, contradicts itself, then the petty bourgeoisie loses patience and begins to look upon the revolutionary workers as those responsible for its own misery. All the bourgeois parties, including the social democracy, turn its thoughts in this very direction. When the social crisis takes on an intolerable acuteness, a particular party appears on the scene with the direct aim of agitating the petty bourgeoisie to a white heat and of directing its hatred and its despair against the proletariat. In Germany, this historical function is fulfilled by National Socialism (Nazism), a broad current whose ideology is composed of all the putrid vapours of disintegrating bourgeois society.”

That is the essence of Trotsky’s definition of what fascism is. It is clear that he regards what happened in Italy in 1921, with the rise to power of fascism, as fundamentally the same as Hitler’s movement in Germany.

The anti-Semitism of the latter was a secondary difference, though of enormous later significance in terms of the barbarism that fascist movements proved capable. The intermediate example of Poland shows this understanding was being fleshed out and explored by the Left Opposition even before the economic collapse of Germany after 1929 brought the opportunity for Hitler’s rise.

In terms of the nature of fascist regimes, in a later article from 1934 titled Bonapartism and Fascism Trotsky noted that in power, fascism over time loses its mass base and becomes a characteristic reactionary dictatorship:

“The prolonged domination of finance capital by means of reactionary social demagogy and petty-bourgeois terror is impossible. Having arrived in power, the fascist chiefs are forced to muzzle the masses who follow them by means of the state apparatus. By the same token, they lose the support of broad masses of the petty bourgeoisie. A small part of it is assimilated by the bureaucratic apparatus. Another sinks into indifference. A third, under various banners, passes into opposition. But while losing its social mass base, by resting upon the bureaucratic apparatus and oscillating between the classes, fascism is regenerated into Bonapartism. Here, too, the gradual evolution is cut into by violent and sanguinary episodes. Differing from pre-fascist or preventive Bonapartism (Giolitti, Brüning-Schleicher, Doumergue, etc.) which reflects the extremely unstable and short-lived equilibrium between the belligerent camps, Bonapartism of fascist origin (Mussolini, Hitler, etc.), which grew out of the destruction, the disillusionment and the demoralization of the two camps of the masses, distinguishes itself by its much greater stability.”

So, what of the readings I sent out? Apart from the pamphlet on fascism, they are a small sample of the material available. The letter on the ‘United Front for Defence’ is an example of the agitational/propaganda approach to social democratic workers, seeking a united front to defend the working-class movement against Nazi destruction, after Hitler had taken office at the beginning of 1933, but before the Nazi regime had been consolidated.

It epitomises the non-sectarian approach of the Left Opposition in seeking the united front with the social democratic workers as opposed to the bluster and suicidal sectarianism of the KPD and Comintern, one side of the coin of the key errors made by the Comintern that paved the way for fascism’s triumph in the 1930s.

The other article: The Lessons of Spain: The Last Warning deals at some length with the later Stalinist ‘tactic’ to deal with fascism – the Popular Front. Instead of a united front of workers organisations to fight off the fascist threat, which once victorious would inevitably pave the way to a revolutionary counter-offensive of the workers to challenge and overthrow capitalism, the Stalinist ‘tactic’ was to stifle the possibility of the proletarian revolution, to convince the bourgeoisie that fascism was not ‘necessary’ because there was no threat to capitalism anyway.

An equally suicidal strategy, that invariably involved a bloc or coalition with outright bourgeois parties, such as the Radicals in France.

In Spain, it was already clear that the overwhelming bulk of the bourgeoisie supported Franco and his fascist-Falangist military rebellion, and so the only bourgeois they could get to join the popular front were the likes of Azana and Companys, lawyer types who had no substantial party behind them. The ‘Shadow of the Bourgeoisie’ Trotsky called them.

The Stalinists provided these shadows with the means to crush the revolution in Spain. They had nothing else. The GPU crushed the workers when they rose up in Barcelona in May 1937, which should have been similar to the July days in Petrograd in 1917, had a revolutionary party existed. The point at which the working class marshalled itself to prepare to seize power.

Instead, the workers were brutally crushed by the ‘communists’ which basically sealed the fate of the Spanish revolution and the bourgeois republic with it. By destroying the revolution, they destroyed the real resistance to Franco, and thus ensured Franco’s victory.

These readings are really by way of a taster to encourage comrades to read and study more. We can discuss the implications of them for today in the discussion period.