In the first part of our Rebel series on Fascism and the Far-Right, Kieran Allen explains what fascism is.
We can date the start of fascism precisely. It began on Sunday March 23 1919 when Mussolini formed the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento. If we look at some key dates in its development, we can get a sense of what exactly fascism is:
- April 1919, fascists burn down the office of socialist newspaper, Avanti, leaving four people dead.
- October 1920, after the election of a left council in Bologna, fascists invade the town hall, murder ten people and disperse the council.
- May 1921, Giolitti, main conservative politician in Italy, includes fascists in his right-wing electoral coalition to defeat the socialists. The fascists win 35 seats out of 275.
- October 1922 Mussolini stages a 25,000 person ‘March on Rome’ but contrary to its own mythology, there was no fascist insurrection. Instead, the king, Victor Emmanuel 111, hands the Prime Ministership to Mussolini.
These stylised facts indicate that the fascists were used as a battering ram to crush the left. They proved themselves through a systematic campaign of violence. They were lifted into power by traditional elites.
From this brief historical context, we focus on the more specific element of fascism. However, we should not approach the subject like an intellectual stamp collector who enumerates its detailed ideas as if it were any other ism. As Hannah Arendt said of Mussolini, he was ‘the first party leader who consciously rejected a formal programme and replaced it with inspired leadership and action alone’. Instead, we need to analyse how it arises in a specific conjuncture within capitalism and the role it plays in the class struggle.
Here are some key features of fascism:
1. Fascism arises in periods of systemic crisis or signs of decline.
Italian fascism arose in reaction to the biennio rosso – two red years where armed workers took control of factories but where a vacillating Socialist Party leadership failed to carry through a revolution. In 1928, the Nazi Party in Germany only got 2.6% of the vote. After the Wall Street crash of 1929, it grew to 18% in 1930 and then 37% in 1932.
If we look at the more modern period, we find that fascist parties were minuscule during the long post war boom. The minor exception in Europe was the Poujadist movement, which began as a revolt of shopkeepers who were protesting against taxes, but from which Jean Marie Le Pen arose.
Broadly speaking, when capitalism appears to be growing and stable, upper professionals are content to lead private lives and leave politics to the elite. They believe in the possibility of social ascent and see no reason to disrupt existing arrangements. A capitalist boom leads to major transformations in the nature of the family as women are drawn into the labour force in greater numbers. Migration brings a ‘reserve army of labour’ into the heartlands of the system. But no major anti-migrant movement is formed.
2. Fascism differs from the conventional right in seeking to build a mass movement.
In 1931, Trotsky who was one of the first to describe the specific nature of fascism, discussed the difference between Mussolini and the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera in Spain. Here is what he wrote:
The fascist movement in Italy was a spontaneous movement of large masses, with new leaders from the rank and file. It is a plebian movement in origin, directed and financed by big capitalist powers. It issued forth from the petty bourgeoisie, the slum proletariat, and even to a certain extent from the proletarian masses… Primo de Rivera was an aristocrat. He occupied a high military and bureaucratic post and was chief governor of Catalonia. He accomplished his overthrow with the aid of state and military forces.
Conventional right parties are structured so that a small coterie in the party apparatus rests on a passive membership who are only called into action during election times. The party membership defers to traditional leaders. Their primary motivation is either to make connections which benefit them financially or to promote right wing ideas within a parliamentary system. Above all the party membership lead private lives, content to leave the serious business of politics to their betters.
Fascism, however, seeks to build a mass movement. It does not confine itself to the rhythms of bourgeois democracy. It seeks control of streets and communities. It breaks from a right wing deference to traditional leaders and brings in new political adventurers as leaders. These are often drawn from the lower social orders. The fascist apparatus is based on activism, with its own local organisers, propagandists and agitators.
The key difference then is that it is a mass counter-revolutionary movement.
3. Fascist leaderships tend to be drawn from the petty bourgeois and to bring in declassed elements of the working class.
Marxists argue that there are two main classes that shape the outcome of modern history – workers and capitalists. However they are not the only classes and there are people who occupy an intermediate position between the owners of capital and those who must sell their labour and have it controlled by others. These are often referred to as petty bourgeois. In modern society, this is a somewhat archaic term as it refers to small-time owners of capital who employ a limited number of workers, often drawn from their own family. While these still exist, they have suffered a decline and there has been a growth of upper professionals who formally earn a wage but whose primary job is controlling the labour of others or exercising their autonomy for the service of the existing society. With that in mind, it is still useful to look at Trotsky’s description of the class leadership of fascism.
The relationship between the bourgeoisie and its basic social support, the petty bourgeoisie, does not at all rest upon reciprocal confidence and pacific collaboration. In its mass, the petty bourgeoisie is an exploited and disenfranchised class. It regards the bourgeoisie with envy and often with hatred. The bourgeoisie, on the other hand, while utilising the support of the petty bourgeoisie, distrusts the latter, for it very correctly fears its tendency to break down the barriers set up for it from above. In the epoch of the rise, the growth, and the bloom of capitalism, the petty bourgeoisie, despite acute outbreaks of discontent, generally marched obediently in the capitalist harness. Nor could it do anything else. But under the conditions of capitalist disintegration, and of the impasse in the economic situation, the petty bourgeoisie strives, seeks, attempts to tear itself loose from the fetters of the old masters and rulers of society.
While this class presents a utopian vision of a return to a third way (between socialism and capitalism) to national greatness, it needs to galvanise support from wider masses of people. Here it turns to declassed elements of the working class. By that we mean sections who are alienated from collective organisation and criminal elements who seek a higher status as representatives of their communities. As neoliberalism has pervaded capitalist culture with its appeal to individualism, there is greater scope for this fascist synthesis to emerge in particular conditions.
4. The key mechanism for congealing this mass movement is violence against minorities.
Today in Ireland fascists ramp up rhetoric against asylum seekers, encouraging violence and intimidation. They use precisely the same technique as Hitler who suggested that Jews were ‘the black parasites of the nation who defile inexperienced young girls’. The same patterns exist whenever fascists emerge. In Tower Hamlets in London parents of Indian origin were often afraid to attend school parent meetings because of intimidation after the BNP won its first council seat in 1993.
By attacking and intimidating migrants or trans people, the fascists aim to transform the ‘little men’ into ‘supermen’ who gain a new status as representatives of the community. The key mechanism for integrating individuals into the fascist apparatus is involvement in this form of violence. As John Foot writes about the Italian experience in the 1920s, ‘fascists aimed to provoke real bodily harm, but also shame, disgrace, public humiliation, collective fear’.
Central to this strategy was winning control of the streets, turning them into no go areas for the left and fear zones for migrants.
5. The fascists have an ‘instrumental’ approach to policies. They lie to spread hatred and division.
Fascists replace reasoned debate with an aesthetic of power. When Mussolini was asked about his political programme, he replied ‘The democrats of Il Mondo (a liberal paper) want to know our programme. It is to break the bones of the democrats of Il Mondo. And the sooner the better’.
The aim of fascists is to link the idea of national regeneration to a great leader. They do not care how this is achieved and will use any lie or conspiracy to build a mass base. So, they spread lies about black taxi drivers carrying out rapes or insane myths about a ‘great replacement’. The advantage of conspiracy is that there are ‘hidden hands’ for which no evidence needs ever be attested.
6. Some of these lies include a fake left demagogy.
As the fascists seek to win a mass base and pull working class people away from the left, they often deploy a fake socialist rhetoric. Typically, they will attack ‘financial vultures’ and ‘corporate demons’. But their targets here are the unhealthy non-national aspects of capital as against ‘good healthy native’ manufacturing.
A key category for these attacks is a focus on corruption. But far from seeing corruption coming from the nature of capitalism and the links between companies and their state, it results from evil foreign individuals.
As part of this fake left demagoguery, the fascists will seek to draw a parallel between the genuine left and foreign capital. For Hitler, there was a conspiracy between Judeo Bolshevism and Jewish bankers. Today, the figure of George Soros is used to make the same fake links.
The fake left rhetoric is dropped if fascists come to power. Thus, in the famous Night of the Long Knives Hitler eliminated the SA faction which took the rhetoric about a Third Way revolution seriously. Today in Italy, Meloni drops all anti-EU talk to function as a loyal participant.
7. While fascism arises autonomously, it seeks to prove itself as the ‘useful fools’ for capitalists.
In the past, Marxists sometimes tried to seek the origins of fascism in the machinations of heavy industry. This, however, is a crude mechanical way of analysing it.
Fascist movements are more likely to arise autonomously. They are not simply produced by big capital – although their funding may come from individual capitalist benefactors.
However, even if they arise spontaneously in moments of crisis, they seek to prove themselves to the capitalists as a useful battering ram for destroying labour. They do this by showing they can gain control of the streets and detach a section of worker voters from the left.
Therefore from the very onset, the fascists make it clear that their eventual targets are the left. They seek to play out their counter revolutionary destiny by first attacking the migrants and then branding Mary Lou McDonald and People Before Profit as ‘traitors’.
8. Fascists only come to power with the support of the ruling class.
The bourgeoisie don’t particularly like fascists, but they will go to them if necessary like someone with a toothache goes to a dentist. There are two reasons for their dislike. First, the rich enjoy their own liberty to cavort in a sumptuous lifestyle and do not wish to pretend they are serving a national destiny. They just want to make profit and accumulate wealth by any means necessary. Second, and more importantly, parliamentary democracy is a more ideal form of class rule than fascism. Under conditions of growth, it helps to integrate working class parties into its system through consensus politics. It is flexible and better able to respond to shifting moods of the working masses. By presenting a multi-party option, it gives the illusion of choice.
Fascism on the other hand offers the rich one great advantage. It implements the atomisation of workers by breaking up labour organisations, thus increasing the rate of exploitation. However, it is a risky option as the fascist state is more brittle and is more likely to alienate the population in the longer term. It also tears the veil away from the liberal pretension of capital.
How and when the bourgeoisie embraces the fascists is therefore subject to a number of factors. Certain elite figures may start by adopting a rhetoric of ‘understanding their concerns’, hoping to use them to reduce support for the left. But the ruling class as a whole must calculate whether the fascists have proved themselves capable of pulverising a left that is rising and must decide if they are a preferable option for political rule.
Their calculations very much depend on the size of the fascist movement and the scale and size of working class resistance.
Clearly the tiny fascist parties are nowhere near this scenario in Ireland today.
9. But the fascists must still be stopped. That means countering them from the very start.
Social democrats typically look to the police and seek to quieten a militancy. They want a non-political response that unites the conventional right and left. However, as we have seen, fascism is a counter-revolutionary movement which seeks to prove itself to the bourgeoisie. The quieter we are, the more they make headway. Moreover, looking to the police is a futile tactic as these, because of their own conditions of work, often show a higher propensity to far right ideas than the rest of the population.
A socialist strategy for fighting fascism can be sketched very briefly and elaborated on later.
10. A socialist strategy to smash fascism. This involves a number of elements.
- A) Exposure and the development of a popular anti-racist culture. The left must produce popular propaganda to expose the far right. This means showing their links with the privileged; attacking their lies; using humour to show the absurdity of their conspiracies. In addition, socialists press for networks like Rock Against Racism to develop a popular counter culture.
- B) Building united fronts against fascism. As fascism represents a deadly threat to all of the left – revolutionaries and reformists – it is necessary to form united fronts to combat it. This means working with reformists amongst the union leaders, for example. But extending a united front to include government parties defeats the purpose. These parties have created the conditions for the fascists to grow and will seek to use them to attack the left.
- C) Within the united front, socialists press to actively counter the far right. As Trotsky put it, ’The united front opens up numerous possibilities, but nothing more. In itself, the united front decides nothing. Only the struggle of the masses decides.’ Defeating fascism means ensuring that it never becomes a ‘normal’ part of the political scene. This is why they should be met with counter demonstrations. These demonstrations provide a signal to their potential victims that there is solidarity against them. It also helps drive a wedge between the hard-line fascists and those influenced by racist ideas which ooze from the very pore of capitalist society. Our aim is to drive the fascists off the streets.